Chapter I: Sabotage

April 14, 2179, Standard Time (Five months later)

Venus's population—being split up between the cloud cities and the orbital stations—has developed a curious by-product to its bifurcation. The upper class live in the cloud cities, and all the lower-class parents dream of sending their kids to grow up there; after all, if a child does not grow up in a high-gravity environment, its body will never be able to stand a visit later in life. Those who grow up in orbit are trapped in the lower castes forever, consoled only by the dream that their own children may one day live among the poisonous clouds of Venus.

In any other society, such a divide would foreshadow an uprising of the lower class, the throwing off of a century of chains. On Venus, though, an odd quirk makes revolution effectively impossible.

Those who want to rebel are physically incapable of reaching the homes of their oppressors, and in fact donate their life savings toward training their offspring to oppress them.

The Paradox of Venusian Society, Dr. Philemon Albany (Solar Culture issue 42, 2176)

"Hey, Gomez, how's that load coming?"

"Yah!" Victor Gomez sneered, thumbing his nose at his coworker. "Mind yourself, Earthie!"

The Earthman, named Justin, shrugged and turned his attention back to loading crates onto the ship. Like everyone from Earth, he was short and squat—only two meters tall—but growing up in the largest gravity well on the system had strengthened his muscles to the point where he could afford to ignore the jeers.

Gomez hissed, muttering slurs about Justin's parentage under his breath as he returned to work. He grunted, transferring a crate to a stack marginally closer to the ship. There was no way he'd make that Earthie's job easier if he could help it. Let him earn his keep; Gomez, for one, wouldn't mind a bit if Justin would scram back to the hellhole of a planet he came from.

Ironic: most Earthies would have called Venus a hellhole, not Earth. But they didn't know a thing. Most of those pitiful, ground-hugging monkeys hadn't even been to space.

"Gomez!"

Gomez looked up to see the Boss on the balcony. He was clearly Venusian-born: he had the signature dark hair, slicked back. Gomez looked with approval at the traditional suit the Boss wore. Venusian wear was styled after twenty-first-century businessmen, a tribute to the origins of the Venusian colony when it was established by private businessmen back in 2041—twelve years shy of a century and a half ago.

For decades after it was first settled, Venus was a nowhere; at best a quick stop to refuel on the way to other places. Its complete lack of in-situ resources meant that no one was interested in it, least of all the governments of Earth. It flew under the radar.

Then came the Collapse. Suddenly, Earth's colonies were left to fend for themselves, cut off from their main support. And Venus was perfectly positioned to move into the gap Earth left—without any resources to rely on, they had become adept at building life-support and recycling technology.

As the outer colonies soon learned, having Venus life-support tech was not optional. With Earth's top-quality manufacturing facilities out of the equation, Venus was the only colony that could make anything even close to being able to withstand the harsh conditions of space for extended periods of time.

Oh, they grumbled. But eventually, they all found something to trade for the equipment they needed: water, food, or raw materials. When in space, one doesn't mess around when it comes to life-support.

And so Venus became the most powerful of the lone colonies; no military, no resources, but economically indispensable.

Gomez was one of the thousands of Venusians whose livelihoods depended on this delicate balance; it was his job to help deliver equipment to the colonies on the far side of the belt.

He shook his head out of the mist and called back up to the Boss. "What is it?"

"Would you come up here a minute?"

Gomez grunted his assent before picking his way across the room toward the narrow stairway that lead to the Boss's office.

"Take a seat, Gomez, take a seat."

The Boss's room was small and messy. Every nook and cranny was filled with stacks of books, papers, and various work-related paraphernalia.

"I've been looking at your reports, Gomez, and I have to say I'm very impressed with your performance, very impressed."

"Thank you, sir."

"Now: I know that you're mostly doing work at the docks nowadays, but you've had the occasional fling at delivery, right?"

"Yes, sir. I made three runs to Jupiter, two to Neptune, and one to Mars before the Federation moved in."

"Good, good. Now, I have an offer for you." The Boss moved in closer and lowered his voice almost to a whisper. "I've got a special cargo that needs someone I can trust to run it; someone I can trust, you get me?"

"Yeah, Boss." Probably illegal, Gomez thought. Something he needs kept quiet.

"I think you're the man for the job. The man for the job, indeed. What do you say?"

"Well," Gomez said, choosing his words carefully, "I'd need more information before I make a decision like that."

"Like what, Gomez, like what?"

"For one, where would I deliver to? And why don't any of your current haulers fit the bill? Most of them are sufficiently… discreet." They're all easily bribed.

"Oh, you know how it is," the Boss replied evasively. "I don't have many people on hand, and the ones I do, I need for other things. Other things. You know how it is."

"In other words, I'm expendable."

"That's putting it rather bluntly, don't you think? Rather bluntly."

"Oh, drop it. And where's the destination?"

The Boss looked nervous. "Listen Gomez— if I tell you this you have to promise not to breathe a word of it."

"No prob, Boss. I'll be mum as an aardvark, scout's honor."

The Boss did not look reassured.

"Boss, I'm not gonna take the job unless I know where I'm headed."

"All right," the Boss said at last. He leaned forward conspiratorially. "Saturn," he whispered, "to the Titanean Order."

Gomez leaned back in his seat laughing, the Boss trying frantically to hush him. "So we're running guns to the Neans, now," he said finally, an amused smile playing across his face.

"Listen, Gomez, this is about more than just me, more than just our company, you get me? This goes all the way to the top; the Potentate herself ordered it. To the top, I say."

"Really? Well if the Potentate's involved, it must be right," Gomez sneered. "Listen, I don't like those Neans. I know we've been building things for them for years now, and that they're against the Federation and all, but something about them isn't right."

"I know you don't like them, Gomez, I know you don't," the Boss said. "But please! Do it for me, if nothing else. For me, Gomez."

"Oh, I'm going," Gomez said. "I never said I wouldn't go. You couldn't keep me if you tried."

The Boss clapped with glee, an action unsuited to his usual disposition.

"But Boss, I need to know one more thing."

"Anything, Gomez, my boy, anything!"

"What am I shipping?"

The Boss was silent.

"Listen, Boss, I can't do this without knowing what's on my ship. You know that; it's Shippers' Right, set down by the first Potentate himself."

The Boss nodded. He leaned close to Gomez and spoke to him in a hushed tone.

"It's not just a shipment, Gomez. It's an escort. You're escorting warships; dozens of warships."

Gomez's eyebrows flew straight up and hid in his hair.

"Careful with that crate, Earthie," Gomez sneered. Now that he was in charge of this mission, he took every chance he could to lord it over his foreign coworker. "We can't have you breaking anything important."

"All right, Gomez," Justin said.

"Don't you 'Gomez' me. Let's hear some respect."

"All right, Captain Gomez," Justin replied calmly.

Gomez hated Justin's habit of complacently taking abuse. He knew walking away was the best option; he'd learnt it through countless similar experiences. Even so, he couldn't keep his mouth shut.

"Why do you even bother working here, Earthie?" he spat.

"It's a good job."

"Darn right, it's a good job. Too good for the likes of you. Why don't you go back home and see if your precious Federation offers you work?"

"No thanks."

"Watch your tone, Earthie. Don't talk back to me. I asked you a question: why are you here?"

Justin sighed and sat back on a crate. When Gomez shouted at him for slacking, he got back up and to work. "I guess I just like it better here," he grunted. "If I'm being honest, I feel more like I'm from Venus than Earth."

This infuriated Gomez. "You don't get to be Venusian," he snarled. "You're not good enough. You're short, you ain't got a nickel's worth of money sense in that head, you don't get how ethics works over here—you ain't got nothing. So why do you think you've got what it takes to be one of us?"

"Why are you Venusian?" Justin asked.

"Born and bred here."

"I've lived here since I was ten; I barely remember what it was like anywhere else. If that's not being raised here, I don't know what is."

"Don't interrupt, Earthie! I was born here and I've got better manners."

And with that, triumphant, Gomez boarded the ship.

He left the next day, bound for Saturn.

"Twelve hours until we cross Iapetus's orbit, Admiral." Captain David Martina was standing at Stenton's office door.

"Thank you, Captain. Please have all crew at alert."

"Sir, most of the crew are in their sleep shifts."

"I want to be ready in case the Titaneans try to attack before we reach Saturn's atmosphere. Wake them."

"Yes, sir. Should I relay that to the other captains?"

