Chapter One

For as long as Valeca could remember, her family had never eaten dinner without the holo-screen on; at least, not since her father had been elected to the Executive Council seven years ago. Eric Florn hadn’t really planned on the political career track back then, but he tried his best to follow the will of the people and the people just kept willing him back into office. Consequently, he spent every evening he could with the holo-screen on, displaying the latest news from in and around the Jovian colonies in a shallow holographic projection.

With the exception of those who sat on the Colonial Defense Committee, for many in FACET both the true nature and extent of the growing hostilities with the United Earth League regarding governance of the over four billion residents of the Asteroid Belt was largely unknown. Even the fastest civilian ships needed at least two weeks to reach the nearest of the many colonies in the region, and transportation across those distances was still largely reserved for the wealthiest in both the Interior and Exterior colonies. Even members of the Executive Council received only that information the CDC decided was useful for policymakers in Destiny Colony.

A muted fanfare emanated from the holo-screen’s array of speakers spread around the Florn family’s well-furnished apartment. The right half of the screen was dominated by the large, holographic image of a nightly news anchor, while the left side was alive with moving images of ships, followed by a horrible explosion. Eric Florn froze, his fork halfway to his mouth.

“Son of a bitch,” he said, “would you look at that.” Valeca and her stepmother Jessa stopped what they were doing as well and craned their necks to get a better view of the holo-screen.

“What is it?” asked Jessa.

“Looks like some sort of terrorist attack,” replied Eric. “My money says UEL.”

“Would they really do that?” asked Valeca.

“Just look at it, honey,” Eric said to his daughter without turning away from the events unfolding onscreen. “The Belters wouldn’t try to pull anything like this. It says the ship got hit less than a hundred thousand clicks from the Station: that’s right in the middle of the shipping lane. Nah, Belters wouldn’t want to bring that kind of trouble down on themselves from us or Earth. It had to be UEL.”

The three of them could only watch in shocked silence as the reports came in: two hundred thirty-seven people dead; all flights in the Cererean Belt Sector put on hold indefinitely; and rampant speculation as to who the guilty party could’ve been.

Valeca tried to swallow a lump which had just formed in her throat; she knew then that this moment was one which she’d never forget where she was when it had happened. The carefully constructed world in which she’d spent so much of her life—a new home in the Jovian colonies, a new mother, years of engineering courses, a steady job with a colony construction firm here in Jupiter-Ganymede L1—was all threatening to slip away from her forever. All she could know for sure was that her plans were just as much a casualty of this attack as were the passengers of PRO-2715.

As the steady drone of the news anchor’s voice mixed with an assault of videos and images concluded for the time being, an announcement broke her out of her pondering.

“And here via satellite from Destiny is President Derak with a statement regarding today’s attack,” said a voice onscreen. With that, the picture on the giant holo-screen changed to center on a handsome man in his early forties: Otha Derak, President of the Free Alliance of Colonies and Exterior Territories, known as FACET. He’d been in office now for a little over two years, elected in a wave of popular optimism that sought to push out the political old guard and their policies of passive isolationism. The fire of their initial independence movement had faded decades ago, many said, and what the nation required now was strong leadership to confront the League’s ever-expanding sphere of influence. Valeca feared most of all that now, the people would get what they’d asked for.

There was no fanfare to introduce the President of the Alliance, as he was already standing behind a podium draped in a large colonial flag when the cameras switched over to him. Behind him were rows of flagpoles, all bearing larger versions of the same flag. His moment of silence before speaking and the expression on his face conveyed many things: pain, resolve, defiance. He did everything he could to look the part of the leader standing before his people at the brink of war.

“Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,” he said, “citizens of FACET or otherwise. Not one hour ago, a commercial freighter carrying over two hundred colonial citizens was destroyed near Ceres and lost with all hands. Though we’re still in the process of verifying the complete passenger manifest, we mourn for all those lost in this horrible tragedy. One thing I can assure you is that this blatant attack on our sovereignty will not be tolerated in the least. Though much is uncertain and no one group has yet claimed responsibility for what we believe to be an attack, I assure you that the BCI and the Colonial Fleet are doing all they can to find the ones behind this and bring them to justice. By virtue of my authority as Commander in Chief of the armed forces, I’ve called to the Fleet to investigate the incident further. I feel, as do you, pangs of loss on behalf of all those who lost loved ones today. People of the colonies, no matter where you are, you have my word as president that your grievances are my top priority, and that justice will be done. Thank you, and goodnight.”

In the wake of the announcement, no one said a word. What could they have even added to what they’d just been told? A million thoughts raced through Valeca’s head, none of which she could turn into anything that made sense. Was her father right? Would the League really do something like this? If not them, then who? What did they want? In the end, the only question that solidified in her mind was “why”.

Faces on their wall-sized holo-screen talked on and on about the same questions, but Valeca felt like they all had just about as many answers as she had. A feeling of disorientation and disgust threatened to totally overwhelm her when the screen pinged with an incoming call alert. In the upper left-hand corner, another face appeared: it was that of Councillor Geoff Marquis.

Valeca’s father took a moment to collect himself before addressing the screen.

“Accept call,” he said gravely. The other councillor’s face now expanded to take up the whole screen, projecting out from it in a shallow hologram.

“Eric,” the man said. “We’ll need you ba-” His gaze shifted to Valeca and her stepmother before returning to her father.

“They’re fine,” Eric replied to the other man’s unspoken question. “Whatever it is, they can hear it too.” Marquis hesitated for a moment before continuing.

“Derak just called for an emergency session of the Council. We’ll need you right away.”

“Right,” Eric said. He looked to his wife and then Valeca, then got up from his chair. “I hope next time we can meet under better circumstances,” he said to Marquis.

“I hope so too,” the man replied before his face faded from the screen, to be replaced by the group of commentators from before.

“I’m not sure when I’ll be back, but don’t worry, ” Eric said as he went for his bag and jacket. “I’m sure we’ll get all this sorted out.” With that, he was out the door.

Again, the apartment was silent for a moment. Valeca tried picking at her dinner but it no longer looked appetizing even though she’d been hungry after a long day of construction on the new Longevity colony cylinder. More than anything, she wanted to be alone.

“I’m going to my room,” she said to her stepmother. Jessa didn’t respond, but was too busy watching as amateur videos replayed the explosion over and over. Valeca got up from the table not even feeling like clearing her place and walked over to her room. It was fairly small for an apartment like this in the affluent sector of their housing block, but it was comfortable and it was hers. Along the walls were holo-projected images of various ships she’d always admired: an old shuttle from the American space program; an Eriksen-class colony ship from the very beginnings of human expansion beyond Earth; even one of the new Gerard de Jen-class heavy cruisers, just activated last year. Here was one of the only places she could feel herself again, not unlike the long days she put in as an Arkitect pilot at Longevity. She reveled in being given a task which she alone would be able to complete, then getting it done; the less she had to rely on anyone else, the better.

She’d just shut the door when one of the holo-projectors started pinging: incoming call.

“Dammit,” she muttered. “Not now…” She looked over and a familiar face on her wall: it was her oldest friend, Aeje Miyaka. “Accept call,” she said halfheartedly. His face now took up the entire screen.

“You see the news?” he said looking concerned.

“Yeah,” Valeca replied. “My dad just got called in for a meeting… Must be serious.”

Shit… I don’t like this, man. Who do you think it could be? You think Belters would do something like that?”

“Beats me,” she lied. “I don’t know why anyone would.” They were both silent for a moment as neither could figure out how to convey what today’s events had made them feel. Was it grief for the ones who’d been murdered in such a cowardly fashion? Anger for the fact that political ideologies could push someone so far as to do something this horrible? Valeca couldn’t be sure and from what she knew of Aeje, she imagined he couldn’t be either. Perhaps no one was.

