Chapter Twelve
Byzantium
Lake Selene

Retired Admiral Howard Quincy Butner stood at the bridge of his forty-six-foot sports fisherman watching the charging graphic on the screen slowly filling the empty rectangle with green.  The graphene capacitors being charged fed her twin electric motors which could power the craft at flank speed for seventy-two hours.  At trolling speed, she was good for a week at sea.

Since his mandatory retirement, the admiral had moved to his family’s house on the lake full time, choosing to remain on Byzantium rather than return home to Tarantos.  There was little there for him any longer.  Most of his friends and family had passed years ago.  His many deployments had put a hundred-year gap between when he had been raised and today.  It was an unfortunate fact of life for Navy officers.

Currently, his life was focused on catching a record blue marlin.  His boat, Lady Lynn, was stocked with provisions for a week and he didn’t plan on returning without five flags flying from her mast, indicating a catch of at least one of the major game fish currently swimming beneath the surface of the Ionian Sea, waiting on the other side of the breakwater.

“You’re not Myrna,” the gravelly voice behind him complained.  He turned and confronted his lifelong friend, retired senator Reginald Reynolds.  The ex-senator was dressed in white casual slacks, short-sleeved matching collared pullover and boat shoes sans socks.  He had a huge bloody Mary in his right hand and looked like he was ready to film a vodka commercial.  He looked twenty years younger than when he had retired.

“Your rejuvenation treatments have done wonders for you, Reggie,” the admiral remarked.  “Of course, you’re going to kill yourself with the booze, so I wonder why you bother.”

“If I’m ever going to get in our captain’s pants, I must look my best,” Reggie quipped with an evil grin.

Myrna Lloyd was the captain who Butner had hired to pilot his boat while he was fishing.  She was a Navy widow in her late thirties who had rediscovered her virginity, at least where the portly senator was concerned.  She politely rebuffed his advances and made it quite clear she was unavailable.

“Well, good luck with that,” Butner grunted, shaking his head in mock disgust.  He loved the old senator like a brother and was more than familiar with man’s many foibles.

“Doesn’t the Navy have any female sailors,” Reggie whined.  The three young men, accompanying them as crew, evidently did not meet the senator’s exacting standards.

“This is a fishing trip,” Butner told him.  “If you wanted to get laid…”

“I know, I know, but it wouldn’t hurt the scenery to have a couple of young ladies along,” Reggie cut him off.  “Speaking of that,” he continued.  “Do you think our captain is still on libido-suppressing drugs?”  The last he added with a tone of surprise as if suddenly discovering the answer to a mystery.

“Senator, my libido is my business,” a lady’s severe voice echoed through the bridge from the top of the aft ladder.  Myrna strolled onto the bridge accompanied by a faint waft of cinnamon.  She was wearing a short-sleeved white shirt/jacket with Navy blue buttons, a captain’s cap, and deck shoes.  The jacket was cut just below her bottom and above a pair of handsome, tanned legs.  Behind the large steel rimmed sunglasses, Butner knew were a pair of emerald green eyes with the clearest whites he had ever seen on a human being.

Butner knew a lot of things about Myrna Lloyd.  They had been friends for a long time.  She had been a confidant of the admiral’s deceased wife and had been married to a young captain of marines who had been killed on the frontier.  Myrna was a very complex and talented lady with myriad talents.  One of which was being a boat handler of exceptional skill.

“Gentlemen, if you don’t mind, the bridge is mine until we are underway,” she said dismissing two of the most powerful men in the galaxy as if they were truculent school boys.

“Sir, there is a Navy captain on the dock who says he needs to talk to you,” one of the young sailors called up the ladder before either of the men could move.  Both men moved off the bridge and disappeared down the ladder.  Myrna turned and scanned the instrument panel, coming up to speed with the current condition of the boat.

Admiral Butner slid the glass door between the stateroom and the cockpit and stepped out into the covered cockpit.  He glanced up at the man standing on the dock and froze halfway through the door.  He stood there frozen for a moment before he stumbled out onto the cockpit deck, shaking his head and mumbling, “No’o… it can’t be.”

Reggie saw the admiral’s hesitation and wondered at his words.  A sudden cold chill ran up his spine and a sense of foreboding came from somewhere deep in his past.  When he heard the admiral’s next words he grabbed the door jamb to keep from collapsing on the deck.

“Captain Walter Sinclair, what the hell, I thought you were dead.”

Reggie shoved himself away from the door and stumbled out into the cockpit.  When he looked up, he beheld the one man in the universe he never, ever, wanted to see again.

“Hello Walter, long time no see,” Myrna’s voice echoed down from the bridge coaming.

“Hi Myrna, …Uh, sorry about Roger.”

