An excerpt from the upcoming science-fiction novel, The Stardancers, the final novel in the Hominin Union saga, to be released in January 2018.
Part I: The Battle of Borrega
No battle plan survives contact with the enemy.
Helmuth von Moltke
Prime Minister Jane Ackerman paused, found a good foothold on the rock face, and looked around. The treeless and rocky slope extended several hundred meters down to the grass-covered floor of the valley. Beyond, the dark gray mountains rose to white peaks, a strong wind driving the snow off the heights.
“How much farther?” asked her assistant, Natalie Harker. She stood a few meters below; the woman’s plump face looked florid, and she breathed heavily.
“About fifty meters,” Ackerman replied and purposefully smiled. “Don’t worry, you’ll get used to it.” Her pocket computer beeped; she retrieved it from a pocket and swiped the screen.
Fifth Fleet Command has just assigned Commander Joshua McFinn to the supply station orbiting Turrentine. TS.
My son. Memories flooded into her mind: the feel of Joshua’s tiny body as his father placed him into her arms after his birth; his first steps; Joshua standing with his teammates after winning the boys’ tournament; his bright smiling face as he walked off the stage at his graduation from secondary school. How long has it been since I have seen him? Seventeen years? She knew he ran away from her as well as his father; they had both pushed him hard. Too hard.
She pocketed the device and continued to climb, her gut a cauldron of emotions. She had loved Joshua’s father, Robert: his intelligence; his discipline; his wry humor; his physical stature; his daring. But it was his ambition that consumed him, his willingness to flaunt the rules, and, what was finally revealed to her, his casual disdain for those who stood in his way. More than disdain: contempt and a complete lack of regard for the lives of others.
She topped the ridge and stood, her hair flying in the wind. She looked at the snow streaming off the mountains into the clear blue sky, but her thoughts and emotions almost blinded her. She had read the report for the Anuvi Incident, even though it had been classified by the General Intelligence Directorate. Her heart had ached at what her son must have experienced out in the vastness of space. But her pride had surged at his willingness to sacrifice himself for the sake of others.
“Whew!” Natalie exclaimed as she stopped the ridge. “That’s quite a climb!”
“Not bad,” Ackerman said. “I do this quite often. Are you up for it?”
“I think so.”
Ackerman looked at her new assistant. The woman was intelligent, but inexperienced, and needed to lose some kilograms.
She was also a traitor.
“Tell me, Ms. Harker. When did the Union Security Service buy you?”
Natalie’s eyes grew wide and her jaw dropped. “I don’t know what you mean, Prime Minister.”
“I think they approached you while you were still a student at NQU. You were a party girl, weren’t you? Found yourself in some embarrassing positions, perhaps? You knew your father wouldn’t approve, since he is the High Marshal for the New Queensland Defense Forces.”
The young woman’s face turned crimson red. “I … I …,” she stammered, and then looked away.
“That was over ten years ago, Ms. Harker. How did they string you along? Money payments? Promise of a position in the Imperial Court?”
The young woman sat down on the rocks and started to cry.
“Tell me about it.”
“It’s just as you say,” the young woman sobbed. “They pushed me to apply for a job in the Prime Minister’s Office. I …” She put her face in her hands and sobbed.
“I planted software … programs …”
“Using your security clearance, you tapped my communications.”
“You betrayed my trust in you.”
The young woman sobbed, the tears streaming down her face.
Ackerman sat down beside the young woman. “I cannot lie to you; you have done irreparable harm to me, and the world of New Queensland. Even though they rule, the Imperials are our enemies.”
“Please forgive me!”
Jane Ackerman had been climbing these highlands on New Queensland for over fifteen years. She was fit and strong, with a grip of iron. She moved to hug the girl, then placed her hands around the plump neck and squeezed. The young woman’s eyes grew wide and she choked. Keeping her hands around the young woman’s neck, Ackerman rolled the young woman to the ground as she struggled. Ackerman placed a knee on the young woman’s chest and squeezed even harder.
Natalie Harker struggled for a few moments, then lay still.
Robert McFinn kills for ambition; I kill for survival.
Ackerman sat on the rocks and pulled out her pockcomp. “It’s done.”
“Yes, ma’am,” her assistant, her true assistant, Thomas Silva, answered. “I’m on my way.”
She only had to wait a few minutes, and a shuttlecraft topped the nearby mountains, circled, and landed on the narrow ridge. Three figures emerged from the craft. The lead figure was tall, broad-shouldered, with thinning dark hair and a round face. Thomas Silva had been her bodyguard for almost ten years, ever since she had entered the New Queensland Parliament. A former member of X Division of the New Queensland Defense Forces, the man was trained in network security and interrogation as well as the military arts.
