Number Twenty-Four

By Danny Mandel

Chasteen sat rigid in her command chair, watching the Federation convoy’s approach on the holo, and wondered if she’d still be alive in an hour’s time. She forced her muscles to relax. Breathe, Chas. In and out. You can hold your breath later when you’re sucking vacuum.

The center of the convoy was a Fed shuttle leading an enormous hauler. A dozen system police gunships flanked them in a loose circle. More than enough firepower to atomize her corvette and the freighter she was escorting. An unnecessary show of force. Which was the point. To the CEOs of the Federation more was more.

It was a routine tax collection. Every three standard months Horizon, like every major planet among the Star Empire, loaded ore, foodstuffs, and other goods onto a freighter, then met the Trade Federation’s collectors in high orbit for the delivery. Was it a backbreaking level of taxation? Yes. Did her people break their backs every month to deliver? Also yes. Until today.

The comm beeped. The Fed shuttle was hailing. She pressed acknowledge, and Moss’s voice sounded through her ship.

“Greetings, Horizon One. This is Fleet Manager Moss of the Sapphire Spear. We have completed our security scans. Please prepare for boarding and exchange.”

Exchange. What a laugh. We’re exchanging vast material goods for the right to continue breathing. Still, she couldn’t fault Moss directly. His words came straight from the regulations manual. He was only doing his job, a small cog in a massive unjust machine.

The Fed hauler lumbered toward the imperial freighter and began opening its cargo doors. The freighter was almost as large as the hauler and carried ten containers, each about the size of Chasteen’s corvette. It usually took half the day to make the transfer.

“Horizon One, please acknowledge,” Moss said.

No, she couldn’t blame the man. After each quarter’s “exchange”, Moss often spent a week on leave planetside, drinking and playing cards with Chasteen and her crew. He was an easygoing fellow, quick to laugh, and even a sympathetic ear to her complaints about the Fed. Sometimes she wished – No. Don’t do that. He’s not a friend. Not today.

“Horizon One?”

Chasteen glanced behind command chair. Veen and Agvitch, the other two members of her crew, watched her. They knew what was about to happen. “Sapphire Spear, this is Captain Chasteen of Horizon One.”

“Good morning, Captain,” Moss said pleasantly. “It’s nice to hear your voice.” She could imagine the man’s smile and felt a pang of guilt. He had no idea what was coming. “Please prepare for boarding and exchange.”

Her finger hesitated above the comm button. Something caught in her throat. She cleared it, pressed the comm, and said, “Negative.” 

“Please repeat, Captain Chasteen.” 

“Negative, Sapphire Spear. We will not prepare for boarding and exchange.” She’d addressed the ship instead of the man. She wondered if he noticed.

A pause. “Captain Chasteen, is Horizon One or Imperial Freighter TH74 experiencing mechanical difficulty?”

She could hear the hope in Moss’s voice, that some external factor was at fault here.

“Negative.”

“Does Imperial Planet Horizon request a delay of payment?”

“Negative.”

Moss spoke slowly. “Captain Chasteen, what is preventing you from preparing for boarding and exchange?” 

This was it. Breathe, Chas. “Sapphire Spear, I speak now with authorization from the Emperor himself. The Star Empire hereby declares its independence from the Trade Federation.” With shaky fingers she keyed the command to transmit the declaration and proof of authorization to Moss’s shuttle.

“Captain,” Moss began but trailed off, leaving the background hiss of the open channel for long seconds before he closed it. 

Federation procedure was crystal clear when it came to rebellion. Once Moss read through the files, he’d have no choice but to order his gunships to blow Chasteen out of the sky. Then the Fed would send fleets to punish Horizon and the Empire’s capital planet.

But that’s not how it’s going to go.

 

A green button on her console had a safety cover to protect it from an accidental depression. She flicked open the cover and waited.

“Request for parley,” Moss said.

This was unexpected. And certainly outside of Fed regulations. A parley request typically came from the party in the weaker position. Something Moss had no reason to assume he was in. Maybe he intended to talk some sense into her. Which wouldn’t work of course. But maybe I can talk some sense into him.

“Request for parley accepted.” Chasteen pulled the visor from a slot in her chair. Agvitch helped fix the sensors to her temples and the base of her neck. She sat back and closed her eyes. The tug came, an invitation pulling at her consciousness, and she went with it.

It was disorienting, floating bodiless in the waiting room. Moss had requested the parley, which meant it was up to her to choose the setting. She scrolled through a menu of options, chose one of the defaults, then added a few mods.

The parley link kept her synchronized with Moss so their avatars materialized simultaneously. They stood on either side of a gaming table in the best approximation of a planetside club she could come up with on short notice. 

Moss’s avatar was in full dress. He wore his spectacles, though they were unnecessary here. “I like what you’ve done with the place,” he said, but the joke was forced.

She allowed a wan smile, said nothing. You called the parley. You get it started.

He took a seat. She did the same.

The table held three decks of cards: one for each of them and a larger one in the center. He picked up the deck closest to him, began shuffling it idly, something to keep his hands busy. “Don’t do this, Chas.” 

