Report article RSS Feed Chapter 5 - Traitor

The struggle between the United Terran Forces and Neo-Galactic Militia rages on... these are their stories.

Posted by stenchy on Jul 9th, 2009
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To: 8915::starshare::
Sender: JSheldon::UTFhc::

Lionus,

The higher ones, Lionus? Have you truly gone insane?

You reprimand the war I fight while sitting in a cell and waiting for an alien race to rescue humanity?

Humanity must rescue itself. Only by moving about this galaxy can we save ourselves from destruction. As it stands now, Neo Terra may be the only hope we have of a future.

But Neo Terra is just barely habitable. Centuries of monumental effort are to be poured into it before it begins to look like Earth. Have you really found a planet that can be so easily terraformed by a single ship?

Please, Lionus. I beg you. Give me the location of this planet and I will multiply your resources tenfold. I will trim your 500 years down to 50-- even less if I can get the funding. Imagine, Lionus: Humans could set foot on this planet of yours within your lifetime! Planet Nadel, perhaps? Have history view you as a hero, an explorer´┐Ż not a murderer.

Sincerely,
James

The medic collapsed backwards into his patient, nearly knocking both men over.

Gunther braced himself against the man's weight and gently lowered him to the ground. He glanced from curtain to curtain, looking for any signs of activity from the other patients. Nobody had heard him.

He checked the medic's coat for anything useful. Not just a medic, he noticed-a doctor, a young one. Dr. Russell. For a second, Gunther regretted the miserable payment he had given for the life-saving services. His surroundings belonged to an militia capital ship, though; he had to find a way out.

The ground seemed to give under his first step, the room twisting as though to turn the opposite wall on its side. Gunther closed his eyes hard, pulling close the lines of his forehead in an effort to find his bearings. Opening his eyes, the room righted itself again, although his body still burned. Muscles contracted with reluctance, with any coordination only assembled through intense concentration.

He had awakened early. Something had triggered it, he thought-something fleeting now like a dream. Had he heard Mari's voice? On a militia ship? His headache flared at the thought. The Everett had been attacked out of the blue, an entire flight squadron lost to quixotic command decisions. Save for the microscopic chance of a random meeting in the middle of dead space, the Everett's position had to have been compromised-but by Mari?

A large door at the other end of the room offered his only chance of escape. Somehow he knew a guard would be on the other side, bored and waiting. He scoured the front desk, finding a small, black button-- an intercom? He depressed it, shuffling around pens and papers, ending the auditory performance with a dropped coffee mug.

A low, deep voice came from the speaker on the desk, "Jeffrey, you alright in there?"

As quietly as he could, Gunther moved to the other side of the door, away from the desk. He crouched, waiting for the guard.

And he waited. Steadying himself against another dizziness spell, he finally heard the sound he expected. The door opened and the guard walked in, his head turned away from Gunther.

After practicing the same attack for the second time in a night, Gunther dragged the unconscious man behind the desk. Briefly, he wondered why the NGM guards followed the UTF tradition of not wearing a helmet when on ship duty. The guard would wake up wondering the same thing. He stripped the guard's uniform, guessing that it would fit well, or well enough. It did. He would play the role of recruit, innocently exploring the ship. The guard's rifle would answer any of the tougher questions.

The door slid open, revealing an empty hallway. Hastily assembled ships were the militia's trademark and it showed more on the inside of the ship than on the outside. It had to be a battleship, Gunther decided, most likely the same one that had attacked the Everett earlier. How long ago had that been? He should have checked for a calendar on the desk.

It didn't matter now.

He started down the hallway. His first encounter, another guard on duty, nodded curtly as he passed. Gunther studied how the soldier moved about the ship, copying his walking style and the way he held his weapon. The floor plans slowly came to him. He had always made a point to study whatever information they had received on enemy ships in order to better instruct his own men as they boarded, but he never imagined using them in this type of situation. The twists and turns of this ship varied considerably from the plans he had seen, indicating some manner of uniqueness. Overconfidence must have overtaken the commanding officer during the ship's encounter with the Everett.

