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Lost Stars: Perilous Shield
Chapter One

This day hadn’t started out badly, but now it looked very much as if one of the next few days would end with him dead.

The most important questions General Artur Drakon still faced were exactly who would pull the trigger, exactly when it would happen, and how many other people would die along with him.

Cover of Perilous Shield by Jack Campbell“Two hundred twenty-two alien warships,” Colonel Bran Malin reported with an impressive show of calm. Above and behind Malin, the planetary command center’s main display portrayed the entire Midway Star System and every ship within it in depressingly accurate detail. The warships of the alien enigma race were four and a half light-hours distant, having arrived at the jump point from the star Pele, which had been occupied by the aliens decades ago. “We face overwhelming odds even if the Syndicate flotilla commanded by CEO Boyens joins with our forces.”

Our forces. Drakon focused on the depictions of those for a moment, trying not to let his gloom show outwardly. Many workers were at their control consoles in the command center, all of them supposedly focused on their work, but all of them certainly watching him for the first sign of panic or even uncertainty.

Near this planet orbited the main body of the grandly named “Midway Flotilla.” Two heavy cruisers, four light cruisers and twelve small Hunter-Killers. A pitiful force by the standards of the recent war between the Syndicate Worlds and the Alliance, but Syndicate losses had been so heavy in the last part of the war that this now ranked as a decent-sized flotilla within the territory where the authority of the Syndicate Worlds once ran unchallenged. About a light-hour distant, at the space dock orbiting a gas-giant planet, were a battleship and two more heavy cruisers. That looked more impressive, except for the fact that the recently constructed and recently named battleship Midway (recently stolen from a Syndicate-controlled dockyard at the star Kane, where it was being outfitted) did not yet have any working weapons.

“They’re not really our forces,” Drakon said to Malin. “The Kommodor in charge of the Midway Flotilla answers to President Iceni.” She might call herself President now, but a few months ago Gwen Iceni had been a Syndicate CEO, just as Drakon had also once been. “We banded together out of necessity to overthrow the authority of the Syndicate Worlds in this star system before the Syndicate could order our deaths, but you know how little we can afford to trust each other.”

“President Iceni has not double-crossed you,” Colonel Malin pointed out.

“Yet. You know the words used in the Syndicate for CEOs who trust other CEOs. Stupid. Betrayed. Dead. Are you sure she hasn’t tried to call Boyens and make a deal for herself?” The Syndicate flotilla controlled by CEO Boyens consisted of a battleship, six heavy cruisers, four light cruisers, and ten HuKs. The Midway Flotilla had faced a desperate and probably hopeless fight against that force until the aliens called enigmas had shown up in overwhelming numbers to menace all humans in this star system.

“Absolutely certain, General. If you and President Iceni can barely trust each other, neither of you is likely to trust CEO Boyens to honor any deal he agreed to,” Malin pointed out. “Even if Boyens wanted to play it straight, the snakes with his flotilla would insist on both you and Iceni dying for your leadership roles in the revolt.”

He could see the humor in that. “I have the Syndicate Internal Security Service to thank for being certain that Iceni won’t betray me to Boyens. That’s the first time the snakes ever made me feel more secure.”

“Yes, sir. But Boyens and his flotilla are a relatively minor problem at the moment. It is possible that he will agree to a proposal from you and President Iceni that he join forces with us against the enigmas.”

Drakon shook his head. “No, he won’t. There’s no percentage for Boyens in joining with us. He came here under Syndicate orders to defeat us and retake this star system, but now that the enigmas have shown up, every human at Midway is very likely doomed. Why should he die fighting a hopeless battle trying to save us?”

“He won’t,” President Gwen Iceni answered as she walked up to Drakon, her every movement and tone of voice carefully controlled to portray a calm confidence that in a lesser person would have seemed ridiculous under these circumstances.

But, Drakon admitted to himself, Iceni could carry it off.

“CEO Boyens,” Iceni continued, “is a practical man. There is no hope for us there,” she added in a matter-of-fact way at odds with her words.

Drakon turned to Iceni. “You’ve talked to the enigmas in the past. Is there any chance of a deal with them?”

Iceni shook her head, her own expression calculating rather than fearful. Like Drakon, she knew that it was critically important for leaders not to show fear. A display of fear communicated weakness, and in the Syndicate system, weak CEOs became targets for those under them. Workers might panic if they saw their leaders openly afraid, or senior subordinates might decide an assassination-driven change in leaders might improve their own chances of survival, or believing the situation to be hopeless, the workers themselves might rise up and wreak last-ditch revenge on their leaders for past suffering.

“The enigmas,” Iceni continued, “don’t talk with us, they talk to us. When they deign to speak to us, they make demands and never respond to anything except agreement. I would be very surprised if they even bother communicating with us this time before they kill us.”

“Is this Black Jack’s fault? Did he stir up the enigmas like we feared?”