“You should have let me do that,” Silva said.
“No. This was my duty.”
Silva and Ackerman watched as the other two men picked up the young woman’s corpse and carried it toward the shuttle.
“What about her father?”
“I’ll tell him I did it, and why. He won’t do a thing. We have the proof.”
“You’re a brave woman.”
“We have bigger problems than High Marshal Frederick Harker.” She walked toward the shuttle and Silva followed. “Thank you for the text.”
“You’re welcome. What’s next?”
“Are the others on their way?”
“Her Majesty’s strength is growing. We have plans to make.”
Ackerman looked out of the small porthole of the courier. The wreck loomed large in the darkness of space. Unlike the flat rectangular or arrowhead-shaped slabs of modern starships, this was a hulking pillar, the ancient fusion engines long cold, the hull picked over for salvage hundreds of times. It had been floating in the outer reaches of the system for three hundred years. The dim starlight just illuminated the forward hull, the letters of the ship’s name pitted and scored: USS Liberty.
She had thoroughly studied the history of her adopted home. The Liberty led the fleet to liberate New Queensland from the Snirr occupation that had lasted for fifteen years. Admiral von Kármán himself stood on the bridge of the vessel, but had to abandon it when it was damaged in battle. The ensuing invasion of the planet cost over two hundred thousand lives, and nearly twice that in casualties.
Brave men and women. She only hoped she could live up to their legacy. She saw other small craft floating near the hull, just forward of the massive fusion engines.
“Looks like almost everyone is here,” Silva said, glancing at his pockcomp.
The key player.
They donned EVA suits and exited the small ship. Used to zero-g, Ackerman jetted toward the vessel and the flashing light noting the entry portal. She grasped the handle above the hatch and swung unto the hull. Portable lights lashed to the interior of the vessel showed the way.
She flew down a long corridor, used the suit jets to slow her progress, and pulled herself through an open hatch into an airlock. She immediately felt the gravity, and turned to see Silva enter. He pressurized the lock and she removed her helmet.
“Thank you for getting everything arranged,” she said.
Silva pulled off his helmet. “Just in time, too. The gravity generators were only installed twenty-four hours ago.”
They removed their suits and hung them beside seven others. Silva opened the inner airlock and Jane Ackerman, Prime Minister of the Senate World of New Queensland, stepped through into a large space. Several of the decks of the ship were missing, the space a ragged sphere in the middle of the ship. The edges of each deck were sharp and torn, and she saw patches on several large breaches in the hull. The others were here; they turned and looked when she entered.
“It’s about time you got here,” said General Belenko, the commanding officer of the ground forces of the Senate World of Endymion
“It’s very nice to see you, too, General.”
“Congratulations on your election to Prime Minister,” President Yamada of the Senate World of Yuli said.
“You are too kind, Mr. President.”
“Good grief,” said Imperial Naval Admiral Nigan Vaerak. A Druan Hominin from the world of Tula, he had the towering stature, bulging muscles, and extensive tattoos of that race. “Can we just get on with it? I’m taking a huge risk by being here.”
“Well-mannered, as usual, Admiral.”
“We’re all taking a risk,” said Imperial Exploration Vice-Admiral Darren Johnson. “Prime Minister, for you to be so late is disrespectful to us all.”
Ackerman looked at the assembled conspirators. “Do not lecture me about tardiness. If you cowards had followed through on your actions when we formed this little cabal, our backs wouldn’t be against the wall.”
“That’s hardly fair,” said Prime Minister Ban of Ixion. “We have all suffered. Since Her Majesty ascended the Throne seven years ago, the Union Security Service has done its best to expose us. If we had acted like you wanted, we’d all be dead.”
“You’re just afraid to get your hands dirty, Mr. Ban.” Ackerman suddenly saw Natalie Harker’s plump, choking face in her mind’s eye, and the guilt almost over-powered her. “We need to take risks. All of us. We need to do things …” Ackerman paused, her eyes filling with tears. “… things that we will live with to the end of our lives. But the burden is worth it.”
“She’s right,” said Admiral Rebecca Yolande of the New Odessa Navy. “We can no longer afford to make excuses. We wasted the ineffective rule of Nicolas through squabbling and hesitation.”
“We’ve had some victories,” said Senator Olivia Rothery of LaFontaine. “We successfully petitioned Nicolas to lower the Imperial tax on Senate Worlds to …”
“It’s always money with you, isn’t it?” Admiral Vaerak said. “You forget that you idiots in the Senate did not block the Her Majesty’s plan to impose Imperial recruitment quotas on the Senate Worlds. Our own people are being used against us!”
