I sat in Vice Admiral Zann's office aboard the Heavy cruiser, Golden Eagle, sipping a hot cup of Eden kaffa with its hint of chocolate, of which I'd become fond. Zann looked tired.
<Abuse vehicle like you.> I felt Thalia, my ever-present Riss parasite, grin. It continued to amaze me that I could feel the emotions associated with her thoughts.
Zann and I had spent the last two months working on the million and one mind-numbing details necessary to implement the proposed Treaty with the Raider clans. They had been defeated but had not surrendered. They had been prepared to die fighting—every man, woman, and child—rather than surrender unconditionally to the Sadr Alliance of Stars (SAS). Many of the captains of the invading armada had been quite willing to accommodate them. But vengeance was not the Riss way, and I had negotiated a Treaty that would avoid a bloodbath. Although Zann and I worked on its implementation, the Treaty still had to be ratified by the SAS. While awaiting the decision, we had repaired the damages to the salvageable spaceships, sent the dead and seriously wounded home, and disabled the Raiders' warships.
Yes, I had also abused our vehicle, as Thalia referred to my human body, with long days and short nights. While I worried about my upcoming responsibilities, Thalia as usual thought it would be great fun.
<I guess you'll need to repair it.> What else could I say? Zann's System Interface Device (SID) beeped. She listened through her ear-implant receiver, tapped on the keyboard, and a hologram sprang to life displaying a document. Although I couldn't read it from where I sat, I recognized the SAS Council seal. Zann scanned the document without comment, occasionally nodding and sometimes frowning.
"Two Light cruisers, the Merlin and Saker, have entered the system. They will be your task force to enforce the Treaty with the Raider clans. The SAS Council has ratified the Treaty with only minor amendments. However, they left unresolved several issues. Are you the de facto Governor of Freeland? Are the Riss partners with the SAS or part of the SAS? Are you the Riss military leader? And so on. At least, they officially designated you the station commander." Zann paused to take a sip of her kaffa while studying me.
"Admiral Plimson has no problem with you having two roles and would like to promote you to Admiral but feels that might cause widespread resentment among the senior captains because of your short time in grade. That would impact morale and much of the resentment would be directed at you. So, you remain a Captain."
I felt too numb to say anything. I hadn't come to terms with being a new Lt. Commander, and now, less than two years later, I was in charge of a small fleet and responsible for enforcing a ceasefire Treaty with a nation of Raiders.
<I'll watch and you lead.>
<Not my position. Me copilot. You pilot.> Amusement rippled through me.
<I'm not ready.>
<You high-Riss. Position Leader.>
The Riss didn't have rank or elders or elected officials, just positions that were all equal. Somehow, I had acquired the position of Leader, which made my words the words of every Riss. A concept humans would never understand. Although they had rank or officials or elders who represented them, that didn't mean all the people they represented agreed with them. One hundred percent agreement was unthinkable—but not to the Riss.
<Should be. Big responsibility.> Laughter vibrated like a tuning fork.
<Thanks for reminding me.>
Zann put down her kaffa. "I had thought it would take fifty years for the Riss to win recognition as SAS partners, who would crew spaceships in their native Gorillai host. Unfortunately, for you, you've achieved it in less than ten. In fifty years, you'd have felt ready for the responsibility. Now you don't."
"Maybe the Riss have the right person, but their timing is a bit off," I said. It sounded like a lighthearted quip, but it wasn't. I was terrified, not of me failing but of failing the Riss. Zann smiled like she knew what I was thinking.
"I can only say that the Riss have an uncanny way of putting the right person in the right position. Trust them. I'll be leaving tomorrow with the rest of the fleet. I've arranged for a six-month schedule to deliver Riss from Saipha, provide replacements, and bring supplies and equipment you request." She gave me a hard look. "I'm concerned about having the entire Riss nation in space … but as Leader, it's your decision."
My head spun, and I had to lean back in my chair. Was that the right decision? Was I putting all the Riss in one basket and threatening an entire race's existence? I felt like throwing up.
<One day at a time. Not seer.> A warm comforting feeling spread through me and my head cleared.
"It's a risk, but the Riss will never achieve their full potential confined to Saipha. Their destiny's the stars." I shocked myself with the revelation—the unconscious reason behind my decision.
"Yes, the Riss chose wisely. I wish I could join you, but you will need someone to support you on Eden. Good luck, Nadya."
