Chapter Four

Byzantium – Imperial HQ
Fleet Admiral Howard Quincy Butner’s office

I

“Eighteen months!” the Fleet Admiral exclaimed.  “This all happened eighteen months ago, and I’m just now being notified!  My God man, we’ve been at war with an alien race for over a year and I’m just now finding out about it!”

“Admiral, they were out beyond the farthest fringes of the Empire,” his chief of staff explained.  They beat it back as fast as they could, Sir.  As soon as they hit a settled system they sent message packets through.  I would imagine in their time frame less than a week has passed.  It’s that damned time-dilation when they make long-distance jumps.”

“We need to get a powerful flotilla out there.  Who is closest?”

“Well, that depends… Admiral,” the chief of staff made some adjustments to his handheld Omni and one entire wall of the fleet admiral’s office disappeared revealing a three-dimensional star map of the nearer portion of the galaxy.

starmap

“The Empire stretches between the Vela Molecular Ridge and Cygnus X…”

“We look like a fly on an elephant’s ass from this perspective,” the fleet admiral interjected.  “I’m used to looking at the maps of the Empire itself.  It’s easy to forget just how insignificant we are.”

“Well Sir, there are over ten-thousand star systems within the bounds of the Empire.  It’s a bit larger than a fly.”

“And we’ve settled less than a quarter of one percent of those systems.  Is it any wonder we haven’t run into any other races yet?”

“Sir getting back…”

“Yes, yes go ahead…”

“The scout ship was out here about halfway between where the Orion Spur intersects the Perseus Arm.  We have a half dozen flotillas and fleets in closer proximity, but the Caligula group is operating down here near Cygnus X.”

“They are the furthest away!”

“In proximity, yes, but the system where they are currently engaging the barbarians is home to a blue hypergiant star.  Two systems from where the aliens were encountered is another.  They can make it there in one jump.”

“How long will it take?  With those distances it could be a couple hundred years, we will all be dead and gone.”

“No, remember Admiral, there is some phenomenon involved in hyper to hyper jumps, we don’t know how or why, but the dilation factor doesn’t seem to apply, perhaps because of the size of their gravitational fields.”

“Now that you mention it, I do remember a class from the Academy, but we don’t seem to do many of those.”

“No Sir, first there are not many hyper blues out there, second, their gravity fields are so intense it makes approaching and departing from one of their lenses arduous and dangerous.”

“How dangerous?”

“fifty-fifty Sir,”

“You mean you’re proposing sending an entire flotilla out on an even chance they won’t return?”

“Your entire staff is proposing we take the one shot we have in dealing with this threat in our lifetimes,” the chief of staff replied, shifting the responsibility to the staff officers.

“When will we know what the flotilla finds out?”

“It will take a week to ten days to make contact with Caligula and give the commodore his orders.  Let’s say the flotilla engages and is victorious or is able to make contact and get the war called off, I don’t know; let’s say six months, okay?”

“Okay, six months…” the fleet admiral agreed.

“Two years Sir, two years is the earliest possible estimate for word back.”

“I hate this!” the admiral grunted.  “Okay, make it happen – but; I want an entire fleet, with at least three battlewagons, formed up and started in that direction jumping system to system in short transitions to mitigate the dilation factor,” the admiral ordered.  “When they get underway how long will it be until they can be in the system where the aliens were encountered?”

“It’s a rough estimate; the staff looked at that scenario as well…”

“Come on man!  How long?”

“Two years Sir,” the chief of staff mumbled reluctantly.  “But if the aliens are moving in our direction they may run into them on the way.”

“There is that,” the fleet admiral admitted.  “Okay, make it happen, I have to go meet with the Emperor.”

“Will you be able to get him off of the golf course long enough to talk to him?”

“Be careful Charles, you’re flirting with sedition,” the fleet admiral told his chief of staff, but his half smile took the sting out of the words.

“I’m just saying, Sir.  We are stretched so thin we are in danger of breaking, the Islamists are gaining strength every day and we haven’t had a new ship added to the fleet in over a year,” the rear admiral stated rhetorically.  The fleet admiral was well aware of the situation.  “Senator Reynolds has been waiting to see you for over an hour.  Do you want us to cancel his appointment?”

“No, send him in,” the admiral smiled.  “He is at least one sane man in this Alice through the looking glass universe we inhabit.  His Eminence won’t mind, he can hardly stand to be in my presence as it is.”  Reginald Dewitt Reynolds was the president pro tem of the Senate, third cousin to the sitting Emperor and the second most powerful man in the Empire.  Senator Reynolds represented Tarantos in the unicameral legislature and had grown up with the current admiral of the fleet.  They were close, lifelong friends.