“I don’t know what to say,” Aeje finally interjected. “I just feel like I need to see you. Now.” Valeca wasn’t sure what to say either, but maybe her closest friend would be able to help her figure it out.

“Okay,” she said, betraying her reluctance. “Where?”

“How about Liberty Plaza? We can take the train.”

“Sounds fine to me. I’ll meet you at the station in a little bit.”

“See you there,” he said before his face disappeared from her wall. She still wasn’t sure why she’d agreed to this when talking to other people was currently the farthest thing from her mind, but she couldn’t bring herself to get mad at Aeje. He was a different person than she was, not given so much to introspection and working alone as she was. Maybe that’s why she liked him so much; he was the extrovert she wished she could be on her worst days, though she hated to admit it.

When Valeca left her bedroom, Jessa Florn was too busy crying to notice her stepdaughter leaving the apartment.

 

***

 

Destiny’s city proper was only a few minutes away from their housing block by mag-lev train. It was a quiet ride, for the most part; all the other passengers were too attentive to the screens both on the interior of the train and in their hands, watching as more news came in from Ceres. The only other noise came from little children who couldn’t understand what everyone else was so distraught about. Already, there were accusations flying from pundits in FACET and the Interior Colonies about who was responsible for the attack. Some blamed various Belter separatist groups, like the People’s Vanguard or Settlers’ Collectivist Union, while others asserted that neither of those organizations were known to target civilian transports, only military vessels. Others still pulled no punches and condemned the UEL outright. It seemed to Valeca that the lack of information was itself causing too much to be passed around as “intelligence” when it was still far too early to tell either way.

Her own suspicions kept drifting back to the Belters, if only because of her brother. It had been three years now since his first tour in the Belt had been his last. “So young,” they had said at the time; “so much promise,” all after saying they were “so sorry”. On that day, Valeca Florn had sealed her heart. Only Aeje had been able to work his way back into the darkness she’d constructed for herself.

The mag-lev train eased to a stop in front of Liberty Plaza, a large open square in the middle of Destiny city proper built as a memorial to the early martyrs and others who’d since given their lives for the protection of colonial rights to self-determination. Perhaps if Carriuss Florn hadn’t elected to join the Special Forces, his name might be on one of these monuments. Looking around the plaza, Valeca noticed that there were already groups of people forming on the grounds. She and Aeje glanced at them and decided they wanted no part in it.

They went and sat down on a bench across the plaza from the demonstrators. Above them, the Sun was beginning to “set”, inducing the transition to artificial night in the massive colony cylinder of Destiny. Even after hundreds of years in space, humanity still fell into the same patterns of circadian rhythm that had regulated its ancestors on the savannahs of distant Africa. The only differences now were the forced twenty-eight hour day and the fact that rather than rotating around the Sun, the colony’s three lengthwise windows which let in reflected sunlight gradually darkened until the light which permeated them roughly approximated a clear night under a full moon on Earth. Full night was still another half an hour or so away, but Aeje and Valeca could already tell that the interior light was dimming.

“I just don’t know what to think anymore,” Aeje said. “I keep trying and trying but nothing that comes to me makes any sense.”

“Me too,” Valeca replied. It was all she could think of to say.

“I mean, how long’s it been since things quieted down with the League? Ten, twenty years maybe? Why would they go and screw it up now?” The desperation in his voice was becoming increasingly obvious.

“Who says it was the League?”

“I dunno… It just makes more sense, I guess. You heard what they said on the news.”

“But no one has any answers yet. We just have to try and be prepared for whatever happens next, that’s all.”

“Yeah… Whatever that is. It’s just that I can’t help feeling like everything’s about to fall apart. You know what I mean? Like everything just got so fragile all of a sudden.” Once again, Valeca simply couldn’t find the words; it was never something she’d believed herself to be any good at. Aeje certainly wasn’t much better himself, but Valeca figured it wasn’t for lack of trying. “Look,” he said, “maybe I’m just full of shit but this whole thing is just making me look at things with a new perspective.”