* * *
The following day, I called a meeting of the senior members of the Lynx and the two Light cruisers under my command. I had lunch served to make it as casual as possible. As usual, I felt intimidated. The people under me had more experience in their rank and in life.
<Should get used to it. High-Riss.>
<I am.> Of course, Thalia meant I, as a high-Riss because of her, should not be intimidated, whereas I meant I was used to being intimidated. After the dishes had been cleared away and everyone had something to drink, I could not procrastinate any longer and tapped my spoon against my water glass.
"Each of you was selected because of your interest in this assignment and your tolerance towards the proposed Treaty, which I've been informed, has been approved by the SAS Council." That produced a variety of emotions around the table, which thanks to Thalia I could sense. I felt satisfaction, indifference, acceptance, and … disapproval. The latter emotion surprised me, since the captains and their senior officers should have been screened before being assigned to Freeland. Another thing I would have to monitor carefully, now and as new replacements arrived.
"Many in the fleet wanted revenge. I can understand their pain. My home planet was raided and friends killed and kidnapped, and during my four engagements against the Raiders, close friends were wounded and killed. But neither the Riss nor I can justify revenge in the name of justice. The Riss have supported the SAS in defeating the clans in an effort to stop the killing of innocent people—not out of hate or revenge." I paused to look at each individual. "This Treaty gives us an opportunity to create something good for the SAS, the Raider clans, and the Riss. It will take time. The wounds are fresh on both sides. It's my responsibility and yours to make sure nothing interrupts the healing process."
"Captain Reese, how do we do that?" Lavett, Captain of the Saker, asked. He was a small thin man with a narrow face, straight dark-brown hair, and nicely trimmed mustache and goatee. "They are prisoners of war."
<Understandable but not what we need.>
"If we think of them as prisoners of war, they will act accordingly. I'd rather we think of them as on probation. By agreeing to the Treaty, the SAS has signaled their intention to eventually integrate the clans back into society. We need to watch them closely, but we must be careful not to assume they are guilty without probable cause."
"Do you trust them?" Corbitt, Captain of the Merlin, asked. “They tried to kill you several times and probably still want you dead." He wasn't smiling but his eyes twinkled under his bushy eyebrows. His curly brown hair, full beard, and stocky build made him look more like a Raider than a SAS officer.
<He looks like someone who enjoys life.>
<Two of you. May the space gods save me >
"And they almost succeeded. I survived thanks only to Thalia's magic." I sneaked a look at the two army black berets, called Scorpions, standing against the wall behind me. After the last attack, Vice Admiral Zann had ordered a permanent escort night and day. They were authorized to accompany me everywhere and were not optional. "I trust they have more reasons to be model citizens than they do to cause trouble. Killing me would almost certainly result in the destruction of Freeland. Eden approved the Treaty by a narrow margin. Any significant violation of the Treaty could result in a massacre, and they know it. I'll do what I expect you to do--be vigilant, careful, and reasonable."
"What are our current assignments?" Lavett asked.
"We'll rotate assignments to keep things from getting too boring. This rotation, the Merlin, will enforce the no fly zone—above ten kilometers. Captain Corbitt, you will give ample warning before engaging any craft in violation, unless it's firing at you. And you will inspect all of the clans' merchant ships leaving Freeland. The Saker will monitor and inspect all incoming traffic. Again, caution but no firing unless fired upon."
"What about the army's commandos?" Colonel Seng asked. He commanded the Scorpions assigned to the Lynx. Because he was on the command ship, he became the task force commander and responsible for the red berets, referred to as Wasps, on the Merlin and Saker.
"And what about the fighters?" Commander Byer asked before I could answer. He commanded the latest fighters, Sharks, assigned to the Lynx and, therefore, responsible for the older generation fighters, Strikers, on the Light cruisers.
"For now, the Strikers will support their cruisers to enforce their assigned responsibilities. The Sharks will be held in reserve. Pilot training should continue. However, it will be conducted no closer than thirty kilometers above Freeland."
"You and I know we can crush the clans even with this small task force. And they know it. If our people feel they have a right to remind them, they will soon be out of control. I know from personal experience what happens when commanders allow prejudice to go unchecked. It's our responsibility, and I'll hold each officer and non-commissioned officer personally responsible for enforcing order. The trials at Saipha should be a reminder for all of us that we are in the military and have a responsibility to maintain discipline. Failure to do so directly impacts operational readiness." My facial Rh tattoo marked me as a Riss-human and an alien. Too many, the idea of a Riss parasite inhabiting a human produced revulsion, fear, and raw hate. A prime example had been the Captain of the Leopard. Because he was prejudiced against the Riss Program and specifically Riss-humans, he failed to enforce discipline, which had resulted in unfair treatment, abuse, and attempts on my life. At the Saipha trials, many of those individuals were held accountable. Prejudices still existed. If commanders were not diligent in maintaining discipline with respect to the treatment of the clans, it could lead to a breakdown of discipline that would threaten the Treaty and could ultimately lead to the destruction of Freeland.
