Chapter I: A Gathering Storm

Two months had elapsed since Marina liberated the people of Yord and was crowned its queen. With help from the militia commander Britt Sykes, her friend Rebecca, and Commander Sheena Brice from the Fleet, she gradually grew into her role as a leader of the people.
As the birth of Rebecca’s baby drew near, Marina lost contact with her liaison and closest friend, forcing her to go out alone on a regular basis and interact with her people. Still recovering from her addiction to chemical stimulants, she suffered from periodic spells of nausea and hallucinations. Determined as always, she refused help and took the consequences in stride.
Dressed in her usual leather pants and black bodice with no bra or T-shirt, and black boots, she wore her dark hair draped down over her shoulders. Over the leather attire was a more regal red, velvet cape and a simple tiara with a small ruby embedded in it. Marina refused to wear anything more than that as a symbol of her royalty when she mingled with her people. She felt she was no better than any of them and chose to retain her old attire as proof.
Without Britt, who was away for a lengthy period of time, or Rebecca for guidance or friendly conversation, she was lonely. Strangers filled the palace, repairing and restoring its interior. The distraction of noise pressed her to leave the palace frequently for strolls into town for some semblance of solitude.
As Marina marched through the center of the Palace District, she observed the simple activities of the townspeople. Many business owners started the tedious process of cleaning and stocking their stores with some open for the first time in a long while. Two cafes were adorned with banners promoting their new opening. Meanwhile, the streets were filled with many different people; some shopping, some looking for work.
Marina’s militia security urged her to take an escort but she always refused. She did, however, request that they maintain a presence in the major cities of Yord to keep order and ensure the reconstruction was carried out in an orderly fashion. She was well aware of the ‘opportunists’ that showed up at times like this, looking to take advantage of the less fortunate.
Several people greeted Marina as she made her way along the cobblestone streets. She listened to their comments and stories courteously and respectfully. Once she learned to relax and enjoy their company, she quickly became a favorite among the people. She entertained them with her own stories of her encounters with Victor and how she discovered the truth behind her missing parents. Each passing day, she spent time among the people and felt like she belonged there. A familiar voice called to her from the street, “Marina, look at you!”
Marina recognized Dix, her former handler, and responded giddily, “Well look what the cat dragged in.”
Dix approached her with open arms and they hugged. He was a dark-skinned man in his fifties with a shaved head and a distinct gold tooth in front of his mouth, easily noticeable when he spoke.
“Have a hot job for me, Dix?” Marina kidded.
“Nope. I’m done with that business.”
Marina was surprised by his response. “What happened?”
He grinned sheepishly and explained, “The whole courier experience was about preparing you for this. You weren’t transporting contraband. You were helping the rebel movement.”
Marina was stunned. “You mean all that secrecy was just to push me to take the throne?”
“Uh-huh,” he answered slyly.
“Rebecca, Kat and Severin?”
“Uh-huh. Everything had a purpose that would lead to this.”
Marina paced about with her hands on her hips in shock. She couldn’t believe that anyone could con her like this. Dix backed away nervously and assured her that he would never have forced her to take the throne. It had to be her decision.
“What did the data chip have to do with all this?” she inquired curiously.
“That was for real,” Dix replied. “Your actions prevented a war and enabled us to break up a link between a mole in the Fleet and Balthus’ smuggling operation. You took it much further than they expected though.”
“Rock and Tulley were assholes,” she retorted, thinking about her hostile encounter with the two agents.
“But those assholes have a lot of respect for you now. They’ll make valuable allies in this new order.”
“New order?” she questioned, baffled by the reference.
“There’s rumor about a large corporate organization wanting to take over the galactic trade circuit. That’s nothing new, though.”
“So what about Kat?” Marina asked, growing ever anxious for more details. “I think you owe me an explanation about your relationship with her.”
“Ah, yes … Kat,” he mused. “The plan wasn’t for you to meet her; only to obtain the package.”
“Oh, I met her up close and personal all right. More personal than I cared for.”
“Let’s go for a walk and we’ll talk about her.”
As the two strolled around the perimeter of the palace, Dix commented, “Kat can be a formidable ally but she never does something for nothing.”
“Yeah, I figured that out,” Marina sniped. “She has a marker on me already.”
Dix paused with a concerned expression. “That’s not good,” he replied. “Care to explain?”
Marina glanced at Dix and wondered what bothered him so about her obligation to Kat. They continued to walk.
“Kat will use that marker and in a big way,” he warned.
Marina chuckled at his concern. “I think Kat and I have an understanding,” she said confidently.
“I certainly hope so,” Dix replied and stared at her suspiciously.
Marina stepped in front of Dix and blocked his path. Staring into his eyes with a somber expression, she pressed for an explanation about his relationship to Kat.
Dix fumbled for words and told her it was complicated. He attempted to pass Marina but she blocked him again, determined to get an explanation from him.
“You’re not leaving until you tell me. We had an agreement that, if I took the throne, you’d tell me what goes with the two of you.”
Dix reluctantly revealed, “Kat is my niece. She, like you, also has the powers of a Seer.”
Marina was stunned. “Then why did she ask me to destroy the crystal?”
“Because, like Victor tried, either of you could be held hostage for the use of its powers.”
Marina grew more confused and asked, “How does that benefit her?”
Dix looked away shamefully and then reluctantly continued, “Kat turned to a powerful cult of witches to enhance her ability to channel the crystal’s powers without the use of a crystal. Since you destroyed it, she believes she is the only one who can see the future.”