“It’s possible.” Her gaze went to the main display floating in the middle of the command center. “Black Jack did promise to defend this star system against the enigmas.”

“I don’t see Black Jack’s fleet,” Drakon replied, his voice harsh, “and I don’t think the enigmas will be impressed by our telling them that we’ve got that promise. Black Jack took the Alliance fleet into enigma territory, raised hell, very likely got blown to pieces, and now the enigmas are here to finish the job they wanted to do several months ago.”

He didn’t bother adding that, unlike that previous time, on this occasion the Alliance fleet under the command of the legendary Admiral John “Black Jack” Geary wasn’t here to stop the enigmas. Until about a year ago, Geary had been thought dead for the last century, but he had reappeared to wreak havoc on the forces of the Syndicate Worlds and force an end to the war everyone had resigned themselves to believing to be unending. In the process, Geary had also shattered any claim by the Syndicate government to be representing a superior system and annihilated the great majority of the Syndicate warships that had been a major factor in ensuring Syndicate control of the planets under their rule.

But Geary had taken his fleet into enigma territory to try to learn more about the first alien intelligent race encountered by humanity. No Syndicate incursion into enigma space had ever returned.

“The situation . . .” Iceni paused before continuing in a thoughtful tone “is difficult.”

“Very difficult,” Drakon agreed, surprised that he could let a trace of dry humor into his own voice at such a time. Damn, she’s impressive. “All of my ground forces in this star system are coming to full combat status, but none of them stand a chance against the enigmas if the aliens bombard us from orbit.”

“All of my mobile forces are also being brought to full combat alert,” Iceni informed him. “Those at the gas giant saw the arrival of the enigmas an hour before we did, and we just received the status update from them. They are as ready as they can be.”

“Too bad we didn’t have time to get that battleship operational.”

“Yes,” Iceni said. “It would have been useful,” she added in a masterpiece of understatement. “There’s only one thing left to do besides trying to bluff the enigmas, and that is trying to arrange a truce with the Syndicate force.”

“You just agreed with me that Boyens wouldn’t fight alongside us,” Drakon said bluntly.

“I said truce, not merger. Our very slim chance of bluffing the enigmas into leaving will be improved slightly if Boyens appears to be part of the defensive force instead of another invader. And Boyens has reason to assist us in that bluff. His masters on Prime want this star system back. If the enigmas take it, or destroy it, Boyens will not have succeeded in his mission.” One side of her mouth curved in a humorless half smile. “As you and I both know from painful experience, the Syndicate government won’t let the fact that it is impossible for Boyens to succeed in the face of the enigmas influence their decision that he failed, nor will it mitigate the punishment they mete out for that failure.”

Colonel Rho Morgan had arrived while Iceni and Drakon spoke, and now saluted Drakon. Morgan’s eyes glinted with a strange light, as if the prospect of a desperate fight excited her. “Colonels Rogero, Gaiene and Kai report their brigades are ready for action and are stiffening the locals.”

Drakon nodded, his mouth twisting in annoyance. “The locals are nervous, I suppose.”

“It’s not like there’s anywhere to run,” Morgan said. She stepped close to Drakon, so close they almost touched. Her voice came out whisper-soft yet still clear despite the background noise in the command center. “Nowhere for them to run. I have a special forces shuttle standing by. Full stealth configuration. We can lift without being spotted and be boarding one of the heavy cruisers in orbit within half an hour while decoy comms make everyone think you’re in the ground forces headquarters.”

He frowned, thrown off momentarily by her nearness and the memories Morgan’s body aroused of a drunken night he wished had never happened. But it only took a moment to shake that and focus on her words. “Leave the rest?” he asked in the same quiet tones. A glance at the readouts on his wrist confirmed what he had suspected, that Morgan had personal jammers active that were blocking anyone else, even those nearby, from hearing what they were saying.

“Sorry about leaving Gaiene and Kai,” Morgan said in tones that held no trace of actual regret. “But we can’t take anyone else without tipping off what we’re doing.”

She hadn’t mentioned Rogero or Malin, of course, neither of whom ranked high in Morgan’s opinion. Drakon eyed her, knowing the rest of Morgan’s plan without its having to be spelled out. He had, after all, made his own way up the ranks of the Syndicate hierarchy and learned the lessons that had to be picked up along the way. He and Morgan would hijack the heavy cruiser and head for a jump point, leaving everyone else here to fight against impossible odds. With that heavy cruiser’s firepower, they might be able to establish control of some other, weaker, star system.

And everyone else at Midway would die, or whatever the fate was of those the enigmas captured. No one had ever learned what happened to humans who had fallen into the hands of the aliens.

“No,” Drakon said, his eyes returning to the situation display and the enemy forces arrayed there.

Morgan sighed with exasperation. “All right. We can take Malin, too.”

