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Shroud of Eden: Panhelion Chronicles, #1

Shroud of Eden: Panhelion Chronicles, #1

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Shroud of Eden: Panhelion Chronicles, #1

Length:
546 pages
12 hours
Released:
Aug 22, 2015
ISBN:
9781622535156
Format:
Book

Description

An adventure across space and time!

5 STARS: The writing style is crisp, the book is well edited and contains a healthy splash of hard science mixed in with a nice story line (new discoveries, alien aggressors, a military in need of leadership and a bad guy you'll love to hate). While there are some fleet battles—if you’re looking for hardcore action, this might not be your cup of tea. If you’re looking for a well told story with plenty of length, good descriptive prose, solid editing, adventure, and some action—this offering does not disappoint.” ~ LawBoss

While on maneuvers as part of the Panhelion Defense Command fleet near the moons of Jove, Scott Drumond, captain of the Strike Cruiser Targelion, finds his promising career unexpectedly blighted by events that nearly destroy his starship and dramatically change his fortunes.

Scott’s nemesis arranges his court martial on trumped-up charges, and the court finds him guilty. They order him demoted with the stipulation that he is forbidden to hold a command assignment. His one chance for redemption comes when a sympathetic admiral transfers him to Exploration Command, and offers him a seemingly trivial mission to investigate an anomaly in the Hyades star cluster.

Scott accepts temporary captaincy of the scout corvette Pegasus with the hope of restoring his honor and permanent rank. His assignment turns out to be anything but routine when, upon reaching the anomaly, he and his crew encounter a startling distortion in space-time that creates a barrier to material objects. With the first part of his mission complete, he opens sealed orders and learns of scheming and deception in the highest levels of the Panhelion.

By means of a clever gambit, Scott finds an opening in the barrier and chances passage to the far side, where he uncovers the truth about a legendary ghost ship and a lost colony of humans. As he comes to know more about this society of refugees, their strange customs intrigue and baffle him. But his most important find comes when he discovers they hold the secret to a long forgotten weapon, which can defeat a despot at home and turn the tide in battle against alien invaders swarming out of the Coma Bernices star cluster.

Evolved Publishing presents the first book in the "Panhelion Chronicles." This military science fiction series features space travel, time warps, alien species, and war on a grand galaxy scale.

See the Full Series "The Panhelion Chronicles" by Marlin Desault:

  • Book 1: Shroud of Eden
  • Book 2: The Vanquished of Eden
  • Book 3: Eden Redeemed (Coming 2019)

More Great Sci-Fi from Evolved Publishing:

  • Down to Dirt by Kevin Killiany
  • The Silver Sphere by Michael Dadich
  • The Seekers Series by David Litwack
  • Red Death Series by Jeff Altabef

Released:
Aug 22, 2015
ISBN:
9781622535156
Format:
Book

About the author

In my early years I devoured science fiction and fantasy. Later my tastes moved to classic adventure stories written by Hemingway, Steinbeck, and Jack London. My passion for writing came late in life, and only after much encouragement from family and friends who read many of my stories. At Georgetown University I studied German and German literature. That led to an assignment in the Air Force intelligence services in Europe. With those experiences behind me, I returned to the US and the University of Wyoming. My undergraduate and graduate Engineering studies were heavy in advanced physics and mathematics. Upon graduating I taught German and Electrical Engineering at the US Air Force Academy. I mustered out of the Air Force to start a career in high tech start-up companies. Ultimately, I retired and began a third career as a writer. I now live in Southern California, where I spend my time writing when I’m not indulging my passions for sailing, skiing, and reading. I invite you to join me and my characters, both good and evil, as we explore strange places on our journeys through the stars.


