The military command center on Silesias buzzed with activity. Nalia watched President Haines pore over the tactical holo. She emanated a regal calmness as her fingers followed the luminous path of the rebel fleet on the star map. She reminded Nalia of those archaic rulers from Earth’s past, ones that superstitious people thought had been touched by the divine. Captain Atranas, Representative Zhang, Colonel Miyashiro, Admiral Markov, and a man in a black and green suit also watched the tangled journey of their foes. When Nalia first saw Vargas, she wondered what the CEO of Enkidu Security was doing in the command room. As the briefing began, she dismissed her concern from her mind. Admiral Markov, task force commander of Third Fleet, gave a short briefing.
Nine worlds had finally declared independence from the Coalition and the same nine worlds were immediately abandoned. They joined their fleets with the colony ship Izanami acting as the core. In a galaxy-wide broadcast, Warlord Batu declared the formation of the Great Khanate and that he was its leader. Then they entered Republic space. The thousand strong fleet, followed by throngs of civilian ships, flew swift, avoiding any engagement with Republic defense fleets. They broke through the autonomous blockade at Cantor Prime, destroying all weapon platforms. In addition, something odd occurred with their movements. Every half hour, all drive and IFF signatures disappeared without a trace, only to reappear again on deep space sensors at a different area.
“This action certainly doesn’t fit his temperament,” Miyashiro stated, as the young colonel wiped his forehead.
“I don’t care about his motivations. We need to stop him now. I will not have my legacy tarnished.” President Haines said. She stared at the icons representing the rebel fleet. “And this movement pattern, why are we having such difficulty tracking him?”
“That is, ah, something we have yet to determine,” Kirov responded. “Our analysts are working—”
Vargas stepped forward, the holo light reflecting off his beard. “I can provide some assistance there, Madame President,” he interjected. He nodded at a nearby technician, who tapped something on her screen. A large projection showing a strange circular device transposed itself over the star map. “This, ladies and gentlemen, is a Kenzenken stealth generator. It works by spreading out a ‘cloak’ around a set radius, enough to cover an entire fleet, which masks their signatures from our sensors. However, when they engage their engines, we are able to pick up their scent again. It doesn’t make for efficient maneuvers, but it does keep the analysts guessing.”
“Vargas,” the President said with a sharp exhalation of breath, “Where did you get this information?”
“Months ago, we caught a rebel operative trying to enter Republic territory with this exact device. After some convincing, we found the purpose of his mission. He was to establish contact with Senator Sacra, probably to facilitate this current invasion.”
The President’s eyes narrowed. “I was aware of her disappearance, but not the circumstances. Why was I not informed about this earlier?”
Vargas shrugged, “You’ll have to take it up with Naval Intelligence. They told me this information was on a need-to-know basis.”
She pursed her lips, then turned to the Kenzenkens. “You knew about this, didn’t you?”
There was a pause, then Zhang spoke, “Yes, during the war, we commissioned several weapons projects. One of which was the stealth field.” He held up his hand before she responded. “We did not feel that it would be relevant at this point. As far as we knew, the project was a failure and thus abandoned. Clearly, we were wrong. Now don’t look at me like that. We aren’t omniscient. Besides, we haven’t forgotten those little mind-control experiments your intelligence operatives tried to pull on New Tsetserleg.”
The President swept her hand through the holo. “That was the doing of the previous administration. I nixed that project as soon as I found out about it.” She took a breath. “Enough. We should not distract ourselves. Let’s not waste time pointing fingers. We need to work together to solve this situation. And the first thing is to not keep mission-critical secrets from each other.” Nalia noticed the similarity to Atranas’ response. Zhang seemed adept at provoking that defensiveness. The President glared at both the representative and Vargas.
Zhang bowed, “Of course, Madame President, there shall be no more secrets between us. In fact, as a token of my appreciation, let me—” His communicator chirped with an urgent whine and flashed red. Nalia knew little about Kenzenken protocols, but she knew that a priority message must have come from Heaven’s Forge, the capital of the Coalition. Zhang listened, and then faced the rest of them. “My most humble apologies, I must get in touch with my government. Fleet Colonel Miyashiro will act as our representative while I’m away.” He bowed again, and hurried through a side door. Nalia wondered what was so important that it would require a giant breach of diplomatic protocol right in the middle of the Republic capital. Surely they risked eavesdropping by Naval Intelligence.
The President stood still, as if in shock. Nalia noted the bemused expression on Vargas’ face. Markov looked nonplussed. Miyashiro cleared his throat. “We should continue.”
