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Empress of the Dawn – Book 3: War and Peace, Part 3-4

Written by brantley :: [Saturday, 23 June 2018 00:49] Last updated by :: [Sunday, 01 July 2018 16:16]

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Empress of the Dawn

By Brantley Thompson Elkins


What has gone before:

Empress of the Dawn: Book One

Empress of the Dawn: Book Two


Book Three: Peace and War

 

 

 

Part Three: The Call of Duty

Chapter 1. Things Fall Apart…

Kalla hadn’t been able to respond to the message from the Bountiful Voyager. It had to be important; it came from Pendril, the ship historian – Pakiula must have retired, she surmised. But it could wait for a while. The ship wasn’t even due to set down for the trade fair until the next day, and it was still far enough off for a time delay in farcalling.

Right now, she was caught up dealing with a chain reaction accident on the Great Northern Road some 20 stadia from the capital. A fastwheeler freight carrier, loaded with shinefur from the Northern Reach, had hit a passenger fastwheeler that had slowed on account of heavy traffic, and sent it crashing into the next vehicle and so on down the line.

Kalla was used to dealing with emergencies...

She had braved flames to rescue people from burning buildings – whatever she was wearing at the time was consumed, but the rescuees didn’t mind. If they happened to be men, or even lesbian women, they only wished they could have encountered her under other circumstances.

In a Strymon River flood she’d been summoned to a few years ago, she’d had to fly back and forth picking people out of the raging water and carrying them to safety – she was too late for some, and that hurt. In one case, a whole family was clinging to the roof of a house that had been caught up in the torrent, and she had dragged it to shore – that made up for the hurt, but not entirely. A life lost was a life lost.

It was only farcalling that enabled her to respond to such emergencies in time to do any good. That was rarely the case with violent crimes; by the time she could get to the scene, they were usually over. In earlier years, she had dealt with hostage situations at bank robberies; but robbers soon learned to get in and out quickly – even if it meant shooting people rather than merely threatening them. That was a downer. Yet she could still save victims of family disputes – the perpetrators, usually men, nearly always turned their spitters from their intended victims to her and let off a few shots before she could grab the weapons and crush them. No harm done, except bullet holes in her clothes…

But traffic accidents were the worst, because they couldn’t be blamed on nature or, rarely, on criminality. They came of ordinary human carelessness, often aggravated by stupidity. It had begun with the steamcar races, succeeded in recent times by fastwheeler races. But the Synod had imposed strict liability on the sponsors, who were required to have doctors and medical equipment at the arena – they could respond to accidents in moments, and that left Kalla off the hook.

Only, it was different with accidents on roads and highways. They could happen any time, anywhere. Kalla had to be ready, and that meant keeping a satchel close at hand with splints, spinal immobilization devices, bandages, dressings, oxygen delivery units and airways clearing tubes. At least she didn’t also need sledgehammers, saws, hydraulic spreading devices and other equipment for breaking into vehicles…

But this latest was an absolute nightmare. There was no way she could free all the victims in time to save their lives, or even treat those she could free. She had to force herself to choose, starting with those in vehicles that had caught fire – ripping the doors off, using her super breath just enough to push the flames away from the victims, lifting them out as gently as she could, laying them down just as gently on the pavement a safe distance away, and then moving on to the next. By the time she could begin emergency treatment, some of them were past treatment...

There had been screams and moans of pain, and even cries for help – those who manage that were probably least in need. There were even some who had managed to free themselves, and might be if help themselves, if they weren’t so disoriented. One of these was the driver of the freight hauler, which had suffered little damage because of the size of its greatox – not an actual greatox, of course, but serving the same function even if the driver rode inside it and manned the controls there. But all he seemed to care about was the fate of his cargo – she didn’t know yet what it was.

And then her farcaller sounded. She listened to the beginning of the message, then cut it off. There was still work to do here. There was the pall of smoke from the burning vehicles – and the stench of burned flesh from some of the victims. She was covered with soot herself, and her clothes were history – that went with the job, but it wasn’t any comfort to her.

Yet it might have been even worse, she realized. This close to the capital, the Sotiria division of the police responded within 10 minutes of her arrival and began taking over the treatment – Kalla saved them time by breaking into the fastwheelers she hadn’t seen to already, and helped get the drivers and passengers out. It was still a chaotic situation; the fastwheelers that had been burning were still burning, and the firefighters who arrived about the same time as the rescue workers had to contend with that.

The Sotiria – their name meant Salvation as well as rescue, and had religious overtones – appreciated her efforts. One of them even gave her a salute when he had a moment to spare, but though she was virtually naked he didn’t take the time to stare. The job came first for him, too. By chance, the freight carrier driver approached her to demand that she clear the highway so that he could get through. She told him to go fuck himself, and he threatened to report her.

“Lots of luck!” she snapped, and went back to work.

Kalla finally took to the air for home when she had done all she could do, and felt free to leave the rest to the authorities. But her mind wasn’t at rest; she had worked for progress, believed in progress, but it could have a bitter price. Perhaps it was a matter of too much, too soon – and yet it was part and parcel of the program to prepare Andros for a challenge even Nestor didn’t know about yet. Only, her relations with the Patriarch had been formal and correct but no longer intimate since… Alex.

Because of that, she had avoided Family Council sessions, and she had seen little of the family elsewhere over the past eight years. Although she kept up with them in the farspeaking news – now the farviewing news, for any equipped with receivers for images – she had a hard time remembering the names of the youngest generation. Her official contacts had been mostly with the Indrans, here on Andros and in space.

She had done better with the Makropoulos family. Belisarius was getting along in years, and his own children Andronikos and Joannina were grown and married and had children of their own. Kalla visited him often in Nesalonika, whereas catapan he had made education his top priority, founding a technical institute named for his father – and thus finding a use for the summer palace Jayar had built there.

Nestor himself had signed off on that, since the vacant palace had been built for the Patriarch; but otherwise, he had nothing to do with it. Kalla was a frequent guest lecturer, because everyone knew who she was – and that could increase interest and enrollment. It was the engineers on the faculty, however, who did the real teaching – and it was nothing like that at the Academy in Feodoropolis. Strymon needed men and women who could service wind vane generators, operate road building equipment and the like to keep the economy going – and growing.

Valens, Nikos’ younger son, who had gone into banking, invested shrewdly in new but promising enterprises like processed foods and the stores that sold them. He too was based on Nesalonika, because the second city seemed to be home to more progressive businessmen than the Capital. He and Aetheria had four children, Methodios, Iosephos, Byzantia and Cyra. Nikos’ younger daughter Ariadne and her husband Demetrios Gabalas, a physician who lived in a rural town called Mokissos, had stopped at two: Nikos and Yolanda.

