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Chapter One

A swing in public opinion can cut deeper than any sword or do more damage than any bomb.”

Representative Reagan Yamato, 2913, Emerald Membership Conference

Presidential Palace, Manhattan, New York-system, 27 April 3071 C.E.

Elton Clay was not a happy man, not so much because he had lost a whole night trying to figure out how best to word a failure but more so knowing that no matter how he worded it, the news was going to be met with a lot of angry accusations and even the objects being thrown.

“Ambassador Dah has denied our transit and trade treaty citing-“ Clay never got a chance to finish when the whiskey tumbler went flying past his ear and shatter against an arm chair in the expansive sitting area beyond his seat.

“What excuse did that damn fish use this time?” it sounded like the whine of a teenager throwing a tantrum, but the fact that it came out of the mouth of the President of his nation made Clay purse his lips before responding.

Obviously she knew her proposal had failed, but still he had to declare it to her for the official record.

“She explained that unless we were willing to acquiesce on the military escort portion of the treaty they would not budge,” he tried to keep his voice leveled and pointed, knowing that slapping your commander and chief would probably getting him a serious punishment that just wouldn't stop at being fired from his position as Secretary of State. “The Union continues to believe that shipping through the Apulia Passage is our only option and until we're willing to back down, they won't even review any further proposals that involve armed Republic escorts anywhere within their territory. She did imply that if we chartered Ancheran security escorts she’d be willing to hear a renewed proposal.”

“And does she really think we’re going entrust several hundred million of credits to their greedy little hands and then have one or twelve of our convoys just disappear,” President Josephina Lovett hissed at the sheer audacity of the idea. “That bitch has got to be kidding herself.”

Lovett and the ambassador of the Ancheran Federal Union, Remako Dah, had no love for each. Rabid dogs showed more affection for each other. That’s why he had taken point in diplomatic talks as the Secretary of State of the Republic of Manhattan, she would be more of a liability during the more intensive portions of the negotiations.

It didn't help that Lovett’s grandfather, President Farlow Lovett, had secured the lucrative and at least during the last century, strategically critical, Ancheran-Manhattan Security Pact.

No other President in the four-centuries of the Republic’s history had secured anything beyond basic declarations of friendship and acceptance of official territorial borders with the Ancherans. Only Farlow Lovett had secured any definitive treaty with them and by far, it was among the Republic’s most rewarding until recently since it basically used the Ancherans as a buffer with several normally hostile and belligerent powers.

Now however it was that same treaty that Farlow Lovett had fought tooth and nail to get ratified that was now preventing the junior Lovett from achieving her goal. That same treaty clearly stated that either government’s military would only assist in offensive actions during times of legally declared war and would never enter the territorial space of the other unless expressly invited. The Ancherans were not inviting the Republic into their space.

Expansion of that treaty had clearly been made as a campaign promise when she’d won the appointment three-years ago by the High Congress. Right now however it looked like her promise was going to be added to a long list of failed promises that was quickly becoming the fodder of the nightly talk shows.

“The Ancheran have hinted they could be receptive if we ease our own military-transit restrictions,” Clay offered up to stop the seething woman, who was already begun pouring herself another glass of aged Manhattan whiskey. “If we could offer some concessions on the-“

“No!” she hissed at him, near spilling the drink in her hand but being careful to manage a sip from the stinging liquid. “I am not giving a single Ancheran vessel the right to cross through our space whenever they please!”

Clay tried his hardest not to grimace at the inherent xenophobia the President had just seethed with and held his tongue for a second, trying to keep his Elysian sensibilities in check with every fiber of his being.

He knew if he made any comment in the defense of the nominally level-headed Ambassador Dah, the President would just laugh at him, playing it off as the usual non-sense the people native to the Wrangel Length. He knew it was a calculated sting since the colony worlds of the Wrangel Length were usually considered to be backwards, uneducated and verging on barbarism, even after the Republic had been so gracious to annex and civilize them around 348-years ago… a civilizing process that was still being met with extreme resistance among the native worlds even today.

Especially those worlds that had Capecchi populations.

That failure was made even more evident given that the Republic appointed governor of Nouméa Caledonia had been found murdered yesterday, vivisected in his own mountain chateau by his former valet.

Oh how the news media loved to run with that, he bitterly thought to himself. A Capecchi Coveney who was so graciously given a job driving the governor around and he repays that kindness by disemboweling the man.

Nothing was mentioned to the fact that the governor had ordered a new resort complex to be built on his valet’s village, without warning the villagers that the bulldozers were rolling through until they smashed into the first house. No, it was just another native of the Wrangel Length falling back into barbarism and not the story that seven Coveney, including his valet’s wife, had been killed in that blatant act of racial arrogance.

“We are not making one damn concession to those impudent gill necks,” Lovett spat with venom and Clay was happy he had kept his tongue. “They know how much their fueling stations and outposts get for supplying out freighters moving through the damn Passage. Don’t you dare think for one second that we are going to get anything out of them while they make a pretty credit off us and we are the ones footing the bill. No, we are going to need another route to get these damn fishes to seem some real reason.”

“Madam President,” he may have been Lovett’s Secretary of State for six of her 17-years in office but still he could feel the warm twitch in his voice as he spoke. “The Ancheran’s are unwilling to negotiate and they are beginning to preparations for their seasonal hibernation. They won’t be accepting any further proposals that will allow a foreign power free-transit in their own space from now until the end of the Fall Twilight here. Besides they are already getting antsy about the Capecchi unrest in the Renaissance, Hispaniola and Sobek Sectors.”

“Oh what the hell have those damn mutants trying to blow up this time,” Lovett grumbled into her glass.

Clay again hid a grim smile at the fact that Lovett instead went for something a lot less offensive when referring to the Republic’s Capecchi citizens.

The Capecchi were those Human colonists who had come to the frontier of the ancient and now long-dead Earth Federation and settled their worlds through the use of genetic-engineering instead of the traditional method of terraforming the planet to Human-habitability. They ranged from ecological green groups who refused to modify their alien worlds, regression groups who wanted to reinvent themselves, or simply found it cheaper than a bankrupting themselves with a terraforming generators on a marginally habitable world. Those that had gone the traditional method of waiting the sometimes excruciating century or two to get those monolithic terraforming generators to transform their barren rocks into carbon copies of ancient Earth took their achievement of doing the right thing and waiting instead of taking the easy route like the Capecchi with pride and as such named themselves that to differentiate themselves, Prides.

At the height of the Earth Federation’s behemoth rise, for every Prides world settled, three to five Capecchi worlds sprung up. When the Earth Federation suddenly collapsed in the titanic disaster of the Sol Gamma Wave of 2601, the surviving frontier worlds founded themselves haloing the graveyard of the core worlds and the Prides found themselves immensely outnumbered. The upside, as terraforming was an expensive and time consuming process that could only be under-taken by those with ample credits and infrastructures, most of those Prides were economically well off and educated bunches, so while they were smaller in number, their bank accounts were bigger and technological bases much more self-sufficient.

It took little effort for the richer Prides worlds to quickly build up substantial navies and rush to annex those rebellious and lawless Capecchi that pirated their worlds. It also meant that out of the 222 worlds the Republic claimed control over, 68% of them were Capecchi or Capecchi-dominated. That still did count the near thousands of independent worlds or fellow survivor nations that still lay outside the Republic, surrounding the graveyard that was once the Earth Federation like a bloated doughnut.

“The list is pretty standard,” Clay sighed to himself and tried to squash the feeling of annoyance in his own core. “The Asimov of Madrigal have formally protested against out introduction of non-native terrestrial animals for hunting. They say the importing of Egerian Mammoth is harming the plant-life they subsidize on. The Huldra of Tortuga are outraged we clear cut several of their holy forests to increase our tourist resorts in the Windward Islands. Intelligence however is concerned about the Encantado of Singapore. The level of violence has been progressive escalating between our terraforming teams and the natives. Best case estimates say that we are hitting a tipping point before a violent civil uprising.”

“They should have been glad our constitution bars the execution of those genetic monsters and the Grand Court can’t find its ass to get the legal paper work in motion to finally approve those special amendments I keep asking for,” Lovett groused, as if the systematic murder of the population of over a hundred worlds was some sort of annoyance. “No, another route is going to be needed if we are going to get around these damn Ancherans.”

Clay tried to smother his concern and disgust at the scent of sour whiskey on her breath as she said those words, but apprehension suddenly flared up in his stomach.

“Another route?” Clay noted sternly.

“Get a hold Admiral Blethyn,” Lovett turned on her heels to gaze out the windows that looked down over the capital city of New Harlem and the horizon of the capital world of Manhattan glittering bright, still holding the second whiskey tumbler in her hands. “Tell her I need her here this afternoon for a strategy planning session.”

~*~

Brooklyn Naval Yards, New York-system, 30 April 3071 C.E.

One instance the space above the moon of Brooklyn was empty, save for the grand blue mass of the gas giant of Syracuse, a second beat later and the bulk of a Ptolemy-class heavy cruiser re-entered normal space in a blast of white, red violence of split space that soon swallowed back on itself and disappeared.

The craft oriented itself for a moment, bringing its bow up and towards the distant world below.

“Confirming linear alignment with Brooklyn’s orbital plane,” Lieutenant Adrian Jardine turned about in his station chair to speak directly to the person behind him. “Spatial drift has us 340-kilometers inside acceptable range.”

“Good work, Mister Jardine,” Captain Mary McNair accepted, looking up from the readout console she had deployed from her command chair before turning her attention towards the young woman off to her left. “Ensign Bösch, please contact the Brooklyn Naval Yards and confirm our approach vectors.”