“What’re you saying?”

“I just feel like there are… Certain things in my life that I don’t want to lose but now I’m afraid that I might. Certain people too.” Aeje, you idiot, Valeca thought as the slightest grin appeared on her face.

“And who are these people?” Valeca asked. “The ones you’re afraid to lose?”

Shit, man, don’t listen to me,” he replied, waving his hand as if to beat away the answer he knew his friend was looking for. “I’m just a little confused about all this, that’s all…”

“Forget about it, then.”

“Then what?” he asked. Valeca leaned back on the bench, putting her hands behind her head.

“Let’s watch the stars come out.”

They sat in silence for a long time; the colony cylinder’s giant window above them had gone almost entirely opaque and the myriad lights of the other two inhabited sections on either side of it now glittered above them like stars. The silence finally gave Valeca some time to think.

Looking up at those artificial stars above her, she tried forcing herself to remember when she was a child still living on Earth, when she would’ve seen real stars stretched out over her head like an inverted bowl that stretched on forever, but she couldn’t seem to find the memories. It’d been over seventeen years now since she and her father had immigrated to Jupiter on a work visa, then applied for citizenship. At the time, she’d been three years old and it was understandable that she had no real memories of Earth. She barely had any memories of her mother either, except for one which, even though it was incomplete, clung to her mind as her own hand had done to her mother’s once.

It was only later she found out that he could only take one of his two children with him to the Jovian colonies. It would be better, they’d decided, for Valeca to leave and for Carriuss to stay behind. After all, Carriuss was older and would be less of a burden on his mother as he got older. On the other hand, Valeca would have better opportunities in FACET than she had here on Earth. The little family had told themselves that this was their plan and that it was a good one, and so they prepared to say goodbye.

Despite the fuzziness and uncertainty that plagued other scenes from her childhood, Valeca remembered this one the strongest: her little hand reaching up to grab onto a few of her mother’s fingers, before she was hoisted up and held in a warm embrace for what had seemed like a long time, but was likely only a brief moment. Her last glimpse of her mother came as she toddled off behind her father towards the gate at the spaceport, where a large shuttle waited to take them to Earth orbit and eventually to Jupiter. If all went according to plan, Crista and Carriuss would be on a similar shuttle in only two or three more years.

In truth, it would be ten years, and Valeca’s mother wouldn’t make it to Jupiter after all. One day after school two years later, her father told her one day after school that Mommy wouldn’t be coming to see them anymore. Valeca had a harder time remembering much about her mother than she did coping with the grief. Many times since then, she wondered if she should feel guilty for not being able to mourn as her father had done, but maybe she simply couldn’t blame herself for it. Even if all she had was a single memory of Crista Florn, it would have to suffice.

And then there was Aeje. What was she supposed to do with him? She’d been friends with him since they’d first started school together and he was the only person she felt comfortable enough around to tell about how she really felt about things. It was obvious that he liked her; he may be an idiot sometimes, like he was being now, but she sure wasn’t one. She’d wondered before why she couldn’t just bring herself to tell him that she knew about his feelings and get it over with, maybe even start something with him. He was a good guy, though a bit of a slacker, and his irrepressibly talkative nature got on her nerves sometimes, especially when she wanted to be alone, but she could never get mad at him. Maybe that was all the reason she needed to just suck up her insecurities and doubts and make their friendship into something more.

Maybe. Either way, that would have to come later; too much was on her mind right now to decide what she’d do with Aeje Miyaka.

After a long time, he spoke again. It was like he knew she’d been thinking about him.

“I’m starving,” he said. “Let’s go grab some dinner.” You’re still an idiot after all, Valeca thought, but I still can’t help but like you.

“Okay, let’s go. What’d you have in mind?”