She probably thought that was a major concession given the level of mutual hatred between Malin and Morgan. But Drakon shook his head. “That’s not the point.” How to explain it in a way that Morgan would accept, when even he didn’t fully understand his own reluctance to do what Syndicate CEOs were taught to do in a crisis? “I know the rule in a situation like this is to throw as many subordinates to the wolves as necessary. But I don’t abandon people. You know that. That’s how I ended up exiled to Midway.” And I guess that may be why I die here.

Morgan leaned a little closer, her face almost touching his now, eyes blazing. “It is important that you and I survive. We can set up business elsewhere and come back here someday with enough firepower to retake this star system and avenge—”

“I’m not interested in avenging people I left to their fates.”

“You didn’t get to be a Syndicate CEO by making looking out for other people your first priority, General. We both know that.”

Drakon shook his head stubbornly. “I also know that if I leave here first, before President Iceni does, I’ll look weaker than her. I’ll also leave her in control of this planet and this star system.” That was the sort of logic even Morgan could accept.

Morgan paused, her eyes going to Iceni. “Maybe you won’t leave first. Maybe she’s halfway out the door.”

Drakon glanced that way, seeing Iceni locked in close conversation with her personal assistant/bodyguard/assassin Mehmet Togo. Both Iceni and Togo had moved a few steps away. Drakon didn’t need a scanner to be certain that their conversation was also being protected by personal jammers.

“Iceni is planning her own escape,” Morgan whispered. “Watch. She’ll bolt out of here with some lame excuse and head for a shuttle. I’ve got snipers posted. We can nail her before she reaches the launch area.”

Drakon frowned though he kept facing toward the display and not Iceni. “No.”

The force of that reply earned him a searching glance from Morgan. “Why not? Is there some . . . personal reason?”

“Of course not,” Drakon snapped back at her. He had gotten to know Iceni a lot better, had been able to learn more about the person behind the once-CEO and now-President, and he had found himself both having more (probably irrational) faith in her and enjoying their meetings. But none of those things were influencing him now. He was certain of that. “We need Iceni. If we get through this somehow, we need her control of the warships.”

“Once the enigmas are done here, there won’t be any warships,” Morgan pointed out. “Except theirs.”

“Stand down the snipers immediately. I don’t want any accidents.”

“You need to—”

“I need to have my orders obeyed, Colonel Morgan!”

That might have been too loud for even the personal jammers to completely mask. No one actually looked toward Drakon and Morgan, because everyone in this command center knew better than to appear as if they were aware of any arguments among superiors, but he could sense a stiffening among those nearest, as if they were trying very hard to overcome the natural impulse to glance at the sound of rising voices.

Colonel Malin, normally very sensitive to Drakon’s moods, now seemed totally absorbed in his own work. As much as he disliked Morgan, he also knew better than to let Drakon see him taking any interest or pleasure in her being chewed out.

Drakon took a long, slow breath before speaking again, not looking at Morgan’s furious eyes, gazing out of a face gone stone-cold. “I have my reasons. I always have my reasons for taking a chance on someone.”

He knew she would catch the reference. Morgan herself, judged barely stable enough for duty after a disastrous mission into enigma space, had been turned down by every other commanding officer until Drakon gave her an opportunity.

The fury in Morgan flickered, and her mouth twitched, then she abruptly went back into projecting jaded amusement. “Sometimes that might work out. But I’m one of a kind, General.”

Fortunately, Drakon thought. Could the universe handle more than one Rho Morgan? “Get the snipers stood down and work with Rogero, Kai, and Gaiene to get forces deployed to defend against a landing. We’ve got plenty of time to get people dispersed and dug in. Maybe the enigmas will sit in orbit and bombard us to hell, but if the enigmas want this planet in any shape for them to use, they’ll have to come down here and take it from us. I intend making sure the price they pay will be one they remember.”

Morgan grinned wolfishly and tapped the sidearm holstered at her hip. “If they do come down here, I can look one in the eyes as I nail it.”

“And as it nails you,” Malin said.

“It’s been tried,” Morgan replied, her tone teasing now. “Unsuccessfully.”

Malin didn’t flinch at the reference to an incident on an orbital platform in which his shot had narrowly missed Morgan before nailing an enemy. That incident had looked to Drakon all too much like an attempt to kill Morgan under cover of a firefight, but Malin had insisted otherwise, and the shot had killed a dangerous opponent.

Malin looked back at Morgan for a moment, his expression unreadable. “Perhaps you will die in enigma-controlled space after all.”

“You sound unhappy at the idea.”

“You’re imagining things,” Malin said, then turned to his display.

Drakon studied the display grimly as Morgan left to carry out his orders. Hopefully all of his orders. “Colonel Malin, ensure that none of our personnel are on any kind of alert status near this installation.”

“I’ll check on it, General. If there are any nearby, what am I to do?”

