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The Starlight Fortress

Chapter four

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4834 User hits: 29 Date: 03-17-2014

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Sterling was making dinner at home when he received a call from headquarters. He had this strange sense of guilt when he entered the garage and started his car. In the past, he would’ve been fighting the enemy up front.

He heard Admiral Wilson’s stentorian voice as he entered the Command and Control Center. “Again? How did they get here this time? … So they’ve been hiding in the Stony Band for two full months?”

The uneven mixture of human body heat and air conditioning reminded Sterling of the Combat Direction Center on the Caparise. Deep inside the room, a large table and a group of chairs were placed in front of several wall-mounted screens. Closer to the door were the communication personnel sitting behind computers and other equipment with headsets. Occasionally they chatted with one another, their voices barely audible among the machine hums.

As Sterling walked toward Oakley, he heard the admiral asking the other officers at the table, “A message from Her Majesty? Where is she?”

“Sir!” Sterling rushed up to him. “Her Majesty went shopping.”

“Shopping? Where did she go?”

Before Sterling had time to answer, the image of Captain Rafael Tait appeared on a screen. Yes, nobody would ever misidentify Rafael, an ancient warrior wearing a modern uniform. His brawny shoulders were meant to take pressures. The gray eyes carried a mixture of trained obedience and born sagacity.

“We’ll be there in fifteen minutes, sir,” said Rafael.

“Very good,” said Oakley. “Now we know how they hid themselves, but we need to make sure there are no more left in the Stony Band.”

With his dark brown face staying expressionless, Oakley let out a trace of pride in his voice, like a father speaking to his brilliant child. Sterling also thought highly of Rafael, captain of the Caparise. Unlike the other two Sunpherean Fleets that had their bases along the coasts, the Second Fleet was on year-round standby in outer space. When Sterling served on the Caparise, he couldn’t remember how many times they were woken up by a drill at midnight—according to Sunphere’s capital time—and had to get the carrier into a battle-ready state within minutes. As a result, Rafael’s squadron was always the first to respond to incoming enemies.

What he couldn’t understand was why Rafael never seemed to like him.

“So, where did she go?” Oakley turned back to Sterling. He must have figured out the answer himself while he asked the question. “Oh no …” He rubbed his forehead with a hand and closed his eyes.

* * *

“Why don’t we just jump out of the ship?” Verona asked.

“Then what?” Geneva sighed. “Our spacesuits aren’t bulletproof.”

As the two attached ships dashed toward the green moon RA-4-M2, craters of various sizes appeared in their view. The military base must be inside some of the craters.

“We should get seated and buckle up,” Stella said. It proved to be a wise suggestion because right after they sat down, the ship was yanked sideways.

“Ouch! What happened?” Verona asked.

Geneva reckoned they had just dodged a missile, but her friends didn’t need to know that. She sat in her seat and watched. It was like one of those motion-enhanced cinemas. The scene reminded her of a movie, a sneak raid that once happened on the old Earth. There were planes coming out of the craters, but none of Ribbon Islands’ warships was in battle-ready state, and some of them may never function again. She sighed. The tragedy shouldn’t have occurred! Ribbon Islands used to have a standby fleet on their orbit, just like her Second Fleet, but over the years there had been arguments against its necessity, given the high cost and the Spartan life the soldiers had to put up with. It was unlikely that the enemy would show up without first being spotted by their monitoring system. Impossible! A moon base was good enough.

The attack didn’t last long. Once they were away from the moon, the door was forced open and a few armed Thypholian soldiers barged in. The three girls were brought over to the other ship.

“I don’t know why we should take them,” said the captain, a young man with ash gray hair and faint eyebrows. “We ain’t pirates.”

“Sir,” a soldier at his side said, “Petty Officer Farman said his men intercepted their conversation with the base. These girls aren’t normal civilians.”

“Really! We know Farman likes imagining things.” The captain waved his hand impatiently. “Lock them up.”

The soldiers were about to take the girls away when the ship jerked violently and threw all of them to the floor. Geneva moaned. Her head was hurting badly. When she looked up, she was surprised to see Stella standing beside the captain, his gun in her hand.

“Ask your men to drop their weapons, or you’ll die.” Stella pressed the gun on the captain’s head.

“I’m going to die either way,” the captain said quietly, staring at the large wall-mounted screen.

