Authors: PP Corcoran
On the large forward view screen, the face of Mkhize appeared and without prelude began speaking. The interpretation program took a few seconds to catch up and when it did, any thoughts of an easy victory fled from Toro's mind.
"Deres fleet commander. This is Commodore Vusumuzi Mkhize, Commanding Officer of Cruiser Squadron 1.2.2. Your actions on Planet IV and your presence here are clear violations of the ceasefire brokered in good faith between both your government and that of Nilmerg. The Commonwealth Union of Planets, as the guarantor of the said ceasefire, orders you to immediately reverse course and return to Deres. Failure to do so will result in your destruction. You have sixty seconds to comply."
As Mkhize's words sunk in, Toro could see the panic-stricken faces around him. They knew the Commonwealth forces outnumbered them four to one, and it was more than likely that if they engaged the Commonwealth cruisers, they would be lucky to survive. Toro had to regain the upper hand and quickly, before he lost the crew’s confidence.
With all the swagger he could muster, Toro addressed the image of Mkhize on his screen. "Do not try to order me around. It is I who will be giving the orders here today. As you very well know, Marshall Poll has hostages, Commonwealth citizens amongst them. Now get out of my way, or their blood will be on your hands."
For the first time in hours, a large, toothy smile spread across Mkhize's face. "Your beloved marshall and all his soldiers are dead. The hostages are free and once more under the protection of the Commonwealth. You now have forty-five seconds to comply."
The view screen went dark as Mkhize terminated the video link. Toro had the wind taken out of his sails. He crumpled into his command chair as though punched in the stomach, oblivious to the noise erupting around him as the bridge crew realized their gamble had failed. Their glorious future as heroes of the Deres people was reduced to tatters. Through it all, the computer continued to interpret the audio signal being received from the Commonwealth ship.
Someone grabbed Toro by the shoulders and shook him hard. Raising his head, Toro looked straight into the eyes of Rana. Rana’s mouth was moving and his spittle wet Toro’s face. Eventually, his words managed to penetrate Toro’s numbed brain.
"Admiral! Admiral! Your orders!"
Whatever Toro was about to say became inconsequential. The Commonwealth countdown reached zero. Four Lynx cruisers fired their main energy weapon batteries on the
. The massed fire struck the ship along its entire length. Battle armor evaporated at their touch as the deadly grazers penetrated deeper and deeper. Metal, flesh, and bone became nothing more than superheated gases at their touch and in seconds the
became – for just a moment – the brightest star in the sky as the ship and its crew gave themselves up to space in a flash of heat and light.
Commodore Mkhize kept his eyes steadfastly on the outside view projected into the main holo cube filling the center of his bridge as the last gaseous remains of the Deres flagship dissipated into the cold vacuum of space.
"Comms. Raise whoever is now in command over there, I want to speak to them. Maybe this time I'll be able to get them to see reason before they run out of ships."
The comms officer turned back to his board and a blinking incoming signal alert caught his eye.
"Incoming signal from the Deres, sir."
Mkhize’s deep laugh filled the bridge. "Now that was quick. Our little firepower demonstration must have encouraged some smarter thinking over there."
The confused look on the comms officer’s face made him pause. "It’s not coming from any of the destroyers, sir. It’s a general signal being broadcast on all frequencies from the lead ship of the second group of Deres ships."
"Let’s hear it."
With a few commands, the image of the holo cube changed and instead of the blackness of space, Mkhize was looking at a Deres dressed in what passed for an official-looking suit. Mkhize noted the left side of his head was swathed in bandages.