Yes ma’am,” Ensign Wynona Bösch nodded and quickly activated the ear-bug on the side of her head as she made the light-speed communication with the distant facility. “Brooklyn Naval Control, this is RMS Eliza Hendricks, 1902. Transmitting authentication Delta-Alfa-November-Eight-Eight-Echo-One.”

“Confirmed EH-1902, go ahead,” the man’s voice responded after a short pause.

“EH-1902, on bearing 045, mark 22,” she started reading off from the prepared outputs from her station, connected to what navigation was feeding her. “Drift 385,000-kilometers from planet. ETA to orbit 28-minutes. Requesting parking orbit and transit shuttle for meeting with Fleet Admiral David Triana on Kensington Equipment Depot. Authentication November-India-Golf-Hotel-Three-Two.”

“Confirmed,” the distant communicator re-joined the conversation after a long ten-second pause. “Transmitting parking coordinates. Shuttle B-289 inbound for arrival in 45-minutes post parking orbit.”

“Helm, take us in at full sub-light,” McNair ordered and after a quick aye from Jardine, the several thousand tons of her cruiser burst to full sub-light speed and towards the distant moon of Brooklyn, though with the inertial suppressors it barely registered as a slight tug.

Their target was not the planet per say, though McNair knew without a doubt that most of her crew were itching to get out of this tin can and down on the pink sand beaches. It instead was the orbital Brooklyn Naval Yards.

Not a cumulative facility but instead an immense complex of nearly three dozen stations, ranging from the immense central personnel base floating to the surrounding shipyards where new vessels were built to the repair slips where their battle scarred comrades were overhauled to the reclamation facilities where the slowly dwindling skeletons of warships past their prime were stripped down to nothing.

It was where her own vessel was built only four-years ago and launched from the Canarsie Shipyard.

They instead were angling towards the Kensington Equipment Depot, a bulky facility located on the outer periphery of the complex.

“Captain,” McNair tried to keep the grim expression off her face as the sound of a hatch opening and sealing behind her. “I am protesting your orders to have me remain abroad and supervise the equipment transfers. Chief Sommer or Lieutenant Zimmer can handle that with little supervision.

“Mister Seymour,” she turned, regarding her XO, Commander Phineas Seymour, who face still showed defiance against her direct orders. “Admiral Triana’s orders requested that given the sensitive and classified nature of this briefing, only ship CO’s attend. I am sorry but bringing you would be a violation of his orders.”

“Then I request an immediate briefing with all department heads upon your return in order to be best informed to assist the Admiral,” Seymour’s request was legitimate but it still took a lot of her personal power not to strangle Seymour for his continued weaseling.

“I will disseminate information as I see fit,” she rose from her chair and made quickly for the lift at the back of the bridge. “Now if you excuse me, you have the bridge, Commander.”

~*~

Singapore, Johor-system, 31 April 3071 C.E.

The water was colder than he was used to, like a creeping chill that no matter how many layers of clothing he wore just seemed to go right through you.

He was wondering if he should pull the zipper up further on his jacket when he felt a movement beside him. A quick turn of his head saw his brother Arlyn dropping down beside him, only causing the cold water to flurry around him even more.

They are coming around the bend, he signed with his hands, holding one fist out with a lone finger curled out, the other hand working the words out with quick stabs, a bit hard to see in the dark, water.

Is Ayso ready, Arlyn signed with his own hands, fist held up, two fingers extended, feeling the chill of the water even with his thick gloves on his hand.

The remark got an angry glare from his brother and even in the dark, he could see that flare of anger as bright as day on the surface.

Of course he’s ready, Merrick, Arlyn’s fingers moved quickly, fist up, one finger pointing outward and the harsh hand gesture at the end definitely didn't translate into words so much as imply a disgusting sexual act. Can’t you just for one second believe in me and not doubt every action we take.

Fine, the movement of his fist down, three fingers hanging free, along with a long hiss of air from his gills sounded almost like an exasperated sigh at this depth. Forebearer Inna use to calculate the geological compositions for the mines and he was damn good at it. Now shut it, here they come.

They both turned their eyes to catch the incoming light, first like a distant glow rising from behind the rocky outcroppings that jutted all along the undersea cliff. The train came around the bend, a long chain of cylinder cars being towed along by a surprisingly small tug. It coasted through the water, its streamlined design along it to almost slip through the water with only the smallest disruptive wake trailing behind it.

The craft was just into the straightest length of the cliff, when every car was lined up one after another, when the plan Merrick had spent a week planning and Ayso spent almost 18-hours setting up was thrown into action.

The rock detached at just the right moment, large enough that while going over it took a good chunk of the cliff wall with it, now appearing like a landslide from the train’s viewpoint. It feel slowly and silently in the water, so much so at several points Merrick’s could have sworn that it looked almost as if it was hovering… but it crushed into the fifth car from the end with enough force to bisect the train and cleave the immense pressured armored car open.

Momentum already built up, the last four cars of the train smashed into the still slow moving rock. The first to hit crumpled like a spent can, air bursting out as its internal pressure burst free like a balloon. The remains of the car detached from the track, its couplings broken, and began to fall free. Paired with its somewhat compromised weight and the damage done to the remaining cars from the impact, the three remaining cars each snapped free one after another and feel free.

During the entire catastrophe, neither Merrick nor Arlyn spoke, even moved. They merely sneered at the train’s misfortune; already they could see pressure-suit clad men pouring free from the tug. It was still several hundred meters away but Merrick could still see the guns each man carried.

Come on, he signed to Arlyn, hand extended out like a toy gun but upside down, we better get down there before they recover.

If the water on the cliff had been cold, nearly a half-kilometer lower by the base where the sheer rock face slopped into the sandy bottom, it was practically ice.

Down here the sun was unseen, not even a glinting pin point in the sky but completely gone. If it weren't for the bio-luminescent nature of the local algae, they would have had to rely on hand torches, something that given the secretive mission could not have.

Merrick and Arlyn approached the site slowly, keeping close to the bottom and darting between the few rocks that created a jagged line along the bottom up to the cliff face.

The last thing they needed was a swarm of Khia-Khia Sharks stalking them or worse, a 40-meter Chee Bye Eel striking without warning with its rows of needle like teeth and coiling body of slimy blackness.

He tried not to remember Forebearer Moana and a particularly brutal encounter with a Chee Bye Eel in his youth, an encounter that had left him three fingers short.

Here they were in the middle of the Bathyal-zone, the shallowest layer of the ocean deep where the sun no longer gleamed and even against that the edge of the black abyss that was the true bottom of the sea, looming just a few meters away. Khia-Khia Sharks were rare this deep, they liked the sunlight and Chee Bye Eels generally liked the open sea but only someone stupid would expect an apex predator to do the expected when only a heavily armed mercenary team could it take down.

They were about a meter away when suddenly Merrick spotted movement; a quick fist held up above his head instantly caused Arlyn to freeze. He reached for the knife on his belt, ready to pull it free at a moment noticed in case some predator had been attracted to the crash site… until he recognized the body moving among the wreckage.

He blew a stream of bubbles and whined a high pitched click into the air, getting the person’s attention.

Calder, he held his fist in front of him, one finger extended in the sign of anger, I told no one to start salvaging until we cleared the train.

The young man snapped to a stop and Merrick was working up another powerful barrage of insults when he noticed the flank of meat was in Calder’s hand and hunger in his eyes.

It was then that he felt a clutch in his own stomach at the sight of meat and even among the wreckage he could smell the sweet smell of food.

I am sorry, Calder signed, fist held to the side, thumb extended, with an admonished look in his features, its just-

We understand, Arlyn waved him off while he headed into the wreckage and began to pick through the debris and snatching onto a few crates, but we can’t eat first when there are so many others waiting.

With Calder properly reprimanded they headed into the crash site, quickly joined by the remaining members of their team. Leith and Delmare arrived with the cargo palette with Ayso riding on the back, the device was still coasting to a stop but hunger drove them all to abandon the vehicle and move about searching.

Spare parts, construction materials and even several work computers were strewn about sandy ground but even if those things could have been extremely useful, it was the dozens of crates with Patchri Trout meat that got their attention. Each contained nearly 150-pounds of meat, neatly stacked and even this deep underwater, their aroma was almost painful when met by the hunger they all felt.

This is almost too much, Ayso swung his arms wide, fist clenched to show his exasperation, hauling up a crate onto the back of the cargo palette.

Hold out for a little long, Arlyn signed back, hand upside down, three fingers curled. Just another hour or so and you’ll be eating it cooked and seasoned, not cold and sloppy.

Merrick however ignored the conversation, instead picking through the rubble, pulling another one of those crates free and quickly smelling the scent that made his own stomach twist, making him hate himself for having a body would betray him such a way.

He pushed it down, using the weight of the craft to psychically squash the feeling.

Again he returned to mess, swimming over the smashed cars and trying to search for another one of those alluring and damned crates.

He reached the last car, one that contained more industrial materials than food. They’d avoid it, since right now there were trying get the more critical goods, but he decided since they were making such good process it wouldn't hurt to have a look.

Inside the meter long hole cut into the car’s side during its fall down the cliff, it was a dark interior, without electricity from the tug it was dark inside. It only took a few seconds for his eyes to rapidly adjust without the glow of the bio-luminescent algae but quickly he saw the upturned crates, free floating papers… the foot…

For a long while he just stayed where he was, floating free in the water, suddenly noticing the water had gotten colder but he was feeling a heat spreading rising in his stomach, accompanied by some kind of electricity on the back of his neck.

He’d seen the dead before, plenty of time when he was a child in the camps or during the plagues or starvation that sometimes erupted in the caves. However this is the first time he ever had a hand in causing someone’s demise.

