Starwarden Ch1+2

Human History 101

Chapter 1

            “Attention!”

All the midshipmen in the room jumped to attention.

“About face!”

We turned so that we were facing in the direction of the Academy’s flags, which were posted on top of the central hub of the Academy Military Space Station. Out in the vacuum of space there were three flags, the Presidential Council flag, the Solar Fleet flag, and the Academy flag.

“Follow me in the Pledge of Allegiance!”

“I pledge allegiance to the Presidential Council and to the ideals of the republic. Many nations united, under God, for the good of all.”

Then we continued on into the special addition adopted by the servicemen.

“We pledge our lives, our property, and our sacred honor to the protection of the Presidential Council. Duty! Honor! Planet!”

“Remain standing for the Solar Fleet Anthem,” the voice continued over the load speaker.

We all joined in as an ensign led us in a powerful rendition of “Up Ship!” As we sang the anthem, I glanced around the room, looking at the faces of old friends, new friends, and many whom I did not yet know. This was where I belonged. I was in training to be an officer in the Solar Fleet, the second most powerful space navy in the solar system. I wanted to captain a starship one day, but that would be in the distant future. Right now, I was just a midshipman and captain was six pay grades above me.

“At ease,” the captain said. “Welcome to the most exciting class here at the Academy. I am Captain Hill, and I teach Human History 101 for plebes.

“I’ve been in the military a long time, and I’ve been at the Academy since the Fleet bought it. I know that you are all thinking that this is a blow-off class, and that you can BS your way through it. You won’t get away with that in my class! History is important. History shows us why we fight. This class will cover the fourteenth century up through today in three months, so we’re going to have a busy trimester. Are you sailors up for it?”

We were all silent.

“I asked if you lousy bunch of plebes were up to the challenge?”

“Sir, yes, sir!” we all barked at him, but not in unison.

He smiled and shook his head. “Well, at least I know I’m not dealing with a bunch of marines. Just so I know you are all caught up on the recent events, I’ll start with a brief summary of modern history.

“When the third world war ended, the United States of America, which then covered all of North America and most of South America, along with the United Kingdom, Russia, and–of course–Australia, united under the flag of the UE, or United Earth. Over the next two decades the UE covered most of the globe and Luna colony. And, at the end of that period, the first commercial space station opened up, Geary Spacedock.

“After three decades of peace, the United Earth Navy had built three starships. Those ships were the UES Explorer, the USS Independence, and the UES Mayflower. As you all know, the first two exploded when they tried to pass the speed of light. Then Lieutenant Randy Kelven pitched in. He invented the Kelven drive, which allowed the UES Mayflower to successfully achieve hyper-light speed.

“However, this was not a joyous occasion. When the Mayflower reached the border of our system, it was stopped dead in its tracks by the Draconian Empire.

“The Draconians are, for lack of a better description, half-dragon. These creatures look like they came straight out of an epic fantasy, except that they have ships that are thousands of years ahead of ours.”

Not thousands, I heard the voice of Midshipman Richard Winters in my head, via cranial implant. I had only met Richard three months ago, but we had become instant friends. Well, not quite instant. He tried to kill me, and then we became friends. He had spent a year in R&D while he was on a special internship program with the Solar Marine Corps. However, he had decided that the Corps wasn’t for him because he wanted to be the chief engineer of a starship. Richard Winters was a genius and probably the best scientist since Lieutenant Kelven. The Draconians are only three hundred years ahead of us.

            Shut up! I shouted at him over the implant. There were only about fifteen or twenty people in the Solar Fleet that had cranial implants, which were invented by the Canids. The Canids are a dog-like species who were brought to the brink of extinction by the Draconians. The Canids have one ship left, the Zochtil, but their databases were packed full of Canid, Draconian, Passerine, Garm, and Zarc technology, along with a couple gigabytes of human tech that they deemed interesting.

Just make sure you don’t let a comment like that slip out on accident, Jenny said to him. Jenny was my best friend in the whole system, and I thought of her as my older sister. She had kept me alive while we roamed the bombed-out streets of London, which the United Monarchy of Europe had turned into a massive detention facility.