Marina folded her arms and recalled her first meeting with Kat. She remembered her words, alluding to their intertwined fates. “Does Kat know I can see elements of the future without the crystal?”
“No,” he responded uneasily, “but she’ll want to make sure.”
Marina pondered for a moment and then inquired, “What’s her deal?”
“Our families were killed by Victor’s men ten years ago. She wants revenge on everyone for what happened to them, including you.”
“Me?” blurted Marina, failing to understand the connection to her.
“Yes, if you would have taken the throne back then, maybe they would still be alive.”
“That’s bullshit!” she shouted angrily. “How could I have prevented that?”
Dix shook his head, indicating his reluctance to tell the story. She stared him down persistently, determined to know how she failed them. “Do you remember when you first met Rebecca?” Dix asked.
“Of course,” she said, wondering what the relevance was.
“Do you remember the bookstore – the woman and the child?”
Marina thought hard and remembered that day. “Yeah, Victor’s men burned it to the ground. The woman and child died in the fire, as I recall.”
“That was my sister and nephew – Kat’s mother and brother.”
Marina was appalled and felt sorrow for Dix as she recalled that horrible night. It hurt her to think about the people who died holding out against Victor’s forces until she emerged from obscurity to defeat him. It hurt even more now that she knew she might have saved Dix’s family members if she wasn’t so damn stubborn. “So Kat may well have a vendetta against me,” she surmised aloud.
“Just watch your back, Marina,” he warned. “That’s all I’m saying.”
Marina stared down at the ground with remorse in her eyes. “Perhaps the three of us should have lunch and clear the air,” Marina suggested when she looked up.
Dix sighed and replied sadly, “It would be nice if my niece and I could meet and get along for once. She’s the only family I have left.”
“I’ll ask her the next time we meet,” she joked. “I’m sure she’ll pay me a visit soon enough.”
“Only if she wants something from you,” he said uneasily. “She never leaves her station.”
They walked again past a number of shops. Dix was amazed at how the townspeople responded to her. “I see you’ve improved your people skills,” he kidded.
“I’m still struggling with this, Dix,” she confessed. “I’m used to being the unknown, unseen specter that creeps in and out of people’s lives, not the center of everyone’s attention.”
“It’ll take some time. The important thing now is to define your allies and enemies. Being the ruler will make you a target, more so than before.”
I’m not one to be intimidated. You, of all people, should know that,” she reminded him.
As they continued walking, Dix mentioned, “You have become like a daughter to me. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
“What about my courier assignments?” she commented cynically. “They weren’t dangerous enough?”
“I did what I could to have your back. Sometimes you made that quite difficult with your aggressive tactics.”
Marina hugged him, much to his surprise. “And you did well. I’m still here.”
Dix returned her affection and then left. Marina wondered how he managed to run his operation for so many years in plain sight of Victor and the Fleet without being discovered. More so, she was amazed that she was so successful in his operation during that time. Until Victor set his sights on her, she was the elusive mystery woman with a violent reputation.
As Marina walked along one of the side streets, she developed a throbbing headache that forced her to sit for several moments on a wooden bench. She sweated profusely and trembled. Some of the townspeople gathered and inquired if she needed help but she refused. Then the hallucinations began.
A vague image of a blonde woman in a Fleet uniform appeared. Six figures in blue Fleet uniforms appeared next. The image faded and another appeared. Marina fought with a female officer. The image faded and she regained her composure. The vision made no sense to her as Commander Brice was the only Fleet officer she knew and Brice was a brunette. When the headache and nausea finally subsided, she disregarded the hallucinations as only that and resumed her walk.
An old, gray-haired friend, Dora, emerged from the crowd and greeted Marina with a hug. In her late sixties, she wore a long skirt and pullover sweater. She emphasized how proud she and her husband Clem were of how Marina defeated Victor and assumed her new role as queen. Marina could never thank them enough for risking their lives months earlier to save her when the mercenaries hunted her. She sensed that Dora was bothered by something and invited her inside the palace where they could talk in private.
The two sat in the large conference room with the doors closed. Dora took Marina’s hand in hers and explained, “I knew your grandmother many years ago. She was a great warrior, much like you. She trusted few people outside the circle of priestesses in the temple and I was one of them.”
Marina grew anxious to hear more about her family history and was attentive. Dora continued, “Your grandmother foretold that new Seers would be revealed when the last priestess died.”
“Why would she speak of that?” asked Marina, surprised by her remark. “Did she expect me to die young as well?”
Dora chuckled and placed her arm around Marina’s shoulder. “Remember, Marina: you are different. You were not a priestess but, with the crystal, you were the very power they protected.”
Marina was stunned at this news. “But I destroyed the crystal,” she confessed. “What good would that do?”
“The power of the crystal is in you. By your very presence among new Seers, their skills will manifest themselves.”
“Do you have any idea who these new Seers might be?” Marina asked eagerly.
Dora removed her arm form around Marina and nervously fidgeted. Marina noticed and urged her to relax and confide in her.
“I do not know for sure,” Dora admitted. “I do have my suspicions, though.”
“Why is this relevant to me?” Marina asked curiously.
“If these Seers fell under the influence of the wrong people, they could put you in danger.”
“From whom would they fear?” Marina asked, surprised by Dora’s revelation.
“There are many who would gain from controlling young Seers as well as yourself,” Dora answered.
Marina stood and paced the room uneasily. Finally she accepted the fact that she was involved whether she liked it or not. “What can I do to help?” she asked.
Dora grew somber and instructed her, “When you find the new Seers, take them under your protection. Teach them how to use their skills for the good of their people?”
