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"Exiting subspace."

Maris Fenway nodded and leaned forward in her chair. The IVS Ganymede blinked into realspace with the usual twisting sensation in the gut, but Fenway barely noticed it after nine years of acclimation. "Contact Voltiania Skywatch, request permission to enter Volitanian Orbit."

"Yes, Captain," came the voice of Lieutenant Albert Gremen, Ganymede's navigator.

While the crew made the usual pre-orbit preparations, Maris glanced at the other captain on board. Tayn Connor hovered around the periphery of the bridge, not intruding or disrupting the operations of the bridge crew. Since he wasn't in the navy, he had no official authority on the Ganymede. On the other hand, he and Maris were both in charge of this operation. In fact, since it was all technically under Intelligence's jurisdiction, Tayn could easily be considered the de facto commander. Additionally, while he wasn't in the Navy, he still held the rank of captain. To avoid the confusion of having two captains on a starship (a devastating ambiguity), Tayn received a courtesy promotion to commodore while on the Ganymede.

Fortunately, Tayn didn't seem to have a primal urge to stick his fingers into every action taken under his purview, so he kept to himself. He would have plenty of work later, after all.

"Skywatch linking flightplan for Volitanian Orbit." Due to the high traffic density around Volitania, all orbits had to follow Skywatch-approved flightplans, given to the ships upon their orbit request.

Maris nodded. "Move into position."

"Aye, sir."

As the IVS Ganymede glided across the giant distances involved in space travel, Fenway reflected on Holman's briefing. They would have to make two more stops in Volitanian space before they had the necessary components for their mission, then they'd head straight for Earth Empire territory. That would be the dangerous part, as the Volitanians had only loose information about where Earth Empire territory was, exactly. They knew it included Earth and that its influenced stretched all the way to Masvara, but exactly what planets they occupied was unknown. Finding out some of that information was part of their mission.

It turned out that her reflections took up more time than she would have thought possible, because looking up she saw Volitania looming large in the forward view. "Time to flightplan?"

"One and a half hours."

That one and a half hours passed uneventfully though apprehensively, because once the Ganymede achieved orbit, the shuttle they were here for would launch from the surface, containing whatever cargo it was they would need for their mission. The fact that they hadn't been told what that cargo was still worried Maris, but not as much as it had when Holman had told her about it.

Passed, however, the time did, and the Ganymede found itself sliding into the Skywatch flightplan with the precision of long practice.

"Surface launch. Shuttle Brodin's Rim requesting permission to dock."

"Permission granted."

Another waiting game as the shuttle made its tortuously slow journey up from the surface, following its own Skywatch-approved flightplan to reach the Ganymede. Fenway marveled once more at the complicated job Skywatch personnel, overseeing a bank of traffic control AIs, had to manage.

"Captain Fenway," came a voice when the shuttle reached the halfway mark.

Maris, startled, realized it was Tayn speaking for the first time since coming aboard. "Yes, Commodore?"

Tayn appeared slightly surprised at the sound of the rank, although this appearance was based solely on the fact that he took a split second longer to respond than usual. "Could I have a word with you?"

Maris stood and gestured towards her private meeting room, adjacent to the bridge. Tayn nodded and entered first, Maris closing the door behind them.

As soon as the door was closed, Tayn reached into his pocket and pulled out a portable holoprojector. "I received a message ten minutes ago, one part text, one part holographic. The text was for my eyes only; however, I am allowed to tell you what the shuttle coming towards us contains."

Maris raised an eyebrow. "What is it?"

"A person."

"Alive?"

"Very. It's an Intelligence agent."

Maris' eyebrow seemed to raise even higher. "That they couldn't send with us when we left Hullis IV?"

Tayn shrugged. "Apparently not. I gather he just underwent some sort of operation here on Volitania, so they couldn't have sent him to Hullis IV ahead of us. They wouldn't tell me what sort of operation, however. It seems they want to us surprise us with that. Anyway, the hologram is going to tell us our next destination."

"Going to?"

"Our guest holds the code to decrypt the part containing our next destination."

Maris rolled her eyes. "How typically paranoid."

"Considering the gravity of our mission, I find it fairly justified."

"Of course," she nodded. "It seems we shall await our new friend with reinforced enthusiasm."

Tayn nodded as well. "In the mean time, the first part of the message we are supposed to watch now."

He pushed a button, and a three-dimensional image leapt into being above the projector. Maris gasped. So did Tayn. Obviously, he hadn't been told what was in the recording.

Hovering above the table, the face of Emperor Chottawi, Imperial Majesty of the Volitanian Empire, stared back at them.


* * *


Maurin yawned and rolled his head back onto his chair's headrest, closing his eyes. "I am so tired right now."

The cadet sitting next to him snorted. "You've been up for two days straight. You've nobody to blame but yourself."

One eye opened to glare at the sarcastic cadet. "Shut up, Jason. You're supposed to join me in complaining."

Jason Ralwood, who had grown up with Maurin and entered the Imperial Naval Academy with him, shrugged. "It's not my fault 'moderation' isn't in your vocabulary."

Maurin scowled, but closed his eye again. It was much to his annoyance that Jason was in his Advanced Strategy and Tactics class. Not because they weren't friends (they were), he simply didn't like that Jason was a better strategist than he was. "Fair point."

"In fact, I believe I told you yesterday that you should sleep instead of celebrating. It was a very premature celebration, seeing as the year isn't even half over; and you've four more after, before you're an officer."

"What, so the only celebration we can have is for graduation?"

Jason rolled his eyes. "When the celebration is about graduating, yes."

Mauring shrugged. "So the pamphlet was misleading. Not my fault, I didn't write it."

