Tavin Salles stood in front of the floor to ceiling window located on the 29th floor of the capitol building. The window seamlessly spanned the length of the seven meter long conference room and offered a panoramic view of the vast expanse of the tidal flats stretching along the western coast of Iwajim’s single continent. In the distance, just at the farthest reach of the horizon, the edge of the ocean glinted in the morning sun. Leaning closer to the glass, he gazed down at Montmar hill, upon which the capitol building sat, sloping sharply down into the tidal flats. To his right, the broad Tarn river disappeared into a roiling mist after falling from sheer cliffs. The river reappeared from the mist some distance out, flowing to the distant ocean in hundreds of snaking canals. He pressed his forehead against the glass, his eyes angled down.

“How far up do you think we are?”

The only other man present, “Gascon” from the name tag on his chest, sat on the opposite side of a long, glossy black table that dominated the narrow conference room. He was dressed in the blue, straight-cut uniform of the Iwajim Space Corps bearing silver eagles on his shoulder boards. He was busy tapping on a touchscreen panel mounted to the surface of the table. A hologram consisting of colorful orbs danced over the surface of the table in front of him.

“How far from what, Admiral?” He asked without looking up.

“To the tidal flats,” Salles said, pointing down. “I’m curious how high up we are.”

Gascon leaned back in his chair and looked at the Admiral’s back through the opaque hologram. Salles was dressed in the same blue uniform, but with four gold stars on each shoulder.

“Well, sir, we are on the 29th floor, 82 meters above the ground. Montmar hill is 70 meters above the valley floor, and the water fall is 75 meters down to the flats. This puts us at 227 meters.”

“That’s a long way,” Salles said. He looked back to the horizon. “I can just barely see the ocean from here.”

Gascon rose from his seat, circled the long table and stepped to the window next to Salles, crossing his arms over his chest. He had three rows of colored ribbons on his left breast. Salles had 5 rows.

“From this height, on a clear day, you can see about 30 kilometers. That’s how far the shoreline recedes at low tide. The tide rises and falls 200 to 300 meters every month. The tidal flats should be open for another week before the moon’s orbit brings it back over us again. Then the ocean will rise to the height of the cliffs, and the waterfall will disappear.”

“You know a bit about Iwajim, Captain,” Salles said glancing over at him.

“Your first visit, Admiral?”

“Second,” Salles said looking back out to the far away ocean. “It’s my first visit to the Capitol building. The last time I was here was three years ago. I stayed at the Hotel pres de la Riviere here in Seulfort. I spent what free time I had on the balcony looking out over the river, the city, and up to Montmar hill. I wanted to visit the capitol building, but time did not allow.”

“I grew up here, sir,” Gascon said, grinning. “My father was a professor of mathematics at the university. When I was a boy, we would hike to the top of Montmar and watch the tides. He taught me to calculate how far away the ocean was when it appeared on the horizon.

“Those objects,” Gascon said, stepping closer to the Admiral and pointing. “Those lighter colored spots you see moving against the dark mud in the flats.”

Salles squinted in the indicated direction.

“Yes, I see.”

“Those are hovercraft operated by hunters. Those who dare to hunt the beasts living in the flats.”

“I have heard it is a dangerous sport.”

“Very dangerous. Each year, many men die for that challenge. The creatures who live in the muck are ravenous and unforgiving.”

“It seems to me, in life, there are enough challenges that don’t necessarily involve such odds for death.”

“We are Iwaj,” Gascon said, smiling. “We never back down from a challenge, or a fight, even when we should.”

“Yes, I know this,” Salles said. “I am a Kovach man myself, but the Iwaj fighters… They do not quit.”

“Of course it’s more than just the challenge. The demand for the meat guarantees a generous price on the market. That, sir, is another Iwaj vice.”

The door to the conference room opened and a short, gray-haired man entered. Both officers turned and straightened, Gascon dropped his arms to his sides. The man pushed the door shut behind him and gazed at the officers through thick glasses that magnified his eyes almost comically. His gray, bushy eyebrows covered the top part of the frame surrounding the lenses and almost seemed to be a part of the frame. He wore a rumpled black suit that was at least a size too large for his slight frame. His gray hair was thick and arranged on his head in a haphazard manner giving him the appearance of a man who was constantly running his hand through his hair.

“Sorry I’m running late, gentlemen,” he said. His tone was easy and friendly. He squinted at Gascon. “Do I know you, Captain?”

“This is my executive officer, Captain Tauro Gascon, Mr. Secretary,” Salles said. “Captain, this is Secretary of State, Armand Pallo, as you know.”