He would find out more once he got to the war room-if it existed. Briefly he had considered taking to the hangars in an attempt to commandeer a tactical ship, but then grimly remembered his last experience in the cockpit. If he could get to the war room, he could transfer information, perhaps even future battle plans, back home. Militia officers would be there as well, potentially serving as hostages if he had to ransom his way off the ship.

He was in a tough spot.

A short man passed by him in the hall, briefly questioning his presence with a glare.

"Excuse me, private," said the man after passing him.

Gunther paused, drawing in a short breath through his nose. He turned around.

"Yes, sir? Is there a problem?" asked Gunther.

The man, a technician, dressed simply and had a simple look to him. A thick mustache covered his upper lip, dark black with the occasional grey, like the rest of his hair. Tools hung loosely from his belt, including a welding torch and a slim tank of gas.

"Callahan," he said, looking at Gunther's name tag. Gunther had forgotten to do so himself, and mentally thanked the technician for reading it. "I know a guy with that name, and you ain't him."

"Sir, there are lots of people on this ship," said Gunther, trying his best dumbfounded look.

The technician moved closer to him. Gunther tightened his grip on the gun.

"Yeah, but he's got a scratch across the C just like you do," he said, again motioning towards the tag.

"Oh?" Gunther looked down. "They did mention something about this suit being reissued. I just assumed the guy before me died."

The other man frowned, pulling out his radio. "No, I just saw Jim today. Hold on here for a second."

"Yes, sir," said Gunther.

He pulled his radio to his mouth. "Sam, you there? Sam? I got a question about uniform inventory."

No reply. Gunther eased up a bit.

"Damn him," said the technician. "Alright, you seem normal enough. Just head on through."

"Thank you, sir," said Gunther, turning to walk away.

"One more thing."

Gunther's jaw tightened. "Yes, sir?"

"Who's in charge of you?" asked the technician.

"Mari Gibson, sir."

The technician thought for a moment, pursing his lips together.

"Ah, okay. So you're one of the new Dragonflies," he said.

A smart man would have made up a name to catch a potential intruder in a lie; this technician was not that man.

"That's right, sir," said Gunther.

"Hell, I can respect that," said the technician. "You guys have the toughest job on the ship. You have a nice evening."

"Thank you, sir."

Suspicions relieved, the technician returned to his duty, presumably menial repairs around the ship, which clung tightly to the stereotypical disarray of an NGM vessel. Gunther shifted the strap of his rifle so it hung loosely on his back.

He knew his journey would end at a door guarded by at least one soldier. Quick lies and a gun would only get him so far. Ideas swarmed through his head, a plan constantly evolving as he moved through the ship.

But the plan fell apart as soon as he saw the door. Surprisingly, it remained unguarded. He simply pressed a button and walked in.

He had gotten there-the war room. It stretched upwards, the walls narrowing towards each other until interrupted by a small strip of ceiling. Long red curtains separated the bastions of the wall, lending a rippling appearance to the space. A Veheran sculpture dominated the upper part of the room, its chiseled lines and crystallized protrusions complemented by a warm hue of yellow which glowed softly from within.

A large, elevated, central table looked as if it could seat thirty people, but remained barren and still. Its sleek, black surface provided none of the information he sought.

"Mr. Gunther," said a stout man, emerging from a passageway concealed by one of the curtains. "I'm glad you're here."

Immediately Gunther shifted the rifle, taking aim at the stranger. The man, a general with fully adorned uniform, stood his ground unphased.

The general said: "I'd apologize for being late, but I have a feeling you won't apologize for being early. I really had intended to have this meeting planetside-"

"Cut it," said Gunther. "You're getting me off this ship."

"I certainly could do that; I'm in command of this vessel. But I won't."

Gunther shifted his aim upward from the medallion-adorned chest to the grinning face of the general.

