Van jinked the small armed shuttle Enterprise to the left and then the right as fast as he could, but the Arkon attack craft stayed on his tail, firing red plasma shots that looked the size of beach balls as they passed the shuttle’s cockpit windows.
He tried calling for help, but the opening shot from the previously stealthy Arkon had disrupted all communications. Sweat rolled down his face and off his nose as Van strained to escape the trailing ship.
“This guy is good,” Van said out loud. “I’ve tried tight turns, loops, and everything I can remember, but I keep coming up SOL.” Then plasma shots went below him and above him.
“What the . . .” Van started when his small shuttle shook violently.
“Warning!” the ship’s limited AI called. “Shields down to thirty percent.”
“Thank you,” he called out in frustration, “that really helps! How long have I been in this fight?” He looked at the clock on his flight panel, which read 10:15 GMT. “Only ten minutes!” he yelled in disbelief as he took more evasive maneuvers.
Then he remembered the pilot’s trick he and Frank had learned in their military days. Reacting more than thinking, Van pulled back on the throttle and hit his forward thrusters.
Zoom, the trailing enemy swept past him as he reengaged his engines and started a chase of his own.
The Enterprise was armed with a single plasma cannon and no missiles. There was also an old leftover weapon, twin projectile-throwing 30mm cannons that were seldom used as Galactic Force got more sophisticated. But this old and reconstructed ship still had them.
The Arkon ship tried the same jinking maneuvers Van used and even tried slowing. But Van had the upper hand and wouldn’t give it up. The Enterprise
flashed time after time with its plasma cannon, which recorded a few hits, but the Arkon continued to elude destruction.
“What the hell?” Van said in frustration and fired the plasma cannon and the old 30mm at the same time. The red tracer rounds coming every five shots from the 30mm tricked the Arkon into believing Van was now firing multiple energy weapons. “Take that, you scaly alien piece of shit!”
Suddenly, the Arkon started trailing liquids, gasses, and small parts. One of those red-hot parts hit the Enterprise’s nose, causing the ship to yaw badly and Van to lose sight of the injured enemy.
Van struggled to regain control, but when he did, there was no sign of the enemy . . . until another shock registered on the old ship.
Looking to his left, Van saw the Arkon ship coming at him, plasma weapons firing, albeit slower than before but still scoring hits.
“Warning!” the ship’s AI called again. “Shields down to fifteen percent and dropping.”
Van goosed the engines as much as he could and pointed the nose of the Enterprise
down and to the right. Still spitting plasma, the Arkon ship passed over the Enterprise and reappeared in the forward view screen as Van pulled the nose up and stopped his turn.
This time Van had the Arkon, and he pressed the plasma cannon trigger. But nothing happened. He tried again. Still nothing.
“Shit!” Van yelled. “Computer, status of plasma cannon.”
“No power to the plasma cannon due to battle damage,” said the AI.
“Shit, shit,” was all Van could say as he maneuvered behind the now slower enemy.
With one last effort, Van pressed the 30mm trigger and kicked the rudders left and right, spraying the old bullets across as wide an arc as he could before the guns stopped firing.
“Weapons out of ammunition,” called the AI.
Van slumped in his seat thinking this was it. How long will the Arkon stay around trying for the last and final shot? Van thought.
The answer came sooner than expected.
Without warning, the Arkon ship blossomed into a ball of fire and debris and was gone. The Enterprise’s view screen went black and all lights went out.
The door to the simulator opened, and Frank poked in his head, smiling. “Not bad for an old guy out of practice and all.” He saluted with the metal end of a five-iron golf club he had recently started carrying around in memory of other days in his Air Force past.
Van was sitting back in his seat, soaked with sweat. He turned to Frank and flipped him the bird.
Van cleaned up in his quarters on New Horizons after the flight simulator exercise and then looked at Harry as he dried his hands and face on a soft towel.
“Nearly got my ass handed to me, Harry. Not a simulation I expected, but I survived.”
Harry said nothing.
A little surprised by Harry’s silence, Van continued, “So, my stoic friend, are you looking forward to this coming mission on New Horizons?”
“No, Commander,” Harry said.
That stopped Van just as he finished with the towel and tossed it into a waiting laundry bin. “What?” he asked.
“I said no, Commander. I will not be going with you on this trip on New Horizons.”
Harry had never before said no to Van. They may have had a few disagreements, especially in the early days of their relationship when Van had been more of a skeptic, but never just “No.”