The tug normally had a crew of seven and thinking back to it, he couldn't remember how many persons he saw pilling out into the water after the rock hit, maybe someone had wandered back…

He was swimming forward before he knew his own legs were kicking and suddenly he was over the man… Merrick thought that he used to be a man but considering this crash and the explosive decompression, the body was pulp in the remotest sense of the word.

From the clothes he wore, from the lacking a pressure suit, even a basic breathing mask, this man probably had been in the car checking something, cataloging cargo or even taking a stroll down the length of car. He probably had no idea he was about to die until-

He was thinking too much about and he beat the urge of guilt rising in his gullet.

Instead he started to turn, now satisfied there was nothing of worth in this train… until he noticed the glint of something shiny and metallic right between the man’s legs. He knew he should move on but it caught his interest.

It was a digi-reader, or a pretty banged up version of a bulkier, older model. He’d seen them a dozen times before, when the overseers used them in roll call in the camps, or the teachers when they had class for the small ones.

The device was in his hands before he really knew he’d snatched it up and turned it over a few times in his hands. Normally the water would have ruined an unshielded machine like this but surprisingly the screen flushed with light and he had to shield his eyes in the darkened interior.

He was about to flip through the screen he heard the whistle…

~*~

5.4 AU from Johor, 31 April 3071 C.E.

“Jump completed,” Jardine confirmed as the ship re-entered normal space. “We are 45-light minutes from the primary of Johor.”

“Understood,” McNair nodded. “Ensign Bösch, please send our status update to the Admiral and Jardine prepare for in-system combat jump. Philip, get Zimmerman on the line and prepare ”


McNair arrive as Johor


~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 7 May 3071 C.E.

The intro music played at its normal muted volume, intended for the viewers at home but also piped through the main studio to allow the people producing the show a clear hint their jobs were entering their most stressful period of their day.

Even eighteen stories below on the main office floor they had speakers pumping in the intro music, even if the three dozen vid-screens all around the room were playing the show live.

“This is Republic Stellar Now News, I’m Evalyn Jovita with today’s headlines,” the quaffed and well-polished anchorwoman on the screen grinned with a row of perfectly whitened teeth. “Continued disputes within Glienicke Steel Incorporated on Potsdam continued into third week. Company CEO Niklaus Sieghild has assured stockholders that…”

“I wonder how much she spends in a week on nanite baths to get her hair that obnoxiously sculpted?” Roland kicked his feet up onto the edge of his desk, not caring that he was resting his feet on top of a few of the digi-pads.

He got a glare from his cubicle-mate Jarod Donovan, who was working on his fifth edit of his story and slowly losing his mind on how to cut another hundred words from his already heavily truncated article.

“If you spent half as long on your stories as you do commenting on the Jovita’s hair-styles, you’d have finished that book you always claim to be working on,” the leer in Donovan’s eyes was even matched for the glowering look Roland shot back at him.

“I just can’t find the right way to spin the murder,” his lips curled back into a smirk. “You can understand how my genius has to-“

“Yamato!” his head snapped up and both feet slapped to the ground, as he sat as upright in his chair as Chief Editor Julius Ciardha pointed at him, then into his shadowed room behind him. “My office now!”

“Yes, Mr. Ciardha!” he was up and out of his chair and was already coming through the doorway before he registered any movement on his leg’s part. “What can I help you with?”

“You can help me by explain what this crock of bull you drop on my desk,” he tossed the digi-reader onto the desktop. “What the hell were you thinking when you called out the Minority Leader of the High Congress on corruption charges without vetting your sources?!”

“I was thinking that it was blatantly obvious when the majority stockholder of the largest company on Torun ramrods a tax exempt status for long-haul mineral ore freighters coming out of Longyear Strand, red flags should be showing up in the in the High Congress ethics review and not in my article’s third draft,” he snapped his mouth shut when he noticed the glare Ciardha was giving him over the rims in his thick framed glasses. “Sorry sir.”

“The man upstairs didn't like your story,” Ciardha was referring to SNN CEO Rahman Palash and the scowl in her words was self-evident, before he made a face like he had eaten something sour. “And the fact that same Congressman played golf with him yesterday has nothing to do with that fact. Sorry but I have to kill your story.”

“What the hell?!” Roland spit the words out before he knew he was talking to his boss and clamped his teeth together to keep anything else from spilling out. “I vetted all my sources and provided a rock solid story. He should be facing a board of inquiry instead of lining his own-“

“You know for a fact that's not how we report the news and still keep our government sponsored contracts,” his boss admonished him like he was a forgetful child, though the tone followed with a jaded sigh at the predicament. “Listen, I normally wouldn't do anything but I read your story and it was damn good. I’ll give you something to make up for the fact we killed the news to save some face.”

His ear didn't instantly perk up, knowing that this was just some assignment to placate him and keep him from throwing a further tantrum. It was most likely another fluff piece, something he was good at and had earned him a lot fanfare from among his idiot readers. It had also put a lot of his supervisors at ease, given not just his illustrious parentage but the very fact his surname carried enough reverence to get him into a position with those very supervisors with little to no effort on his part.

Any descendant of the revered Renaud Sadayoshi Yamato had enjoyed that special superpower for close to four-centuries.

“Ambassador Myna Tallman at the Foreign Affairs Department is planning some very hushed diplomatic mission and wants a report along to document it. I think it has something to do with the Ancheran’s illegal blockade of the Johor-system but Affairs is keeping their lips sealed on this one.” Ciardha offered up instead. “It would give a juicy assignment, finally get you an off-world assignment that I know you've keep bugging the copy desk and you’ll be gone long enough that the very short memory of upper management will forget how you royally pissed off one of their sponsors.”

“Tallman…” he let the words fall off the tip of his tongue. “You mean the same Myna Tallman who-“

“Yes, that Myna Tallman!” Ciardha hissed at him. “I’d like you to head up to New Empire Station and find out what she’s up to. And don’t you dare be stupid enough to bring up the Joncheto Emergency.”

“Up to New Empire?” Roland knew his tone came off as surprised but that was to hide the glee that suddenly rose in him.

That was the whole reason he had joined SNN, to travel, to see the worlds, to get the hell off this conservative and ego-centric planet. So far however the very parentage and ancestry that would have guaranteed him a cushy and lucrative career was also keeping him firmly grounded on the world he wanted so desperately off of.

“Yes, up to New Empire,” Ciardha sarcastically stated. “Grab a few vid-cams from equipment and be on a carriage heading up before 0900 tomorrow. Best hurry, the vacation rush for Fall Twilight is starting so its best you muscle your way into the ticket line soon. Just toss that name of yours out and I’m sure you’ll get a private carriage with no effort.”

He knew it was a dig at his family name and he knew Julius Ciardha detested nepotism , but he was too excited to care one bit.

“I’ll be there tonight if I have to,” Roland was up and out the door before Ciardha could get another dig in.

Chapter Two

I am very tolerant to other people's views and ideas, but mine is still the correct one.”

Justice Raylan Yamato, 3001, Grand Court Trial of Terrorist Filip Calcianoa

~*~

Conversation with ambassador tallman

Mentions a forgotten item

~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 7 May 3071 C.E.

The walk from the driveway where the hover-cab had deposited him on the curb only called for a short trip outside by still he found himself bitter feeling the heat suddenly seep from his body and pulled his arms in closer to his core, trying to hold onto the last vestigals of warmth he had before he reached the front door.

The Fall Twilight maybe only be two-months from even beginning, but already the heat of the last six-months of summer were bleeding away.

It was ironic that a planet like Manhattan, which literally believed itself to be the center of the civilized universe was also just a moon of a much larger parent world, at the mercy and whims of a far greater being.

Hudson was already sitting on the horizon, starting its painfully slow rise into the heavens and inducing the three-month long twilight that was Manhattan's version of fall. At its end Hudson would completely obscure the planet, rendering it in a wintry night three-months long. That's when most of the upper echelons of the capital world fled to nearby Queens, another moon of Hudson, which was at the height of its tropical summer and revered for its millions of tiny islands yet reviled for its hotel bills. Those unfortunate enough not to boast bank accounts capable of supporting such an luxurious exile however would have to make due with staying indoors or migrating to the geothermal springs of Manhattan's many dormant volcanoes to keep their warmth and bank accounts whole.

He managed to get up the walkway from the main drive, cursing the architect that had designed the ancestral Yamato family compound almost four-centuries before for implementing a long, winding walkway from the drive to the front door. Visually it was used to play up the stunning architecture of the immense, multi-building structure the Yamato clan had called its primary home for nearly its entire existence, Roland however found it more to give the servants on the inside some warning if an unannounced guest decided to drop in.

No one would dare drop in unannounced, Roland gleefully pondered, not with the fact that the compound guards are among the few civilian security agencies cleared to mount surface-to-air weapons at their checkpoints.

He was almost to the door when the barrier swung open and he expected to see Hans, the family butler, manning the front door but instead found himself staring up at his father.

"Roland, get inside before you catch your death," a voice scolded him.

Roland urged him inside and though that statement would normally be construed as rooted in concern, Roland recognized the tone to know something was off, his father wanted something.

"How was your evening, father?" he nodded as Roman Yamato entered the foyer and enjoyed the fact that though the room was only a few degrees warmer, it felt like a welcomed sauna to his skin. "I thought you'd be staying in New Harlem for the night since the general assembly was tomorrow."

"I'll have to rise early," the man waved him off. "Come now, your mother and guest is waiting in the study for us. Dinner is about to be served and we can manage a drink before that."

"Guest?" the question was out of his mouth before he realized it and instantly he realized he should have made an excuse and hasty exit when he first saw his father answering the door. "Father if this is another one of your attempts to set me up-"

"She is a perfectly respectable girl," his father interceded before he could finish his own protested. "You may have met her before? Do you remember the party Congressman Duquette had last year during the Thread Festival?"

