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The Starlight Fortress

chapter 6

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4835 User hits: 29 Date: 03-17-2014

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On the following Monday, there was the queen’s biweekly defense council meeting. Regular attendance included the fleet admiral, the Secretary of Defense, major commanders of the Second Fleet, and deputies from the other two fleets that were headquartered outside the capital.

“Before I forget,” Geneva said after she sat down behind her desk, facing her officers seated in a semicircle, “Sir Lloyd, have you heard from Treagium about when they would be ready to take over the fortress?”

The Starlight Fortress was jointly built by the five major countries of the Renaisun-A system. The construction began three years ago, after the disastrous Battle of the RA-5, although the idea of a space fortress had long existed. The five countries agreed to take turns to garrison it every four months, and Sunphere took the first term.

“Yes, ma’am,” said Lloyd, the Secretary of Defense and Geneva’s aunt’s husband. He was a plump man with amicable small eyes and a reddish nose due to year-round allergies. When she was young, she always felt jealous that her cousin, Calvin, had such a loving father. He played with her and Calvin whenever she visited them, baked funny-shaped cookies, and never chided them for eating only the icing and fruits on their cakes.

“They said it’ll probably be two more weeks. The commander is on sick leave.”

“Two more weeks? They are already a month late. Fine, we’ll stay there for two more weeks, but please let them know they are responsible for the supplies.” She checked the notes on her laptop. “Sir, you said Treagium sent us a message?”

“Yes. Their intelligence found out that our enemy is planning on a cross-planet maneuver, called Firework. We don’t know when, but it’s believed to be a major one.”

Geneva nodded. “I’m glad they shared the information with us. Maybe our own intelligence should work harder?”

For a while, the air thickened inside the conference room. Then a Message Window popped up on her laptop screen. What’s the matter with you, boss? You’ve been quite mean today.

She glanced at Sterling quickly and looked back at Lloyd. “Thank you, sir. Please keep me updated.”

After Lloyd sat down, she checked her list again. “I wanted to talk about this a while ago but kept forgetting … Have we figured out what new technology is used by our enemy’s new model—sorry I don’t know the official name—the one that looks like an elephant?”

She looked around and only saw puzzled faces.

“Ma’am.” Wilson leaned forward in his chair. “We have no clue what you are talking about.”

Now Geneva was also puzzled. “I’m talking about the ship that has a … an elephant’s trunk kind of tube on the front. You know, the mysterious ship that brought down Rainprus’s Winter Sun?”

“The tragedy was caused by a failure in the carrier’s missile defense system, ma’am. There was no mysterious ship in the Battle of the RA-5.”

“There was one,” Geneva said. “Because I saw it.”

Wilson exchanged perplexed looks with Oakley. “Ma’am, you have to tell us the whole story.”

Geneva sighed, feeling tired even before she relived her memory. “I was in graduate school at that time. We were supposed to reside at a station near the planet for a week, to collect data for our dissertations. On the fifth day, we learned the battle had begun, and nobody would come to pick us up for home. We were told to remain at the station until it was over. But then, uh, I was curious …” She became hesitant, like a mischievous child being forced to admit her deed. “So I took a pinnace and headed to the nearby battlefield.”

Somebody inside the audience gasped.

“I stopped somewhere between our ally and the enemy.” She had to lie here. She was a lot closer to the enemy, in fact. “Initially, the Winter Sun was able to intercept the enemy’s incoming missiles with no problem. Then I saw a strange ship emerging from the back of the enemy. It had this long curved tube at the front. When a missile launched by that tube reached the Winter Sun, it always made a hit.”

As she was speaking, she thought of Charlie’s girlfriend. When she watched the carrier going down, it was all weapons and metals. She had not tried to picture the people inside until Charlie told her about the tragedy.

“Then how did you know it wasn’t a problem of the carrier’s defense system?” Oakley asked.

Geneva gathered herself. “Because when the Elephant occasionally fired at other ships, they couldn’t defend either.”

Nobody spoke for a long time. Finally Lloyd broke the silence. “Ma’am, I’m glad now we learned the truth. I will contact our ally to see if they know more. Meanwhile …” He paused and looked around. “I think all of us would appreciate it, if you stay on this planet next time there is a battle going on.”

Geneva smiled with embarrassment. “I’ll try.”

