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Queen's Gambit

By Alice C. Aldridge
Page 1 of 36

Servalan pulled the albino chaqui fur tighter around her slim shoulders as she stalked through the tunnels of the abandoned stronghold. Its cold grey walls showed the slagging of random laser blasts, splattered intermittently with odd greenish brown splotches of vacuum desiccated ichor throughout the entire complex. The air still held a bitter chill, despite the heating units that troopers had installed in the central core. For the moment all work parties had been diverted to set up the shield generators and sensor arrays, defensive capability taking priority over mere comfort. She shivered at the dry, dusty chill, reminiscent of an invaded tomb, sensing a stench of betrayal and violent death pervading these corridors that even Carnell's glib assurances could not dispel.

"The Hephaestus asteroid belt is an ideal location to rebuild your power base. Close enough to Federation borders so defecting troops loyal to you can easily elude Samore's irregular patrols. Yet, the orbital eccentricities of the belt itself provide an extra layer of security. Only those individuals we are sure of will be given these coordinates. Once defensive shields are in place and we seed random proximity mines throughout the belt, this citadel will be impregnable."

Servalan's critical gaze rested on an ancient stain of some long-dead defender's vital fluids marring the smooth plascrete floor. "And I suppose this is just the result of sloppy housekeeping rather than a life or death struggle for control of this so-called `impregnable' stronghold." Her stare matched the chill surrounding them. "I don't appreciate stupidity, Carnell. If this base has vulnerabilities, I want to know about them."

Carnell took note of the shrill edge to her voice and replied with his usual glib assurance. "Don't you trust me, ma'am? After all the trouble I went to. . . ferreting out this abandoned base? And unearthing the alien teleport system that you used to discredit Blake on Byzantia."

The former Supreme Commander laughed bitterly, "The less said about the Byzantian debacle, the better. Unfortunately, your so-called teleport system is dependent on a rapidly deteriorating crystalline power source that we've been unable to recharge or replace." She gestured in disgust. "And this base is little more than a scoured, abandoned rock, honeycombed with tunnels. Why should I believe your assurances about its security?"

His smile was blandly enigmatic. "I rescued you from Samore's troops after that 'debacle.' Don't you trust me to act in your best interests?"

"A chessmaster like you, Carnell? Hardly. We're all just pieces on your board, aren't we?" She impaled him with that ruthless glare. "Just remember who is Queen in this particular gambit." Carnell gave an elaborate bow of acquiescence although both of them knew that the matter was not settled. Servalan was determined to take advantage of the chaotic aftermath of Star One to gain the Presidency and restore the Federation to its role of political ascendency. Carnell had always been a useful tool in furthering her ambitions, but troubling questions about his private agenda had surfaced recently. Was he truly working for her? Or did he consider her only a minor pawn in some larger struggle in the shifting balance of galactic domination?

She glanced around as black-clad troopers, singly and in groups, scurried past the two of them and down to the labyrinth of tunnels carved deep within the asteroid's nickel-iron core. As they cleared away ancient debris and reactivated solar energy panels, installed defense nets and placed surveillance cameras, they seemed like some great collective insect army -- ants burrowing tunnels or bees constructing a hive. All that power and energy, ceaselessly directed toward protecting and defending her, providing for her comfort, fulfilling her slightest whim. A Queen surrounded by her warriors, workers, and drones. She clasped that gratifying image to her tighter than the fur, allowing it to dispel her doubts, assuring herself without her will and ambition, their existence was meaningless.

Turning her attention to more mundane matters, she asked,"How many Federation troops have defected and joined us so far?"

"Nearly two hundred and fifty ships of the line and their complements," Carnell answered off-handedly. "Varying in size and firepower from two heavy cruisers to numerous pursuit ships, two-man fighters, transports, scout craft and a few odd planet hoppers."