The rear admiral opened one of the massive double wooden doors to the fleet admiral’s office and held it open as the senator walked in.  He was seventy-four years old, a bit overweight, bald and florid.  The senator was fond of the grape and it showed.  He was wearing a toga; evidently, he had come directly from the Forum.

“Reggie, you look like shit!  Have you not been keeping up your rejuvenation therapies?” the admiral stated with actual concern.

“Who the hell has time for that foolishness?  Have you got anything to drink in this museum?”  The fleet admiral’s office was decorated in the manner of an ancient British Lord of the Admiralty décor with wooden desks, furniture, cabinets, bookshelves, and accouterments.  The shelves and walls were decorated with sailing ship models and paintings of sailing ships of the line.

The senator didn’t wait for an answer.  He went directly to the cabinetized bar in the middle of a wall of bookshelves stuffed with actual hard-backed books, not one of which was newer than five hundred years of age.

He was quite obviously familiar with the bar.  He opened it up and poured himself three fingers of amber liquid in a glass so large he couldn’t get his fingers around it.  He took a healthy slug before he turned back around to walk to one of the overstuffed leather chairs in front of the admiral’s desk.  He collapsed into the one on the right with a sigh.

“Did my staff brief you on this alien thing?” the admiral asked.

“What a balls up mess!  Here we are, very probably at war with an alien race for over a year and we just find out about it.  I tell you Q this Empire is just too damn big and too spread out to manage.  It’s falling apart at the seams, and now this!”  He took another healthy swallow of his drink and then studied the glass.  “This is excellent, what is it again?”

“It’s the same thing as last week, Reggie.  It’s bourbon from Sparta,” the admiral told the senator patiently.  “Did you have something to talk about or did you just drop by to drink my whiskey?”

“As much as I enjoy your booze and your company, yes I have a bit of news,” the senator laughed, obviously comfortable in the admiral’s presence.  “We got the construction budget approved.”

“Just as we submitted it?!!” the admiral exclaimed.  “…No way.”

“Yes way, every damn dime,” the senator announced proudly.  “Three new battleships, six cruisers, twelve corvettes, and twenty-two auxiliaries; we are going back to a twelve hundred ship Navy, by God!”

“Where did you get the money?” the admiral asked in amazement.

“We canceled the Emperor’s Coliseum project, for one.”

“He will be furious!”

“He will just have to stew; with the last election, we finally have a majority in the Senate that has the interests of the Empire at heart.  The pressure on the rim worlds by the barbarians has finally started to wake the citizens up.”

“Reggie, I hope it’s not too late.  It will be five years before any of the new construction can come online.”

“Don’t you have something in the pipe?”

“Yes, thanks to you, we have a couple of new cruisers and three destroyers in the ways ready to launch in the next ninety days.  Next year we get the first new battleship in a generation.  We are clawing our way back,” the admiral admitted.  “I need to go brief his highness on this alien mess, does he know about the Coliseum?”

“No, we just had the vote.  I don’t imagine he will find out about it until it hits the media.  We sure as hell aren’t going to tell him.”

“This is no way to run a railroad,” the admiral observed rhetorically.  The legislative and executive branches of the government were at each other’s throats.

“I told the council when they let that pretender sit down on the throne, we would rue the day, but oh no, they were bound and determined to show just how enlightened and progressive they were.  It didn’t matter that he had no qualifications for the office, that he had been raised by an uncle with Islamic sympathies, and drugged himself silly when he was younger.  They were bound and determined to put a ‘true Roman’ on the throne.”

“His branch of the royal family was due.  It was their turn.”

“Oh yes, we must have our precious protocols.  I just hope we haven’t protocoled ourselves into ruin!”

“You know Reggie, someday you’re going to be heard talking like that somewhere other than the security of this office and he will have your head.”

“Perhaps, perhaps…” the senator agreed and finished off the last of his bourbon.  He looked at the empty glass with sadness.  He sat there in silence for a long moment then he pulled himself out of the chair and sat the empty glass on the admiral’s desk.  “Who would he send to arrest me?  The Navy wouldn’t do it.  If he sent some of his guard they would have to deal with my marine security detail.  Having my head might not be so easy.”

“Yes Reggie, we’ve got your back, but be careful.  The Emperor has a lot of options that are under the table, so to speak.  Just cool it a bit with the rhetoric, okay?”

The senator didn’t reply but shuffled to the door.  When he reached it, he stopped and studied the handle as if he had forgotten how to open it.  He stood there for a moment and turned.

“I love you, Howie.  If we are going to survive, it’s going to be up to you.”  With this, he opened the door and disappeared leaving the admiral somewhat stunned behind his desk.