“Ensure that they’re stood down and returned to their units.” If only Morgan weren’t so valuable as an assistant. But then, the more valuable people were, the more difficult they seemed to be to live with. Drakon had seen a number of CEOs who got rid of anyone who was hard to live with and had instead surrounded themselves with people who caused no drama or problems at all. No problems at all, except for letting the CEOs in question go down in flames through sheer ineptitude, lack of initiative, lack of imagination, and/or lack of brains. Neither Malin nor Morgan were easy subordinates, but they had bailed him out more than once in situations where kowtowing, compliant assistants would have been overmatched. “How is internal security going? Have the citizens figured out what’s happening?”

“Word is spreading rapidly,” Malin said, “but so far the citizens are not panicking.” He looked thoughtful. “This may seem an inopportune time to mention the upcoming elections that you and President Iceni have allowed to go forward for low-level political positions—”

“It’s a damned inopportune time,” Drakon broke in roughly.

“But, General, you should be aware that a substantial number of the candidates for office have contacted local appointed authorities and asked if they can assist in keeping the citizens calm.”

Drakon frowned in surprise. “They’re taking responsibility for that? Even though they haven’t been elected yet and may not be elected?”

“Apparently,” Malin said, “many of the individuals running for office have already been playing leadership roles among the citizens though in underground, unauthorized ways. The opportunity to participate in real elections has convinced the people who are unofficial leaders to come out into the open.”

“I should have expected that,” Drakon said. Just how “real” the elections would actually be was a matter he and Iceni were still debating, but even the maximum level of vote manipulation being considered by them was a pale shadow of the total farce that Syndicate elections had been.

But it seemed that offering the citizens a real buy-in to the government, even if a low-level one, had already produced some benefits. Drakon bent his head, thinking. “Make sure we keep track of everyone who offers to help and check back after this is over to see how successful they were.” Odds were that after this was over, they would all be dead, but it never hurt to plan for the future even when that seemed insanely optimistic.

Out of the corner of his eye, Drakon could see Togo backing away from Iceni, an uncharacteristic amount of unhappiness visible on Togo’s normally impassive face. But, unhappy or not, Togo nodded in acknowledgment of some instruction and left the command center.

Iceni looked around, focused on Drakon and walked briskly back over to him. He admired the walk, and not just because Iceni had the sort of walk any man would enjoy watching. She also knew exactly how to pace it. Just fast enough to communicate urgency and control but not so fast as to give the impression of fear or worry about being able to handle whatever happened.

She stopped near him, still radiating apparent confidence but her eyes questioning. “Will you be staying at the command center, General?”

“Yes. Are you going to stay, too, or are you planning on restructuring your business model?” It was an old joke, perhaps as old as the Syndicate Worlds, a semipolite way of asking if someone was preparing to abandon former partners and cut their losses.

Iceni’s gaze on him didn’t waver. “I think I will stay. Restructuring doesn’t seem like the most profitable option at the moment.”

“But staying does?” Drakon asked. “That’s an odd business plan.”

“I’m not running a business,” Iceni said, her voice growing harder. “I’m responsible for . . . many other things. This is the best place to monitor events and pass on orders to Kommodor Marphissa as our warships defend this star system.” Iceni looked toward the display as if the situation shown there were, if not favorable, at least survivable.

Drakon took one step closer and spoke quietly. “Careful. You’re very good, but if you look too confident in the face of this, the workers might think you’re insane.”

“I want them to think I have a secret weapon in reserve,” Iceni replied in the same low tones.

“Do you?”

“No. How about you, General?”

Was she telling the truth? “None that I know of. The only rational thing to do is something neither of us seems to be doing.”

Iceni glanced his way. “I have my reasons. What’s your reason?”

He paused. “We made a deal.”

That actually brought a brief, mocking smile to her lips. “Even you can’t believe that’s your rationale for staying. But, feel free to claim that if you want. Isn’t that what you told me just before we overthrew Syndicate authority here?”

“Something like that,” Drakon conceded. “Even if I bolted right now, getting away wouldn’t be easy or guaranteed. I’d rather not die running away.”

“Having learned what I have about you, that’s a reason I can believe,” Iceni said. “I assume that you have been urged to try to escape anyway?”

“You assume correctly. I think you and I have disappointed some of our subordinates, Gwen.” He let down his guard with that statement, but what the hell. If she was going to betray him, she already had plenty of knowledge of him to use as ammunition.

She smiled again for a moment. “It’s just as well the people who work for us don’t start thinking that they can call the shots, isn’t it?” The smile faded as Iceni pointed at the display with one forefinger. “Where do you think the enigmas will go first?”

“If it were me, I’d head for the hypernet gate. They have to be worried about that now that we know how much damage one of those gates can do when it collapses.” Drakon nodded again, this time slowly. “You know, we do have a secret weapon. Maybe not so secret, but it’s nasty enough that even though we may lose here, we can make sure they don’t win.”