“That’s crazy. We need you . . . I need you.”
“Not any longer, Commander. You have learned all I can teach you to this point, and you will have the support of my fellow AI, Jennifer.”
Van knew this new AI was impressive and integrated into the ship. In collaboration with Harry, it had chosen the name Jennifer and a female gender for herself. But she wasn’t Harry, Van’s long-time trusted friend.
Van was frozen in place, stunned at this new behavior of Harry’s.
“And what’s more important than this coming mission? We still need to find more help in shipbuilding and greater numbers of people . . . or something like people.”
“Mr. Carson is more important right now, Commander,” argued Harry. “He is responsible for the joint shipbuilding programs and relations between Earth and Zarminia. I can help him to be more efficient, develop new technologies, and, in general, cause our existing alliance to grow faster.”
Van didn’t have a quick comeback for this. Because, as usual, Harry was right. Dick Carson would need help like Harry’s. And the new AI could potentially take Harry’s place, though Van had his doubts. It was just hard to get his brain around the idea of Harry not being around. However, he thought, he wasn’t around when we chased down the duplicitous Sanal woman, or when we last fought the Arkon. But the circumstances of those situations couldn’t have been helped. This was different.
“I still don’t like it!” Van said in a huff.
“Nevertheless, that is the way it must be, Commander.”
Realizing there was nothing he could say to change Harry’s decision, Van finished dressing and decided to walk through the ship to see for himself how preparations for the mission were coming along and how the crew was shaping up. One of the things he didn’t care for in his advanced role as commander was not feeling like part of a ship. When he’d commanded Aurora, he’d known it was his, literally, and he’d felt like part of it. As Galactic Force grew, however, he felt more and more like just an administrator. Thank God for his friends, he thought. They were the glue that held him to his role and made it tolerable. Especially and increasingly so with Rose.
As he walked aft, he was reminded how big New Horizons actually was. Everything was big. Compared with the narrow passageways of the old Aurora, those in New Horizons were like the wide hallways of large business buildings on Earth. He decided to go as far aft as engineering and purposely pass through the crew quarters to see for himself how the crew was doing. He did this sort of thing as often as he could as a way of maintaining contact with the crew and, of course, the condition of the ship. He was following an old naval tradition that commanders before him had done for over a hundred years.
As soon as he entered the crew’s living area, he was impressed as usual by the sense of pride the crew had in its ship. It was impeccably neat and clean, if perhaps a little colder than he liked it. Someone among the crew was an artist and had recently painted a mural of the ship on a bulkhead midway down the corridor. It was massive, at least fifteen feet long and stretching vertically from the deck plates to nine feet overhead. He stopped and stared at it admiringly.
“Bill Jackson painted that, Commander,” said a gravelly voice behind him.
Van turned and saw one of the old crew members from the Aurora, Simon Kelly. Kelly was the chief electrician for the ship and had huge responsibilities.
Turning back to admire the painting some more, Van said, “I knew Jackson and was sad to hear he died in that shuttle accident three weeks ago. We’ll miss him.”
“That we will,” came Kelly’s response. “It’s a shame talent like his had to end.”
Van turned back to look at the sturdily built Kelly, whose age was starting to show with wisps of gray in his otherwise unruly shock of dark hair. “It truly is, Simon. Sometimes I wish I had never discovered the Host technology and the threat of the Arkon. Too many have died.”
“Not your fault, Commander. It had to be done, and Bill knew that just as we all do.”
Van reached out and shook Kelly’s hand, saying appreciatively, “Thanks, it helps to hear it.”
He continued his walk. From the crew quarters, Van descended to the huge manufacturing bay, which was surprisingly quiet. Catching a passing mechanic in blue coveralls with the name “Ed Connors” embroidered on the chest, Van asked, “Ed, why so quiet down here?”
Caught off guard by being seen and addressed by the commander himself, the blond-haired, spindly young man stopped and stuttered a response. “Ah . . . hey, sir . . . Commander. Quiet, OK, yeah, well, we done all the work we needed, see, and the chief said to go help out the guys above in the flight bays. You know, push stuff around, help fix some things. Like that, you know?”
“I know,” Van said with a smile. “How long have you been aboard?”
“Um, three months, sir,” said the young man, surprised to be talking with the commander of Galactic Force.
“And how do you like it?”