Stenton considered. "Just us, for now."

The Captain bowed his head in acknowledgement. He turned to leave but paused. "Are we expecting trouble, sir?"

Admiral Stenton gazed at her tablet, with the latest message from Olympus open on it. "Maybe," she finally replied. "Who knows what Olympus is expecting? They're still not telling me everything." She read it through another time, the Captain patiently waiting. She sighed, looked up, and saw him still standing there. "What are you waiting for?" she asked, her voice frigid.

"Apologies, Admiral." Captain Martina hurried off to make arrangements.

When he was out of sight, Stenton strapped herself into place at her desk and called Captain Lawrence.

"Rachel! What's up?"

"Hey, Cherie." A tired smile crept onto Stenton's face. "Is everything ready on your end?"

"Yep, we're all good over here. Just killing time until the aerobrake. Anything you need?"

"Just got a message from Olympus."

"And?"

"Mostly highly-classified stuff, but I think I'm fine telling you. Unless you've taken up spying for the Order?"

Lawrence laughed. "Of course not; why would you even say that?"

"Remember Dr. Kreller?"

"Dr. Kreller… Oh, you mean ol' Abby! He switched over to the Titaneans' side, didn't he?"

"That's what sparked this whole mission, yes. I've been wondering why he switched."

Lawrence smiled. "I don't know. Maybe we'll learn someday. I guess we're in the same system as him now."

Stenton nodded. "Anyway, Olympus says they've identified the ships en route to Saturn from Venus as likely warships. Not a model we've seen before, though."

"They won't arrive here in time to affect this, will they?"

"No, it's still four months until they arrive. I wonder why they launched them here, even knowing that we were coming and would arrive first."

"Maybe Venus wants to take over Saturn from us once we defeated the Titaneans."

Stenton pondered this for a moment. "That seems a risky move; they usually focus on maintaining the status quo, not expansion."

"I don't know, it's just a guess."

Stenton sighed. "I suppose all we can do is guess right now. I'll update you if I get more information."

"All right. Take care, Rachel."

"You too, Cherie."

Stenton sighed and leaned back in her chair. She didn't want to leave the safe space of her office right now.

Earth.

Blue sky, green grass, crushing weight. But she hadn't felt the weight, then.

Earth.

Children playing in a field. Recess.

Tag, the teacher says. But with one more rule: anyone standing in the golden hoop is safe.

But they can only stay for ten seconds—then they have to run.

Ten seconds of safety, ten seconds of hoping with all your might that the child who was chasing you will give up and run after someone else before you once again must flee.

Admiral Stenton woke with a start and looked around her. She was in her office, strapped into the hammock. Why had she woken?

She sat still, eyes closed, hardly breathing.

Yes, that was it: a tiny, nigh imperceptible tug of gravity. They had reached Saturn and had begun their dive into its atmosphere to slow themselves down.

She smiled. It was like Icarus, she had told Cherie once, but instead of falling from flying to the close to the sun, they were too far for it to appear as anything but an impossibly bright star which gave no warmth.

She remembered the warmth of Sol back on Earth, as a young child playing on the grass, running and screaming, then laughing as she reached the golden ring.

She looked at her desk, bolted to the center of the side of the enclosure her brain told her was the "floor." She smiled again: around the desk, she had insisted they paint a golden-colored ring.

Well, it wasn't paint; whatever it was they used now. She couldn't remember.

Still, she had her own ring of safety. She untangled herself from her hammock, passively let herself float toward the desk, then grabbed it and strapped herself to it.

This felt better. She took a breath of deep relief, then let it out.

She knew that the outside of the ship was beginning to glow, and they were falling as a shooting star over Saturn.

She let the sight of the golden ring around her desk drown out the growing discomfort inside her chest as Saturn dragged them deeper into its swirling clouds in flames, to rise again as a phoenix into cold, unforgiving space.

"Aerobraking now, Admiral," Captain Martina said, opening the door to Stenton's office.

"Yes, thank you, Captain. I can feel that." The air resistance was still subtle, but decades in space had lent Admiral Stenton a remarkable sensitivity to gee forces, even compared to Spacers, who spent their whole lives in zero-gravity. "How long will it take?"

"We should leave the atmosphere in roughly thirty minutes. We're setting our trajectory toward Iapetus's orbit, as are other other Sirius-class ships. As ordered, the other ships will form the Federation-standard siege configuration."

"Thank you, Captain; that will be all."

The Admiral leaned back again and relaxed, eyes closed, as the gee forces increased steadily. Ten minutes in, they had reached an entire gee and she felt like she was suffocating.

Though Stenton had been born on Earth, most of her childhood was spent in space, and her body had adapted to the low-gravity environment. The full gee, normal to residents of Earth and gee-rated troops, was more than she was used to, and it hurt. Besides the high intensity, the gravity was also at a right angle to the usual direction of thrust, so the room seemed to be lying on its side.

The forces grew for another five minutes, then began to subside and she was able to breathe easily again. There was still the gnawing of weight in the wrong direction, so she kept her eyes closed, breathing slowly in and out.

Then it was over. Stenton opened her eyes and pulled over a display that had fallen to the wall under the gravitation forces. She checked their new trajectory and nodded. It would do. Closing her eyes again, Admiral Stenton fell asleep.

Five minutes later, she was shaken awake by the Captain.

"Admiral!"

Stenton unbuckled herself from her chair and pushed out of it. "Yes, Captain?" she asked, stifling a yawn.

"Titan launched a ship."

"Specs?"

"Looks like a small shuttle. It's only fifteen meters long, propelled by jets of water ejected at high pressure. It couldn't leave the system, but should be enough for a round trip within the system's main satellites."

"The Order probably sent it to ask us why we're here, then. We expected that."

"Yes, but what's confusing our analysts is when they launched." Martina handed Stenton a tablet with a diagram of the Saturnian system pulled up, Federation ships in white and the Titanean ship in bright orange. "See, if they'd launched even five minutes earlier, we'd have seen them. They intentionally waited until the entire fleet was out of sight."

"Can they do that again?"

"No. The fleet has already begun to fan out to their designated positions, as per your orders. Starting twenty minutes from now, we'll have no blind spots in the entire system, and we'll have eyes on Titan that whole time."

Stenton nodded. "Well, let's wait it out. All ships are to continue along their current paths. It doesn't have enough power to leave the system, so under the scope of our mission we have no plausible cause to detain it. Let me know if we learn anything new."

"How are we doing on time?" Captain Davis asked.

The engineer was the only member of the five-person crew who had no work at the moment, so he acted as a temporary adjutant. With such a small team, everyone had to be able to fulfill any other role at a moment's notice, and jobs fluctuated as quickly as the external circumstances. "Not bad, sir," he replied. "Our launch was timed perfectly, so we believe that they have only just noticed us."

"Any obvious response?"

"No, they're fanning out and look like they're planning to surround the system. Standard Federation siege configuration. To get out without them catching us, a ship of ours would have to burn hard at a right angle to Titan's inclination, which is very expensive and probably wouldn't buy much time before they change course to intercept."

"So we're effectively trapped."

"I think that's the plan, sir."

Davis nodded. "Do we have an idea of where the flagship is going?"

"All three Siriuses are heading in the same direction. They could be going different places depending on when they decelerate, but we think they're aiming for the vicinity of Iapetus."

"Once they circularize, burn us onto an intercept with them."

"Yes, sir, I'll relay that to the pilot."

After a moment of looking at their tactical map, the Captain spoke again: "How are our weapons?"

"Howie says we'll be ready as long as he has an hour's notice beforehand. He can't start them up until then because the safeties de-arm everything if there's no action within two hours, and we don't want to risk our weapons going offline right when we need them."

"Sounds good. What do you think about our situation?"

"Me, sir?" The engineer seemed confused.

"Sure. And you can drop the formality until we make contact. We've been drilling together for months, so relax a bit."

"All right," the Engineer said, pulling himself into a nearby chair and fastening himself in. Zero-gravity made it hard to stay in place without being strapped in. "I guess I'm just nervous. We did fine in simulations, but this is the real thing and we've only got one shot."

"And we'll do fine. Let me worry about that. Now, what do you think about our chances?"

"Everything seems fine for now; the tricky part will be the timing once we make contact. We'll have to pray that they don't shoot first and ask questions later."

"And that, again, is my job, so don't worry about it. I've got it covered."

"Thanks, sir."