 

II

Cygnus X cluster Omicron System
HMS Caligula
Commander Eric Leroy Butner commanding

“Are we going to wait for Captain Sinclair?  He should be here in two or three days, Sir.  We need the Hadrian if we are going in harm’s way.  From the report, we don’t know how many alien ships there might be and that single ship seemed to be quite a significant threat.”

“Well, a single scout ship dealt with it.”

“Sir, with all due respect, I think they got very lucky.”  The entire detailed after-action report had come through the message channels.  It was clear there had been more than a little luck involved.

“I agree, Eric.  They were very lucky, had surprise going for them and the aliens had no idea what they were dealing with.  They will have almost two years notice when we show up.  It’s hard to tell what we will be faced with.  It doesn’t matter.  Our orders say ‘now.’”

“What about the ragheads?  We’ve got ‘em on the run now; if we pull out they will be able to regroup and we will have to deal with them later.”

“What part of now do you not understand Commander?”

“Aye aye, Sir — now,” the acting captain of the Caligula relented.  “What are my orders?”

“We are going over there,” the commodore pointed at the lower quadrant of the forward viewer.  There was a baseball sized blue star shining brighter than anything else on the screen.

“Omicron Prime!  We are going to the blue giant?!!” the commander stammered with more than a little fright in his voice.

“We are going to attempt a hyper/hyper transition,” the commodore explained.  He didn’t seem too enthusiastic himself.  “The operative word there, I believe, is attempt.”

“I understand the theory, Commodore, but has anyone actually done it?”

“A couple of survey ships have made those jumps successfully,” that is how we discovered the dilation mitigation.”

“But Sir, survey ships!” He didn’t have to elaborate, survey ships were overpowered in the extreme.  Scout class vessels used for surveying were smaller than a corvette but had cruiser engines.  Survey ships could do things other ships wouldn’t dream of.

“I need the navigator and the chief engineer with you and your exec to meet me in the captain’s cabin in ten minutes,” the commodore ordered ignoring the acting captain’s concerns.  When the flotilla’s commander had moved his flag to the cruiser, he had taken over Walter Sinclair’s quarters.

“Gentlemen, how long before we can get underway?” the commodore asked his staff when they had assembled in the captain’s cabin.

“We have to pull the marines off the planet, Sir.  They are spread out in three cities as well as a couple of contingents in the hills chasing ragheads.  By the time we get them assembled, their gear picked up and reloaded – about twelve hours, best case,” Commander Butner told the commodore.

“Okay, I want you to pull together a team to man the passenger ship we took from the Jihadis.  We are taking her with us,” the commodore ordered.  When he looked up, all of the officers around the table were clearly not in agreement.  Nobody said anything but their body language and expressions were clearly in opposition.

“Look, Gentlemen, we need the power of that ship’s transition motors to keep the lens open so we can slip through.  It will be a very closely run thing operating in the gravity well of that giant as it is.  We will need all the power we can muster.”

“That will work,” the navigator agreed, smiling and nodding his head.  “I was skeptical, but using the passenger liner as a sacrificial lamb, we could make it work.”

“Very good Commander; that was my idea.  We will pull the crew off just before transition and leave the passenger liner in the lens to hold it open.”

“If we do that, how will we get back?” the engineer asked, still skeptical.

“We don’t get back, Lieutenant.  This is a one-way mission.”

“You mean it is suicide…”

“No, it’s just that by the time we get back, more than likely over a hundred years will have passed in the Empire.  We will only experience a couple of years passing in our lives, but the Empire as we know it will be long dead by the time we return.”

“It’s going to be tough on our families,” the engineer murmured.

“If the aliens get into the Empire it could be considerably tougher.” the commodore observed.  “Okay gentlemen, we have our orders.  Let’s make it happen.”

The others filed out, but Commander Butner held back for a moment.

“Commander, is there something on your mind?” the commodore asked curtly, evidently thinking the time for small talk was passed.

“How do you think the Jihadis got their hands on those passenger liners?”

“They are well funded; I imagine they bought them out of bankruptcy when the passenger lines went belly up.”

“How could that idiotic ideology get reborn?  I thought it was stamped out in the twenty-first century.”

“History taught in the Imperial school system is somewhat vague on the events leading up to and during colonization.  I think there is quite a bit of angst experienced by our elites over our founding.  The six colonies that were founded directly from earth were populated by the best and brightest, and more importantly the rich and connected.  They were escaping the seething hell that earth had become.”

“So Islam wasn’t eradicated.”

“No, it was tamped down and driven underground but the core theology survived and metastasized.  In the end, the folks who could afford it just pulled up left the mess behind.”