He turned off the stealth generator holo and enlarged the star map. “Based on Officer Sargire’s and my observations, we detect a pattern from here,” he pointed at the Xian Lan system, “to Haven, then Las Madras, then Beta Arete, then Durovy, then Asquith, and now to Kansas-2. It is probable that Batu’s next destination is Danube system and then to this final location.” He pointed to a still unnamed star system, in a purple colored region of space designated NGC 7005, right in the depths of the Ramanujan Expanse.
Nalia stepped forward. “It’s the most logical choice. The EM interference and gridspace-realspace fluctuations make any attempt at observation nearly impossible. Little is known about the interior of the Expanse. The few explorers that have braved the journey report back of massive grid anomalies, pulsars, and trinary star systems. Highly risky, but if they establish a foothold there, they’ll be essentially invisible to us.”
Markov glared at her. “And why did you and the Kenzenken admiral not deign to share this analysis with my office?”
Nalia fought the urge to cower under his gaze. She tried to formulate a response, but nothing came to mind. She clenched her fist.
Vargas coughed. “As amusing as it is to watch petty power plays, the situation calls for more acute analysis. From my point of view, this seems an unnecessarily large risk. They don’t even know if there’s a habitable planet or asteroid in that muck.”
“They must know something, especially with all this urgency,” Nalia replied.
Captain Atranas finally spoke. “I agree, any other direction would allow our fleets to catch up. If I may add, with their colony ship, this looks to be a permanent move. They’re in this for the long haul.”
The President nodded. “I trust your judgements then.” She looked closely at the Expanse cluster. “What assets do we have there?”
Markov stepped forward to answer but Atranas cut in. “Not much,” she said as she shifted her bulk. “One research station on planet Danube, population 200, monitoring the grid anomalies in the area. They won’t do us any good. There is also a defense station, Carnarvon Station, population of 1200 to 2000, that contains a few light defenses.”
“And what’s our timetable?”
“We’ve calculated an ETA of thirty-nine hours,” replied Nalia.
“Okay, we’ll have to send an evacuation order there. Matthews!” the president called to an aide standing nearby. He hurried over. “We need a priority message to Carnarvon. Also, alert Admiral Vendrian to send First Fleet there immediately.”
The aide tapped quickly on his datapad. “Yes, ma’am.”
“It will be difficult to get a message there due to the EM interference,” noted Atranas.
“All the more reason to move as fast as possible, then. You know the Kenzenkens better than anyone here. Get to Third Fleet and tell them to join with First Fleet at Carnarvon.”
“No, but I need to take care of one thing right now,” replied the president. She turned to Admiral Markov and pointed her finger at him. “You were charged with the simple task of monitoring any disturbances in the Neutral Zone and forming an effective response. Clearly, you have failed. I expect your resignation within the morning.”
A bead of sweat rolled down his forehead. “But Madame President! I-”
“I have given you more than enough chances. To be honest, I appointed you admiral because your wife threatened to make a ruckus in the Senate. That was a dreadful mistake. You have neither the ability nor interest in fulfilling your mission. You are dismissed.”
His back straightened like a corpse in rigor mortis as he saluted. “Yes, ma’am,” he said. He left the room, but not before giving a sidelong frown to Nalia and Atranas.
The President looked at Atranas. “You’re the expert now. I entrust you with this task.” She paused. “Admiral.”
Admiral Atranas, saluted. “Madame President.” Nalia could swear she saw a slight smile on her face.
“Ms. President, I would like to request authorization to join forces with yours at the Expanse,” Miyashiro announced. His eyes betrayed no thoughts from the previous exchange.
The President raised her eyebrows. She looked to Atranas. The admiral nodded. “All right, then. You have my authorization.” She sighed. “But I don’t think this will look good. The people aren’t going to be thrilled to see two Kenzenken fleets flying over their heads.”
Miyashiro straightened his back. “If necessary, a wasp and a bee must shelter together during a thunderstorm.” Strange, Nalia thought, was it so easy for natural enemies to put aside their differences so quickly? He bowed and left.
“If I ever need a Cabinet poet, I’ll be sure to ask for his services,” murmured the President. “Now, I’m going to need to find Zhang and find out what was so important that it would interrupt a meeting with the President of the Earth Republic.” She snapped her fingers and the aide followed her to an elevator at the back of the command room. They descended, disappearing from sight.
Admiral Atranas, Nalia, and Vargas stood alone together. The hum of screens and the frenzied footsteps of other staff filled the silence. Nalia felt the bearded man’s gaze upon her. An involuntary shudder spread throughout her body.
“You’re a quiet one,” he said.
Her neck hairs bristled. “Does that bother you?” she asked in return.
He smiled, his teeth gleamed a too-bright white. “Not at all, I just wondered if you will ever be able to stand up for yourself.” Before she could reply, his head turned to Atranas. “I will see if we can glean any more information from that stealth generator. Congratulations, by the way, Admiral. I look forward to working with you.” He nodded, and then walked out, his footsteps echoing on the metal floor.