“Oh, man, this is the best job I ever had. I worked in a machine shop back home in Chicago, and I thought I was good. But I’ve learned a bunch since I been here. And the people are just great!”
“Glad to hear it, Ed, and thanks for your help. Now you can get along to the flight bay.”
“Yes, sir! Wait till I tell the guys I talked with the commander. They won’t believe it,” Ed said as he hurried off.
Finishing his walk through the relatively quiet manufacturing space, Van reached the bulkhead separating everything from the massive engineering spaces in the aft-most portion of the ship.
He passed the security guard, who opened the hatch for him, and then took an elevator to the upper level, which housed the engineering offices. Before he had to look for him, Van ran smack into a bustling and ruffled Bob Cooper, who had just shot out from a side passageway.
Holding the surprised and confused chief engineer from falling down, Van said, “Oops, sorry about that, Bob. I was just coming to see you.”
Regaining his balance and composure, Bob replied, “I didn’t expect you here. I was on my way to look at the number three fusion engine.”
“Is there a problem?” Van asked, concern narrowing his eyes.
“I don’t think so, but some of the engines’ performance numbers are varying slightly. I think it needs a small adjustment.”
“So, the engine is basically OK?” Van asked, starting to relax.
“Sure, sure. Just making one of those last-minute adjustments,” Bob said, now fully recovered from the unexpected collision.
“And engineering overall, how are things?” Van asked.
“Haven’t you been getting the reports I’ve sent? It’s all there from A to Z.”
“I read reports all day, Bob. It’s boring. I prefer to get around and see a few things for myself now and then. You know, touch this and that, watch some work being done. I get a better sense of the ship that way.”
Bob nodded and smiled. “I know, I’m the same way. I just have a smaller area of responsibility than you.”
“How’s Elaine doing?” Van asked of the number two engineer, knowing they were very close.
A smile broke out on Bob’s face. “Never better, Van. She’s down there on the fusion engine now. I don’t know how I ever found such a woman . . . I mean, professional engineer.”
Van detected a slight blush on Bob’s face. “I know what you mean,” he said as he looked at his watch. Not much time left to pass by the hospital and then get to the briefing. “Don’t let me hold you up from getting to that engine. I have to head back forward.”
“See you in the briefing,” said the engineer over his shoulder as he ran off.
Watching Dr. Rose Ramos working in her hospital was always a pleasure for Van. Watching Rose at any time was a pleasure.
“Hey,” Van said from behind Rose, who was looking over a medical chamber.
Surprised, Rose jumped a little and turned. Seeing Van, she held a hand over her chest and said, “You nearly scared me to death. What are you doing here?”
“Do I need a reason to stop by and see you . . . and the hospital when I can?” Van smiled.
“No, of course not,” Rose said as she calmed herself from the surprise and returned his smile. “I’m glad you did.”
Van looked around the facility. It was much larger and better equipped than any of his other ships. Impressive, even though he hoped it would see little use in the next few months.
“Everything shipshape here before we depart?” Van asked, only partly meaning the hospital.
“The hospital has never been better. And the staff,” she said, gesturing to the many people in the background, “are just tremendous. This is a dream place to work.”
Van didn’t bother to look at the people she pointed out, just at Rose.
“You’re staring again,” she said, grinning coyly.
“Yes.” Rose took a step closer to him. “And never stop.”
“So, what do you think about taking a shuttle down to the surface tonight for a candlelit dinner? We haven’t had much time for just ourselves. And there may not be another chance for a while when we leave on the mission.”
Instead of getting closer to Van, she took a step back and turned partially away.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, confused at the sudden change in her attitude.
“I don’t think I’ll go along on this mission,” Rose said as she fiddled with a piece of medical equipment.
Van thought, this can’t be happening again! “What is this? A conspiracy?”
Rose stood up from checking the lower part of a medical chamber and looked puzzled and wide-eyed at Van. “What conspiracy?”
“Harry just told me the same thing. Are you staying behind to help Dick as well?”
Looking a little confused, she responded, “No, two months ago I submitted a paper to Caduceus Research, the premier medical journal on Earth. I told you that, remember? And they published it!” As soon as these words left her mouth, her confusion vanished and a brilliant smile came alive as she showed her pride and happiness in the achievement. “Now people want me to speak and share my findings all over the place.” She was almost dancing as she spoke.
Van was between a rock and a hard place. He could see this was important to Rose. A major step in her medical career. But deep inside, he couldn’t think of not having her with him on the mission, or any mission. Still, he tried to take a supportive posture and forced a thin smile in return.
