Chapter Three: Liono
Heavy fire shook the RBF Ixxuth. Arjuna found herself glad she had listened to the Admiral about strapping in. That last volley of fire was bad.
“Hull integrity down five percent,” came the taught voice of the damage control officer.
“Tactical, target all weapons fire on the lead frigate’s volt cannons,” Admiral Dusairh snapped.
Dusairh was beginning to feel tense. He was under strict orders from the future Leader of Boentu to keep losses on both sides to a minimum. The fleet had disabled six of the frigates already, but the lead frigate was like an annoying insect; it kept buzzing in his face no matter how many times he swatted at it. This time the insect had even managed to sting him.
A surge of heavy volt energy hit the lead frigate, followed by a bright flash. Arjuna turned away from the bright light instinctively. As her gaze returned to the large view screen in front of her, she let out an audible gasp. An enormous gaping hole could be seen in the side of the ship. Dusairh cursed aloud.
“Sensors indicate heavy damage to lead frigate. Core gravitation unit appears non-functional. They’ve lost use of their propulsion system.”
Arjuna stared in horror. How many Arthemians served on a ship that size? How many would lose their lives today?
“Comms, send a message to the lead frigate captain offering any assistance necessary. Please remind the captain that the Boentu are not their enemies and our sole mission is to remove Prime Minister Carva from office,” Dusairh replied. He then turned to another Boentu warrior. “Commander Lyss, please ready a detachment to pick up survivors.”
“Admiral, let me go with them,” Arronanto piped up.
Arjuna turned to her brother in surprise, but it was easy to see why he would volunteer. The guilt she felt was etched even more deeply across his own face.
Dusairh shook his head. “Your assistance is appreciated, but I cannot risk you on the frigate. Besides,” he added when Arronanto made to protest. “Our warrior detachment is trained for zero gravity situations like this. You are not.”
Arronanto didn’t reply. Instead he nodded his head, and turned to look out at the dark hulk of the frigate.
“Admiral, receiving an urgent message from the Prime Minister of Liono.”
“Multiple footprints entering realspace. They’re Boentu,” said the shocked sensor array officer over the intercom.
“On screen,” Admiral Jaynus barked in CIC upon news of the Boentu ships.
Lossepharr couldn’t help but gape in surprise as ten Royal Boentu Fleet heavy cruisers filled the screen.
“The lead ship is hailing us,” said the Comms officer. “They have a message from the Ixxuth. For Tsalu Lossepharr.”
Lossepharr’s lips thinned into a grimace. “I’ll take it in private,” he muttered, and made his way to the nearest vidscreen.
After tapping in his personal security code, the blank screen was replaced by the broad grin of Arronanto. “Thought you could use a hand cousin.”
Rashdin Carva went to pour more tea but only the last, cold, sludgy remnants remained. He cursed. It was his ritual to sit and have a hot cup of tea while he enjoyed the sunset. Now the sky was dark, his tea finished, and yet he still had to stay here and await the damnable conclusion of the battle at the fuel depot. He was going to need more tea. He reached out to buzz his personal assistant, but his comms chimed.
“Prime Minister. Sensors are picking up more Boentu heavy cruisers entering realspace. They’re targeting our frigates.”
Carva frowned. This was unexpected. The Boentu boy had mentioned just one fleet. How could this be? “Lieutenant, are you saying that there’s a second fleet in-system?” He tried to ignore the feeling of alarm creeping over him.
“Yes, and that’s not all, Prime Minister. Reports from the frigate commander indicate that twenty Boentu heavy cruisers jumped away.”
“There’ll be coming here,” Carva muttered to himself.
“That is their most likely course of action.” The Lieutenant paused, feeling uncomfortable. “We expect they’ll be in Liono orbit any moment now. What are your orders, sir?”
“Exiting into real space. Heavy weapons fire ahead.”
“Tactical, target Arthemian ships, we want to disable, not destroy,” Admiral Dusairh’s calm voice rang out aboard the RBF Ixxuth. He glanced at Arjuna and her brother. “Looks as though you were correct about the fuel depot being your cousin’s first target.”