She was stressed out about a slip like that because only a very few people were aware of any alien species other than the Draconians.

Shut up all of you! I’m trying to listen. Jade said. Jade was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. She was also funny, smart, athletic, and the best navigator in the Fleet. It was for the last reason I hadn’t pursued a romantic relationship with her. I needed a good navigator more than I needed a girlfriend. I hoped that one day something might come of our friendship, but I wanted to command a starship, and I wanted the best navigator in the Fleet at the conn.

            Like you’re paying attention, I said.

Hush, Almek, Nicole hissed. Nicole was the most brilliant strategist of my squad. She would probably make admiral before any of us, and she might even become Sky Marshal someday.

“After the Mayflower Incident,” Captain Hill continued, oblivious to the heated argument going on between some of his students. “United Earth sent out the largest fleet they could muster, which wasn’t very large. The main problem with this fleet was that all of the ships were sub-light ships. Their goal was the Draconian blockade, but at the asteroid belt a battle broke out amongst the ships. This fleet consisted of ships from the US, the UK, and Australia. At the asteroid field, the Australians broke off and headed back to earth. The US ships started firing on them in a panic, and the first space battle since WWIII erupted among allies that day. When the battle was over, the shattered, and much smaller fleet, slowly trudged onward to the blockade. Captain Bartholomew Kitt, who is now the Sky Marshal, held this small flotilla together. Those ships gathered as much information about the blockade as possible without drawing the Draconians into battle.

“The Sky Marshal then turned the flotilla around, returning in time to find earth in the midst of a world-wide Civil War. The Presidential Council and the United Monarchy of Europe agreed to a cease-fire almost ten years ago, but–as you know–things have been tense ever since then.

“At the same time as the signing of the cease-fire, a young businessman, Jack Dalton, launched a new company, Dalton Space Industries. A year later, Dalton Spaceways was built, which–as he likes to put it–became the largest mall in the Solar System. It took him just one more year to build the first colony station, Plymouth Station, and two years after that, he started construction on the not-yet-completed second ring of Dalton Spaceways. A year after construction started on the second ring, DSI completed Island One, the largest colony station that has been built. Also, just last week DSI announced that construction of a third colony station, Island Two, will begin shortly. This new will be a mining colony in the asteroid belt.

“After the Civil War, the PC also started building stations and colonizing planets. The PC’s first move was to buy Geary Spacedock, which was quickly going downhill after the creation of Dalton Spaceways, and we converted Geary Spacedock into the Academy. The PC colonized Ganymede three years ago, and we currently have teams terraforming Venus.

“On the other side, the UME has colonized Mars, and–based on our images–the colony on Mars is huge. Two years ago, the UME built their colony on Titan. And that is how things stand.”

A midshipman raised his hand. “What about the recent attack by the UME against one of our convoys to Ganymede?”

“The recent hostilities,” Hill emphasized the politically correct term, “have been overlooked as an accident, and the cease-fire remains in place.”

“The cease-fire won’t last for long,” I stated.

“And why do you say that, Midshipman Manning?” Captain Hill asked.

“Humans are expanding. We need more room. Wars are caused by two things: population pressure and governments. Sure we can keep terraforming more planets, but there are earth-like planets out there in the rest of the galaxy that we can colonize with little or no terraforming. We need to expand. The population pressure will eventually bring us to war with the UME, and then with the Draconians. It is only a matter of time.”

“Population pressure?” he said. “Would you care to back that up?”

“Sure,” I said, now getting a little anxious. The Sky Marshal had explained this to me three days earlier, while we were on the Zochtil.

“Good, I want a five-thousand word report on it by next class.”

I gasped and was about to object when Jenny’s voice came through the implant. Almek, just say sir, yes, sir.

            “Sir, yes, sir!” I said, though it was hard. I had spent about half a decade on the streets of London Proper as the leader of a gang of teenagers. I was more accustomed to leading then to tacking orders.