“Not sure. I’ll know when we get there.”

“I don’t think you’ve ever met any food you were willing to turn down,” she said with a smile.

“Nope, and I probably never will.”

The pair got up and made their way across the plaza, taking care to avoid the still-increasing group of people on the opposite end. Valeca didn’t know why it was exactly that they were demonstrating, just that she didn’t want to get mixed up in it. Thankfully, it was only a short walk from where they’d been sitting to all the restaurants and shops on McNarry Street.

“Hey, wanna go to this new place I heard about down the street?” asked Aeje. “I heard they had pretty good noodles.”

“Sure,” Valeca replied. They took a raised walkway over the traffic on the road and came out across from Liberty Plaza. Arriving on the other side, they turned right and paused, noticing a group of people congregating outside a storefront.

“What do you think’s going on over there?” she asked.

“Beats me. Let’s just keep going.” Valeca nodded and the two of them continued walking. As they got closer, they could hear excited voices, some arguing and others apparently just chatting as they surrounded the front door. Inside the little semi-circle of people, there stood a tall, well-built man in a Colonial Fleet dress uniform. It was clear now that this was a Fleet recruiting station and that the ones arguing were there for him.

“If we’d just pulled our troops out of the Belt, you think something like this would’ve happened?” asked one young man derisively. “We’ve been pressing them too hard for years and now we’re reaping what we sowed.”

“What a load of bullshit,” yelled another man opposite him. “Why’d they go after a civilian ship then?”

“Look, I’m going to have to ask you all to disperse,” the Fleet officer in the center said sternly. “You’re causing a disturbance.” A girl who looked about Valeca’s age started shouting from the left of the first man who’d spoken up.

“You can’t do that! This is public property.” The officer looked her straight in the eye with a practiced glare.

“If you wanna get technical about it, the lease for this office includes the sidewalk out front, meaning I can have you all evicted if I feel the property’s being threatened. That goes for guests on the property too,” he said, nodding to the other group to his left.

Another one shouted from the protesters’ side.

“I guess it makes sense you’d call the cops to protect a bunch of baby-killers, since you are one yourself.”

“Listen up, you little shit,” said one of the men on the other side. Valeca and Aeje were closer now and could see that the larger group on the right was lined up outside the door of the Fleet recruiting office. “The only reason you’re able to say that is because there are soldiers out there busting their asses to protect your freedom to do so. You can either respect that or move somewhere else. How about the Belt if you think it’s so great?”

“Yeah, you’d probably fit right in with the SCU,” yelled another one. “Bunch of terrorists, that’s what they are.”

Aeje and Valeca looked nervously to each other.

“Let’s get out of here,” she said. “We can just cross the street and go around.”

“Sounds good.” But before they could get away, one of the protesters had already spotted them.

“You here to join up and kill some Belters too?” she shouted to them. “I hear it’s loads of fun.” Valeca could feel anger building up inside her; what made these people think she and Aeje wanted anything to do with them? It was Aeje who spoke up first.

“Hey man, we don’t want any trouble. We’re just out for some food.”

“Well, isn’t that nice,” replied the girl. “How’d you like to lose your appetite, though? Did you know that the Fleet is responsible for more civilian deaths in the Belt than the SCU and PV combined? Or that-”

It took a lot to make Valeca lose her patience, but she lost it this time.

“You think the Fleet’s a joke out there in the Belt? Do you? That everyone who joins up is just a killer?” Valeca got much closer to the girl than she wanted to but her adrenaline pushed her on. “My brother died out there so you could have the freedom to stand around and bitch, just like you’re doing right now. Are you gonna tell me it was all for nothing?” A few of the protesters backed away as they saw the look on Valeca’s face; it’d been a long time since she’d fought someone, but she’d never fought anyone who didn’t deserve it. She was ready to add another one to the list.

Before the girl and the others with her could reply, the Fleet officer had come between them.