Geneva squinted her eyes. It wasn’t a clear image, but she could make out a black square object. It must be huge compared with the ships behind it. With the object getting closer, she realized it wasn’t really square-shaped. It was an olive hull surrounded by four attached cylinders.

“What the hell is that?” somebody in the room asked.

“Our ally’s Daring Four.” Geneva’s mouth went dry. It was Ribbon Islands’ super warship, a new design that cost them billions of dollars and five years to finish. Recently they sent her a demo, but she didn’t know it was already commissioned.

Lights flashed outside the window. “Sir, we lost the Hummer!” somebody shouted.

Geneva almost fell to the floor again as the ship turned sharply to dodge the flying debris of its fellow. “Give up! You have no chance!” She moved over to the captain and pushed away Stella’s gun. “At this point, it’s meaningless to continue—”

“We lost the Horizon!”

Good job, Ally! Geneva stared at the Daring Four in despair. As if sensing being watched, the monster rotated one of its cylinders and aimed at her direction. “We’re their next target!” She shook the captain’s arm. “Listen, my country treats prisoners nicely. We’ve just renovated our—”

“Shut up!” The captain bounced up from his chair, his face blushing. “I’ve sent out the surrender signal and nobody responded!”

Because you just ravaged their base! Geneva wanted to yell at her enemy. She studied the humongous warship for a few seconds and an idea clicked in her head.

“You guys see this?” She walked over to the screen and pointed at one of the cylinders. “This missile launcher does not function yet. We can attach our ship to it, which is beyond the range of their batteries, and nobody will shoot us because—”

“Have you gone nuts, Geneva?” Stella said.

“Trust me! This one takes the special Wild-Ring missiles ...” She paused and rubbed her head. “Can’t believe I’m doing this! We’re the only country that produces those missiles, and we haven’t finished their order.”

“Who are you?” the captain asked.

“I’ll draw you a family tree later. Now just do what I said, please!”

“Sir, maybe she’s right,” somebody said. “I haven’t seen it fire at all.”

The captain made a long sigh. “Jesus Christ …”

* * *

Inside the Combat Direction Center of the Caparise, Captain Rafael Tait was looking at the blue planet ahead of him. The reflection on the window revealed a muscular man at his late thirties. Beside him, a table monitor displayed the current battle situation, but he didn’t need to see it. A piece of cake—to help their ally and catch a few ships on their way. He’d been through loads of nastier situations during his eighteen-year military life.

Speaking of his military life, it was once considered a legend. The majority of the Sunpherean commissioned officers graduated from their Space Force Academy, while he didn’t even finish high school. It was Oakley, the then-captain of the Caparise, who discovered his talent and nourished his career development. Honestly, he never understood why he was so adept in battles. His instincts always turned out to be right at critical moments. Next week he would be awarded the Medal of the Sun for the second time. But meanwhile, it seemed his career had reached a plateau. He should’ve been promoted to Rear Admiral long ago, and he was in fact executing a rear admiral’s power. Why should one be judged by his academic performance so many years ago? Education is a means, not an end result. Look at how people treated that lucky young guy who recently became the queen’s assistant! He had barely been through two decent battles …

“Sir, we got a communication request from that ship,” someone said behind him.

“Take it in.” Rafael turned to look at the screen beside him. Soon the situation map was replaced by the image of a group of Thypholian soldiers, along with three stylishly dressed girls.

Rafael smiled dismissively. “Is it a fashion nowadays to bring your girlfriends …” His smile disappeared as he leaned over to the screen. “Is that Her Majesty?”

“Hi!” Geneva waved her hand.

Failing to get a definite answer from his dumbfounded officers, Rafael asked his ships to check fire and forwarded the image to headquarters.

* * *

Fleet Admiral Wilson turned back and glared at Sterling. “How’d she end up there?” His large gray beard swung up and down as he spoke. “Does that have anything to do with you?”

“She borrowed my Nebufleet, sir.” Sterling had an ominous feeling about his ship.

“We need to contact Rainprus,” Oakley interrupted. “I think the other girl is Princess Stella.”

“Alright, you tell Jonathan to pick up his daughter,” Wilson said to Oakley without looking away from Sterling. “I know that girl, another troublemaker … Why are you still here, Commander Presley? To take more notes? Who’s going to read your notes if you lose your boss? Go downstairs and grab a ship. Now! If you fail to bring her back, there’s no need for you to come back either!”