At a family gathering a few years ago, Kalla had encouraged Belisarius to see to the publication of the essay Nikos had just been begun to work on before he died, about the rights of women – and the catapan had urged his older sister Nereida Sarantenos to complete it. She and her husband Arethas ran their own transport company, having long since left government service; their children, born late, were both daughters – Athena and Erinna – and that meant…

Nikos would have appreciated Kalla’s closest friend in the Feodoropolis: Verina, who still worked for the Transport Group of her family’s business empire even though she was married to the future Patriarch. She was still bringing out new fastwheelers, some of them lightning powered and the very latest equipped with wheel cushions – she had lobbied hard for the import and cultivation of plants that produced the raw material for them, just as she had previously lobbied for better roads.

Kalla needed to talk to her now, she realized. To unburden herself.

Verina had a modest second home/office in Feodoropolis, from which she took care of business – it would have been unseemly to have so at the Palace. She had only a small staff; most of the people who worked for her worked at the factory, which Kalla and Alex had toured soon after they met.

The roads had been improved a great deal since Verina had given them a rough ride home after that tour, but widening and paving them had inevitably increased traffic. With the increased prosperity, ordinary country people as well as the landed gentry and the urban business class could take to the road – to see to business or just see the country.

“It’s the lack of education and enforcement,” Verina told her when Kalla called on her to unburden herself about the disaster on the Great Northern Road. “Aunt Valeria told me that some of the first settlers to harness greatoxen were killed when they got out of hand; they had to learn how to handle them. Some of the first shinefur hunters got killed by brightbears; they had to learn how to deal with brightbears. And now they’re actually raising them.”

“There are schools that teach driving.”

“But people don’t have to go there – some just learn from friends and family. And there still isn’t any overall system of traffic laws, let alone penalties for breaking them – we just follow traditional rules of the road that go back to settlement, and some of those we could do without. Like commoners having to yield to aristocrats.”

“Valeria is an aristocrat. You’re an aristocrat.”

“But we don’t make anything of it. We have our own ways.”

Verina certainly did, as Kalla had discovered when she had won the lottery for a visit to Alkmene – and later, when she had shared the details of her romance with Lib, as she called him.

They had two daughters by now, and a second son named Menander – his name would come to be a sore point for Kalla, but that was still in the future, when it was part of the true story Nestor and Alexius. A story as taboo as the Aurean menace, of which even Nestor still new nothing.

Even when she talked about personal heartbreaks, Kalla had to fudge the truth.

“I’ve loved three men since my indenture ended,” she had reminded Verina a few years after Alexius’ official death. “The first died of old age, the second was murdered and the third was killed in an accident. I haven’t exactly been lucky in love. And now it’s as if I don’t have a life at all.”

Gabras, Nikos and Alex. And yet, she wasn’t being truly candid with Verina. She had known Gabras only very late in his life, and had given him poison to spare him an agonizing death. And Alex was still alive… somewhere. It hurt her to dissemble so – keeping state secrets was one thing, but being unable to confide in those closest to her…

Yet it was true that she no longer had a life – not an intimate life, at any rate. She might never find a true love again – indeed, that might be for the best; it was as if there were a curse on her… as if anyone she truly loved was doomed. And she still felt the shame of how she had treated Alex – how and where could he ever find love again?

So many changes in her relationships. She remembered her life before coming to Andros; casual sex had been the rule on Velor and aboard the Bountiful Voyager. She hadn’t known of monogamy before her indenture, nor about the exceptions to it granted Companions on other worlds. She had accepted the laws and customs of Andros during her term, and the customs of Terrans generally afterwards. But she was still a Velorian, and perhaps it was best to return to Velorian customs.

So she saw to her body’s needs, not only with lottery winners from Andros but with the Indrans. Not those everyone on Andros knew, but those at the remote second base on Alkmene, who were building and flight-testing warships of the same design that their Guild of Air and Space Transport Engineers had developed on Indra.

Nearly all the Guild members assigned to the new base were men; the handful of women there saw only to clerical duties. Back on Indra, they’d had their pick of women – and the most enterprising among them had been favored by Amiela. Here they could be favored by Kalla, who was eager to please.

She later treated them to the awesome sight of bathing in the heat of their solar furnace. She could use the orgone, but the intense heat didn’t just get her hot – it got her hot and bothered, and from her tachyon vision she could tell the Indran men were hot and bothered. Once she had converted the heat to orgone and cooled off to a safe body temperature, she was ready to take them on.

First in line, Arjun Aggarwal turned out to be handsome and well-built, quite apart from being up for the occasion.

Not only that, but he knew how to pleasure a woman in every way, thanks to the Kama Sutra. He worshipped her with his hands and lips as well as his cock, and made sure she came before he did – that took incredible self-control, given that he’d admitted it was his first time with a Velorian. And he had stamina, too, never going soft after he came. When they came together, she could put the pain of losing Alex out of her mind for the moment and simply enjoy fucking as an end in itself.

By the time the last of the Indrans had finished with her – or she had finished with them – she had lost count of the number of times she had come. It had all been mindless. She was filled with cum, splattered with cum. But now it was time to come down, and get down to business that had brought her here.

Kalla x

She had to quickly take a shower and get dressed to make herself presentable, and shift mental gears for serious discussion of serious matters – such as whether the Scalantrans might supply Indra with Vendorian steel. Uruku steel should be enough for the warships, as long as the Aureans didn’t have it. But what if they did get hold of it?

She thought of Alex again, and his theory of Cosmognosis. She’d brought that up with the Indrans – who didn’t seem to think much of it, although they’d expressed their condolences over his death; they knew he and Kalla had been close, although not just how close. After a time, she’d taken up playing chaturanga again. She was getting better at it,

Maybe I’ll get better at other things, the things that really matter, she thought.

And in due course, there came the chance she’d been waiting for, although it came with alarming news…

Chapter 2. The Truth Will Out

If Kalla no longer had a full life, she nevertheless still had a Purpose. She had been pursuing that Purpose on Alkmene as well as Andros. But it was only after meeting with Pendril on the outbound Bountiful Voyager, which had taken orbit but not yet landed, that she could finally share it with Nestor.

“The Empire is on the move,” the historian told her, all alone with her in the white room – the same room where Pakiula had met her and Alexius on previous occasions, and where the deception of Nestor had begun.

There had been an Aurean attack on Occator, a seeded world on a different vector from Velor than Andros – not just a raid, nor a mere attempt at infiltration, but a massive all-out invasion.

“It was practically a miracle that the Promise of Wealth found out in time to bring word,” she said. “They were just approaching the wormhole for the next leg of their circuit when they picked up the transmissions. The Aureans had bombed the capital of the planet itself, destroying command and control of its forces – imperial troops, far more heavily armed than any that Occator, an agricultural world named for a Roman god of harrowing, could muster, were just landing, the last the Scalantrans heard.”

It had taken five years for the Promise of Wealth to reach Velor, even skipping the other stops on its return leg – boosting as fast as it could from wormhole to wormhole. The Velorian Senate, which hadn’t expected things to go this far, had been blindsided by the latest attack. It had ignored the annexation of Agean decades earlier; the High Council hadn’t determined whether that takeover had been peaceful – even encouraged by the Companion there.