"Now, no need for that. I know you were out for a while and that you probably can't handle a rifle," he said, a crude smile stretching across his ruddy face.

"At this range? Even the greens on this ship could manage a killing shot," said Gunther. His head still swelled with pain, but his hands were steady on the rifle.

"In defense of the greens, I have to say that their rifles are a bit heavier," said the general.

Gunther held his aim while trying to gauge the weight of the rifle.

"Damn," he said, lowering it.

He had walked right into a trap.

"The medics onboard assured us you wouldn't be awake before we got to Bor," said the general. "I didn't want to take any chances, so I made sure the man guarding you had an empty magazine."

"So you knew I would come here." he said.

"Given your reputation and record, yes-we knew you would try something. We had figured it would happen on Bor, though," said the general. "Like I said, this meeting is early. I'm General Edgar Chambers."

General Edgar Chambers. Bor. Gunther wondered why Chambers gave information away so readily.

"What do you want?" asked Gunther.

"I want you to join us. To become a commanding officer in the Neo-Galactic Militia," he said.

"I'm not a traitor," said Gunther.

General Chambers frowned. "That's not what I've heard."

He produced a small remote from his pocket. At the press of a button, the opposite wall of the room lit up in full video. Gunther immediately recognized the UTF news network, his own name accompanying the top story. Bold letters barked out at the viewer: TRAITOR KILLED IN ACTION. A familiar face appeared on the screen.

"It was unfortunate, to say the least of it. We just managed to terminate William Gunther in the middle of the act of treason. The turncoat had given away our ship position and an ideal time to attack, but we still managed to survive against incredible odds."

Parks. Gunther struggled to keep his composure under a deluge of anger.

"Enough," he said.

Chambers turned off the screen. "I'm sorry I had to break it to you. I should add that you're officially MIA status; your father threatened to resign his post if you were recorded otherwise. I'm sure he would be rather impressed at your performance, just as I was. We've since made adjustments to the ship to prevent an attack like that from happening again-but still, very clever strategy. Others higher up think so as well. We can use someone like you."

Gunther ignored the repeated offer. "How am I alive?"

Stretching his back, Chambers moved to take a seat. He motioned for Gunther to follow, earning a reluctant but complying response. From his belt he pulled out a small metal box of cigars and a lighter.

"Care for a cigar?" he asked.

"I don't smoke," said Gunther.

Chambers chuckled. "Of course you don't."

"You allow smoking on your vessels?" asked Gunther.

"No, we don't," said Chambers. "But that's an archaic rule. This ship is run too tight to be blown up by a nice, relaxing smoke."

Chambers gingerly lit up a cigar and puffed at it, enjoying the initial flavor. Gunther let his question hang in the air.

"You're alive at the insistence of one of our newer recruits, Mari Gibson," he said, pausing to gauge Gunther's reaction. "She would only offer us information on the Everett in exchange for an agreement not to harm you. Of course, things got complicated when you nearly disabled our ship-- your flight formation didn't exactly work in your favor, either. Technically, though, we never shot at you."

"Mari," said Gunther. "She's the traitor. She's here on this ship?"

"Yes, you're right. The news report probably should have been about her," said Chambers. "She's currently in charge of our boarding party, the Dragonflies. Quite the soldier."

Gunther recalled her heartfelt goodbye. Had she tried to warn him? Mari had a habit of being too subtle.

"I want to see her," said Gunther.

"Accept my offer," said Chambers, "And you'll be working with her on a regular basis."

Gunther stared at him, trying to collect information from the stony gaze of the man. Age hung on him and the stresses of combat had worn his skin. His rough face widened when he spoke, every word revealing evenly spaced, pearly teeth.

"I need time to think about it," said Gunther.

"If you want time, you have time," said Chambers. "But make it quick. We have a council meeting tomorrow morning, and I want you to be there."

"A council meeting?" asked Gunther.

"Yes, with many important people in attendance. We'll be discussing some urgent matters that have just come up, one of which I think will help you make your decision. Come to the meeting, and give us your decision directly after," said Chambers.

