Some people say that if you can’t play golf, you can’t participate in proper politics or diplomacy. Those people have obviously never played poker. You can’t bluff in golf. You can’t stare down your opponent. Winning is all about your own skill, not about actually beating the other guy. Poker is social and political and diplomatic by its very nature. And those who have mastered them all are scary to play against.
Jack followed Charles through the hatch into a room that his mind was finally beginning to consider large. Back home, it would have been impossibly tiny. In space, it was far larger than anything in the United States Navy. Even fleet carriers like Constellation had nothing like this. Bookshelves and paintings and holograms and plants and a dozen other knickknacks framed a closed hatch in each of the four bulkheads that made up the room. Comfortable looking chairs, and even a sofa that looked like it could double as a bed filled the room, making it look like a comfortable piece of home.
Aneerin waited for them, standing next to one of the chairs. He waved for them to come in and Betty and Dorothy stepped close behind them, allowing the hatch to close.
“I wish you good health, now and forever,” Aneerin said in a formal tone.
“We wish you good health, now and forever,” Charles returned the Peloran greeting.
Aneerin motioned towards a pair of chairs next to a bookshelf overflowing with what appeared to be honest-to-God paper books, and Jack and Charles sat down as commanded. Betty and Dorothy found seats against another wall, though their holograms lacked the weight to sink into the seats. To Jack’s eyes they appeared to hover over the chairs. It was a small trick he’d learned for spotting cybers and AIs. One of many. He turned to Aneerin with a frown. He understood why Aneerin might want to talk to Charles as he was the commander of the squadron now, but he couldn’t figure out why Aneerin would want to talk to him.
“Hmmm. The dreaded ‘what am I doing here?’ question,” Aneerin said as he sat down and placed his hands in his lap, seeming fully at ease.
Jack’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. He’d heard Aneerin was good at reading body language. Jack really didn’t like being read.
“I apologize,” Aneerin said and his eyes strayed to the small bandage covering the spot on Jack’s forehead that had been sliced open. “I understand you were gravely injured in the battle.”
Jack shrugged. “I’m better now. Better than a lot of the pilots,” he said, not really wanting to talk about the dream.
Aneerin nodded slowly. “Indeed.” He turned to Charles, seemingly accepting Jack’s words at face value. “I apologize for the losses you suffered. Your Johanson will be particularly missed.”
“You knew him?” Charles asked, surprise in his tone.
Aneerin shook his head. “I never met him. But good squadron commanders are hard to find, and he will be missed.
“Yes, he will,” Charles said, his tone controlled but Jack caught an edge of sorrow in it.
Jack shook his head, a flash of anger burning through him. “His sacrifice wasn’t necessary.”
Aneerin recognized his mood and cocked his head to the side as the hatch opened and Hal walked in. “I agree. But could you tell me why you chose that word?” Aneerin asked, the edge of an order underneath the civil tone.
Jack’s eyes narrowed and he chewed on his lip, meeting Aneerin’s gaze. Aneerin looked genuinely curious, which either meant he didn’t know what Jack meant, or he was really good at acting. Jack grunted, shook his head, and began to explain. “You know as well as I do that the Shang didn’t have you trapped. What we just did at Fort London proved that. You can dive for hyperspace in a matter of seconds. It takes our warships minutes to do that. But you could have escaped the Battle of Fort Wichita whenever you wanted. Instead we surfaced because we thought you needed our help and Johanson died for it.”
Aneerin pulled in a deep breath and rubbed his chin for several seconds. “So you think his death is my fault?”
Jack pursed his lips and considered his answer. Truthful or diplomatic. He chose truth. “Yes.”
Jack noted with a corner of his mind that Hal reached the wall next to another bookshelf and leaned against it. Betty jumped out of her chair to join Hal at the wall, leaning against it as she moved in close to whisper to him. It really was amazing how cybers could act so human without seeming to think about it. Of course, if you asked them they were human. Jack hadn’t come to a conclusion yet, but he was certainly leaning towards the conclusion that they thought they were. And maybe even that they were, which did interesting things to many of the world’s major religions.
He returned his attention to Aneerin in time to see the man glancing towards the cybers as well. Aneerin smiled, shaking his head to bring them back on track.
“Good insight,” Aneerin said in an approving tone. “I do not absolve myself of fault, but I would state for the record that your conclusion is not entirely accurate. Hit and run was a viable tactic at Fort London because the fort was still operational. The British still took heavy casualties, but Fort London’s point defense kept most of them alive.