He remembered the booze had been a too liberal at that particular party... and then bitterly remembered his father had co-opted his vacation in order to have the whole of the Yamato Clan attend, all the better for photo-opts from the press in attendance.

"I don't believe I remember anyone in particular from that party," he conceded, bitterly noting that most of the party's attendees had a good laugh when he told them he was on his summer vacation before starting his job as a writer for Stellar Now News.

He hadn't realized it his father had been walking as he was talking, he also hadn't realized that he was following his father, until he was in the study doorway and mentally cursing his father and himself to an extent, for not noticing in time.

"Her father is Congressman Sandesh Jaya and a very good colleague of mine," his father announced with something akin to pride. "You remember him don't you? He was one of my staunches allies and one of my biggest investment partners. If it wasn't for him our yearly fortune would be a lot smaller."

Roland took note that when his father spoke of the girl, he had mentioned anything about her specifically. Instead he was somehow supposed to take the achievements of her father as some kind of indication of what kind of girl she was. If her father had achieved so much then maybe he should be here for this soon to be awkward dinner. Maybe if he was a century younger he'd be more open to the idea, though right now that thought gave him a nice grimace.

He entered the study proper to find his mother already gliding across the room and took particular note that while she was wearing a stunning evening dining gown, it was not one of her favorites, or even one of her preferred ones. If she actually approved of the outcome of this night in even the slightest, she would have tried to look her best.

It was a clear hint that he had an ally tonight in resisting this attempted union.

"Roland, my darling," June Yamato glided forward, the movements of her feet or the sound of her shoes unheard under the hem of her dress. "Did you have another long day?"

She must have picked up on my worry lines, he thought to himself. She always had a petition for picking up on his distress, an exact antithesis to his father's general oblivion to anything that couldn't be considered a benefit or hindrance to his political career or lucrative investments.

"No more than usual," he lied and instantly knew she had picked up on the slight from the frown that twitched at the corners of his mouth. "I believe we had a quest?"

"Roland," his father quickly interjected himself, blustering in approval at the prize he was presenting. "Allow me to introduce the fine Miss Andika Jaya."

The moment the young woman rose from the couch and turned her face to look at him Roland knew he wanted this night to be over fast. It was not that she was a bad looking girl, sure she wouldn't have have placed anywhere in a beauty contest, but one look at her set off alarm bells in Roland's head.

She was poised, wearing a conservative blazer, pin-strip slacks, hair done up in a tight bun and make done a little too heavy. Andika Jaya was


~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 8 May 3071 C.E.

"This family has stood for nearly five-centuries," his mother announced proudly. "We are a monolith for the Republic, what so many citizen's strive to be or dream to achieve. We are an example to this very civilization since the great Renaud Yamato led the daring escape from Fomalhaut during the Gamma Wave disaster. Yamato's have always led from the front-lines, from the battlefield to the political killing fields. Yamatos never back down and we always stand before the storm."

"So I should remain here just to please Father?" he bitterly hissed between clenched teeth at the outrage that one of his greatest allies would turn on him at such an important impasse.

"Darling, have you not been listening to my little tirade?" she laughed in one of her breathy tones. "Yamato's led from the front-lines and do not back down in the face of adversity... even from other Yamatos."

The realized dawned on him just as he felt the smile expanding over his lips, pulling the corners of his mouth up to his cheeks.

"Now I do believe there is a carriage leaving for New Empire in three-hours," she pondered to herself suddenly. "If your father's morning meetings were to suddenly be rescheduled due to a conflict and a freak power outage knocked out the clocks off, and he forgot to charge his communicator band, then I'd say your father could certainly sleep well into the late-morning."

Again the smile spread broad on his face at her effortless deception.

"I'll have to pack right away," he rose from his chair but again caught the sight of her waving him off.

"Oh I forgot?" she again laughed in an airy tone. "I just found that suitcase you packed for holiday last year but the transit company lost. I left it by the front door. Would you be kind enough to move it along for me? I'd ask the staff but I'm afraid it could be lost all over again."

Both she and him knew the staff at the Yamato mansion were the finest that could be found in the whole of Manhattan, outdoing even the staff the President held. But he didn't comment, all he did was give her a kiss on the cheek and he was off.

~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 8 May 3071 C.E.

It started like a mumble, something that seemed muffled and distant at the same time.

He almost tried to ignore it, maybe roll into the side of his seat and get a bit more comfortable, yet the shrill chime again invade his dreams, a not so particularly fascinating one that had to do with his childhood dog and a block of something he vaguely thought was cheese.

His eye’s barely opened when he heard the announcement coming over the personal intercom in sides of his chair’s headrest.

“…say again, we are about to begin final docking procedures with New Empire Station, passengers please secure your persons and luggage,” the flight attendant announced, he had to crane his head back a bit to see her at the end of the aisle, the mic-wand in her hand. “We thank you for choosing Empire Transit and hope you join us on your next lift or drop to Manhattan.”

Yawning, he pulled himself back into his seat and then took a glance towards the open portal beside him. The vast length of blue and green belonging to Manhattan stretched out below, tapering off at the horizon as the natural curve of the planet pull it out of view. But it was nothing compared to the great blue of the gas giant Hudson, the massive azure orb hung above the planet that called it mother.

If he looked a little harder he could make out two of the three other major moons of Hudson, the gray, meteor scared world of Tear of the Clouds and the white glowing warmth of Queens, its distant oceans even seeming to glint in the light of the sun.

Normally someone placed before this breathtaking, unobstructed view of the grandeur of space would have been taken aback, possibly even moved to tears or to write some epic of beauty they had witnessed.

Instead he tried to stifle another yawn and catch a few more minutes of sleep.

“Excuse me, Mr. Yamato,” the voice may have seemed polite from waking him and he honestly tried to stifle that groan that escaped his throat before looking up to the flight attendant standing beside his chair. “I am sorry to disturb you but I have a comm. bounce from New Harlem. The person on the other end says it is urgent.”

While he wasn't able to squash that groan, he did manage to keep his features under control when he felt the ice creeping up his spine.

Normally comm. transmissions to any carriage being lifted or dropped from New Empire Station on the cables of the New Harlem Orbital Tether were barred. Even news channels were highly edited. Especially after the Holgate Riots thirteen years back, when some idiotic sympathizers to the Liberal Worker’s Party decided to stage a violent protest and actually knocked a carriage off its cable, sending sixteen hundred passengers crashing into New Empire Station, killing everyone including another three hundred abroad the facility.

He tried not to dwell on the fact his Uncle Rham and Cousin Raquel had been abroad New Empire when the disaster struck. He’d been ten at the time and tried not to think of the long nights Aunt Allison had stayed down in the sun-room crying, or the fact that not long after Aunt Allison also disappeared and from the tight grim expressions among the family, her sudden absence was not from a pleasant account.

Only someone in a serious position of power in the government could break that comm. ban. Someone who shouldn't know where he is for another three hours when trying to get in touch with him would have meant light-years instead of kilometers.

“It is most likely for something private,” he said absently, as if he was expecting it. “Would you mind to hold it for I can take it privately abroad the station?”

“Of course,” the young woman nodded, before passing him a small info chit. “Just insert this chit into any private terminal and you will be connected.”

“Thank you,” he gave her one of his trademark smiles.

The moment she was out of sight, he quickly dropped the chit into the trash drop and pretended like he had never felt the rush of terror that lifted the moment that unknowing messenger walked away.

He knew it wasn't going to buy him long and though he knew it was the caller’s intent to halt him, but it had bought him a warning.

Still lost in his thoughts, he nearly didn't feel the jolt as the carriage docked with the space station, a glance out the portal let him catch the upper end of the docking clamps pressing themselves into the side of the car, while the bulky body of New Empire Station having replaced Hudson as the dominate object in his field of view.

Ladies and gentlemen,” the attendants voice again piped into the intercoms. “We have confirmed seal with New Empire Station and you may begin disembarkation…

The woman was probably still finishing her company mandated scripted thank you’s when he crossed the threshold and officially boarded the largest space-born facility in Manhattan orbit.

New Empire Station may have been the largest man-made object in all of known space but still it was crowded and cramped, space being the premium anywhere when surrounded by the black void of space. It took no effort to disappear into a crowd, the moment he was off and onto the main passenger concourse it was so thick that he had to use his bag as a shield to get through the worse of it.

It wasn't until he was abroad the mag-car that he got some freedom to breath and also noticed the message flashing on his wrist-pad. From the exclamation point next to the text message it was an obvious hint it was urgent. But from the name next to the subject line made him instantly slap the delete button next to the message.

The mag-car made its stops, different transients came and went, passengers from his carriage up soon began to fade away, replaced by station personnel, those soon began to become the minority as again people carrying luggage started to appear. The mag-car had transverse from the tether station in the heart of the station, through the merchant and industrial quarters and out into the transient modules, where the passenger liners, freighters and transports to the other worlds of the New York-system.

He hadn't been paying attention really, his mind was lost in itself, but a glance back at his wrist-pad let him know another three messages had arrived. A quick swipe across the screen and all his current message disappeared.

By the time the mag-car came to the station he had memorize long before ever boarding the tether carriage, the breath was starting to catch in his throat. He was just off the car, moving down the ramped corridor, when suddenly his wrist-pad snapped to life and a voice sounded on the screen.

Roland!” the sound of the voice was both urgent and angered. “Roland, you answer me this instance!”

Roland Yamato hissed under his breath and ducked into one of the side service corridors usually reserved for maintenance personnel. He had forgotten that his father still had an emergency override on his device.

Roland!”