“It’s okay, it has been a long time.”  Myrna’s voice had taken on a soft and casual tone.  She apparently had some warm feelings for the captain.

“You two know each other?” the admiral stuttered, clearly at a loss with the entire unfolding situation.

“Roger Lloyd was a lieutenant of Marines when we served aboard the Pompano together.  I was the exec,” Walter explained as he shifted his gaze back to the admiral.  “Sir, I need to talk to you, it is of the utmost importance.”

“I’m retired, how did you find me?” Reggie asked, ignoring Walter’s statement.

“The Admiralty told me you stayed on Byzantium.  This house has been in your family for what, five generations?  It wasn’t difficult.”

“Son, who knows you are here?” the admiral asked softly, glancing up at the sky over Walter’s head as if looking for transporters to coming floating down.

“Only the people standing here on the boat and dock… uh, I am pretty sure.”

“Pretty sure?”

“I don’t know how closely you’re being watched, Admiral,” Walter said glancing up at the sky as if he could see satellites overhead.

“Come on board, please,” the admiral ordered, stepping back from the ladder leading down from the dock.  Walter turned around and took three steps down the ladder and stepped under the cockpit’s canopy.

“What can I do for you, Captain?” the admiral asked, without shaking hands.  He stood looking at Walter as if the captain was a condemned man on his way to the gallows.  The admiral’s tone indicated he was asking what the prisoner wanted for his last meal.

“I’ve been gone for ten years.  I return to find the entire power structure of the Empire is out for my head, and no one can tell me why.  I think you have the answer.”

“You really don’t know?” the admiral asked in shocked surprise.  He looked over at the senator, who had not said a word.  Reggie shook his head, indicating either he didn’t believe the captain or had no clue on how to proceed.

“Well, I know the Navy was keen on laying hands on my ship… but that doesn’t explain the Church, the Templars.”

The admiral glanced over at one of the young sailors who was coiling some line trying to act like he was not paying attention to the conversation.

“Let’s step inside the stateroom,” the admiral said.  He walked over and slid the glass door open.  Reggie went in immediately.  Seeing Walter hesitate the admiral pointed his open hand at the door and tried a small smile.  Walter reluctantly honored his request and moved into the stateroom.  Reggie had collapsed onto one of the side chairs set against the aft bulkhead.  Walter walked to the middle of the cabin, turned and remained standing.

“Have you been back to Sparta?” the admiral asked.

“No, Admiral.  I came directly to Byzantium, I needed… to run an errand,” he adlibbed clumsily.

“You might as well tell him,” the senator said at last.  “He needs to know what is facing him.”

“Well, it’s a long story.  I hardly know where to begin.”

“It’s a long story,” the senator agreed, “but here is the cliffs notes version:  Your family developed anti-matter technology.  The powers that be within the Empire feel that commercial application and utilization of anti-matter is a disruptive, economy wrecking, social disaster.  They will stop at nothing to halt the commercialization of this technology, in its tracks.”

“Hmmm, I see,” Walter stood with his right elbow cradled in his left hand, his right thumb clicking absently against his top row of teeth, apparently lost in thought.

“Why me, Emil has the key… control,” Walter mumbled after a long, studied moment.  He didn’t know how widely the fact of his brother’s passing was known.  The admiral’s answer confirmed his suspicions.  He was unaware.

“Emil agreed, along with your father and grandfather to keep the secret.  They all thought they were protecting the formula for the crystal.  No one is worried about them.”

“Why are they concerned about me?”

“You’re evidently using the technology already.  Your ship is more advanced and more powerful than any ship in the fleet.  Everything you have done is a warning flag.  You frighten the power brokers to their very core.”

“I see…”

“I don’t think you do, young man,” the senator interjected.  “You have the entire power structure of the Empire against you, including the Navy.  Your best move is to give yourself up, turn over your ship, and agree to keep the family secret like the rest of your relatives.”

With this, both older men regarded Walter as he considered everything they had revealed to him.

“That isn’t going to happen, gentlemen.  There is something else transpiring that no one is aware of.  There is a terrible, existential danger lurking on the edge of the Empire…”

“The aliens? Hah, they are no threat…” the senator scoffed.

“Reggie, careful!” the admiral snapped.

The senator clamped his mouth shut, blushed and stared out the window, clearly embarrassed that he had let a piece of very privileged information slip out.

“Captain, we are done here,” the admiral stated unequivocally.  “Every moment you remain here, you put all of us in jeopardy.  I must ask you to leave immediately.”