“Yes of course, sir,” Gascon said. He stepped forward and offered his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Secretary.”

Pallo accepted Gascon’s hand and gazed up at him.

“I assume you have the correct clearances, Captain? Have you been briefed?”

“Captain Gascon has been involved in every step of the mission planning, sir,” Salles said. “He has all the necessary clearances.”

“Of course he does,” Pallo said. He waved his hand at the conference table. “I see you have the simulation ready. It’s just the three of us. We should get started.”

Gascon took the seat in front of the control panel, and Pallo sat on the opposite side. Salles touched a control on the top of the table and curtains slid silently from the walls on either side of the windows, covering them and darkening the room. Tiny lights appeared at intervals along the sides of the conference table, and except for the hologram, provided the only illumination in the room. Salles seated himself next to Gascon.

Gascon operated the controls and blinking red and green circles appeared at various locations in the hologram.

“Secretary Pallo, before we begin,” Salles said. “I hope you understand I was assigned to this mission following the death of Admiral Thomassie, and I have had only four weeks to review the details.”

“I understand,” Pallo said. “Admiral Thomassie’s death in the battle at Valencia was a grave loss to our fleet. You served with distinction under Thomassie, Admiral Salles, and I have the utmost confidence you can take his place as mission commander.”

“I am grateful that you feel that way, Mr. Security.” Salles hesitated. “But I have concerns, sir.”

“You have concerns.” Pallo said. He raised his gray, bushy eyebrows and gazed at Salles.

“Yes, sir, from the beginning.” Pallo frowned and he narrowed his eyes at Salles. “It’s not a severe concern, Mr. Security, or I would have mentioned it sooner. This is not something I could discuss over a comm line or a warp drone. I wanted to speak with you in person.”

Pallo glanced at Gascon then back to Salles.

“Very well, Admiral. What are your concerns?”

“I’m concerned about the source of the intelligence you received. Sir, we don’t know who we are dealing with. Has anyone in the Security Service met with or even talked to this Lieutenant Guzinya?”

“How did you get this name?” Pallo asked.

“We don’t know who this spy is,” Salles said, ignoring the question. “We can’t even confirm if he is a Republic officer. We have no way to verify the information he has been feeding us. It was fine when he fed us logistics information and minor fleet movements. That was mundane information, and we could easily confirm it. This is different. We have two full task forces and the security of the system at risk. This latest information points to a full-scale invasion of Iwajim. I don’t think we can put our complete trust in this person that no one seems to know.”

“I understand your concerns, Admiral, but the Security Service has reviewed other intelligence sources. Based on what we know, we believe this information is accurate,” Pallo said. “Most of all, we can’t ignore it. We have the opportunity to effect significant damage on the Republic fleet and force them to negotiations.”

“Mr. Security, the intelligence briefing indicated the conversations with the informant have been one-sided,” Salles said. “We have never been able to send him a message or ask him a question. And now, he sends us intelligence regarding an invasion with a note that he will lure a full Republic task force into Iwajim space at a specific time and date. How can we trust this?”

“I trust the information,” Salles said. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Admiral, you have to understand this from a different perspective. This war has been going on for almost a decade. We cannot continue to fight a protracted war against the Republic. Five systems within the Confederacy have fallen in recent years. The Republic continues to gain ground against us. We cannot afford to lose more of our allies. The resources of the Republic, men, ships, trinitium, are nearly unlimited compared to what we have available. The only alternative to this plan is to face an all-out invasion of Iwajim within the year.”

Pallo paused, letting his gaze flick from Salles to Gascon and back.

“Admiral, I do not intend on ever seeing that happen. We must defend the Confederacy with the greatest urgency. The Republic must never set foot on Iwajim while we are able to resist. You, sir, are the front line of our defense.” He lowered his hands and placed them flat on the table. “If you fail, Iwajim and the Confederacy will fall.”

He locked eyes with Salles who gazed back silently.

“As an officer of the Confederate Fleet,” Pallo said. “All I want to know is how are you going to make this work. What is your plan?”

Salles nodded his head. He turned to the hologram.

“According to the informant, Arwa is the initial target.”

Gascon tapped on the controls and the hologram rotated. A large, orange colored orb spun into view.

