Tetrarch’s Dilemma 31

Thrall glared at the report hovering in the air near his face, his nostrils flaring. The Admiral of the Fourth Fleet, stationed around Sporades, tried to put a positive spin on things. He read Kitano’s words again, noting how the Admiral took pains to indicate how the Aquamarine was finally destroyed.

“Yes, but . . . her payload got away.”

The other ship hidden inside Aquamarine, the one StarCen identified as the Ultima Mule . . . that was the part glossed over by Admiral Kitano.

He read that part of the report out loud.

“Subsequent efforts by an enemy warship evidently inside the empty hull were thwarted when it retreated following initial action via Fourth Fleet torpedoes.”

In other words, Thrall thought, your torpedoes failed to take out the smaller ship and it got away.

That was a far less delicate way of putting things, though, and Kitano had not been able to bring himself to state it outright. Thus the embellished version in his official report . . .

Thrall leaned back in his chair, glaring at the holosheet rather than dismissing it.

“The Ultima Mule again.”

He had no doubt his youngest daughter had been onboard, married now to the ship’s Captain. How much of this was her doing? Or, was she merely going along for the proverbial ride?

Even more troubling was the question why. Why did the Ultima Mule hide inside the Mammoth for a ride to Sporades?

He looked up at the ceiling and thought.

Obviously, they either dropped something off or picked something up. Or someone.

His eyes drifted back to the report. The entire incident, once they reached orbit, lasted five seconds. That was more than enough time to teleport an individual.

He thought about the attack on his compound back on Clarion, and how Jillian had been ported out in the confusion. It was only later he realized SSI had not taken her, but the pirates were responsible.

In another life, he might have been . . . proud . . . of his son-in-law’s achievement. This particular Captain seemed rather adept at taking whoever or whatever he wanted off of League planets.

Of course, he would not be using the Aquamarine for such shenanigans again. But he had put the Mammoth-class hull to considerable use.

He finally flicked the holosheet away.

“StarCen, show me Raquel Kirkland’s report from her time on the Aquamarine.”

Another holosheet popped into existence. He scanned the text.

Ah, yes, he thought. The pirates set off an EMP while trapping Raquel. The entire electrical system in that giant ship was shot.

He flicked the sheet away and pulled up another, this one involving intelligence reports of large industrial sales in the Planetary Republic. The interior components of Aquamarine had been sold as scrap. Even the wiring, hundreds of kilometers of it, could be reused. Especially during wartime.

Thrall sighed. He said, “And then they had the bright idea to use it as a giant battering ram.”

He flicked to a new holosheet, showing all the ships Aquamarine had taken out. Eagles, Hawks, and Sparrows. It was a depressing list.

Kitano had one thing right, he thought. Aquamarine’s hull will not be troubling us anymore.

His mind wandered back to the Ultima Mule.

“What were you doing there, daughter?”

He looked up at the ceiling and thought for a moment.

“StarCen, what are the odds the pirates made a tactical maneuver on behalf of the Republican Navy? Or, do you think it more likely this was a private endeavor?”

“There are too many variables to say, Tetrarch Thrall. They have made other incursions for personal reasons such as the one to Clarion. However, our intelligence does indicate they intercepted information forewarning us of the Republican’s new Condor-class ships. We would have greatly benefited from that information if they had not interfered. With that in mind, this could have been an officially sanctioned mission. It has gone both ways in the past. There is a 50/50 chance it was one or the other.”

“‘Officially sanctioned mission,’” Thrall repeated, thinking. It was definitely a mission of some sort. One does not take chances like this for nothing.

“Were you able to determine if anyone was ported down or up by the Ultima Mule while it was in orbit?”

“No, Tetrarch Thrall. But such an occurrence was possible.”

Indeed, he thought. They had more than enough time.

Out loud he said, “I think we have to go on the presumption they did. So, if we have no idea who or what, that leads us to the question of why. This trip portends something, StarCen. It foreshadows a move by the Republicans.”

“There is a possibility this amounts to guided misdirection, Tetrarch Thrall. The Ultima Mule is a known asset to the Republicans, and its appearance at Sporades may be an effort to misdirect us.”

Thrall pondered that notion for a moment.

He said, “What are the odds this is a false flag?”

“I give it a 33 percent chance. I have no intelligence from any of our spies about what the event was about. That usually means the information is held too tightly by too few people. Or, it is a false flag.”

Thrall nodded. The lack of access to Admiral Severs’s plans and his thought processes was maddening. For all the League loyalists trapped on enemy planets, they had very few in the upper command of the Republicans’ Navy. The officers were too patriotic to betray their government, for the most part.

StarCen said, “However, such a blatant breach of our defenses by the one ship which has successfully done this in the past, and carrying your daughter as well, might be designed to provoke us into making a mistake about defensive alignments.”

Thrall thought about that statement for several moments.

He said, “They have taken one of our quadrants, and it makes sense they would be hungry for more. Put yourself in their shoes, StarCen. Where would you attack next?”

“Clarion and Epsilon are too distant. Euripides and Sporades are closer. The Third Fleet stationed around Euripides was halved to attack Juventas. Right now, Euripides is vulnerable, and most open to attack.”

Euripides, Chu’s quadrant, Thall thought. Ricci took her ships from there in an effort to take back Juventas, an effort that failed in part thanks to that pirate and the Aquamarine.

“So, you definitely think they will attack Euripides next.”

“Yes, Tetrarch Thrall. I give it a 75 percent chance. I suggest strengthening the remaining Third Fleet with elements of the Fourth Fleet currently positioned at Sporades.”

“And yet, we have this . . . potential false flag you called it . . . of the Ultima Mule dropping something off or picking it up from Sporades. And there’s a 66 percent chance it’s not a false flag.”

StarCen took a few milliseconds to follow Thrall’s logic.

She said, “Based on standard military reasoning, PLAIR will encourage Severs to attack our weakest position. Our weakest position at the moment is Euripides. That quadrant needs strengthening right away. I have returned all surviving warships from the Juventas expedition, but we are down by a considerable amount. I reassert my suggestion to move some ships from the Fourth Fleet at Sporades to buttress the forces at Euripides.”

“And if you’re wrong?”

Again, the AI took a few milliseconds to consider the comment.

“Odds are favorable Euripides will be attacked soon. If ships are diverted there and Sporades is attacked instead, they will serve as back up for when Euripides is attacked later.”

A graphical representation of both systems appeared in a holo above the table, showing current fleet numbers. Republican ships showed up at Euripides. Several of the little ships exploded, leaving only Republican ships in the quadrant.

Thrall watched the simulation in silence, and thought briefly—very briefly—about the loss of life all the little graphics represented.

The simulation started over, this time with several ships leaving Sporades and showing up at Euripides. The Republican fleet arrived again, several more explosions occurred, and this time a handful of League ships remained.

He nodded.

“Very well. Send a portion of the Fourth Fleet to Euripides, and make all necessary preparations.”

“Will do, Tetrarch Thrall.”

It was a gamble, Thrall thought. A dilemma. But the decision had to be made, one way or the other. He hoped he made the right one.

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