Lead Tetrarch Julius Thrall sat in a conference room on Epsilon, the light turned down low.
He requested complete privacy for this meeting. No one would be listening in, including StarCen. He had even taken steps to ensure his paramour, Kendra Lewis, would not be interrupting, as much as he appreciated her company.
This was to be a war conference. In times past, it would have entailed a meeting with four people; four tetrarchs who ruled Star League.
There power was evenly divided, with 16 planets between them and one central bureaucracy world housing home offices for a cohesive government.
But war had changed all that. Specifically, setbacks in the war had altered things considerably.
Now, two quadrants were in enemy hands. Eight planets were lost, along with their respective rulers.
It was devastating.
The League is superior to the Planetary Republic in so many ways, in practically all the ways that mattered, Thrall thought. We should not be losing.
But now, half their resources, half their possessions, half their planets and half their population was gone. Out of reach, in enemy hands.
Thrall took a deep breath and let it out slowly, forcing his heart to slow down. It would not do to appear the least bit nervous, even for an audience of one.
She appeared suddenly. Or at least, a hologram of Tetrarch Linda Epsilon-Chu appeared in the room, completely lifelike in detail, her body replicated in real time thanks to the quantum matrix.
She looked rail thin, and she was not very tall. But she had a cunning glint in her eyes that betrayed strong intelligence despite her slight stature.
In her own conference room back on Euripides, Thrall’s hologram likewise appeared seated across from her.
They stared at one another silently for a moment, across the vast reaches of space.
Thrall nodded slightly, almost imperceptibly.
She returned the very slight nod in kind and said, “Lead Tetrarch Thrall.”
Chu did not like the idea of Thrall claiming that title, and had so indicated when he made the announcement.
However, based on the fact that Thrall had the power to claim it, especially since he controlled the League Navy, as well as considering he had deposed Tetrarch Lopez when she suggested they negotiate peace . . . Chu did not quibble. He could call himself whatever he wanted, so far as she was concerned.
Thrall noticed no undertones in her statement. She indeed used the appropriate title.
But of course, half their territory was in enemy hands. He was Lead Tetrarch, but they were down to two quadrants.
He took another deep breath.
“I made a tactical error by weakening Billings’ defenses.”
“But did you?” Chu said. “Would we not have lost all the Fourth Fleet had they been at Sporades?”
“I don’t know,” Thrall said. The words were bitter, although he tried to modulate his tone.
“What I am about to say is confidential. StarCen gave me faulty analysis in the lead up to that battle. I think she’s been compromised.”
Chu arched an eyebrow.
Since she usually expressed almost as little emotion as Thrall, he knew this meant she was shocked.
He nodded to affirm the statement.
“I’m trying to figure out how to . . . fix things. As you know, our AI runs everything. We are overly dependent on her. I have no idea how deeply she is affected. Obviously, not everything is askew. But there is enough evidence to make me deeply suspicious.”
Chu nodded, slowly. She said, “It would explain some things. The changes would have to be subtle, to avoid suspicion. But at key moments, such as the attack on Sporades, the deviations would have to be more aggressive in order to affect the outcome.”
“Yes. I was given precisely the wrong information at the wrong time, and it cost us.”
If Chu reassessed his errors in light of this new information, she gave no indication.
She said, “What is your next move?”
Thrall leaned back in his seat and glanced up at the ceiling.
He said, “We have been able to modify StarCen to a lesser extent, in the past, or at least her reactions. We did this mainly by falsifying records. However, her core functions are supposed to be unassailable. She has ultimate control over several societal aspects. If I could change some of those things, I would. For instance, her insistence on keeping our economy on the gold standard limits the amount of money I can issue, even in wartime.”
“Yes. That is particularly problematic since we have lost half our planets along with their resources.”
His nostrils flared at her statement. It was very upsetting, but true.
He said, “The human capital, as well as money and other assets on those eight planets are gone. We have also suffered considerable losses throughout the Navy.”
It would take many months to rebuild to their former size, and months more to properly crew the ships. Meanwhile, the Republic kept cranking out Condor-class warships that could port unlimited star bombs in battle.
“So,” Chu said, filling the silence. “The situation is desperate.”
“There is one small consideration. Despite losing their innovation center, Donald Sanford assures me Thespar can still pull a few cards from their sleeves. His people have added some modifications to the Starfold cubes.”
“Hm. If ever there were a greater disappointment than Starfold,” Chu said, “I can’t think of one. Billings managed to hold the Republicans off the first time. But then, they adapted.”
“War always brings adaptation. And innovation. First there was the musket, then breechloaders, then cartridge ammunition. After that came ways to fire multiple rounds quickly, such as the wheel gun and six-shooters. Finally, after all that, came the machine gun.”
He flicked his wrist and a holo appeared over his table and hers simultaneously.
It showed a Starfold cube, surrounded by several smaller ones.
“This is a 300 square meter model, with eight little ones on all six sides.”
They watched as a simulation ran, with a series of starbursts teleporting in near the larger structure. The tiny cubes immediately swallowed them.
“The small ones protect the big one,” Chu said. “That must take an enormous amount of power.”
“The smaller ones take less power, but you are right in that running 48 at once, 49 if you include the big one, does require quite a bit. However, Mr. Sanford assured me personally their models work. He thinks this will prevent a repeat of what happened in the Republic’s second attack on Sporades.”
“And when they figure out how to destroy this? What then?”
“They won’t. At least, not right away. The Diego Fleet is still in orbit around Sporades, and we both know they’re coming for Euripides next. But Thespar will have your cubes modified with these improvements before then. If their calculations are correct, you should be safe.”
“For the first attack, just like Billings was.”
“Maybe for all attacks. The first time the Republic gets wind of this, I expect they will duplicate our efforts around their own planets. I think, with this new weapon, planetary assaults will no longer be feasible. And in that regard, I’m thinking no one will be taking over any more planets for quite some while.”
Chu watched the model continue for a moment. Its smaller siblings swallowed everything that came near the large one. The big cube then popped away and enveloped a nearby Republican ship. Light flashed, sending the vessel to oblivion.
She said, “Maybe. I suppose we shall see.”
“We do have to be more defensive, at least for now. We are working on expanding factories and we will likely use more drones and bots from now on, since our personnel are depleted.”
“All of that costs money. And you cannot change StarCen’s determination to keep us on the gold standard.”
Thrall nodded and said, “I do have one offensive target in mind.”
He flicked his wrist again, and the holo changed to that of a planet.
He said, “Halcyon. We were just beginning to colonize it when war broke out. It’s near Seychar, and we forgot about it. Now the people there have declared themselves allied with the pirate planet, Lute. One of Petra Roe’s spies visited recently. He reports there is considerable gold on the surface.”
“On the surface?”
“PR lost contact with him for a while. He stopped filing reports while he staked his own claim and walked around for days, gathering nuggets off the ground.”
Chu arched an eyebrow again.
Thrall said, “It’s our planet, of course. The alliance is meaningless. We will commit a portion of our remaining forces to return and take the planet back.”
He leaned forward and flicked away the holo.
Their eyes met across the table.
Thrall said, “I can make better use of that gold than the pirates would.”