“Perhaps we should have pressed harder then,” Pendril said. “That’s what Amiela thought. But it takes time for us to reach a consensus, and in any case, we didn’t want to make a move without the support of Velor. It has taken Occator to bring that.”

“Can we expect any help from that quarter?”

“The Senate has authorized creation of a naval force to defend the Velorian system wormhole, but it’s doubtful that force will be deployed elsewhere, however much we might wish it. Still, it has ordered a General Alert, to be conveyed to all worlds trading with us by every outbound ship. But it will take years for that alert to reach everywhere. And we don’t know where the Enemy might strike before that.”

“Was there any reason they chose Occator?”

“It’s strategically located, just like Andros – only it’s a nexus for several different circuits. Ships trading on other circuits won’t know the danger until it’s too late. We have an edge, compared to them. But we have to come clean now. Nestor must speak to your world as he has never spoken before – by farviewer as well as farspeaker. He must be seen as well as heard. And he must be believed. You can see to that.”

“Perhaps at the trade fair…”

“There won’t be a trade fair. We can’t waste any more time. It’s already been seven years since the attack on Occator. We have no idea what the Aureans are up to now, or what they’re planning next. We are leaving immediately, to bring word to Indra, to consult with the Guild and Amiela. That’s our immediate and only priority, now that we’ve brought word to Andros.”

“The Patriarch and the people will wonder why…” Kalla said.

“We’ll leave it up to you to tell them,” Pendril said.

Kalla had just enough time to confirm that Pakiula had indeed retired. There were a new travel captain and a new trade captain, Mahind and Aimata, but Pendril wouldn’t even take the time to introduce them. The Bountiful Voyager was waiting only for her to leave make its departure.

It might be a melodramatic gesture, but there was nothing Kalla could about it. Nothing but tell all to the Patriarch. Perhaps she should have done so years ago, when the rumors of war were only rumors. Had she failed her duty to the Patriarch, to Andros itself?

Another thought suddenly crossed her mind, another failed duty: I should make a clean breast of things with Belisarius and his family, about the death of Nikos. And let them make of it what they will…

No more secrets and lies after that, whenever she could manage it, except about Alexius. But perhaps one day, she could even unburden herself about him…

* * *

Nestor looked solemn now that she had brought him the news, all but apologizing for having kept him in the dark for so long. When she had finally finished, he appeared to take it philosophically, although he might have been tempted to take it personally – and angrily.

What had convinced him was the abrupt departure of the Bountiful Voyager. Had Pendril somehow foreseen that? Surely a few days’ delay for the trade fair wouldn’t have made any difference to the Indrans – but their action came as a shock to Androssians, dominating the farspeaking and farviewing news. There was a panic over what it would mean to the economy. What was happening and why?

Now Nestor would have to tell them – and bring home to his people the greatest crisis their world had ever faced.

“Your deception was a necessary evil,” he remarked curtly. “But I can see plainly that it was truly necessary, not just payment in kind.”

This was as close as he could come to mentioning the matter of Alexius. They had never referred to him by name since the day she had given in to necessity. And she knew that, however she had hated his decision, it had been as hard for him as it had been for her.

Only she was the one who had lost the love of her life, the one man who might have shared the life of a Velorian with her. She had never gotten over that. She feared she never would.

“‘Time is the healer of all necessary evils,’” Nestor had told her at the time. “An ancient Hellene named Menander said that, more than 1,500 years ago.”

“Was this a necessary evil, then?”

“It was an evil thing to do to you, and to him. And it was necessary thing to do to you, and to him. For the sake of Andros.”

For the sake of Andros

She had looked up Menander. It turned out that he had been a playwright, and that his plays were said to have all been comedies. None had survived – at least, not here on Andros. Maybe Olympia…

Had Nestor known about this when he embraced the Hellene’s aphorism? Libanius had named his youngest son Menander, Kalla knew – had the Patriarch held him up to his heir as a fount of wisdom?

She had decided then never to ask him about it. It would be pointless, even cruel. And she would never bring it up with Libanius, either – it wouldn’t be too many years before he succeeded his father and had to face the burden that Nestor bore now. There was work to be done; they all had to work together openly in a world that would soon learn it was in danger…

Nestor picked up his farcaller and summoned Libanius to the palace.

“There’s a matter we need to discuss,” he said. “But I can’t talk about it on the caller.”

“Is it about the Scalantrans skipping out on the trade fair? Verina was really upset about that, and the newspeakers—”

“Nothing to do with that. Just come quickly.”

When Libanius arrived at Nestor’s patriarchal office, he was surprised to find Kalla there, knowing that she and her father had been estranged for some years, for reasons neither had ever explained.

“Is this about her, then?” he wondered.

Kalla shook her head, and deferred to the Patriarch.

“Only in a sense,” Nestor said. “You’re about to take ship to Alkmene, with Kalla.”

What?

“You’re about to become the first Minister of Defense, and I’m about to tell you why. But you need to see what that involves at first hand. You’ll have to be prepared for war, a war such as Andros has never experienced, against an enemy of which you know nothing – of which I knew nothing until Kalla brought word today.”

“But… Father?”

“By the time it comes, you may stand in my place. You will then have to stand for all of us, with Kalla at your side, facing the enemy and doing all in your power, and her power, to lead us to victory. You must be prepared for that, and only what Kalla and the Indrans show and tell you can prepare you – and enable us to meet the greatest challenge our world has ever faced or could face.”

Nestor laid it out for him, as Kalla had laid it out for Nestor – the Aurean Empire menace and the previously undercover work with the Indrans to prepare for it, and the urgency of coming out into the open now.

To say that Libanius was stunned was an understatement. He’d never had any interest in military matters, which came under the jurisdiction of the Grand Domesticos – currently Panos Dendias. It had overseen the planetary tagmata and the militia – almost a do-nothing job in these years of post-Restoration peace and prosperity. But now the new Ministry would become all-important – an office to be entrusted only to a member of the ruling family.

* * *

The die has been cast, Kalla knew. Her work was cut out for her, their work was cut out for them.

Tomorrow, Andros must be told what it faced. But that was only the beginning, only the what of it. Now her adopted world must find a way to deal with the how of it, and those who might be taking part in the ultimate battle would have to be carefully chosen… as would their successors, if that were necessary. It would take at least a generation for Andros to be ready to face any eventuality...

Let there be time, she almost prayed. Let there be time!

Chapter 3. Waiting, Watching, Planning

Soon after Nestor had broken the news of the Aurean menace to the world, he called for a mutual defense treaty with Indra, and a new title for his son.

“Today, we enter a new era,” he told the Synod, summoned hastily to deal with the panic. “It is an era fraught with peril, but also bright with promise. Thanks to the Indrans, we have made remarkable progress in the peaceful use of new technologies. But those same technologies can be harnessed for the defense of our world, and the resources of the Indrans are still far greater than our own. Because Indra faces the same threat as Andros, a formal alliance is on our best interests.”