“Fort Wichita on the other hand was largely reduced in combat effectiveness and could do little to protect the ships around her. Had we performed hit and run assaults at Fort Wichita, the Shang would have accepted the losses we gave them while continuing to surround and destroy all of your American forces. I allowed them to trap us in order to force them to concentrate much of their fire on my ships. That reduced the casualties to your fleet while your squadron moved to flank them. Did you really not question why your battle plan changed at the last minute?”
Jack frowned at Aneerin. “So you changed the standard operating procedure of an entire Battle Squadron, and took crippling damage to a third of your ships, in order to buy time for a single fighter squadron to support you? I don’t buy it.”
“And you would be smart not to,” Aneerin said in the most frigid tone Jack had ever heard from a Peloran. “I requested that your Admiral Warcheski task a destroyer squadron to support our flank. Not a fighter squadron.”
Jack blinked as he considered the words. Many things began to make sense. “Oh,” he said, his voice betraying his beginning doubt in Aneerin’s guilt.
“Exactly,” Aneerin returned with a grim expression. “A full destroyer squadron could have shattered the Shang flank with a single salvo. Your assault killed a single cruiser. They adapted quickly and you would have been overwhelmed had I not performed a counterattack. The time spent on that counterattack delayed my reinforcement of the main battle around Fort Wichita, causing American casualties to mount. Admiral Warcheski and every man and woman on his flagship died because he thought he could drive them off without listening to me,” Aneerin finished. Disdain dripped from his tone.
Jack nodded. Aneerin’s argument made sense. Except one thing. “If Admiral Warcheski didn’t listen, why did he send us?”
Aneerin gave him a predatory smile. “He did not send you. Your Constellation creatively interpreted her orders and sent you on her own initiative. She was smart enough to see what he would not.”
Jack frowned. “Mom sent us?” He shared a glance with Charles who seemed just as surprised as he. “I didn’t know she could do that.”
Aneerin’s smile turned gentle. “That is because you have not yet accepted that cybernetic intelligences truly are what they believe themselves to be. She and the other cybers recognized my plan and agreed to send the only hyper-capable assets they could task without violating orders. You,” he said with a wave of his hand.
“How far in advance did you have this battle planned?” Charles asked intently.
Aneerin smiled again. “Less far than you would think. Farther than you might guess.” Aneerin sighed. “Strategic and tactical awareness is part of the basic genetic makeup of all Peloran. I do not suppose I planned any of it with my conscious mind. I definitely did not know the Shang would attack when they did. But within seconds of their assault, I had a plan ready to repulse them using all Alliance ships in range with minimal casualties.” Aneerin shrugged. “Admiral Warcheski chose to follow his own plan. He is now dead, as is your Johanson. I apologize for not being able to prevent the latter.”
Charles met Jack’s gaze for a second before turning back to Aneerin. “You cannot control everything, I suppose.” Jack caught the trick in the question and scanned Aneerin for any hint of a “well I should have” in there.
Instead, Aneerin pursed his lips. “Indeed,” was all he said. “You are most perceptive, Charles. Your family should be proud of you.”
Jack narrowed his eyes, considering the interplay. Either Aneerin truly didn’t think he should control them all, or he had caught the word trap and said he didn’t to fool them.
Aneerin turned to him with another smile. “You doubt my motivations, Jack.”
Jack met his gaze without hesitation and answered him honestly. “Yes.”
Aneerin nodded in approval. “Good. Always doubt those who would put themselves in positions of authority over you. They may not always have your best interests in their hearts.”
“And your interest is of course in our best interests?” Jack asked.
“Exactly,” Aneerin said, opening his arms wide as if he had nothing to hide. Jack didn’t believe that for a split second.
“Excuse me,” Hal interrupted the conversation from his position against the wall with Betty. “We have an incoming message. It appears the President of the United States wants to talk to us.”
“Really?” Aneerin asked, gazing back and forth between Jack and Charles. “What a coincidence.” His expression looked calculating and Jack had the undeniable feeling that nothing about this situation was coincidental. “I wanted to talk to her too. Please open communications. I assume she wants us in her office?”
“She does,” Hal answered with a smile and stepped away from the wall to take a more formal stance. Aneerin came to his feet and motioned for Charles and Jack to follow suit.
“Be good, boys. You are about to see your President,” Aneerin said, the ease he had affected before melting away into the smooth and cool demeanor that Jack had long learned to equate with the Peloran.
Jack came to his feet and swiveled his head to see Charles and Dorothy on their feet as well. Betty stood next to Hal, looking every bit the consummate and professional cyber.
“Achieving datalink…now,” Hal said as the walls of the living room rippled and changed.
One second they were standing on the Guardian Light. And then the holoemitters in the bulkheads faithfully recreated a much larger office on Earth for the benefit of everyone in the room.