Book Preview

Shroud of Eden - Marlin Desault

June 2550 – the 175th Year of the Panhelion

-

In Jovian Orbit

~~~

The anticipation of battle provoked Captain Scott Drumond’s heart to a furious beat as he ordered his strike cruiser, Targelion, into the point position of the phalanx. Astern, eight ships of the fleet maneuvered into a tactical cone of concentric circles, ready to defend the Panhelion, the central government of Earth, and its settlements from alien invasion.

In the distance, Ganymede, largest of the Jovian moons, glimmered in reflected sunlight. A captive of the giant planet’s intense gravity well, it supported the sprawling military complex that lynchpinned the Panhelion military’s outermost operating base.

An uncommon hush descended over the ship as the crew manned their stations and waited for the command to engage the invaders. Tendrils of silent LiDAR pulses fanned out from the fleet in all directions, while hull receptors stood ready to receive faint laser-beam reflections from the enemy fleet. The ensuing battle would determine the future of the Panhelion. A loss would mean domination by the invaders and the end of human civilization on Earth and her settlements.

Drumond at one point eight meters tall, stood on Targelion’s combat deck before the display space, and mentally played out the role each of the flashing blue icons in the three-dimensional display would play in the coming engagement. Each icon represented a ship in his formation.

At thirty-three, he appeared younger than his age. His instinct for military tactics and decisiveness had earned him the epaulets of a captain, and despite his headstrong attitude, he now commanded a first-line fighting ship of the Panhelion. His unapologetic manner rankled more than a few in the flag ranks—some approved of the decisive way he commanded, but from others his demeanor earned him deep-seated enmity, prompted by their envy of his natural authority.

The three-dimensional visual display filled one entire bulkhead of the combat deck with the image of dominant Jove, surrounded by a myriad of stars scattered throughout the deep black background. To one side of the giant planet, red dart-like icons representing the enemy fleet flashed into view. They approached from inside the Oort cloud like a swarm of angry wasps.

Blyds Gatura, Targelion’s executive officer, drew back from his display as he made his count of the attackers. The reds have launched their attack. Eleven, no, fifteen enemy missiles now tracking us. In the display space, small orange pips sped toward the blue fleet.

Scott nodded and barked out his order. As soon as the tubes have deliverable mass, bring the hadron cannons to bear.

Gatura repeated the command to the ship’s Combat Information Center (CIC), and in nanoseconds, energy beams of charged nuclear particles, synchronized with the LiDAR, flicked out at the orange pips. First one and then several more pencil-thin streaks of atoms, stripped of their electrons and propelled by intense magnetic fields, leaped out of the weapon tubes to intercept the incoming missiles.

Scott allowed himself a brief smile as second-by-second the orange icons winked out. With the missile threat neutralized, his blue fleet steeled itself to take on the invading ships themselves. You may engage when ready, Commander Gatura.

The reds pressed on. Enemy particle beams now slashed out at the blue fleet. The Panhelion phalanx reformed to converge on individual enemy ships.

Captain, the enemy is beyond beam weapon range. Blyds cursed under his breath as the Targelion’s damage siren sounded.

Blyds, put us on a direct heading toward the enemy fleet and increase our velocity. Get in close. Let’s see if aliens can dance.

Targelion accelerated toward the red fleet. At one thousand kilometers from the enemy, Targelion’s displays lit up from enemy particle beams that bathed her in deadly plasma. Magnetic shields screeched under the onslaught and went quiet.

The senior directing staff officer moved in front of Scott and cleared the icons from the screen. Sorry, Captain, the distaff officer said. You’ve been destroyed. You may now retire from the battle.

With his ship out of action, he released the restraints on the hemi-pod and loped across the deck and through the side portal into a dimly lit booth, eager to watch the rest of the battle from the Combat Operations deck.

A win for the blue? he asked the full commander who carried distaff insignias on his epaulets.

We’re only in the fourth phase of battle, came the directing staffer’s curt reply. Blue successfully defended against the red’s nuclear missile attack, and held firm against the enemy beam weapons with ten percent casualties. Blue may now commit their reserves to even the odds.

Scott rubbed his temple and moved closer, the better to see the display space. As I said, blue wins.

The distaff officer shot him a quick glance. You think? In this phase of the simulation the plan gives the invaders directed energy weapons with five percent greater range than ours. After several minutes, the commander tapped his control panel and spoke to his staff officers refereeing the exercise. Tell the remaining blue forces they’ve been destroyed. The simulation is over.

Both men watched the blue and red icons blink and disappear.

The Panhelion fleet’s defeated. Scott exhaled a deep breath. We won’t like living under the thumb of the invaders.

The directing staff commander chuckled and shut off his display. Care to have a drink with me at the club when we get back to base? If you buy the first round I’ll give you a complete debrief of the exercise.

Scott had a reputation as a hard-drinking commander who often partied with the distaff officers after simulated battle. Hell, I’ll buy more than that. He slapped the distaff officer on the back. "With all the tricks you guys put in your simulations, I sometimes think you are the aliens."

The distaffer’s expression turned to a broad grin. No one has ever seen an alien, nor heard one, for that matter.

A soft ring in the intercom implanted behind his ear interrupted his chat with distaff. A familiar voice vibrated in his cochlea. Captain, please come to the combat deck.