Libanius stood by him on one side of the podium, and Kalla on the other.

“As Minister of Defense, my son and heir will work closely with the Indrans here, and – as time and distance permit – with his counterpart on Indra itself. Kalla Zaver’el, known to all of you for her labors on behalf of past Patriarchs, will also play a vital role. You can trust me, and you can trust them to do their utmost to bring us victory when the time comes, and assure a triumphant and prosperous peace afterwards.”

Nothing like it had ever been heard of before; the people of Andros knew about other worlds, of course, but only as trading partners and only through the Scalantrans. Even the work of the Indrans on Alkmene and planetside, being funded by trade profits – which was true in a sense, but from the Bountiful Voyager’s overall profits, not from the Androssian trade with Indra, even counting leases for mineral rights on the moons.

Nobody but Kalla and a few others knew the whole story, of course, and even as the Synod approved a treaty by acclamation, everyone understood the need for security. This was war, after all.

And so it began…

When Kalla brought Libanius to Alkmene, it was a momentous occasion and their departure was covered live on the newspeakers. No cargo container for the new Minister of Defense, but an Indran ship that landed at the trade fairground, with a crowd of tens of thousands looking on. Aircraft were a familiar sight, but no starships other than the Scalantrans’ had ever been seen here before.

But Libanius himself wasn’t overawed, and even made light of the occasion – if only to Kalla, after the takeoff.

“Here we are, headed for another world, and some people down below are still getting used to fastwheelers,” he said. “Just last week, Verina was telling me about how one of the landed gentry at a business reception in Boreapolis, just before all this broke, complained about how they were a useless nuisance that had no business to be invented – as if the Northern Reach weren’t getting anything out of the commercial transports and the high roads.”

“It’s the social changes that have some people upset,” Kalla ventured. “Young people think nothing of driving hundreds of stadia from home, and if they’re so inclined they may find side roads far from home to… well, they’re called lovers’ lanes.”

“You’re hardly in a position to find fault with them.”

“I’m not. I’m only making an observation.”

The Indrans gave them a royal reception at the original base, and Libanius was suitably impressed – it was one thing to hear about what was going on there, another to see it first-hand.

He and Kalla were to be the only ones to see the secret bases on Alkmene and the other moons; as far as the public knew they were simply calling on the original base. They would appear on newspeaker casts showing only inspections of commercial ships from Indra being retrofitted as warships; nothing was said about new battle cruisers or the hornets. Nor about who was going to crew the retrofitted ships...

Nestor had agreed with Kalla at the outset to combine a seemingly free flow of information about the military buildup with secrecy about the crucial details.

Even trusted engineers working on control systems for battle cruisers and hornets would be kept in the dark about the overall design of the ships, which would be produced at different locations on Aoide and Adonia, for shipment to the primary assembly facility on Alkmene.

In time, there would be other production sites on more remote planets and moons, but that too was kept secret. Yet there was a method to the madness: control systems for the warships would be similar to those for civilian spacecraft and aircraft. Business and personal aircraft were common now, and at need their veteran pilots could thus be trained quickly to serve on military spacecraft.

When the Aureans might arrive, no one could guess – not even the Scalantrans, although they relayed advisories from Velor about other moves by the Empire. Kalla and Nestor knew that Andros had to be ready, and together they were seeing to it. But they couldn’t know whether Andros would be ready in time, however much they assured the citizenry by newspeaker and news sheets that they had matters well in hand. That was why Kalla herself undertook military training, as a pilot. Powerful as she was, she might need the edge that one of the hornets could bring her…

There was a boost to public morale when the Bountiful Voyager returned six years later, inbound for Velor and escorted by an Indran cruiser. The trade fair was a resounding success, with a record tally of shinefur pelts – most delivered by commercial aircraft from the Northern Reach, some with new patterns thanks to selective breeding – consigned to the Scalantran ship. The latest fashions from the Danelis family also sold well, as did new vintages of wine, culinary specialties like tetyromenous (a filo pie with three-cheese and egg fillings) and the always popular olive oil.

And so it continued.

* * *

Nestor’s death came at the age of 79. He had served as Patriarch longer than any of his predecessors, having taken the throne at a mere 21, and had been admired and even beloved by three generations.

Kalla had flown straight from Alkmene to the Palace to see him, after hearing that he was near the end. Family and close friends were already there, including Libanius with his wife and children. Likewise Procopia – now married Verina’s brother Makarios – who would soon be taking over the Danelis Transport Group.

Nestor seemed to be at peace with himself, and even with Kalla, after more than two decades of formality between them since the affair of Alexius, whose name was never mentioned at family gatherings. He beckoned her to his side now.

“I’ve just done something needful, to do right by you,” he whispered.

Kalla had no idea what he meant, until she heard from Belisarius after the funeral. He was still serving as catapan of Strymon at age 73, but left most of the day-to-day work to his son Andronikos.

“There’s something I need to discuss with you,” he said. “Can you meet me at the Prodromos in half an hour?

That was one of the finest restaurants in the capital, featuring traditional Romaic cuisine like yuvarelakia (simmered lamb and herb meatballs) and koptoplakous (pastries made from layers of filo with chopped nuts and honey).

When Kalla arrived, Belisarius was seated at one of the tables holding what she could see must be a patriarchal missive – it was on parchment, which was rarely used for anything in this day and age besides official business of the Palace, and even then only on special occasions. What could this be, and how could Belisarius have come by it?

“It’s about Father,” he said, without any preliminaries. “About how he died, and why. Nestor absolves you of any blame for having misled us. That it was his decision, a matter of state, and necessary at the time because of a delicate situation involving the catapan of the Northern Reach. But read for yourself.”

Kalla read through the missive, recognizing Nestor’s elegant script. He must have composed it some years ago, she thought, and kept it close, and ordered it sent when his end was near. What startled her, however, was what was missing – there was nothing about Stefanos, about how she herself had poisoned him and all but one of the other emissaries from the Northern Reach on that fateful day more than 40 years ago. It was all about the treachery of Ennodios, and using her to send a warning to young Nestor.

She was in the clear. Nestor had absolved her with a lie – a lie she herself would never have dared utter. Of a sudden, tears came to her eyes.

Belisarius, too, began crying.

“Now we can let it all out,” he sobbed.

Only, for me, it’s because Nestor didn’t let it all out, Kalla knew, to her shame. She had once vowed to make a clean breast to the Makropoulos family – and failed to do so. She had kept Nestor in the dark about the Aureans for decades, and yet he had never complained afterwards about the deception – and had embraced the Indrans’ program to counter their threat – itself founded on necessary deception.

Only the necessary.

That was what the deceptions about the death of Nikos and the exile of Alexius and the current military program had in common.

And yet Nestor could have told the truth about how she had been the target of revenge in the assassination of her lover – it would no longer have been a matter of state security, even if it would have doubtless turned Nikos’ family against her – and that was why her tears flowed…

Having cried themselves out, if not in common understanding of the why, she and Belisarius shared lunch, after which he caught her up on family matters. Like a new edition of Nikos’ essay on the rights of women.