“I’m already doing it.”

“Why?”

“You know why.”

He sighed. “I’m not questioning your motivation. I know your position on the Fed and I don’t disagree. I’m questioning your method.”

“My method?”

“You know how this has to play out.” He bridged the cards in his hand, formed them into a stack, then dealt them out one at a time as he spoke. “You declare independence for the Star Empire. I’m forced to destroy you. The Fed sends a fleet to raze Horizon’s major cities. Millions will die. And in the end the Star Empire will remain subservient to the Trade Federation.”

Chasteen kept her face expressionless. “That’s one way it could play out.”

“One way … okay. What’s another way?”

Chasteen picked up her own deck of cards, shuffled a few times, then mirrored his movements, dealing out the cards as she spoke. “I declare independence for the Star Empire. You receive this information without violence. You return to your CEOs who accept the Star Empire as a newly sovereign realm.”

“Sounds wonderful.”

“Doesn’t it?”

He put his wrists together, palms up. “My hands are tied here. I don’t follow regulation, it’s not just my career that’s over. I’ll never see the outside of a cell. And it won’t make a difference. The Fed will still send a fleet to annihilate Horizon.” 

“All right, how about this?” Chasteen scooped up the cards she’d dealt out, shuffled, and started dealing again. “I declare independence for the Star Empire. You leave the Trade Federation and come with me.”

“You’re asking me to join your lost cause?”

“Why not? You’ve got no love for the Fed.”

“No, but I like being alive. There’s no happy ending here. The best option, the only option, is for you to walk away. I can wipe the files so there’s no official proof of secession. We make the tax transfer like usual. We forget this whole thing happened.”

Chasteen shook her head. “The Emperor decided to secede. I’m just the mouthpiece. If I don’t declare, someone else will.” 

“Then let it be someone else.” Moss’s voice had taken on a tinge of desperation. “You don’t have to die today. I don’t want to have to kill you.”

He means it. And the feeling is mutual. So how do I convince him? Chasteen picked up her cards, shuffled, and tried one last time. “I declare independence for the Star Empire. You attempt to destroy me, but a squadron of imperial fighters destroys you instead. The Star Empire wins battle after battle and seizes its independence.”

“Sure,” Moss laughed and leaned back in his chair. Then he must have seen something in her expression. “You’re serious.” 

“That’s right.” 

“Chas, come on. You know how many rebellions the Fed has put down? Twenty-three. You know how many rebellions have succeeded? Take a guess?”

“Twenty-three.” 

“What? No, I was asking –”

“You’re looking at it the wrong way. Twenty-three rebellions might have been ‘put down’, but they were not failures. They were preparations for today. The past is prologue.” 

“Poetic,” Moss said, shaking his head. “So where are the ships?”

Here it comes. She tilted her head, as if to ask what he meant. 

“You mentioned a squadron of imperial fighters, but our security scans showed nothing. No ships within range. If we fired on you, no one would get here in time to help. So where are the ships?”

She’d been waiting for him to ask, and now she had to make a choice. Tell him the truth and give up the one edge we have? End the parley without answering? How about a half-truth?

“They’re already here. Spread out in a perimeter around your gunships. Your scans missed them because we have some new stealth tech you’ve never seen.”

“New stealth tech I’ve never seen, sure.”

“Believe me or don’t believe me.”

“There’s no point in bluffing,” he said. “I can’t fold.” 

“Am I the kind of player who bluffs?”

Moss considered. “No.” 

“Right. I run the numbers and listen to what the math tells me.”

“And what is the math telling you?”

She shrugged. It’s telling me that we might win this fight and we might not. And either way there’s a good chance neither of us will survive it.

“Okay, so you have an invisible squadron out there, ready to blow my ships away. I have one more question.” 

“Go for it.” 

“Why tell me? You could just order the attack. Why give me a chance to prepare?”

“The same reason you called the parley.” 

Moss frowned. “I called the parley to try to save your life.” 

“And I accepted it to try to save yours.” She let that hang in the air. Come on, Moss. Just walk away. Take the information to your CEOs. No one needs to die today.

Moss let out a long sigh. “I hope you are bluffing. Because I have no choice here. I’m sorry, Chas.” He stood up and extended his hand. She took it.

With the parley connection broken, Chasteen was back in her command chair blinking away the dizziness.

“They’re heating up,” Veen said, referring to the gunships’ cannons. 

Chasteen checked the holo and saw each gunship rotating outward, preparing for an attack from outside their circle. He bought it. I couldn’t convince him not to fight, but at least he believed my invisible squadron was out there.

She slammed a finger down on the green button on her console sending the signal to the freighter. The huge ship released its ten containers, each of which had been fitted with thrusters that now pushed them away from each other. Seconds later each container jettisoned its walls, revealing the imperial fighter that had been concealed inside.

I’m sorry, Moss. I told you the truth about the stealth tech, but lied about where the ships were hidden.

The gunships were caught flatfooted, facing the wrong way, and Chasteen’s fighters were already firing.

To be continued in Star Realms: Rise of Empire!