“So, Almek,” the captain continued. “Do you suggest that we just bomb the daylights out of the UME?”

“No, sir,” I said. “We send down the SMC, the STARs, and Dalton Space Force’s Blue Squadron. We take Europe, Titan, and Mars. Game over, we win.”

“It isn’t that simple,” Hill said. “Would anyone like to explain why?”

Nicole raised her hand.

“Yes, Midshipman Taylor.”

“It would be that simple if we had a big enough Marine Corps, but it’s not that big. However, we could…”

“That is enough speculation for one day,” Hill said. “This is a history class.”

“Sir,” another midshipman asked. “Why don’t we just attack the blockade?”

“Taylor,” Hill said. “Would you like to answer that one?”

“Yes, sir,”

Don’t slip up, Isaac Jones hissed. Remember, we’re just dumb midshipmen. Isaac had been the recruit commander of my division at Boot Camp. We had started out hating each other, but for our final test we were paired up as captain and commander of a ship. You have to learn to like your exec or else you can’t run a ship. So I learned to like Isaac.

Shut up! Nicole replied. “We could probably beat the Draconian blockade if we sent most of our ships. However, as only about half of those ships are capable of sustained K-flight, the Fleet would spend most of its time traveling at a fraction of c. This would allow the UME to have free reign of Earth and the Presidential Council’s colonies. We cannot fight the Draconians until the UME has been crushed.”

“Well put,” Captain Hill said.

Captain Hill moved on to discussing the syllabus, and I let my brain wander. I pulled up the files on the shuttle I would be conning for my next class. It was a SAP, Shuttle All-Purpose, its acceleration was dismal, but I hadn’t ever conned anything before, so it would be fun.

The bell rang, and every midshipman in the room jumped up and rushed out of the room.

“Don’t forget the essay, Midshipman Manning.”

“I won’t, sir,” I said, as I passed him on my way out.

My squad and I all headed down to the docking bay for the SAPs. Well, most of my squad. Jade had passed the SAP quals before we got to the Academy. She had gone through a special simulation at Boot Camp so that she could have a head start. Armistead and Palmer were in the Academy’s flight school program. Their coursework was all accelerated so they could spend half of their time in zero-g flight training.

“Welcome to Basic Conning,” the chief petty officer said. “I am Chief Petty Officer Stanford. I will be instructing you on how to conn everything from an escape pod to a SAP.”

I looked around at the class. Even though three of my squad weren’t there, my squad still had a big presence. We took up almost half of the class.

“Today, we won’t actually leave the docking bay.” There was a collective groan from the class. “A few of you have done some research and found out about the different types of escape pods, but most of you haven’t, so that is what we will discuss today.”

After basic conning, my squad split up, and I went to my Calculus class.

The Academy wasn’t just a school. It was the second largest station in orbit, and it was the largest Solar Fleet military base. Only the first ring and the central hub were used for the Academy. The second and third rings were the Fleet Base, which was packed full of thousands of fighters and bombers, hundreds of SAPs, and about ten cruisers at any one time. The outer ring of the station was commercial. It wasn’t anything like Dalton Spaceways, but it was a nice place for Fleet personnel to relax, get some R&R, and blow their pay.

I found a seat in my classroom and tried to pay attention as the teacher dove straight into evaluating limits. Richard had tutored me while I was at Boot Camp, but it seemed like I would need a lot more help. Math was still too complicated.

Halfway through the class, we were given a fifteen-minute break. The girl sitting next to me turned to face me.

“I’m Midshipman Lauren Cestari,” she said, putting her hand out. She was tall, probably six feet, with long, blonde hair and vibrant blue eyes. She was very good looking, but with that thought my mind turned to Jade.

“Are you related to Admiral Cestari, Commander of Strike Group Two?”

“Yeah, COMSTRKGRU2 is my mom,” Lauren said pronouncing the acronym as a word.

I nodded, “I’m Midshipman Almek Manning.”

“You wouldn’t happen to be related to Captain Andrew Manning?”

“Yeah,” I smiled. “He was my father.”