* * *

Soon summer came to the country along with a lot of good things—games, picnics, vacations, and long bright days like stretchy lizards being pulled by invisible hands. People either forgot about the ongoing war, or chose to drop it from their conversations, although every now and then they’d pause from what they were doing as that sneaky little “what-if” crept up in their minds.

As usual, accompanied by a group of assistants, guards, and maids, the queen left for Grassy Island on the day before the Space-Force Academy’s annual commencement ceremony. The island was located in the New Atlantic Ocean, with roughly equal distances to Sunphere and Rainprus. Everyone was excited about the trip because the neighboring island was Rainprus’s famous holiday resort, and surely they would have a vacation there for a day or two after the commencement.

The most excited person was Sterling. As he stepped out of the ship under the dazzling sun, he remembered the first time he came to this island eight years ago. Since he entered high school he had made up his mind to study here, in the most reputed military academy of the world, even though his classmates had all dreamed of going to the business schools in Artorna. His foster father, Harold, had once worked here as a civilian professor. But strictly speaking, Sterling wasn’t eligible to apply. The Academy only accepted students who were citizens of the Renaisun-A system, and who grew up here. He was born in Sunphere and moved to a small country in the Renaisun-C when he was seven. Fortunately Harold still had a few powerful friends in this country, and they helped him attain a qualified background …

Anyway, eight years ago he left his parents and came back to his home country. The first two years were tough. He was fine with the academic part but had to spend extra time preparing for the physical tests. How many times had he thought about quitting? He couldn’t remember. He used to get sick frequently as a boy. Although later he seemed to have grown out of those ailments, he was never an athletic type. But he managed through it, and people who knew him said, “Not bad!”

* * *

After they had dinner at the hotel, he decided to take a walk around the island, a quiet and lonely walk for reminiscing. To do so, he had to make his way through a group of journalists waiting at the front door. He thought their target was the queen, but soon he realized they were interested in anything or anybody related to her, especially when she herself was unavailable.

“Commander Presley, why did the queen pick you as her military assistant?”

How should he answer that question? He couldn’t repeat Geneva’s answer to the public, but if he said it was pure luck, it would indicate that the queen didn’t make a serious decision. So he let the question slip.

“What do you think of the convention now that the military is under direct control of the monarch?” someone else asked.

That wasn’t an easy question either, but he figured it would be impolite to stay silent. “I think it could be risky. It depends on the qualification and personality of the monarch.”

He regretted as soon as he said the second sentence. What if they asked about the qualification and personality of their monarch? So he continued, “There are definitely advantages. For the monarch, the country is like a family business. He or she couldn’t just quit the job when things don’t work out. It also makes life easier for the people when they don’t have to reinvest in a new leader every few years.”

“Are there disadvantages?”

He hesitated. Fortunately another question followed on. “Is Her Majesty an easy boss to work with?”

“Yes, she is,” he said. When she stayed on track!

“Do you consider yourself lucky since you don’t need to fight in battles anymore?”

“Yes, but I also feel more pressure. I’d be less forgiving with myself if I make mistakes.”

He reckoned he had answered enough questions and left with an apology.

* * *

The following day was cheerfully busy. Although it was late after the commencement and the dinner party at the Academy, they still decided to move over to Cracking Island for the night.

When Sterling woke up the next day on the top floor of a hotel tower, the sun was hanging high in the cloudless sky. Through the window he could see boats lining up on the beach like shoes of various sizes. Among the hotels, restaurants, and shops were water parks that glittered like broken glass. Countless umbrellas blossomed along the famous crack that ran through the island in the form of a small river. Those were the fishing spots. Which were the ones he had been to?

He came here twice with his girlfriend during their firstie year. They spent most of their time fishing and swimming. Then they cooked fish and crabs in the hotel—a more economical hotel than this one, of course. They even caught a nullfish once, didn’t they? The ugly little thing was almost transparent in the water. He smiled briefly. Exactly when did they break up? He couldn’t remember. Maybe never, officially. After graduation she went to the First Fleet, and he went to the Second; she was somewhere on the East Coast, and he was in outer space. Each time they talked on the phone there seemed to be fewer topics …

Did someone knock? He buttoned up his shirt and answered the door.

“I need to go somewhere.” It was a strange woman with bronze hair and black-framed glasses. For a split second he thought it was his elementary school teacher, but then he recognized her voice.

“Could you give me a ride? I rented a car from the hotel.”

“Where are you going?” he said alarmingly.

“Umm … a museum.” She looked away.

