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Oppressive silence shrouded the lean figure sitting still as if sculpted of stone. His face a mask of glacial calm despite the profound mental turmoil afflicting him, Dexter ignored a powerful urge to slump into the hard seat, and hold his throbbing head in his hands. On trial for high treason, the Commander of the First Columbian Military Corps debated blackly whether or not the pounding of his heart might be audible to the two Third Corpsmen standing rigidly at attention on either side of the chair he occupied. I'm a dead man , the professional soldier well able to predict the outcome of this proceeding acknowledged grimly, as fear contended in his overwrought mind with virulent hatred.
Jarring impulses coursed along nerves strung to their limit. Beyond the walls of this antechamber, a military tribunal sat in judgment upon the prisoner exquisitely aware of his guilt. On the screen of Dexter's inner vision, those walls dissolved. Once again, the high-ranking officer driven by a consuming lust for power faced the Commander-in-Chief in the presence of his four peers. Once more, he heard Arlen's compelling voice, cold as frozen methane, pose a series of loaded questions. Three of those queries Dexter fielded with admirable adroitness. The fourth, he fumbled abysmally.
Rage seared the conspirator's soul as he recalled plunging into that lethal verbal trap. I see now-too late!-that a fiendishly clever manipulator set me up for a fall long before that day! he railed inwardly. The knuckles of the hands tightening their grip on the arms of the chair whitened. I'm a dead man.
The door slid open. "Time to go," the Captain incharge of the guard barked in a tone that blistered the prisoner's nerve-endings. Rising to his imposing height, the sinewy athlete consciously straightened his shoulders. A desperate resolve not to give his enemies the least opportunity to sneer enabled him to compose his seamed, arrogant face.
Striding between the guards with all of his former hauteur, he advanced to the table where sat the three-member panel of judges. Hard gray eyes riveted themselves to the sword reposing upon the polished surface in front of Galt. Certainty as to the outcome failed to mitigate the agony ripping through the culprit on trial for his life, as he saw that the point lay toward him. That symbolic placing of the weapon belonging to the accused revealed what the spokesman now confirmed in a voice devoid of pity.
"Dexter, we find you guilty of high treason committed during wartime," Galt intoned. "We hereby sentence you to die spaced." Fulke and Orloff, flanking the speaker, each maintained a thin-lipped impassivity.
Preserving an icy calm equaling that of the judges, the military dictator exulted inwardly as he heard the verdict convicting the former Commander of First Corps. No hint of the ironic amusement accompanying the keen satisfaction suffusing him showed on Arlen's mobile face.
Galt voted as did Fulke and Orloff , he congratulated himself, just as if the backstabber engaged in no subtle campaign of his own to unseat me! The Commander of Second Corps behaved exactly as I gambled he would when I appointed him to the tribunal. He rid himself of a rival, thereby accommodating me as well. The thrice-damned power-seeker confidently assumes that his attempt at staging a treasonous coup, when he launches it, won't fail.
Well, he's by far the more sinister adversary of the two. Devious. Talented. Cold-blooded. Ruthless. Likeable, when he permits that attribute of his complex personality to show. Able to command the fanatical devotion of his Second Corpsmen. A born leader, Galt. What a pity he's so thoroughly lacking in principle. Not that many men discern that lack, but it exists. So! I can now devote more of my mental energy to the task of trapping the most dangerous enemy intriguing against me.
Galt's motive registered with equally telling force on the condemned man. Mastering incipient faintness by the sheer power of an unyielding will, Dexter rasped venomously, "I regret only that I failed in that endeavor." Chin out-thrust, eyes snapping, the offender raked the broad shouldered blonde spokesman with a withering glance. Whirling in a swift about-face, he glared into the merciless eyes of the expert manipulator who had so astutely engineered his downfall. "Bastard," he grated.
Arlen's expressionless face changed no whit as the guards gripped the traitor's upper arms, and hustled him away.
Power comes at a price. Intellectually aware of that sobering reality when he seized power boldly and wielded it imperiously, Arlen underestimated the toll paying that price would exact on the psyche of a man who routinely accepted full personal responsibility for his actions. The warrior-statesman whose meteoric rise to his present eminence stemmed as much from intellectual brilliance as from cool daring failed to foresee that in return for granting autocratic dominance, an exacting fate might claim the lives of his nearest and dearest.
That reflection intensified his agony when he knelt, crushed by an all but unbearable dual weight of grief and remorse, beside the entwined corpses of his wife and young son. The Commander-in-Chief of the Columbian Military Forces blamed only himself for the personal tragedy still excruciatingly fresh in his memory despite the passage of five Earthyears. His bitter scorn for the legendary warrior-woman he now believed to be guilty of black perfidy, dated from an Earthyear after the raid that left him bereft of the two human beings he loved best.
Dexter's execution took place twelve fourweeks after that second pivotal event: the annihilation of the ship in which two youthful envoys made the transit from Gaea, and descended to the surface of Columbia under a symbolic flag of truce. Arlen believed at that time, and maintained his certainty now, that the costly detonation represented a treacherous suicidal act designed to assassinate both himself and Norman, the invader whom Signe so soundly defeated at the climax of a ten-Earthyear-long revolt.