Jack shifted his feet back to look at the massive rug on the floor that declared this to be the office of the President of the United States. He brought his head up to see the President’s desk and the President behind it. He gulped.
The President of the United States looked like she had a bad taste in her mouth. It wasn’t a surprise really. Six months ago she had been the junior senator from Colorado, sick from a particularly nasty strain of the flue. Then the Shang dropped several hundred missiles on Washington DC during the State of the Union address. The designated survivor had been in Los Angeles when a large chunk of Yosemite Station hit the city dead center, leaving her the highest-ranking representative of the Federal Government. The wholesale destruction of the majority of the career politicians in Washington had rammed some serious steel into her spine and Jack approved of that. A true War President sat behind her desk, most definitely unhappy at the moment, and he realized he really did not want to be on the receiving end of a War President’s unhappy glare.
Jack came to attention and brought his hand up to salute her. He surreptitiously scanned left and right to see Charles, Dorothy, and Betty saluting her as well.
“I wish you good health, Aneerin,” she said through tight lips. “Now and forever.”
Aneerin gave a brief bow of the head. “And I wish you good health, Madam President, now and forever,” he returned the standard greeting.
She turned to Jack and Charles, wearing their very obvious United States Marine Corps service uniforms. “What are you doing here?”
“The Constellation is damaged, Ma’am,” Charles answered professionally. “The Admiral offered us a place to land, repair, and refuel. We were discussing the battle when you called.”
The President’s eyes narrowed further and her eyes flicked to Charles’ rank insignia. “Where is your commander?”
Charles licked his lips. “Colonel Johanson did not survive the battle, Ma’am. I am the senior surviving officer of Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112, Ma’am. I accepted the Admiral’s offer, Ma’am.”
Jack suppressed a nod of approval. Charles was earning his spurs all right.
“I see,” the President said and turned her study to Jack. Jack carefully held his salute and did nothing else beyond staring straight ahead. “Very well,” she finally said and returned their salute. “At ease,” she ordered and turned back to Aneerin as Jack and the others lowered their hands to stand at ease. “Thank you for helping us at Fort Wichita,” she said, though she looked unhappy to say it. “My Joint Chiefs assured me your help would not be needed. I see they were wrong.”
Aneerin nodded towards her. “In a great many things, Madam President.”
The President pursed her lips and frowned, obviously unhappy with his statement. “My Joint Chiefs tell me that you allowed the Shang to escape,” she said slowly. “Why?”
Aneerin took in a deep breath and answered her in a simple and clear tenor. “Because I did not wish to send the vast majority of the fighting men and women at Fort Wichita to Annwyn.”
Jack blinked and looked at Betty in confusion, wondering what Annwyn was.
“It’s the Peloran afterlife,” she whispered.
“Oh,” he whispered back, returning his gaze to the President. An aide stepped away from her and she had the same dawning look of comprehension on her face that he assumed was on his.
“It is, Madam President,” Aneerin answered, looking totally and utterly calm, in complete control of the situation. “The Shang do not surrender. Back them into a corner, and they will kill you or die trying. Leave them an escape route if the battle turns, and they may take it. We might have won at Fort Wichita, we might have lost, but our casualties would have been nearly total, and their attack on Fort London would have been a complete success. The damage to your ships was too severe for them to have fought much longer without far more catastrophic losses.”
“Why wasn’t I told this?”
Aneerin pursed his lips, looking like he’d just bitten into a sour fruit. “Because your Joint Chiefs have not yet come to terms with what the Shang just did to you. Again. They do not wish to tell you what happened until they know what happened, and most of them are incapable of understanding the magnitude of it.”
“I will not have you insulting soldiers who have served their country well, especially in front of other soldiers.”
Aneerin took in a deep breath, letting silence rule for a few seconds. “Madam President, you are in your position because the Shang made a tactical and strategic error when they bombarded DC. They killed a large number of federal bureaucrats and politicians and news reporters who would have hampered your war effort. Some of them because they did not believe in war, some because they did not believe in your country, and some through no greater fault than their own incompetence. They did not similarly cull the worst of your military high commanders. If you seek to win this War, you will need to do the culling, Madam President.”
She glared at him for several seconds, her lips pursed. “You suggest that some of the representatives of this country were traitors?” she said in a cold voice.
“No,” Aneerin answered, lips pressed thin. “I state it without reservation.”
The President continued to glare at him. “Can you prove these allegations?”
Aneerin sighed. “Not to the satisfaction of your legal system. Your courts would throw out much of the evidence due to means of acquisition.”