“Before he goes, may I have a word, gentlemen?” Myrna asked from the bottom of the inside ladder.  “I haven’t seen him in twenty years, and may never again.  I would at least like to say goodbye, in private.”  For the second time in one morning, she dismissed the two men like school boys.  Neither said a word, but simply walked through the glass door into the cockpit and made their way aft out of earshot.

“Can I get a hug?” Myrna asked softly as she came across the cabin and slid into Walter’s arms.  “Where are you going?” She whispered into his neck.

“I don’t know… Sparta, perhaps?”

“No… they will follow you with the entire fleet,” she said forcefully.  “Go to the Jews, New Jerusalem.  Tell them your story.  They will protect you.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Walter pushed her gently away and held her at arm’s length, looking deep into her crystal green eyes.

“Roger told me that you were the most honorable, trustworthy officer he ever served under.  It’s my gift to his memory.  Now go!  Be safe, Shalom Aleichem, may the God of Abraham guide and protect you.”

“Farewell, Myrna, may God protect you as well,” Walter turned for the door and discovered his vision had become somewhat blurred.  He said nothing to the two men standing at the extreme aft of the cockpit, who regarded him warily, as he climbed the ladder and walked to the end of the pier.  To their amazement, a set of stairs appeared out of nowhere.  Walter walked casually up the stairs and disappeared.

***

New Jerusalem System
INS Kidon
Commander Noam Eichel Drell Commanding

“Captain, we have activity in the lens, it looks we have an intruder,” the ensign standing watch on the main monitor announced excitedly.  The Kidon, which is Hebrew for lance, was nearing the end of her ninety-day patrol at the furthest lens in the system.  There were four known lenses.  Three were near the system’s star, which was the usual location for a gravity lens, due to the warping of space-time around the immense glowing heart of the system.

The oddity was a rather large lens near the orbit of a gas giant in the outer reaches of the system.  The planet Tarshish was a proto-star that teetered on the edge of igniting but never did.  Four of the old earth system’s Jupiters could have been held within its inner atmosphere.  As a result, its gravity field was intensely strong and tangled with another gas giant twenty-four light years away.  The linked system was uninhabited, uncharted and little known by the rest of the humans in the Empire.

A foreign ship had never been known to come through this lens, but the Israelis had mined some of the sister giant’s moons for rare-earths in the previous decade.  It was feared the un-inhabited system might harbor pirates, so the lens was guarded by a single warship.

INS Kidon was the newest, most advanced, fastest, deadliest cruiser in the Israeli Navy.  Its twin fusion motors could drive it at fifteen g’s and provide enough power to the anti-gravs to keep the control spaces at a comfortable g and a half.

Her main armament was a pulsar cannon backed up with lasers, rail-guns, mines, and torpedoes.  She could go toe-to-toe with anything less than the newest Imperial Kristof class battleship.  If even half of what had been learned about the Kristoff ships was true, they were a class or two ahead of anything the Israelis could field.  Israeli scientists were frantically working on the next generation warships, in a desperate attempt to catch up.

The lens was heavily mined with autonomous nuclear mines.  They sat cold and harmless unless the Kidon or another Israeli warship sent the commands that would awaken their AI’s and send them on a deadly intercept course.

“Sir, this can’t be right.  Our instrumentation must be faulty.  I’m going to start a diagnostic and switch to a backup system.”

“What is the problem?”

“That instrumentation cluster was indicating a ship the size of a small moon.  That is impossible, there simply… Ohmigod… look at that thing!”  The ensign had leaped to his feet and switched the view to the main display.  Out of the shimmering lens, a ship appeared, unlike anything any Israeli had ever imagined.

“Send the activation codes to the mines, get me maneuvering speed, NOW!”  Captain Drell shouted over the clamor that erupted across the bridge at the appearance of the alien ship.  “Up shields, power to the pulsar and standby for fire order!  Open a hailing frequency in galactic standard…

“Israeli warship, this is the Isla Marin, Captain Walter Sinclair commanding.  Please power down your weapons, and de-activate your mines.  We are no threat.  We come in peace.  You may keep your shields up, but please power down your weapons.  This is for your own protection.”

“Isla Marin, are you an Imperial vessel?”  the captain asked, somewhat confused.  He was wondering if he was facing a Kristof class battleship.  If so, it was unlike anything Mossad intelligence had come up with.

“That is a negative, Kidon,” the intruder replied, evidently picking up the ships name from her IFF signal.  “We are a private vessel flying under no national flag!”

This statement was so obviously, patently false, it left Captain Drell functionally incapacitated for a long moment.  While he was trying to make some sense of the information in front of him, the intruder’s captain continued.

“Kidon, be advised, I am Walter Sinclair of the Sparta Sinclairs.  Our family owns Sinclair station where all the emerald/crystal used throughout the Empire is manufactured.  This ship is my personal property and I come seeking sanctuary.”