* * *

Half an hour later, Sterling was on his way to Planet RA-4 when he learned that the queen and her friends had been safely transferred to the Caparise. Ribbon Islands’ moon base was seriously damaged, but it could’ve been worse if they hadn’t received the timely warning from Queen Geneva and the help from her fleet. Seven of the eighteen Thypholian warships were destroyed, and the rest were captured. It was now believed that no more disguised enemies were left in the Stony Band.

Relieved, he headed to the cafeteria. “She’s our lucky queen,” he heard people talking in the hallway. “It’s only been a few months, and we’ve had two victories!”

Victories? Sterling shook his head. The Battle of the Stony Band was only a preparation, and now the enemy had achieved its goal. It would take Ribbon Islands at least a year to recover from the trauma. What would be next, and when? As he walked, he saw the sun of the Renaisun-B system in the distance, the sun that shined Emperor Pompey’s world. It didn’t look bright due to the automatic adjustment of the filtration system embedded in the windows, but it must be bright enough to nurture that large empire with its eleven colonies.

What was Pompey thinking at the moment? Was he done with foreplay?

When Sterling arrived at the Caparise, he was told that the queen was in the dining hall. A familiar smell of warm metal and air freshener surrounded him as he walked downstairs to the mess deck. This was the oldest carrier model in the country. The paint and grains on the stairs for adding friction had long been erased by footsteps. For four years, this was his home, and God knew how much he missed it!

“I must’ve known you were coming!” said the chef of the Caparise, when Sterling briefly dropped by the kitchen. “I haven’t made your favorite onion soup since you left, and I don’t know what got me into making it just for tonight … Oh, the queen likes it!”

The queen likes any food, Sterling said to himself.

Normally at this time of the day, everybody would have gone to bed, but soldiers were hungry after battles, and who wanted to miss the rare opportunity to eat with the queen? Sterling was still full. He just wanted the soup. He was in front of the food trays at the entrance when he heard a familiar voice, “Commander Presley, how have you been?”

He turned around and saw Rafael holding a bottle of beer, several of his favorite pilots following behind as usual.

“Congratulations, sir,” Sterling said. “I heard you’re awarded another Medal of the Sun.”

“Thank you, but I should be the one to say congratulations. Look at you, role model of every soldier in our fleet.”

“Absolutely,” said one of the pilots. “Inches away from the center of power. Millions of miles away from where the real danger is.”

“Don’t be so mean,” Rafael said. “The fact that one quits battles doesn’t mean one quits sacrifice.”

“That’s true. Keep an eye on your health, Commander Presley. I heard you work hard for your boss—around the clock.”

Rafael and his men all burst out laughing. Sterling grabbed a tray quickly and entered the dining hall. His hands still shook slightly when he sat down with his soup, two rows away from the long table where Geneva was sitting with a dozen soldiers. There were wisps of loose hair dangling away from her bon. The ruffles on her dress were half torn around the neck. Her left temple must be hurting judged by the frequency she rubbed it with her fingers. But she seemed to be in a good mood.

“How do you like the food here?” he heard her asking.

“Not bad, ma’am,” someone said. “But it used to be better. They took away the cheese platters last year … and the clam chowder.”

Geneva was quiet for a while. Then she leaned forward and scrutinized something on the table. “Sir,” she stood up and said to the Executive Officer who was standing aside. “What’s this?”

“These tables are donations from a furniture company. Their only request was to have a line here.”

“Are we so short of budget?” She sighed softly. “We can’t open that gate, or one day we’ll find our soldiers wearing slogans on their backs. Scrape off the words and pay them at market price.”

After she sat down again, Rafael came over and said something to her. She nodded briefly and walked to the front of the hall. The noise and chatters quickly subsided as people’s attention was drawn to her.

“It’s a great pleasure to meet everyone here on this … unexpected occasion.” She rubbed her temple again. “Since the beginning of this war, I’ve heard lots of stories from my father about you, the Sunpherean Second Fleet, one of the most famous troops in the world. About how you held your ground at the battlefront long after our allies had quit. How our heroes created one miracle after another with their courage and wisdom. And I’m sure this is what I’m going to experience in the upcoming years.”

How could she talk to people like that without fear? Sterling wondered. Every time he stood in front of a crowd he’d immediately feel his body immobilized.

“I wish we were in better shape—more industrial resources, more budgets, and more support from our people. I just heard some of you complaining about the food. Yes, you do have the right to complain. When I started my job I also complained: why didn’t I get to choose a different career? Today, when I was with you here, far away from my well-protected office, I got to experience what it is to face the enemy up front …”

You weren’t “facing” the enemy, Sterling thought with amusement.