"And if I say no?"

"Then we throw you in a cold, cramped prison cell until the war's over, when you'll either go to trial or get liberated, depending on how things turn out. With all the information you'll have, we couldn't possibly let you go free. I'm sure you understand," said Chambers.

"Yes," said Gunther. He found himself unable to manage any other words.

Light flooded into the room. Looking to his side, Gunther saw the door three figures silhouetted against the corridor lighting. Two guards escorted a woman through, the harsh light suffocated as the door slid back into position behind them.

"Mr. Gunther," said Chambers, "I'm afraid I'll have to cut our meeting short. My guest of honor is here."

The woman approached the table. Immediately, Gunther recognized her as one of the richest, most powerful women in the galaxy: Denise Banks. Her father had been among the first to land on Vehera, establishing the company SeedTech, a distributor of the exotic specimens found on the planet. She had just recently transitioned the administrative center of the company to Vehera, a controversial move that had every vainglorious member of the media arguing for weeks. As far as the core worlds knew, she had absolutely no involvement with the resistance movement.

"Denise," said Chambers, rising from his chair and extending his arms out. "It's good to have you on board my ship again."

Denise moved as though going in for a hug, but quickly snatched the cigar from Chambers' mouth at the last moment, grinning as she snuffed it out on the table.

Chambers laughed, "Still sticking to the rules, I see."

"Yes," said Denise. "I wouldn't expect so much from you, though, Edgar."

They hugged.

"Who's our guest?" asked Denise.

Chambers looked at Gunther as though expecting him to rise.

"This is the man we talked about earlier. William Gunther," said Chambers.

Denise Banks extended a hand out to Gunther. He quickly stood and shook it.

"It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Gunther," she said.

"The pleasure is mine, Ms. Banks," he said.

"We have a meeting early tomorrow morning. I want you to be there," she said.

"I've already been invited," said Gunther. "I plan to come."

"I invited you," said Chambers, "but it was Denise's idea."

Denise smiled. Despite her advanced age and status, she had a youthful, warm smile.

"Until then," said Chambers, "you'll be under the escort of these two fine soldiers. They'll get you some civilian clothes and show you your quarters. I'd also like for you to go to the medical bay and get checked out."

"I will. A pleasure meeting you, General Chambers," said Gunther with a nod. "And you too, Ms. Banks."

The guards escorted Gunther out of the war room.
* * *

At first glance, his quarters appeared to be a typical civilian guest room on board a capital ship. Rugged edges had been replaced with soft lines, harsh lighting covered by shades and utilitarian bareness eliminated by civilian comforts. Some of the comforts were absent, however. Despite the ample decoration, the room retained all the functionality of a prison cell. His issued clothes laid on the bed.

Veheran clothes were simple, with a flowing design and bold colors. They mimicked core-world clothing to an extent, while downplaying excesses and sharpening frills. As a foreigner and a military officer, he felt out of place wearing them.

Then again, he was out of place.

Hunger set on him. An ineffective beep sounded when he tried to open the door. Moments later, both guards faced the open doorway, ready to raise their rifles at any sign of trouble.

"I'm hungry," he said. "Is the cafeteria still open?"

"Yes, sir," said the first guard, lowering his gun.

"Lead the way," said Gunther. "That is, if I'm allowed."

"Follow me, sir," said the guard.

He followed. The second guard took up position behind him, walking in pace with the first. They were good; they wouldn't allow the same slip-ups that had gotten Gunther so far before. Of course, he had no desire to escape at the moment. He would bide his time, taking Chambers' offer and waiting for the right chance. Until that chance, he had unfinished business on this ship.

Briefly, he remembered his last stay on the bridge of the Everett, where he had walked through the halls of his own ship with two of his own men, their loyalty to him superseding UTF regulations. His energy then was boundless, surpassing his current state of fatigue. No-he couldn't make his move now even if he tried.