“Rose, that’s wonderful!” But Van realized his forced response wasn’t enough as he watched her happiness dim and slip from her face as he turned and left the room, all the while trying to think of a way to persuade her to stay.
How did I get myself into this? was the thought running through Dick Carson’s head as he sat at his desk in the office provided to him on the orbiting shipyard above Sonara. This was only a day after Harry decided to stay behind to help.
Originally, before Guardian Force, Dick had been the owner of a security firm on Earth that employed some top-notch operational and intelligence people. As the Carson Group, they’d worked under contract with various elements of the US government like the CIA and State Department. Back when Van was first experimenting with the new Host capabilities, Dick had joined with him without realizing how big their relationship would get. Van and Dick were both graduates of the US Naval Academy and had continued as friends ever since. The Carson Group’s operational team, led by Brice Johnson and Ross Taylor, had come along as well. Now, they were leading the ground and security forces for Guardian Force. His best intelligence officer, Barbara Fuller, had also come along, albeit grudgingly. Now Barbara was gone, killed in an attack on the ship she had embarked on and labeled as a traitor for working with Sanal Zafar to undermine Galactic Force and Van Childs. This was a bitter remembrance for him. Barbara had had such great potential and was a friend to everyone for many years. She had been a prominent part of his professional family, and he mourned her passing, especially under the shadowed circumstance.
Now, he was the Guardian Force ambassador to the Earth Federation and to all of Zarminia. If that wasn’t enough, he’d also assumed the role of Zarminian minister of production, coordinating technology advances between Earth and Zarminia for shipbuilding. It was this latter job that was causing the greatest headaches and a great deal of concern. In recent months, an increasing number of incidents or accidents had thrown Zarminian production significantly off the planned schedule. He couldn’t place his finger on the causes of the problems yet, but he didn’t have a good feeling about it. Thank God Harry agreed to help me come to grips with this, he thought just before a knock sounded from his door.
When the door opened, it revealed Earth Federation Ambassador James Harris. From Dick’s point of view, Harris had proved a staunch ally of Guardian Force and had traveled with the Force on several of its more interesting missions, including the one in which Barbara Fuller had died. Barbara had been serving as Harris’s Federation assistant for intelligence at the time. Over a dinner and several glasses of wine, Dick had learned that, aside from being saddened and disappointed about Barbara’s death, Harris actually blamed himself for her traitorous actions and ignominious loss. To a point, Dick could sympathize with his ambassador friend because he also should have seen what was happening with Barbara and hadn’t. After all, he had known Barbara much longer than Harris. From Dick’s perspective, the good news was that Harris was coming out of his sadness and self-doubt, which was good for him and for Guardian Force.
“James, good to see you!” Dick said, rising from his desk and meeting Harris with a firm handshake and pat on the back. “It’s a pleasant break in an otherwise fretful day. Have a seat here on the couch. Can I get you something cold to drink? I’m afraid no alcohol here, but we have Coke and Pepsi from Earth and nice cold water as well.”
“Water would be nice. I just finished observing some of the assembly operations on one of your ships, and it was getting quite hot.”
“It does get hot in a few places as we ‘meld and weld,’ as they say.” Dick shuffled through his small cooler to find the water. While he was looking, he asked after Harris’s wife of many years. “What have you heard from Dolores? She took a trip to Chicago, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she left a few weeks ago. Wants to see the kids and badger them about having grandchildren. As I think Dee Dee knows, she has missed them since coming here.”
“I know the feeling. Our kids are out and about now with lives of their own. Both of them lawyers of all things. I suspect Dee Dee will want to go visit them soon. I haven’t been much of a husband since all the shipbuilding activity. But cold water was probably not your sole reason for being here.” Dick handed the ambassador a bottle and took a seat in the chair across from Harris.
“No, Dick,” Harris said, looking down at his bottle as he rotated it absentmindedly in is hands. Then he looked up and into Dick’s eyes. “I have a problem.”
“Then join the club,” Dick said with an amused look. “We all seem to have more problems than we can ever solve. But things get done anyway. What’s the nature of this problem?”
Harris looked down for a moment, his eyebrows pressed tightly together, then looked up at his friend. “It may be more of a dilemma. You see, the Federation wants me to stay here and work with you and the Zarminians to advance and facilitate the shipbuilding programs. Of course, that means going back and forth between here and Earth. It’s probably important, but it doesn’t excite me.” Harris paused as he shifted uncomfortably in his seat on the couch. “To be frank, I don’t have the kind of technical skills or interest to do a good job in the role described for me.”