Marina became concerned as she never anticipated a responsibility like this to be cast on her. She was far from the role model that the young girls would need to guide them. “I don’t know if I can, Dora,” she fretted. “I don’t even know how to use my own skills?”
Dora disregarded her apprehension and insisted, “Promise me you’ll do your best to care for them. Kara may be of use in finding them and will need your protection as well.”
Marina reluctantly agreed to seek them out with Kara’s help. Dora stood and hugged her once more. “You are a great and wise ruler. I know your parents are very proud of you.”
Marina became teary-eyed at the thought of her parents watching her attempt to rule their kingdom. When Dora departed the room, Marina was more perplexed than ever. After finally bringing freedom to the people of Yord, was it possible that there was as much to fear now as there was under Victor’s rule? She ascended the stairs and spent the afternoon in the meditation room, searching for answers to her new challenge.
*******
Commander Sheena Brice marched down the corridor of Fleet headquarters in a neatly pressed, blue commander’s uniform with her long, dark hair tied up in a bun. Her piercing brown eyes and tight body projected an intimidating appearance.
Sheena was never comfortable at headquarters and preferred the sanctity of her command ship, the S.F. Argos, away from catty politics. Her older sister, Severin, encouraged her to ‘play the game’ with the beaurocrats but she never had the patience nor the tolerance for the pettiness that her sister did.
A tear formed in her eye as she recalled her sister’s murder at the hands of mercenaries in an ambush on Orpheus-2. It haunted her that her sister didn’t deserve to die like that, especially on her own space station.
At the end of the corridor on the third floor, two sentries were poised at the entrance to a high security room, known as the Red Room. This room contained the most high tech monitoring equipment in the galaxy and was designed with airtight security. The room was also used for high level briefings to ensure their secrecy.
The sentries blocked Sheena’s entry to the Red Room while she positioned herself in front of the retinal scanner to gain access beyond the steel door. When the device acknowledged her identity and beeped, the sentries moved aside, allowing her access. The clicking sound from ten latches around the perimeter of the door meant she could enter. Nervously, she turned the handle and pushed open the steel door. Glancing back at the sentries, she gave them a sharp stare for not assisting a senior officer with the door. Just another example of the lack of discipline that develops when leaders get fat, dumb and happy, she thought to herself.
Once inside, she immediately sensed the eyes of fifteen administrative officers on her. As they stood to acknowledge her, she announced, “Commander Sheena Brice of the S.F.Argos, reporting as ordered,” and then saluted with her right fist over her heart.
The officers responded in kind and took their seats. At the head of the table sat General Duane Witty, a gritty-looking, older man in his fifties with sinister eyes like those of a snake. He wore a black two-piece uniform with no identification, symbolic of his supreme leadership in the Fleet. Sheena had rarely spoken with him and when she did, it was only in passing.
Sheena took her seat and the meeting began. There was much discussion about a new weapons technology that would enhance all existing weaponry for the Fleet but was delayed due to contractual issues with the developer. Witty emphasized that the issues were being addressed appropriately and progress would continue shortly. Sheena wondered who had the knowledge and the facilities in the private sector as well as the financial backing for the research and development of something so advanced.
After another hour of mundane discussions about how the Fleet will increase the scope of its control and improve training among the ranks, Witty directed his attention to Sheena. “Commander Brice, I understand that you’ve had interaction with the Queen of Yord before.”
“Yes, sir,” she answered, wondering why that was a concern.
“What do you think of her?” he inquired curiously and stood.
He was an imposing figure, looking down at her with those eerie black eyes. Sheena was uncomfortable with the question and responded defensively, “It is not my position to judge, only to enforce the code of the Space Fleet.”
The General was amused by her response and walked behind her. “And why is that?” he continued with arms folded. “You are a veteran officer with much experience.”
Sheena quickly responded, “As an officer of the Fleet, I am trained to obtain facts and recognize threats to the Fleet.”
“Do you see the Queen as a threat to the Fleet?”
Sheena grew more concerned with his distinct interest in Marina. “Not at this time, sir,” she answered, casually.
“That’s it?” he asked, somewhat surprised. “Not at this time?”
“Yes, sir.”
“Does that mean that she will be a threat at some time in the future?” he continued.
“That remains to be seen,” she answered uneasily. “I have not seen or heard anything to indicate she would be a detriment to the Fleet.”
“And you would tell me if you learned of something, wouldn’t you?”
Sheena stood and faced Witty. She did her best to remain respectful and follow protocol but she had to question his motive. “Sir, is there something that I need to be briefed on regarding the Queen?” she countered. “I don’t understand the line of questioning here.”
“At ease, Commander,” he ordered, smiling cunningly at her. “I just wanted your opinion on things.”
“Sir, what things?” she pressed.
“It’s nothing, Commander. Please take your seat.”
Sheena sat down and wondered what transpired at headquarters that led to her unofficial inquiry about Marina’s loyalty in front of other officers of equal or greater rank. Something was amiss and she was determined to find out what it was.
When the meeting ended, Witty requested that Sheena stay for a few moments. Once the room emptied, he informed her that soon she’d be patrolling the fifth sector for an extended period of time with two other vessels, the S.F. Hydra and the S.F. Mantis. Sheena thought that was very strange but said no more.
As she left the conference room, Colonel Sandra Lennox intercepted her in the corridor, standing in her path. Lennox, middle-aged and buxom with short blond hair, seemed determined to intimidate Sheena.
“Can I help you, Colonel?” Sheena asked uneasily.
“Just a warning, Commander Brice, I suggest you choose your friends carefully.”
“I feel as though I’m missing something here, Colonel. Would you care to explain?”