Captain Drell knew of the Sparta Sinclairs.  They were known throughout human space and envied for their wealth and control of the much sought-after crystal.  He knew they were wealthy, but it was simply incomprehensible that a star-fairing ship could be owned by a private entity, even the Sinclairs.

“Captain, you should look at this,” Aaron Fromm, his exec handed him an omni.  The screen displayed a blue line across its bottom.  The rest of the screen was blank.

“What am I looking at, number one?” the captain snapped, aggravated at the interruption.

“It’s the results of our scans, Sir.  Other than reflected visible light, their ship returns no signals from any of our scanners.  She either is an unbelievably realistic hologram, or she has shields a quantum level beyond anything we’ve ever seen.”

“I’m sorry, Captain,” Walter Sinclair said.  “You have not powered down your weapons, you leave me no choice.”  With this transmission, the great starship on his monitor slowly disappeared, and, as the lens closed, the shimmering stars beyond solidified into a solid starscape.  Within three breaths the lens closed completely, leaving not a hint of a trace there was ever anything but space dust in front of the Israeli cruiser.

“What just happened, number one?” the captain exclaimed, still shaken by the incident, still unable to believe the evidence of his own senses.  “Was it a hologram?”

The executive officer was studying his Omni, evidently running the episode over again from recordings made at the time.

“No Sir, it was not a hologram.  When the ship emerged from the lens, we scanned her.  She was solid as a tungsten moon, but almost instantly, she was able to block our scanners.  First, she disappeared from the electromagnetic spectrum, then, from visible light as well.  She is still out there Sir, somewhere, running cloaked.”

“We could fire a torpedo spread at her last known location,” the gunnery officer volunteered.

“Belay that mister!” the captain snapped.  “Power down all weapons, disable the mines.  Give me military emergency power and route all available power to the shields.”

This command caused a frantic burst of activity across the bridge as engineering and weapons officers spun to their respective consoles to obey.

“Thank you, Captain,” Walter Sinclair’s voice boomed out across the bridge.  The starscape being displayed by the main console disappeared, being replaced by the 3D image of a ship’s bridge.  The scale was difficult to determine, but if the man in the center of the arc of chairs was average height, the bridge area was the size of a basketball gymnasium.  Next to the captain and attired exactly as he was, was a young lady dressed in a Navy-blue jumpsuit, void of any marks of rank or decoration.  Seated adjacent to the central pair were two giants dressed in kilts and long-sleeved white blouses.

Standing directly behind the captain, if that is who he was, appeared the most beautiful woman Captain Drell had ever seen.  She had one hand resting lightly on his shoulder in a possessive gesture.  Captain Drell was immediately assaulted with an overwhelming jealousy.

Sitting to one side with an empty chair between her and the albino giant male sat a severe-looking woman dressed in a civilian suit.  Upon a moment’s study, she bore a striking resemblance to the man in the center chair.  Captain Drell guessed he was looking at the other captain’s older sister.  She looked up at the screen, directly in his direction, as if aware he was studying her.  A shiver of fear ran down the captains back.

That was one dangerous lady.

The old white-haired man on the opposite side of the arc seemed to be out of place.  His hair cascaded across his shoulders and he had a long white beard.  He wore an elegant blue and gold uniform, overlaid with elaborate decorations that seemed to be significant, but meant nothing to the Israeli captain.  The man wore a massive silver cross around his neck on a matching silver chain and seemed somewhat disinterested in the activities surrounding him.  Amazingly, two huge black cats lay curled up at his feet.

None of the display made any sense to the Israeli captain.

“Captain, you may stand down from emergency power.  We are not going to fire on you.  There is no sense in overheating your reactors.”  Walter Sinclair told him.

Captain Drell nodded in the direction of the engineering warrant officer, “make it so, mister Fuks,” he mouthed silently.  The engineering officer turned and made some adjustments to his monitor.  The red bars on the display in front of him slowly changed to orange, then yellow and finally back to green.

“It appears you have the advantage of us, Captain.  What do we do now?”

“First, my official title on this ship is Commander.  It’s a nominal rank and signifies only that I am in command of this vessel.  I am a retired Imperial Navy officer, I retired at the rank of captain.  The lady to my right is my… uh, assistant, Sophia.  She is a serving lieutenant in the Imperial Navy, currently under charges of desertion.  The lady standing behind me is my executive officer, her name is Lyna.  The soft, friendly lady at the end there, is my sister, Rosslyn.  She seems to be a bit unhappy at the moment because she maintains we kidnapped her.  That isn’t true, of course, but we are working that out on a day to day basis.”  He looked over at his sister who tossed her hair and looked away with a disgusted, monosyllabic grunt.