“Interesting,” Lauren laughed. “It seems that we both have parents who are famous in the Fleet. How are you liking the class so far?”

“I’m a little lost. Math was never my strong suit.”

“Would you like help studying? I was a private tutor back earth-side.”

“I would love it!”

When the class ended an hour later, we got up, and the two of us went to the mess hall.

“So,” I started, “have you always wanted to join the Fleet?”

“Yeah, pretty much,” she said. “I fell in love with space when I read Robert Heinlein’s book Space Cadet. I’ve spent a lot of my life in space, more than on earth, actually, but I didn’t fall in love with being up here until then.”

“That is awesome,” I said. “I’m a Heinlein fan too, though I prefer Spaceman Jones over Space Cadet.”

“Interesting,” Lauren said. “I never really got into that one. Too much math, I guess. I enjoy using math, but I don’t need it in a novel.”

I laughed. “Very true.”

“So what is your goal? Captain or Admiral?”

“Captain,” I said. “I want to command a starship.”

“Same here.”

“Have you already eaten?” I asked as we reached the mess hall.

“Yeah,” she nodded. “My lunch break is before Cal. I’ll see you on Wednesday, then.”

“See you,” I said.

 

***

 

After lunch, my squad went to small arms training. We had all gotten our small arms quals out of the way at Boot Camp, but we wanted to keep up our handgun skills. So, we decided to take the class. Well, all of us except Bronski who was in a special STAR (Space Terrestrial And Rocket) training class for the rest of the day. We finished our small arms class and went back to our room.

The Academy had an odd way of rooming midshipmen. There would be a group of about twenty-five girls and twenty-five boys who would share a common room, and their staterooms would branch out from that common room. A midshipman could move around within the common rooms as much as that midshipman wanted to as long as there was room or someone else was willing to switch. So, my squad all shared the same common room with about thirty others who were not part of my squad.

We commandeered a corner of the room and huddled the best chairs in the room into a circle to discuss the day’s events. Jade talked for half an hour about her Advanced Navigation and Conning class. She was clearly looking forward to trying her hand at conning a cruiser. I was silent throughout the discussion and just listened to my squad mates discussing their adventures. Bronski rushed into the common room a couple hours later, practically bursting with excitement.

“I just signed us up for the Academy Plebe Triad league,” he said.

Triad was the coolest and the most demanding zero g sport ever created. It was played in a long cylinder with seven people to a team. There were four goals, one worth five points and the other were ten points. The goal was to get the pyramid-shaped triad through one of the goals. The players use a combination of shoving off walls and a jet pack with a limited fuel supply to get the triad to the goal. Triad is a full-contact sport, however you’re so heavily armored that it’s hard to get seriously injured.

“Who’s team captain?” Richard asked.

“Me, of course,” he said.

“You?” Richard asked. “Why you?”

“I led my high school triad team to state.”

“I didn’t know that,” Jenny said.

Nicole glanced around at the rest of my squad. “I don’t think any of us did.”

“So, we’re in the running then?”

“Yep,” Bronski said. “Anyway, I’m tired and starving, so let’s get something to eat.”

“Sounds like a plan,” I said.

We all trekked over to the mess. I saw Lauren and gave her a quick salute before I moved to an empty table. We had only been seated for about five minutes when two other midshipmen came to sit with Jade.

“Hello,” I said to them.

“Hi,” the girl said. “I’m Ausha Martin.”

I read the ribbons on her chest. She was a third year, as was the other midshipman.

“She’s Australian, and a brilliant navigator,” Jade added.

“I’m Max McLane,” the other said, putting his hand out.

I shook it.

He’s pretty good looking, Jenny said.

Hush, I hissed. I already made my mind up on this topic.

            Sure. Jenny nodded knowingly.

Jen, I said. Sometimes, I really wonder if you actually are a long lost sister of mine.

            Why thank you.

Despite what I had told Jenny, I felt a twinge of jealousy but suppressed it. I had told myself this would happen a long time ago. I had to get over it. Jade was off-limits and very pretty, so she was bound to have guys fawning over her all the time.