Terrible liar! “I can give you a ride, but you need to bring along your bodyguards.”

Recently Sir Lloyd and Admiral Oakley each had a serious talk with Sterling, and he had promised not to assist or indulge the queen in any future adventures.

She rolled her eyes. “I wouldn’t have asked you if I wanted them to follow me … Fine, I’ll ask Fernando.” She left for another room.

“I’m still going to tell your bodyguards!” he said aloud to her back, trying to keep a straight face.

“Oh!” She stopped short and turned around, scowling.

* * *

After a cursory breakfast, he and two bodyguards followed Geneva to an underground garage. The car they rented was the only one left in that area. After everybody was seated, he backed up the car and immediately heard a female voice from the car’s speakers. “Sir, please check the mirrors next time when you back up.”

“Why do I have to check the mirrors when nothing else’s behind me?” He knew it was silly to argue with a computer but couldn’t help it.

“You never know!” the “woman” said rapidly.

Geneva chuckled. After a while she asked, “How do you like your car at home?”

The mentioning of his new car calmed him down. “Couldn’t be happier with it. Thanks.”

She had offered to buy him a new Nebufleet after she lost his Marabou-200. He told her he seldom traveled in space and would prefer other types of compensations, like cash. “What would be the value of a Marabou nowadays?” he remembered her asking. “Whatever you think it’s worth,” he had said.

Then she must have learned from Fernando that he hated his car. Specifically, he hated the “woman” who lived inside the computer program of his car, and he believed she also loathed him. He had tried different ways to kill her without disabling the car’s basic functions, and after several failures he began taking public transportation whenever he could.

Then a week before they came here, he received his new car, a car that wasn’t computerized at all, with manual transmissions! Nobody in the RA still produced those types of traditional cars, despite the annual protests by the Ragged Wealth and other old-fashioned people. Some manufacturers in Artorna would do it at request of individual customers, mostly rich people who needed a hobby car. That must be how she got it, and he estimated that the total price would be close to his Nebufleet.

“Can’t believe I got rid of her!” he said as he pulled out from the garage and joined the heated traffic outside. “I could finally enjoy driving without someone bossing me around and picking up my faults.”

“Then never get married,” he heard her saying.

* * *

Half an hour later, they arrived at a convention center, an old building surrounded by luxuriant trees. There must be a large conference going on given the number of attendees who were taking breaks in the courtyard.

“What kind of museum is this?” Sterling asked after he parked the car.

“A museum of idealism.” She didn’t seem to mind the sarcasm of his tone.

They entered the building and randomly picked an auditorium. He glanced at the bulletin board at the entrance—Morning Symposium: Home, Sweet and Miserable Home. There were probably more than a hundred people in the room, and all the seats were taken. He and Geneva walked to the back and stood there with a small crowd. The bodyguards were strolling in the hallway; every now and then they would take a quick look inside.

The speaker on the front platform was a man in a brown sport jacket, his face obscure under the dimmed light. The screen behind him showed a picture of a house on top of a green hill.

“My dad is a farmer. My mom runs a bakery shop. The milk I drink is from the cows we raise—it tastes like milk, not diluted proteins mixed with calcium and growth hormones. After dinner, we don’t let TVs or computers or virtual environments rape our minds and isolate our souls. We sit together with our neighbors. We talk about our farms or read a book. Or we just sit there and enjoy the peace … Our kids grow old with us. They are not somewhere inside modern concrete, coming home once a year or not at all; not carrying a gun in someone’s troop and killing others or being killed; not constantly hooking up and breaking up, getting married or divorced with the same sex or different …”

Sterling leaned over to Geneva and whispered, “Kind of like the life in my hometown.”

“Where are you from?” she asked with her eyes fixed at the speaker. “I ordered a background check on you recently. You didn’t grow up here.”

“Why did you check on me?” He moved closer to her. To see if I got kids at home? He didn’t have the guts to say that aloud. Besides, their chat had already caused reproachful looks from people in front. But she seemed to know what he was thinking. She stood unnaturally still, her eyelashes flapping behind her glasses like a pair of trapped birds. He had always hoped he’d have a daughter one day if he got married. She’d be really cute if she looked like her … The speaker’s voice gradually faded from his world as his mind strayed away, until he saw her expression becoming stern.