“So, James, if I can stop you, what you’re really saying is you want to go on the New Horizons mission where you can play a role similar to the one that led us to find and work with the Zarminians. Am I right?”
“Am I that obvious?” Harris asked.
“Yes. And may I say you’re good at what you do on away missions. I believe Van would welcome your presence. What’s more, I don’t think he’ll be happy to have Harry stay here with me. And his old sidekick Stan Walters will be the deputy commander for Moon Base, Mars Base, and operational missions to Zarminia. I even hear rumors that Dr. Ramos is tempted to stay behind to lecture on some of the medical research she’s been doing. Whatever it is, it’s receiving great praise on Earth. Given all this, you might be a very friendly face to him on the mission. Would you like me to make the suggestion to him on your behalf?”
Relief showing in his face, Harris relaxed and said, “That would be a great help coming from you, if you don’t mind.”
“I’ll see what I can do. But before you take off, tell me the latest news from Earth and the Federation.”
Back on New Horizons, Van was in his quarters doing the routine things he hated most: reviewing production data from the various shipyards; assessing and making notes on how to increase the pace of crew training; answering correspondence from the Earth and Zarminian Federations; and, in general, fretting over the fact that they were still behind in their preparations to meet the Arkon. On top of all those important but, to him, mundane things, Van was still unhappy about Harry staying behind even though he was starting to understand the reasons. Dick did have profoundly major tasks facing him, many more than Van had a right to expect. After all, Dick had joined Galactic Force believing he would use his expertise in security, intelligence, and diplomacy to help Van. He was indeed doing all those things but had also taken on the management of an interplanetary shipbuilding effort that had to be the largest industrial effort ever on either of the combined planets. He could only do that with Harry to help him.
More bothersome was the thought of Rose being gone as well. That wasn’t as easy to accept. He was still trying to figure out a way to change her mind when another speaker interrupted his thoughts.
“Commander,” called out the melodic voice of Jennifer, the ship’s AI.
“What is it?” he asked with a certain amount of residual annoyance.
“Mr. Carson is here to see you.”
This is a surprise, Van thought. Dick wasn’t scheduled to be here for a while.
“Send him in, Jennifer.”
“Yes, Commander.” The cabin door opened to let Dick step in and then closed with a slight hiss behind him.
Van, happy to have a reason to leave the work he was doing, stood and stepped quickly forward to grasp his friend’s outstretched hand and offer a seat on his office couch.
“Good morning, Dick. Didn’t expect to see you this morning.” He took a seat on the couch next to Dick.
“I wanted to be sure to see you before you took off for parts unknown and to thank you for allowing Harry to stay and help, among other things.”
“It may surprise you, but I didn’t ‘allow’ Harry to stay; he refused to go.”
Surprise flashed across Dick’s face. “He refused to go?”
“Yes, very unusual, but realizing what you have on your plate, I could hardly object . . . as if that would have mattered. No, you have a mountain of a task, and Harry can be a tremendous help.”
Dick searched Van’s eyes and demeanor before asking, “What else is wrong? I’ve known you too long not to recognize you’re unhappy for another reason.”
“Am I that transparent?” Van leaned back in his chair. “Rose wants to stay behind.”
“So I’ve heard, and good news for Rose. So, why are you . . . oh, I get it,” Dick said with a smile of recognition. “She’ll be gone making presentations and getting applauses while you’re off on your next mission. Probably going to all sorts of dinners, meeting new people, and, in general, having a good time. Say, that’s really terrible. We can’t have that.”
Dick had forced a smile to Van’s face. “OK, Dick, you’ve made your point.”
“I hope so. She has more than earned something like this. I say good for her.”
“Yes, she has, thanks for reminding me I’m being selfish. But didn’t you say you had some other reasons for coming up here personally?”
“I did. But first I want to be sure you’re less depressed than when I came in.”
“I’m fine and I appreciate your candor.”
“OK. An important part of my being here now has to do with a visit I had from James Harris.”
This was unexpected. Why would Dick be here instead of James? Van thought. “What about?”
“The Federation wants to keep him here to help with the shipbuilding coordination, but he wants to go on the mission.”