“Don’t worry about him, Nalia. He’s just trying to needle you.” Atranas paused, as if she was pondering whether to tell Nalia something. “Besides, I don’t trust that man. I bet one hundred satoshis that he’s planning something. Something more than just having the President’s ear,” she whispered.
“He’s the head of a private military company. They work differently than we do.”
“No, he wants something far more than money. Power, perhaps? Influence?” She shook her head, “No, it doesn’t matter. There’s no time for speculation.” She looked into Nalia’s eyes. “Good work, there. You managed to impress the President. And I think that Kenzenken colonel, too.” Nalia felt herself blushing.
Atranas grinned. “C’mon, we have a couple hours before the ship is prepped and the fleet gathers. Let’s head to the bar and have a celebratory drink.”
Nalia nodded. As they walked to the command elevator, she looked back at the star map, her final gaze on the angry purple representation of the Ramanujan Expanse.
They both sat at the nearly empty VIP bar, nursing the far too expensive drinks. Drinks that made them sick and could easily be purged by the right pills, but they were not quite to let go of the feelings the alcohol allowed them. A quiet orchestral piece played in the background.
“So you know what my promotion means, Nalia,” said Atranas. “That means I get to promote you to captain. Are you ready?”
Nalia knew it was coming, ever since the older woman made her second-in-command of the Yasothon. She wanted to be confident and say that she could take the reins. “I don’t know,” she admitted. “It’s all happening so fast.”
“You can never truly be ready,” Atranas replied. “But I believe in you.”
“It’s hard, though. How will I know what to say? What to do?”
“Trust in the crew, Nalia. They have trained extensively for this,” said Atranas, not in an unkind tone. “No one gives you an instructional holo for this, I know. But let those you lead guide you as you guide them.”
“But what if something happens? What if there’s some problem where neither I nor they can come up with anything?”
Atranas sipped her drink. She shifted her eyes so that they were level with Nalia’s. “There are a few concepts to being a leader,” she said. “Concepts that can be learned. Concepts that you are fully capable of learning.”
Nalia hated to admit weakness, but trusted the admiral. “I know that moment will come. When all the regs, rules, and rituals fail us. I’ve thought about it long and hard, but I can’t find any answer. And if I do, will anyone take me seriously?”
“You will know the answer Nalia. You are fully capable. Yet you are plagued with that same disease that affects all bright people: self-doubt.” The admiral set her glass down. “Well, I know that you’re the type to ignore platitudes, so I’ll give it to you straight. If you want to be an effective leader, you have to do a couple of things. First, you have to make everyone around you know that they are fully capable of doing what they want to do. It is your job to guide them to that realization. Next, you must tell them the truth. Tell them the importance of their goal and make them know it.”
“What do you mean by knowing it?” Nalia asked as she looked into the bottom of her drink glass.
“Focus on the goal, Nalia. Focus on what they can do to achieve it. And most important of all: believe in them. If you believe that they can do it, they will do it.”
“I-I think I understand. It’s just so hard to imagine how I’ll be successful.”
“Are you still thinking about what Vargas said? Don’t. I know his type. They hate their own lives, so they seek to drag everyone else down to their level. Mere bullies. Don’t pay attention to him.” Atranas paused in thought. “I’m not going to say it’s easy. God knows, it’s not. But he will never have what you and I have.”
Nalia pondered her words. They appeared to be true. She needed them to be true. “You seem to know a lot about these sorts of things,” she said.
Atranas laughed. “It comes with the territory. I came up with a lot of it myself. Besides, my son is far more neurotic than you, so I know how to choose the right words.”
“Do you miss him?”
The admiral grew quiet for the first time in their conversation. “Yes,” she said after a few moments of awkwardness. “The feeling is always there. I’ve missed his first birthday, and his first graduation. Do I have regrets? Yes. There was not enough time. There is never enough time.” She rubbed her fingers on the rim of her glass. “Lately, I feel that we are growing apart. I suppose I’ll have to live with that.”
“Do you think he’ll come around?” Nalia asked with care.
“In time,” Atranas answered. “I’ve accepted my choices. He’ll understand that all I did, I did for him. He’ll understand that I made those decisions to protect him, his family, and his friends.”
A strange sense of disappointment crept through Nalia. “Is this what you wanted?” she asked.
“It’s done now. It’s too late to change the past. All I can do now is hope that he learns from my example.”
The younger woman decided not to press further. Atranas smiled again. “You’re good at another thing, young lady. You’re good at making others face the consequences they don’t want to confront. Some might hate it, but you need to keep it up. That is the hallmark of a great leader.”
Nalia frowned, unsure whether the words distressed or excited her. They continued drinking in silence.