“For two decades we’ve been forced to make a choice between home and faith. Some of us chose to leave, like I did, sticking to our faith at a place far away from the land our grandparents, our ancestors had lived and loved, a new place that hasn’t been polluted as much. Some of us chose to stay, to pretend we’ve forgone our beliefs and conceded to the prodigality and carnalism that’s been flooding in that country.”

The picture on the screen was replaced by a list of bulletins.

“Let’s take a look at what Queen Geneva’s family has done to our home. With God’s blessings we used to have incredibly rich soil that provided us with healthy and delicious food. All they care about is money! Metropolises, weapons, and those so-called high-tech products. Endless chemicals are dumped in the soil to make things grow larger and faster. Agricultural research institutions are now weapon-design centers. People’s morality and faith have dropped below record levels … By the way, any of you know how many boyfriends the queen has had?” The speaker looked around encouragingly.

“Thirty?” Someone made a guess.

“Sixty-eight!” Geneva shouted out. The audience immediately turned around to look at her.

“Hey, lady!” The speaker reached out an arm toward her. “If you know something would you mind sharing with us?”

“Geneva!” Sterling grabbed her arm tightly. Then he realized he had just called her by her first name and loosened his grip. Soon she was standing on the platform behind a microphone.

“I know that because I used to be her maid,” she said. “My job was to examine all the candidates before they slept with her.” She turned and scrutinized the speaker at her side. “Hmm, although this gentleman isn’t naked at the moment, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him before.”

The audience burst out laughing. “Did he pass?” somebody shouted.

“Ridiculous! You must have …” the guy mumbled with embarrassment. Then he gathered himself and raised his voice. “Alright, thanks for sharing your story with us! Let’s go back to our morning’s topic—”

“How many girlfriends have you had?” Geneva showed no intention to leave.

“That’s a private question …”

“Then why are you talking about other people’s privacies in public?”

The hums inside the audience subsided. Sterling could feel their postures stiffening in their seats. He peeked at the entrance and was relieved to see the two bodyguards standing there and watching the situation.

She took off her wig and glasses. “I’m Geneva. I had several boyfriends before, and nobody suited me well. So I’m going to keep looking. Is there a problem?”

Nobody made a sound for a few seconds before turmoil spread over the room. Then someone in the front stood up. “We don’t really care about your relationships. We just want you to stop polluting your land. Stop making junk food!”

“You overestimated my ability,” Geneva said calmly. “Yes, until half a century ago everybody in Sunphere had organic foods, but don’t forget our system had a much smaller population at that time. Later, when Thyphol started the colonial war in the RB, millions of immigrants and refugees moved to our system. However rich our soil was, we could no longer produce enough crops the old-fashion way.”

She paused, and somebody else stood up. But she held up a hand and continued, “Compared with all the gene manipulation and soil-free cultivation in our neighboring countries, we’ve already been conservative. I can tell you that everything on my menu remains organic, because I could afford it. How about people who couldn’t? Think about it. If the world is ever short on food, who would be the first to suffer?”

“Healthy crops don’t necessarily mean lower productivity,” the person who just stood up said. “The Organic Farming Research Center’s southeast branch had made remarkable progress in this area, before it was shut down for lack of funding. Now that place is a military research center.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t do anything.” Geneva’s voice became weary. “If Emperor Pompey says he’ll provide us with more funding in science, I’ll stop all the military research and let him take over. If you look at his colonies, you’ll know this would never happen.”

The audience spoke softly to one another, some of them shaking their heads and some nodding reluctantly.

“Let me give you an example. Unlike in sea battles, one of the challenges a star warship has to face is the loss of air and temperature when the hull is broken, even if it’s just a small hole. The traditional solution is to build the ship with many isolated compartments, which makes it difficult for the crew to move inside. About five years ago, our enemy first invented the Instant Patching Device, which provided a temporary but quick solution for fixing small holes. Soon the major countries in our system all started their own projects to replicate it. Hundreds of millions of dollars were thrown in, but Treagium was the only one that made a success. Now the rest of us have to keep buying their products.” She paused, seemingly ready to leave the stage with a brief conclusion. “Nobody will die of conventional food, at least not immediately, but our soldiers are dying out there at every battle.”

That doesn’t mean everything should make way for the military. Sterling disagreed.

“We understand the difficulties of your decisions, ma’am,” the speaker beside her said quickly. “But there is certainly one thing your father did wrong. Our organization had nothing to do with your mother’s death, and he knew it! We shouldn’t have been expelled from Sunphere. If you still declare your country as a land of freedom, then you should allow people to believe what they want to believe.”