Bronski was talking to his STAR team, which consisted of himself, Scourge (not his real name) Thomas, and Ed, all of whom he had met at Boot Camp.

Suddenly my implant beeped, and a warning message came up in the corner of my vision. Warning! Midshipman Lee approaching! I turned to face my archenemy from Boot Camp. He had been a constant bother, and in the final simulation he had mutinied. We later found out that he had been ordered to mutiny as part of the simulation, but it was still hard to trust the guy.

“I saw you signed up for the Plebe Cup,” he snarled.

“Yeah. What’s it to you?”

“You’ll be dead meat in the cylinder.”

“We’ll see.”

“Yes, we will. Want to bet on it?” he asked. “A week’s salary says I win.”

“I’ll match that,” I nodded. “See you ‘round.”

He smiled viciously and stalked off.

“Too bad we couldn’t have actually killed him in the sim,” Nicole said. “It would have certainly made things easier.”

“Yeah, it would’ve.”

 

***

 

When the weekend finally came, I was ready for it. I had a lot of schoolwork, but there was something much more important than schoolwork that needed to be done. My whole squad copped a three-day pass on Friday night. We had an appointment for one last meeting before Jack Dalton and High Admiral Numair of the Passerines left for Cloud.

Ambassadors

Chapter 2

            The Academy had three rings with long corridors connecting them, similar to Dalton Spaceways, which had a central hub with just one outer ring. The Academy’s long corridors were laid out as slideways, while Dalton Spaceways’ corridors were set up as elevators. My squad and I all went to the main docking bay in the secondary ring. We were going to get a SAP, so that we could pilot ourselves to Dalton Spaceways. However, we had only progressed halfway down the corridor when I got a comm link request from someone I didn’t know.

In the corner of my vision, I saw the flashing light of a link request, pulled it up, and saw the name Samuel Peterson. I didn’t know anyone called Samuel Peterson. Then I saw his title: Acting CEO of Dalton Space Industries.

Opening link, I said, reciting the formal way to open up an implant-to-implant link.

Link received, Peterson replied, continuing the formality. I am Samuel Peterson, Jack Dalton’s partner in DSI.

            I am Midshipman Almek Manning, Solar Fleet liaison to the Canids.

            Midshipman, I understand you are planning to attend the send-off for Jack and the High Admiral.

            Yes. My friends and I are about to leave for Dalton Spaceways via SAP.

            That’s the problem, Peterson said. SAPs are too slow. I’m sending someone to pick you up in a faster ship.

            Understood. I assume he’ll dock to the third ring.

            Yes. He’ll be at DSI’s private dock.

            We’ll be there.

            Ending link, Peterson said, closing the conversation formally.

“We’re getting a ride,” I said to my friends.

“Who were you talking to?” Jade asked.

“Samuel Peterson, Acting CEO of DSI.”

“Acting CEO?” Nicole questioned.

“Well,” I said.  “With Mr. Dalton going out to Cloud as an ambassador someone has to run the company.”

“I guess so,” Jenny said. “Well, we better step onto the fast track.”

We walked over a couple paces, stepping onto the faster-moving slideway to the third ring. We exited at the outer ring, and stepped onto another slideway, which quickly whisked us to the other side of the outer ring, where DSI’s private dock as located.

When we arrived, we found Jack Dalton’s private yacht, the DSS Orion, waiting for us. We found the airlock was locked, and I paged inside.

“This is Midshipman Almek Manning and company.”

The lock slid open, and we walked into the ship. Upon reaching the bridge, I saw an ensign at the controls.

“Ensign,” I said saluting.

The black uniform of the Dalton Space Force contrasted sharply with the dress whites that my squad and I were wearing. The ensign turned to face us, a grin on his face. The ensign was an old squad mate of mine, Kai Drove.

“Kai!” I shouted.

“Almek, It’s good to see you again.”