“I think he should go. In fact, I thought he would be. This trip promises more new territory to explore and, hopefully, new relationships to create. He would be ideal for the trip.”
“I agree. Perhaps you could let the Federation know your thoughts on this. I believe it would help.”
“That’s easy, but is that the only reason you took a shuttle out here? We could have had this conversation via implants.”
“No, there’s more,” Dick said, shifting uncomfortably in his seat and rubbing his chin.
Van noticed the subtle changes in his friend’s demeanor and asked, “Like what?”
“Over the last six months, there have been a number of incidents related to the shipbuilding programs. None of them particularly big in themselves, but cumulatively they’ve made a difference in meeting our program goals.”
“Like what and why haven’t I heard until just now?”
“At the time of each incident, it didn’t seem worth reporting. But I just had Harry review production history. As I said, each incident has been small, like a fabrication machine going down for a few days, or accidents here and there causing skilled workers to be gone from the job for a while, or processes disrupted. But after his review, Harry suggests there is a trend that is outside the norm even for production in this early stage of development.”
Van frowned, squinting in serious thought. “What can I do to help?” he finally said.
“Nothing at the moment. Ross is on top of an investigation. He’ll be our security chief here when you’re gone, remember?”
“Yes, I remember. Brice had to persuade me to leave him behind to help you. Looks like he was right. So, why make the trip here to tell me?”
“Just a feeling, or perhaps overcautiousness. I wanted you to be aware of what we experienced just in case similar things happen on New Horizons. I don’t want to run the risk of them escaping your attention like they did mine. What is it they say, ‘forewarned is forearmed’? It may be nothing, but too much is at stake for me not to mention it to you. That’s why I wanted to chat with you in person.”
“Jennifer, have you been listening?” Van asked.
“Yes, Commander. And I have detected no such associated events on New Horizons.”
“But I expect you are now alerted to watch for any, correct?”
The time for the launch of the first mission of New Horizons was near. Van called all senior officers and ship commanders to the large conference room for the mission briefing. Compared with the briefing room on Mars Base, this one was nearly as big but had no center table and no comfortable chairs and welcoming sideboard with drinks and snacks. This one was theater-like, with tiered seats set in a semicircle around a central podium. Multiple view screens covered the wall behind the podium and were controlled at the podium. The large room was filled to capacity.
Van stood at the podium and waited for the casual conversations to conclude. He noted with pleasure that Ambassador Harris was in the first row. He noted with displeasure that Harry was not there, a week after he declared he was staying behind.
“Thank you for being here on time. As you probably know, this mission promises to be the most extensive and, hopefully, the most important one yet. Despite our Zarminian friends and their capabilities, we still do not have the shipbuilding capability we need to build a force strong enough to meet the estimated strength of the Arkon in the near future. We have done well, that’s true. But we need to do better. Take a look at the screen behind me.”
The large center screen behind Van snapped into focus, and the lights in the room dimmed. “This is a representative picture of our solar system and the major stars, with suspected habitable planets within twenty light years. A year ago, even six months ago, we didn’t have this kind of detail. However, we have been sending drones and courier ships out in all directions to get a clearer picture of our close neighbors. You will see an empty space toward one edge of Orion’s Spur and Wolf 359. We were warned by the Host not to travel in that direction, and we won’t. It has been marked on all charts as the Forbidden Zone.
“Our drones and courier ships have done a good job of searching the areas associated with Procyon 2, Epsilon Eridani, Sirius 2, and even Tau Ceti. We had high hopes of some sign of life on Tau Ceti e and f, but nothing came of it. In relatively near space, within twenty light years or so, the densest area of stars is in the general direction of Altair. Our investigations of that general area have covered but a fraction of what we know is out there. So, we suspect there is a greater chance of success in that direction. Therefore, I have chosen that direction to take New Horizons and our small expeditionary force.”
A hand went up near the back of the room and a female voice called out, “Commander, what role will the corvettes play?”
Van recognized Elsa Muller, the talented black captain of one of the attached corvettes, and former captain of the Aurora, the ship that had rescued Van when the Ajax was disabled chasing Sanal Zafar.
“Good question, Elsa. I plan to make a jump to our targeted star area with all corvettes in their bays or upper docking station. Once we arrive, each ship as well as the courier ships and some combat shuttles will be given either sectors for independent investigation or security assignments for New Horizons. The ships assigned to investigations may be sent as far as several light years away searching for other planetary masses that don’t appear on our thin charts. Remember, even those charts provided by the Carians and Zarminians become less detailed the farther we go. Essentially, your ships will broaden our search area and increase the chances of a discovery. Assuming nothing is found, we’ll retrieve all the ships and shuttles and jump to a new area that will at least be farther than our most forward small-ship investigations. Then we start the same routine over again. That answer your question?”