Captain Davis smiled. He'd been an actor in school. He was glad that he had, since a smile did not express his internal feelings at all.

The main power of Sirius-class battleships is in their modularity. These ships would be composed of dozens of modules held together by electromagnets, allowing on-the-fly reconfiguration of the ship design for different purposes.

For pseudogravity, selected modules can be set spinning. To simplify the design of the ship's particle beam weapon, non-related modules can be kept separate when firing. If part of the ship is destroyed, other modules can still function independently or (with authorization) as a group. For navigation and aerobraking, the modules can stay attached to each other to conserve fuel.

In essence, a Sirius-class battleship is anything it needs to be; a long-range weapon, a swarm of coordinated fighters, a base of operations, or, in eventual peacetime, a freighter or space habitat. The sky is the limit.

– Initial Proposal for Project Sirius, Dr. Abathus Kreller (Federation Internal Documents, 2168)

"Admiral, the Titanean ship has left its parking orbit and is burning on an intercept course for us."

"Well," the Admiral said calmly, "that's what we expected, isn't it?"

"I suppose, sir. We're still confused about it—we don't know why it launched when it did or why they're sending such a small ship. It's far too small to carry any significant weapons. It's ten percent of our length, one percent of our mass. Even if it used all its fuel to launch itself straight at us and somehow hit us, it wouldn't cause much damage."

"True. Well, alert the rest of the fleet to be on their guard. And wake me up when they're close enough to matter."

The Admiral made her way through the corridors of the battleship until she reached her private cabin. She touched the control panel outside the door and let herself float in as the door opened. Pulling a sleeping bag around her, she let her muscles relax, enjoying the feeling of weightlessness after a day full of maneuvers. She let the familiar humming of the ship's ventilation system lull her to sleep.

Her tablet woke her six hours later with a call from Captain Martina. She yawned, glanced at the time, and answered. "Well?"

"The ship is fifty kilometers away, within range of our particle beams."

"And they haven't contacted us?"

"No, sir. We're not even getting a transponder signal from them."

Stenton frowned. In most governments, only military ships could switch off their transponders, and usually only did so in the midst of an active operation when they didn't want other ships to have their precise location and maneuver data. "I'll be over there in five minutes," she said, hanging up.

The ship's bridge was crowded with people when Admiral Stenton arrived, but they all moved aside to let her through.

"Now," she said, "what have you already done?"

"I've alerted the crew to be at battle stations. Should I instruct the other ships to do the same?"

"Yes," Stenton said. "A silent transponder usually means trouble. Also, make sure the particle beam weapons are ready."

Martina was startled. "What? We don't need those; that ship is no threat to us."

"All the same, I want them active."

"Admiral, our orders—"

"I claim full responsibility," Stenton said coolly. "Now ready the particle beams."

"Yes, sir."

"Now, hail the Titanean ship. Nothing threatening yet, please. Just enough to get a response."

"Captain Davis!" the Communications expert called. "We're being hailed by the flagship!"

"Show me, Arnold."

A video popped up onscreen of a sharply-dressed Captain.

"Unidentified vessel," she said formally, "your transponder is either damaged or illegally inactive. Please identify yourself immediately."

"How close are we?" Davis asked the pilot.

"Still forty kilometers out."

"We're not close enough, then. Don't respond."

Arnold nodded. Then, a second later, "We have another message."

The Captain appeared again onscreen. "Unidentified vessel, you are entering a restricted area with a silent transponder. Be warned, if you come ten kilometers closer, we have authorization to fire on your ship."

"Don't respond," Davis repeated. "We still need to be closer."

The ship was silent for the next fifteen minutes. No one spoke. Then another message came in.

"This is your final warning," the flagship's captain said. "Identify immediately or your ship will be destroyed."

"Captain?" Arnold said nervously.

"Are we close enough?"

"Barely," the pilot said from the other side of the room.

"Then activate our weapons. We're not getting a better opportunity." Then, to Arnold, "Patch me through."

"Connecting now."

A green light turned on and the flagship's Captain appeared onscreen.

"Apologies, Captain," Davis said. "Technical difficulties. How are you today?"

"I'll handle this," a voice off-screen said. The camera switched to a view of a grey-haired woman wearing an Admiral's uniform. "I am Admiral Stenton, authorized representative of the Solar Federation. Please identify yourself."

"Oh, sorry!" Davis laughed. "Captain Davis, and this ship is the T.O.F. Saboteur."

"Saboteur?" the Admiral replied dryly. "Is that some sort of poorly-veiled threat?"

"Perhaps," Davis said evasively. "In the Titanean Order, we attempt a bit of humor when naming our ships."

Stenton ignored this and continued, "Your transponder is off."

"Again, apologies. Arnold, can you turn that back on?"

"Done, sir."

"How is that, Admiral?"

Stenton nodded. "We're receiving the signal. Thank you."

"No problem at all."

"On the contrary, there still is a problem: you are in a Federation-restricted area without permission. I assume you're not just here to swap niceties?"

Davis raised his eyebrows questioningly at the lieutenant in charge of weapons, who flashed him a thumbs up. "No," he said to Stenton, "we're not."

"Then by all means, please inform us of your mission."

"Well, Admiral, my job is to ask you the same thing you just asked me. You are in a Titanean-restricted area with twenty-two warships. Why are you here?"

"Diplomatic mission," Stenton replied, expressionless. "We're here on a peaceable mission to collect information and deliver a message to your leadership, no more, no less."

"Quite frankly, Admiral, that's ridiculous. An entire Solfleet isn't needed to gather information or to deliver a message. You don't need a single warship for that. No ships at all, in fact; why not just ask?"

"I cannot reveal any information about the decision process behind our mission."

"Admiral, please. If you want to be here, you need to be honest with us. I ask you again, why are you here?"

"I ask you again, why are you here?" the captain of the enemy ship demanded, his voice coming through the tinny speakers of the control panel.

"Captain Davis," Stenton replied, "I don't have time for this; I was ordered to deliver my message only to the leadership directly. You are in a restricted area and I have orders to protect our fleet. I need you to leave now. Formal requests can be sent through the proper diplomatic channels."

Video feeds from the captains of the other two battleships were also in front of her. She muted Davis and turned to Captain Lawrence. "Cherie," she said, "please take aim at the Saboteur. I want them to see that we're serious."

Lawrence nodded.

"Captain Davis," a voice said on the feed from the Saboteur a moment later, "we're being targeted by one of the battleships."

"Admiral Stenton, what is the meaning of this?" Davis asked.

"I told you to leave. You need to leave. Now."

"Admiral, you have brought a military fleet into Titanean territory without permission and have now threatened to fire on one of our ships. The Federation's own laws consider this an act of war."

The Admiral grimaced. "He has us, there," she murmured. "Well," she said aloud, "my request stands. Leave or be fired upon."

"In the event of war, I am authorized to respond in kind. It is I who must now tell you to take your fleet out of Titanean territory or be destroyed."

"Captain Davis, don't play games with me, please."

"Leave or be destroyed."

"Captain, this is childish. You're in a fifteen-meter troop transport and antagonizing three one-hundred meter warships, the finest warships ever built."

"One final time, Admiral, leave or be destroyed."

The Admiral was clearly furious. "Captain Lawrence," she said coldly, "our mission said that if we were threatened with violence we were to neutralize the threat, correct?"

"Yes."

"Then fire on that ship. Now."

"Yes, sir!" Lawrence replied cheerfully. She leaned forward to push a button on her control panel.

The display with Captain Lawrence went black. The display with Captain Davis did not. "Is everything okay, Admiral?" he asked, looking bored.

Stenton whirled around. "What happened to the Leopard?" she demanded.

"Their signal was cut off," someone said. "I don't know why."

Captain Davis piped up again. "Is the Leopard that ship that just blew a hole in itself?"

Admiral Stenton glared at him. "What. Did. You. Do?" she asked, barely able to contain her rage.

"I did warn you. Now, would you like to surrender before any more regrettable accidents take place?"

Admiral Stenton turned off her microphone and tried her best to calm down. After a few seconds of deep breathing, she was able to talk reasonably.

"Did the Leopard really blow up?" she asked.

"Yes," the Captain said, pulling up an image on a nearby tablet. "There was a massive explosion in the bridge module."

"So Cherie—Captain Lawrence—is dead?"

"Most likely, sir."

"How did they do it?"

"All evidence actually seems to indicate that the explosion originated inside the bridge and was caused by the Leopard's own particle beam."