“What do you want from us, Commander?” Captain Drell asked after hearing the rather cryptic and mysterious introductions.  The commander had made no mention of the giants beside him nor of the other crew spread around the bridge, one level up, sitting in front of control consoles.  They appeared to be of the same race as the mysterious couple beside the commander.

“As I said before, we come seeking sanctuary.  We seem to be persona-non-grata within the bounds of the Empire.  I need to speak with your president and your ruling council.  I bring warning of an existential threat to all humankind, but I don’t come empty-handed.  I have twelve tons of emerald/crystal in my hold as a gift to your government.”

Captain Drell was staggered.  He was not aware there was that much crystal extant in the entire Empire.  It made a king’s ransom look like play money.  No wonder the Sinclairs could afford their own warship.

“I don’t have the authority to allow you to enter Israeli space, but it also looks like I don’t have any ability to deny you if you choose to enter.”

“No Captain, you don’t understand.  We will not force ourselves on you.  We need your government’s cooperation and protection.  We will stay right here until you make contact with whatever authority you need to speak to.  We will establish an orbit around this little rock and await instructions.”

Captain Drell considered this for a long moment.  “Did I understand you to say, twelve tons of crystal?”

“Yes Captain, twelve metric tons in various cuts.  Some as large as three meters square.”

Captain Drell had little doubt the council would fall all over themselves to talk to Walter Sinclair.  After all, money talked… but crystal screamed.

…Six days prior
Lake Selene – Byzantium
Walter Sinclair

Both ladies were regarding me with expectant expressions, waiting for instructions.  They seemed to have the idea that I had the faintest clue of what I was doing and what we should do next.

Unfortunately, they were both wrong.

I did not have enough information.  There was a dark secret bubbling beneath the surface of the political maelstrom surrounding my presence that I just didn’t get.  The senator had hinted at it before the admiral had shut him down.

Before I made any moves…

“Senator Reynolds seems to be convinced the aliens we fought are no threat.  Do you have any idea why he would have that idea?” I asked Sophia.  She didn’t reply.  She was sitting in the center chair in the shuttle regarding me like a teen-age fan regarding a rock-star idol.

“I had forgotten how handsome…” she mumbled, as if to herself.

“SOPHIA! Snap out of it!”  I instantly regretted raising my voice.  She reacted as if I had slapped her, the hurt evident in her fallen face.  “Aliens, Sophia, the senator thinks the aliens are no threat, do you know why he would think that?” I said more softly and added a smile to show I was not upset with her.

“Hmm, aliens…” she didn’t take her eyes off me, but she was clearly thinking.  “There were rumors floating around the HQ that a prisoner had been taken after the battle.  It was never substantiated, and after a year or so, with no proof being offered, people just stopped talking about it.”

“If it were true, who would have custody of the prisoner?”

“Well… it wasn’t the Navy.  The fleet admiral’s staff would have known…” Sophia said, thinking aloud.  “Just guessing, I would say the IIS would have her.”

“Her?”

“The rumors seemed to indicate a female officer had been rescued from a life pod.  After that… nothing.”

“If the IIS have her, or him, for that matter, I feel sorry for the prisoner,” I stated flatly.  The Imperial Intelligence Service was a ruthless, nasty bunch.  They answered directly to the Emperor, were loyal only to his eminence, and operated as a law unto themselves.  They were universally hated by the Church, the Navy, and the Templars.  They were feared by ordinary citizens and spoken of in hushed tones.  Next to the IIS, the Gestapo was a boy-scout troop.  “If the IIS does have her, do you have any idea where she would be imprisoned?”

“Well, I’m pretty sure they didn’t send her off to Delvonia.  The prison moon is administered by the Navy.  The admiral’s staff would have known,” Sophia wrinkled up her nose as she considered all of the possibilities.  It made her look like a little girl.  It was endearing.  I felt something, I thought long dead, stir in my breast.  “I would guess, Saint Helena.”

Saint Helena stirred up dark images like Lubyanka and Devil’s Island.  The prison island had been established to separate the most violent and dangerous criminals from society.  It was a remote island, fifteen hundred miles offshore, deep in the center of the Ionian Sea, and served today as the IIS’s private gulag.  Little was known about conditions there.  Public access had ended over a hundred years ago.  What was surmised, was that Saint Helena was home to any number of the Emperor’s enemies, who had disappeared through the years without a trace.

“I need to meet this alien,” I told my two companions.  “The power structure of the Empire has learned something from this prisoner they think removes any threat to the Empire.  From what the Anastazi discovered, we know that isn’t the case.”

