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Novkey > Library > The Rest > The Starlight Fortress

The Starlight Fortress

Chapter 7

Author: FionaR Total hits: 4614 User hits: 29 Date: 03-17-2014

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A phone meeting was arranged between Geneva and King Jonathan in a small conference room on the following morning. Sterling and Oakley sat behind her, both with sleepy red eyes. Looking at Oakley’s hands, which were steady as usual, Sterling wished he hadn’t consumed so much coffee on the previous night. According to the latest intelligence report, Emperor Pompey was planning a massive invasion to the Renaisun-A system, at a scale that was unparalleled since the beginning of the space era.

Ms. Lander the secretary was talking on a phone in the corner. Then she walked over to the queen and said something quietly.

“Both of them?” Geneva hesitated. She raised a hand toward her tightly bound hair, but rubbed her neck instead. “All right. Make the connection.”

The screen in front of them flashed on and showed the images of two men, King Jonathan and the handsome Charlie Swinburne, although, at the moment, there was a notable bruise under Charlie’s left eye. Geneva had mentioned nothing about her recent date with Charlie, but Sterling could tell something unpleasant had happened between them. He just wished she wasn’t the one who hit him.

“I don’t know what the enemy is doing, Geneva,” said Jonathan. The king seldom appeared in the media, but anyone who had seen his face wouldn’t forget the heavy eyelids and the large sacks under his chin. “Within one day, Thyphol moved eighty percent of their First, Fourth, and Fifth Central Fleets to Planet RB-3 from their base on RB-2. Why would they do that? It almost felt like a show.”

Sterling quickly opened an electronic map of the planetary system in the RB on his laptop, which was connected to a separate screen beside Jonathan’s image. At present both RB-2 and Thyphol’s home planet, RB-4, were on the other side of their sun, while RB-3 was at the closest point to the RA system. Felt like a show … Sterling agreed. The relocation of three fleets across a solar system must have been spectacular.

Geneva looked at the map for a few seconds. “So there’s not much left on RB-2? That solved some problem.” There was something hidden in her words, and Sterling noticed a sour smile flashing on Charlie’s face.

“That is strange!” Oakley said. “Thyphol regularly moves small patches of their fleets around, so they could’ve done it more gradually this time. Why would they want to draw attention? Is Pompey trying to intimidate us? Does he expect us to break down before the whole thing starts?”

A quiet moment followed Oakley’s speculation while everyone pondered on the enemy’s motives.

“No information is available regarding the rest of the Central Fleets,” Jonathan continued. “We do know that for the nine Imperial Fleets, everyone on vacation or furlough has been called back. There is no question that this will be the largest military action Thyphol has taken so far.”

“Have you talked to Matthew?” Geneva asked.

“Yes. He thinks we should get together sometime this week.”

Charlie spoke for the first time. “Geneva, are your men still at the Fortress?”

“They came back two weeks ago.”

Charlie frowned but said nothing else. What was he worrying about? Sterling wondered. Uneasiness crept up in his mind but he couldn’t understand it. Maybe he should talk to Charlie at the upcoming conference.

* * *

When Sterling came to his office after the meeting, there was a phone message left by the prime minister. He immediately called back.

“Commander Presley, if this is a good time, I’d like to have a word with you.”

It wasn’t a good time, but he sensed something serious in William’s tone and figured he’d better go meet him.

William’s office was located in a different wing of the building. After they both sat down in a room, William studied him while his secretary served the drinks. Sterling had been used to that kind of scrutiny since he went to the Academy. He knew he didn’t look like a typical soldier.

“I heard people saying that you are doing an excellent job, Commander Presley.”

“Thank you, sir,” Sterling said, knowing well that William did not ask him here for praises.

“Did you know Her Majesty in person before you came here?”

“No.”

William nodded. The grooves between his eyebrows deepened. “I’m a straight-forward person and I hope you don’t find my manner offensive. There’s been some gossip lately, saying that you and Her Majesty have been quite … close to each other. Is that true?”

Sterling tried his best to remain indifferent. Of course rumors are seldom groundless. Something subtle has been growing in their relationship but wasn’t strong enough for him to admit yet. “My job requires me to work closely with Her Majesty, and … I guess she wouldn’t mind if I call her a friend.”