“What Dad!” he tried to stage whisper but still noticed a few worried glanced from the passerby’s. The mention of the paternal relationship however got a few to just smile and shake their heads, figuring a parent had only got a little overzealous.

I expressly told you that going on this vacation of yours was not appropriate,” Roman Yamato nearly spat into the screen. “What the hell do you think you were doing!? If I hadn't noticed you had reprogrammed the messenger to automate-

“It’s not a vacation,” he retorted, though silently willing to take the blame to deflect attention off his mother's subterfuge.

What did you say to me?” if his father were a coiled cobra, he’d have bitten already and dead on the ground.

“I am a reporter,” he tried to keep his voice leveled, last thing he needed so close to his goal was a Peace Officer to come over investigating raised voices and recognize him. “Ambassador Tallman is about to depart on assignment and asked me to come along.”

I highly doubt that old cougar would do such a thing,” his brother scoffed, Roland made no attempt to actually prove that it was true. “Now you tell the good lady that your father said you can’t attend and-“

“No,” the words was simple and straightforward and instantly Roland saw the flash of fury in his father’s eyes, a fury that usually as a child he’d associate with a swift smack to his head for uttering such a thing.

You are not to argue with me,” he was admonished like one would a small child, not a grown man. “I say you are not going and that is that! I’ll ignore this little tantrum of yours for now but get your ass planet-side before-”

“And I am saying that no,” Roland shot back. “I am an adult under Republic law and a member of the press.”

Then I’ll have to make a call to the Ambassador and tell them you are not cleared to leave the planet,” his father countered, eyes narrowing.

“Not if the Ambassador had forgotten her personal wrist-pad,” he dangled the device into the field of view. “Hence the reason I had to leave early enough for you to notice I was missing.”

I am not going to have this discussion any longer,” his father’s voice was rising. “You will get back planet-side right away and we are going to discuss you insubordination or so help me-“

He cut the transmission, reached around the backside of the device and ejected the battery, sliding it into his back pocket. Unless his father had a power to send a charge all the way from New Harlem 400-kilometers below that’d be impossible. Though give the rage he was probably feeling right now that could very much be possible.

He snuck out back into the main passageway, back into the crowd freshly off a newly arrived train. Into the main and almost as crowded observation causeway, he spotted the ambassador.

Standing tall and dressed in a usual dark dress tunic with a lengthy skirt, Ambassador Myna Tallman directed a purser who appeared none too happy to being told the exact arrangement of the luggage he was moving.

“Ah Mister Yamato!” she clapped her hands together, ecstatic to see him. “Did you manage to meet up with Miss Hevel?”

“Yes,” he fished out the missing wrist-pad and the Ambassador took it with a thankful smile and slipped it onto her wrist.

“Damn,” she tapped the screen, only getting a muted click in response. “I forgot to load another battery. You by chance don’t have an extra do you?”

“Sorry,” he offered up the back of his wrist-pad, pointing at the empty slot. “It got checked with my luggage on the carriage ride up.”

“Oh well,” she shrugged and let it go, not noticing a thankful sigh from Roland as the usually technophobic woman quickly gave up. “Come on now, final boarding is almost done.”

She turned and quickly made for the entrance umbilical to the waiting passenger ship that would take them to their destination.

He made to fall in behind her, jumping onto the mobile-walkway, joined on the far-side by a moving cargo and luggage. The ride however was a bit long and monotonous, being that they had to cross several dozen meters to get to the waiting passenger liner. It did give him one final view of Manhattan below, the vast edge of New Empire Station rising above them and round, oval form of their waiting ship, the RMTS Starfire of New York.

They were just coming to end of the umbilical when Ambassador Tallman let loose a nice laugh of delight.

“Ah, Captain Berlusconi,” she announced to the man standing at the end of the umbilical. “Allow me to introduce our observer from the press, Roland Yamato. He will be reporting on our progress during this mission. Are we all prepped and ready for departure?”

“You’re among the last to arrive, madam Ambassador,” Captain Carlo Berlusconi nod pointedly, though ass a navy man he was very out of place on a civilian craft. “Our escorts are ready and waiting near Tear of the Clouds. We expect to meet up with them and make departure from the solar system seven-hours after casting off from New Empire.”

“Unfortunately standard procedure will have to be put on hold,” Tallman announced. “Send my sincere apology to New Empire Traffic Control but we need to leave right away. News reports coming out of the Baroque and Vladivostok-systems is that a Ancheran fleet has been deployed in a blockade of the entire Johor-system. Eye-witness reports conclude that five cruisers and a Pegasus-class capital ship are present. The manifestation of such craft has caused worry among our military advisors in the Foreign Affairs. As such our departure must be immediate and without delay if possible.”

Captain Berlusconi stiffened, even for a tall man it was very noticeable when he visibly rose an inch.

Even the mention of that tid bit of information got Roland's ears to perk.

Pegasus-class capital ships were notorious during the Moskvan Wars six-years previous. While the Republic had taken long and painful efforts to keep collateral damage to the Moskvan denizens and their numerous annexed territories to their lightest possible, warships of the Ancheran Federal Union were well-known for bombarding a Moskvan planet first and then determining threat-level later. Billions of people, not just the insectiod Moskvan but millions of other species under their control had perished because Ancheran military doctrine refused to even waste one life on that of an enemy if it was possible to nuke that enemy from orbit.

The Republic of course couldn't reprimand them for fear the Ancherans would withdrawal the desperately need ships. Though the Ancherans had a standing mutual defense pact with the Republic for nearly a century and though they had far more lucrative alliances with governments more than willing to accept subordination to the Republic’s war plans, only the Ancherans were within a reasonable distance to offer substantial support. It was only the by intervening long ahead of schedule, culminating in the bloody and long capture by Republic marines of the Moskvan homeworld that had prevented the Ancheran fleets about to arrive from turning the entire planet into slag, 250,000 marines had died to ensure that the Ancherans wouldn’t massacre 8-billion Moskvan, even if the Moskvan had been the ones to instigate war because of their genocidal atrocities that had exterminated the peaceful Atuuk Commonwealth.

If a Pegasus-class capital ship was in the Johor-system it was cause for concern, the Ancherans would only haul one of those behemoths out unless they intended to use it. They were so costly they weren’t even worth being used as deterrents or bargaining chips, they were only meant to be sent on missions where the chances of a full planetary bombard were almost certainly assured.

“I’ll contact our escorts and we will begin casting off right away,” Berlusconi bowed to the pair and made to move swiftly down the corridor, obviously the knowledge of the Pegasus capital ship disturbing him.

“Let’s head for our suites,” Tallman was already moving down the spacious passages. “I haven’t been abroad one of these new Migrant-class transports. I wonder if the suites come with actual showers or just the sonic-kind.”

“I've never been abroad an out-system transport before,” Roland commented as he began to move deeper into the ship.

“Never, Roland?” she inquired, actually surprised. “I would have thought your father would have at least taken you to Castaneda, Linn Ka Shing or Kilimanjaro for a vacation.”

“My father thinks this is vacation,” he tried not to stifle a grouse, trying not to think how his father use to go to one of three best vacation spots in the core worlds of the Republic at least once a year.

“Then I would like to see what he considers work,” she chuckled, finally stopping at a door towards the interior of the ship. “I believe we've arrived at our home and away from home on this vacation.”

She clipped a button on the door, already coded to her DNA-locked identifier, allowed the door to slide open to and open access a surprisingly spacious set of quarters.

“Not as nice as those old Tisbury-class yachts I use to frequent at your age,” Tallman commented, a tone of disappointment in her voice, “but I will admit it does keep the classical charm of those old girls.”

He stowed his bag in the smaller of the three cabins, already noting that Tallman had already had the porters remove the furniture from other and most of her personal luggage along with a small desk. Tallman hadn't bothered to review her own cabin, instead she had taken a place on the couch by the main tele-viewer.

Roland noted that she had switched the news-feed, watching with some bit of disinterested in her eyes as a poised and polished news anchor continued through the daily news.

Manhattan Planetary Peace Officers apprehended three member of the Republic High Congress on corruption grounds following reports an investigation by the Congressional Sub-Committee on Ethics,” the woman announced, a smile on her lips even as she reported such a serious crime. “The representatives of the systems of Halicarnassus, Florianópolis and New Beagle have been to be in violation of Senate Rules and Regulation, as such their probation in Senate proceeding will be limited to 1-year and the Republic has halted elections in the previously mentioned star systems until a full investigation can be launched. In the interim the system governments have been dissolved and are being administered by the Republic Navy until such time as a proper civilian administration can be instituted…

“Not a word on Johor,” Tallman shook her head as the news now changed to the upcoming festivals in the southern tropical Manhattan islands of the Tribeca Archipelago. “We could be in a war in a matter of weeks and they’re more interested in the Thread Festivals.”

He was going to offer up some words of wisdom that his few years from college and grad-school had offered up to him but he was interrupted as the overhead lights flashed three times in succession. Before he could observed that the departure procedures were underway the chime of an incoming call appeared on the tele-viewer.

For a second the sent line was obscured as private, but as the Ambassador’s personal security systems decoded the message, it became clear it was a direct communication from Captain Berlusconi.

Ambassador Tallman,” the picture of Berlusconi appeared on the screen, the background of the ship’s bridge behind him as they both could see the body of Manhattan starting to pull away to the far right of his background. “I just wanted to let you know we've been cleared for an urgent transit out of Manhattan space. Delayed jumps to coincide with us will bring the destroyers Shu Shen and Nautilus into formation for the trip to Johor. We will be entering split space in 14-minutes. Estimated time to Johor, eleven-days.”

“Thank you, Captain,” Tallman nodded.