“The time is ripe,” he observed. “With the example of Verina, more women have been going into business and careers like engineering.”

“And don’t forget the military. We’ll soon be recruiting women and men alike for the crews of our warships. If they can operate commercial aircraft, they can fly spacecraft as well – our battle cruisers.”

Belisarius suddenly frowned

“But… will making over those second-hand trading ships really be enough? How can we defeat an interstellar Empire without matching its technology? It doesn’t matter to me, or to Dokia; we’ll be gone by then. But our children and grandchildren…”

Kalla suddenly felt the call of Necessity, but a different kind of Necessity.

She reached into her briefing folder, and took out a picture that nobody outside the program was supposed to see.

“These are prototypes of attack ships we call hornets,” she said. “The Empire has nothing like them. And we are also building a fleet of battlecruisers of uruku steel. The Aureans don’t have that, either. What I am sharing with you is not meant to be shared, and you will not share it with the family.”

“Understood,” said Belisarius.

Chapter 4. Desolation, and Resolution

Another generation had passed. Kalla and Feodor were ready, as ready as they could be.

It was ironic, she thought, that the current Patriarch was a namesake for the one who had reigned when she had first arrived on the planet nearly 200 years ago. But that was just happenstance, pure chance.

As had been the death of Libanius.

The Patriarch-to-be had been grooming his younger son Menander to succeed as Minister of Defense since the age of 18 – it was natural for him to want to keep the truth about the war threat and the plans to meet that threat in the family. But he had ruled out Feodor because he was heir to the patriarchate: he wanted Feodor to have the advantage of an experienced advisor and confidant whenever the time came... which wouldn’t be any time soon.

They had already traveled together to Alkmene several times when Nestor died. If the Indrans thought Menander was too young for the job – he was still only 21 when Libanius assumed the throne – they didn’t mention it. By then, his son was also studying to be an ferounkaro pilot. It was two years later that the Bountiful Voyager stopped off on its outbound journey from Velor; Menander got a chance to join his father and Kalla and meet the Scalantrans in orbit, before the trade fair.

Pendril had good news: Velor had stepped up combat training for Companions, and was even screening candidates to favor those with the right aptitudes. Only those with the right aptitudes would be indentured to worlds most likely to come under attack, and there would be psychological tests to weed out any who might be susceptible to sexual subversion by the Aureans.

It was heady stuff for Menander, who was now one of the select few to share such secrets. But over the next few years, he seemed to take a more sober approach to the duties of his office. By then, he was an experienced pilot, and had practiced with other craft in space. Some years later the Indrans based on Alkmene offered the Patriarch a landing craft of his own as birthday present. He had seemingly familiarized himself with the control system, and Libanius trusted him to fly them home.

They never made it.

A subsequent enquiry could never determine what had gone wrong. Too little was left of the wreckage to determine whether there had been a mechanical failure. As for human failure…

There was panic in some quarters. Could it have been sabotaged? Could one or more of the Guild members be a traitor? Could even Amiela have been suborned? The conspiracy theories lacked any real credibility: how could any of the Indrans stationed on Alkmene have communicated with the Empire? And Amiela was many light years away on Indra itself; no way could she have known of the plans for the anniversary present.

Yet even Kalla had been nervous, on the off chance that if the Aureans were on to the project, an invasion might be imminent. Yet months passed, and none came. She felt a sense of relief, which seemed to be shared by Indrans and Androssians alike.

After the shock of the tragedy, without having made arrangements for a funeral, or even formally taking the crown, Feodor announced his choice to succeed Menander as interim Minister of Defense: their mother Verina.

It was a bolt out of the blue, and shocked the Synod. A woman in such a position? And yet it made sense: Libanius had shared everything with his wife, including all the secrets of the project. In accepting such an awesome responsibility, Verina could better deal with her grief. Feodor could do likewise. As could the people of the world he was called on to lead.

By sheer coincidence, the Bountiful Voyager, inbound for Velor this time, arrived a few days after the deaths of Patriarch Libanius and his son. In a gesture of solidarity with Andros, Travel Captain Azazello – successor to Vahirem – joined Trade Captain Shangrin and his personnel in making the landing. Azazello also brought Ship’s Historian Pendril.

“We wish to honor the memory of your father,” Azazello told Feodor.

There would not be a traditional funeral at the Palace; the pitiful remains of Libanius and Menander had already been buried at the family estate. That task had fallen to Kalla, but only because she could do it quickly; there was no honor in it, and no ceremony – that would come only with the dedication of monument stones, attended only by family and friends. It would be nothing like the Remembrance at the fairground.

“Citizens of Andros,” Azazello began, looking over the crowd and knowing that his words would also reach millions across the planet by newspeakers and even the recently introduced newsviewers. “I come here to honor the memory of your late Patriarch. But I myself am honored, and my people are honored, by your presence here today. We are proud of our trading relationship, which dates back more than 200 Galactic years, and is one of the most mutually profitable for any ship on any circuit.”

He paused for a moment.

“But these are challenging times, for both our peoples. We face a common enemy in the Aurean Empire, and word about that enemy is spreading throughout our League – which represents many thousands of ships and hundreds of worlds. In growing numbers, Scalantrans are rallying to the cause, and we are determined to lend our resources to any and all human worlds in need, even as we have with Andros and Indra. We have also reached out to Velor, homeworld of the Companions, and hereditary enemy of Aurea. I cannot speak of how your patriarchs Nestor and Libanius have prepared to meet the great challenge confronting you, but of my own personal knowledge I can assure you that they have taken heed of all the facts and all the possibilities – and that you here today and listening to me elsewhere can take heart. I thank you.”

There followed wild applause and, more importantly, a sense of relief. Azazello’s words and their manner of delivery didn’t sound very Scalantran, and none of those here today knew better than Kalla – who had secretly written the speech. It had been quick work on her part, and quick study on Azazello’s, but it had served its purpose. She saw it as part of her duty, and her sense of resolve.

The eulogies were left to Feodor and his mother, and Pendril followed with some anecdotes from her own recollections and those of her predecessors about the patriarchs and Kalla and – inasmuch as they were now formally allied – the Indrans.

Yet Kalla herself shunned the spotlight. She worked better behind the scenes, and through others. She sensed, for example, that Verina’s new position would strengthen the case for recruitment of more women by the Space Force. War in the heavens, after all was a matter of brains, not brawn; Andros couldn’t afford to waste any of its brainpower in the challenge ahead.

When she farcalled Feodor, he agreed.

“It was what Father should have done,” he said. “It might have appeared unseemly, but it was nowhere near as unseemly as naming a man of such a tender age – even if he was my uncle. But I’m not going to talk about it public, or even any more with you. Let Angelina carry the burden of my private thoughts.”