“Get outta here!” he yelled. “You’ve caused enough trouble as it is.” Slowly, they dispersed and yelled profanities back at him and the others waiting in line to enlist, but none of them tried anymore to make eye contact with Valeca. Once the protesters were far enough down the street to not cause any more problems, the officer turned to her.

“That was quite a display,” he said as he extended a hand. “I’m Colonel Rice.”

“Valeca,” she said, taking the hand offered to her and shaking it firmly, though not as firmly as the colonel shook hers.

“Nice to meet you. Now are you here to talk to me just like everyone else here?”

“Actually, sir, we’re just passing by.”

“It would’ve been nice if those other assholes hadn’t tried to get us involved in anything,” Aeje interjected, “but what can you do?”

“Well, if you ever have any questions about the Fleet, you know where to find me.” Valeca’s eyes narrowed slightly as she rejoined Aeje on the edge of the sidewalk.

“With all due respect, sir, I don’t want anything to do with it. Especially after what happened to my brother.”

“Fair enough,” the colonel said, nodding. “Sorry for your loss.”

“Thanks,” Valeca said perfunctorily. After so many condolences over the last three years, it was the best she could do anymore. “Goodbye.” She turned away quickly, leaving Aeje to catch up with her. The two of them set a brisk pace away from the recruiting station, as Valeca tried to escape the pain it had wrenched back from its hiding place far inside her mind.

 

***

 

The capital of the United Earth League lay sprawled at the base of one of Earth’s two space elevators, a massive stalk of carbon nanomaterials which stretched over thirty-five thousand kilometers in length from the calm waters of the southeastern Indian Ocean to its counterweight station high above geostationary orbit. Constructed far away from the devastation typical in many parts of post-Reconstruction War Earth, the floating city of Genesis was a technological and conceptual masterpiece. Tens of thousands of government functionaries, trade representatives, and engineers lived a self-sufficient existence on the man-made island, which acted as an officially impartial meeting place for dignitaries from Earth and its various colonies.

Rising high above the rest of the city was the capitol complex, a graceful structure of glass and carbon-based substances similar to those used in the construction of the city’s central space elevator. Within were hundreds of offices centered around the League’s main assembly chamber, and near the building’s peak was that of the President himself, Haakim Ayonagi.

At the moment, he was visibly harried as he met with members of the League Space Fleet’s peace-keeping force and other officials, both in person and via holo-projector. He sat at the head of a large, oval conference table, flanked by advisors, Earth-based military personnel and the hazy, holographic forms of two admirals: Laura Moleschenkova—a hard-bitten Belt veteran whose stern face and graying hair reflected all her vast experience—and Jason Strathmore—the young and tenacious commander of the Earth Defense Fleet. For the latter two, the time delay between transmission and reception of messages from Earth to the Moon and geostationary orbit respectively was minimal but easier to deal with than waiting for either of them to arrive in the city proper via space elevator.

“Look, Admiral,” the president said, addressed Moleschenkova’s hologram, “all I need to know is what the hell FACET was doing with a diplomatic mission on a civilian transport, and whether or not our men are even at fault. You’re sure that none of our fleet personnel were in the vicinity when the ship was destroyed?” The conference room was silent for about thirty seconds as the message streamed out to the Admiral’s ship in orbit around the Moon and was heard on the other end before its reply could make its way back to Genesis on Earth. Finally, the Admiral replied.

“Yes, Mister President, I went over the Bulwark’s shore leave logs with Admiral Hunter myself. All his men were listed as being either aboard ship or in the duty-free section of Ceres Station. Nothing out of the ordinary, really.” There was another shorter delay before Admiral Strathmore also spoke over the holo-screen.

“And have we ruled out Belt-based separatist groups?” he asked “How about FACET dissidents? If it wasn’t us, then it had to be someone. Maybe even FACET themselves.”

“Also something to consider,” replied the president, “though I really doubt that FACET would go after their own civilians like that.”