The tightly focused pulse of unimaginable energy fired straight downwards from the Earth-built weaponry of the Gaean ship docked on a Columbian lock, killed not only the two men aboard, but also Norman, Commander of the Third Columbian Military Corps. Twenty members of the honor-guard-a body of Third Corpsmen selected by Norman to carry out the ceremonial duty of protecting the envoys while escorting them into the presence of the military dictator-perished with their leader.
That fearsomely destructive explosion dealt a mortal thrust to Arlen's admiration for an enemy whose gallantry he initially admired. All hope that a peace treaty ending the stalemated war could be negotiated died with Signe's emissaries. The dictator continued to bear the heavy expense, and his spacers the tedium, of manning three orbital forts constituting an impregnable guard around the planetoid known as Columbia.
Although Arlen's achievement of rendering his home world safe produced a return to complacency in the general populace over which he wielded autocratic control, his failure to end the war by capturing or destroying Gaea's space fleet provided certain of his subordinates with new impetus for intriguing against him. Nine of the eleven Earth-armed ships still in Columbian hands operated out of the orbital forts. That circumstance left the person of the Commander-in-Chief excessively vulnerable during this period to an attempt at assassination timed to coincide with a mutinous uprising.
Well aware of his danger, the dictator took the offensive, and laid traps for the enemies seeking to supplant him. Dexter lost his life as a result of a canny world leader's crafty manipulation of an inordinately ambitious military careerist. Arlen achieved that victory while fully aware that Galt harbored an equally fierce desire to supplant the bold engineer of a successful coup launched two Earthyears before Signe drove Norman and the remnants of his force of invaders off Main World of Gaea.
Four Earthyears dragged by at a wretchedly slow pace, following the incident that destroyed all mutual respect on the part of two warring world leaders. Galt, the perpetrator of the crime designed to insure continuance of the conflict, avoided generating the least suspicion in Arlen's mind that a compatriot might have caused the detonation. The Commander of the military corps charged with the apprehension of Columbian renegades plying space in stolen ships made the most of the opportunity afforded by his superior's ongoing absorption in the task of maintaining an invincible defense. Bent on overthrowing Arlen, Galt subtly augmented his own power.
During that four-Earthyear span, the Commander-in-Chief managed the tricky chore of keeping the morale of his spacer-fighters at an acceptable level, while steadfastly resisting subtle pressure exerted by various military and civil factions relentlessly striving to prod him into launching an offensive aimed at ending a stalemated war. Morally incapable of condoning, much less of committing, the mass slaughter of civilians that he foresaw would inevitably result from any new invasion of Gaea, Arlen shrank from initiating such a campaign. The man who valued his personal honor not only above the demands of ambition, but above life itself, continued to walk a sword-edge suspended over an abyss.
Galt perceived that feat as a contemptible failure of will. Slowly but surely, the conniver expanded his unorthodox role on the surface of the planetoid by assuming certain responsibilities rightly the province of the Ministry of Internal Security.
On any day of the Earthyear 157 AJL, four of the seven Earth-built ships comprising the fleet controlled by Signe, Commander of the Gaean Military Force, patrolled the space around the Gaean Group. One of the four also guarded the cargo vessel captured on a daring raid, when the acquisition refitted to haul precious water made periodic voyages to distant Feynman to exploit that source of the scarce commodity. The remaining three ships cruised along the periphery of the space dominated by the forts orbiting Columbia. Veteran captains actively sought to detect any assault force the Columbian dictator might suddenly decide to hurl at Gaea.
The annihilation of the envoys' ship, which Arlen interpreted as evidence of Signe's perfidy, she perceived as the incomparably heinous murder of two idealistic Gaean captains arriving to meet with the autocratic leader who had just passed his word in her hearing and that of his subordinates to receive her ambassadors under a symbolic flag of truce. Since witnessing on the screens of Conor's ship the disaster for which she held Arlen responsible, the high-minded warrior nursed an unshakable certainty that her archfoe's capacity for treachery fully equaled that of his ancestors. Although the precious water fuel consumed in patrolling a vast perimeter constituted as costly a drain on the resources of Signe's government as did that of manning and guarding the orbital forts for her enemy, she resolutely bore the expense. The Gaeans constantly testing those defenses chafed at the stalemate exactly as did the Columbians maintaining them.
Throughout the five-Earthyear-long interval following the death of his family-members, Arlen worked compulsively. That consuming activity served to blunt the edge of the widower's bitter grief, but failed either to assuage his sorrow, or to dull the pain arising from his blaming himself for the deaths of the two people he loved best in the world.
In the perceptions of the men closest to their leader, he seemed to have aged noticeably, although he only recently turned forty-one. As courteous as ever, the dictator yet projected to those who knew him best-loyal subordinates such as Amin and Lacey-a chilling capacity for ruthlessness towards anyone intriguing against him, and a determination to outmaneuver and destroy his enemies more deadly, and more intense, than any such resolve those men had hitherto detected.