The two guards remained silent as he entered the cafeteria. They mentioned the medical bay, perhaps noticing his shaky hands or tired eyes. Gunther waved them off. Some real food would give him strength.

But there was no "real food" to be found, or as far as he could tell. The NGM cafeteria had a rotating menu with only one day of the week having anything similar to the Origin staples of the core worlds. Neo Terrans and Hesperans prided themselves on their resistance to the Veheran Renaissance, rejecting the non-Origin foods that had become so popular on other planets. Tonight, menu only offered salmon as a main item, with fries as the only Origin side item. He had eaten fish before, of course, but had never liked it.

Somehow, though, the Veheran food selection bothered him little when he sat down to eat. He found every bite delicious, unable to satisfy the hunger he had built up while unconscious. The guards quietly shadowed him as he rose to get a second helping, and again as he received a third.

Finally, he felt his stomach react, once again accepting a normal intake of food. He disposed of his tray and headed out the doors. If any soldier or worker had questioned his presence, he had done a good job hiding it.

His shadows remained with him.

"Sir, we'll escort you to the medical bay now," said the guard.

"It's alright," said Gunther. "I know the way."

This time, they both followed behind him. It could have been the same way for the cafeteria-Gunther had known where it was as well. He walked with a newfound energy, confident that his medical check-up would go well.

It did. The doctor he had knocked out had left, along with the guard. A different, older doctor prescribed some small red pills.

"Your body is through most of the detoxification process, but these pills will help," he said. "Take one with every meal."

He went into a deeper explanation of the pills, but Gunther tuned him out. He passed the bottle from hand to hand, wondering if the medication matched the doctor's words. It was a trick the UTF would be all too eager to use-doping up a prisoner to prevent him from doing harm. Somehow, though, he couldn't envision Chambers or the NGM giving such an order. The pills were legitimate.

"Thank you, doctor," said Gunther. "Sorry about earlier. I hope Dr. Russell is doing alright."

The doctor gave him a short, cold stare, one of a man bound by oath to heal, but reluctant to help an enemy. He turned and went back to his work without another word. Gunther left the medical bay, his escort still in tow.

What little healing he had left, he hoped, would come that night as he slept in his quarters.
* * *

"You have a knack for being early, Mr. Gunther," said General Chambers.

Gunther once again took a seat at the war room table. The lighting in the room remained fairly dim, despite the time of day.

"Old habits die hard," said Gunther.

"The others should be here soon," said Denise, who had abruptly stopped conversing with Chambers upon Gunther's arrival. "You should know, Gunther, that some of them won't exactly be receptive to your presence here."

"I can understand that," said Gunther. "I am UTF, after all."

"Hopefully what I have to say today will change your mind," she said.

Gunther nodded. The last member of the council arrived five minutes late, making for a total of twelve in attendance, including Gunther. He did not yet understand his purpose there, or if they intended him to be a member or a guest.

"Good morning, everyone," said Denise. "And, of course, good evening to those of you who came up from Bor. This High Council meeting has been called because of the urgent and secretive nature of new intelligence we have received."

Gunther looked around the room. The High Council of the Terran Forces consisted of the highest ranked generals and most influential of the civilian sector. Apparently, the rogue worlds had a body just like it; the men and women here were the leaders of the resistance. But where did he fit?

The large, grim General Linn interrupted, "Forgive me, Denise, but I've heard the rumors flying around the ship, as I'm sure others here have. Is it true that the man you introduced as Mr. Gunther is an officer in the ranks of our enemy? You speak of urgency and secrecy, and then you have a Hesperan spy sit in on the meeting."

He glared at Gunther.

"William Gunther is no threat to us," she said. "He is the perfect candidate to help us in this time of need, and he has arrived at the perfect time to do so. I'm not a believer of fate or destiny, but I will gladly seize such an ideal opportunity. If you would let me speak, I hope that I can convince you on the issue."

Linn backed down. Denise handled him well, defusing insolence with tact.