Kai Drove had served under me while we were part of a gang in the London Proper Detention Facility. When we escaped from London Proper, an old friend of my father, President O’Brian, threw us into a massive court-martial. As a reulst of the court martial, Kai had been forced to transfer to the Space Force because he was too young to be in the Fleet. Though he had now turned seventeen, Kai had decided to stay in the Space Force.

“Ensign?” I asked him.

“Yeah, strap in, and I’ll explain on the way.”

We all strapped in and Kai, with Jade as co-pilot, ran through the checks and undock procedures. Once we were out in open space, Kai started explaining.

“Jack Dalton never graduated from high school, let alone college, and look at where he is now. He’s the owner of the largest company in this solar system, and the only human to own a colony on a planet outside of the solar system. He’s done great things without a college degree.”

“Wait, did you just say that there is a colony outside of our solar system?” Richard asked, nearly jumping out of his seat.

“Yes, there is. Anyway, Mr. Dalton doesn’t believe that a college education is necessary to be a great leader or to be smarter than everybody else. So, officers in the Force aren’t required to have a college degree. Therefore, we don’t have midshipmen.”

“Wait, if you aren’t required to have a college degree, then where do you learn math?”

“The Force will put you through online courses,” Kai said. “But it isn’t a degree program.”

“Does Mr. Dalton do anything conventionally?” I asked.

Kai just laughed.

We talked about Kai’s flight training. His goal was to one day fly the most powerful fighter in the human arsenal: a Space Tomcat.

 

***

            We finally docked with the Zochtil, and my heart started racing. I couldn’t wait to see my old squad mates. I exited the Orion and found myself facing another ensign, this one in the dress whites of the Solar Fleet.

“Excuse me, ma’am,” I said, then I turned my eyes from her insignia up to her face. “Annabeth?”

Annabeth was my old girlfriend. We had grown very close over the years in London Proper, but after we escaped, she broke up with me. We were traveling very different paths, and she didn’t want to deal with the complexities of a relationship that covered hundreds of thousands of kilometers.

“Welcome aboard, midshipman,” she said, smiling.

“How did you make ensign before me?” I asked.

“I’m working full time at Fleet JAG Headquarters in D.C. while I take classes at night. As I’m actually working, I need to be in the chain of command, and to be in the chain of command, I need to be an ensign.”

I turned to face the last person standing there. It was Marian, another member of my old squad. She’s the toughest fighter I’ve ever known (well, besides Bronski and his squad) and, because of that, she had joined the SMC. I read her shoulder boards. “So, you’re still a cadet then?” I said.

“Yes, sir,” she said.

“It’s good to see you again, Marian.” I said.

“It’s good to be back, sir.”

“Marian, cut the sir.”

She smiled at me. “I wondered how long it would take you to say that.” She gave me a hug. “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever hugged a sailor.”

“I feel honored.”

The XO of the Zochtil, Ardent, came into the hangar. His canine form didn’t bother me anymore. He didn’t even seem “alien” to me. He was just my good friend Ardent.

“I think y’all have had enough of a reunion,” he said. “It’s time to get down to business.”

“Y’all?” Nicole asked.

“Sorry,” Ardent said. “It’s a human word I’ve come to love. It’s just an awesome word.”

We followed Ardent onto the bridge of the Zochtil, where I found another old friend of mine. Her name was Sonnel the Third of the Devellon line, High Alpha of the Canids. I had known her as Sapphire. She had come down to earth disguised as a dog and had helped me many times in London Proper.

“Hello, Sonnel,” I said, nodding towards her.

“Hello, Almek.”

I turned to see who else was on the bridge, and I gasped as I saw an odd, yet familiar, figure. I saw a man who looked like Jack Dalton, but protruding from his back were two, feathery, blue and white striped, realistic-looking wings. And instead of his usual promotional t-shirt, he was wearing the glittering ceremonial armor of the Passerines. He looked like a juvenile-Passerine as he stood next to High Admiral Numair, who towered over everyone at the height of nine foot eight. High Admiral Numair was an exception, because Passerines were usually only eight feet tall. Even then, Mr. Dalton would be short for a Passerine, but High Admiral Numair claimed that there were some Passerines who never passed six feet.