“Collapse the hypernet gate?” Iceni asked as casually as if Drakon had commented on the weather. She raised her hand, tapping one of the bracelets about her wrist. “I can send the command any time I want to.”

“I know.”

“Of course you did. I know that you’re thorough, and finding out whether I could do that would have been an obvious thing to check on before we even started our rebellion.” Iceni lowered her arm. “The command will disable the safe-collapse system and cause a collapse of the gate that generates the maximum-level burst of energy. About point seven nova-scale, I was told by the technicians who did the work.”

There wouldn’t be very much left at Midway if a point seven nova-scale burst of energy rampaged through the star system. The planets might remain, but scoured of their atmospheres and with ravaged surfaces. The star would be badly disrupted. Asteroids and comets would be vaporized or hurled into the darkness between stars.

Nothing human would survive.

But nothing belonging to the enigmas would survive, either.

“Do you think they’d believe us if we threatened them with that?” Drakon asked. “Get out now, or we destroy everything?”

“I’m sure they would believe us capable of carrying out such a threat,” Iceni said. “We are human, after all, and humans do things like that when our backs are to the wall. But the enigmas may be able to stop us from carrying out that threat. The information the Alliance gave us, which implied the gates were originally enigma technology deliberately leaked to us, would mean the enigmas know more about the gates than we do. We’ve learned how to stop the enigmas from collapsing the gates and destroying human-occupied star systems, but they may still have a backdoor means to halt us from doing the same thing.”

It felt odd, Drakon thought. This was a crisis situation. He could see the enigma attack fleet and the Syndicate flotilla as well as the mobile forces under the command of Iceni. Yet the opposing forces were light-hours distant. What he was seeing of the enigmas was what they had been doing four and a half hours ago. And no matter what they were doing now, it would take days for any forces to come into contact. “It can’t hurt to try to bluff the enigmas.” If Iceni was talking about a bluff rather than a cold-blooded plan to ensure mutual destruction if the enigmas were on the verge of wiping out the humans here.

“How far do you think can we trust CEO Boyens?” she asked.

“We both know Boyens.” Drakon held up one hand, the forefinger and thumb barely a centimeter apart. “We can trust him about that far, in my opinion.”

“He does some have some good qualities.”

“And right now those qualities are focused on riding the waves of change rolling across Syndicate-controlled space so that he ends up alive, afloat, and adorned with high rank.”

Iceni cocked her head slightly to one side as she thought. “That leaves room to appeal to his self-interest.”

“It does,” Drakon agreed. “What do we offer him?”

“We will submit this star system to his control without resistance or damage to any facilities as long as he works with us against the enigmas.”

“He’ll never believe it. Boyens knows we’d never keep such an agreement.” Drakon frowned. “But it might be the best offer he can hope for with the enigmas here. Give it a try.”

She made an exasperated sound. “We need more leverage. If only our battleship were operational. If only the battleship we captured at Taroa had been almost completed instead of being under construction.”

“The Free Taroans weren’t happy that we kept it,” Drakon remarked. “Or that we kept the main orbiting docks at Taroa after we took them from the Syndicate.”

“They’ll have to live with it though they’re dragging their heels on getting us the supplies and workers we need to complete that ship.”

Colonel Malin spoke with careful deference. “Madam President, if I may, what if we gave the battleship and ownership of a significant portion of those orbiting docks to the Free Taroans?”

Iceni had the look of someone who had heard something impossible to understand. “Why would we do that?”

“We need allies. We have Black Jack,” Malin pointed out, “but he is distant, and so his help cannot be counted upon in a crisis. Taroa is close.”

“Do you,” Iceni asked, “have any conception of how much firepower a battleship carries? Of how much military capacity you are suggesting we offer to give away?”

Malin smiled thinly. “I have been on the receiving end of bombardments from Alliance battleships, Madam President. However, the battleship at Taroa has no military capacity and will not for some time. Its hull isn’t complete. It is still not even able to leave the construction dock. Nor am I suggesting that we not ask for anything in return. The Free Taroans are already grateful for the military assistance our ground forces provided in defeating the Syndicate there. They are quibbling over the wording of mutual-defense agreements, though.”

Drakon narrowed his eyes at Malin. “I imagine the Taroans would agree to just about any wording, to just about anything, in order to get their hands on that battleship.”

“And then, rather than drag their heels, they would bend every effort to get the battleship completed and ready to fight as soon as possible,” Malin agreed.

Iceni eyed them both, her eyes now hooded. “An interesting suggestion. We tie Taroa closer to us by playing on Taroa’s desire for that battleship. Taroa invests the necessary resources into getting the battleship operational, thereby saving us the costs and effort. We gain a nearby ally who is even more grateful to us and committed to providing substantial support with a battleship that will be ready far sooner than if we try to do it all ourselves. A very interesting suggestion, Colonel. What if Taroa decides to betray us?”