“The security at Saint Helena is very probably the tightest of anywhere in the Empire.  How do you…?”  Sophia’s question trailed off unfinished.

It’s just as well.  I didn’t have an answer… but then I did!

“Rosslyn,” I said, looking at Lyna.  “My sister is a Slime.”  The Navy’s pet name for the IIS was Invisible, Illegal and Slimy.  Sailors referred to the IIS agents as Slimes.  “She could get us in.”

“Your sister is an agent?” Sophia exclaimed in shocked surprise.

I thought for a moment on how to reply.  IIS agents were feared.  As a result, they were looked down on by most of the rest of the Imperial citizenry.  They did their work undercover and their activities went unreported.  Their reputation of being a political enforcer for the Emperor left little room for any but hard feelings toward them from the populace.

I knew, from long talks with my sister, that was a limited view of the agency.  There were departments in the agency who worked on strategic threats.  These departments were apolitical and saw themselves as the first line of defense against threats of all kinds to the order and safety of the citizens of the Empire.

“My sister is who she is.  She is one of the most intelligent, loyal and dedicated people you will ever meet.  She believes in what she does with every ounce of her being.  We don’t always agree, but I always respect her judgment.  She usually has more information and is better informed than I can ever hope to be.  I stopped judging her years ago.”

“Do you have any idea where she is?” Lyna asked, joining the conversation at last.

“If she is on Byzantium, I’ve got a pretty good idea where she will be eventually.”

“Shall we go there?”

“Yes, it’s not far.”

Cascadia was the Sinclair estate on lake Selene.  It was one of the first twenty complexes that had been built there by the founding families, some three hundred years prior.  It had a pride of place near the bottom of the falls, far enough away that the roar was a muted whoosh, close enough for a magnificent view and a sense of presence of the falling, boiling torrent.  The constant and ever-present mist, at the bottom of the falls, dissipated a half mile from the main house, leaving the complex bathing in the sun.

One of the larger estates, its twelve-foot hedge fence surrounded two hundred fifty acres with a little over a mile of manicured lakefront.  The main house sat back an eighth of a mile from the lake in a grove of ancient banyan trees, some of which were ten feet across at the base.

Cascadia’s main house was designed to imitate nineteenth-century British Colonial architecture.  In fact, it bore a striking resemblance to the original Raffles hotel in Singapore.   The mansion was built in a large square with the center atrium left open, forming a palm-studded park.  The home had two fronts, roadside, and lakeside.  Approaching from the main gate the stark-white two-story structure resembled a great, window-filled two-layer cake.  Precisely placed flame trees marched up the wide boulevard to the great circle drive in front of the house.  Manicured gardens on both sides of the brick road sported flowering bushes alive with color and scent.

Three arched steps led up to the columned portico that ran the entire front of the building.  White bamboo chairs, tables, lounges, and swings sat waiting on either side of the entrance for the evening sunset.

Two massive teak doors opened into the two-story marble foyer.  On either side, circular ten-foot-wide staircases flowed in burgundy splendor to the second floor. The thick wool carpet’s splash of color accented what seemed to be acres of white marble and carved ivory of the floors, walls, and balustrades.

I had Lyna approach Cascadia from the lakeside.  We floated over the boat docks, the wide lawn and the waterpark of fountains and pools between the main house and the lake.  She dropped the stairs on the deck of the matching portico which was a mirror image of the front.  It was mid-morning, too late for breakfast diners to be on the porch, too early for lunch.  The welcoming furniture was eerily empty.

I walked up to the large glass doors, glanced up at the scanner above and sensed the blue pulse as my retinas were scanned and heard the gentle click as the lock was released.  I would not have been surprised to have found my entry barred.  After all, I had not been to Cascadia in over thirty years.  Evidently, being heir apparent to the Sinclair estate still had some value.

A tall brown man came into the foyer from deep inside the house.  He was dressed as an Indian Sikh up to and including the red-cloth headdress.  His somewhat jerky movements betrayed his status as a somewhat dated android.  He was accompanied by a three-foot-tall cylindrical security droid.

“Welcome home Sir,” the droid announced.  “Miss Helen is taking her morning nap, I’m sorry she is not here to greet you in person.”  Aunt Helen was my grandfather’s maiden sister.  She had never married and done little else than live off the family’s largess.  She was Cascadia’s only permanent resident.  She had no title to the vacation home since ownership had passed to my father and then to Emil.  She lived in the un-used vacation home at the pleasure of Emil and could be disposed with a single word from him, or from me, as heir-apparent.

Aunt Helen presided over the estate in the absence of its true owners.  Surrounding the great house were six smaller guesthouses.  The guest quarters would have been considered small mansions in another generation.  Each one had three or four bedrooms, a pool and pool house and were fully furnished and maintained.  Most of the other estates featured a similar setup.