On the combat deck, he found Blyds hunched over the communications display. A soft but insistent chirp begged for attention, and Scott’s gaze immediately settled on the screen. Over the shoulder of his exec he caught the flashing words of a message from Solar Weather Center scrolling across the display. Five days ago, a solar prominence had arced high into the sun’s photosphere, spewing out a massive burst of lethal, charged particles into interplanetary space—a Coronal Mass Ejection.

How large was the CME, Blyds?

Center says a magnitude fifty class X. And it came out fast. Blyds Gatura was a veteran and a barrel of a man with a nut-brown complexion and short black hair.

A new record. Reflected in the screen, Scott saw a mist of sweat beading on his exec’s forehead. The meaning of the message captured the attention of both of them. But where the hell is the plasma mass now?

Targelion’s executive officer announced the bad news in a somber tone. Mars Weather Center reported CME passage ninety hours ago. Peak intensity followed the bow shock wave by seven hours. We’ve had no further reports on the location of either the CME or bow shock.

The annunciator began chirping anew.

Blyds cleared his throat and continued. Another message from Mars Center. They calculate a sixty percent chance the CME will transit within a thousand kilometers of our position.

Forty percent we live, sixty percent we die. Scott mulled over the numbers. Bad odds any way you look at it. If the plasma mass comes that close to us we’ll end up a tiny moon of smoldering metal in permanent Jovian orbit.

Why hadn’t Fleet HQ called off the exercise? Christ, they had five days’ warning.

With the mass of lethal particles following the CME bow shock by seven hours, those seven hours were all the warning they would have before the full plasma incinerated their ship.

Their course had taken them a substantial distance from the battle arena. His ship was now separated from the main body of the fleet by several hundred thousand kilometers, and he doubted fleet HQ knew how long his ship needed to reach safety.

Skipper, the only safe place in a plasma storm this large is in port. Blyds wiped droplets of sweat from his forehead.

Scott tapped his implant to transmit mode. Comm, give fleet command our position, and tell them if the coronal mass trajectory is anywhere near us we won’t have time to make Ganymede.

Blyd’s glance shuttled back and forth between the display and Scott.

Warning icons flashed bright red on the display as the shock wave glow activated the hull sensors.

CME bow shock in five seconds, Blyds shouted.

He’d barely finished his announcement when Targelion bucked and illumination on the combat deck turned a macabre greenish hue; displays flashed tiny, spinning blocks of red and magenta as the flux levels around the ship reached full intensity.

Scott fell silent at the surreal scene as the ship’s electronics struggled to make sense of the intense flux coursing through their circuits. Equipment sparked and burned, and the acrid smell of ozone filled the ship.

Targelion had had a taste of the oncoming CME.

The comm officer’s voice overrode Scott’s personal intercom. Captain, flux levels knocked out our communications, but the screens still show the last message received from Command. The fleet’s on their way to Ganymede. Our orders are to join them immediately.

Damn, they sat on that decision way too long. A total screw up. If they’d ordered us to port when Mars Center reported the CME position, we’d have had a solid chance to reach base. Scott fumed with disgust, and his stomach tightened in a brief spasm. Even with our best accelerate-decelerate profile, Ganymede’s at least thirty hours away. Fleet HQ can go to hell. This ship is my responsibility. His curses echoed across the deck as the flux dissipated.

Damage reports filtered in one by one. The loss of the displays only hinted at the havoc to come. In seven hours the full CME would engulf his ship and reduce it to a cinder. By the time he reached his console and zoomed the visual-display to include Jove and all its moons, the combat deck had returned to near normal.

Blyds, isn’t there a small research station on Callisto? Scott pinched his brows at his continuing stomach spasm.

Blyds narrowed his eyes. Yes, but their dock is only big enough for a resupply freighter.

Give me the distance anyway.

One hundred thousand and change but, Captain, our orders—

Blyds, it’s thirty hours to Ganymede. Six and a half to Callisto. If we don’t find shelter in seven we’re orbital ash.

Captain, Storm Watch reports that sixty percent chance just turned into one hundred percent. Blyds’ throat muscles tensed, and his voice pitched up as he gripped the side support on his seat. We’re going to take a direct hit.

Scott punched more data into the ship’s computer, searching for a crucial answer. How much protection would Jove’s magnetosphere provide? A femtosecond later the answer flashed on the screen. Not enough. Targelion’s position, the orbit of Ganymede, and the plasma direction all conspired to put his ship in jeopardy.

If we attempt Ganymede, our course directly intersects the path of the plasma. Ignore HQ’s order. We go for Callisto. Warn the crew and set engines to an accel-decel profile of three plus one-half g’s.

The maneuver alarm blared a loud alternating tone. Satisfied with the ship readiness, Scott settled into the folds of his command pod. A g-force of three was maximum for Panhelion ships. Three and a half would be hard on the crew, but better shaken than cooked.

Blyds released his seat gimbals. His pod swung to oppose the coming acceleration, and he clenched his jaw in anticipation of the g-forces. One last time his fingers darted over the control icons in a frenzy of final corrections. Done, he pulled his arms tight onto his body.

The tempo of the throbbing hadron engines wound to a fever pitch. Packets of super massive protons pulsed out the exhaust, leaving a glowing wake as the ship gained ever more velocity.

Earth

-

Three Months Later