Malin smiled. “We have complete access to the ship and will retain some access while it is being finished. There are many safeguards that can be covertly installed in the ship and its systems to ensure that any attempt to use it against us fails.”

Their quiet discussion was interrupted by the subdued chime of an alert from the system display. “There’s shuttle lifting from this planet,” one of the console operators reported. On the display, a symbol appeared with a graceful arc showing its projected path up into orbit. “It’s not a scheduled lift, and all facilities were informed that lifts are not to occur during this alert period unless authorized from here.”

Iceni’s eyes hardened. “Who is aboard this shuttle?”

“They are reporting a routine cargo lift, normal crew, no passengers,” another operator replied.

“A routine lift? When routine lifts have been ordered suspended?” Before Iceni could ask anything else, Togo had appeared again by her side.

“A regional governor cannot be accounted for,” Togo said dispassionately. “Neither can his mistress. An industrial executive and her boyfriend are also not able to be located using planetary surveillance systems.”

“Governor Beadal?” Iceni asked in a voice grown cold.

“Yes, Madam President. Perhaps he became aware of the investigations closing in on him, or perhaps he simply seeks to flee the enigmas despite orders for all executives to remain in place. The industrial executive is Magira Fillis, heavy construction office.”

“She won’t be missed.” Iceni had her eyes on the track of the shuttle as it strained to clear atmosphere. “And Regional Governor Beadal’s failures as an administrator leave me no reason to overlook his petty corruption and violation of a directive from me. But I hate to lose a shuttle.”

Colonel Malin spoke up. “It’s not ours. The shuttle is from one of the merchant ships in orbit. The ship is flagged to the Xavandi Group, but the executive in command of the freighter claims that it has gone rogue and is operating independently.”

Iceni’s gaze sharpened into that of a predator eyeing prey. “I never liked the CEOs heading up the Xavandi Group. It would be just like them to have a ship trading in violation of Syndicate government restrictions but pretending to be no longer answering to their control so they could pull in the profits but deny breaking government rules. I won’t regret losing their shuttle. General?”

Drakon gave her a glance, wondering for a moment at the question. Assuming Iceni was right about that freighter, Xavandi Group wasn’t that different from a lot of other Syndicate conglomerates. And the two executives riding on that shuttle weren’t all that different from the worst of the Syndicate corporate weasels that Drakon had encountered in his time. “If you want to destroy the shuttle, you don’t have to ask me.”

“We reached an agreement a few hours ago,” Iceni said, her voice brisk and businesslike as she discussed destroying the shuttle and the people on it. She had cut in the privacy field again to keep her words from being heard by anyone but Drakon. “No more assassinations of any kind unless we both agree. Arguably, this could be considered an assassination since the governor and executive involved will neither get chances to surrender nor trials.”

Trials in the Syndicate system were just formalities to give a veneer of legitimacy to predetermined outcomes, but sometimes deals would be offered. Not this time. “Colonel Malin has already reported to me about Regional Governor Beadal’s activities,” Drakon said. “Some of his games caused supply trouble for one of my units.” He hadn’t heard anything about the industrial executive sharing Beadal’s shuttle and wouldn’t admit to that lack of knowledge, but Fallis’s choice of companion was a pretty clear sign that she would have also been firing-squad bait at some point even if she hadn’t tried to run. “We won’t miss the shuttle.”

“I’m glad we are in agreement,” Iceni said, cutting off the privacy field. “Do I need to order one of the warships in orbit to deal with that shuttle?”

“No. Ground forces can handle it easily. Colonel Malin, order orbital defenses to eliminate that shuttle.”

“Yes, sir.” Malin entered three commands. Target. Confirm. Fire.

Somewhere else on the planet, a ground-based battery of particle beams locked onto the shuttle. Ground-based weapons could be very potent because of the amount of power they could draw on, but their range was still limited by the realities of space. The distances in space were so huge that the beams of the weapons spread over distance, the power being spread out as well, so that warships more than a few light-minutes distant could take the hits on their shields without much worry. But if anyone wanted to try landing on a planet, or wanted to conduct a precise bombardment from orbit, they would have to confront some nasty defenses. Since Midway had been facing the enigma threat for nearly a century now, its orbital defenses were substantially better than those of an average world.

The cargo shuttle still clawing its way toward orbit had weak shields, no armor, and was still inside atmosphere when the particle-beam battery fired. Multiple spears of charged particles tore the shuttle into pieces which flowered outward from the point of impact to fall back toward the vast oceans of the planet below. Those inside the shuttle never knew what had killed them.

But everyone on the planet would have been watching the shuttle lift and would know its fate.

“That should be the last attempt to flee positions of responsibility,” Iceni said in a voice that carried through the command center. “I want every ship in this star system to be informed that if they change orbits or trajectories without specific approval from this command center or Kommodor Marphissa, that will be the last action they take.”

“Yes, Madam President,” the senior operations specialist in the command center replied, turning to immediately pass on that warning.