The Colonel grinned at her with an icy stare and then explained, “There are big things happening that will require all of us to make sacrifices. Make sure you’re on the right team when the time comes or else.”
“Or else what?” she challenged Lennox.
Colonel Lennox ignored her and walked away, leaving Sheena more confused than ever. Something big was happening and, so far, nothing she heard made sense.
As she returned to the transportation bay, she recalled what information she knew about sector five. It was on the other side of former alliance members’ territories and beyond that was unexplored territory. It made no sense why three Fleet warships would be positioned out there. More so, she wondered how the alien races in that region would perceive their presence at their backside.
When she reached the transportation bay, the militia commander, Britt Sykes, had just stepped off his militia transport. He immediately caught her attention in his black militia jacket over his tan shirt and tie with the insignias of the militia command. Sheena knew he was close to Marina and considered warning him.
“Good morning, Commander,” he greeted her and saluted as he walked past.
Sheena saluted and then paused. “Excuse me, sir,” she beckoned to him. “Can I have a minute of your time?”
Britt stopped and turned back, making eye contact with her. “Of course,” he replied pleasantly. “What can I do for you?”
Uneasily, Sheena inquired, “Is the Queen in any sort of danger?”
“None that I’m aware of,” he answered, somewhat surprised. “Is something wrong?”
Sheena hesitated as she considered the risk she was taking in suggesting the Fleet had issue with Marina. Then she threw caution to the wind and mentioned, “The General has a particular interest in her loyalties to the Fleet.”
Britt drew closer to her and, sensing her concern, spoke slightly louder than a whisper. “Do you sense a problem with that?”
“I’m not sure. He made several inquiries as to what I thought about the queen and if there was anything to indicate she was a threat to them.”
Britt pondered her remarks and assured her, “I will pass that along to her. I’m sure it’s nothing but I’ll let her know just the same.”
“Look, sir,” Sheena continued with a concerned tone, “I’ve been assigned to a long-term patrol in the fifth sector with two other warships and I suspect it’s somehow relevant to the queen. Trust me when I say that something isn’t right here.”
“I understand,” he assured her. “We’ll look into it.”
“Thank you, sir,” she said, feeling confident that he understood the importance of her message. “Marina and I have become really good friends and I respect what she’s been through for her people and herself.”
“Right now that friendship means a lot to her,” Britt replied. “She’s going through some tough times getting clean from the substance abuse.”
“Well, thank you for your time, Commander Sykes,” Sheena responded and walked away toward her ship.
Britt watched her curiously as she left. He, too, wondered why the Fleet’s leader would have such an interest in Marina. He glanced at his watch and continued on to his meeting with the Industrial Development Committee and the Fleet leadership.
*******
The crew of Sheena’s warship, the S.F.Argos, greeted her with salutes and smiles when she boarded. Sheena immediately requested a meeting with her intelligence officer, Lt. Lars Kannel. The crew sensed her concern and the importance of their meeting. Glancing uneasily at each other, they watched the two officers intently.
Sheena and Lars left the bridge and entered her quarters, a long narrow cabin that housed her living accommodations as well as her work area. It consisted of three rooms: one for personal space; another for a private work area, fitted with secure communications equipment; and the general meeting area where they now sat.
Kannel took a seat at an oblong table surrounded by ten chairs. Sheena sat across from him and folded her hands. Kannel knew she was concerned about something and gave her his utmost attention.
“Lars, I need you to do me a very important favor,” she requested somberly. “Can you look into all the prisoners held captive here at headquarters recently?”
Kannel was surprised by her request. “Of course, ma’am. Am I looking for someone in particular?”
“Perhaps someone who reneged on a contract with the Fleet that has ties to Queen Marina,” she explained, somewhat unsure of the answer herself. “It may have something to do with why we’re being deployed to sector five with the Hydra and the Mantis.”
“Yes, ma’am, I was just informed from our sister ships of the unusual mission. I did a search on sector five as soon as I heard and there is nothing of note that occurred there since the war ended.”
“That’s why I find it strange,” she responded. “There was talk at the meeting that someone developed vital technology for the Fleet but may have reneged on the deal, resulting in a delay. It’s a long shot but that person could be in their custody.”
“There shouldn’t be any prisoners at this time in headquarters,” Lars informed her as he considered the possibility of an incarceration of a scientist or engineer. “Prisoners are usually transferred to the Kappa-Rigo prison facility once they’re processed.”
Sheena pondered his response and then instructed him, “See if anyone is in custody now or was recently held here for an extended period of time.”
Lars replied as he stood, “Yes, ma’am. I’ll get on it right away.”
“And please, not a word to anyone about this. I don’t know what tree we’re shaking and, more importantly, who’s in it.”
“I understand.” They saluted each other and Lars left Sheena’s quarters.
Sheena was determined to find out what was going on before their deployment. If she disobeyed her orders to report to sector five, she contemplated how severe the consequences could be. She was also concerned by how the information she learned could relate to Marina as well.
Then she recalled her first encounter with Marina in the unexplored territories. Victor was defeated and Marina’s alien cruiser ravaged the militia’s pride ship, The Scorpion. Sheena’s orders were to destroy any and all outlaw ships in the unknown territory. Perhaps, she considered, Marina wasn’t supposed to survive her encounter with Victor and they were sent to unknowingly eradicate everyone who would know what happened to her. But why the Fleet would engage in something like this made no sense. She needed answers.
*******
A shuttle with fancy emblems and logos painted on its hull docked inside the transportation bay of Fleet Headquarters. A large “K” for Kronus Enterprises with wings stood out between fire-breathing dragons and swirling ghosts overhead with expressions of fear on their faces.