~~~

Intimidation permeated the courtroom of the Judge Advocate of Defense Command. Palpable, it emanated from every corner, hammering guilt into the guilty. It provoked indignation and outrage in the innocent. To the amoral it meant little.

How many careers had been destroyed, lives reduced to misery? All hinged on what persuaded five officers, the five who judged each case. Behind the bench bordered on both sides by the lower ranking judges, the senior officer sat higher than the others in a position of prominence. The prosecution and the defense gave him special attention. He announced the verdict and the sentence based on the facts as laid out by the witnesses, and on how persuasively the prosecution and the defense argued those facts.

Yet Scott had to admit, he suspected another, unacknowledged factor weighed on the court’s decision. Behind the scenes, powerful and influential figures had a personal stake in the outcome. Cloaked in anonymity, they bartered his fate.

The prologue complete, the arguments, the witnesses, the presentation of evidence over, he waited while others decided his destiny.

The bit players, the human trappings of justice, and not least of all, the defendant, stood in respect as the judges, having heard the evidence, filed out to debate his guilt or innocence and, if guilty, the sentence.

The docket in which he gave his testimony, as well as the witness boxes, were wired with truth sensors. He scored high, and that gave him a measure of satisfaction. When the witnesses gave testimony favorable to his cause, their high scores bolstered his hopes as well. Still his instincts sensed trouble. Subtle comments by the senior judge registered in his mind, and the conclusions he drew from these comments unsettled him. His less than subtle command manner had made him more than one enemy in the senior ranks.

The hushed conversations around the courtroom ceased when a lieutenant came through the side door and walked to the defense council table. He murmured a message and turned his attention to the prosecutor’s desk. The judges had reached a verdict.

Moments later the five judges, in order of rank, stepped through the door and took their seats. The lieutenant stood aside and asked Scott and his defense counsel to rise. Silence fell over the room like a miasma.

The court’s design and décor demanded submission to authority. The court weighed one’s deeds, and if found wanting, careers and lives, like mere slabs of meat, were butchered on the altar of justice.

Unyielding, synthetic oak walls implied the obdurate rules under which the men and women in Panhelion military service must conduct their affairs.

Elegant and simple, the bench of synthesized obsidian shielded the lower part of the judges. Two admirals and three captains had decided Scott’s future.

He stood at attention in his freshly pressed, white dress uniform with gold braid epaulets. The face of the full admiral seated in the center was creased with lines from long years of military service, his stern expression magnified by his chest full of campaign ribbons.