"Colonel Seng, your scorpions will be stationed on the two orbiting stations—repair and docking."
"What about the manufacturing plants on Freeland?"
"For now I don't want to station troops on Freeland." I held up my hand to stop the inevitable rebuttals. "Instead, we'll conduct unannounced inspections of those facilities and any others we consider necessary. Navy personnel will conduct the inspections, but the army will be responsible."
"What does that mean?" Lavett’s face clenched like a fist.
"Navy personnel maintain our spacecraft and are the best people to identify any alterations to equipment and determine its significance. The ranking army officer, commissioned or not, on the inspecting party will be responsible for discipline."
"He may not be the ranking person on the team. In fact, it's highly unlikely," Lavett said, his face drawn into a scowl.
"We can't have two different parties responsible for discipline—the army for the clans and the navy for the inspection team. It would result in unnecessary confusion. In my experience, the army will be as unbiased as anyone we can find and, therefore, most likely to prevent unnecessary problems. If that proves unworkable, we will look for other alternatives." I held Lavett's stare, until he shrugged. "I'm young and new to command and want your honest opinions. I may not agree with you and may not follow your advice, but I will not criticize you for being honest."
"Captain Reese, what about rotation back to Eden?" Commander Waldel, the Saker's XO asked.
"Want to leave me so quickly." I smiled, continuing before he could respond. "Admiral Zann has committed to sending emergency replacements, Riss from Saipha, and supplies every six months. I haven't been notified whether duty on Freeland is a year or two, but I'd imagine this station will be a one-year assignment and cruisers will be rotated."
"You said Riss will be coming from Saipha every six months. Where will they be assigned?" Corbitt asked.
"For now, you will each be assigned a Riss-human and ten Riss to get the crews used to the Riss and for the Riss to gain experience."
"Will some spaceships eventually be totally manned by the Riss?" Corbitt asked.
"I honestly don't know, nor does the SAS. I hope both nations can work side-by-side. But the Riss system will be hard for most humans to understand. Today is a good example. I'm positive not everyone in the room agrees with my decisions. But you will carry them out, because I've been designated the station commander. The Riss will not only comply, they will all—every last Riss--agree with any decision I make."
The looks around the table were comical. Except for the few who have known me for years, everyone was shaking his head as if I had told them I could live in space without a suit.
"Enough for today. I'm sure the Riss concept has given each of you a headache. Captains Corbitt and Lavett, you will assume your assigned duties after Colonel Seng and Commander Byer have informed you they have briefed their counterparts on your ships. Colonel Seng, Commanders Byer, Commander Iglis, and Commander Varisko, please join me in my conference room for dinner tonight at nineteen hundred hours." I stood and left the room.
<Easy.> Thalia's grin left its usual feeling of being tickled.
<Like juggling live buzzer sticks.>
<It's your vehicle too.>
<Be careful then.>
Thalia thought everything was fun or exciting and like the rest of the Riss content to let me be Leader, because they felt they always assigned each person the position best for the Riss. I wasn't convinced. The task force comprised fourteen hundred personnel, combined navy and army, any one of which was capable of causing disastrous consequences. I returned to the Bridge with an out of control space battle in my head.
<Worry too much.> Immediately, I felt the tension leaving my body and a sense of calm as Thalia worked her magic. I had my own ever-present doctor that dispensed medicine to relax, or take away sleepiness, or repair damages, or …
**Commander on the Bridge,** r-Arawn's voice box announced. Unable to make the appropriate human sounds, the SAS had a translator developed that interpreted the Riss hand signals into speech. R-Arawn was the acting weapons officer and considered the ranking person on the Bridge. Of course, r-Arawn knew we were coming long before we reached the Bridge, as she and Thalia were communicating via Streaming Vid, SV, as we approached.
"Commander Gelman, notify the clan elders I would like to meet with them at their convenience," I said, heading towards the captain's chair. Gelman gave me a funny look.
"Skipper, won't they meet any time you say?"