"... of Deres. You have been deceived. Marshall Poll and Fleet Admiral Toro have been stripped of their ranks by order of the House of the People. Troops loyal to the government have put down the attempted coup and restored order. The People’s Prosecutor, following my orders as the senior surviving Deputy, has issued arrest warrants for the criminals known as Poll and Toro. The charge is mass murder. The final cost of their murderous attack on the capital is still not known and will probably not be known for many days, but we estimate we have suffered over 17,000 dead and perhaps 100,000 injured. Even in the darkest days of our long conflict with the Nilmerg, we have never seen such losses amongst our civilian population. Our search-and-rescue services are doing their best, but the task before them is so great, even their strenuous efforts will not be enough to reach many survivors in time to render aid. In an act of friendship I found deeply touching, the Anala of Nilmerg has offered all the aid his people can provide. Through the offices of the Commonwealth Ambassador, I have accepted his kind offer. I am now personally leading loyal ships in pursuit of the criminals and I call upon all true Deres to look into their hearts and see the truth of how you were deceived by Poll and Toro. Lay down your arms, I beseech you. You were only following the orders of the men who preyed upon your fears and uncertainty of the future. No charges will be brought against any man if he follows my orders. I, Deputy Aral Lex, promise you... Soldiers of Deres. You have been deceived..."
Mkhize made a throat-slashing gesture and the voice of Aral Lex cut off. The bridge remained silent as Mkhize considered his next move. He still faced fifteen destroyers and at least some of their crew must still be loyal to Poll and Toro, but which ones?
"Tactical. Keep a weapons lock on those ships but do not fire unless we are fired upon."
Now we wait and see
, thought Mkhize as he attempted to relax. The first indication the Deputy’s message was getting through came ten minutes later. A destroyer at the very edge of the fleet powered down all its systems with the exception of life support. As if that ship had been the first crack in the dam, a second and then a third ship quickly followed suit. Over the next half hour, all the remaining destroyers powered their systems down as their crews awaited the arrival of the loyal forces.
Mkhize pulled himself out of the seat he felt he had occupied for days and suddenly realized he was hungry. "Tactical, bring the squadron down from battle stations. I'm going to get some food if anybody needs me." With one final look at the fifteen destroyers floating serenely in space before him, Mkhize headed for the mess. He was under no illusions about how close he had come to taking a lot of innocent lives today and was relieved that in the end, he did not have to.
JANUS - 4.7 LIGHT YEARS FROM EARTH
Thomas Crothers sat with his back to the highly polished oak desk, a gift from Rebecca Coston, as one president to another, and lounged in his comfortable chair taking in the view from his office windows and clearing his mind to ready it for the imminent meeting he knew would be a complete sea change for his world and its people. The view outside was very different from what it had been just a scant few years before when the Janus colony had been nothing more than a collection of ramshackle prefabs. The glinting glass-sided edifices that now dwarfed his own offices would soon enough be dwarfed in turn by the new construction springing up as far as the eye could see. Humanity’s first extra-solar embryonic colony was expanding rapidly. Money and people were pouring in at a prodigious rate as humanity realized the gravity of the threat to its own existence represented by the Others and any more races like them. Thus, they threw their resources into building a self-sufficient colony so that if the worst did come to pass and Earth suffered the same fate as so many other worlds the Others had attacked, at least the human race would go on in some shape or form.
In what many still regarded as a minor miracle of organization and sheer focused determination, Janus rapidly grew into what it was today. A planet with a population of over ten million souls and counting. An established agricultural and industrial base, which not only provided for the planet’s inhabitants but had become a major exporter to other Commonwealth worlds. Its industrial base had proved its worth when the Others’ attack on Earth destroyed the Deimos shipyards. The Janus shipyards were able to step in and provide much needed repair facilities to the badly damaged TDF fleets.
No one would disagree that the driving force behind the success of Janus was its governor, Thomas Crothers. A quiet, unassuming man whom most people would have passed in the street without a second glance. Inside, though, was a calculating mind, which could work any problem to a successful conclusion. There was also a willingness to succeed that others fed off and became invigorated by. People soon became justly proud of what they had achieved and were never shy in telling anyone who would listen that they hailed from Janus. So it came as no great surprise when a plebiscite was held and the people of Janus voted for independence from Earth. It also came as no surprise when Thomas Crothers was elected as the first president of Janus with an overwhelming majority.
The opening of his office door brought Thomas out of his seat. He quickly covered the short distance to warmly embrace his guest. The image of the short, balding president hugging the tall, thin, auburn-haired woman was one any news vid crew, if they had been present, would have paid good money for. Releasing his embrace, Thomas stood back and indicated the comfortable-looking chairs and the low coffee table with its waiting cups and coffee service.
"It’s good to see you again, Patricia. How was the trip?"