Left of the bench, in the position of honor, the wall screen displayed an image of the flag of the Panhelion inter-solar, with its brilliant gold eight-pointed star on a field of deep blue. The center symbolized Earth, and the eight points the semi-autonomous nations of the home planet and the settlements scattered among the planets and moons of the solar system. The Panhelion, as supreme authority, set the law and the punishment. To the right, a screen displayed the raptor and arrows flag of Defense Command.

Trying to maintain a stoic expression, Scott stared just over the admiral’s head. Never look a senior officer in the eye. The reflex had been drilled into him as a lower class-man in the Officer Training Corps, one of the many reflexes meant to condition future fighting officers in the service. In the next few moments, he’d learn if there was to be a future role for him in the Panhelion military.

Moisture gathered on his palms as the panel of officers behind the bench exchanged glances and then turned toward the senior admiral.

The full admiral lifted his head from his virtual data screen and narrowed his eyes. Captain Scott Drumond, this court finds you guilty—

Scott slumped, struggling to regain his composure.

—of disobeying a legal order issued by competent authority. The admiral droned on, reading the charge details off his data screen. "That on June 30, 2550, while in command of the Targelion on combat maneuvers, you failed to join your ship with the Defense Fleet as ordered. He leaned forward and in a softer voice continued. However, we find extenuating circumstances that serve to mitigate your sentence. Do you have anything to say before sentence is passed?"

Scott swallowed hard and stiffened his pose in anticipation. Sir, I appreciate the Court’s consideration of the circumstances surrounding my actions.

In that case.... The admiral sat up and looked straight at him. By sentence of this Court you are reduced in rank to Commander. In addition, a note will be placed in your personnel file stating that this court finds you unfit for operational command in Panhelion Defense Service. This court-martial is adjourned.

Scott’s forearms flexed in anger, not enough for anyone else in the room to notice, nor enough to stem the fury building in his blood or the sourness welling up inside him. He was all too aware that the verdict protected a certain admiral who delayed the order to call off the exercise. Two other ships followed their orders and never returned to base. They now formed part of the debris forever orbiting Jove. By this verdict the court had cleared Admiral Andre Camus, Fleet Commander, of responsibility for his indecision. Scott was the scapegoat and must pay for HQ’s command failure.

He saluted the senior admiral of the court and made an about face. As he walked out he nodded a curt thanks to his defense council. Their best arguments would not have changed the outcome.

In his apartment, Scott sat at the kitchen counter. He lifted the nearly empty bottle of rum, ready to pour, when the voice of the electronic entry assistant sounded.

Captain Drumond, you have a visitor, said the soft feminine voice.

He hadn’t gotten around to changing the greeting to his new, lower rank. He’d do that later. Tell whoever it is to go away.

He’s very insistent, the voice replied. He says to tell you it’s Blyds Gatura.

All right, tell him to come in, Scott mumbled and reached for his glass. As he poured, the spillage formed a small puddle on the counter.

Blyds walked in and hesitated, waiting for his eyes to adjust to the semi-darkness. Stale sweat and rum. Christ, this place smells like that sleazy bar on Luna, the one we stumbled into on our first leave.

At the sound of Blyds’ voice, Scott lifted his glass.

Blyds slid his hand over the wall and the room brightened. He shook his head as he eyed his friend and former captain still in the disheveled uniform, open at the collar, the same uniform he’d worn three days ago at the court-martial.

Scott stared back at him, rubbing the three days growth of stubble on his chin, and looked back into his glass. Why do you think the Martian settlements make such good rum?

I’ve never been there, but I hear it’s the water, answered Blyds with an indifferent tone. The cane is grown by hydroponics in specially flavored water. Makes it mild and gives it a slight coconut flavor.

Scott grunted. I might just chuck it all and emigrate to the Mars settlements. He jerked his head up. By the way, what the hell are you doing here?

Captain, speaking of hell, that’s exactly what you look like.

Knock off the captain bull. I’m not a captain anymore. Don’t you know? I’ve been demoted and I’m unfit for command, see. Scott swung the glass toward his shoulder now stripped of its epaulet, and a rivulet of rum sloshed onto his sleeve. Now get the hell out of here.