“A friend …” William tapped his fingers on the long oval table. “That’s quite common. When young people get together, frequently they find each other attractive. Nothing magical. Generally I don’t think it’s a bad thing for Her Majesty to have some friends, as long as it doesn’t provoke unnecessary conjectures from the public. But office romance should always be avoided—it’s never constructive for a corporation. It’s also critical for her to maintain a good reputation at present. There is no marital engagement between her and another prince yet, but soon there should, and will be one.”

Sterling wished they could let the door open. The room was getting stuffier, and he especially disliked the thick carpet under his feet and the soft cushions in the seats. They seemed to absorb energy, but maybe that was the effect William intended to achieve. “What do you want me to do, sir?”

“I want you to confine yourself as an employee … or a friend. You earned people’s respect, and I hope you could keep it. With your talents, you’ll eventually build up a good career. Don’t try to take shortcuts. In the past, I’ve seen some of my peers do that. They fell as quickly as they rose.” William stood up from his chair, seemingly ready to end this conversation. “You are a smart guy. I trust that you won’t let the rumor continue.”

Sterling thought for a few seconds and also stood up. “I’m sorry, sir. I can’t promise that.”

William had already left his chair when he looked back at Sterling in disbelief. “What did you say, Commander Presley? You don’t really think you stand a chance, do you?”

“Of course I don’t. I just don’t think anyone should be asked to make such a promise. It’s unfair to Her Majesty.”

“Un … fair?”

“She should be allowed to make her own decisions on personal affairs, with as much freedom as any of her citizens has.”

“I don’t think Her Majesty would deny her duty of marrying someone that more or less matches her social status.” William paused, his posture softened a little. “Maybe this doesn’t quite meet your view of civilization, but I’m sure you know better than I do that the civilization of our whole race is at stake.”

Sterling looked away from him. “Then we’ve probably done something that deserves it.”

“Commander Presley!” William called out. “Is that what you learned at our Space Force Academy? Nobody taught you what is honor, sacrifice—”

“Honor is to protect our country with faith and courage, to fight enemies with skill and wisdom, not to—”

“Then what are you doing when our soldiers are fighting at the battlefront?”

“I’m also fighting our enemies, sir.” Sterling raised his voice. “Everyday when I come to work! And I wouldn’t hesitate to offer my life if the situation asks for it.”

“I hope so. Please don’t let me find out otherwise.” William walked toward the door and once again stopped. “You aren’t just doing any job, Commander Presley. Your personal decisions could affect our national interests. Think carefully, before you are too far down the wrong path.”

* * *

Two days later, Sterling and Oakley accompanied the queen to attend the Renaisun-A Joint Defense Conference in Sparkland’s capital, Gongwik. After arriving at the hotel in the early afternoon, Sterling decided to stay in his room for the rest of the day. It was unbearably hot outside! Of all the planets that had human residence in the Renaisun system, RA-2 was the closest to a sun. But right after he sank in an armchair and turned on the TV, he heard someone knocking on the door.

It was Fernando, who probably had just come out of a shower. His ginger hair was still wet, and the dry yellow skin smelled of soap.

“I’m not giving a ride to anybody.” Sterling stepped back and let him in. “Not until sunset, at least.”

“You don’t need to drive this time.” Fernando handed him a pair of sunglasses and an earpiece. “I’ll be your tech support. Our mission is to get a photo from a guy who runs an antique store on Canal Street.”

“What photo?”

“A photo related to the Ragged Wealth. I’ll be monitoring your conversations. If anything weird comes up, I’ll let the bodyguards know.”

“I don’t need bodyguards.”

“The queen will. Chai-Rhee only deals with women, by the way.” Fernando grinned, ripples spreading out from his mouth.

Sterling frowned but didn’t object. Now he knew why Geneva didn’t come to ask him herself. He would’ve said no to her, but he had to be polite to her other employees.

* * *

Gongwik was a multi-cultural metropolis. Wandering on the streets sometimes gave people the illusion of jumping back and forth in human history. The Canal Street mostly had Asian-styled gift stores, hair salons, and restaurants. Looking away from the crowd he was embedded in, Sterling could see forests of skyscrapers glaring under the sun. In the far distance stood the mountains of marble, too bright to stare at even through sunglasses. He wondered which was generating more heat, the mountains or the sun.