Patricia Bath gratefully sunk into the seat as Thomas poured them both a steaming cup of coffee.
"To be honest with you, Mr. President, all this business of sneaking around is more tiring than you can imagine."
Thomas let out a soft chuckle. "Not cut out to be a modern-day Mata Hari eh, Patricia?"
"That woman was made of sterner stuff than me, Mr. President. I left Geneva at some godforsaken hour this morning to avoid any awkward questions and then was sequestered in an anteroom on Gateway Station for five hours until the courier ship was ready to leave. When we arrived in Janus space I was grateful to be able to board your Coast Guard shuttle so I could at least stretch my legs. I’ve never realized how small those courier ships are. No, Mr. President, I’m definitely not cut out for the spy business. I like my creature comforts too much."
"Don't we all, Patricia. Don't we all." Placing his cup down on the table, Thomas pushed an encrypted PAD over to Patricia, whose demeanor became instantly business-like. "Here is the information you requested,” he said. “I told my advisers I wanted a worst-case scenario and that’s exactly what they provided. If Earth was to withdraw from the Commonwealth, then they believe the consensus of opinion is that an Earth First government would try to regain control of Janus. This would be unacceptable to the majority of the Janus population and I would agree with them. It would be my government’s policy that Janus should remain within the Commonwealth. If we did, we could expect economic and military sanctions to be imposed by Earth, but my advisers are confident that we could make up any shortfall by increasing our trade with the remaining nations of the Commonwealth." Thomas paused, as if unsure how what he was going to say next would be received.
Patricia sensed his uneasiness. She had known Thomas for over five years and considered him a friend.
"Please continue, Mr. President."
Setting his jaw, Thomas went on. "That brings us to the issue of colonization. Any aggressive colonization program by an Earth First government would, as a matter of course, have an impact on Janus as Earth’s closest neighbor. Janus would have no choice but to counter this by enacting our own colonization program at the earliest opportunity. We expect such a program to bring Janus into direct competition with Earth and as such, there will need to be a similar expansion of our military forces..."
Patricia’s face drained of blood. "Mr. President. Do you really think it would come to that? Human against human?"
Thomas shrugged his shoulders in reply. "Times have changed, Patricia. I have to look out for the best interests of my people now and the rhetoric these Earth First people are spouting quite honestly scares me. Right now, Janus relies on Admiral Lewis and Second Fleet for protection. Janus doesn't have a substantial space navy of its own. A few destroyers and frigates belonging to the Coast Guard, yes, but nothing to match the firepower of a battleship or even a modern cruiser. I'm coming under increasing pressure to increase the Coast Guard’s funding to allow it to build more capable ships..." Thomas made eye contact with Patricia and she could see the anguish in them.
"The funding is set to be approved. We expected to take more responsibility for our own defense sooner or later, so all we are doing is bringing those plans forward. A good many sailors and marines who are leaving the service have laid down roots here. They have families here now and a number of them have asked to stay and the government is inclined to let them. We find we are in need of their particular skill sets now more than ever. The first battleship of the Janus Space Navy is set to begin construction by the end of next month. Tell Rebecca I'm sorry, but I have to think of Janus first now."
The two friends sat in silence, each absorbed in their own thoughts as the future path of the human race came to its first fork in the road. Differing directions that would not easily be reconciled.
The secretary softly closed the door behind Patricia and as if on cue, a side door leading to the president’s Chief of Staff’s office opened to admit two civilians and a single uniformed officer. If anyone had seen the three enter the room, they might have found it odd that the officer wore the uniform of a Terran Defense Force admiral.
Thomas remained in his seat as he gestured for the others to sit. Doing so Thomas’ Chief of Staff wasted no time in asking the question whose answer they all wanted to know.
"So, what was her reaction, Mr. President?"
Thomas hesitated before answering Chin Lee's question, still wondering if they were doing the right thing. Independent or not, Janus still retained deep cultural and economic ties with Earth and those were not going to simply dematerialize overnight. However, thought of the effect the Earth First movement’s plans to split from the Commonwealth and its pursuit of isolationist policies could have for Janus, and any other colony established by Earth in the future, was something Thomas was not willing to risk. Janus was his home and he had to think of its people first.