Two Fleet soldiers escorted a bearded man in a suit, the vice-president of Kronus Enterprises, Tripp Sexton toward the shuttle. When the engines shut down, another bearded man also in a suit, Jack Klingman, stepped off with a brief case in hand. Klingman was the president of Kronus Enterprises and supported by very wealthy investors because of his profitable string of successes across the galaxy. The two men shook hands and walked away from the shuttle.
“Have you made the arrangements I requested?” asked Klingman.
“Of course,” replied Sexton. “Everyone is on board with the schedule.”
Klingman patted him on the back. “This was a long time coming and now … now we’re on the verge of achieving our greatest success.”
Sexton looked down at the ground as they walked, exhibiting doubt in his expression. Klingman noticed and inquired, “What’s wrong, my friend?”
Sexton hesitated in front of the elevator. He gestured for the soldiers to leave them. The two men entered the elevator without their escorts.
“I don’t understand why we’re offering to share power with IDC and the Fleet. Do we really need them?”
“Look at the big picture, Tripp. We’re using them to dismantle all the technical obstacles. The Fleet will handle the alien races and then we’ll have them handle IDC. By then, they’ll have very little to fight with. When all is done, we’re the last men standing.”
The elevator stopped on the third floor and the doors opened. The two men stepped out.
“And you are confident that our support groups will come through?” inquired Sexton.
“Look, we’re paying people a lot of money … a lot of money to make things happen. It’s the kind of money that gets results.”
“So, we’re investors now, huh?” kidded Sexton.
“Only until the hostile takeover occurs. Then we’re gods.”
The two men laughed.
“Do you foresee any problems?” asked Sexton.
“Only the damned chip,” replied Klingman, “and that stupid bitch who reneged on our deal.”
“Offer her more money,” suggested Sexton.
“Already did. She won’t budge,” he answered disappointedly. “It’s a moral issue with her.”
“What can we do to change her mind?”
“Oh, I already have people working on that. Give it a little time and she’ll come around – piece by piece.”
The two men chuckled again. “I understand the chip was delivered to the station but disappeared a few months ago,” Sexton mentioned.
“Yeah, a pair of Internal Security dicks claimed to have misplaced it,” complained Klingman. “We’re working that angle as well.”
“I’ll see what I can find out,” Sexton volunteered. “If it’s out there, I’ll find it.”
As they approached the conference room, Klingman remarked, “Everyone has a price and sometimes it isn’t money. Sometimes it’s a little deeper. Get my drift?”
The two men laughed sadistically. They paused before reaching the door to the Red Room. Klingman commented, “The universe is the limit for us and we’re going to take all we can … once we get that chip or the bitch’s cooperation to reproduce it.”
“This weapon is really that powerful?” asked Sexton.
“And more,” replied Klingman confidently. “It’s the range of the targeting system that makes it exceptional.”
They stopped at the door and performed their retinal scans. The scanner beeped and unlocked the door. The two sentries stepped aside and allowed them access. It was unusual for civilians to have access to the Red Room and for their identities to already be in the computer system was significant.
*******
Britt met with a panel of two Fleet officers, the two Kronus leaders, and three members from the Industrial Development Committee. One of the Fleet officers was Colonel Sandra Lennox. The other was Captain Devon Jeffries, the commander of Orpheus-2 and the replacement for Severin, Sheena’s sister, after her death.
The three IDC representatives consisted of a young oriental man, Dr. Haney; and a middle-aged, dark-skinned couple, Drs. Marjorie Janus and Tyrus Ford. All were from affluent areas of the galaxy. Jeffries looked strangely familiar to Britt but he couldn’t recall from where.
Britt was uneasy with administrative duties as this was much different than developing battle strategies, ordering subordinates into battle or fighting insurgents. He knew he had to tread carefully, being the babe in the woods among a pack of wolves. The Fleet and the militias always co-existed but never really cared for each other. He was unlikely to be treated with anything more than cursory respect.
When he studied the faces of the Kronus and IDC representatives, he recalled that civilians weren’t permitted to have this level of access and found that odd. He was fortunate to be granted his access to this security level and only because of the militia’s new affiliation with the Fleet after Marina’s coronation.
After hearing their initial discussions about investing in big ticket projects around the galaxy, Britt was amazed at the wealth that still existed for companies like Kronus despite the squalor that befell the alliance worlds for so many years. He wondered where these people hid to maintain their status at the top of the food chain during the conflicts.
The meeting included a slide presentation about the value of metals, their availability throughout the galaxy and where the market was headed. Intergalactic development was nonexistent during the Great War with the Weevil and prices skyrocketed when materials became scarce.
Britt learned that, despite the high cost of materials, thirty satellites were built on the unexplored outskirts of the galaxy for surveillance of other worlds to ensure safety and secrecy. He was aware of the expensive project but assumed it was a private sector watch dog for the Fleet. Money buys a lot of contacts and loyalty in business.
Plans for rebuilding the central shipping hub called GSS that once belonged to an alien race called Galleans during better times were discussed as well as who would control commerce throughout the galaxy from the hub.
Jeffries mentioned that tariffs would be required to support the Fleet’s involvement over such great distances. This caught Britt’s attention as they had no right to levy taxes without Marina’s consent. He kept his silence for the time being and listened as other concerns were presented.
The issue of containment of certain alien races was raised by Dr. Haney. He fretted the possibility that these races might interfere with their projects by launching an assault on the defenseless GSS. Colonel Lennox assured him that it wouldn’t be a problem under her command.