Since a great number of the estates were the property of families on distant planets, they could sit un-used by their legal owners, for years.  Since the demise of the interstellar passenger liners, the situation had gotten even worse.  In some cases, the estates hadn’t felt the presence of a legitimate heir in generations.  This led to guest houses being inhabited by distant relatives.  Sometimes, very distant.

An entire society had grown up around these house-sitting opportunists.  They mingled and partied among themselves, staying under the radar, policing their own; and protecting their turf from interlopers and legitimate authority as well.

At Cascadia, aunt Helen ruled the roost with an iron hand.  She alone determined who was allowed to live in the guest houses, when and where.  She maintained a family bibliography and made absolutely sure some connection to the Sinclair line was proven before anyone was allowed on the property.  She had been known on occasion to demand DNA evidence.

Currently, some fifteen great nieces and nephews, their families and hangers-on were living on the estate.  I knew everyone would get very nervous when I showed up.  I had the power to displace every single one, including my sweet dear aunt herself.

Cascadia had one more part-time resident in the main house.  Rosslyn stayed here when she was on Byzantium.  I had no idea if she was even in the Byzantium system.  Her job could take her to the far reaches of the Empire.

“Will you be staying long with us Sir?  Can I get you anything?” Even the droid seemed nervous in my presence.

“No to both,” I told it curtly.  “I’m looking for Rosslyn, is she here?”

“Sir, she is here, but she didn’t arrive until a short time ago.  She is sleeping.  I was given strict orders to see that she not be disturbed.”

“I’m pretty sure, that I have authority to override that command.”

“You’re exactly right, Sir.” The droid didn’t even hesitate.  “Shall I get her Sir?”

“No, I’ll go up,” I told him as I turned for the stairs, then realized I had no idea what room she might be in.  It had been a long time, but as I remembered there were over fifty rooms in Cascadia’s halls.

“It’s the Lotus room, Sir,” the droid told me without my asking.  “…first door on the right, your suite is next door.”

I remembered that Emil and I both had personal suites at Cascadia, with complete wardrobes always maintained and updated.  That was a good thing.  I wanted to change out of my uniform.  I was done with that for now.

I trotted up the wide curving stairway and entered the long marble hall running down the outside wall of the building.  White fluted pillars marched down the hall just inside floor to ceiling glass along the outside wall.  The inside wall was blank, covered with a subtle ivory fabric, woven in various patterns.  Every twenty feet the wall was pierced with a large mahogany door.  The hall ended in a set of double doors facing me.  I knew that was Emil’s suite, it had been my grandfather’s when I was a child.

I walked by the Lotus suite to discover the door to my room was standing open.  I felt a stab of tension shoot up my spine at the adrenalin-hit the discovery had triggered.  I knew I shouldn’t be in any danger in my family’s house, but the thought occurred to me, when the entire Empire is breathing down your neck, it would be prudent to be just a bit paranoid.

I reached across with my right hand and retrieved the handle of the ceremonial dagger from its scabbard near my left hip.  It had a truncated blade, just long enough to secure it in the scabbard.  The two-inch blade ended in a half-inch thick flat surface from which protruded a raisin-size ruby colored crystal.  What appeared to be a dagger handle was, in fact, an Anastazi cutting tool, which in action, resembled a pencil thin, red-bladed lightsaber.

In a close quarter fight, it was a deadly, silent killer.

I heard footsteps coming toward the door from the inside accompanied by a strange buzzing noise.  I flattened myself against the inside wall with my right hand extended pointing the business end of my weapon at the door.  Then I heard a giggle.  I was able to bounce away from the wall, holster my weapon and assume a non-threatening pose by the time the two maids and a medicine ball-size cleaning droid, came out into the hall.  One of the maids was carrying a stack of clean towels.  The other was pushing a cart loaded with cleaning supplies and toiletries.  A pair of clean white robes were tossed over the top of the cart.

“All ready for you Sir,” the diminutive blonde maid grinned.  She looked to be in her late teens.  I guessed she was one of the distant cousins living on the estate, paying for her board by working in the big house.  The other, younger maid looked away as if frightened to make eye contact with me.  The little trio turned and disappeared down the hall around a corner that I hadn’t been able to see from my vantage point and didn’t remember as well.

When I entered the room, I was greeted with a sense of nostalgia.  It was exactly as I remembered it.  It was as if I had stepped out for coffee, or something, thirty odd years ago and returned immediately to get some forgotten item.

I had spent the fifth year of my academy education living here.  The first four years had a mandatory resident requirement, but the last two years of the six-year program, the graduate students were allowed to commute.