Sorry, Captain... uh, Skipper. Sorry, I’m not going.

Look, I’m fine. I’ve got plenty of rum and time to make good use of it. Scott lifted his near empty glass and took a swig.

I’m not going.

Well, if you’re gonna hang around here bothering me, he slurred, then at least have a drink.

Just like the old days? Blyds took a glass from the shelf and sat down.

Scott grabbed another bottle from under the counter and poured both glasses full. "Blyds, you’re good man. Damn good. We’ve served together for a long time. You were my senior in the Corps and during our first duty assignments. You deserved promotion ahead of me. If you’d been captain of the Targelion what would you have done?"

The same, in which case I’d be at home drinking myself blind, and you’d be there consoling me. But face it, Scott, your abrasive manner has made you an enemy or two in the flag ranks. A little more humility on your part and this might never have happened.

And the rank of admiral gave Camus the right to blame me for his mistake? Scott quaffed his drink. My command decisions were damn good ones. I’ve got nothing to apologize for. Somewhere along the line the Corps turned sour, and I got caught up in the grinder. He stared into his glass. Blyds, do you think the service will ever be the same? Will integrity ever have value again?

The dark-skinned officer took a sip from his glass. Only if officers like us work to improve it. Wallowing in self-pity won’t make anything good happen. What you need is a good woman to give you advice, not an old married guy like me.

I had a good woman. Scott lifted the bottle to pour his friend another drink. I couldn’t make her happy. You’ve found the answer. How’d you do it?

For one thing, I backed off on my drinking. Before Scott could pour him another drink, Blyds covered his glass with his hand. Becky was good for you, but when you drank you weren’t always the most reliable or the easiest to get along with.

The memory of the breakup still vivid, Scott’s mind raced back through the early days, when he had so often neglected his fiancée. The week before they were to marry, he had come back from a six-month tour and immediately went to the club with some of the officers from his ship. The next day he went home and found the apartment empty. He never saw her again.

She’s better off. She’s married now. He staggered to his feet and took hold of Blyds’ lapel. She married an admiral, don’t you know?

Blyds gently brushed Scott’s hand aside. You’re a mess. Get over it and on with your life.

"Too late. My life is a mess. I’ll never get back into space."

Drink isn’t going to get you back into space, and it sure as hell won’t get you your life back.

Yeah, but it sure helps to forget. He held up his glass and gazed through the amber liquid at Blyds. Drink enough of this and the incompetence, the deceit in the Corps, don’t mean a damn thing. They don’t matter anymore. Nothing matters.

But it also blots out the things that do matter. The Panhelion has kept the Earth and the settlements free of nuclear war for a hundred and seventy-five years. I’d say that’s worth something, but it won’t last if we, you and I, and others don’t work at it—don’t fight to keep the service from descending further into the stink of corruption.

Nice words, but how do you make them work? We’re both lowly commanders, and I’m busted and disgraced. What makes you think we can change anything?

There are still some senior officers who want to make the service better. When you’re sober, I’ve something important to tell you.