Sexton interceded and explained the advantages of a network that controlled communications and routing throughout the galaxy. They would not let that advantage slip away.
Britt had heard enough. “When did commerce and communication become a negotiable and taxable item without the Queen’s consent?” he questioned them sternly.
Sexton answered calmly, “Control of commerce in the sector is a very lucrative business.”
Klingman added, “And there are other sectors just like it, waiting to be controlled as well. We will have the power to dominate everyone. Imagine, no more wars.”
“With the new technology we’re obtaining, we’ll be rich beyond belief once we begin operations,” announced Sexton excitedly.
Dr. Haney stood and attempted to clarify their position to Britt. “IDC will control all commerce in the galaxy from GSS while Kronus manages commodities acquisitions and trades. The Fleet will maintain enforcement of our network and its needs.”
“It’s needs, huh?” remarked Britt snidely.
Jeffries reminded everyone that the Fleet would enforce the provisions of the plan to ensure all parties cooperated; however, there would be expenses for that protection.
Klingman grinned like a Cheshire cat as he pondered the anticipated successes and assured Britt that all would be well-compensated.
Britt stood and slammed the table with his fist. “You people have no right to take control of any territory you please, especially from other races! You have no right to levy any tax without the Queen’s consent! And you sure have no right to set up your own trade organization! You are out of line!”
The others were startled by his outburst. “Remember, you are only here as a courtesy, Commander,” Colonel Lennox warned him. “I suggest you get on board or get out.”
“Look, Commander,” Klingman said calmly, “You play ball with us and you’ll be a very rich man.”
Britt recognized what was happening and wanted no part of it. “Who negotiated all this without the Queen’s permission?” he inquired sternly.
“Come now, Commander. You think we haven’t followed the proper protocol?” countered Lennox.
“That’s right! You have no legal authority to do this,” he warned them.
“Ah, but we do,” responded Klingman. “The Council already approved it.”
Now Britt was irate. “There is no council! They were officially disbanded by the Queen for abandoning their people during Victor’s takeover.”
Lennox countered, “There are three councilors, recently appointed, who are acting on behalf of the people of Yord. This is just a continuation of the government that existed prior to the war.”
“It was decided that the Queen doesn’t have that authority since her position didn’t exist before the war,” added Sexton sarcastically. “This is a new alliance and, as a democracy, we’ve all agreed it would be better served with her as a figurehead only.”
“And what does General Witty say about this?” Britt challenged angrily. Everyone laughed at him, making him angrier.
“General Witty doesn’t believe in subjugating the Fleet to anyone, let alone a vagabond who declares herself queen,” replied Colonel Lennox.
Britt leaned on the table again with piercing eyes and warned them, “Then you and General Witty will have to go through my militias and you’ll be tried for treason when we take you into custody.” He stormed out of the meeting and returned to his ship.
“We’ll see who is tried for treason,” quipped Klingman. “Lennox, give them a taste of what’s to come. Deliver the package.”
“I’d be happy to,” she replied and left the room.
“Now, where does IDC stand in their progress?” inquired Sexton.
Dr. Haney replied, “We have completed the plans for the restoration of the galactic transport hub. The power dispersion modulator is nearly finished and we only require the program to operate the system.”
Dr. Ford added, “The receivers have been installed and tested in all thirty satellites. Until the transmitter is operational in the GSS hub, there is nothing more I can do.”
Dr. Janus spoke next and asked, “When can we expect receipt of the data chip?”
Sexton, now looking distracted by the question, rubbed his chin and replied, “We have two interrogation experts working with our engineer. I’m sure she’ll have a change of heart about honoring the contract.”
“And that means when?” Dr. Janus pressed for a definitive answer.
“Within the week, I assure you,” promised Klingman.
“Meanwhile, Kronus is providing General Witty with a recommended plan of attack to disrupt the alien forces with his Fleet to prevent any resistance,” added Sexton.
“Can we count on them to handle the situation?” asked Dr. Ford.
“Colonel Lennox is initiating the first phase now regarding the queen,” answered Jeffries. “The queen is the key to gaining the support of the militias.”
“And the Fleet?”
“General Witty is already dispatching his forces as we speak to handle the alien races.”
“Then we can assume everything is on track,” summed up Klingman. “I’m sure we can provide monetary incentive for anyone who gets in the way. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll just remove them altogether.”
Sexton added, “We have a mercenary group that specializes in removing problems. Their leader is quite the aggressive female and her team has a very successful record. They’ll handle the issue of the queen for us.”
“This group also happens to be the new council that will overrule the queen on any matter,” Klingman informed them. “Should be a smooth transition of power to our new council.”
With that, the meeting came to a close and everyone departed.
*******
An old, battle-worn cruiser arrived at the transportation center near the Palace District on the planet Yord. The hub, like most places on the planet, was bustling with activity as many of the city’s former inhabitants returned to engage in restoring their facilities.
The hatch opened and Kat(arina), a tall, dark-skinned vixen of intimidating allure in her thirties, stepped off the ship. She breathed the air and savored its freshness. It had been many years since she let her safe haven on Magnus-5 where only recycled air was breathed.
Kat wore a regal robe with a tiara and sparkling eye shadow to compliment her platinum-colored hair. The dockworkers immediately stopped and gazed at her in adoration.
She fled Magnus, a small space station located halfway across the galaxy, after a hostile takeover by corporate mercenaries and sought to gain a foothold in the newly reborn alliance as Marina’s ally and confidant. Accompanying her on the ship were six of her most trusted bodyguards who provided her security on her station.