"Whatever, class is starting."

Maurin jerked upright at that, looking around frantically. Then he lightly punched Jason's shoulder. "Jerk. We just left class."

Jason struck a pose, one foot on the floor, the other on the lounge table, with a hand on his hip and his chest thrust out, the spitting image of a stereotypical comic book hero, with his other arm gesturing as he spoke. "We're always in the classroom of life, my friend."

Maurin snorted. "You look like an idiot. Get off the table, and let's go get some food."

While on the way to the lavish kitchen (often called, with total seriousness, the best reason to enroll at the academy) adjacent to the lounge, Maurin stopped to stare out one of the large windows that lined the perimeter of the Academy. Jason kept walking for several meters before he noticed his friend wasn't moving.

"Maurin, food!"

Maurin didn't take his eyes off of the view. "Yeah, in a minute."

It wasn't that he hadn't seen the rolling hills of Hullis IV before. He'd grown up here, after all, in the city of Jasilori, not more than twenty kilometers from this very facility. It was simply that it always stunned him to see the hills in exactly that light, the morning frost not yet melted as the sun rose above the academy to illuminate it. Jason backtracked a few steps to stand next to Maurin and followed his gaze out the window.

They stood like that for a full minute before Maurin shook himself back into the present. "Come on," he said, tapping Jason on the shoulder to get his attention. "Food, remember?"

"This little pit stop was your idea," Jason said ruefully, but followed Maurin toward the kitchen.

The Academy Kitchen's Chef was tall, imposing figure, and almost literally nameless, as the only people in the Academy who really knew her name were the people who had hired her. She peered down at them as they entered the "customer" area (which was something of a misnomer, as nobody who ate there had to pay for the food unless they were from outside the Academy and were not a VIP, which was pretty much nobody). "I suppose you'll be wanting that awful concoction again?"

Maurin rolled his eyes. "It's just coffee."

"Pah!" she spat. "Just coffee? That's vile stuff, that is. Nonetheless, I shall attempt to find someone to brew some up for you."

"How very kind of you," he murmured.

"Actually," said Jason, "I haven't been awake for two days straight. I'm in no need of a dose of solid caffeine. Do you have any... hot chocolate?"

A grin spread across the Chef's face. "Boy, we've got enough chocolate, hot or cold, to make you puke."

"I don't think I'll need quite that much," he replied with a smile, though his eyes were wide with terror.

Maurin sniffed as the Chef retreated into the steam-shrouded cooking area. "Hot chocolate?"

Jason frowned. "What's wrong with hot chocolate?"

"It fails to reinforce my caffeine levels, that's what."


* * *


Tayn found that he hadn't moved for several seconds, even though the message was over.

Receiving a personal communique from the Emperor was not exactly an everyday occurrence. In fact, it would be more accurate to say that it was not an every-decade occurrence. It was a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence, if even that. Looking back on it, he was distressed to find he couldn't even remember the exact words that had been said to him. All that was really left was the impression of a commanding presence and the instructions he had given.

No, wait, he remembered one thing that had been said with perfect clarity. "Remember that your mission is vital to the continued survival of the Empire."

In his peripheral vision, he saw Maris shake herself back into action, which startled him into stepping forward and turning off the projector.

"So," he said, breaking the silence.

"So," came the reply.

"Not exactly an easy task." He felt that was a gigantic understatement, but it was certainly true.

She nodded in agreement, then stood in thought. After a pause, she spoke again. "The shuttle should almost be here."

Tayn had almost forgotten about the shuttle. "You're right," he said, gesturing toward the door. "Shall we?"

Lieutenant Gremen spoke before Tayn was all the way through the door. "Shuttle on final docking approach."

Maris nodded in acknowledgement, heading toward the lift. "Estimated time to contact?"

"Fourteen minutes at present velocities."

"We'll meet them in Docking Bay One."

"Yes, Captain."

Maris and Tayn stepped into the lift and rode it down (and across) several decks until they arrived at Docking Bay One. Since the Ganymede was designed as a command and control ship, it had no less than twelve separate docking bays. It also possessed an armament greater than most battleships and massed as much as a superdreadnought. Despite its large size and powerful communications equipment, however, it could also virtually disappear in the vast distances of space, due to its powerful ECM systems. It had been for all of these reasons that the Ganymede had been chosen by Special Operations Command to head this mission. The Ganymede was not an SOC starship, however, which was why Maris was in command and not Tayn. Tayn was fine with that, however, as he was more suited to information warfare than direct combat.

As they entered the docking bay, the massive armored doors were sliding open to admit the small, aerodynamic form of the interplanetary shuttle. As it passed through the atmospheric containment field, a weaker form of the powerful shield generators that protected the Ganymede from most forms of directed-energy weapons (and a variety of particle-based ones as well), the field shimmered and allowed the mass of the shuttle to pass unhindered. The shuttle set down and the armored doors slid shut once more as the side hatch hissed open.

A man wearing the official uniform of a Volitanian Central Intelligence Special Agent stepped out. He strode up to the two captains (well, one captain and one pseudo-commodore) and saluted. "Agent Doran Llek, requesting permission to come aboard."

Tayn was the Intelligence operative, but Maris was in charge of the ship, so she returned Doran's salute. "Captain Maris Fenway. Permission granted, welcome aboard."

Doran turned to Tayn and saluted again. Tayn managed not to smirk at the adherence to protocol and returned it. "Commodore Tayn Connor, Special Operations Command."

"A pleasure to meet you, sir." He turned back to Maris. "I believe I have something for you."

"A code of some sort," she replied. "Or so I gather."

"Then let us go somewhere private. I believe a certain healthy dose of paranoia is in order."

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