Commodore Guderian stood before Admiral Bosch aboard the Iceni.
It had been a full twenty seconds or so since he had been ushered in. The Admiral had glanced up at him briefly, then returned to staring - almost blankly, Guderian surmised - at a sheaf of papers in his hand. Eventually he sighed and, with alarming deftness, spread and shuffled the papers on the table.
"Commodore, tell me... would you trust a rumour?"
"A rumor, Admiral? That would depend upon how well-substantiated it was."
"A rumor. A fantastic rumour that promised destruction and salvation at once. The end times. A rumor so fantastic... so fantastic you feel compelled to believe?"
"Sir, I am afraid I don't understand."
"These, Commodore, are the contents of the encrypted communication you delivered to me." He indicated the papers spread before them. Guderian eyed them briefly, not prepared to read them yet.
"I will say this as succinctly as I may, Commodore. The communication claims to be a warning. A prophecy, if you will. From an inter-dimensional, inter-spatial source of some kind, one that claims to have witnessed the realization of a future possibility: the return of the Shivans. On an even greater scale. And, naturally, the associated end of mankind."
the red ships the dread ships they come and we are lost
Guderian's mind reeled. He recovered and responded with defiance:
"A hoax, sir. An absurd notion, an attempt to mislead. Clearly some GTVI spook cooked this up. A Faustus and three fighters? Traversing time and space? If you would, sir, I suggest that we..." He trailed off, his case sounding weaker in his own mind as he took in Bosch's stony gaze. That the Admiral had the patience to wait on him at all was remarkable, Guderian realized. He fell silent.
"If you're quite done, Commodore... I have some familiarity with the ways of the "spook." I would initially agree. This communication could be a tactic to steal our attention, divide our focus. But think about it further. Please read what I've set before you?"
The Commodore began paging through the papers. An elaborate future possibility unfolded itself. A Shivan invasion, one barely stopped. That belonged to an alternate timeline. The warning was focused on what could happen now. A much larger incursion, on multiple fronts. It would be impossible to plug the gaps, even with the GTVA's latest Meson bomb strategies. The tide would roll on inexorably. The very nature of reality could bend, fracture, to serve the Shivan's purposes. The account was detailed, incredibly detailed. Specific descriptions of the GTVA weaknesses, a brutally clinical explanation of how the Shivans would exploit those weaknesses...
Guderian glanced up. "Elaborate, sir, yes. Incredibly elaborate."
"I know. They seem remarkably aware of their own vulnerabilities, if this should be a GTVI plot. In addition, Commodore, they knew. They knew our most advanced decryption abilities. My private decryption routines. They know an incredible amount about our fleet, about our command structure, about our strengths - such as they are - and about our weaknesses."
"Commodore Guderian, if the GTVA knows so much, knows exactly what they can do to us... why go to the effort of misdirection?"
Guderian looked up, noticing the few papers that Bosch still held under his hand. He gestured toward them, a question in his eyes.
"These are for my eyes only. They detail my role in this matter."
"Your role, Admiral?"
"Presumably... I have the power to stop this. I have resources which I cannot describe to you now. Resources that could stop this apocalypse before it begins. To that end, I am going to disappear. I will take the Iceni with its crew, some close advisors, and follow this rumor to the bitter end. If it should turn out to be a myth - and at this point, I am beginning to doubt that - we can always..."
The Commodore lost control and interrupted: "Sir? You are abandoning the people of Neo-Terra? RIGHT when we need you most?!? Your people are counting on you to keep your promises, Admiral! Do you have the luxury of chasing after a -"
Bosch's hand came down like thunder on the desk. Guderian flinched, yet the roaring tirade he anticipated did not emerge. When Bosch spoke, after a pause, it was with an implacable whisper. As with a promordial glacier, argument would have been worse than futile. Only one word was raised above that whisper, and it cut like a blade of tempered steel.
"Do not DARE to presume that I feel anything but bitterness at having to leave my people behind. I take no pleasure in appearing to break my promise. I raised the Neo-Terran Front to give those who were willing to fight... to give them a better life. Soldiers, students - such as yourself - laborers, scholars, business owners, merchants, dock workers, politicians, ruled, rulers. I invited them all to partake of the abundance that could be ours - could be ours if we stood, fought, showed strength tempered with mercy, might tempered with justice. This situation changes nothing, Commodore. I can put this threat down before it rears its ugly head. If it should be a rumor, you will have to do temporarily without me and without the services of my command vessel. But if it is true? I could save us all. That is honoring my promise."
"You will not deny this."
Guderian stood straighter. He would not deny his leader. "What are your orders, sir?"
The Admiral sat back, rubbing his hands together momentarily as he stared at the desk.
"I am leaving Rear Admiral Koth in charge during my absence. I want that affairs continue unchanged while I am gone. It is to be as if I was present, do you understand?"
"Yes, sir. Rear Admiral Koth."
The disbelief in his voice was evident. Bosch raised an eyebrow. He had anticipated this.
"Koth is a fanatic, I know. But he is aggressive. Uncompromising. Driven. He will not waver from a set course, the course of Neo-Terra. I can trust that in my hopefully temporary absence, he will not bow to the GTVA. You understand."
Guderian did not. But that was of no consequence.
"Sir, let the 5th come with you. Three cruisers and the power of your battle corvette? That would form a tough defensive formation. We could fight our way out of any number of situations, should things turn sour."
"I felt that you would ask this of me, Commodore. Know... know that I appreciate your loyalty. And it is that very appreciation that compels me to ask you to stay."
"I need a representative to remain. Someone who knows what has been done, why we are fighting, the warning that has been given. Should the time come to reveal this affair to the GTVA..."
Guderian started. Clearly, Bosch was getting desperate.
"...should that time come, I can trust you to relay only the information they need. For the same reason, I am not describing to you the specifics of what I must do to stop this invasion. The less you know about that, the better - we both know how they would react to a plot of mine. They would doubtlessly interfere in their clumsy fashion, and destroy the endeavour. They would be very satisfied with themselves for doing so, I don't doubt."
A tight smile reached Bosch's face. Just for a moment. It disappeared as fast as it had come. "I am am gifting you with this command directive. It is a private code of mine. Koth is very familiar with it. It gives you the right, on a case by case basis, to countermand Koth's orders. It is imperative that you do not use this directive except in a case of most dire necessity. You understand. It is required that we maintain Koth as a legitimate authority figure. You can imagine the effect on the command structure, were a Commodore of a rear-line squadron to make a habit of correcting Koth."
Guderian took the folder. "Thank you, sir. I promise you, I will only use this in extreme necessity. Is that all, sir?"
The Admiral was quiet for a moment. He then pushed one of the papers, formerly in his grasp, over towards Guderian. His hand covered most of the sheet, but one sentence was visible.
Trust only the trustworthy.
Guderian frowned at the rather obvious and empty sentence. The Admiral spoke before he could.
"Commodore, always remember this: I chose you for this task. Circumstances will test that trust. Circumstances will test you. Be not afraid. Do not waver. That is... all. I cannot guarantee that we will meet again, not for a long time. You are dismissed."
Guderian saluted - his sharpest, most attentive, respectful salute. He turned briskly on his heel and marched from the room, hoping that the moistness in his eyes had not been noticed. As he moved to close the door behind him, he heard a quiet call from the room behind him.
"I... thank you in return, Admiral."
And that was, as had been said, all.