"So it was sabotage."

"Sir, we tested that beam before we left Jupiter, and the weapon has robust security systems; nothing can be changed when the weapon is powered down, which it was until you gave the order to activate it half an hour ago."

Stenton sighed. "I'm getting to old for this," she murmured.

"Excuse me?"

"Nothing." She turned back to Captain Davis. "I surrender our fleet on the condition that you guarantee the safety of every crew member of every ship."

"But of course," Davis replied. "We don't want any more injury than necessary to resolve this conflict. If you check you'll see that we just launched twenty-three ships from various moons in the system. We should be able to reach every ship in your fleet within three hours to pick up your crew."

"And the Leopard?"

"There's nothing we can do until the nearest ship arrives; our own ship only has room for eight people and we take up five of those seats. Speaking of which, Admiral, we'd like you and two others to come with us now. And before you leave,have all ships in your fleet cease transmissions back to your base."

Stenton nodded. "Captain," she said, turning to Martina, "do what he says. And please tell the rest of the fleet that they are to follow the instructions of the ships intercepting them."

"Very well, sir," the Captain said, somewhat hushed at the realization that, for the first time in half a century, an entire Solfleet had been captured.

"A success, Prime Regent."

"Excellent. I can breathe again. How many of their ships did we have to destroy?"

"Only one, sir, one of the three Siriuses, and only the bridge module was destroyed."

"One? Impossible."

"Apparently the Captain was a close friend of the fleet's Admiral; the loss hit her hard."

"Ah—a pity, that. She is coming back with the Saboteur?"

"Yes. Captain Davis says they'll reach us in three hours."

"Once she is rested, bring her to speak with me."

Stenton took nothing with her from her ship when she boarded the Saboteur; she was too shocked to care. Her mind was flooded with images of Cherie—of Cherie's laugh especially. Could she really be gone forever?

She didn't hear Captain Davis's assurances of when they'd arrive at Titan, and she didn't notice the time passing. She gazed out of a window on the shuttle at Saturn's enormous rings, not even noticing their beauty.

The next thing she knew, she was warned to brace for reentry into Titan's atmosphere. She looked with some curiosity out of the window at the thick orange fog they were descending into, slowing as they fell.

Before disembarking, they all put on space suits, then they waddled across the landing pad to a building.

"From here," Captain Davis said through the suit radios, "we can access any building on the base through underground tunnels. You'll be staying at this base overnight; the Prime Regent would like you to rest up before he speaks with you."

Stenton nodded, entering the airlock.

She was shown to a room and left alone. Once the sound of Davis's footsteps leaving had subsided, Stenton cautiously went over and tried the door.

It was unlocked.

Really? she thought. Just give a captured prisoner access to your base?

Then she saw the camera outside of her room and the similar cameras lining the corridor. For some reason, this proof that the Order did not entirely trust her was comforting. She shut the door, remaining in her room.

Finally, she realized that she had nothing with her to sleep in; her uniform was uncomfortable to lie down in under the pull of gravity. She checked the closet, but it was empty. In the bathroom, though, she found soft clothes prepared for her.

She fell asleep immediately. No dreams, thankfully; she had feared that her dreams would be nightmares after Cherie's death. But she had no dreams.

She slept peacefully, though almost feeling ashamed that she could after such a tragedy.

She was woken by a knock on the door. She wasn't sure how long it had been, but she felt rested. She wondered for a moment where she was, then she remembered and her cheery morning mood was shattered.

Cherie was dead.

"Yes?" she answered.

Captain Davis opened the door. "Excuse me, Admiral, but I wanted to give you your personal effects; we recovered them from your ship."

"Thank you," Stenton said.

Davis placed them on a bench near the door. "Did you sleep well?"

"Yes, thank you," Stenton said. They're being oddly hospitable, she thought. She almost found it hard to hate them for killing Cherie. Almost. But that hate was no reason to be impolite; Stenton always had perfect control of her demeanour, so she chose to present a sternly polite face to Davis. Don't let him see how I feel, she thought.

"Once you're dressed, I'm to take you to the administration building to see the Prime Regent."

"The Prime Regent?" For a moment, Stenton was confused. "Oh, yes, that's what you call your leader."

"Yes. Please prepare for the day. When you are ready, I'll be waiting outside. You may leave your personal items here."

Davis shut the door.

Stenton walked over to the basket he'd brought in. Her clothes were in it, but on top she noticed a book. She picked it up.

It was a book of crossword puzzles.

She remembered now; Cherie had given this to her to do on the trip to Saturn. Stenton flipped through, seeing that two were completed and one abandoned. The rest were unsolved.

Ah, Cherie…

Stenton shook her head out of the clouds and began getting dressed.

Ten minutes later, Stenton exited the room. "I'm ready," she said. "Which way?"

"If you'll follow me," Captain Davis said courteously.

They walked through a hall that sloped upward for an uncomfortably long time; how high were they climbing? Finally, they reached the door at the end of the hall.

"This is where I leave you," Davis said. "Good luck."

Stenton entered the room without replying.

A smiling man met her. He was tall and young, hair slicked back and a moustache crawling across his face like a fuzzy caterpillar.

"You must be Admiral Stenton," he said, his smile broadening. "Call me Mandy."

Stenton shook his hand automatically, her mind racing.

"Mandy?"

"Short for Ozymandias," Mandy explained. "My father picked the name. You know, it's like in that old poem: 'My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" He laughed out loud, a high, braying laugh.

Stenton smiled. "'Nothing beside remains,'" she murmured.

"What was that?"

"Nothing. You mentioned your father?"

"Ah, yes; my father is the Prime Regent." He remembered why she was there. "You're here to see him, that's right. Go right in, he's expecting you."

She walked toward the double doors on the other end of the room, tugging one open with a deep breath.

It all began when a robot called "Dragonfly" found life on Titan, Saturn's largest moon. Life!

Titan's tiny creatures sparked the interest of the entire world; everyone wanted to know more about them. NASA, the space agency that found them, decided to investigate. They were given lots of money to do the job, and they decided the best way to study those creatures would be to send people there.

Now, sending people that far away was very hard and had never been done. NASA decided to work towards it as a long-term goal, colonizing planets as they went to make it easier to support people living that far out. Mars was colonized first, then Jupiter. Jupiter itself sent out the final colonization effort to Saturn.

To avoid messing up that life, Titan is and always has been off-limits for people to live on except for a small scientific base.

A Child's History of Space Colonization, Michelle Piara (Titan Star Publishing, 2080)

A tall, gray-haired man was at a desk in the center of the room, leaning over to root through a drawer. Behind him was an enormous window, looking out on the Titanean landscape.

What caught Stenton's eye, though, was the writing on the walls. Two of the three walls were covered in writing, too small for her to make out.

She turned her attention to the man at the desk. "You are Abraham Yellon?" she asked. "Prime Regent of the Titanean Order?"

"I am," Yellon replied simply. "You are Rachel Stenton, Admiral of Solfleet 7?"

"Yes," she replied automatically. "Well, until yesterday."

Yellon laughed kindly. "Have a seat."

So polite, she thought. Could this man really be responsible for the murder of Cherie?

She sat, pulling a chair up to the desk from a nearby wall. While there, she snuck a glimpse at the writing on it; the wall was covered with rows and rows of names.

"I trust you rested well?" Yellon asked.

"Very well, thank you," Stenton replied, a tinge of guilt in her voice. What right did she have to sleep so well when Cherie was dead?

"I am truly happy to hear that."

"Can we get to business?" Stenton asked, trying to sound impatient.

"There is no business to get to," Yellon replied calmly. "I only wish to talk. I'm here to answer any questions you have."

Stenton was taken aback. "You want to answer my questions?"

"Yes, of course. I imagine you have many."

"Well, yes," she responded, dumbfounded.

"By all means, then, ask." he said, smiling. "I will answer, if I can."

"How?"

"I'm sorry, what?"

"How did you do it? Get the Leopard to fire on itself, I mean."

Yellon sighed. "You start with the hard ones first, do you? Well, I'll do my best. Keep in mind that I'm not an engineer and don't know the science behind how it works."

"Well, neither am I."

"I'll keep it simple, then."

"Your Sirius-class ships are brilliant," Yellon said, simply. "Absolutely brilliant. A modular design that could be implemented for almost any purpose."

"And?"

"The idea is solid. Your actual implementation, though? It's flawed."