“Admiral Vitol’s Task Force Eight is designated to lead the attack. Their attack on Arwa is intended to capture the supply base in orbit there and draw our forces away from the defense of Iwajim. The remainder of their fleet will warp into the system 36 hours later to attack Iwajim. Two weeks ago, I dispatched the light cruisers Okoro and Harmelink to the supply station orbiting Arwa.” Gascon tapped on the touch screen and a blue, circular marker appeared orbiting the planet. “They will be in position within seven hours and will act as an early warning.” A small blue, triangular maker appeared next to Arwa and rotated the planet. “With the remainder of my task force, one battle cruiser, three heavy cruisers, ten light cruisers, and seven destroyers, I will leave orbit in four hours.” A large blue triangle spun off from one of the inner planets, labeled Iwajim, and moved to a position midway to Arwa. “I will patrol at this position so we can respond to threats on either Iwajim or Arwa. Admiral Von Kassel’s task force of one battle cruiser, one heavy cruiser, and seventeen light cruisers is positioned just beyond the heliopause above the orbital plane. He will maintain strict communications silence and await orders. This position gives him the ability to warp into the system to support me within 15 to 30 minutes. The remainder of the Confederate fleet is committed to the defense of our allied systems, and cannot be pulled into battle in anything less than six days.”

“Why are you being so tentative?” Pallo frowned and folded his arms across his chest causing his suit coat to bunch up at his shoulders and giving him a pouty look. “Admiral Thomassie’s plan was to wait for Vitols at Arwa, and attack as he drops from warp, when they still have their warp rings and before they are able to organize.” He squinted through the hologram at Admiral Salles. “Why have you changed the plan?”

“I have several reasons, Mr. Secretary,” Salles leaned forward on his elbows. “The most important being the defense of Iwajim. I cannot guarantee a sufficient defense from 72 hours away at Arwa.”

“Von Kassel’s task force is only minutes away,” Pallo said. “He could respond to any threats to Iwajim.”

“There are several tactical reason for this plan, sir,” Salles said. “Our intel on the enemy task force indicates they significantly out number either of our task forces. We cannot defend Iwajim alone, and we cannot attack Vitols alone. My strategy depends on using our combined strength and surprise.”

He stuck his finger into the simulation at the supply base.

“I will allow Vitols to enter the system and capture the supply base. I have withdrawn our Marine Raiders defending it. The remaining personnel will have no recourse but to surrender to the Republic’s Raiders.”

“You will allow them… to take the base?” Pallo’s mouth dropped open.

“Sir, the information from your spy indicates the enemy task force will drop out of warp close to Arwa. Arwa is a gas giant and has a significant gravity well. This will restrict our ability to maneuver in battle. In order to fight against such a large formation, we need room. Please, Mr. Secretary, hear me out.”

Pallo nodded his head, but looked skeptical.

“Once Vitols has entered the system, I will move to engage him. Vitols will have the gravitational high-ground, the numbers, and the confidence that goes with that. His only choice is to move down into the system to engage me. I will draw him into battle at the location of my choosing. Once we are close, within 15 minutes of engagement, I will have a warp probe launched from Iwajim that will relay the attack coordinates to Admiral Von Kassel. As we are about to engage in battle, Von Kassel will drop from warp and ambush them on their flank. With that surprise attack, and our combined fire, we will devastate the Republic formation.”

Salles sat back in his chair, and Pallo gazed into the simulation in silence.

“What makes you think Vitols can be lured into such a trap?” Pallo said. “He is an experienced strategist. Why would he fall for such a simplistic ploy?”

“For the same reason he is coming to Arwa,” Admiral Salles said. “He believes he is involved in a larger plan to invade Iwajim. Per their invasion plan, the bulk of the Republic fleet will arrive on the far side of the system close to Iwajim. When I face him on his way to join with them, he will not be concerned with the possibility of a surprise attack on his flank. He will believe we are the only thing between him and Iwajim. It’s the very purpose of their attack.

“And because I know Admiral Vitols, and I know he is a cautious man, that is the purpose of a second ruse I have prepared, Mr. Secretary,” Salles said. Gascon tapped on the touch screen and a red triangle appeared in space near Iwajim. “This, sir, is the bulk of the Republic fleet arriving in the system to attack Iwajim.”

Pallo stared confused at the red marker as it floated into line with the orbital path of Iwajim.

“What do you mean, the Republic fleet?”

“Our simulation of the Republic fleet, sir. In reality, it’s a fleet consisting of every freighter, merchantman, and what civilian vessels we could commandeer for the task.” Salles smirked. “We even grabbed two of the large luxury cruisers and threw them in. They are about the same mass as a Republic battle cruiser. This fleet is currently gathered outside the heliopause. On my command, they will warp into the system. Admiral Vitols will detect their warp front when they arrive and believe them to be the main Republic attack centered on Iwajim. To enhance the deception, the fleet will use the codes we attained from your contact and command Admiral Vitols to join the attack. His first move will be to engage me, the only visible Confederate task force in the system. When he does, we will have him.”