Iceni spoke to Togo in a quieter voice. “Ensure the investigation of Governor Beadal is continued. He is dead, but I want to know who else was working with him on his little schemes.”

Drakon watched Togo leave again. He wondered if the mistress and the boyfriend had been aware of the risks they were running. Most likely, since there would have had to be a wild scramble to get to the shuttle. No one who had worked and lived under the Syndicate system could have been oblivious to the danger of disobeying a directive for executives to remain in place. The bribe offered to the shuttle pilot and crew must have been substantial to get them to risk a lift, but no one would be cashing any of those checks.

“Now that the distraction is dealt with, let’s deal with the larger issues,” Iceni said. “Communications. Give me a tight beam aimed at the path of the enigma force. I don’t want CEO Boyens to also pick up the transmission and learn what we’re saying to the enigmas.”

“Madam CEO –” one of the specialists began out of long habit, then hastily checked himself. “Madam President. The beam will have to be directed to the point where the enigmas will be hours from now. But if the enigmas change their vectors significantly in the meantime, they will not be in the path of a tight beam. We can use a wider beam, which will offer a much higher chance that the enigma force will receive it, but keep it narrow enough that it will have no chance of being intercepted by the flotilla near the hypernet gate.”

Iceni bent a stern look on the specialist while Drakon watched to see how she would handle this. For many CEOs, the only thing that counted was obedience. Suggestions for improvements on CEO orders could also be seen as criticisms of the original order. From what Drakon had seen of Kommodor Marphissa, promoted to her current position by Iceni, the President was willing to accept a rather high degree of independent thought in her subordinates. But was that simply because Marphissa had come from executive ranks or because she was a favorite of Iceni’s?

“Your suggestion,” Iceni began while specialists waited tensely throughout the command center, “is a good one. I appreciate such support when it is properly offered. Use the wider beam.”

Moments later, the transmission ready to begin, Iceni activated the command and spoke to the alien invaders with clipped precision. “To those who have entered this star system without the authorization or approval of those who control this space, this is President Iceni. You are to leave. This is not your star. Go now. If you do not go, we will take any action needed to destroy you. The hypernet gate is here. We can make it destroy everything here. You cannot stop this. Go now. If we cannot defeat you by other means, we will destroy you along with ourselves. Go now. For the people, Iceni, out.”

“I know they communicate with us in our own language, but how much do they really understand of statements like that?” Drakon asked.

“I don’t know. No one does. But that’s the sort of talking they do when communicating with us over video links using human-appearing avatars.” Iceni breathed a small laugh. “Maybe Black Jack has learned how much the enigmas really understand human concepts. If he’s not dead. Now, let’s make our offer to CEO Boyens.”

This time the beam was directed toward the flotilla hovering near the hypernet gate. “CEO Boyens, you have seen that we face a mutual enemy. You must stand with us. Together, we have a chance to turn away this attack on a human-occupied star system. If you assist in this matter, if you avoid offensive action against our forces while the enigmas are here and act as if coordinating your forces with ours, we will agree to surrender to you this star system and everything in it intact after the enigmas are convinced to leave. If you do not assist, your own mission here is certain to fail. Work with us against a mutual enemy for our mutual benefit. For the people, Iceni, out.”

She shrugged as that transmission ended. “I doubt that he will agree, but asking can’t make things any worse.”

The atmosphere in the command center had changed, taking on a new level of tension. Drakon glanced at Colonel Malin, who subtly titled his head toward the nearest specialists. Of course. They just heard Iceni offering a deal to hand this star system back to the Syndicate Worlds. That couldn’t be helped, but we can reassure our workers, who would all probably rather face total destruction to bring down the enigmas than accept having the snakes return.

“If Boyens does fall for it,” Drakon said, speaking loudly enough that the nearest specialists who were listening-without-seeming-to could just hear, “we’ll arrange things so the enigmas hit Boyens instead of our own forces. Once we’ve eliminated the enigmas we’ll turn on whatever’s left of the Syndicate flotilla and crush it.”

Iceni kept her puzzlement at his open admission of their probable (if so unlikely to succeed as to be delusional) course of action from showing on her face, but her eyes questioned him before going to the nearby workers and lighting with understanding. “Yes, of course,” Iceni agreed. “If CEO Boyens is desperate enough to accept our offer, we’ll destroy him as soon as he lets his guard down. The snakes of the Syndicate Internal Security Service will not ever again control the fates of the people of this star system.”

Their performance must have quelled some of the anxiety inside the command center. Drakon heard a low buzz of conversation that held none of the rising fears that could have touched off riot or revolt among the workers.

“I have the awful feeling that they might trust us,” Iceni remarked in a very low voice which held amusement mingled with disbelief as she looked at the workers.

“You’d think they’d know better,” Drakon commented, hearing a bitterness in his own voice that he had not anticipated.