Feodor’s wife Marcella was a cousin on the Choniates side; she had grown up on the estate, rather than in the capital, and had busied herself with things like the fish farm rather than political intrigue. She hated to give up the fish business, which was doing better than ever now that fastwheelers could deliver fresh fish to communities far up the Great Northern Road as well as Feodoropolis.

But a related family business, swamp gas, had been abandoned; lightning power had made it obsolete. Just as well; nobody missed the smell…

* * *

Kalla pilot

Kalla spent a great deal of her time on and around Alkmene now, working with the recruits – men and women alike – to serve on the hornets and battle cruisers.

During breaks, she shared her body with unattached Indrans. The last thing she needed was to become too attached to an Androssian lover, or incite jealousy among any Androssians she had to work with. The men and women of the Space Force, by contrast, were free to make temporary or lasting attachments – and in the latter case, they could even have children. That was an investment in love, but also hope – the hope that their children would have a future.

Those first recruits would probably never see combat, and that could be a problem: they had to know secrets that nobody back on Andros knew. Moreover, they had to be ready for action when the time did come. But they would know secrets that must be kept, and the only way to be absolutely certain there were no leaks was to require them to live on Alkmene and never return to Andros. Their children, too, would remain on the moon, whether or not they ever joined the Space Force.

It was a terrible thing to ask, and yet Kalla and Feodor saw no other choice. But the recruits understood; they knew what was at stake, and loved their world so much that they were willing to forsake it. They knew they could trust their Patriarch, trust Kalla – and trust that their sacrifices would not be in vain.

The men and women who served on Alkmene, who learned how to pilot the hornets and battlecruisers and program the drone cruisers would do their duty, whatever the cost, and each generation prayed that it would be the last – that it would be the generation to do battle with the Aureans, to bring peace and security to Andros – and return to the homeworld. The Patriarch had promised it, and they knew he would honor that promise.

And there was the promise that Kalla herself made to them all:

“Remember that I am with you. Come the day and the hour, I will be with you.”

Part Four: The Final Battle

Chapter 1. The Day and the Hour

Unknown objects! Code 3-22-17!”

That was all the message from the probe ship monitoring the wormhole said – and all it had to. The Aureans were here, and the Ghost Fleet was in place to meet them. As for the real fleet…

Kalla had known this day would come. So had they all. The plans had been in the works for decades, and continually updated and refined. The standing orders still stood, but the commanders had been empowered to take the initiative in the details – depending on the size of the invading force and its formation, as revealed in the message they alone could understand.

It was dumb luck that the Triple Moons – actually small asteroids – now lay on the direct path between the wormhole and Andros. What the High Command called hornets were nested in advanced battle cruisers on the sunward sides of the moons, out of sight of the invaders – who would make short work of the Ghost Fleet of converted commercial ships with obsolete weapons, programmed to respond to the Code number, the better to deceive the enemy as to the Andros’ actual capabilities.

Only crews of the Vendorian steel battle cruisers and pilots of the hornets would be risking their lives – all but Kalla’s own among the Ghost Ships were “manned” only by artificial brains, but really good ones from Indra. With luck, they might even give a good account of themselves; if not, they’d still serve as a delaying force – not that this was considered necessary; there was more than enough time to prepare…

The wormhole was nine light hours distant, 57 billion stadia. It would take several days for the Aureans to reach the Triple Moons. That cluster was the latest position in a series of contingency plans, having replaced Exotatos, outermost planet of the system, which had orbited out of position, and there had been previous plans for other planets or asteroids or none at all – those last were the scariest.

But disinformation had also been part of the preparation. Nobody knew for certain whether the Empire had placed any agents on Andros, although it seemed unlikely. So the general public, as opposed to those with an absolute need to know, had been kept in the dark. Anyone intercepting that message about “unknown objects” might have taken it as an alert to commercial shippers about stray meteors.

Kalla headed for the Triple Moons to take part in the battle, after notifying Feodor on their private farcaller. The Patriarch, thrust unwillingly into his office by the tragic death of his father over thirty years ago, had been awaiting this day as much as she had, and at 84, with his eldest son and heir Marcus close to 60, he was lucky to have survived to witness it; she owed him more than just official courtesy.

“I’ll be throwing a party when I get back,” she told him – he already knew what that meant, or would guess, even if he hadn’t received the Code message yet. But it wouldn’t mean anything to anyone else if she were overheard, or hacked.

Feodor hesitated for a moment, taking in the importance of she meant, or perhaps just thinking of an innocently witty response. Then…

“Wouldn’t miss it for the world… May I have the first dance?”

* * *

Kalla had been at her home away from home when word came – suddenly, as they all knew it must. But she wasn’t on break at the time, or seeking a romantic interlude. Her getaway home was a place of security, a place for work too important, and too sensitive, to be discussed anywhere else on Andros.

It had been built 31 years ago, soon after the accession of Feodor. It had been her unofficial headquarters on Andros for all those years, although she had spent most of her time on Alkmene; but now it would no longer be needed. It had served its purpose, had served its end...

Thank Skietra! Kalla thought, as she soared off into space to rendezvous with the fleet… It had been a long wait, but she was ready, able and willing…

And it was her part to make sure it all came together… the Aureans must not only be defeated, but defeated so overwhelmingly – even without any help from Velor – that the Empire would abandon its campaign of interstellar conquest. The fate of countless worlds hung on the outcome of the battle at hand.

And once the battle was won, she could have a life again…

Chapter 2. The Long of It

Kalla had been a living legend for over two centuries, and yet, since the accession of Feodor, she had gradually become only a legend to most Androssians.

Like Skietra, she thought. Had there ever been a Skietra? Was there any truth to the story of how her people had come to be? Yet the legend had served a purpose, and had changed history. Perhaps becoming a legend could help her do the same.

And so Kalla had chosen to believe. She had once been a familiar figure at trade fairs, in the news sheets and, later, on the news feeds. But she had been seen only rarely in recent years, and only by a few, on the planet she had made her homeworld – in order to focus on saving that homeworld.

She had less and less time to keep her ear to the ground, or to promote progress there; progress was taking care of itself. She had to keep her ear to the cosmos, to the latest advisories from the Indrans and the Scalantrans – meeting with the latter only on Alkmene – and sharing what she learned only in private conferences with Feodor. But there was one thing she couldn’t share even with him, and she had learned it only from Amiela ten years ago when her indenture had expired.

Her visit to Alkmene had been a surprise. The former Companion to the Guild had put it out that she was simply taking a vacation to celebrate her freedom, and wanted to renew old acquaintances. But she took Kalla aside, out of sight or earshot of all others, to share something that she could tell no other, and that came as an utter shock.

“I was sworn to secrecy about this when I served the Guild, and I could understand why: it could have destroyed our alliance. Only a handful of our officers ever knew about it, but here is what they knew, and trusted to me, and that I knew trust to you. The deaths of Libanius and Menander were no accident. The traitor responsible was found out, and told all that he knew before we arranged for his own ‘accidental’ death. He hadn’t known much; only his instructions, and his Aurean contact, supposedly a refugee from Myrce, who had used her… talents to suborn him had already left the planet. If he had known anything about the Empire’s plans, it would be out of date by now. Those of the Guild who dealt with him have since died of natural causes. I alone have come to tell you.”