She cleared her throat. "As you all know, Aethra was attacked a little over two standard weeks ago. I think I may have discovered the motivations behind the attack."

She inserted a disc into the small console on the table. A large, holographic projection of the Surrogate, the ancient ship that orbited Vehera, appeared over the table, spinning gently.

"As you know, the Surrogate changed humanity immeasurably upon its discovery. Vehera aside, the information onboard gave us insights on the history of mankind before the Origin War. Specimens from the ship soon found their way throughout the galaxy, offering consumers new choices and altering the basic ecosystems of the planets-to the point of rebalance and to the point of disaster. The UTF could only hold onto the Surrogate and Vehera for five years before they retreated back to the core worlds to deal with the problems caused by the Veheran Renaissance. They hoped the civilians flooding into Vehera would collapse into anarchy, allowing for an easy conquest years later when they returned, having solved their own problems at home.

"But we didn't collapse into anarchy. Led by the ideals of the Old World, we erected a new civilization, marked by democracy and freedom of choice. Our way of life spread much faster than the UTF could handle; the Aethra and Strali systems seceded with little trouble as the core worlds struggled to control the economic, sociological, criminal and ecological problems the Renaissance had created. In the last ten years, however, the two trends have slowed down. Cerbera Minor, like Aethra and Strali, seceded to follow Old World ideals. The United Terran Forces, however--"

"Denise," said Chambers, "Sorry for interrupting, but we're all familiar with the past fifty years of history. Most of us here have lived it. How does this relate to the information you've found?"

"Sorry, Edgar," said Denise. "I didn't mean to stray from the purpose of the meeting. The reason for the history lesson is that two of our base assumptions have been wrong. History has been wrong."

The holograph spun abruptly, expanding beyond the space it originally filled, cropping the elegant lines of the Surrogate as it focused in on one of the small hangars of the station.

"During the attack on Aethra, nearly all forces were dispatched from Vehera to meet the threat. Intelligence showed that the majority of the Terran fleet was accounted for, stationed at home or seen in the attack itself; Vehera could afford to be left undefended. While our fleet traveled through hyperspace, the Surrogate was attacked," she said.

"Impossible," said Linn. "We would have heard of this."

Chambers stood up and said, "As the senior representative of the government of Vehera, I'd like to speak on this issue. After the Surrogate was infiltrated, we scoured the station again and again, finding no evidence that anything was missing, sabotaged or vandalized. We didn't want to muddle the feelings over Aethra with half-answers and confusion over the Surrogate. Everything we saw suggested that the infiltrators either didn't find what they wanted, or simply wanted to dam the inevitable surge of emotion felt over Aethra."

"And that's where we were wrong," said Denise. "We had assumed that the Surrogate was simply an artifact of the past, only useful to our cause as a symbol of the knowledge it once gave us. Recent findings by my team of investigators, however, have been disturbing. They tell me that the Surrogate still had information to offer-information that was buried under a complex series of activations and programming failsafes."

"How do they know that?" asked Chambers, once again seated.

"They know because they found it. Or, rather, they found where it was; the information itself has been deleted. Mr. Gunther," she said, turning to him, "You had a concentration in pre-Origin history during your stay at the academy. Can you tell us a bit about the history of the Surrogate itself?"

She had done her research. Gunther cleared his throat.

"It was built in Sol nearly a decade before Earth vanished, funded by the corporation headed by Lionus Nadel. Even after vowing secrecy, everyone involved in the construction was murdered. The ship was sent to Vehera, which it completely terraformed, although the process took nearly half a millennium," he said.

"Thank you, Mr. Gunther," she said. "Recent research performed by my company shows that Lionus Nadel had ties with the Terra Liberation Front. Would you agree?"

"Certainly," said Gunther. "He was a businessman. He had ties all over the world, especially with world leaders. The Terra Liberation Front was a coalition of nations, just like the UTF, although not quite as technologically advanced."

Denise said, "But technologically advanced enough to develop the weapon that destroyed Earth-a project that would take massive resources."