“I’m not sure, Mister President. You heard that one counselor from Ganymede the other day… What was his name? Jennar, I think. Well, he’s saying the same thing about us, that he can’t believe the UEL would be targeting non-combatants. Of course, he’s trying to make us look like right bastards for it, but I agree with him: I can’t believe any of our men would’ve done that either.”

Ayonagi took a moment to think before responding.

“Either way, it looks like Derak and the Council are serious. We should expect them to hit Ceres again, this time with an actual fleet. What’s your intel like out there, Admiral Moleschenkova? What’re we dealing with?”

Once again, the assembled advisors and Fleet personnel waited as the proceedings of their meeting were beamed off towards the Moon at the speed of light, before being followed by the Admiral’s own reply in her light Eastern European accent.

“My information’s sketchy at best, Mister President, but it looks like the most we’d have to deal with if they do move for Ceres is some refitted bulk carriers older than I am.”

“If we’re really going to be fighting a war here, Admiral,” replied the President, “we can’t win it on ‘sketchy’. Get your men on it. I want a full report in front of me tomorrow night, which would still give us some time before their ships are expected to arrive at Ceres, assuming they do at all.

“Yes, sir,” she responded with a small nod.

Ayonagi’s gaze shifted around the table to the faces of all the men and women assembled there. Though strategy meetings like this had been more frequent a few years ago, things had begun to settle down as the peace-keeping fleets had now been operating in the Belt again. Still, this was the closest the League had ever come to open conflict with FACET patrols. If matters weren’t handled delicately in the next few days, the situation could rapidly boil over into open war, especially if Derak’s charges about a dead ambassador were proven to be correct. The President spoke again.

“Good. Now unless we have any other business, I say we keep putting together as much intel as possible. Admiral Strathmore will coordinate our secondary defensive line at Mars and Admiral Moleschenkova will organize the rendezvous party headed for Ceres. Are we clear?”

“Yes, sir,” came an immediate reply from those in the conference room. The two admirals in space followed shortly after.

“Good work, people. I hope just as everyone else does that this is just more saber-rattling from Derak and the Council, but we really won’t know for a few more days at least.”

A handful of smaller conversations broke out all around the room once the two admirals’ holo-projectors had gone dark, leaving the President and his advisors to themselves again.

“Someone get Mangasaryan on the line,” Ayonagi said. “If Derak’s serious about sending in a battle group, we’ll need all the help we can get watching Ceres’ rear.”

“I hope not,” replied one of his aides. “Not after all this time.”

“Me too,” the President said. “Me too.”

 

***

 

The FACET heavy cruiser Gerard de Jen sat with its two escort frigates in a high parking orbit above Ganymede, as it had for the last few days. It was in the middle of executive officer Captain Oren Shan’s watch that a priority message came in from Destiny Fleet Command, to which the CIC crew responded with a flurry of communications across all sectors of the ship. Noting the shrill beeping noise emanating from the command console, Shan reached for the nearest headset to get the Admiral Suryawijaya on the line.

“Admiral,” he said. “It looks like we’ve just received our departure orders.”

“Good,” the admiral replied. “Forward them to my ready room.”

“Well, I think you should come and look at the message yourself.”

“What’s the hold-up, Captain?”

“I don’t have permission to decrypt it, sir. Something tells me this isn’t just another Trojan survey mission.”

“I’ll be right there,” the admiral said curtly. It would be a few more minutes before the admiral arrived in the Command Information Center from his ready room. In the meantime, Shan would have to try and maintain order among a bridge crew who had largely not yet seen combat, but increasingly feared that it was inevitable given the cryptic nature of the transmission they’d just received. What else would require more permissions than those held by a cruiser’s executive officer? Typically, only combat orders necessitated a commanding officer’s verification or similar key before they could be opened. The Gerard de Jen certainly hadn’t expected to receive any such orders, but neither had they expected anything like the attack near Ceres to occur either. It was like everyone in FACET was holding their collective breath, waiting for the push that came before the plunge.