“Yes, Commander,” said the corvette captain, smiling at the response and the recognition.
“Any other questions that aren’t answered in the mission plan sent to you?”
Another officer stood. This time Van didn’t recognize him. This was becoming more typical with a growing Guardian Force.
“What is it?”
“Do we expect more human civilizations out there?”
Van waited a moment gathering his thoughts, then answered, “Harry says it would be logical, but I’m not betting on it, nor should you or anyone. Mentally, we need to be prepared to meet a race or races who are very different. Remember, we need friends and we hope for steady allies. We can’t afford to let any prejudices creep in and turn potential friends away. Personally, I think it’s foolish and egotistical to think every sentient life form has to be just like us. At the very least, we need to look back and learn from our own mistakes like this on Earth.”
The questioner sat back down, his question answered.
With no more questions coming, Van dismissed his officers and noted Rose wasn’t in the short briefing. He knew she’d received a copy of the plan and knew all the basic details. Still, he’d hoped to see her there. While he probably knew why she hadn’t attended, he didn’t want to come to grips with the truth. He still had mission preparation to do. He had to review the search points he had selected and match them with the navigation charts that had been given to him at the end of the meeting. There were countless other details to check on before launch, but he was having difficulty concentrating as he thought about Rose. Giving in to his emotions, he walked aft and down a level to Medical. He found Rose in her office, pulling files from her desk and placing them in a briefcase.
“You . . . you’re really going?” Van asked, beginning to stammer in a way anyone would recognize as being caused by something painful.
Rose looked up from her packing and, seeing the disappointment on Van’s face, said with a sigh, “Yes. I need to go. The recognition of my work is important to me, something I’ve always wanted. And there are many people waiting for me to answer questions and teach them about my findings. It is important to a lot of people and, hopefully, to a lot of lives.”
Van couldn’t come up with a response. Instead, he looked down and fiddled with things on her desk, feigning interest in each unimportant item.
Finally, he looked up and spoke. “I still wish you wouldn’t go. I know your work is important, but so is the mission. We’ll need you . . . I’ll need you.”
Rose’s look softened and she stepped forward and hugged him briefly, then stood back holding his hands. “You have a great medical group and this fabulous medical center. It can get along without me for a while. Besides, I’m not leaving forever.” Then she gave him the beguiling smile he always loved.
“I guess you’re right. But I’ll still miss you.” He let go of her hands and started pacing, the sign he was upset.
“Oh, stop pouting,” she said lightly. “I’ll catch a courier ship as soon as I get back and head for New Horizons. It will only be a few weeks.”
Van knew she was right, sort of. There was no regular courier ship schedule, so it would be longer than a few weeks. But he couldn’t change her mind. So, he stood tall and faced her with a sigh of submission. “OK, you’re right. Can I walk with you to your shuttle?”
“You bet! Just let me get a few more papers. My bags are already on the shuttle.”
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Had Arkon Admiral Gulv been aware of Charles Dickens and his Tale of Two Cities, he might have laughed. But he wasn’t. All he knew was that the Sector 20 force sent to find and destroy some new technology development in an area familiar only to him and his pirate spy, Captain Reeb, had apparently failed. In fact, the force of three capable Arkon ships had never returned. That was the bad news. The good news was the blame for the lost ships fell on the Sector 20 commander, Vice Admiral Agvaald. Agvaald was part of a family that had long been a pain in the ass to Gulv’s family, and a simmering feud between the families had been going on for at least two generations. After the disappearance of the Arkon ships, Gulv, as Red Central commander, had sent Agvaald home in disgrace, and in his place promoted kinsman Sub Admiral Daan. This, along with a weak Blue Sector 20 governor, gave Gulv a free hand in Sector 20 with all its forces. It also boosted his and his family’s stature in the overall Arkon hierarchy. He really was starting to believe he may have a path to becoming supreme leader. That was traditionally a Blue cast position, but things could change. A Red like himself was not without the ability to lead the empire.
However, he knew he couldn’t let this distant upstart group develop into a more viable force. He had to discuss this with now Vice Admiral Daan.