"Yes, but they only had one, similar to the first deployment of the atomic bomb, where only two were in existence. Had they developed more, they would have won the war without a doubt. When their enemies, the UTF, went on the final push of the war, tracking down and destroying every ship, they felt compelled to use the prototype on Earth itself," he said.

"What would you say if I had intelligence and research suggesting that Lionus Nadel had direct ties with the funding of the development of the superweapon?" asked Denise.

Council members shuffled in their seats. Gunther straightened in his, leaning forward and speaking with a tone of mixed urgency and amazement.

"Are you suggesting that the information stolen from the Surrogate relates to the superweapon that destroyed Earth?" he asked.

"That's exactly what I'm suggesting," said Denise. "Does it not agree with your senior thesis? You argued that knowledge survives, both good and bad."

"Yes," said Gunther. "It agrees. And it's certainly possible. It doesn't explain why we-why the Terrans abandoned the Surrogate in the first place, though."

"That's the other bit of history I believe we have wrong," she said. "For decades we've believed that the Terrans pulled out of Vehera because of the problems that were developing in the core worlds. Rather than accept this flimsy explanation, I believe they pulled out after finding information on the weapon. They saw what Vehera would create-- a galaxy full of ideals that ran opposite of the principles that had helped them thrive for centuries. They didn't want to claim Vehera as their own because they wanted to eventually destroy it."

"The United Terran Forces are not on a mission of genocide," said Gunther.

"They aren't?" asked General Linn. "Did you miss what they did to Aethra? I'm certain you would be shouting 'Genocide!' if we had done the same to Hespera."

"Aethra was a distraction," said Gunther. "Whatever was onboard the Surrogate was important enough to justify, in their eyes, the attack on the planet. If you're right, Denise, it still doesn't explain why they waited fifty years before staging this infiltration."

"Yes," said Denise. "It doesn't. But I want you to find out."

"You want him to find out?" asked Linn, his face red and his eyes angry.

Gunther found himself asking the same question.

Denise raised a finger in the air to settle Linn, and said, "Yes, William Gunther has the background to make him ideal for this mission. He is familiar with pre-Origin history and UTF policy."

"What mission?" asked Gunther.

"I'm glad you asked," said Denise. "That's the next item on our agenda."

The Surrogate vanished from the holographic display. In its place materialized a new station, small and clearly of core world design.

"Earlier, I referred to intelligence that I had gathered on the issue. This core world station, named Iota, is designed to look like one of the many scientific, exploratory outposts on the fringes of settled space. We believe, however, that Iota is actually a high-energy weapons research station, ideal for the purpose because of its relative isolation. In response to the Surrogate infiltration, we will hit this station fast and hard, get aboard, find the information, and retreat," she said.

"And he will do this?" asked Linn, pointing an accusatory finger at Gunther.

Denise nodded in affirmation.

"How?" asked Linn. "Do we give him his strike fighter back, then send him home with all of our names and any other delicate information he's collected?"

Again, Chambers stood up. "No. Should he accept this mission, we will give him the Corona. He'll take my place as commanding officer while I move on to command the newly-constructed Isis."

Linn stopped hiding whatever was left of his outrage. The entire council involved itself after that, each member openly debating the decision Denise Banks had made. After half an hour, they came to a consensus-six votes for allowing Gunther to complete the mission and five against.

Exhausted, Denise faced him. "William Gunther, the High Council has deemed you worthy of holding the position of General in the Neo-Galactic Militia, representing the rogue worlds as commanding officer of the Corona. Do you accept this position?"

Her solid gaze and subtle intensity of voice urged him to accept. Chambers glanced at Gunther, reminding the younger man of the consequences of denying the offer.

"I accept," said Gunther.

During the swear-in, two council members walked out of the room in protest. He had walked into the room a prisoner, guided by two soldiers under orders to kill him at the slightest sign of escape. He walked out of the room a general, protected by two bodyguards under orders to protect him at all cost.

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