Arjuna smiled to herself as she studied the tactical readouts continuously being updated in CIC.
“My cousin’s known for his shortcuts, the stupider the better.”
Arjuna couldn’t help herself. It seemed so obvious, at least, when Admiral Dusairh had explained it to them. The fuel depot was just one in-system jump from Liono. Of course Rashdin Carva would mount a defence there.
She wondered if Admiral Jaynus, the commander of Third Fleet had argued against taking the fuel depot gateway. It wouldn’t surprise her if Lossepharr ignored the Admiral’s recommendations.
Mehar Renecke always told them that a good warrior listens to his advisers, and she liked to think that she was a good warrior. It had been Admiral Dusairh’s idea to travel the longer route, fuelling up before taking the gateway to the Arthema System. It meant doing several large, in-system jumps to catch up to Third Fleet. The ship’s engines were now working past full capacity. They would need to do a refit before taking the gateway back to Boentu space.
“He’s using decoys all right, but he’s kept a few actual frigates here to keep Third Fleet on their toes,” Arronanto remarked.
The communications officer’s voice came over the speaker. “I’ve finished analysing the heat signature of the frigates and compared it to the ones surrounding Liono. The majority are decoys. I estimate only ten frigates orbiting the planet.”
“Understood,” Dusairh responded. “Connect me to Captain Drimarch aboard the Nala.” “Connecting you now, Amdiral,” the comms officer replied.
“Captain, we’re splitting up the fleet. I want you to stay here with ten heavy cruisers to clean up this mess with Third Fleet. I’ll be leading the rest of the fleet to Liono.”
“Prime Minister, the Boentu fleet have exited the gateway. They’re targeting the mines.”
Rashdin Carva rubbed at his forehead, weary, he took a last savouring glance out the window before returning his gaze to the vidscreen.
“How much damage did the Boentu fleet sustain?” Carva asked, taking a sweet biscuit from the plate in front of him and dunking it in his tea.
“Multiple small attack craft were destroyed. Also, it looks as though several of the heavy cruisers have sustained minor hull damage. We definitely caught them off guard.”
“Good.” He bit into the moistened biscuit. “Send in the second line of defence.”
Lossepharr watched as the heavy cruiser Alon made its way through the wormhole gateway. Bright flashes of explosions and hulking metallic wreckage littered the darkness. Suddenly, a sharp shudder could be felt throughout the ship as the nose of a small attack craft unlucky enough to meet a mine crashed into the side of the heavy cruiser. It was just one of many large pieces of debris continuing on a path momentum had carved out for it.
“Minor damage to the hull on decks three through seven,” called out the damage control officer from the bridge.
“Target that debris,” snapped Captain Reka over the comms.
“How many mines left, Captain?” Admiral Jaynus asked.
“Less than thirty, admiral. No damage to the fuel depot.”
“They’re just hoping to scare us off,” the admiral replied, studying the readouts on his own screen.
It appears that way,” Reka agreed. “The heat signatures we were picking up were ghosts. They’ve been using decoys. However, we’re picking up more around Liono. Another 30-40 craft.”
“Those are probably all decoys as well,” Lossepharr sneered as he turned to Admiral Jaynus. “I told you Liono doesn’t have that many craft. The coward is fighting us with smoke and mirrors.”
Another large shudder took hold of CIC and Lossepharr grabbed the edge of a console less he loose his footing.
“We’re being targeted,” the Alon’s junior tactical officer called out.
“Admiral, Comms is picking up a message broadcasting on a continuous cycle from one of the Arthemian frigates.”
“Put it through, Captain,” Lossepharr replied before Admiral Jaynus could respond. The Admiral glanced at the young Boentu but said nothing, merely nodding his head in agreement.
Captain Reka’s face disappeared from the vidscreen only to be replaced by that of an Arthemian. Lossepharr easily recognised the fur-less features of Rashdin Carva. The Prime Minister of Liono seemed cool and collected for somebody with a battlefleet on his doorstep. However, he also appeared tired. “Attention Boentu fleet. You are violating intergalactic treaties between the Boentu star system and the Arthema star system. Any action against Liono is an act of aggression against the Arthemian race and will be considered an act of war.”