None of the officers Arlen unreservedly trusted wasted any sympathy on Dexter, whose honor they perceived as blasted by his treachery, but they found themselves guarding their tongues when reporting to the physicist, inventor, physician and psychologist who, they realized with unnerving clarity, saw far more deeply than did most men into their thoughts, their motives, and their emotions. Fear tinged the respect that the majority of Arlen's associates still harbored for their world's brilliant, eloquent, manipulative, dangerous leader.
Ford proved an outstanding exception. That veteran spacer-captain entertained no respect whatsoever for the superior whom he perceived as having unfairly and maliciously denied a highly competent captain the promotion his abilities and long service should by rights have earned him. As the stalemate dragged on, the self-serving careerist grew obsessed with resentment of his fancied wrongs. Dexter's demise failed to daunt the clever schemer hatching and discarding plot after unworkable plot in his fertile brain.
Arlen's victory over his traitorous colleague served merely to drive the potential mutineer to greater furtiveness. Reflecting that reliance on underlings contributed to Dexter's downfall, Ford resolved to keep strictly to himself whatever plan he eventually decided upon implementing. Meditation upon the mechanics by which a lone captain denied the favor of his autocratic commander-in-chief might succeed in supplanting that wily survivor of vicious political infighting occupied every waking hour not demanding full concentration on exacting work.
Inspiration, when it flashed upon Ford, lanced with equally stunning force into the mind of Theo: a Gaean warrior-captain as unlike Arlen's self-centered, hate-filled officer as any human being could possibly be. As if a capricious Power deliberately emulated the tossing of the golden apple among the guests at the feast, some improbable chance caused a most intriguing idea simultaneously to strike two utterly dissimilar minds. At that moment, destinies forever changed, within a star-system unimaginably distant in space and time from the planet of origin of the galactic adventurers a few of whose descendants still remembered the fall of Troy.
True to his promise, Theo stopped in to keep Simon company on every occasion when his duty permitted. As a result, the scholarly Gaean Captain's admiration for the manner in which the Columbian prisoner of war handled bitter adversity steadily mounted.
Morosely convinced that his detention could last for decades, Simon channeled his restless energy into study and writing. Having immersed himself in historical works by Gaean authors, the military spacer-fighter trained as an historian began work on a commentary contrasting the Gaean and Columbian perceptions of the events precipitating the initial clash between the two culturally dissimilar groups. With laudable fairness, Simon analyzed the subsequent, ever-widening divergence of two radically differing world-views.
Exhibiting the largeness of spirit that his comrades saw as one of his most admirable characteristics, Theo provided the detainee with references, and supplied him with an ever-growing hoard of datapads. The erstwhile enemies developed a mutual regard that slowly grew into friendship.
One evening, as the pair discussed Johann's final act of self-sacrifice over whisky and lemon juice-Theo's preferred way of serving the ration Signe issued her fighters-Simon gratefully imbibed the potent spirit. Musingly, he regarded his benefactor across the rim of the scratched, clouded, too-often-reused recyclable cup as he outlined a startling thesis.
"Consider this point, Theo," he urged. "Columbian historians universally assume that Johann must have flown the Flagship to some satellite of another planet of our sun-Gauss, Gamow or even Bohr: giant gaseous planets orbiting farther out than does our gas giant. Or to Hawking, a rocky body on the far side of the main asteroid belt from Einstein's mini-system. Or worse yet, to an asteroid in that huge aggregation of rocks. Well, if the fleeing colony-founder made any of those choices, that priceless historical artifact is undoubtedly lost forever.
"But you know…I heartily doubt that Johann set a course for Hawking. He made his final voyage in a vessel capable of interplanetary flight, true, but the Flagship depended for power on tapping the current sheet rotating about Jupiter: that satellite of Sol whose mini-system formed Johann's world before he utilized some secret Earth-developed process utterly lost to us now to arrive in this system. That force-one external to the autonomous operation of those three great ships-flung them into a time-dilated, one-way journey outside our universe, and landed them, still tethered together, in the vicinity of Einstein: a giant turquoise gaseous planet encircled by a current sheet similar to Jupiter's. This star's mass and spectral class matched Sol's, and its solar system turned out to be uncannily similar, as well."
"But no Earth-like paradise awaited our ancestors," Theo interjected with a wry smile, as Simon paused to sip his drink.
"Earth could well be galactically unique," the Columbian postulated regretfully.
Nodding, his listener silently conveyed equal regret.
"The Flagship wasn't equipped with the means common on Earth, Luna, and Mars, of converting solar energy to electrical, directly," Simon pointed out emphatically. "Of course, Johann knew full well that he and Syrena and Wolf would eventually die aboard his mobile stronghold, when he fled in the vessel. Perhaps he might have intended that they die sooner, not later, by their own hands.
"Well…dying isn't an easy choice to make. Men do make it, but dying in the dark strikes me as another prospect altogether. Naturally, no current sheet rotates around barren, rocky, airless Hawking, or around the asteroids in the main belt. Dirac likewise lacks such, but its proximity to the sun would rule out that body in any case."
Copyright © 2007 Mary Ann Steele