I glanced around and saw that Sky Marshal Kitt was also there. The Sky Marshal was the leader of the Solar Military. He had worked his way up through the ranks as a Marine and then had transferred to the United Earth Navy after the Mayflower Incident. He won many battles in the Civil War, and, once the PC was formed, he was the first to be named Sky Marshal of the Solar Military.

Next to the Sky Marshal was another Passerine, Abrams. Abrams was to be the Passerine ambassador to the humans, until the Passerines could send someone more qualified.

“So, is everything ready?” Samuel asked.

“Just about,” Admiral Numair said. “Jack is well briefed on Passerine culture, and his wings are as good as they are going to get.”

“I must say,” Mr. Dalton said, stretching his wings. “These feel really odd.”

“You’ll get used to them,” Admiral Numair said. “In fact, when you have them removed after this assignment, you will probably miss them.”

“Sure,” Mr. Dalton said sarcastically.

“How do you control them?” Richard asked.

“Via my implant,” Mr. Dalton said.

“Just why did you want my squad here?” I asked Sonnel.

“It wasn’t my call,” she said. “It was Bartholomew’s idea.”

It took me a second to place the name. You either referred to the Sky Marshal as “The Sky Marshal” or as Sky Marshal Kitt, never as Bartholomew. The scuttlebutt was that even the Chairman of the Presidential Council called him Sky Marshal Kitt.

“Sky Marshal?” I said, turning to him quizzically.

“I feel that you understand things here a little better than I do. I mean after all, you were Sonnel’s first contact, and where you go, your squad goes.”

“I understand things better than you, sir?”

“You’ve had your ‘plants longer than me. I’m sure that you and your squad have done much more research into Canid history than I have in the nine days I’ve had my ‘plants.”

I nodded, still not really believing him.

“Well,” Admiral Numair said. “I need to head back to my home world, Cloud. My people will begin to worry if I’m gone much longer.”

“I’m frankly very jealous of you,” the Sky Marshal said to Mr. Dalton. “Acting as a spy among aliens.”

“We’ll see if you’re still jealous when I come back in a body bag,” Mr. Dalton said. “My best statistical software calculated that I have a twenty-percent chance of surviving.”

“My best software calculated that DSI would go under after the first six months,” the Sky Marshal said.

Mr. Dalton laughed. “Mil software isn’t very good, though.”

“Touché,” the Sky Marshal said.

“Communication is going to be the hardest part,” Sonnel said, getting the conversation back on track. “You’ll have to be very careful. We can’t afford to have the Draconians find out about this alliance.”

“I understand,” Mr. Dalton said. “Of course I’ll be careful. I’ve got top-of-the-line DSI gear mixed with Canid, Passerine, and Draconian tech. I don’t think anyone will be able to break the code.”

“I hope you’re right,” Ardent said.

“I think it’ll work,” another Canid said. He was the communications department head, Beta Three Dron.

“I hope you’re right, Beta Three,” Ardent said.

“Wait,” I said. “Is this an official alliance then?”

“Yes,” the Sky Marshal said. “We’ve all signed a mutual protection pact.”

“I’ll even have to break another mutual protection pact to be part of this one,” High Admiral Numair said. “I’ve got to go. See you later, Ambassador Abrams.”

High Admiral Numair saluted Sonnel and the Sky Marshal, then he and Jack Dalton headed off of the bridge.

“Sky Marshal,” I said. “I’ve got a question for you.”

I saw Jack Dalton stop and turn around, before he actually left the bridge.

“What is it?” the Sky Marshal asked.

“I promised my squad mates back in London Proper that I would come back for them someday. I understand that might not be possible now, but can you keep an eye on them?”

“I already have been,” the Sky Marshal said. “Nothing has happened in London Proper, at least nothing our satellites could pick up. They should be fine.”

Jack snorted and walked into the lift.

“You don’t believe me?” the Sky Marshal asked Jack.

He just smiled. “I can promise Almek his friends are safe. Can you do the same?”