This interested Stenton. "How so?"

"The Federation is very focused on their strategic operations, developing weapons, technology, and strategies that help them win through sheer overwhelming force. Attacking a Solfleet would be useless with anything less than another fleet the same size, and no other government has the sheer resources to put together enough fleets to challenge the Federation."

Stenton smiled. "I know all this. You're basically just telling me how impossible it is for you to do what you did."

Yellon sighed, closing his eyes, as if in thought. "How do I explain this? Here, have a thought experiment. Imagine a brick house with a door made of the strongest possible materials and locked securely. How do you get in?"

This was difficult. Stenton considered for a moment, then gave up. "How?"

"You break down the wall. The door's impenetrability is irrelevant; to make it valuable, you'd also need to strengthen the walls. By strengthening the door, you're only advertising to everyone else what to avoid."

"Are you saying that you broke down the metaphorical wall of our warships?"

Yellon chuckled, amused at her response. "That's what I was building up to, but there's a better analogy. We picked the lock on the door."

"How so?"

"For your modular ship design to work, every part of your ship is constantly communicating with every other part. How you have them configured, any module can control any other module completely. This is immensely valuable when you need to make split decisions with limited time, but it also means that compromising your communications means an attacker has full control of your ship."

"So you hacked Cherie's ship?"

"Cherie?" Yellon frowned, confused.

"The Leopard, the ship which had its bridge destroyed."

"Ah, I see. Yes, we did. Dr. Kreller's inside knowledge of the technology in your Sirius-class ships was invaluable to us in developing countermeasures. We found quickly that while the capability of the technology is staggering, the Federation clearly did not dedicate enough resources to preventing exploitation. At risk of overextending our metaphor, you locked your high-tech door with a cheap padlock."

Stenton was silent.

"Does that answer your question?"

"It does," she said finally, "though I must admit I'm very disappointed with the answer. I had thought Sirius-class ships were very promising."

"Oh, they are! The technology still promises much for nearly every industry. If it had been developed in an open environment where everyone could contribute to ensuring it was secure, it would likely have had few flaws, if any. We're planning to implement the ideas behind it ourselves in some ship designs we've been working on. Dr. Kreller is very excited to finally work on non-military projects."

Stenton's face looked as if a thought had floored her. "Wait," she said.

"Yes?"

"You didn't have any way to beat our Arcturus-class ships, did you?"

"We had ideas," Yellon admitted, "but none that worked reliably enough. They're based almost entirely on conventional technology that's been continually improved even since before the collapse."

Stenton nodded, thoughtful. "It was all a game of bluster," she said. "That whole 'battle' was an elaborate performance from both sides." She was quiet for a moment. "My next question is 'why.'"

"I'm sorry?"

"Why do you do what you do? Why try and bluff a fleet into surrendering? Why push against the Federation at all?"

"I was hoping you'd ask that," Yellon replied, smiling.

Yellon mused aloud. "Why do we do what we do? An excellent question, that." He turned to her. "Admiral, what are your views on politics?"

Stenton was somewhat taken aback. "Well," she said slowly, "I don't have many. I try not to think about politics."

"I'm the same way," Yellon said. Seeing Stenton's grin, he nodded emphatically. "Yes, I know that's odd to hear from the leader of a government, but it's true. The way I see it, politics is almost always inefficient and flawed. Really, can you think of any single government you're entirely happy with?"

"No," Stenton admitted.

"And the whole problem is this: no one knows how to fix it. Everyone tries, of course, but there are always flaws. We're trying ourselves, here at the Titanean Order, but God knows we're not perfect." He smiled. "I believe the best way to protest is to vote with your feet. If you don't like things one place, move to another."

"That's not an easy thing to ask of people."

"It isn't. But that's alright. If people are offered the free choice and ability to move and they decide not to, then the issues of their government aren't a big enough priority for them to do so. The problems arise when people don't have that ability."

"How do you solve that?" Stenton was clearly interested in what he had to say. It made an odd sort of sense.

"I don't know," Yellon admitted. "I don't think anyone does. But I do know this: the independent governments of the solar system are the closest we've ever come to this goal. Every government learned to fend for itself and negotiate with the others. Our worlds offer people the widest breadth of choice in history. But then what? The Federation moved in. They want to consolidate power, put everyone under the same government, destroy the diverse cultures that have developed in the last century."

"The Federation is taking back what was originally Earth's."

Yellon sighed and leaned forward, elbows on the table. "Tell me what you know about the Collapse."

Stenton was clearly confused. "The Collapse? Everyone knows about it."

"Humor me. Perhaps you'll see it in a different light this time."

Stenton began to speak, slowly at first. "Earth colonized the solar system. Every government tried to, some teaming up, some independently. Eventually, the political strife involved became too much and Earth fell into a long war."

"Yes, that's it. Keep going."

"Earth was no longer paying attention to the colonies. There were too many problems. It's a miracle the war didn't become nuclear; we'd all have died."

"A miracle, yes. Dozens of miracles."

Stenton sped up as she reached the conclusion. "And then… the Federation came."

"And who were they?"

"Various military forces, united. They seized control and, for the first time, Earth was united."

"United, yes. A good word, that." Yellon smiled feebly, speaking with conviction. "Earth was united, under a military government. A government that saw the colonies, now free and independent for nearly a decade, as resources that belonged to them. The united Earth did what that military government knew best: waged war."

"That brings us to today," Stenton said. "It's been a long journey, but we're finally nearing the end."

"Admiral," Yellon said, with a emotion in his voice she didn't recognize. "Tell me how that sounds in light of the dream I told you."

"Well," Stenton answered, pondering, "you want people to be able to choose which government they belong to."

"Yes, for after all, your place of birth shouldn't determine your identity."

"The Federation," Stenton continued, "wants to unite the Solar System, to put everyone under one government."

"Ridding individuals of their choice," Yellon concluded. "I think you see it."

Stenton began to answer, but something caught her eye through the giant window behind Yellon. "What in space is that?" she asked.

An enormous airship had just become visible through the fog, heading in their direction.

"What?" Yellon turned. "Oh, that. It's just the library. Would you like a look?"

They strode quickly through the hallway, feet skimming the floor to keep them moving in the low gravity. Yellon talked as they went.

"Unlike most places, our library is full of physical books. In fact, it's the largest collection of physical books this side of the belt."

"These books are on paper?" Stenton asked incredulously.

"Not all of them; we do have digital books as well, and some of the physical books use synthetic substitutes for paper, but there are a good number of paper books in our collection. Most are left over from the pre-Collapse era."

They reached an airlock.

"You don't need an environment suit," Yellon said. "On the other side of these doors is a vehicle to take us to the airship."

They stepped through, the doors closing behind them. Stenton looked around at the tiny room they were now in. Then she lurched as she felt them pulled upward.

"It's like an elevator," Yellon said, laughing, "but a bit less stable; we're being hauled up by cables attached to the airship."

They swayed back and forth in the wind, Stenton feeling sick to her stomach from the unexpected rocking. Finally, the ground stabilized.

"Ah, here we are," Yellon said. "Welcome to the airship Alexandria."

The door slid open to reveal the library's interior. The room was expansive, filled with racks and racks of books. Stenton walked to the nearest shelf and began reading through the titles, mouthing them wordlessly to herself.

She looked back at Yellon. "It's been decades since I've been in a room with this many books."

Yellon smiled. "Sadly, libraries have been dying out over the last century. We felt the need and decided to create one."

"In an airship? Wouldn't it make more sense to have it on the ground, where it's more accessible?"

Yellon walked to a nearby window. Stenton joined him, looking down at the landscape below them. Through the fog, in the distance, a mountain was barely visible. On the ground, the buildings of the city were small and insignificant among the sands of the desert they were built among.

"Why not on the ground?" Yellon said, repeating Stenton's question, his voice taking on a cold, freezing, tone. "Because, Admiral Stenton, we are idealists. Hopeless romantics, out of touch with the world. We don't care for the practical or efficient, only for what is beautiful. And this," he concluded, stretching out his hands as if to embrace the entire landscape that stretched before them, "is beautiful."

He turned to her, an emotion she didn't recognize showing in his eyes. "We're living on a dream. Humanity has had its eyes on Titan for a century and a half, ever since it discovered life here. Life! We wouldn't be here without the collective striving of millions, and we're here to fight for those dreams. We dream of a day where people can live where they want, say what they want, and work toward their dreams. When building on dreams, you have to allow for romantic impracticalities."