I also wanted to bring to your attention that we have an urgent and immediate message from planet-side from a Commissioner Yamato,” Roland felt his blood run cold at Berlusconi’s announcement. “He has pinged my offices three times in the last 20-minutes. I was wondering if he was attempting to contact you for something urgent.”

He could feel both their eyes both shifting to him, clearly deducing the familial relationship between their surnames.

“Terribly sorry, madam Ambassador,” he tried to strain his voice away from outright concern to a ting of embarrassment. “My father is worried about me and just won’t calm down.”

“I too had an overprotective father,” Tallman nodded in surprising understanding, given that her past was something the older woman rarely talked about, all most people knew was that she was a native to Nicanorova colony in the Olympic-system. “The best way to get the message across is to cut the cord and do your job.”

“Yes, madam Ambassador,” silently Roland tried to hide his smile and remembered instantly why he liked Tallman even if she generally was a grueling and tough woman to work for. “I do apologize and understand. I take no offense if Captain Berlusconi would prefer to ignore the pings and go about his much more important duty.”

Thank you, Mister Yamato,” Berlusconi accepted. “Communications will be disrupted as we charge the hyper-engines. I am very sorry that we were unable to pass the message along to you sooner. Please brace for split space-translation in three minutes.”

The transmission cut and the local news-feed had disappeared into static, to which Tallman was quick to switch off.

“Roland,” Tallman turned eyes up to regard her young attache. “Is your father really concerned about your safety? I’ve had the… honor of meeting Commissioner Yamato during my time in the brief stay in the Senate. Concern and worry do not seem to be words his vocabulary is accustomed to.”

He knew it would be easy to lie to her, the media portrayals of his father always made him appear as a hardliner who would fight hard to protect the very founding values the Republic was founded on, even for those worlds who had joined the Republic centuries before or just a year prior.

“My father wishes for me to remain on Manhattan,” he answered with a sigh, joining her on the other end of the couch. “He refuses to believe I am capable of reaching my full potential by going out onto the frontier.”

“Really?” Tallman nearly let loose a laugh at the idea but squashed with a respectful glance at him. “Sorry, my father couldn't get me off Nicanorova fast enough. By the time I could walk he was trying to shove me onto a shuttle leaving for the core worlds every second.”

Her story was unsurprisingly similar to so many others, several billion others. Manhattan was the capital of the Republic of Manhattan, the largest and most stable colony to come out of the fall of the old Earth Federation, and the star among the core worlds. It could only be matched in remotest sense of the word by the regional capital worlds of Potsdam, Valera or Tartarus. Almost 27-billion people lived in the largest single megalopolis, New Harlem, ever built by Human hands, the greatest city in the cosmos the stretched far beyond the horizon.

It was of no contest why the other 222 worlds of the Republic wanted so desperately to find work, organization or some sort of calling. 200 worlds with over 150-billion people of the Republic wanted so desperately to have the best.

And it was only thanks to men like his father, Commissioner Roman Yamato of the High Congress of the Republic, that a ticket to Manhattan was so expensive and resident visas were so limited. Even trips to the mining moons of Ellis or Bronx orbiting the gas giant Mohawk on the distant edge of the New York-system could only buy someone a ticket to Manhattan after eight-years of hard labor. Rumor had it some people sold themselves into virtual slavery on the mining moons just to get a spouse and maybe a few children through to the gem of the Republic.

Attention all passengers,” the voice of Captain Berlusconi sounded over the intercoms. “We are about to begin out translation into split-space. Please brace for translation.”

“Computer,” Tallman announced to the air above her. “Please switch channel to main bow departure camera.”

The tele-viewer swapped from the empty blankness, instead shifting to a camera on the front prow of the Starfire, where no longer the view of Manhattan below offered some warmth to the view, even the cool feeling from the blue clouds of Hudson was missing.

It was only the cold maw of space, the distant glow of the star of New York to offer some light to the endless void. A warm flash of white suddenly exploded around the frame of the image and the feeling that his stomach suddenly rising into his chest from a sudden drop. An instant later the stars seems to be wink out in a wave of succession, leaving on the black of void to remain... the void of nothing that was the dimension of split space.

A hairs breath later, another pair of flashes appeared in the tele-viewer, this time the arrowhead-shaped bodies of the RMS Shu Shen and Nautilus appeared on the right and left side of the display, the two destroyers meant to escort them to Johor.

With them on either side of the ship, the engines of the pair flared and for a instantaneous they seemed to accelerate away until the Starfire's own drive engines thrust them up to keep pace, as the trio began to rapidly speed up to a point that even light would have be jealous of, enough so that they could travel 28-light years to Johor in only eleven days.

Eleven days until they’d be expected to convince the vanguard of an Ancheran invasion to back off.

~*~

Chapter Three

War has rules stamped in granite, which if broken means a hanging with crowds of your victims calling you a cold-blooded monster. Break the rules in politics and that means its a weekday.”

High Commissioner Roderick Yamato, 2856, 126th Republic Congress

~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 11 May 3071 C.E.

The RMTS Starfire of New York was a large ship, possibly one of the largest non-core world transport classes one could find themselves abroad. Nearly 540 passengers could be loaded into relative comfort and kept there for nearly three months without stopping, shorter the transit and that relative comforted seemed like lavish luxury.

Right now the passenger transport had a lighter than normal passenger load. Other than then some essential personnel being transported to Singapore colony, the ship was empty save for its crew. Even the stewards were light, less than twelve for a standard complement of 40 or 60.

In total, the ship only held around 85 people and only sixteen of them were passengers.

As such, the observation deck lounge was empty even if it was an hour into lunch. Even the chefs and cooks who normally would have a full banquet lunch ready were absent; most passengers had instead taken their lunch in quarters or a few on the commissary.

It was the reason why Tallman had selected the room, other than its massive and outstanding view portal that gave a near 360-degree view from atop the Starfire, it also was more opened than Captain Berlusconi’s office or their quarters, something he knew Tallman preferred even subconsciously given her upbringing on a world like Nikanorova. It also boasted one of the most impressive holographic display systems Roland had seen outside a university auditorium or government facility.

Tallman sat on one of the six couches that surrounded the hub like holo-displayer, a digi-reader in her hands as she scrolled through several documents. He occupied the couch next to her, quietly sitting and watching as Captain Berlusconi, conversing quietly with the holographic avatars of Captain Naomasa Omura of the RMS Shu Shen and Captain Teresa Tedisco of the RMS Nautilus that were projected beside him.

“Alright everyone,” Tallman placed her reader down on the couch beside her. “Now we here to review the situation in Johor for the benefit of Captains Berlusconi because he will be out military attaché during the talks with the Ackdarians. Captains Omura and Tedisco, you however will be leading our military contingent and will most likely be a first-responder to any incidents. Knowing the reaction of the Ackdarians could not only defuse a serious situation but could avoid a preventable loss of life with surprisingly little effort or action. Now Captains, what do you know about Johor?”

“It is a seven planet solar system,” Captain Omura was the first to respond, the shorter than normal man spoke in a monotone voice and his eyes hinted he obviously sleep deprived. “G-type main sequence star, two inhabited planets. Hsein, an ice moon of the gas giant Lim Chu Kang, which has a mining complex to extract araderios gas, which is used to financially support the terraforming operations on Singapore via a contract with Republic Terraforming Incorporated, an ocean-type moon of the gas giant Lee Kuan. They are currently performing a geological restructuring to increase the land space and an atmosphere recycling to remove an excessive amount of xenon gas in the air. Singapore will be opened to a general colonial push in seven-years.”

“Perfect,” Tallman tapped a button on her digi-reader and a three-dimensional representation of the Johor-system.

It seemed like a normal yellow star sat at the heart of the system, a particularly unappealing system with one inner barren world that floated very close to the star of Johor, cooked hot to crystal obsidian from the star, while six gas giants of varying size hovered a noticeable distance. The first of those gas giants, Lee Kuan, was highlighted with a flashing red halo around its orange form and gray-brown rings.

“Johor currently has a population of around 450,000 between the more heavily populated and developed Hsein and newly established Singapore,” Tallman noted. “Our concern here is Singapore. What is the unique nature of the Johor-system that makes the Singapore colony a very concerning position?”

“Johor is the only Republic-controlled system in the Sobek Sector,” Berlusconi answered now, this time the system map of Johor pulled back, revealing the loan flash of red in a sea of blue. “It is three sectors and 27-light years from the New York-system and the Verrazano Sector. Primarily it is held by the Ackdarians, who inhabited eight systems, of which we have limited access to as Ackdarian Federal Union refuses our merchants and freighters access to their systems, even though we currently have a standing mutual defense treaty with them.”

Johor was located in the upper left hand corner of the Sobek Sector, with its standard one-light year of legal territory to protect it from interlopers. The rest of sector was separated by the turbulent Ang Mo Kio Nebula, a sideways U-shaped gas cloud that bisected the region. The north-west was red, controlled by the Republic, the entire southern and much more numerous blue regions were the Ackdarian Federal Union. Only the dead and empty space of in the middle of the U was blank, no one could claim it since there was nothing there to anchor their claim.

“And why do you believe the Ackdarian Federal Union would jeopardize our mutual defense treaty after nearly two centuries?” Tallman queried.

“I don’t know,” Captain Tedisco grumbled, the woman obviously didn’t care to be here, “but given their actions in the Moskvan War their brutality and heavy handiness doesn’t surprise me.”

“Would it surprise you to know that the Ackdarians are actually a very honorable and pacifist driven species?” the ambassador inquired with a tilt of her head.

“I very much doubt that,” Omura snapped with a laugh. “They were firm believers that planetary bombardment as an excellent means to take a planet, regardless of civilian deaths as collateral.”

“And how many Ackdarian bombardments did you see?” Tallman asked.

Omura seemed taken aback for a moment before he answered.