Malin edged closer to speak quietly. “They know what they have seen of your actions. Do not assume they are stupid. Assume that, like all other people, they are often ruled by self-interest. You got rid of the snakes. You have granted them more freedom. You have shown concern for them.”

“Have we?” Iceni asked. “Your officer is prone to odd notions, General.”

“He’s often right,” Drakon said.

“Which is why you instinctively leap to his defense?” Iceni eyed Drakon, her look challenging. “You have a habit of doing that with your executives and your workers, don’t you, General?”

“It’s what works for me,” Drakon growled in reply, wondering if Iceni was now going to issue even more pointed criticism of his un-Syndicate-like behavior. Of course she won’t approve of my methods. Just about every other CEO I’ve met feels the same. And it still ticks me off. I get better results than they do. How dare they criticize my way of getting the job done?

But whatever Iceni’s opinions might be remained hidden behind her eyes. She was good at that, too. Instead, Iceni simply nodded. “It’s what got you sent to Midway and nearly got you executed by the snakes, General. Some might wonder at that sort of management record.”

“I’m not a manager,” Drakon said with more heat than he had intended. “I am a leader.”

“And his troops will follow his lead,” Malin said.

Iceni’s eyes flickered toward Malin, a humorless smile barely bending her lips, her gaze appraising. It was the sort of look anyone below CEO rank in the Syndicate Worlds feared, the sort of assessment of an individual’s worth and attitude that could result in promotion but more often in demotion or even a sentence to a labor camp. “I am not your General, Colonel Malin. I am not nearly as forgiving of unruliness in my subordinates, even those who offer valuable suggestions. Keep that in mind when you speak to me.”

Malin stiffened. “I understand and will comply, Madam President.”

“Good.” Iceni walked off, raising her comm unit in one hand and speaking in a low voice, her personal privacy field once again blocking her words from being heard by anyone nearby.

Drakon watched her go. Selling me down the river is the only card Gwen Iceni has to offer Boyens. But without me, she can’t hold on to this planet and this star system. She knows that. Maybe she doesn’t like that. Like me, she was trained by the Syndicate system not to depend on anyone else. Even if she doesn’t want to betray me, Iceni has to be considering her survival options right now. What if it comes down to her or me?

Whatever Iceni might be planning could take hours to materialize, if she was planning anything, and his defensive measures against her had to take into account that he needed Gwen Iceni just as much as she needed him, and that she was very good at whatever she turned her mind to. The external threats that might trigger a desperate internal fight to survive between him and Iceni loomed large on the main display behind Malin. But it would be hours before either the powerful enigma fleet or the Syndicate flotilla commanded by CEO Boyens received Iceni’s messages as they crawled across the vast distances of space at the speed of light. Reactions or replies, if any, would take at least as long to be seen or heard. Time to make plans, time to prepare for action, time to worry about the plans your partner might be making and actions your partner might by preparing for. Time for the citizens to realize just how bad things were, and react with the panic or fury the Syndicate system expected of the mob, or with the resolve and reliability that he and Iceni hoped to create by offering more individual responsibility for the workers. Time for missteps and misunderstandings among supposed friends and allies to cause as much or more damage than deliberate malice.

Friends and allies. Drakon saw Iceni watching the display, revealing for a brief, unguarded moment a grim anxiety as she stared not at the enigma fleet or the Syndicate flotilla but at the depiction of the Midway Flotilla. The warships upon which Iceni’s power rested. “Colonel Malin, can you come up with any possible scenarios where the warships of the Midway Flotilla will survive even if the rest of us somehow manage to pull through?”

Malin paused for only a moment, then shook his head. “Barring a miracle, there’s only one, sir. If they flee for an unguarded jump point. No one, ourselves included, could stop them.”

“And the officers and workers on those ships surely know that.”

“Yes, sir. As does Kommodor Marphissa. She is too capable not to be aware of her certain fate if her ships do not run for safety.”

“So, even if we somehow survive, those warships will not, unless they run for it. They’re doomed if they stay.” Iceni would lose her shield against the hammer of Drakon’s ground forces, would lose her power to bargain with him and Boyens.

“Yes, but if the warships flee,” Malin said, “our fates will become certain. Any chance of bluffing the enigmas into leaving, any chance of dealing with CEO Boyens, will disappear with them. Either they commit to die fighting a hopeless battle or they run to save themselves and ensure that we die.”

If Marphissa had been a Syndicate CEO, Drakon knew what he would have expected her to do. There wasn’t any profit in hopeless battles. But, if they stayed, and with Marphissa knowing how vital her choices had become to Iceni’s survival, what price might someone trained in the Syndicate system demand in exchange for the warships’ almost certain sacrifice?

No wonder Iceni was watching the depiction of her warships with dour intensity, as if anticipating the worst.

A sharp tone announced a high-priority call arriving. “Kommodor Marphissa wishes to speak with you, Madam President,” the comm specialist announced.


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