Stenton nodded, looking back through the window.

"Admiral," Yellon began, his voice revealing the smile on his face, "will you join us?"

She turned back toward him, staring in shock.

"Before you answer, please think about it. How about waiting until we get back to my office?"

Stenton was sullenly obedient as they descended again in the lurching elevator and walked back through the halls to Yellon's office. Inside, she was stewing.

Yellon sat down at his desk and looked up at her expectantly. "Well?"

"I sympathize with your cause," Stenton replied coldly, "but I cannot join you."

Yellon sighed. "I was afraid of that. Would it be rude to ask why?"

"Because, despite all your delusions of grandeur, you're still not above senseless murder. Six people died at your orders on the Leopard."

"Admiral," Yellon replied quietly, "if you will remember, it was the Leopard that fired on our ship, not the other way around."

"Oh—" Rachel's thought process ground to a halt, but she was not long in recovering it. "Well, I'm sure you could have found some other form of sabotage that would be harmless, couldn't you? You didn't have to kill them."

"We could have."

"Then why didn't you?"

Yellon sighed again and sat back in his seat. This conversation clearly pained him. "If you'll believe me, that bothers me too. I didn't want to kill them."

"Then why are they dead?"

"My dear Admiral," Yellon replied quietly. "Would you have cared about anything less? I highly doubt a simple equipment malfunction would have spooked you into surrender. Firing on the bridge was the minimum damage that could realistically be expected to change anything."

Rachel was silent.

Yellon, seeing her silence, continued. "After all, there was no way we could know the person in command would be reasonable. We had to show that we had real power on our side. Believe me, I wish it didn't have to be this way."

"Fine," Rachel spat. "I'll concede that your reasoning makes sense. It's probably even what I would have done in your position." She stood still for another moment. "But I still can't join you," she murmured.

"There is a deeper reason?" Yellon probed gently.

Rachel nodded numbly. "The captain of that ship was my friend," she said. "I cannot honor her death by joining those who killed her."

Yellon nodded and stood up, placing both palms on the desk in front of him. "I quite agree with you," he said. "And now you know a reason I cannot join you."

"You had friends killed by the Federation?"

"Look around you," Yellon answered, gesturing to the walls. "Every name written on these walls is the name of someone who shared my vision and died because of it."

Rachel stretched out her hand to touch a name near her. "Susan Weinberg," she murmured. She looked up at Yellon. "I understand now," she said. "You're fighting for them, aren't you. This isn't about your political ideals, this is about revenge."

Yellon sat back into his chair and shook his head sadly. "No," he said. "As angry as I am about these senseless deaths, I would never kill others over it."

"Even the people responsible?"

"Everyone is someone else's father or mother, son or daughter, sister or brother, acquaintance or friend. These people have died, and that is the end of it. I remember them by writing their names on my wall, not by waging war."

"Then why do you fight?"

Yellon's face was grim. "So that no more names join theirs."

"I'll think about it," Stenton promised. "But my answer will probably remain 'no.'"

"All right," Yellon said. He waited as she approached the door. "One more question, Admiral," he said finally before she left.

"Yes?" She paused, a foot keeping the door open. She didn't turn back toward him.

"Why did the Federation send you here?"

"They said they wanted us to observe your fleet. That you are building up your military forces, potentially to try and stand against the Federation."

"Well, they're right to some extent. Why did they decide to send a full Solfleet?"

"I don't know," Stenton said. "It was odd to me; we didn't need this many ships."

Yellon nodded. That was the answer he'd expected. "If I may, I'd like to offer our theory. We believe they knew we were up to something and were using you to test the waters. They wanted you to provoke us into showing our hand. I doubt, though, that they expected we'd be able to actually deliver on our threat."

Stenton let the door shut.

Fourteen men and six women sat at a long table in a small room on Luna, Earth's magnificent moon, looking across the table at each other. The room was silent; no one spoke.

A large man with a bushy brown beard flung the door open as he entered. He strode to the head of the table and sat. "All right," he said. "Begin." He looked down at the papers in front of him, adjusting himself in his seat with a grunt.

The woman on his left began. "There's a strike at the Marswan colony among atmosphere control engineers. On Earth, the woman popularly known as the Banded Python has sabotaged supply lines to key factories in South India. General Ben-Oni Khalum reports that the situation in the Jovian colonies remains stable, but a resistance group calling themselves—"

"Stop." the man commanded. His eyes were latched on an item in the report in front of him. "Tell me about the situation at Saturn." He leaned forward, resting his elbows heavily on the table with hands clasped. He looked directly in her eyes for the first time.

"Director Khalum," she protested, "that's next on the list. If you'd give me a moment—"

"It should have been first on the agenda. Now tell me, is this report correct? Have we really lost Solfleet 7?"

"Yes, sir. Stenton surrendered the whole fleet seven hours ago."

"Why?"

"The details are fuzzy at this point, but it appears Stenton suspected some sort of sabotage on the Titaneans' part, potentially putting them in danger if they chose to continue an attack."

"Continue an attack? What provoked their original attack?"

The woman sighed. "Again, it's not entirely clear her motivation, but she ordered the Jaguar to fire on the ship that approached them after its captain demanded they leave the system."

Director Khalum grunted his approval.

"When the Jaguar fired, however, its particle beam struck the bridge module, killing the captain and any other crew inside."

"Hmm. Do we know how that happened?"

"No, we don't."

Khalum was about to speak again, but was interrupted by an aide bursting in through the door. "You have to see the news, sir."

"What is it?"

"Just turn on any news station. They're all telling the same story."

Khalum pressed a button at his left and a screen on the wall flickered on.

"—rts we received from an unnamed source claim that Solfleet 7 has just surrendered to the Titanean Order in the Saturnian system, defeated by a single ship," the anchor spoke excitedly onscreen. "We were sent footage of the Order's troops clearing out the surrendered ships of their crew, who were taken prisoners of war. The Order claims that the Federation threatened them with force in the Order's own territory, which the Federation's own laws consider—"

Khalum shut off the screen and looked around at the faces in the room. "Which of you gave them this?" he demanded. "That information should not have left Olympus."

None of them spoke up.

"Captain Gomez!"

"Yes?"

Gomez looked up to see a young man so small that he looked half his actual age.

"That fleet of warships reached Saturn."

"I know that, don't you have anything useful to say?"

The boy stammered. "Well, you see, sir… Titan did it."

"Did what? Spit it out."

"They beat the Federation."

Gomez raised an eyebrow. "They did?"

"Yes, sir."

"How?"

"No idea, sir. The Federation's news agencies are saying a single ship did the job."

Gomez scowled. "Just like them to be keeping secrets from us. We knew they told us to go ahead with the shipment, even though a fleet was on the way, and for some reason, the Potentate approved the request. But this? It's unreasonable. It's like a moth flying through a bonfire and coming out unsinged."

The young man looked perplexed. Gomez paused his tirade and looked down at him.

"What's your name, boy?"

"Simon," the man said.

"All right, you're dismissed." Gomez found himself liking the kid, despite his clumsiness. He'd go far, someday.

He turned his thoughts back to what he'd do to the Regent for keeping secrets from him, muttering threats under his breath.

As everyone knows, humanity's push toward colonization was a front for NASA's long-term goal of having a permanent human presence around Titan, where their Dragonfly probe had found microbial life in 2037.

Titan's microbes are what the scientific community have dubbed "extremophiles," creatures that thrive in extreme environments—in this case, Titan's extreme cold of 75 Kelvin (−198° Celsius). To the inexperienced observer, they are unremarkable single-celled organisms. Being extraterrestrial, however, they are vast interest to biologists and virtually every branch of science.

Some would argue that "extremophiles" exist even within humanity, especially after the colonization push. While scientists would quibble with that definition of "extremophile," there certainly are many ideological extremes people reach through seemingly reasonable circumstances.

An Overview of Titan's Microbial Life, Pan Philton (Titan Star Publishing, 2078)

In a room on Europa, Ben-Oni was fuming. "What did she do?" he demanded. "She always seemed so reasonable, but now she's gone and surrendered a whole fleet to those fools at Saturn!"

His aides didn't speak, standing straight at attention, trying to hide their fear. Finally, one spoke up. "General Khalum?" he queried nervously.