Two of the bodyguards approached her and bowed respectfully. Kat acknowledged them and followed them away. The other four appeared at the hatch to her ship wearing turbans. They stood guard with pulse rifles and swords.
The dockworkers noticed them and quickly left the area, fearing their intentions. They recognized Kat from the stories they heard over the years from crews that indulged in the contraband trade through Magnus. They also heard rumors that she was a witch with many powers.
“Should I acquire transportation for you, Kat?” Faust, her chief body guard, inquired.
“No, I think I’ll walk,” she replied, smiling. “It’s a beautiful day.”
Faust and another guard lagged behind, giving her space to shop and speak with several of the locals. Unlike the dockworkers, few of the locals knew of her and what she was.
The local townspeople shied away from her at the site of her bodyguards. Kat noticed and summoned them closer. “Obtain quarters for yourselves. We’ll be here for a while.”
“Are you sure?” questioned Faust uneasily. “There may be hidden perils here.”
“I can count on the Queen’s protection,” she replied assuredly.
“Let me know if you need anything,” he requested humbly of her.
“Thank you, Faust,” she responded. “I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
The men left her and sought out lodging at a local pub.
Kat continued down the street and attempted to strike up conversation with many of the mothers and their daughters. Taking particular interest in the young girls, she initiated brief conversations with several. The mothers were quick to intercede and usher the girls away from her.
There were two young girls in particular that she took interest in: very perceptive, educated for their age; and unintimidated by her presence. The girls, Kara and Ginna, were eager to have conversation with Kat, unaware that she was testing them for certain skills or powers. Kat’s curiosity grew as she considered that they could be the new Seers. They talked at length about the girls’ upbringing and their beliefs until Dora appeared and ushered the girls away from Kat.
*******
Drizzle fell on the cobblestone streets of the Palace District as patches of fog enveloped the city. Cool air rolled off the mountains and created a chilling effect on the quiet city. Windows were no longer boarded up despite the disrepair of the local shops and second floor apartments.
As the shadows of evening stretched across the region, the streets emptied. Stores closed and only random candlelight in windows shone through the inky blackness.
Under cover of night, a dark-skinned man in his thirties, Franklin, and a tall, blond-haired woman in her forties with a briefcase under her arm, Willow, stood outside the door of an abandoned apartment. Both were dressed in long coats with rain hats. Franklin rapped twice on the door. The two waited impatiently until the door squeaked and then opened slightly.
A bearded man in his early forties, Eddie, peered out at them. He promptly opened the door and allowed them passage. Once they entered, he peered outside to ensure no one saw them and then quickly closed the door. The lock rattled as he quickly secured the door.
Eddie had a muscular build and was taller than both Willow and Franklin. Dressed casually, he held a glass of wine in one hand. The three of them ascended the creaky stairs and entered a dimly lit, two-room apartment.
A single candle on the table illuminated the small apartment unit. Bare cupboards and dusty counters presented the apartment with an eerie atmosphere. The windows were covered with cardboard and the few pieces of furniture, other than the table and chairs, were covered with sheets. At the center of the table was a half-empty bottle of cabernet wine and two empty glasses.
After removing their coats, the visitors sat at the dusty, wooden table. Willow set the briefcase on the floor and sighed. Eddie folded his hands and ogled Willow for a moment. She wore a short leather skirt and a white blouse.
“You can’t afford a maid, Ed?” Willow complained, knowing she had his attention. “This place is a shit hole.”
“I don’t live here,” he responded sarcastically. “It’s abandoned, dumbass.” Eddie rolled his eyes over her lame comment and poured the wine for his guests.
Franklin chuckled and joked, “Come on, Willow, you’ve been laid in dirtier places than this.”
Willow responded irately, “I do have standards, you know.” The two men were amused by her claim. She clenched her fists and bristled at them.
“Easy, Willow,” cautioned Franklin. Willow pointed a finger at him, on the verge of an outburst but Eddie interrupted, “All right, let’s get down to business before Willow has an aneurism.”
“Kiss my ass, you prick!” Willow shouted and shoved the table into his ribs. The glasses nearly toppled and Franklin grabbed the bottle before it could fall.
Eddie winced briefly and regained his composure. “Before we start, how about a toast to our futures … our very rich futures?” he suggested.
“I’ll drink to that,” responded Franklin eagerly.
“Can’t think of any better reason than that,” Willow added as she calmed down.
The three raised their glasses and tapped them in unison. Willow finished her glass and swapped it for the bottle on the table.
“Did you meet with your contacts?” Eddie asked Willow excitedly.
“Yes, I did. Kronus Enterprises was anxious to employ our services,” she answered confidently and laid the briefcase on the table. “In fact, Colonel Lennox, a high-level Fleet officer, left us a ‘starter kit’ to celebrate our role with the team.”
“So the Fleet is working with them on this … endeavor,” Eddie remarked, searching for the right word. “Anyone else involved that we should know about?”
“IDC,” answered Franklin.
“What the hell is IDC?” he asked curiously.
“The Intergalactic Development Committee.”
Eddie glanced suspiciously at him, wondering what IDC would have to offer in their deal.
Willow opened the briefcase and removed three smaller cases. Inside each case were four cylindrical glass ampules, each five inches long and an inch in diameter.
Eddie took one out and studied it. “So what do we have here?” he asked.
“It’s a man-made virus capable of wiping out whole towns in only a few hours,” Willow explained. “And our orders are to use them on twelve of the towns closest to the Palace District.” He handed a list to each of them. “Take one case and do your thing. They expect to see results by noon tomorrow.”
“This is really big!” exclaimed Eddie “Right up our alley!”