“Shall I list what the Senate has accomplished?” Senator Rothery said. “Not only did we get taxes lowered, but we lessened the influence of the Imperial Propaganda Corps on all Senate Worlds …”
“The Senate is riddled with spies and Imperial sympathizers,” Vaerak snapped.
“We need more allies in the Senate!”
All of them started shouting at each other. Their fears drive this discord. We’ve lost already. Ackerman suddenly heard a blaster shot. All of them turned to see Silva lower and holster his pistol.
“Let’s have a little order,” Silva said. “You people are the last best hope of freedom? God help us all.”
The assembled conspirators looked down or away. Ackerman could almost taste their shame. Good. “Let me summarize the situation for you all, so you’re clear on what’s at stake. Though we have had some successes, the time has come for us to act. Her Majesty needs to secure her power. The Colonization Initiative Act will expand her reach spinward. The resources harvested from these new worlds will make it almost impossible to match the Imperials’ power. Right now the GDP of the Senate Worlds roughly matches the hundreds of worlds conquered by the Imperials outside our sphere of influence, due to our advanced economies and high populations. Remember, almost 70% of the Human population is on Earth or the Core Worlds. This has been our strength for centuries, but the Destillières have long sought to upend this balance. This is the Exploration Service’s purpose, since, by Imperial law, no Senate World can undertake its own colonization efforts outside the Core Worlds, a law brutally enforced by the Imperial Navy.”
“The Prime Minister is correct,” Vice Admiral Darren Johnson said. “The Exploration Service is a tool of tyranny, and I am sick to death of it.”
“It’s hopeless,” Prime Minister Ban said. “The Senate Worlds may have power equal to the Imperials now, but the Destillières have the initiative. Plus, we are so divided! We all hate the Destillières, but we cannot agree on how to move forward.”
“We need to take stock of what we have,” Ackerman said. “Our network in the Exploration Service is invaluable, both as a source of information and the emplacement of key actors. The Senate is constrained by the constant need of its members to be on Earth, but Senator Rothery of LaFontaine, Senator Tolon of Tula, and Senator Lefevre of Earth are on key committees, and their security clearances grant us access to valuable information.” I must remember to thank Rothery for the classified report on The Anuvi Incident. “Admiral Vaerak is in the most dangerous position, given his responsibilities in the Home Fleet, but his information on Imperial fleet movements will be crucial in the future. The handful of Senate World leaders that are sympathetic to our cause will be there to support us with money and military force when we make our move, but they are not willing to precipitate any action.”
“That is our weakest point,” President Ban said. “Most of the Senate Worlds are tied to the Destillières through lucrative contracts. They will loath taking a risk that will affect their economies.”
“Yet another way the Imperials dominate us,” President Yamada said.
“That is true,” Ackerman said, “but their populations by and large have no love for the Destillières, despite the relentless Imperial propaganda. When the time comes, these leaders will recognize that.
“Fonesca is here,” Silva said, looking at his pockcomp.
“Charles Fonesca?” Vice-Admiral Johnson asked. “Who invited him?”
“I did,” Ackerman said.
“I’ve never trusted that man,” Rothery said. “He’s too close to the enemy. In my opinion, he’s going to sell us out at the first opportunity.”
“We need someone inside the Intelligence Directorate,” President Yamada said. “I agree with Prime Minister Ackerman, the benefits outweigh the risks.”
The hatch opened and Fonesca entered. I don’t trust him either. “Mr. Fonesca. I’m glad you could make it.”
Fonesca nodded. “Thank you, Prime Minister. I’ve got some news.”
“Good news, I hope.”
He looked at her; his brow was creased and his mouth was set in a grim line. “There’s something big brewing. I risked my life to get this information and bring it to you.”
“What is it?”
“Her Majesty is planning a Test of Sovereignty.”
“Where?” Admiral Vaerak asked.
“I don’t get it,” said Prime Minister Ban. “What’s the big deal?”
Ackerman nodded at Vaerak, and the admiral spoke. “This is a bold move. The Test of Sovereignty has worked well for Destillières. In the years after United Earth’s dissolution, they annexed us one by one, because we were too busy squabbling with each other to resist. But they were generous, and restored the Senatorial rights and privileges of each world formerly of United Earth. They had to, because they did not have the military strength to face the Senate Worlds as a united force. If they had been too heavy handed, we would have fought them. They were playing the long game, a game they can afford to play because of the short-sightedness of our democracies. They played up the conquest of the former Snirr Empire and the expansion of the Imperial Navy as a means to secure our safety, but their real motive was to gain enough power to offset ours. We are in the endgame of that ploy. If they succeed in the Borrega Test, all of the Senate Worlds are lost, and we will be enslaved by the Imperials. Enslavement is the reason we fought so hard against the Snirr, but the Destillières are far more cunning than the Snirr ever were.”