“So these barbarians are coming out directly from earth?”

“For the most part, but they are financed by some of our own elites who are doing it so they can feel good about themselves.  It’s patent insanity, but it is what it is.”

“What it is… is treason.”

“Commander, we have another mission.  Unfortunately, these particular followers of Mohammad will get a break and a few of them will survive.  However, we will leave the Christians armed and equipped to deal with the remnants.  It’s all we can do.  You’re dismissed, Commander.”

The acting captain turned and walked out of the cabin shaking his head at the insane policies of the Imperial ruling families.

III

Omicron Prime
Omicron Prime

“I can’t quite grasp the enormity of that thing!” acting captain Butner exclaimed.  He and the commodore were standing in an observation blister on the captive passenger liner where they could look out at the blue giant star live and in person.

“We are forty AU out from its surface and it looks like the sun would from Mercury,” the commodore observed in awe.  “You realize the outer corona of that star would reach the orbit of Jupiter if the earth’s sun were in its center?”

“I’m glad that rock is out there to hide behind,” Commander Butner said, ignoring the question.  The flotilla was in a geosynchronous orbit over a gas giant planet twice the size of Jupiter.  It was the only planet in the Omicron Prime system and it looked like a pebble compared to its giant host.  Their orbit kept the planet between them and the immense gravity field of the dying blue star.  From their perspective, the planet in the foreground was a basketball-sized black hole against a background of blue, horizon to horizon.

The observation blister the officers were standing in was the size of a medium sized living room.  It had couches along three walls facing the transparent wall of emerald-crystal that gave the illusion of being open to space.  It would seat eight people in comfort.

The back wall had a door between two sofas that opened into a hallway.  There were twelve identical doors running down the hallway leading to the command bridge of the vessel.

“Twenty four of those rooms, each with a slab of crystal worth a king’s ransom.  I just cannot imagine what it must have cost to build one of these monstrosities,” the commander mused as the pair walked toward the bridge.

“Traveling on one of these must have been an experience.  I understand they had twenty bars, thirty different restaurants, a casino, gyms and spas, a shopping center and a dozen swimming pools.  They could carry six thousand paying passengers and had a crew of five thousand taking care of their guests,” the commodore remembered.

“Why do you think they finally crashed?”

“I think it was the time dilation, relativity factor.  Folks would go on a cruise, be gone for six months or a year and fifty years would have passed on their home planet.  If they just wanted to go visit a single planet in a neighboring system it could take ten years of real time.”

“I could see where that could be an inhibiting factor.”

“Still they ran between the planets of the Empire for two hundred years.  They had a good run.”

“I understand the last thirty years or so they were heavily subsidized by the Imperial government.”

“Yes, the Imperial family felt it was important to keep the Empire as a unit and that the citizens be able to travel between the different planets.  Finally, it just got so expensive, and few people were using the service, they just couldn’t afford it any longer.”

“I think they were right, the isolation of the different worlds is what is causing this wave of rebellion.”

“It’s a contributing factor, no doubt,” the Commodore agreed.  “But there is a lot of opportunism involved as well.  There are a number of folks out there scrabbling and grabbing for power.  Human nature hasn’t changed, unfortunately.”

A sliding door sighed open at the end of the hall and the two men walked onto the bridge.  Little had changed since the liners plied their way between the stars.

“At least they didn’t trash the bridge,” the Commodore observed.  Much of the rest of the once beautiful ship’s interior had been demolished by the thousands of jihadis she had carried.  “What is it about these people that they destroy anything they touch?” he asked rhetorically.  No one had an answer.

The forward section of the bridge was built in an arc with crystal windows over a bank of consoles.  In the center was even a wooden wheel like an old sailing ship would have had.  It was obviously ornamental, but it added a nice touch.

Omicron Prime dominated the entire vista.

Three officers were huddled around one console.  They looked up when the Commodore and Commander Butner walked in.  The senior of the three, a lieutenant commander, stepped in their direction.

“Commodore, we’ve loaded a copy of the combat computer’s AI from the battle cruiser.  She has taken control.”

“Camie, this is Commodore Carlisle, how are you doing?”

“I have control of this vessel Commodore, but I feel vulnerable.  I don’t have any weapons.  Can’t you at least install some rail guns?”  Nathan decided some gamer had written her basic code.

“If we make it through the next transition, I’ll make it a priority.  Will you be able to take the ship through the lens unaided?”

“Of course, Commodore, I have all the vectors loaded.  I’m ready at your order.”

“That is good; I want you to link with Camie on the battlecruiser and follow her lead.”

“We are linked and ready to go.”

“Okay, gentlemen that is it, let’s get back aboard Caligula and make history.”

 

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