“Three,” the man responded deadpanned. “Havrekos II, Riigean Major I and Tucmea IVa. Over 875-million confirmed dead because the Ackdarians couldn’t be bothered to invade a planet when a nuke was easier.”

“And you saw these bombardments undertaken?” Tallman pressed. “You saw the bombardments begin and end?”

“No,” Omura wasn’t enjoying this exchange, based on the sour look on his face. “I was XO of the carrier RMS Temperance, we arrived to provide assistance post-bombardment in all three cases. Our footage of their attacks was what drove the early invasion of the Moskvan homeworld.”

“Then you are aware,” Tallman answered, “that the Ackdarians are an amphibious species native to a low gravity world, who were pitted against the Moskvan, an insectiod species native to volcanic high-gravity worlds. Direct military ground-combat, emphasizing the ground part of that, the Ackdarians had the highest causality rating out of the other three allied combatants in the war. On average, five Ackdarians would be killed in combat for every one Moskvan. Military bombardment was not intended as an overzealous means to take a world and a bloodthirsty punishment for just being on the enemy side, but their only way to even the playing field enough to take a planet.”

“But in this case Singapore is an ocean world,” Captain Tedisco interjected, “it may have a Human-standard gravity but I’m sure if they wanted to take the planet, amphibians would be able to overpower us land-based victims.”

During the exchange, which obviously was slowly starting to grind on the collective Captains and their heavily ingrained opinions of the Ackdarians, Roland had found himself reviewing some of the materials he hadn’t really had a chance to review during his silent escape from Manhattan and his father’s preview.

Something wasn’t matching up, as he compared the final shipping reports from the colony against his own briefing docket he’d been given when the Ambassador first asked him to come abroad on this mission.

“Roland,” his eyes snapped up as Tallman acknowledged him and he realize there was a scowl on his lips and confusion building on his face. “You look like something has you troubled.”

“Has anyone reviewed the makeup of Singapore colony?” he asked, looking towards the Ambassador and then the three captains, who just continued to stare at him.

“It’s a standard terraforming colony run by the mega-corporations Republic Terraforming Incorporated,” Berlusconi shrugged, “only three sectors from Manhattan so there is a lot of interest to get a virgin world like that up and running quickly… especially for the tourist industry.”

“It’s the census information filed with the Department of records,” he snapped the share option in his digi-reader and instantly the regional map of the Sobek Sector was replaced by a spreadsheet of numbers and reports. “It’s those reports when compared against the shipping confirmations filed by RT on the colony I find confusing.”

“How so?” Tallman asked.

“Last year’s census put the colony at around 175,000,” he used his stylist to highlight the number, “strictly terraforming operation personnel, no dependents.”

“Yes,” Tedisco pointed out, “it’s a little larger than most operations but still pretty standard.”

“Then why,” Roland pointed out seven lines in the second spreadsheet he had tossed up from the digi-reader, “did they confirm the delivery for an additional seven L-class housing units just prior to the Ackdarian blockade? The facility plans show the established complex can house up to 250,000. One of those L-units is enough to house 20,000. Why would the colony need to expand for another 140,000 when they already have space for another 75,000? Based on the operational reports they are nearly overstaffed for a ten-year terraforming operation, which they are already three-years into and on scheduled for.”

“They could have been intending to increase their staff and thereby speed up the operation,” Tallman wondered out loud.

“Madam Ambassador,” he’d interpolated, “you can’t speed up a terraforming operation. My uncle is a member of the Republic Board of Sciences, he was especially happy when they managed to bring the turnaround terraforming time down to a decade and that was only because the geological restructure was dangerous if you did it too fast. Speed up volcanic activity too much and it would spiral out of control even faster.”

“We all remember the setbacks in New Huffington all those years ago,” Berlusconi responded grimly.

The terraforming of moon of Forrestal in the New Huffington-system had been sped up by an overzealous contractor staffed with a terraforming crew that was entirely under-trained, underpaid and overworked for such an operation. Speeding up the geological restructuring of the moon, the act of stimulating volcanic activity to build new land or earthquakes to flatten mountain ranges, had instead caused the induced geological stimulation to become self-sustaining and perpetuating. The normally desert moon of Forrestal had instead been turned into a hot, volcanic hell in a matter of weeks, killing the terraforming crew and its criminally negligent contractor. Now Forrestal was a successful mining colony but never would be a friendly Earth-like colony like its sister moons of DeGennaro, Amelia and Tanis, which had gone on to become lavish resort planets with tropical climates, endless white sand beaches and hotel bills that could even make millionaires choke.

“It could be,” Berlusconi noted, “the colony is intending to drop an early claim to the planet the moment the general recruiting for colonist is opened. Colonial recruiters prefer to hire off the terraforming and mining crews when they open their booths, less transport time for new recruits and more loyalty.

“Possible, could that hint that a rapid population increase may have been the cause for the Ackdarian blockade?” Omura asked towards Tallman.

“My gut feeling is possible,” Tallman said with eyes narrowed at the report. “But the Ackdarians have shown little interest in Johor, even after they surveyed it and confirmed Singapore’s habitability eighty-years ago. They didn’t even contest the rights to the system when we set down the mining prospectors on Hsein. But that confirmation report is puzzling and we will investigate it when we arrive.”

“Then what set them off?” Berlusconi asked and received a scoffed smile from Tedisco.

“What does it matter?” the woman commented. “We just need to convince the damn Ackdarians to get the hell out and then make sure the fleet beefs up patrols so they’re not stupid enough to try it again in the future.”

“Unknown,” Tallman ignored Tedisco’s dismal. “We will have to investigate once we get into contact with the blockade. Ackdarians always have a diplomatic member of the Union Assembly with them to negotiate on their people’s behalf. They will be willing to hold up to seventeen-hours after the first meeting between our diplomatic team and theirs. We have a chance to find out what their grievance is and address it with the full support of the Senate within all reasonable terms.”

~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 11 May 3071 C.E.

“That damn woman is a liability and Omura is almost as bad,” Tallman grumbled an hour later in the now empty observation deck, as she stalked along the view portal, a strong drink in her hand. “We are here to solve a crisis that could spiral into a war that will make the catastrophe with the Moskvan seem like a child’s birthday party and all they want to do is debate military tactic and ethics against a species that psychically has the strength of a ten-year old.”

“They are both veterans of the Moskvan War,” Roland noted. “They have only seen the aftermath of Ackdarian battles, never seen them executed or even talked to an Ackdarian for an explanation. Only see the negative, the positive seems unbelievable.”

That seemed to at least get Tallman to take a seat back on the couch, knocking a few digi-readers out of the way with an angry snort.

“I’ve had enough negotiations ruined by overzealous military types,” she mumbled.

Roland tried not to make a face at her comment, knowing Tallman’s once illustrious and brilliant career in Foreign Affairs had come to a crashing end during the Nova Janerio Emergency. While officially she had been reprimanded for dereliction of duty during the failed trade talks thirteen-years ago by the famed Admiral Kristin Blethyn, unofficially rumors persisted Tallman had been trying to warn the Janerian ambassador of something unknown and instead of taking the warning as a personal favor, the Nova Janerio had attacked the Republic diplomatic team and Admiral Blethyn’s flagship. It ended with the capital ship RMS Horatio Seymour leading a military contingent having to rescue the team, killing eighteen Janerians and Tallman losing her last active duty attaché, her neice.

Since then Tallman’s monolithic status as a master diplomat had been tarnished by a damning mark from a woman who went on to become a military hero following the war to halt the violent Nova Janerio’s advance on the frontier colony worlds. While it had never been proven in a court of review and ethics, Blethyn had gone on record both officially and in the media as saying that the resulting war, damage to six worlds, 17,000 Republic civilians killed and the uncountable number of Nova Janerio warriors that had to be taken down had all been Tallman’s fault.

Ambassador Myna Tallman had been allowed to keep her title but in all other capacities, she’d never been sent on another mission for Foreign Affairs and never even been referred to consult on any other case. Instead she’d been left to keep newly trained members of the organization busy until they could be used on a mission, unknowingly at the same time used as a cautionary tale of getting out of line.

She’d only gotten this mission as a fluke, it was the only because most of the senior staff were off-world dealing with the annexed Moskvan worlds or otherwise busy that she’d gotten this assignment and with great political flak too.

Tallman sat back on the couch, sipping on glass of scotch she had liberated from the bar, trying to savor the small of liquid she’d gotten out of the near empty bottle.

“Madam Ambassador,” he ventured, knowing that she was probably feeling the effect of her drink given she’d take a big gulp of it when she first got it into her hands. “I am still finding some odd reports on the shipment confirmations.”

“Why are you reviewing those report?” Tallman wondered absently. “Most of them are probably full of smuggled contraband or faked to hide restocked funds.”

“What I am noticing is that this doesn't look like contraband,” Roland disputed. “Two-months ago Singapore colony received a shipment of 50,300 tons of consumable food items, same for the last seven months previous. Now for colony of 175,000, they should only need a little less than 12,000 tons.”

“They could be reselling the consumables,” Tallman offered in return. “The Rebman and Runic-system aren't far.”

“Rebmann has Kilimanjaro and Runic has Wynn, both are very successful Earth-like worlds with established agriculture bases,” Roland fired back just as quickly. “No other registered freighters stop at Singapore unless to drop supply and filed fuel requests that look as if they all departed empty of cargo. Since fuel prices are higher in Johor, most freighters stopped at Kilimanjaro or Wynn to fully refuel or stock up, every one confirming they had empty holds based on their lighter fuel intake.”

“How are you getting access to these numbers?” Tallman gave him a look, now giving him an intent look.

“I just put in a request to the Department of Information and the Merchant Associate Shipping,” he shrugged, suddenly very intent on the spot on the floor before him.