"Of course, Gelman. They know it and I know it. Reminding them will only cause hostility we don't need. They will respond quickly so as to avoid antagonizing me. Therefore, the meeting will occur as quickly as if I set the time, and no one will feel defensive."
"You’re probably the only person in the fleet who would have asked for a meeting with the clan elders, at their convenience."
<That's what I'm afraid of.>
<Becoming Riss.> Suddenly, I could see the two snow-capped mountains with a gentle river running between them. The picture-name the Riss gave me years ago. For the first time, I saw the tributaries feeding the river and really felt the name belonged to me—like my human name, Nadya Reese. I wasn't losing my humanity, but slowly beginning to understand and embrace the Riss philosophy and to feel at one with them.
* * *
That evening, I sat looking around the table at old friends. Commander Varisko had been my XO on the Mongoose, which captured the raider's merchant ship that led to locating Freeland and on the Lynx for the invasion. Colonel Seng had saved my life on the Leopard when navy discipline had collapsed and my life in danger. Commander Byer and Commander Iglis, my Intelligence Officer, had also been on the Mongoose. I trusted these people.
"This Treaty will survive only with your support. Although the senior officers were screened prior to their assignment on Freeland, there are many under their command who will overreact with little or no provocation. Colonel Seng, I'm relying on the army to maintain order. I know it's not fair, but the army has always been my safe haven through the years. I trust them to be the least biased."
"We won’t let you down, Captain. Gunny and I will make sure the lead Scorpion or Wasp understands what you want, and he or she has your full support."
"Commander Byer, I want the pilots to understand they report to you directly and except to protect their lives, orders to attack clan ships come only from you or your designate. They must understand the clans have no reason to attack us. It would not only be suicide but could result in the destruction of their clan if not Freeland. I know for a fact that any clan member would rather die than betray his clan. The elders would be ruthless if anyone violated the Treaty. Therefore, they must curb their natural instinct to shoot first."
"I'll make sure everyone understands the reason behind your decision."
"Commander Iglis, I want you to find some way to track the clans' merchant ships in the Sadr Alliance of Stars (SAS), United Free Nations (UFN), and Johaba People's Union (JPU)."
"You're going to allow them to trade in all three empires?" Iglis asked, her forehead wrinkled in concern.
"Yes. We must allow them to make a living if we are going to integrate them back into society. We need to be careful but helpful. I leave it to each of you to decide how to make this happen, but know you have my full support." As I looked around the table, I felt no hostility or resentment, only concern. I had placed a heavy responsibility on them.
"What about me, Skipper," Varisko asked in a whisper. She had been a new Lt. Commander when I picked her to be my XO on the Mongoose, and like me, still trying to grow into her new position.
"Commander Varisko, when I'm
not here, I expect you to maintain sanity—to be the voice of
reason." I smiled at each of them, feeling a bit guilty. If they resented
it, they didn't show it. "If you still have an appetite, Petty Officer Pillon will serve dinner.
"Well Lavett, what do you think of our station commander?" Waldel asked on their way back to the Saker. Lavett sat glaring out the small window towards the Lynx.
"I wonder what genius put an inexperienced captain in charge of a task force. I'm the senior captain on station with at least five years seniority and by all the rules should be in charge." His fist clenched in his lap. "And she seems to be leaning over backward for those murdering gypsies."
"I agree. Even I have more time in service than her. The damn Riss Project has managed to put her on a fast track to make them look good. Rumor has it she got four lieutenants sent to Cerberus by claiming they attacked her, when the truth is she attacked them. She's some kind of kick ass martial artist."
"I've heard she hangs out with the army boys and trains with them." Lavett sneered. "I'll bet I know the kind of workouts she gets. That's the only reason they let her in their area. The army is none too friendly with the navy. They think their shit doesn't smell. Truth is they're too dumb to be in the navy."
"Maybe that's the reason she hangs out with them—birds of a feather." Waldel grinned and they lapsed into silence. When they arrived at the Saker, they went straight to the Bridge.
"Captain on the Bridge," Lt. Commander Bozich, the Communications officer, said as they entered. "What do you think of the station commander, Captain?"
Lavett stood quiet for a moment, and his lip twitched ever so slightly. "First impressions can be deceptive, but she seems to be favoring the Raiders like we abused them. Could be because she's young and inexperienced. Or because that Riss parasite in her is dictating her actions." He looked around and shrugged, noting with a mental smile he had everyone's attention. When no one commented, he turned to Waldel. "XO, prepare to take up our assigned position."