“Any more messages from Fleet Command, Miss Maren?” Shan asked a younger woman seated not far away from him at a console that showed communications readouts for their entire three-ship battle group.

“Nothing yet, Captain. I’ll check with the Ricol and Warrine CICs to verify reception of the original message.”

“Good,” he replied. “Keep me posted.” There wasn’t much else for Shan to do than just make sure that the other members of the crew were ready, assuming their orders required them to leave immediately, so he did the only thing he could: wait for the admiral. Sure enough, the door across from him slid open and Admiral Suryawijaya walked in, his overshirt half-buttoned.

“Admiral on deck!” Shan announced with a quick salute.

“At ease,” the man replied hastily. “Alright, Captain, what’ve we got?” Admiral Haram Suryawijaya was a short man with an almost equally short temper. Had he lived a thousand years earlier, he would’ve fit in easily with the medieval Indian warrior class from which he was descended: pragmatism, loyalty to rank, and discipline were the only characteristics that mattered to him, and the only ones he made known about himself to his crew. After seven years in command, it was all they expected from him.

“Like I said, Admiral, the message needs your decryption key. I have Miss Maren talking to the Ricol and Warrine to make sure we’ve all received the same thing.” Shan turned to her again. “Any word, Lieutenant?”

“Aye aye, sir. Both confirm reception but are waiting on your orders, Admiral.”

“Let’s see what we’ve got,” he said. Taking the main console for a moment, he entered his key and moved in close to a retinal scanner.

“Command authorization code accepted,” came a voice from the console. Immediately afterward, the holo-projector was taken over by a series of images. Directly in the center was a small map giving the relative locations of Jupiter and Ceres, connected by a curved, dotted line indicating interplanetary orbital trajectory for Hohmann transfer. Suryawijaya could hear Shan swallow hard next to him as he read through their orders.

“We’ve just received orders from Fleet Command to proceed with our battle group to Ceres at all available speed. Mister Kaylan, get Propulsion on the line and prepare to move out.” The navigations officer shouted out a “yes, sir” from across the CIC. “Miss Maren, coordinate with Commander Jerr and Commander Lucas; I want us underway within the hour.”

“Yes, sir,” she said. All across the room, officers representing various sectors of the ship were starting up conversations with their respective crews. Though the provisions and ammunition inventories had already been checked three times and approved by the Executive Officer, this was as serious a situation as the Gerard de Jen had encountered since being placed on combat-ready status. As such, there could be no mistakes or omissions from the cargo manifest should things turn ugly in the Belt. After all, they’d be proceeding into what was still considered League territory, though no problems had ever been encountered there before with UEL fleet vessels. Up until recently, it had been supposed that Ceres was so heavily trafficked by both civilian vessels and those of both nations’ fleets that no one would try and start trouble there. However, it was now apparent that this could very well change in just a matter of days.

“What’s the plan if that League carrier is still in the vicinity?” Shan asked Suryawijaya.

“There’s no ‘if’,” the admiral replied. “It’s there, alright. We’ll just have to wait and see what the situation’s like. All I can say is that we will not be the first ones to start shooting should we arrive at that.”

“You really think we might, Admiral?”

“It’s hard to say. The League’s been looking for an excuse long enough; let’s hope they haven’t finally found it.” Despite his experience, Shan couldn’t help but be worried about these new developments. While surveys in the Trojan asteroids frequently put FACET ships in danger from separatist organizations and smugglers, only the largest of those groups had enough firepower to put a heavy cruiser like the Gerard de Jen at risk. This time, they’d be going up against a UEL carrier, almost one and a half times larger and much more well-armed than their cruiser. Even with two escort ships on their side and none on the other, it would still be a close fight with many casualties on both sides. The admiral was right, of course: all they could do was hope that whoever the CO of that carrier was had enough sense not to make the first move.

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