Geneva considered the man for a moment and then turned to her audience. Sterling couldn’t see her eyes clearly across the room, but something about the way she looked around chilled him.

“Let me be honest with you. I didn’t know this myself until I started my job. In fact, it became clear to me only after I came here and heard your talk. My father banned your organization not just because of the assassination. For years you had criticized our government on all kinds of issues. Some of your protests were reasonable. Some were merely chimerical or captious. Now with a war going on why would I want to spend time dealing with you guys? Haven’t I got enough problems to worry about? I’m sure you have good intentions and want to make the world a better place. But there are other moral people in my country, and they do constructive things.”

Now she did sound like a queen! Sterling shook his head. This was a good opportunity for her to reconcile with her enemies, but she just blew it.

“I’m disappointed to hear what you think of us, ma’am,” the moderator of the symposium said. “You are telling us that if any goal is not immediately achievable, we should never pursue it. You are telling us that humans don’t need to have faith.”

“Keep your faith, but see if you can find better ways to achieve your goals. Aren’t most of you farmers?” She browsed over her audience one more time. “Then you should know that fish don’t survive in sterile water, and plants grow the best out of muddy, dirty earth.”

* * *

The four of them had lunch in the outside dining area of a restaurant, overseeing the beach. The two bodyguards ate a lot. Poor guys! They must have been drained at the conference. Sterling hoped they wouldn’t mention today’s trip when they went back home, or Lloyd would be mad at him again. He turned aside toward the sea after he finished his sandwich. Everything was crystal clear, crystal blue. Three girls wearing brightly colored swimsuits ran through his view, half-laughing and half-screaming. They were all Geneva’s age.

When he turned back, the bodyguards had left the table. “I’m curious how they’re going to continue their afternoon symposiums,” he said and finished his beer.

“Should I have conceded?” Geneva’s fingers played with an unused straw left on the table. “Temporary compromises may lead to more troubles in the future, I was afraid.”

He couldn’t answer. He was sympathetic with the Ragged Wealth, but maybe she was right? As a friendly person and an outstanding student, he had always been well-treated. When he needed to make decisions, there were moral standards for him to follow. But what if there was no correct choice? What if one had to choose between bad and worse?

“Who’s their current leader?” He tried to distract her.

She shook her head. “The former leader was Larry Ciriaco. He died some sixteen or seventeen years ago, soon after he left Sunphere. We don’t know who the current leader is.” Then her gaze fell upon him. “Sometimes I wondered why you aren’t one of them.”

“How do you know I’m not? Based on the background check?”

A trace of scarlet emerged on her face. That’s more age-appropriate, he thought, feeling slightly inebriated. What a beautiful day! Somebody’s phone was ringing in the background. Soft and cadent, it didn’t disturb the warm air around them. A pair of seagulls, almost identical, perched on the table nearby. He stared at the seagulls for a while and felt the effect of alcohol vanishing from his head. “When you watched the Elephant firing at the Winter Sun, were you sure only one missile was launched each time?”

She made no response. She was indeed distracted.

“Did you hear me?” He raised his voice.

She jerked a little and said apologetically, “What did you say?”

“I read an article lately. There was a group of Thypholian scientists who made a breakthrough in the image-distortion field a few years ago. They were able to create a so-called particle lens, which could project a mirror image of an object into its nearby space, while hiding its natural image at its true location. They were about to publish the details when the finding was classified as a military secret. Last week, I consulted an expert in this field. She said if a particle lens is involved, it would be difficult to create a smooth virtual image.”

“So what would the image look like?”

“The farther away it’s from the object, the fuzzier it looks. She said it probably wouldn’t be difficult to figure out where the true object is based on the image. But this is just her speculation.”

She mused for a while and asked, “But how is it related to the Elephant?”

“I don’t know.” He rubbed his forehead. “I was just wondering, if we have a pair of identical objects … not identical, I mean, like a mirror image—”

“I’m sorry.” She opened her bag and took out a ringing phone. So that was her phone? It had rung several times. Who was so desperate to talk to her?
She listened quietly for a minute. Based on her expression, he knew their vacation was over. “Thank you, Uncle. I shall be back before dinnertime. Let me get back to Jonathan in the morning, and we’ll have the meeting in the afternoon … No, no teleconference. I expect to see all of our officers.” Epublisher - ebook, enovel, The Starlight Fortress

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