“He’s lying,” Lossepharr sneered. “Mehar Renecke says the Arthema system won’t interfere in a skirmish like this.”
Jaynus didn’t know quite how to respond. He knew Mehar Renecke well and trusted his opinion on most matters, but this whole course of action seemed, in his view, rash. Worse, what if the Mehar was wrong about Liono’s defences? Before he could reply, Captain Reka’s face appeared on-screen again.
“Sir, one of our scouts transmitted these images before a mine destroyed his craft.”
The image of the captain was replaced by the view from the cockpit of a small attack craft as it emerged through the wormhole gateway. For a moment, the area seemed clear. Jaynus could make out no sign of enemy ships. Suddenly, all around the small fighter, bright flashes erupted as mines obliterated the ships in front. Massive fragments of debris careened in all directions, The screen shuddered as the pilot fought to regain control. And then the image disappeared and the transmission was over.
Lossepharr stared at the screen for a moment, in shock. “What was that?”he asked, leaning around the admiral so that he could replay the image..
Admiral Jaynus cursed to himself before turning to the young warrior. “They’ve mined the fuel depot.”
Lossepharr’s lips curled into a small smile. He hadn’t been expecting any resistance from the Arthemians. This was most interesting. “Not a bad surprise attack. Shame he can only play that trick once.”
Jaynus agreed, his face grim. “Indeed.” He touched his comms link. “Captain, we’re bringing the fleet through the gateway. The fuel depot has been mined. Send word down the line, we need to target those mines with volt cannons.”
“Approaching the fuel depot gateway. Communications is picking up lots of chatter. Multiple heat signatures. It’s difficult to get a lock from this side of the gateway, but I’d say we’re looking at maybe 40-50 frigates.”
Standing in CIC aboard the heavy cruiser Alon, Lossepharr grimaced as a screen appeared showing the possible heat signatures from frigates at the depot. “It seems my cousin decided to inform the First Minister of our visit.” He frowned at the numbers on the display. This was not remotely the type of numbers Mehar Renecke had suggested. “Admiral, it isn’t possible Liono has that many ships at its disposal. There must be a mistake.”
Fleet Admiral Jaynus, Third Fleet’s commanding officer nodded his head thoughtfully. “I agree.” He touched a button on a panel next to him. “Captain Reka, let’s deploy some scouts. I want to know exactly how many ships we’re dealing with.”
“Sensors are picking up multiple footprints emerging from the fuel depot gateway, just as you expected, Prime Minister.”
Rashdin Carva sat in his office, peering thoughtfully out of a window at the rich green foliage outside. He dearly loved the view from his office. It wasn’t just the view either. It was the sound of insects buzzing, the breeze, the smell of late booming flowers. He glanced wearily at the small vidscreen on his desk. “How are our defences holding?” His voice was calm. Unemotional. Like a good leader should sound.
“Working just as predicted, sir. All scout ships have been taken out.”
“Good. And the message is still transmitting?”
“Yes sir. On all frequencies.”
Rashdin Carva nodded his head, switching the vidscreen off and taking a sip of hot tea before going back to his view. Just let the Boentu try and take away his view. He was ready for the furry bastards.
Dennethom cursed his cousin yet again. It was just as he predicted. The Arthemian Assembly saw the imminent arrival of Third Fleet as an act of aggression, accompanied as it is, with the proposed removal of an elected leader. But Rashdin Carva is no longer an elected leader, he reminded himself.
“I have certainly had the same thoughts as you. However, you must understand that I would not risk the lives of my warriors for something as trivial as revenge. I weighed this endeavour greatly before embarking. I believe this is a wrong that should have been corrected. You’ll forgive me if I seem impertinent, but it should have been corrected by you the Assembly.”
“You try my patience, Dennethom, future leader of the Boentu. It is not up to you to understand and judge the ways of the Arthema,” Jana replied.
“True,” Dennethom replied. “But I need you to understand that as a Boentu warrior I am morally obligated to complete this mission. I gave my word to Mehar Renecke.”
“And what precisely do you propose? You certainly did not bring the might of the Boentu to request a new ethics hearing.”