"Almost a quarter of the surviving fleet." She smiled to herself. "A vast improvement over the two battered pursuit ships that remained when we fled Byzantia. That should be a more than adequate force to inconvenience Samore and his gutted corpse of Federation power."

"Direct assault is not the best way for you to regain political power, Servalan." Carnell's expression was remote and unreadable. "You need to be devious - use guile and cunning to sow discord among the newly forged alliances. Turn your enemies against each other so they forget about you."

Servalan regarded him coldly as they turned back from the chill, musty outer corridors, heading towards the operations center.

"And how do you propose that we do that, hiding out inside this pathetic floating rock?"

"As I said before, there are nearly two hundred and fifty ships of the line and their complements, hidden within this asteroid belt."

"And most of them are running low on supplies, fuel cores, and ammunition," Servalan retorted.

"Which are common cargos on trading vessels traveling through this sector of space."

"Enclave Trading Vessels," Servalan spat, "With Space Command pursuit ships providing security."

"Oh, I don't think that many Enclave ships will be willing to wait their turn for a Space Command escort. Most are too reckless and impatient. Others are mistrustful of Samore's assurances. There will be a sufficient number of easy targets for your raiders," Carnell shrugged.

" You seem to have forgotten that former Space Commander Travis is currently a Free Trader Captain. His knowledge and tactical expertise could endanger our plans, Carnell." She drew closer to the handsome puppeteer and rested one blood-red nail daggerlike against his smooth cheek, demanding in a low, seductive whisper, "You never did give me a satisfactory explanation about why you spared his life during that bloody mess on Byzantia."

Carnell's face remained unreadable, though his eyes seemed to burn right through her. Strange how she'd never noticed their piercing intensity before; how it resembled that of former Space Commander Travis. Especially during their meeting on Byzantia when Travis had resisted her efforts to seduce him. His stare had seared through the armor of her beauty and penetrated to the depths of her soul, contemptuous of the evil and corruption he'd uncovered there. Carnell was merely. . . amused.

An enigmatic smile curled the corner of his mouth. "As I told you before, ma'am, Travis can still be of use to us. He's a valuable tool."

She resisted the impulse to strike him. "I'm especially curious how you expect to use this tool, since he seems immune our most powerful conditioning drug. A drug that you reported using successfully during his prior retraining sessions."

Carnell shrugged "Drugs are a clumsy tool, Madam President. Though successful in the short term, longterm effects are often weakened by a subject's mood or physical state, or even other substances that he's ingested."

" In Travis's case, 'knowledge is power' and we have a data base on him going back almost twenty years. He's been tested, monitored, and psych-indexed since he was first conscripted. His basic psych profile is on file along with personality indices that describe his responses in any given situation. All of which makes him the most predictable piece in my strategy to assure your return to power."

"How can you be so certain that his actions still remain within your tested parameters?" she demanded in a hoarse whisper. "Everything about his current actions is totally at odds with his past behavior. None of our previous methods of controlling him seem to have any effect at all!" She glared at the psychostrategist, her golden eyes glittering like those of a cornered animal.

Carnell studied her tense, angry posture and the frustration it projected. Something about Travis's behavior on Byzantia had frightened her. . . badly. So much so, that she might decide to have him killed, rather than captured as Carnell intended.

He offered a diversionary thought to pique her curiosity. "Regarding our earlier discussion of my role as chessmaster, you might consider the knight, ma'am. His ability to change direction in midcourse makes him one of the most aggressive and versatile pieces on the board. Travis will react exactly as we expect -- he has no choice, no choice at all."

She studied him intently then turned on her heel and stalked away.

Hopefully his reassurances would satisfy her for the moment and prevent her from sabotaging his plans. His fellow puppeteers were depending on him to manage the situation in this corner of the galaxy. The Andromedan invasion had been a terrible setback to their plans for galactic domination. Their strategy was in disarray and their most powerful pieces scattered randomly across the board. Perfect circumstances for an ambitious man to take advantage of-and Carnell had always been ambitious.

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