Jack could have sworn he saw a smile on the President’s face for a moment. “So you got it illegally, did you?”
Aneerin cocked his head to the side. “Many traitors hide their activities by making the methods of proving their nature illegal. That does not make the evidence any less accurate.”
The President frowned. “True. Although I’m not certain I would call anyone who died that day a traitor.”
Jack suppressed a scowl at the obvious political speak.
“Perhaps you would not,” Aneerin answered. “And in fact most were not. But some were. And some of those were not in Washington when the missiles came.”
A thoughtful expression came to the President’s face. “So if you are accurate, they are still working to undermine us?”
Aneerin returned her gaze for several moments. “Indeed.” She continued to stare at him and he sighed. “They saw many in Washington DC that day as a threat to their future. And based on my information they greatly preferred the designated survivor in Los Angeles to you. They considered him more…reasonable than you. They are most displeased that you became the highest-ranking survivor of the government. They are greatly displeased that you are now President.”
Jack gasped as a thought came to mind, catching the disapproving attention of the President. He froze when her gaze hit him. But Aneerin just chuckled.
“I believe our young pilot has a question he wishes to ask,” Aneerin said with a smile.
The President looked at Aneerin in confusion, then back to Jack with her calculating gaze. He felt like she was measuring him from head to toe and coming up with a giant question mark as to whether he was worthy of the measuring. “Ask,” she finally ordered.
Jack cleared his throat, feeling like he wanted to be any place but right where he was. “I was just wondering,” he finally said, real slowly and carefully. “How accidental it was that you got sick the day before the rest of the government was killed?”
The President leaned back in her seat and let out a long breath. He watched as the War President disappeared from her body language, replaced by a woman rubbing her eyebrows. She looked up at Aneerin and nodded. “That is a good question, isn’t it?”
Aneerin looked at Jack like a proud grandfather. “Indeed. It is a very good question. I hope he continues to ask such questions in the future. It is always helpful to have a healthy distrust of those in power.”
Her expression hardened and Jack saw the War President return. “You didn’t answer the question. Why was I sick that day? Did you know what was going to happen that day? Could you have stopped thirty million Americans from dying?” she asked in a harsh voice.
Aneerin froze and swallowed, then looked for a chair and sat down in it, hard. Jack followed his every move watching the cool and collected Peloran fall in favor of a troubled and sorrowful man. Aneerin shook his head after nearly half a minute. “I did not know,” he said with a frankness that Jack recognized for its rarity. Peloran could not lie, but they were very good at double speak when they got rolling. “My sources said they were planning something,” he added, sorrow in his voice. “I passed my concerns on to your people. But I did not foresee the sheer scale of it all. I underestimated them and you paid the price. For that I apologize.”
The President smiled at him. “I accept your apology, Admiral. Though that does still leave the nature of my illness in question.” She looked at Jack and Charles, as well as Betty and Dorothy, disapproval back in her face. “But such issues should not be spoken of here I think.”
Aneerin returned to his feet with a smile on his face. “Perhaps. Perhaps not. They are trustworthy or I would not have invited them here. In fact, I believe they have the mettle to make good squadron commanders in the future.”
Jack swallowed as the President measured him again. “Interesting,” she said slowly, looking as if she were putting a great amount of thought to the idea. “So you are willing to tell me who would be good military commanders?”
Aneerin smiled. “I am willing to give you my input, Madam President. The final decision is, of course, yours.”
The President chuckled. “Of course. I suppose you have names for the military commanders you think I should…cull as well?”
Aneerin nodded and turned to Hal. “Hal, please send her the file.”
“You…have one ready?” she asked.
“Indeed.” He raised his hand. “Wait. Remove Admiral Warcheski’s entry before transmission.”
Hal smiled. “File is edited. File is sent.” He looked at the President. “You should have it on your personal pad now.”
The President looked down, scanned the file, and her face went white. “You…you would have me remove this many people?”
Aneerin sighed. “Madam President. We both know that ranks above two stars are only given to those who have the political allies to secure those ranks. Your predecessors valued the ability to talk well, not kill well. You need a new Sherman or MacArthur. You know as well as I do that those on that list would not stand well in such company.”
The President shook her head. “This list would be a shakeup of almost the entire upper branches of the United States Armed Forces. The sheer chaos of making changes this large could ruin us.”
It was Aneerin’s turn to sigh. “Please understand me, Madam President. We held the line, and we did not lose our ships. It will be another three months before the nearest Peloran Battle Fleet arrives. How many ships can you build in those three months?”
“Without Yosemite…” The President shook her head.