The Genocide General slowly turned to glare at him. "Yes?" he asked, with a voice far more calm than his expression revealed him to be. His voice was almost nonchalant, while the rest of his body screamed anger.

The aide boldly continued. "You have a message from Director Khalum, head of Olympus—"

"I know who my own father is," Ben-Oni snarled, snatching the tablet from the aide's hands. His eyes scanned the text.

He can't possibly read that fast, the aide thought, but he found himself proved wrong by the change of Ben-Oni's expression. Ben-Oni was now smiling, though the smile was somehow more terrible than his previous scowl.

Ben-Oni handed the tablet back. "He's denied my request," he said, grinning.

"Your request, sir?"

"I requested permission to take my fleet to Saturn and fix this situation. He refused."

"And this makes you happy?"

Ben-Oni laughed a cruel, short laugh. "No. But it's his alternative I anticipate. He told me that he wants me to hold off until he tests an alternative solution. Do you know what that means?"

"No, sir."

Ben-Oni began to walk away. His final sentence was dropped casually over his shoulder. "I think he's trying to track down my sister."

Ozymandias was waiting outside of Yellon's office for Stenton. He looked up when she came out. "Well?" he asked. "What do you think?"

"About what?"

"About my dad."

"He is… an interesting person," Stenton replied evasively.

"He asked you to join us, I presume?"

"Yes."

"Well, what did you say?"

"I don't think I will."

Ozymandias frowned. "Why not?"

"Because it feels like a betrayal of my best friend, who died in that attack."

"Ah," Ozymandias said quietly. "He really is sorry about that, you know."

"So he says."

"Let me show you something."

Ozymandias slid open a drawer in a filing cabinet and rummaged around. "I could have sworn I put it— Ah, here." He pulled out a plaque.

"Yellon had this made," he said. "We haven't found a good place to put it up yet."

Stenton took it from his outstretched hand. She read it aloud.

"In memory of the six who died on the bridge of the S.F.F. Jaguar. Captain Cherie Lawrence, Lieutenant Adam Walker, Lieutenant Michelle Montaq…" Her voice broke and she stopped, handing it back to Ozymandias.

"Are you alright?" he asked, genuine concern in his voice.

Stenton nodded, and pushed past him. She opened the door to Yellon's office. "Prime Regent?" she said.

He lifted his head questioningly.

"I'm in. What do you want from me?"

He smiled a kindly smile and beckoned her in.

"First of all," Yellon began, "welcome. I am truly happy that you've joined us. We'll discuss your role here later, but first there's a more urgent matter."

Stenton had mostly pulled herself together. "Yes?"

"There are five more ships on the way here, only a few days away. Not warships, though. Do you know why they're coming?

"Oh, yes. They've got fuel. We used more fuel to get here than we would have normally, not leaving enough reserves to get back to Jupiter. I asked for support ships with extra fuel to follow us."

"That's what we thought most likely."

"You're not planning to attack those ships, are you?"

"No, no. But they do leave us with an opportunity: if they're willing to stop, we'll transfer any of the captured crew from your fleet who don't wish to join us to one of those ships. We don't care to hold prisoners hostage."

Stenton nodded. "Reasonable of you. And if the Federation sent General Khalum here, hostages wouldn't help anyway."

"That is true." Yellon folded his hands and cleared his throat. "I believe you were the one who authorized Khalum to threaten Europa?"

"Yes, that was me," Stenton admitted. "It seemed the best option at the time. You must abhor Khalum; he's against everything you believe in."

Yellon smiled. "Half of me does. The other half wants to dissect him and see what makes him tick."

Stenton laughed. "He's a fascinating and terrifying man, that's for sure. God only knows what makes him do what he does."

"I've found," Yellon responded grimly, "that the most terrifying people often have rational reasons for what they do. I would very much like to hear his."

"Now that's a horrifying thought. What if his reasoning convinced me he's in the right?"

"And that's the danger of listening to people like him. As I believe I've said, I don't believe the best action is always the strictly rational one. There has to be some room for idealism." He smiled. "We have to risk mistakes to allow people to realize their full potential."

The captains of the five refuel ships entering Saturnian system were in a difficult position. At this late a stage, turning back was practically impossible without passing through the system, but they were also entering a potentially hostile area at war with the Federation, no escorts to protect them.

"We'll have to rely on their goodwill," Captain Yelsa of the S.F.F. Hymnal said, on a video call with the other captains. "Worst comes to worst, we're prisoners of war, just like all the crew of the other ships."

A notification popped up on her screen. "Ah," he said. "The Titanean Order is finally contacting us. Shall I put them through into this call?"

"Do that," Captain Jolomon of the Enlightened Despot replied, sipping from a flask. He and Yelsa tended to be the de facto leaders of the group, though Captain Rea of the Poco a Poco was nominally in charge. None of the others ever protested if those two were in agreement.

Onscreen, a woman appeared. It took Yelsa a moment before her brain registered who it was. "Admiral Stenton?"

Stenton acknowledged the query with a nod before beginning. "The Titanean Order has graciously decided to guarantee you safe passage through its territory, provided that you cause no trouble. In addition, any surviving members of Solfleet 7 will be transferred to you, though they will be provided the option to remain here on Titan. Our initial estimate is that roughly two hundred people will be taking advantage of this offer; do you have room for that many passengers?"

Jolomon rapidly calculated for a moment in his head. "We should, though it's a tight fit and we'd need a few days to convert current cargo space into quarters for the crew."

"I'll have you aboard my ship," Rea said. "I look forward to having you with us."

Stenton smiled feebly. "I will not be leaving Titan, actually."

Jolomon aghast, asked the question they all had. "They're forcing you to stay?"

"No. It's my free choice."

"You're defecting?" Yelsa chuckled uncomfortably. "I wouldn't have thought that of you."

Stenton's face was cold. "I've decided their dream is worth fighting for. Goodbye, captains. May you have a safe journey back to Saturn." She smiled, now. "Send General Khalum my warm regards."

Everyone fell silent in the meeting room of Olympus High Command, looking at Director Khalum, waiting for his response.

It was terrifyingly cool and collected.

"Is there any chance that Stenton was already planning to defect before arriving at Saturn? That would explain the quick surrender."

"No, sir, there was no indication, though it's possible she'd already been sympathizing with them, potentially even communicating with them in secret. We don't think that's likely, though."

The Director nodded and moved on. "On the topic of defection," he segued, looking down at the report, "this says we have a new mole in the Order."

"That's correct, sir. The captains were contacted anonymously by someone claiming to be in the Prime Regent's inner circle. This person is willing to supply us with inside information in return for eventual political asylum and rather generous monetary compensation."

"Very well. Accept the mole's terms."

The aide protested, "We don't have any proof of the mole's truthfulness, sir. It could be a trick."

Khalum smiled. "And if it is, we still have the benefit of knowing what the Order wants us to think about. That's an important lesson, ladies and gentlemen: people may tell you something without expecting to change your mind, secure in the knowledge that they've at least determined what you'll think about. We can take that and use it against them; if we're pointed toward something, we look for the omissions."

"Ingenious, sir."

"Yes, indeed." The Director looked bored. "Moving on; what's next?"

"You ordered the arrest of a vigilante down on Earth; we've had difficulty tracking her down, but the leaders of the effort assure you that they're getting close. They think they'll capture her within the week."

The Director stood, signalling the end of the meeting. "Very well; schedule a trip for me to Earth. I'd like to be there myself for this."

Captain David Martina, formerly captain of the S.F.F. Panthera Leo, flagship of Solfleet 7, watched through a window as the refuel ship he was on ignited its main engines.

He immediately had to turn away as the bright flare drowned out the view of Saturn's magnificent rings. He grabbed a handhold to counter the sudden thrust of the engines and hold himself in place.

He was on his way back to Jupiter, deprived of his ship, the product of a failed mission. His commanding officer, Admiral Stenton, had defected and joined their enemy.

How could she? What had she been thinking? Had she planned this all along?

Martina had trusted Stenton. Stenton was dependable, if not energetic. Stenton didn't change; she was always cool and collected, even in the midst of the wildly unexpected. She was always loyal.

Well, she had been. What had she been thinking?

As the long trip back to Jupiter began, Martina felt a thought creep into his mind. What if she was in the right?

He shook his head and turned to different thoughts.

"Well," Yellon said with a smile, "I think it's fair to guess that you've shaken up a good many people in power."

"I'm not exactly excited about that," Stenton responded, taking a sip from a mug of tea.