“… to be outnumbered, to be aimed at. And I suddenly realized that I don’t have the right to complain. Some of you may consider me as a symbol, but I don’t confine myself to that! I believe my effort will count, everyone’s effort will count, will make a difference. However small and insignificant it appears to be, that’s how we human beings achieve our goals as a group, as a family.”

Her gaze searched the audience and fell on the Executive Officer. “Sir, when I go back I will talk to Sir Lloyd about adding more choices to the meals. Meanwhile, you can go ahead and put the cheese platters back. We are an agricultural country. We are proud of being able to provide quality food to a whole planetary system, under the condition that our own soldiers do not suffer from malnutrition. Maybe we don’t need to import those fancy cars and ships each year, but we can’t live without a strong barrier between home and our enemy. Our allies have just learned their lesson. Let’s try not to make similar mistakes. That’s all I want to say today.”

* * *

By the time people gradually left the dining hall, the ship was not far from their home planet. Sterling caught up with Geneva when she headed outside, and his ominous feeling was confirmed by the panic and guilt on her face.

“Oh, hi! Thanks for coming!” She avoided eye contact with him, a tote bag tightly held in her hands. “I … your ship … I told them to retrieve it, but they said it’s not worth it. They saved the painting, though.” She raised the bag.

Sterling sighed and took the bag. “I should’ve seen this coming, given the history that you once bumped your Nebufleet into a Pathway Escort—”

“You knew about my accident?” She looked at him with those awfully large eyes. “And you still lent me your ship?”

“Geneva!” Princess Stella and another pretty girl appeared at the end of the corridor.

“We’re going home,” said the other girl.

“Actually, I’m not,” said Stella. “Not in the same ship with Swinburne.”

A few minutes later, they were all standing in front of an exit. Through a window, Sterling saw a crystal blue ship edging closer to the Caparise. The hull around the stern was made of one giant piece of glass, revealing an elevator that connected the ship’s five floors. On the highest floor, faint lights flashed and zigzagged on the glass. There must be a swimming pool, Sterling thought. One of his roommates at the Academy was crazy about boats. Sterling remembered borrowing his magazines a couple of times and being stunned by some of these luxuries.

After a passage was formed between the two ships, Geneva and the pretty girl stepped forward and pressed their faces against the round window on the hatch. “He’s looking at me!” “No, he’s looking at me!”

“Stupid girls!” Stella hit a button beside the hatch. The two girls jumped back as the hatch slid away. A young officer in Rainprian uniform was standing at the other end, completely undisturbed by the jarring passage as the two ships made their final adjustments.

That was Charlie Swinburne? Sterling couldn’t believe his eyes.

The Royal Fleets of Rainprus had a number of officers from wealthy and noble families, including Prince Anthony. Sterling didn’t think highly of them in general, given their mediocre performance at battlefields. But an exception was Charlie Swinburne, grandson of King Jonathan’s aunt. His squadron was quick, resolute, and all-conquering. A blade that always aimed at the enemy’s heart, and Sunphere’s most reliable ally. Based on his commanding style, Sterling had unconsciously pictured him as a fierce-looking guy. But now even seen from a distance, Charlie was unmistakably a gentleman. With his silky blond hair bound into a ponytail, his hands casually laid behind his waist, a humble smile nearly undetectable on his face, he looked like a prince who had just stepped out of a middle-age legend.

Not everyone present seemed to like Charlie, though. As Geneva was hugging the other girl, Princess Stella plunged through the passage and turned a blind eye to the greeting from her remote cousin.

“Stella! I haven’t hugged you yet!” Geneva called out in disappointment.

“Why don’t you come over for a cup of tea, Geneva?” An enchanting voice, even to a man like Sterling.

Geneva glanced at her watch, and her shoulders drooped. “It’s really late. Those poor guys are still waiting for me at headquarters.”

“And they’ll meet you after they have waited. When would be my turn?”

She chuckled briefly. “When our enemy makes another attack, maybe?”

“Is Sunphere running out of people so the queen has to be enlisted?”

She chuckled again and waved at him. Before she closed the passage, Charlie’s voice flew over again. “My intelligence said the enemy’s contriving an attack on my house during the Harmony Day weekend. I’ll be anticipating my ally’s assistance.”
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