Earth

~~~

The alarm chrono read 03:30 when the secure commlink jolted Ensign Rodol Arashan from a doze to groggy consciousness. He sat up at his desk and rubbed his eyes. A year of demanding service as aide to the admiral had drilled instinctive reactions into him. He blinked hard to focus his eyes. Over and over, the word ‘Urgent’ crawled across the screen in front of him. He reached out and touched the screen. The link sprang open.

Admiral Delmar’s residence, he said with a yawn.

An insistent voice responded, This is ECCO. Priority H message for Admiral Jestin Delmar. Please confirm.

Priority ECCO message for Admiral Delmar confirmed. Arashan’s standing orders now compelled him to wake the sleeping Admiral. He hesitated for a moment and reached for the Admiral’s call icon, touching it as gingerly as if it were the trigger to a nuclear charge.

Arashan entered the exact time in his duty log: 03:31 hours.

The shrill tone stirred Admiral Jestin Delmar out of a fitful sleep.

Yes, Arashan? Better be a damn good reason for this. Despite Delmar’s gruff manner, he liked the ensign and considered him one of his best staff aides.

Arashran said, Sir, a message for you from Entangled Communications Command, Operations. It’s Priority.

On this far side of the residence, the admiral’s sparse bedroom contained a simple bed, night stand, and a bureau. In spartan quarters, unusual for an admiral, Delmar lived for efficiency, summarily discarding anything and anyone he didn’t find useful.

He hesitated, clearing his mind. Are you sure? A quantum entangled message meant one of his scout ships had reported in. Priority H told him the ship plied the interstellar regions.

Yes, Admiral, ECCO was quite specific. The call came in on your official line three minutes ago.

He pushed himself up and swung his feet to the floor. With his head in his hands he rubbed his temples. His mind sufficiently clear, he stood and strode across the room to his personal communications booth, tapped the display screen, and spoke with intentional clarity.

ECCO, this is Admiral Delmar, codeword ‘pivot’. He spoke in carefully chosen, specific words.

With each word, the green line of his voiceprint danced up and down on a small screen. His fingers drummed impatiently as he waited for the cryptographic circuits at ECCO’s receiving office to dissemble his voice. No other voice or recording had his unique phase spectrum, and as a further precaution protocol dictated he make subtle changes to his speech.

A distant voice replied, Admiral, you have an ensemble message from Hyades R.

Fully alert, Delmar read the message on the screen, his eyes wide in anticipation. My God, Hyades R, he whispered.

His mind reeled at the thought as he looked at his heavy-boned reflection in a mirror, his tan complexion contrasting his bushy white hair. The reconnaissance team sent to the Hyades cluster six months ago had reported from deep space.

Delmar considered himself a careful, thoughtful man. On more than one occasion he’d overheard his subordinates refer to him as morose, a reputation earned by his perpetually sullen visage.

Grave issues preoccupied him and his command, which stretched from Earth out hundreds of light years to the current limits patrolled by his reconnaissance ships. The four holographic stars on his epaulets signified his authority, and that authority weighed as heavily on his mind as if his insignia were made of elements from the far end of the periodic table. Somewhere in the blackness of space, a hostile intelligence lay in wait, ready to be discovered by one of his crews.

This knowledge caused Jestin Aloysius Delmar sleepless nights.

He closed the link then reopened the screen with a different alpha numeric. The small pointed face of Commander Barnett Eisler, Hyades operations director, appeared. Eisler, I want you to assemble the Hyades team in the Galaxy conference room at 07:15, and Barnett... be there thirty minutes early.

The conference rooms of Exploration Command were named for various constellations, but galaxy, the largest, was the exception.

The Hyades team? I’ll let them know 07:15. Yes sir.

Eisler stared in disbelief at his screen. For a moment, he sat in silence unable to react. I’ll set up for virtual conference—

No, dammit, not virtual. the admiral’s voice boomed from the comm. You and the other Hyades members are to be in conference with me in person, understood?

Yes sir. I presume we’ll discuss some aspect of the Hyades program. Is there something specific you want me to prepare? He was fishing for a hint of what was afoot.

You’ll be told when we meet in the morning.

The call had surprised Eisler, and he struggled to make sense of Delmar’s statement. Why was the admiral awake at this hour? The Hyades team normally met once each month, always in virtual conference. He couldn’t remember a time when they met in person. They never had much to talk about—they rehashed old events and speculated on when Hyades Reconnaissance might report in, if ever.

Had there been an encounter? His instincts told him something important was afoot. If so, maybe a promotion is in the offing. A career officer, Eisler yearned for a line command. He had applied several times, but the answer always contained the same sham of an explanation: his value as a manager outweighed his desire for a command assignment.

He fumbled with his tunic as he hurried to dress. In another year, he’d be too old for a line assignment. His record needed something significant, and soon, if he were to ever get an operational command. He had never been to space, and the line officers joked that he held the High Order of Perpetual Expectation.

Earth

~~~

The first light in the eastern sky cast a gray morning glow across the cityscape outside Delmar’s office in Exploration Command Headquarters. At his desk, while poring over the overnight reports on his document projector, he stretched and lifted a steaming cup of Arabica to his lips, savoring the aroma before he took the first sip. The brace of needed caffeine would help start the long day—after the early morning ECCO message arrived, he’d gotten very little sleep.