Chai-Rhee lived on the third floor of an antique store. The narrow townhouse was probably more archaic than any of the antiques being sold downstairs, but was surprisingly shady and cool with no apparent sign of air conditioning. Sterling and Geneva sat down on a bamboo couch as instructed by a couple of young men—swift, wiry, yet perfunctory when they served the tea. Soon a blue-chinned guy walked out from an inner room.

“I believe we never met.” Chai-Rhee sat in a chair nearby, a bamboo fan swaying gently in his hand. Unlike Geneva and Sterling who were still wiping out their sweat, he looked fresh and dry in his sloppy T-shirt. “How can I help you?”

“We’re interested in a photo you might have,” Sterling said.

“Sorry, I don’t do business with men. And I don’t deal with women whose eyes I can’t see.”

Geneva took her hat and sunglasses off. The glossy maroon wig was unquestionably a mismatch to her round face. “Do you have a photo related to the leaders of the Ragged Wealth?”

“Interesting!” Chai-Rhee didn’t answer the question but studied her with squinted eyes. “I’ve never seen a similar type. A child’s face with sophisticated eyes. Straightforward manners loaded with gravitas … The heart longs for freedom, but the mind is fettered by responsibilities. Wealth alone couldn’t have produced the air of intimidation. It has to be … power.”

“Run!” Sterling heard Fernando whispering in his right ear. “He must’ve recognized you guys.”

Chai-Rhee indulged himself in his observations for another minute before his tone switched back to business. “Yes, I have the photo, and I’ll sell it if the price is right. You know I don’t take cash for anything that’s not displayed downstairs?”

Geneva fetched out a small wooden box from her bag and handed it to Chai-Rhee. He opened the box and examined it without touching it.

“All right, I’ll be back.” Chai-Rhee went inside and came out a few minutes later with an envelope. “I hope this is what you are looking for.”

Geneva took over the envelope and drew out a photo. She glanced at it and handed it to Sterling. “I don’t recognize any of them.”

The picture wasn’t well-developed but showed clear faces of three men and one woman in front of a yellow cottage. The youngest of them was probably in his fifties. At first Sterling didn’t think he knew any of them either. Then gradually the eldest man elicited some familiarity. The thick black eyebrows, the hawk nose, and the fatherly smile.

“That’s Larry Ciriaco, the second on the left,” Chai-Rhee said.

Larry Ciriaco? The former head of the Ragged Wealth? Sterling was certain he had seen that man before. He just couldn’t retrieve the faintest memory of where and when.

“A very nice guy, I heard,” Chai-Rhee continued, momentarily forgetting to sway his fan. “My father was a photographer. That was how many years ago? Twenty … two? Yes, the year before we left Sunphere and moved here. Anyway, they requested the picture to be developed privately. The first one didn’t come out well, so my father kept it. He shouldn’t have, but maybe he knew some day his son is going to make a fortune out of it.”

“I’ll have a bacon cheeseburger, no onion please,” Fernando’s voice sounded in the background.

“Do you know the rest of them?” Geneva asked Chai-Rhee.

“Nope. I know they were all nice people. Ciriaco spent his life helping the poor, building schools for farmers in our area, including the one I went to. I can’t believe he had anything to do with an assassination.” He resumed his fanning. “I don’t know where he finally ended up, but they said he died soon after he left the country.”

* * *

The sun was behind the marble mountains, and the heat had receded when they left the antique store. The streets were getting more crowded than earlier. Tightly packed restaurants began filling up, with their doors deliberately left open to release alluring smells.

“Beware, sir!” A shorthaired woman suddenly jumped out from nowhere and seized Sterling, her small eyes narrowing into slits as she studied him gravely. “I see shadows on your forehead … demons lurking at your back … Be cautious! Danger is awaiting you ahead …”

“Are you serious?” Geneva looked worried.

“Yes, but it’s not hopeless. Come with me, and I’ll show you the way to avert the bad luck.” She eyed an open door nearby.

Sterling sneered and tried to drag Geneva away. “I think we should leave.”

“Come on! I want to find out.” She broke loose. “You can wait outside.”