“At least Marcus is safe,” Kalla responded in a tone of relief. “But I understand. And we can’t tell anyone – him, or even Feodor. We can’t let it get out.”

She understood how devastating the reaction on Andros would have been had the secret might leak then. It would shake public confidence even now: if it happened once, people would wonder, could it happen again, despite assurances otherwise? The alliance of Indra and Andros was the foundation of the fleet that would confront the Empire, and likewise the modernization of the economy – both essential to the hope for the future that she and Libanius and now Feodor had fostered. Now it was her doom to bear a secret that would threaten everything she and they had worked for. Once again she must be the perpetrator of a necessary evil – and she would have to bear the terrible burden.

But she must give no outward sign of that, here or on Andros. She made a point of asking after Aglaya, Amiela’s successor as Companion to the Guild, over dinner with Indran engineers. She’d already met Aglaya as a prospect when the Scalantrans had stopped by on their way out six years earlier; like others she had encountered over the years, all she knew when left Velor was that the High Council was still trying to step up the number of indentures and intensify combat training, and still worried about Aurean propaganda. No news there.

“She’s fucking up a storm,” Amiela told her now. “She’d heard about how great it is to work there, and she’s even hosted gang bangs – those aren’t fashionable among the more traditional Indrans like business people, but air and space engineers don’t put much stock in tradition.”

“Maybe we could try that here,” Kalla quipped, in a tone between jest and earnest. Heads turned their way, and so did propositions. Kalla and Amiela found and swapped a dozen willing partners, and a good time off-shift was had by all. But for Kalla there was more to it than coming and coming with the Indran studs – there was the knowledge that none of them would remember anything but the orgy, that none would suspect that she and Amiela had shared anything else.

But would people back home suspect anything?

She was above any temptation to share her secret – she had kept secrets before, whatever the emotional cost. But could she hide the fact that she was sorely troubled from the Androssians closest to her? It would be hard enough to deal with Feodor… she thought of the Patriarch’s and his family, who knew nothing about Alexius, and would know nothing of the murder of Libanius and Menander. She owed them.

Call it penance, although she would never let She would plead the demands on her time, and offer other plausible excuses.

So she no longer took part in Family Council meetings. It was a distraction for her, she explained, when it was her duty to give her all to the preparations for war, and in any case she had nothing useful to contribute to domestic policy issues, or to the business affairs of the family itself

She had given up her second planetary home in Nesalonika, and drifted away from contact with the Makropoulos and Danelis families, although she kept up with the news of their involvement with the export trade, transportation and banking. From fastwheelers to airships, from lightning power to sungas fuel, they were taking care of themselves and taking care of Andros.

Of late she had found herself thinking about Alexius, a man she had betrayed out of loyalty to the Patriarch and his family. There had been no other choice, but she had hated herself for making it – and wherever he was now, he might still hate her. Had he found another life? Could he find one, as a male supremis in a universe of Terrans? The Scalantrans could surely enlighten her, but she had been steadfast in her determination never to ask them.

There was no one she could ask about her enhancement of him. Something to do with lifecyphers, obviously. She remembered how he had once pointed out the absurdity of the idea that the Galen, for all their genius with lifecyphers in creating the Velorians, couldn’t have recreated their own females. He had sown in her the seeds of doubt about the whole mythology of the Galen. And yet, those very Galen had built into her lifecyphers the capacity to share them...

The occasion had been one of pure happenstance, and yet her kind’s creators had planned for the possibility. Had it ever happened before? She had no way of knowing. Would it happen again, by accident or even design? Was this part of some greater plan, or the workings of what Alex had called Cosmognosis? Were the Velorians a part of it? Was she herself a part of it?

Kalla had pondered the matter many times over the years, including just recently when she had scouted the Triple Moons. But she hadn’t pursued it; her duty there was to work out in her head what the moons’ positions would be during the attack…

She had to be ready, and ready others, when the battle was joined...

Chapter 3. The Short of It

Kalla was on her way to becoming a living legend again, if all went well. She would in time become a living legend in the Galaxy. But she had no such foreknowledge, or even ambition; her focus was on the task at hand as she boarded the retrofitted Indran ghost ship awaiting her.

Designed to look like a real battle cruiser, its function – like those of its unmanned counterparts – was to draw fire as it seemed to spearhead the attack on the enemy forces. It probably wouldn’t survive long, and its quick destruction would convince the Aureans that they had nothing to fear from the Androssians.

But its real weapon would be her own naked body. The enemy wouldn’t even see that coming, hopefully. It was a matter of deception… and timing. Kalla watched from an open airlock. She didn’t need to breathe, but she needed to see. She had reprogrammed her doomed craft to zero in on the flagship of the invasion force – flagships were larger than cruisers and easily recognizable.

And there it was, dead ahead, with twelve other ships surrounding it. They were all launching missiles as the Ghost Fleet approached, and the ghost ships were launching their own. But Kalla’s targeted only the flagship, those from the rest of the Ghost Fleet were programmed to seek whichever enemy ships were closest or seemed to be headed in their direction.

Kalla didn’t wait for the approaching missiles, but launched herself towards the flagship. Defensive screens and beams might or might not save her ghost ship; chances were they wouldn’t – but lulling the Aureans into a false sense of confidence was part of the plan. She dodged all the incoming missiles, not because they could harm her but because the enemy admiral would surely be suspicious if any of them exploded so short of their target. As she neared her goal, she could see the bursts of her own missiles against the Aurean screens; none seemed to have done any damage.

The energy screens of the enemy ship were no barrier to her, but would alert the bridge that what seemed to be a missile had somehow passed the first line of defense –the response from the Aureans would be to focus an intense energy beam against that missile, heating it to incandescence. Only, Kalla’s invulnerable body could take that heat; she was even turned on by it as her swelling breasts converted the awesome energy to orgone. In moments, felt herself cumming and cumming and cumming.

It was all Kalla could do keep her mind on what she was here for. But the admiral and his men would spot her glowing body, and realize that they were facing a Velorian, rather than a mere missile. Indeed, somebody on the bridge soon figured it out, because the beam was abruptly shut off. Relieved of the orgasmic distraction, she pulled up short of her goal to glance about.

And any time now, the rest of the battle would be joined; the Indran battlecruisers and hornets would be attacking the rest of the Aurean fleet. Most of the ghost ships were gone, but so were a few of the Aurean warcraft. The flagship looming ahead of her was taking no further action, but the admiral must be hoping that destruction of the Ghost Fleet would render her role futile – the enemy might even have gold to use against her... it might be a faint hope, but it was his duty to hope

Then it happened: the battlecruisers and hornets emerged from behind the moons and opened up on the Aureans. Their hope was vanishing before the Aurean’s eyes. She saw the first explosion, and there were ten more to come.