“Can someone please explain this to me?” Senator Rothery asked.
“We’ve all read the report on the Anuvi Incident,” Fonesca answered. “A major figure of the Naati Command Authority died in the Battle of the Third Moon of Anuvi III. This death caused a rift in the Authority, and the Intelligence Directorate is exploiting that rift. The plan is to ally with one faction, the Tolkists, to defeat the other, the Reactionaries. The negotiations will take place on Borrega. In return, Her Majesty will promise to rebuild Borrega’s infrastructure, but her real plan is to annex it, whether the negotiations succeed or not. Borrega is strategically placed to make a direct strike to Naath, the Naati homeworld.”
“That will mean war with the Naati!” Vice-Admiral Johnson said.
“War with a race on the cusp of civil war.”
“This is to our advantage,” Rothery said. “The Senate Worlds, by law, can field their own defensive fleets and forces. This is what has kept the Imperials at bay, plus the need to defend the Union from alien enemies. A major war with the Naati will leave the Imperials too weak to fight our combined strength.”
“Let me lay it out for you,” Fonesca said. “If Her Majesty succeeds in allying with the Tolkist faction and crushing the Reactionaries, she can make whatever deals she wants. Plus, there is no longer a need to support the defense of the rimward border; those moneys can be freed up for other purposes. It is a risk for Her Majesty, but a calculated risk. If she succeeds, she will tip the balance of power in her favor.”
“What a bunch of bullshit,” General Belenko said. “This is misinformation to provoke us into taking action and revealing ourselves.”
“I don’t think so, General,” Admiral Vaerak said. “If Her Majesty moved directly against the Senate Worlds, we would fight her. If she defeats the Naati, she will increase her power immeasurably.”
“There is one more thing,” Fonesca said. “The principal architect of this strategy is her Minister for Intelligence, Robert McFinn.”
Ackerman felt like she had been slapped. Everyone looked at her, but she didn’t flinch. Oh Robert, what are you doing now? The plan was daring and intelligent, something she should have expected of her husband. I can fight the Destillières, but do I need to fight you, too? “Where are they in their plans?”
“The Directorate is still leaking intelligence to widen the rift in the Naati Command Authority. They expect it will be some time before the negotiations on Borrega take place.”
“We need to start planning now,” Ackerman said.
“For what?” Vice-Admiral Johnson asked.
Everyone looked at her, their eyes wide and mouths open.
“You’re insane,” General Belenko said.
“I love the idea,” Admiral Vaerak said, a grin spreading across his tattooed face.
“This is an opportunity,” Ackerman said. “Despite what plans the Imperial Navy makes for the Borrega Test and war with the Naati, things always go wrong. Shit happens. This war will divert their attention from other threats, no matter what safeguards they have. Senator Rothery is correct.”
“I don’t know about this,” President Ban said. “Our original plan was to gain enough strength to cut a deal with the Imperials. This goes too far.”
“The Destillières are playing for keeps,” Ackerman said. “We need agreement on this, now.” She looked at all of them. “If the Destillières win, it will be over for all of us. There is no cutting deals or making compromises. We’ve been trying that for decades, and we have nothing. We’re still losing.”
“Let’s do it,” Admiral Vaerak said.
“I agree,” Senator Rothery said.
“I do, as well,” Vice-Admiral Johnson said.
“I’m in,” said President Yamada.
“So am I,” Admiral Yolande said.
No one else spoke.
“General Belenko?” Ackerman asked.
He looked at her, his wide face passive. “Your notion of ‘shit happens’ and things going wrong works both ways, Prime Minister. We have to deal with far more uncertainty than the Destillières.”
“Then work with us, General,” Ackerman said. “We need you.”
“All right. I’ll help.”
“Good.” Ackerman glanced at Fonesca, and he nodded. “President Ban?” she asked.
“If everyone else is in agreement, then yes, I’ll do my part. But I have one question for you, Prime Minister.”
“Why didn’t you divorce that bastard McFinn when you had the chance?”
Her anger flared, hot and bright, but Ackerman kept her composure. “For the sake of my son. I loved his father at one time, and I still admire Robert McFinn.”
“He has abilities that will sorely test us. It is tragic he uses his talents for his own ends, rather than for the good of others.”
“You still think you can change him.”
The statement caught Ackerman off guard; she blinked and stepped back. Do I?