Dennethom took in all the faces of the Assembly before replying. “The removal of Rashdin Carva from the government of Liono.”
The dark skinned man scoffed. “My father is an acknowledged leader of Liono. Before his appointment to Prime Minister, he was First Minister of Liono for ten cycles. Do you honestly believe that I will simply remove my father from office at the behest of an alien race?”
“It is my understanding that the position of Prime Minister has no term limits,” Dennethom replied. “Which means that he can be in that position indefinitely unless a new First Minister chooses otherwise. Except, that is unlikely to happen since it is also my understanding that your son is being groomed for office after you.” His tone grew apologetic. “I do not wish my cause to be misunderstood. The Boentu have always had a good relationship with the Arthema system and I sincerely hope that we can continue to do so. But the fact is that Rashdin Carva forced Orvan Rono out of office and has built a political empire that ensures he remain in power, beyond the reach of the Assembly. Surely this goes against all that you stand for.”
A soft murmur arose in the Assembly hall and Dennethom knew he had hit upon a good point. The members of the Assembly were elected leaders. They did not think highly of those that hoard power, especially those that do not have to answer to the Assembly.
“I find it amusing that a Boentu who will inherit his father’s title should argue for an elected government,” Rashdu smirked. “However, as a warrior and future leader, you must surely know that I cannot simply allow you to remove my father from office.”
Dennethom nodded his head. “I hope you will see sense and understand that I do not wish for conflict.”
“I have heard enough,” said Jana. “By bringing a fleet into Arthemian territory, you have made clear that the Boentu will use force, if necessary, to remove Rashdin Carva from office. However, Rashdin Carva is not an elected representative of Liono. His rights are not protected by the Assembly.”
Upon on the large monitor, Dennethom could saw Rashdu’s face contort in anger. “Speaker of the Assembly, you cannot be serious!”
“Furthermore,” Jana continued unperturbed. “You have gone out of your way to assure the Assembly that you mean no harm to the Arthema System. You appear to be an honourable warrior, Dennethom, son of Chran. I propose that the Assembly allow your Third Fleet into the system, unchallenged. So long as the fleet remains on course for Liono, we will not interfere.”
“Are we to bow down to the requests of aliens? Speaker of the Assembly, I have to protest. The political landscape of Liono has nothing to do with the Boentu race. If you wish to make this a matter of Arthemian concern, I am happy to do so, but to allow an invasion fleet into our star system? I must object.”
“The Assembly has no jurisdiction over Rashdin Carva. You and your father have seen to that. However, your objection has been noted First Minister.” Jana’s tone was inscrutable. She turned to address her fellows. “The assembly will now vote. All those who agree, say aye. All those who disagree, say nay.”
The room fell silent for several minutes. It surprised Dennethom at how quickly the Assembly were willing to vote on the matter. In truth, he believed it would take far more convincing than that. Rashdu’s face was stony as he cast his vote. There didn’t seem to be much love lost between him and his fellow members of the Assembly. The thought suddenly occurred to Dennethom that perhaps the Assembly was using him to remove a thorn in their side; a politician they had no control over. His thoughts were confirmed when Jana finally glanced at the datapad in front of her and announced: “The ayes have it. You may bring your fleet into the Arthema System.”
The inner chamber was as white and stark as the rest of Chi-tra station. Harsh white lights shone from the ceiling, illuminating fourteen seats that set in a semi-circle. Dennethom assumed they represented the fourteen member planets of the Assembly. However, only five out of the fourteen seats were physically occupied. Probably only those from nearby planets, or those on the station for other business, Dennethom supposed, grateful to not be addressing the entire Assembly. Along the walls hung large screens, nine of which showed the faces of other Arthemian leaders, those who couldn’t be present. One of them, Dennethom wasn’t sure which, would certainly be Rashdu, the current First Minister of Liono.
Seated in the middle was a woman, with stark white hair and pale, hairless skin. She was the elected Speaker of the Assembly, Dennethom knew, remembering his schooling in Arthemian politics. It was her job to preside over the meetings of the Assembly.
“You are the future leader of the Boentu?” she asked, sharp dark eyes studying Dennethom closely.