Satisfied he had a grasp on the status of his scout ships, he closed the display, set his cup down, and tapped the desk display to alert his personal electronic secretary. Please get me Admiral Camus on the visual-com.

He rocked back in his chair as he reflected on the news from the Hyades scout corvette, Pegasus, collecting his thoughts.

The soft voice of the electronic secretary jerked him out of his contemplative mood. Admiral Camus is on the link.

Delmar positioned himself in front of the camera mounted in the display.

The grizzled face of a slightly balding man with a scar under his left eye appeared on the screen. Admiral Andre Camus, Commander Panhelion Defense Command, was a veteran who had advanced through the ranks during the hard-fought battles that had put down the rebellion on the Earth’s outer settlements a decade before. A martinet, his ambitious nature left him disliked by many of the officers in his Command.

The two rivals locked gazes.

Delmar smiled politely and shifted in his chair for a better view. Good morning, Andre. A stroke of luck finding you in your office.

Did you call me at this hour to exchange pleasantries, Jestin?

Delmar rolled his eyes and replied with a sneer. You know me better than that.

Well then, shall we get to the point? I received a message telling me you have something urgent. A sour expression filled Camus’ face.

Delmar took a deep breath. Dealing with Camus so early in the morning was a wearisome chore. I do. We have an entangled message from one of our reconnaissance ships. We conference on it in the Galaxy at 07:15 this morning. You may join us if you like. I think you’ll find it worth your while.

If one of your ships has encountered a threat to the Panhelion, it’s damn fine of you to let me know, Camus replied with a frown. And since the Senate has directed you to cooperate with Defense Command, I presume you won’t object if I bring my staff.

If they have appropriate clearances, they’re welcome. Delmar smiled coldly at the lens and brushed a hand through his shock of gray hair. I’ll see you at the briefing. He closed the link with a slap of his hand.

He disliked Camus’ self-obsessed attitude, and resented Defense Command’s priority in funding and access to high-ranking Senate members. His blood simmered for a moment until, with conscious effort, he put the thought out of his mind. Exploration Command might be the neglected stepchild, but one day it would prove its value when his crews gave the first warning of danger from the far regions of space.

The e-secretary sounded again. Commander Eisler is here to see you.

Send him in.

A moment later, Delmar recognized the commander’s voice as he entered, but still engrossed in a report, he didn’t bother to look up.

His simple office decor, much like his personal quarters, consisted of a few guest chairs and the numerous communication screens on his desk. For the most part he preferred ordinary, service issue furniture, but one vice stood out—an over-sized judge’s chair. A few holographic screens displaying images of the stellar formations visited by his ships graced the paneled walls. Appearances gave him the look of an unsophisticated man, but like a threshing machine, his mind harvested vast amounts of information, winnowing the chaff to find the all too few grains of truth.

Delmar finally rotated his chair to face the commander. Eisler, Hyades reconnaissance has reported and we need your information.

Eisler rocked back on his heels in surprise. "Pegasus has reported? What did they say?"

Not much. Commander Wolder from ECCO will give the details when he arrives in an hour. For your part, I want you to present the unclassified history to a meeting of the joint staff. Delmar drummed his fingers on his desk. We start in the galaxy conference room in twenty minutes. Afterward you’ll give the classified part in executive session in my office. Although Camus and his staff will attend they won’t be familiar with the historical aspects of the project.

Eisler’s mouth curled into a broad grin. You say Admiral Camus will attend? Very good. Yes, sir, the Hyades folder. I’ll set up the presentation in the conference room. If you’ll excuse me, I’ll do it now.

Delmar nodded and Eisler rushed out of the room like a ferret in search of a meaty rat.

Thirty minutes later the voice of the e-secretary spoke. Admiral Camus has arrived.

Delmar stood and brushed a nonexistent particle from his tunic. Satisfied with his appearance, he strode to his outer office to greet his guest.

Camus spun around the instant the door opened. On the Prussian collar of his immaculate dark blue tunic, he sported gold-brocade stars, and on his sleeves he carried the wide, gold bands of a flag rank officer.

Delmar hesitated, surprised by the female officer with the epaulets of a lieutenant commander who accompanied Camus. The gold aiguillette of a staff officer adorned her right shoulder. His eyes swept over her

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