"As well as we expected her to, Chin. It will be a blow to President Coston and will only serve to give Grant and his campaign ammunition to use against Kris Madkin, but it can't be helped. The time for Janus to stand on her own two feet has come. Talking of which, Rayner, how long before we are able to reveal the illustrious new Janus Space Navy to the world?"
The larger-than-life National Security Adviser seemed to fill the entire chair he was sitting in and, as always, a bead of sweat trickled down his forehead. "The Articles of Independence gifted the independent government virtually the entire planetary defense grid, including the surveillance and weapons platforms in orbit. The TDF retain control of Second Fleet, but only so far as the actual ships themselves. All support facilities are similarly gifted to Janus, so the only thing we lack..."
"Are ships," finished Thomas wearily, "And of course the personnel to crew them."
"We already have the Coast Guard cutters, Mr. President and they are fully crewed by Janus citizens," interjected Chin in an attempt to raise the president’s spirits.
Thomas turned his head to look at the sole uniformed man in the room. "A mere drop in the ocean compared to the firepower you have at your disposal, Admiral Lewis."
Admiral Robert Lewis, CO Second Fleet, TDF sat looking unperturbed as the politicians in the room slowly sank into despair. "Mr. President, the combined firepower of the entire Coast Guard is less than one of my cruisers. However, I do think you are underestimating your lack of available trained personnel."
Chin Lee cocked a dubious eyebrow at the admiral. "My numbers come directly from the Department of Defense, Admiral and I would like to hope they know how many people they have working for them."
The chuckle that escaped Lewis caught the others in the room by surprise. "You may have a point there, Mr. Lee, but have they talked to the Department of Immigration lately? The Earth First movement is not only scaring the politicians. There are rumblings within the fleet. A lot of officers and crew are not happy with their views and a large percentage of those sailors are due to complete their tours of duty in the near future, and the prospect of going back to an Earth run along Earth First lines is not filling them with end-of-tour joyfulness. Many are looking for an alternative and Janus is the obvious choice. If you were to offer some sort of package to help them relocate their families, I can pretty much guarantee the majority would take it. You still wouldn't have the trained personnel to crew anything the size of Second Fleet, but you would have enough to crew probably one BatFor, maybe more, and of greater significance, it would provide a core of experienced officers and ratings to build on."
Chin Lee sat forward, enlivened by Lewis' suggestion. "This could work Mr. President. We have been looking into how we should screen immigration now that Earth’s government can't tell us who we can and who we can't take. It would not be unheard of for a nation to award points to an applicant based on the needs of the country. We can easily place military personnel in the highest point bracket and I'm sure a few words from yourself in the ears of the Treasury Secretary could free up the needed cash to fund a relocation package, which we can then deduct from the wages of those serving over a span of a tour of duty."
Thomas looked to Rayner, who gave an approving nod. "Well, that’s settled then. It only leaves us with the question of who we can get to run our shiny new toy. By your presence here today, Admiral, I take it you have considered my proposal and find it agreeable?"
"Your assumption would be correct, Mr. President. I have spoken to my wife and she and I are in agreement. Janus is the place we would both like to retire to when the time comes for that, so perhaps we should do something to ensure it is still here when that day is upon us." Reaching into his pocket, Lewis withdrew two pieces of paper and handed them to Thomas. "Mr. President, before attending this meeting I dispatched my letter of resignation to the Secretary of the Navy. My wife will do the same later today. Please accept both my wife’s and my own application for Janus citizenship."
Thomas leapt to his feet and took Lewis' hand, pumping it enthusiastically. "Welcome to Janus Fleet, Admiral Lewis." Thomas gave his National Security Adviser a sideways look. "And I believe Rayner here is looking for someone to head up... What is it you are calling it, Rayner?"
"The Office of Naval Intelligence, Mr. President."
"Ah yes, so it is. Although I don't think we can guarantee adjoining offices, Admiral." Thomas chuckled at his own joke.
"Believe me, Mr. President, I would rather be in a different star system than have to have an office next door to my wife. Absence makes the heart grow fonder and all that."
All four men laughed as another step in separating Janus from Earth was taken.