Dennethom bowed his head slightly in acknowledgement. “Yes. I am Tsalu Dennethom, son of Chran.”
The woman returned his head nod with a curt nod of her own. “Your uncle, Katha, is the current Boentu Leader, is he not?” she asked.
“He is Steward of Boentu,” Dennethom replied. He could feel the eyes of the Assembly upon him. He felt like a child next to them.
The woman smiled, ever so slightly. “I shall never fully understand the politics of the Boentu people,” she remarked.
“Nor I the politics of the Arthemians. Though I will certainly try my best.”
The woman nodded approvingly. “I am Jana, elected First Minister of Arduar and Speaker of the Assembly. Your message indicated you have urgent business with the Assembly. However, before we could properly meet, you tell us to expect a Boentu fleet to arrive soon. Why?” she asked, her tone icy.
“First Minister Jana, please let me assure the members of the Assembly that this is not a brazen attack on the Arthema System. The Boentu have long valued our mutually beneficial friendship with the Arthema System.”
“Oh?” Marvena asked. “Then the fleet we are expecting is for a training exercise?”
“Please, you must understand, I was trained as a warrior by one of your own people: Mehar Renecke.”
“Yes,” said one of the faces on the screen. He was dark skinned and, Dennethom supposed, could very well be Rashdu. “He was once employed by the Liono government.”
“Yes,” Dennethom confirmed. “Renecke has told the Boentu Palace about the way in which he and former First Minister, Orvan Rono, were forcibly removed from office by Rashdin Carva. I am here with proof,” from his pocket he took out a small data crystal,” that Orvan Rono and Mehar Renecke were telling the truth about certain contracts with our world. It is my hope that with the help of the Assembly, we can right this wrong.”
“It is not the job of the Assembly to involve ourselves in local politics,” Jana replied staring hard at Dennethom.
“I realise that. Normally it would not be the way of the Boentu to interfere with the politics of another star system. However, Orvan Rono and my Mehar were forced out of office. They were banished from their homeworld.”
The dark skinned man sighed. “I appreciate the efforts of the Boentu Palace to bring this information to the Assembly. It is my understanding that these particular records were lost many cycles ago. I would even allow a hearing for compensation, if the records can fully exonerate Orvan Rono. However,” his tone grew sharp. “I cannot do any of these things while the Boentu have a fleet bearing down on Liono.”
“I agree,” said Jana. “From my perspective it sounds as though the Boentu Palace have involved themselves in some kind of revenge mission.”
Centrally located, Chi-Tra station was home to the Arthema System Assembly. Dennethom marvelled at the beauty of the station as his ship approached. Like the hospitals he had seen on vid clips, Chi-Tra station was majestic. Both practical and aesthetically pleasing. It was different to the space stations the Boentu created which were small and cramped. As the ship came in to dock, he could see a large nearby biosphere and the lush greenery it held within. This was Dennethom’s first visit to the Arthema System. He wondered if Liono was as starkly beautiful as Chi-Tra station.
Dennethom sat waiting for the docking tube to connect. He was meeting a female Arthemian named Ayla. It was she who Dennethom briefly communicated with on his journey. She had said little when he explained that Third Fleet was on the way, although she acknowledged the urgency of the meeting. Dennethom still struggled with the way the Arthema System handled their politics as separate units. The Boentu System was entirely governed by the palace; even those on the outer system. Learning the cultures of other worlds would surely be the trickiest aspect of his role as Leader. Not that he counted on himself becoming Leader. Given what had happened with his father and uncle, who knew what might occur. Maybe Arronanto or Arjuna would become leader.
As the docking tube clicked into place, a Boentu Guardian opened the doors of the craft. The hiss of oxygen flowing through the tube could be heard as Dennethom slowly made his way down the ramp and into the space station. He recognized Ayla from her vid message. Unlike Renecke, she had darker skin, though equally hairless.
“You are Dennethom of the Boentu Palace?” she asked, her voice stiff and formal.
“Yes. I am Dennethom, son of Chran, future Leader of Boentu.” He bowed to her in greeting. Ayla returned the gesture.