The Sky Marshal jerked back in surprise.

“You can?”

“Yes.”

“Thanks,” I said. I wasn’t quite sure what was happening, but the two most powerful humans had said my squad mates were safe. I would fulfill my promise and go back for them as soon as I was able.

Once Jack Dalton had exited the bridge, Ardent turned to Sonnel.

“Now comes the real test,” he said. “Is the High Admiral really on our side?”

“We shall see,” Sonnel muttered. “We shall see…”

“I don’t like trusting someone this much,” the Sky Marshal said. “I’ve learned to trust very few people. I believe I can trust Mr. Dalton, but High Admiral Numair, I don’t know.”

“The High Admiral will not break your treaty, sir,” Abrams spoke up.

“I hope you’re right.”

“Our fate is in Numair’s hands now,” Ardent said.

“I really don’t like that,” Bronski said. “Plus, we’ve been saying ‘I hope you’re right’ way too much.”

“You are such a STAR,” the Sky Marshal said. “You already think like one.”

Bronski smiled. “Thank you, sir.”

“Well,” Sonnel said. “Now it’s time to witness a historic event.”

The main viewer lit up, and we all turned to see the faces of High Admiral Numair and Mr. Dalton.

“Passerine Ship Cloudstep requesting permission to undock,” the High Admiral said.

Cloudstep, you are cleared for undock,” Dron said.

“Thank you, Zochtil,” Numair said.

“They have undocked, ma’am,” another Canid said.

“Detecting a ripple in the seventh dimension,” another said.

“The Cloudstep has powered up their seventh dimensional transmitter,” Ardent called out from his station. Then a couple of seconds later, “the Cloudstep is gone.”

“The ripple in the seventh dimension is closing. It will be five minutes before Mr. Dalton can report.”

We waited in silence for five long minutes.

“I’ve got an odd signal coming in,” Dron reported. “It’s Jack.”

“This is Jack Dalton,” the voice said. “Test … test … test.”

“We read you,” Dron said.

“Copy,” Mr. Dalton said. “We are nearing Cloud. I’ll contact you later.”

“And there we are,” Ardent said, getting up from his station. “The first human contact with the Passerines.”

The Sky Marshal swore. “Stupid DSI. First to explore out of our system, first to build a colony out-of-system, first to successfully fight an alien enemy, first to successfully contact an alien race. Maybe I should just hang up my sunbursts.”

“And who could take your place?” I asked.

“Admiral Cestari,” he said.

“Admiral Cestari?” I asked. “She hasn’t ever been in the Corps. She couldn’t be the Sky Marshal. No, you’re stuck with those sunbursts, sir.”

He laughed. “I never thought I’d see the day when a midshipman would talk to me like that.”

“Sorry, sir,” I said.

“Don’t be,” he smiled at me. “Maybe Sky Marshal Manning?”

The smile dropped off my face. “Do you think I would make a good Sky Marshal, sir?”

“Maybe someday,” he said. “After I have retired, that is.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Well, shall we dine together before it gets too late?” Sonnel asked.

We ate together, I had grown used to Canid food, and it was rather good. Mr. Dalton had brought up a couple of earth’s best dishes for the Canids to try, and we had quite a feast.

At the end of our second day aboard the Zochtil, Nicole decided it was time for us to return to the Academy so that we could concentrate on our homework again. We all groaned and complained, but at the same time we knew we had to return.

My current squad loaded into the Orion, and as I prepared to climb in, I delivered a sharp salute to my old squad mates. They saluted back, and I wondered when I would see them again.

By the way, Annabeth said. I approve of your new girlfriend.

            Who? I asked. My thoughts turned to Lauren who Annabeth hadn’t met.

Jade, dummy.

            I’m not in a relationship with her. She’s going to be my navigator.

            Uh-huh.

            Then I realized that my thoughts hadn’t turned to Jade first, but to Lauren. Was I actually interested in Lauren? My life was getting way too complicated, and, for the first time ever, I actually wished I was back in London Proper.

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