“I love this part of the job,” Willow remarked and guzzled the contents of the wine bottle.
The two men watched with amused expressions. “You still swallow like a seasoned whore, Willow,” Eddie teased. “How do you do it after all these years?”
“Same as you, asshole. Lots of practice,” she replied cynically and wiped the wine from her lips.
“And one hell of a reputation,” Eddie added giddily.
Willow licked her lips seductively and unbuttoned the top three buttons on her blouse. She smirked at him, drew a dagger from a sheath on her leg, and stuck it in the table between his fingers. Two small blotches of blood appeared on his fingers. “Try me,” she dared him. “I haven’t changed.”
With an arrogant grin, Eddie held his hand up and stuck his tongue between the injured fingers, flicking it twice at Willow. She pulled the dagger from the table and pointed it at Eddie, nearly touching the tip of his nose.
Eddie stopped smiling and warily pushed the dagger away from his face. He knew Willow wouldn’t hesitate to cut him if she was ‘in the mood’. “Who do you know at Fleet?” he inquired, trying to maintain a focus on their objective.
“That’s my business,” she answered. “Willow leaned back in the chair and smiled confidently. “We aren’t the only ones who want to get rich, you know,” she answered confidently. “I have my sources.”
“I like it,” remarked Franklin enthusiastically. “Reminds me of the job we did on Minos Major ten years ago.”
“Save the stories for someone who cares,” sniped Willow. “I don’t get paid for stories. Only kills.”
“Remember, Willow, we were making hits when you were scrubbing shit stains off the floors for the counsel,” chided Eddie.
“Screw you, jackass!”
“Look,” interceded Franklin, “We’re the first stage of the plan. We’re here because Kronus knows we’ll get the job done.”
“What about the militia?” asked Eddie curiously.
“General Witty is handling them,” replied Willow. “Once we deliver the goods, I’ll get the Queen in line and we’ll be off to a rich new life.”
“I’m concerned about the queen,” Franklin commented. “She won’t go quietly.”
“She’ll go down on me if I tell her to,” snapped Willow. “I’m gonna’ own her before this is over.”
Eddie countered, “Whoa, Willow, not every woman is as easy as you. Queenie won’t go down on your good looks alone.”
Franklin chuckled at them. He enjoyed watching Eddie get under Willow’s skin. He knew she always took a liking to Eddie but he had no interest in her other than business and screwing.
Willow stood and slapped his face. “I’m never easy, Ed. You should know that by now.”
Eddie stood and grabbed her by her arms. He kissed her passionately. Willow shoved him away angrily. “Marina will do whatever I tell her to do and I mean ‘whatever’,” she vowed, while staring him down.
“Ah, you want to make love to her, don’t you?” taunted Eddie as he attempted to kiss her again.
“That bitch killed a close friend of mine,” countered Willow. “I want revenge for what she did to her.”
“And that’s it?” he questioned, still not convinced of her intentions.
“Maybe I want her squeal like the pig that she is,” Willow joked and resumed a long, wet kiss with Eddie. “You know I always get what I want,” she added and massaged Eddie’s crotch, panting gently as she grew more excited. Eddie winked at Franklin and massaged Willow’s breasts through her blouse.
“You haven’t changed, Willow,” remarked Eddie playfully. “I like that.”
“We can stop right now if you like,” she warned.
Franklin stood and chided, “What? And deny yourself a moment of wet pleasure?”
Willow grabbed each man’s crotch tightly and warned, “I can find a place for these on my mantle … with the others I’ve collected over the years.”
“I’m cool,” replied Franklin nervously.
“Don’t damage the goods,” griped Eddie. “I get it.”
Willow released her grip on the men. She was used to having her way. With the former council members dead, thanks to Victor, she now had the opportunity to take control of the kingdom that her predecessors let slip away.
Franklin and Eddie were always the muscle who covered her back in the past and allowed her to meddle in Council affairs until the palace fell into Victor’s hands. She learned much during those times, including how to avoid the mistakes made by her peers.
“Why not just kill the bitch?” inquired Eddie.
“Kronus is concerned about her allies outside the sector,
she grumbled. “They don’t want any surprised until after things are in place.”
“What things?”
Willow and Eddie embraced each other and kissed again. Willow rubbed his crotch and replied, “Important things placed where they belong.”
“I have an important thing to place …” he started but Willow placed a finger to his lips for silence.
Franklin walked over to the couch and sat comfortably, hoping to witness his partners in some act of debauchery. Eddie slid his hand under her skirt and nibbled on her neck affectionately. Willow sighed with pleasure but then grabbed his wrist and yanked it away. He groaned and placed his hands on his hips in frustration. Over the years, Willow was notorious for getting him aroused and then ending their encounter just when it got interesting.
“So our plan is a go, I assume” Eddie concluded disappointedly as Willow pulled away from him. He sat on the couch next to Franklin with a glum expression.
“Yeah, it’s a go,” Willow answered arrogantly. She put her coat on and walked toward the door as if the two men weren’t even there.
“You’re not leaving already, are you?” inquired Franklin, also disappointed.
“I’d love to stay and watch you two do each other but I have to prepare for the Queen’s demise,” she answered smartly.
“Kiss my ass, Willow,” hollered Franklin playfully.
“That was your job last week” she shouted sarcastically and descended the stairs.
Once the door slammed shut, the two men laughed giddily. “You know, Eddie, she is such a bitch,” kidded Franklin.
Eddie put his hands behind his head and smiled. “Yeah but she’s as good a lay today as she was twenty years ago.”
“Amen, brother,” added Franklin.

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