“Come this way please,” she replied. “The Assembly is awaiting you.”
Ayla hurried him through the space station’s brilliant white corridors. Dennethom couldn’t help marvelling at the gleaming space station. Even in Boentu Palace everything was slightly worn. Anhur’s rich red dirt was hard to keep out. He wondered how the Arthemians kept everything so clean. Eventually, they reached a small ante chamber.
“I will need you to wait here until the Assembly is ready to meet with you.”
Dennethom frowned. “I would prefer speaking to the Assembly right away. Given the situation, I would hate to lose more time.”
Ayla’s lips curved into a small, well-practiced smile. “It will be just a few moments.”
She guided him to a bench before disappearing into the chamber beyond, leaving him to his thoughts. Dennethom did not take the offered seat. Instead he paced, fretting over what to say to the Assembly. Here he was having to threaten one of Boentu’s closest allies if they didn’t comply. How he had hoped to avoid all of this. He always knew he would have to keep Third Fleet in his back pocket, but he wanted to take a diplomatic route first and show the Assembly how Orvan Rono had been forced out of office.
If the roles had been reversed, and a fleet had been sent to a Boentu outpost, it would be considered an act of aggression against the whole system. Despite Renecke’s promises that the Assembly would not bother with the local affairs of one individual planet, Dennethom still couldn’t help cursing his cousin for removing the diplomatic option.
Thankfully, he did not have to stew for long. True to her word, Ayla pushed open the doors to the inner chamber, and bade him enter. Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Dennethom strode inside to meet the Assembly.
Arjuna glanced at the time. Had it really only been a few moments ago that she had last checked? Why is it whenever she wanted time to go by quickly it slowed to a crawl? She glanced over at Arronanto who sat slumped forward in his chair, his head resting against the desk. He was snoring softly.
She should go to sleep herself, she knew. It was going to be some time before they received Dennethom’s response while he was in transit, even if he did respond right away. The Comms Officer on duty was instructed to route Dennethom’s message right to her quarters, so there was really no need to stay awake. But the sleep would not come.
She was still so spitting angry at Lossepharr. What could he hope to gain from this? He could continue to undermine Dennethom all he liked, but in the end, the line of succession ran through the Chrans. If, the old gods forbid it, Denne was killed on Hadad, then Arronanto would go through the proving grounds to become leader. Still, Lossepharr clearly had something else in mind.
A chime startled Arjuna awake. She blinked blearily. Had she managed to fall asleep? Her comm link chimed again. She shook Arronanto. Her brother sat up, wiping sleep from his eyes, while she quickly scanned the message on her comm screen.
Gods, this is precisely what I was trying to avoid! I don’t want the other systems to see the Boentu as some kind of right hand of vengeance. Thank you Arjuna and Arro, for the letting me know of the situation. It does not surprise me that he planned this. Of course Lossepharr would decide to lead the way into battle without waiting to try the diplomatic approach. I will send word ahead to Chi-Tra station to expect Third Fleet. I am unsure how they will respond. All I can do is lay bare Rashdin’s crimes, and explain that our quarrel is with the Prime Minister of Liono and not with the Arthema System.
Of course, if I notify Chi-Tra station, Rashdin Carva is sure to find out about Third Fleet’s imminent arrival. He may decide to fight it out. I don’t like giving him an advantage over our own people. I don’t know what Lossepharr has planned, but it is doubtful he will stick with the original attack plan. That is why I need both of you to go to the Arthema System. If you leave before high sun, Lossepharr will only have a slight head start. I need you to gather a small force of ships. Eighth Fleet is on manoeuvres in Zeni. Admiral Dusairh is in charge. We trained with him two summers ago. He was really impressed with your flying skills, remember Arro? I think he could be trusted to help us. How you proceed is up to you. I hate leaving you on your own, but you have been trained for this.
If Rashdin Carva wants a fight, I am happy to oblige him, but I won’t do it Lossepharr’s way. We will fight with honour. One last thing. Don’t let Mehar Renecke know what you are doing. I doubt he approves of Lossepharr’s plan to lead Third Fleet, but I fear he has a greater desire for bloodshed than I do.