It was a slaughter for the Aureans. Only the flagship remained. That was by design. There had to be a formal surrender. The admiral and his flag officers had to live and tell… and bring word to the capital.

It was a triumph for Andros and Indra, and Kalla knew that she would get credit for it because of her role at the scene of battle. But she didn’t feel a sense of triumph; she even felt pity for the Aureans. Still, she knew that she had done what needed to be done – under the circumstances. It had been that way from her first years on Andros, and it had hurt – especially with the sacrifice of Alexius.

* * *

The admiral’s name was Kirriz. He was, of course, a Prime, as were the other flag officers, although the crew was mostly Betan. The other ships had been manned only by Betans, except for their captains and mates.

“You seem to have the advantage over me,” he told Kalla after inviting her to the bridge of the Kaikki Voimakas – which meant All Powerful in Aurean. She could have fought her way onto the ship, and put it out of commission – but that would have been missing the point. She and her world didn’t need prisoners, but rather messengers. The point certainly wasn’t lost on Kirriz.

But the formalities had to be dealt with. After some discussion, he agreed to come to Andros to sign a parole pledging that he and his fellow officers forswear any further hostilities, disable their ship’s weapons, and return to Aurea. Kalla arranged for a private flight to the trade fairground, after alerting the Patriarch. The only witnesses to the signing aboard the shuttle there would be herself, Feodor, First Speaker Cosmas Metochites of the Great Synod and Minister of Defense Gregoras Danelis, a nephew of Verina’s.

They may consider us traitors, and treat us accordingly,” Kirriz told them. ”I offered my men a chance to remain here. I was sure that you would honor any such appeals, but none made them. They are standing by me, as I am standing by them. So be it.”

They wished him and his companions good luck, and advised him that no public announcement was to be made on Andros until the Kaikki Voimakas had cleared the wormhole on its way home to Aurea.

But that announcement, they all knew, would be a cause for celebration, and they already had plans in mind what would be not just a victory celebration but a homecoming celebration.

There were tens of thousands of Androssians on Alkmene who had never set foot on the homeworld – members of the Space Force and their children. Generations of them had died there, preparing for the war that might have come during their lifetimes but never had.

Recent recruits had joined the exiles shortly before the Battle of the Triple Moons, but they were far outnumbered by those who had spent their entire lives on Alkmene or in training. Children who, for one reason or another, had not joined the Space Force, had been assigned to civilian jobs on Andros’ largest moon – but like their parents and those of their generation serving in the Force, were forbidden to have any contact with the world they could see in the sky.

Their new lives on Andros would require readjustment – adapting to the higher gravity, getting used to the extremes of weather, and any number of subtler challenges. And Feodor and Kalla both knew that Andros must demonstrate how much it owed them, and how glad it was to have them.

Chapter 4. Homecoming

The turnout for the Homecoming was in the hundreds of thousands, dwarfing that more than a century ago for the dedication of the Farspeaking Tower that now made it possible for people to watch from afar. The trade fairground could barely accommodate the needs of the huge crowd, what with the need for sanitary facilities as well as food and drink – and seats for the honored guest of the Space Force.

Those seats up front, facing a platform with the podium for the Patriarch and the other speakers. Huge screens there and elsewhere offered close-up views, as well as recorded footage of the epic battle and the preparation for it. Officers of the Space Force itself were on stage to explain it all: what had been top secret for decades had become common knowledge, and there was credit to be given and shared.

But the lives of those who had served were the main focus – long lives of exile and dedication and incredible patience. What had it been like for them? What was it like now, and what did it mean to them to finally be here?

“We worked out in centrifuges,” said, Eudocia Petropodaro, who had been chosen by lot to speak for those exiles. “But that was just work, not life; a matter of training – just in case. Only, it seemed that the case would never come, and that we’d never have a chance to ‘come home,’ as those here put it. We’d never have a chance to breathe sweet air, or walk through a forest, or relax at a beach, or to see the wildlife or tame animals – not even brightbears – we could see it all on vids, but what did that signify? What did it mean to my son and daughter, who believed it would be the same for them?”

At one point, she launched into a broadside about the status of women on Andros.

“To excuse the traditional tyranny of men, many have argued that the two sexes ought to embrace very different characters – that women do not and cannot have thestrength of mind to serve in the same capacities as men.

“That argument has been discredited again and again in the realms of business and the learned and technical professions, yet until now it has been taken for granted that it applies to service with the military in time of war. “

“After all, that has long been seen as a matter of body as well as mind; with women obviously the weaker sex – excepting Velorians like Kalla, of course. But mere physical strength and endurance no longer matter in a world of battlecruisers and hornets. We proved it at the Triple Moons. We served there. We can serve here, too, at all levels of governance that require the strength of mind we share with men.”

As Eudocia went on in that vein, Kalla recalled Nikos having argued for the rights of women in the essay he had begun shortly before his death a century ago – an essay little read. He could never have imagined reaching out to an audience like this....

I’ve got to speak with her, Kalla thought. Lend my support.

But she herself was next up, and she had to make her own case for what it was All About. She spoke only briefly about her own part in the battle.

“I too have been an exile,” she went on, “Andros was for me a place of exile, and I was afraid at first that it would be nothing more. Yet it has become a home for me, a home I love dearly, with people I have loved dearly. I admire what we have accomplished here, and the Space Force has been central to that.

“My part leading up to our victory had been one of watchful waiting. Nobody knew when the enemy would strike, but we had to be ready at any time. I had to be ready, and the Space Force had to be ready, and the engineers who designed and built and maintained our ships and weapons systems had to be ready. It was a terrible burden, and yet we embraced it. Andros owes them all, all who have shared in bearing the heavy load of victory.”

Feodor had been the first to address the celebration, only briefly; he was old and frail. His wife Marcella had died a decade ago, and it seemed a surprise to many that he had managed to hang on this long. But after Kalla spoke her piece, he embraced her at the podium and shared what proved to be his final thoughts on the matter.

“I needed to see this through,” he said. “I’ve lived to see this through. This is the happiest day of my life.”

He died the very next day. It would soon be up to Marcus to steer the ship of state. As for herself, perhaps she would finally have a normal life – as normal as possible for a Velorian among humans. She might find new loves, or at least a new love life. She might take part in the family council again. She might become involved in projects of one kind or another. She might have a chance to travel, like the Companions of Indra. She couldn’t imagine being called ever again to defend her own world. But who could know the future?

One thing Kalla felt sure of. It wasn’t the day of Feodor’s passing that she would call to mind in the years to come. It was the response of the crowd at the Homecoming celebration to their embrace,

None there could have known about what had happened more than two hundred years ago, when she had brought victory to the first Feodor. Now as then, a few voices raised in an accolade to them became a mass chant – this time heard around the fairground and around the world.

Feodor! Kalla! Feodor! Kalla!”


 

Here ends Empress of the Dawn, But Kalla Zaver’el appears again in

Part Two of Homecoming and Incident at Madstop

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