Pallo nodded. “What is your backup plan if Admiral Vitols should not cooperate with you? What about the defense of Iwajim?”

“That is something I wish to address with you,” Salles said. “I am committed to destroying Vitol’s task force. That is why I want you to recall Admiral Morant’s task force from Malagha to act as a reserve force.”

“No, we can’t do that,” Pallo said shaking his head. “Malagha still threatens to secede from the Confederacy. They are our remaining source of trinitium. Morant’s presence in that system is the only thing keeping them in check.”

“I understand, Mr. Secretary, but Morant has the only task force within range that can be here in time,” Salles said. “If Malagha declares their independence, we can easily reclaim them. They have no significant defenses.”

“No.” Pallo bowed his head and sighed. “It would look exceptionally bad for us if one of our oldest member systems declared independence and seceded at this critical time. We must appear to be strong and united. Turning on one of our own will make us look weak. It will give the appearance that we don’t have full control over the Confederacy, and it would weaken our negotiating position.” He drummed his fingers on the table and looked up. “However, you may message Admiral Morant and instruct him to be ready to warp out at a moment’s notice. That is the best I can do, Admiral.”

“That will have to be sufficient, sir,” Salles said. “I’m assuming you also have a story ready for the public? The battle will be visible from Iwajim. What do we say when news service picks this up, and so many civilian ships suddenly appear in orbit?”

“A training exercise, of course,” Pallo said. “Conscription of civilian vessels to assist in keep our space forces sharp and ready to defend Iwajim. Given that we begin celebrations for Liberation day, it will be a good cover story.”

“Very good, sir,” Salles said. “If we are agreed on this plan, I will leave immediately to prepare my men.”

“One more thing, Admiral,” Pallo leaned forward and rested his elbows on the table. “Captain, please turn off the hologram.”

Gascon tapped on the screen and the hologram dissolved. The conference room darkened without the added light, and Pallo was illuminated eerily by a single light radiating from the table below his face.

“Admiral Salles,” Pallo said, “Your victory over this Republic task force must be absolute. Do you understand?”

“Of course, Mr. Secretary,” Salles said. “This is a good plan. Admiral Vitols will not expect an ambush. If all goes well, we will defeat him and scatter his forces. I even anticipate we will be able to capture a few of their warships.”

“No, you don’t understand. Defeating him is not your objective. If defeating a single task force in battle could end this war, it would have ended long ago. Our objective must be to strike an absolute and devastating blow against the Republic. This must be a defeat they will never forget. We must turn public opinion within the Republic against any continuation of this war. We must give them no option but to come to terms with us.” Pallo stared intently at Salles. The Admiral’s expression changed from one of confusion to grim understanding.

“You are asking me to grant no quarter,” Salles said.

“You must utterly destroy them,” Pallo said. “To be blunt, I am asking you to blast every ship to bits and kill every living person in that task force. If President Kane will not acknowledge our pleas for peace, perhaps he will listen to the cries of the widows and the mothers of the dead.”

“Such a tactic, Mr. Secretary. This could work against us. It could solidify their will to fight. It could give them a new battle cry. Something even more potent than Colorado Springs,” Salles said. Pallo glared at him, but Salles ignore it and continued. “Sir, the wailing you hear may be the cries of all humanity for our heads.”

“Faced with such losses? An entire task force destroyed? It will be a devastating loss. I don’t think so, Admiral.” Pallo gazed hard at Salles. “Admiral Thomassie and I discussed this and agreed. This is the only way to be certain the Republic will accept defeat. I must have your word, Admiral. Will you carry out these orders?”

Salles sat back in his chair, gazing incredulously at the Secretary. He seemed to shrink into the chair. His shoulder sagged and he sighed.

“I will do as you ask, Mr. Secretary. Pulling the trigger is an easy thing when I am staring down the barrel of my opponents gun. I am a warrior, and I will follow your orders. If my strategy fails, the punishment for me and my men will be death in battle. That is something we are prepared for.” He shook his head. “But for Iwajim… For you, Mr. Secretary. Should I fail, the Republic will come back for a vengeance like you have not seen before, and there will be no one in all humanity that will spare a single word to stop it.”

Pallo nodded. “Thank you, Admiral. I’m satisfied we have an understanding.”