"Well, you're rather new to the whole 'revolution' thing. Give it some time."

Stenton ignored this, moving on to her next thought. "So, what's my role here?"

"Your role?"

"Well, i assume you wanted my defection to be worth more than the perturbation of people in power."

"Ah, I see. Well, we haven't entirely decided yet; there are a few different routes things can go. But if you're willing, I'd like to offer you a role in our fleet."

"What role?"

"Again, we haven't decided. But I'd like you to come with us on our first major deployment. I'll ask for your input on some decisions, perhaps let you have some sort of probationary command. Based on how it goes, I'll have a better idea of where you fit in."

"A deployment? With what fleet? I haven't seen any military ships since arriving here. You're not expecting that hacking trick to work again, are you?"

Yellon laughed. "Well, there's the fleet we took from you."

"Oh." Stenton fell silent.

"But we have more ships on the way."

Stenton's face lit up with realization. "Those ships on the way from Venus?"

"Precisely. We had some new warships made to order. Combining that with some upgrades Dr. Kreller is making to the ships of Solfleet 7, we should be quiet adequately prepared to move from a defensive role to an offensive one."

"And what do you want to do?"

"We're in contact with the Jovian resistance. We've got a plan. But that's a long way off; we can discuss it more later."

Stenton complied and moved on. "You mentioned Dr. Kreller."

"Yes, the Federation scientist who defected."

"I know who he is. Could I speak with him?"

"Absolutely." Yellon looked at his watch. "He should be getting off work very soon; is now a good time?"

"Perfect."

"Dr. Kreller!"

Kreller looked up from the complicated device he was hunched over. His face lit up. "Well, if it isn't Admiral Stenton!" He stood and gave her a hug.

"Not 'Admiral' anymore, I'm afraid."

"Ah, yes. Well, I'm sure Abraham will have that fixed for you in no time."

Yellon laughed. "We'll see."

Stenton did not seem as amused. "I'm not sure I'd deserve a position like that anymore."

"Because of your surrender?"

"Yes."

"Rachel, look at me."

She obeyed.

"What you did saved lives. That's what's important to me, what should be important to you, and I can assure you it's what matters to the Prime Regent."

Yellon nodded.

"I had to make the same decision. Do you know why I designed the Sirius-class battleships the way I did?"

"No," Stenton replied. "I assumed it was just a logical evolution of ship design."

Kreller laughed. "No, the Sirius ships are completely unprecedented. There've been conjectures, but no one actually willing to take a gamble on the idea. I did it because I wanted the warships to have the potential for peaceful use. My dream is that eventually we'd need no more warships, that we'd repurpose or tools of war as tools of peace."

"A good dream," Yellon chimed in.

"One day, I realized the Federation would never do that. They'll always want new warships, new weapons. When they asked me to make a new design of warship, one that would surpass even the Sirius's, I resigned."

Stenton mused. "Why join Titan, then?"

"Because of their dream: they want to end war. Here, I know that what I make will truly be used with that goal in mind."

"And we intend to," Yellon said. "Kreller and his team have designed new ships for us, the ones which were built by Venus and are on their way here now."

"What's different about them?" Stenton asked.

Kreller smiled. "They're also modular, like the Sirius-class ships. In fact, they should be compatible with the modules from the Sirius ships in Solfleet 7. The biggest difference, though, is that they're largely general-purpose ships by default. They were designed with shipments and transportation in mind, not war."

"But don't you mean to use them for war?"

"You forget, that's the power of the modular design: swap out one module for another and you've moved a ship from a cargo ship to a warship. In the Federation, they only used the modularity for strategic purposes to. In this design, we've fully embraced the modularity."

"How so?"

Yellon interjected. "How many ships are coming, Stenton? If I remember correctly, you received a report on them from the Federation."

"Eighty, I think."

"That's a ruse. There's only one."

Stenton was clearly confused. "How do you mean?"

Kreller answered, visibly excited. "In the Federation, they never mixed the modules from the different ships. Each ship was its own entity, and though its own modules would reconfigure, it would almost never borrow modules from other ships or join up with them. We've changed that with these: the whole set of modules from all eighty warships is designed to work as a single entity. And any modules we add to the mix, such as the captured Sirius ships, once their protocols are updated, will continue to join the overall collection. Even regular ships can be added to the mix with a few special pieces of equipment."

"I don't understand," Stenton said.

Yellon smiled. "With the new system, Stenton, the fleet is truly adaptive. It can reconfigure into any set of ships necessary; dozens of fighters with a few capital ships, a few dozen freighters, an entire swarm of fighters that act as one, and more. Weapons can change between ships as the situation calls for it. What's coming from Venus is not eighty ships, it's the T.O.F. Swarm, a fleet, a ship, a massive planetary-system-encompassing weapon, or whatever else it needs to be."

Kreller put his hand on Stenton's shoulder, smiling at her. "This is the future I envisioned, Stenton. Imagine peacetime, when this fleet is no longer a weapon: if every ship in the solar system were like this, think of the spirit of cooperation and teamwork it would foster. Everything would truly be more efficient when people work together, and working together would never have been as simple. There's still much work to get to that stage, but we've begun it. This is the beginning of the end of the world as we know it. The future is bright."

The Boss was asleep in his office when the call came. A slight snore escaped from his lips as the phone on his desk began to ring. He jerked awake and picked it up, irate.

"Who are you and what do you want?" he snapped.

The answer brought a look of shock and horror to his face.

"Oh, Potentate, I am profusely sorry. Profusely sorry. You caught me off guard, that's all, off guard."

"I'll let it pass."

"Oh, thank you, thank you, Potentate! What momentous occasion brings you to grace me with your call?" He smiled and leaned back in his chair. When it creaked in pain, he snapped back upright.

"I want a status report on the fleet going to Titan."

"It's going excellently. No issues, no issues at all. Couldn't better."

"More specifically, please?"

"Of course, of course. They have three months to go before they arrive. Titan successfully conquered the invading Solfleet, so they're all ready for the delivery, all ready."

"Impressive; I was curious to know if they'd have it in them. Who did you put in charge of the fleet?"

"Victor Gomez, one of my finest men. Finest, I tell you."

"Any military training?"

"Why, no, not that I can think of. No, none at all. Why do you ask?"

"There's no chance of us taking over Titan, then."

The Boss was shocked. "You want to do that?"

"No. Probably not. It was but a thought; with the Federation gone and us bringing a fleet of warships into the system, there's a good chance we could strike while they're not expecting it."

"I doubt you'd be successful; they designed all of the communication protocols. They'd have the upper hand. The upper hand, indeed."

"I suppose so. Well, good work. Keep me informed."

"Of course, most gracious Potentate. I remain ever in your service. Ever ready to do your bidding, I am."

"Very well."

The Potentate hung up. The Boss sat still with a present expression on his face for a full minute before falling asleep again."

"Director Khalum, we have our first intelligence reports from the mole in the Titanean Order."

"Go on."

"The mole says that the Order's new ships from Titan are a continuation of the idea behind the Sirius ships, developed by Dr. Abathus Kreller."

"That's what we asked him for. Why would he make it for them but not for us?"

"I don't know, sir. Our mole says these ships are designed to reconfigure on the fly, separating and combining parts and modules from each other to create new ships with different models as called for by the situation, potentially making this fleet the most versatile ever. In a sense, it's like eighty Sirius-class ships, but taken to another level of modularity."

"I don't put too much stock in that modularity business. But eighty Sirius-class ships is no laughing matter; this fleet is a serious threat. Do we have any way of intercepting it?"

"Not with any fleet large enough to challenge it. We'd need multiple Solfleets to have a chance. It's like Jupiter, which we needed four fleets for, even then resorting to General Khalum for the final blow. And you know he's not as effective against ships as against planetary bases."

"I know my son's limitations, yes. Ben-Oni is a valuable asset to us, but we can't overuse him. So, we have to let this new fleet join up with the Order?"

"I don't see any other option. And it gets worse."

"Yes?"

"They're working with the resistance at Jupiter."

"That doesn't particularly bother me. All it does is tell us their next target. At least, it tells us what they want us to think the next target is."

"Sir?"

"I don't fully trust this mole. It could be that they're pointing us in the wrong direction intentionally. In this report, I definitely feel that they're overplaying the strength of the Order's position."

"If you say so, sir."

"Yes, when the Order makes their move, we'll be waiting and ready."