I was greeted by the aroma of fresh coffee.  The maids had set up a tray of pastries and a pot of coffee on the bar at the far end of the room.  Behind the bar was a kitchenette, just beyond a half bath, beyond that, the door to my bedroom.  The end of the room opposite the kitchenette was balanced by a grand piano.  The maids and opened the drapes to the floor-to-ceiling glass doors facing the atrium.  Sunlight flooded the room.

I wove my way through the black leather couches and easy chairs, remembering that I used to be able to make my way through the maze, half tight, in the pitch black of early morning.  The room was bringing back pleasant memories, but I had no desire to go back or repeat the experience.  The coursework had been difficult and the pressure to excel had been brutal.  I was more than happy to have it behind me, regardless of how pleasant the rare parties might have been.

The walk-in closet was arranged as I remembered, suits on the left, sports coats and casual wear hanging on the right.  The shelves and drawers at the end contained underwear, shorts, shoes and sports garb.  I selected a Navy-blue blazer, black casual slacks, and a collared pullover.

I peeled out of my uniform down to the buff and dropped everything into the lidded hamper by the closet door.  I caught a glimpse of myself in the floor length mirror and paused.  The Atlantin vest had become such a part of me that it was almost invisible.  Only a subtle red hue around my upper body gave evidence of its presence.

I realized my hair had become much too long for me to wear my Navy uniform with any semblance of regulation.  It was naturally curly, dark brown, with auburn highlights.  It spilled down to my shoulders in curly profusion.  I was surprised one of the admirals hadn’t called me on it.

I had an Olympic competitive swimmer’s form with slightly outsized arms.  The vest had molded my body over the years into an efficient machine.  “Well, Narcissus, are you going to spend the rest of your life admiring yourself…?” the little voice inside my head chided me and I turned away, slightly embarrassed.

The next time I regarded myself in the mirror, I was satisfied I looked the part of a casual oligarch, comfortable in the current surroundings and at home in Cascadia.  I had flipped the collar of the pullover out over the lapels of the blazer and traded my regulation shoes for a pair of comfortable black loafers.  I decided I needed either a tennis racket or a drink in my hand to complete the picture.  I rolled my eyes at my image, then winked.

It would be all too easy to settle…  I didn’t know why, but the thought was deeply disturbing.

I checked one last thing in the mirror.  The dagger handle was well hidden beneath the folds of the jacket.  Satisfied, I left for Rosslyn’s room.

I had a pretty good head of steam worked up by the time I came to the door.  I pulled it open and almost ran over aunt Helen.  She was standing in the door with her knuckles raised as if she were going to knock.  She gasped and stepped back in shock.

“Walter…?” she mumbled, clearly uncertain of my identity.  She hadn’t seen me in thirty years since I had been a cadet.  The vest had made subtle changes in my appearance and I was not surprised at her confusion.  On the other hand, aunt Helen had not changed a bit.  She was religious in keeping up her rejuvenation therapy, exercised faithfully and spent an inordinate amount of time on her appearance.  Despite being one hundred twenty-six years old, she didn’t look a day over forty.  I could hardly imagine the amount of Emil’s money she went through in a year to maintain her physical appearance.

Unfortunately, aunt Helen had never been much of a beauty.  She had been rather plain at forty and still was.  She was a slender little lady whose athleticism tended to give her a bony, angular physique.  Her nose was a bit too large for her small face and she always wore an expression of disapproval, as if she found the entire world a bit disappointing.

When I looked at aunt Helen, I saw the entire oligarchy.  She was vain, comfortable, self-absorbed, unproductive, and unaware.  Her entire world was Cascadia.  I tried to not be judgmental.  I knew aunt Helen had tried to live up to her family’s expectations but had simply been incapable.  The one man who had shown interest in her when she was young had not met the family’s exacting standards, so she had remained a virgin.  I felt sorry for her.

“Yes, it’s me, aunt Helen.  Have I changed that much?”

“Well… no, but…” she stuttered, clearly uncomfortable.  “Is… is everything okay?” she asked nervously.  “…your room?”  I was a threat to aunty Helen’s entire world.  One word from me and it could all disappear.  As captain of a warship, I had that kind of power over every one of my crew, but that was different.  It was disconcerting for this fragile old lady to have so much fear of my very presence.

“Everything is fine, aunt Helen, don’t worry.  I’ve just come to talk to Rosslyn, I can only stay for a few minutes.”  We were never close, but when I had been a cadet, aunt Helen had tried her best to see that I was happy here.

“Oh, that’s too bad,” she said, but her body language reflected enormous relief that I was in and out.  In fact, I knew that I couldn’t be gone quick enough to please her.

***

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