“Exactly. The Shang dealt you a mortal blow. That your people still stand at all is admirable. I am pleased that I judged you rightly. Now I have pledged you all the aid I can give you, and I will hold to that pledge. But the first and most important mission we all have is to preserve what we have left until reinforcements arrive. We must buy time. I just bought you some today, and we did not lose every American and Peloran ship in the Terran system buying it. Now it is your turn to help us buy time by promoting your competent officers and giving them the commands that they are ready to perform. Give me allied commanders who can fight at something beyond a squadron level, who can fight with me and not against me, and we will drive the Shang screaming from your systems. I have fought the Shang before. You have not. Please listen to my advice.”
Aneerin paused, took a deep breath, and shook his head as if he didn’t want to say something. “Please.” He shook his head again and set his jaw. “The Peloran were created to defend the Albion. We failed at that task. The Albion died because they were too arrogant to listen to our advice. They created the entire Peloran race to fight for them and then they thought they knew war better than us. They did not. We could have saved them, if only they would have listened.” He stopped, closed his eyes, and took in several deep breaths. Jack watched the calm Peloran mask return and he wondered just how hard Aneerin had to work to maintain it. Finally Aneerin opened his eyes again, the epitome of Peloran calm. “Madam President. I pray that you listen. I cannot, and never will, demand it. But I ask you to please listen to my advice. I watched the Albion die. I do not wish to see your people follow them.”
“I…see.” The President took a long breath before continuing. “Thank you for your candor, Admiral.” She grimaced. “And thank you for your advice.”
“You are welcome, Madam President.” Aneerin glanced at Jack and Charles. “May I make one more request?”
The President followed his glance before returning her gaze to the Admiral. “Yes. Of course, Admiral.”
“Thank you. My losses have been…I dislike the term catastrophic, but it is close. I have lost over fifty percent of my fighters. It will take time to rebuild new fighters, and I do not have enough left to effectively screen my formation at this time. You on the other hand have more fighters than you can find ships to fly them off of. We find ourselves in the position of being able to reinforce our respective weaknesses. I request that you assign some of your fighter squadrons to fly off my ships.”
“Of course. I’ll…make certain the orders are sent out as soon as possible, Admiral.”
“Could you…make one of those orders…now, Madam President?”
The President glanced at Jack and Charles one more time. “I suppose so. Explain why if you will?”
Aneerin waved a hand towards Jack and Charles. “Your Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 112 saved my ships from taking considerable damage, and then helped me drive the Shang away from both Fort Wichita and Fort London. I would like to make that working arrangement permanent, if you are willing, Madam President.”
Jack’s jaw dropped at the idea, but he somehow pulled it back up when the President turned to examine him and Charles. She returned her eyes to Aneerin. “They are yours for as long as you need them. I’ll tell General Brage…” she trailed off and scanned the list again. “Good, I see he is not on this list.”
“Of course not, Madam President. He is very good at his job.”
“Yes. I’ll tell General Brage to have the appropriate orders written up, but they are yours right now.”
“Thank you, Madam President.”
“Thank you, Admiral.” Her look grew shrewd. “And perhaps you can upgrade their fighters while you are at it. If they are defending your ships, it might be in your best interests to do so of course.”
Aneerin smiled back and rubbed his chin in amusement. “Of course, Madam President,” he finally said. “I think we can arrange for some…modifications in your basic Avenger package. I might even be able to have the modifications sent to your factories so that future production does not need the upgrades.”
“Thank you, Admiral,” the President returned. “Your help will always be accepted. And your advice will be listened to. Good health to you, now and forever,” she finished in a respectful tone.
“Good health to you, Madam President. Now and forever,” Aneerin answered.
With that, the datalink ended and the Office of the President faded away to be replaced by the living room again.
Jack swallowed and turned to study Aneerin as the Peloran simply stood in place for several long seconds. He finally turned away from where the President had sat and looked towards Charles and Jack.
“Welcome to your new duty station.”
Charles and Jack shared a look that said, “What have we just stepped in?” before Charles turned to Aneerin. “Thank you.”
Aneerin turned away from Charles and smiled at Jack, spreading his hands out wide. “So, what do you think now, Jack?”
Jack frowned, wondering if he should truly say what he thought. He grunted, and opened his mouth, determined to say it. The Admiral had asked after all. “I’m thinking playing poker with you might be a mistake,” Jack said in a suspicious tone.
Aneerin’s smile grew wider. “Indeed. Let us hope that the Shang feel the same. I would hate for them to decide to call my bluff and attack us, right now, in force.”
“Yes,” Charles said with a grim smile, drawing the word out as he looked back and forth between them. “That would not be good.”