“And the Department of Information tends to give you a good finger to fuck off when someone asks for information like this,” Tallman refuted, her harsh remark and narrowed eyes a clear hint she was feeling that scotch.

“It helps to sign your requests with the name Yamato,” Roland slowly met her eyes, but instead of disapproval at using his surname to get what he wanted, he got a smirk of appreciation.

“Now Mister Yamato,” she smiled at him knowingly, “how many people can 50,000 tons of food feed?”

“If the average person eats five-pounds of food a day, on a seven-day week, 30-days in one month,” he did the math quickly, tapping the numbers into his digi-reader to be sure, “that keep almost 738,000 people feed with three meals a day... if not more if you reduce the amount of food consumed by a single person.”

The look of surprise on Tallman’s face was unmistakable.

“Madam Ambassador,” he put forth, trying to keep his face as straight as possible, “I strongly believe that the population Republic Terraforming Incorporated is reporting on Singapore is much higher than our official records indicate. And believe that this higher population is what is inciting the aggression from the Ackdarians.”

For a long second Tallman sat there with a blank look on her face, even Roland could see the rapid fire of neurons as she worked over the numbers.

Then suddenly…

“Brilliant work, Roland!” Tallman exclaimed. “I think we definitely will garner some brownie points from the Ackdarians by disciplining a belligerent company and saving some face by admitting it was only through some serious and ingenious detective work that we unearthed the lie and came right away to tell them.”

~*~

New Harlem, Manhattan, New York-system, 19 May 3071 C.E.

The warped stars rushed by the windows of the observation deck, creating a radiant spectrum of colors as the distortion of hyper-speeds reduced them all to blurs… save one a glowing yellow dot that was slowly growing before them.

“I know it is highly inappropriate,” Tallman couldn't help but grin as the hard part of their mission was mere seconds away, “but I do have to admit some excitement to get back into the game.”

Roland tried to keep a grin off his own face, this may have been Tallman’s first mission in decades, but this was Roland’s first. He may only be here to assist, but he couldn't help but feel some thrill that after almost a decade and a half, he was finally doing something with his life and something really worthwhile.

“Attention all passengers and crew,” the sound of Captain Berlusconi voiced chimed in from the intercoms overhead, “we are about to begin translation back to normal space and into a blockaded system. All crew man your emergency station, passengers please remain in your quarters.”

“We should head down below deck,” Roland turned to head down the staircase but quickly noticed Tallman made no move to join him.

“I’m sure Captain Berlusconi wouldn’t mind if we stayed up here for the translation,” Tallman brushed him off. “We do need to get a real view of the Ackdarian fleet. Get a feel of the scope.”

Roland would have tried to argue with her but no steward or crewmen was on the observation deck to admonish their lapse and he wanted just as much to get a clear view of their destination, his first real view of another world that was not his home in his entire life.

“All hands brace for translation,” Berlusconi’s voice declared.

“Too late to get down below,” Tallman smirked. “Guess it’s best to remain where we are.”

The warp of hyperspace began to slow and Roland took special note of the two arrowhead-shaped destroyers. Being their military escorts, they would be the first to re-enter normal space and it would be amazing to see a real translation from the other side.

For an instant the RMS Nautilus and Shu Shen were hanging in the space before their ship, a second later they seemed to stretch out, as if being pulled out like putty. Then like a snap they were gone… an instantly later there was a flash of light and suddenly the star of Johor exploded in size and more importantly, a bright blue orb burst from a pinprick to almost filling the full size of the portal.

Singapore, a world covered in almost 94% water, other than a string of tiny mountain heads peaking above the waves in the southern hemisphere, it had no discernible land and definitely nothing a real colony or eventually a city could stand on.

“Something’s wrong,” Tallman’s voice was low, her eyes searching back and forth.

Roland’s eyes tried to follow where Tallman’s were but suddenly noticed the Ambassador wasn’t standing beside him anymore.

Instead she was down by the couches beside the holo-displayer, fishing around by her discarded coat before finally coming back with her wrist-pad.

“Captain Berlusconi,” her voice seemed to hold a bit of desperation. “Are you seeing any other ships in the system?”

“I was wondering when you’d notice,” the voice did not come from the communication device, but behind them as the Captain stood at the top of the steps. “I also was surprised when you weren't in your quarters when I came to bring you to the bridge for the translation.”

A guilty look may have passed over Roland’s face as he was caught but that definitely didn't stop Tallman who was already up again by the observation deck portals.

“Where are the Ackdarians?” Tallman pointed out to the vast expanse of blue before them with exasperation in her voice. “Last reports indicated five cruisers and a capital ship, not counting their supporting escorts. Where are they? Where is that massive Ackdarian fleet we-”

A sudden flash of light, close enough to cut Tallman off.

All eyes turned upward, to where the explosion of white had nearly blinded them all.

Roland for some reason believed they’d see the blue cobalt hull of an Ackdarian ship, maybe a friendly freighter had jumped from Hsein to greet them…

Instead it was the hammerhead atop a cigar body that was the trademark form of a Republic cruiser… the words RMS Eliza Hendricks stenciled down the bottom of their hull.

“What the hell do they think they’re doing?!” Berlusconi growled as he strode up to the observation portal to glare at the offending vessel that had invaded his mission.

For a long second Roland believed somehow his father had actually pulled the biggest favor in the known universe and had sent a full cruiser to come and haul his ass back to Manhattan in the most embarrassing and public fashion he could ever have imagined…

That is until a beam of super-concentrated plasma energy lashed out from the Eliza Hendricks and into the Shu Shen… gutting the destroyer and obliterating the 243 crewmen aboard along with Captain Naomasa Omura in an instance.

It was enough to give them a proper scream of shock from not only Tallman but a sucking sound of air from Berlusconi at the sight of a full-armed Republic cruiser smashing a fellow destroyer… all three seconds before the much larger warship fired the yellow-orange beams at the Nautilus, completely demolishing the vessel with such force, it actually looked like the craft was cratered into a shattered and burning shower of debris.

In six-seconds inside the Johor-system, both of their protective escorts had been completely broken like weak china.

“Bridge!” Berlusconi shouted into his wrist-pad, “full acceleration, launch countermeasure package Alpha and evasive pattern P12!”

Whoever had gotten the message acted on it in an instance and they all suddenly had to hold onto the edge of the viewing portal as the transport ship suddenly vaulted forward like a racehorse fresh from the gate… but just not fast enough to avoid a grazing hit that smashed into the Starfire’s side.

Shredded hull pieces broke apart like glass and even if he wasn't an expert in naval warfare, Roland knew that even in the airless void of space, the only way that level of fire bleeding free of their ship was possible because it was being fed by a dangerous amount of atmosphere.

Their heads whipped around to the backside of the observation deck, to watch as the body of the Eliza Hendricks fell behind them. Yet they were far from outside the weapon range of the cruiser. Another beam of energy belted free, missing the Starfire by what felt like atoms… a second before another beam broke free from the hammerhead of the warship and into the transport’s backside.

That screech of metal, he never forgot that sound as the ship literally screamed in agony… a second before it bucked like a furious animal and tipped violently towards the watery surface below.

“Move!” he was so astounded and lost in shock that he didn't even notice Berlusconi’s command until he was psychically lifted up and hauled like a heavy luggage towards the staircase.

A body shoved before him became clear as the hurried and coughing form of Ambassador Tallman. It was then that he noticed the shrieking alarms, the thick ozone smoke filling the air.

The stairs were a treacherous obstacle, the internal gravity had been knocked off kilter, leaving the deck and the stairs at a dangerous angle and the smoke only helped to make the shoving by Berlusconi make him trip and stumble the whole way.

“Move!” the Captain urged them onward, through the smashed and shattered remains of what had been a carpeted deck lined with potted plants, now the floor was covered in shattered bits, the planters were broken landmines of sharp ceramic.

Berlusconi dragged, shoved and screamed them down the corridor, which was progressive filling with smoke and its angle was tilting farther. Somewhere far away a scream was drowned out in a crash and howl of air.

“Inside!” the Captain had slammed his hand down on a wall-side panel, causing a triangle access-way to unseal itself in the wall, Berlusconi thrust them inside.

It took Roland a second to realize he had been screaming the whole way inside, his throat wasn't hoarse from the smoke but because he had been letting lose an earsplitting howl the entire time.

He was pushed back into one of the secured seats, cracking his head on the backside of the wall but the brief lifeboat training they’d receive at the time of the Starfire’s launch took a second to kick in and he pulled down the overhead harness.

It was all he got before Berlusconi reached up and pulled an overhead lever and suddenly the power of a G-force pull that hauled him back into seat. It felt like every organs in his body was suddenly being seized, even his blood felt like it was pooling at the very back of his head in a massive ocean now crushing down on his head.

Tallman couldn't handle it and quickly lost her lunch on the lifeboat floor, a sickly sour smell that quickly permeated the small cabin, which she quickly replaced her gargling coughing with terrified screams.

Berlusconi however was quiet and Roland managed to move his head against the G-force, over to the captain. The normally well-kept man was disheveled, a smear of blood on his cheek, but his eyes were not watching the other two occupants of the six-person life boat, but out to the end of the lifeboat near the triangle entrance and the view portal beyond.

Roland rolled his head a bit farther to get a better view and quickly regretted it… because it was a wall of fire that greeted him. Whatever was left of Starfire was now a shattered wall debris and fire racing just meters behind their lifeboat, each a jagged knife ready to puncture their fragile craft… and from the sparking glares of red hints they were already burning deep into the atmosphere.

His concerns, his worries, his horrors suddenly disappeared when the ship took a violent hit and the world suddenly and literally began to spin…

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