He shook his head as the two women went inside and sat down at a table. Why are women so superstitious? No matter how much education they have received. Next to the fortuneteller’s place was a grocery store. He randomly picked a magazine off the outdoor shelf and was immediately attracted to the cover. The picture showed Charlie Swinburne stepping out of a car, an arrow pointing at the bruise under his left eye. Sterling turned to the page that contained the full story.

According to a maid working in the king’s palace, Charlie Swinburne, Jr., was in a meeting with His Majesty on the afternoon of July 2, when Princess Stella suddenly broke into the room and punched him in the face. The subject of the meeting was highly classified. It is unclear whether or not the strike was related to the meeting.

Did that have anything to do with Geneva? Sterling wondered. He knew she and Stella had become closer after their adventure.

Three days later when the princess was on her way to a party, she encountered a protest of six hundred women from all age groups, threatening that they would knock down her statue on Princess's Plaza if she ever dare touch their nation’s most charming gentleman again …

Seeing Geneva coming out from inside, he set the magazine back to the shelf and resumed walking. She caught up from behind, holding something cautiously in her hands.

“You don’t want to know what she said?”

He didn’t, but on second thought, he came to a stop. “Okay, what did she say?”

“You’ll be fine!” she declared, smiled, and opened her hands. “As long as you wear this all the time and avoid any trip in the next couple of months.”

He picked up the charm and examined it. It was a piece of cheaply made carnelian engraved with some kind of ophidian pattern. The color changed from a dirty red into brown when he flipped it to the back, where it showed several foreign characters. “How much did it cost you?”

“Certainly less than the photo.”

Her complacence set him off. “Haven’t you realized you’ve been gulled?”

“What’s the big deal?” she said defiantly. “I have money, and I spend it the way I want … and what if it’s real?”

“Fine, thanks.” He thrust the charm into his pocket and picked up speed.

The street quieted down and reached its end at the seashore. When they stepped onto a pebbled sidewalk toward the garage where their car was parked, he caught a glimpse of the two bodyguards following behind at a carefully maintained distance. She chuckled several times while they were walking, but he ignored her.

“She also said something funny!”

Now he couldn’t remain silent anymore. “What’s funny?”

There were more chuckles before her answer came. “She said you and I are going to have four kids.”

“That is funny.”

She made no sound afterwards. Soon the garage building came into sight, dyeing the pebbles ahead into various colors as each letter on its signboard flashed into life. A lump gradually built up inside his chest and burdened his breaths. The trip would soon end.

“There’s something I need to tell you, Geneva.” He slowed down. His own voice seemed to have come from a distance. She came to a halt with him, waited, but kept her head low. He turned aside toward the harbor. The Renaisun-C was hanging above the sea, pale and remote. It was hard to link it to the bright sun that had shone his hometown and his childhood.

“I really like this job, but I’m not planning to stay long. You were right. I didn’t grow up here. I was an orphan and adopted by Harold Nestor when I was five.”

“Harold Nestor …” She was thinking, and after a moment she looked up at him. “Founder of the Nestor SIM Institute?”

He nodded. “He was a civilian professor at our Academy when he and my … his wife came to the orphanage. They were looking for an infant, like all the other couples. But they said when they saw me in a hallway, they just couldn’t let me go. Two years later we moved to Owlhidden, a small country on RC-3. ”

“Then why did you come back?”

“Well, my father left the Academy because they didn’t let him try out his ideas, but he still thought it would be useful for me to go through the traditional training, assuming I’d go back and work in his school some day. We had a hard time persuading my mother, though. She made me promise that I would go back as soon as I finish my mandatory service.”

“So you’re leaving in a year …” she said softly. “Thought I was lucky to have your help.”

He knew he should say something, but couldn’t find the right words. “I’m sure you’ll find someone better than me.”

The sky darkened abruptly as the Renaisun-C sank into the sea. A dinner cruise whistled away from the harbor with tourists waving frantically on the deck.

“Does this have anything to do with William?” Her tone was back to normal as they both resumed walking. “I know he talked to you.”

“No.”

He lied. People considered him as a modest person, but deep inside he had his pride. He didn’t want them to think he intended to take shortcuts.
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