Clearly the most outstanding feature of the Senior Council’s conference room was the “East” wall. Covered entirely with viewer material, it provided a sharp real-time image of Mars spinning below them—except it wasn’t really Mars spinning. Cameras positioned around Phobos kept a constant surveillance of Mars as Phobos streaked around the red planet. Computers synced the images so from the conference room’s perspective Mars surface below would always be in view. But the Council’s newest ark was safely buried in the pocket of Stickney Crater.
The room was had been designed to accommodate eighty, but only Cam and Susan had been asked to attend. The chamber’s ceilings were high—almost four stories—and the elongated room looked like the inside a brown onyx egg. Last to arrive, Cam noted only Susan and the founding council members, Maggie and her crew, sitting down in front. He’d expected to see the full senior council. “Hi! I’m sorry I’m late… where is everyone?”
“It’s just us,” answered Mike. “Just a private briefing.” Cam noticed Mike’s voice a little subdued. Glancing around, he also saw everyone except Susan looked away, like they’d broken their mother’s favorite vase. Susan, he recognized, had picked up on the mood too. She held her chin up a little higher, her eyes intently studying everyone everyone around her—Cam too. Typical Susan! But her suspicious nature, he knew, inoculated her against surprise. Whatever this meeting was about, he now guessed it wasn’t ordinary.
Cam took a seat in the circular grouping. The council stations were deceptively opulent looking, especially given Council’s minimalist standards. But they were extremely functional. Seating and elevation could be instantly reconfigured to suit any meeting. Everyone’s attention was on Mike, waiting. Tracey uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. Alex scratched his nose. Mitch, Cam noted, was instead leaned back watching Cam and Susan, quiet curiosity written on his face.
Mike spoke without standing up, “We’re gathered here because today marks an important event. Some fellow travelers we worry about, will soon be entering harm’s way. Only the eight of us have known about them… We’ve kept it a secret because whatever happens with them could affect our whole mission.”
“How?” Cam frowned. “Who are they?” He glanced Susan’s way, but she was absorbed in listening, waiting for Mike’s answer.
“Twenty months ago,” Mike leaned forward, “there were three Klaadian ships—their standard protocol. But one ship departing before us had captives too—military. They weren’t cooperating fully with the Klaadians, and there was a threat they’d be discarded, blown out into space. So while there was still time to prevent it, Maggie was asked to convince them to cooperate.” He glanced over to Maggie.
Susan had been leaning slightly forward in her chair, but suddenly sat straight up, Cam guessed she’d already latched onto some conclusion. He still wasn’t quite sure, himself.
“But you gave them a little more than a speech,” Susan lifted her head with confidence, looking toward Maggie.
“Yes,” Maggie answered, “I’m afraid I did,” she paused a moment, “But I don’t know if I did them any favor.”
“We decided,” resumed Mike, “to reprogram their pods to open early, like ours. But not so early that the Klaadian ships were close enough to communicate. If either of us failed, we didn’t want either Klaadian crew to be able to warn the other ship.”
“But… twenty months?” Cam couldn’t accept it.
Mike understood Cam’s reluctance, “It wasn’t an easy decision, but we wanted to make sure earth would have as much time as possible to prepare. Delaying their break-out guaranteed we’d have at least four years. We figured we’d need at least that time.”
Cam and Susan fell silent for a long moment, then Cam spoke first, “You realize… that all we’ve done, all we still need to do—this could place the entire plan in jeopardy? It’s a hell of a thing to have left out when you first proposed it!”
“We know,” answered Mike. “But this wasn’t our original plan. And we had another idea, something we still hope for…”
Susan spoke up, her voice characteristically calm and clear, “I’d like to know what. I assume it’s your intent is to tell all now.”
“Yes,” said Mike. There was audible relief in his tone. And Cam suddenly realized Mike welcomed the chance to unburden himself of this secret. The others seemed relieved too, except Maggie, whose face still showed concern. “We believe we need to tell the full council, but you are our security advisors. So you needed to be told first.”
“You want us buy in,” stated Cam.
But Susan had her own thoughts. “And you’re worried the rest of the council won’t,” she smiled thinly. “You’ll have to tell us all – the other plan, whose military, what you’re hoping for. We’ll need to know everything if you want our help, and I think you do need our help.” She emphasized her last words, but her tone remained neutral, not threatening.
Maggie listened, but now took a deep breath and gave a long sigh of relief. She knew Susan had just decided to help, but Maggie had to ask, “Do you understand why we kept this a secret?”
“From the governments, yes,” Susan canted her head. “From the council, I’m not so sure, but I guess for the same reason.”
Maggie nodded, “We couldn’t risk confusing the issue, risking anyone would want to debate or delay the run-up.”
“Of course! And whose military?”
“The U.S.” answered Mike, “Army Rangers is all we know.”
Cam suddenly became excited, “On an Air Force flight? About the same time as your disappearance? Do you remember who you spoke to?”
Maggie was a little surprised, “Well, there was a major, and an Air Force Lieutenant Commander. I can’t remember the names just now, but I wrote them down.”
“Major John Cantor,” Cam pronounced carefully and with certainty, then seeing the surprise on Maggie’s face. “He was one of my students. And he was on the flight that went missing same time as you. I looked him up — looked them all up when I first heard the news. A good strategist, a good man. So they’re still alive. What did you tell him? What’re you hoping they’ll do?”
“Well,” Maggie replied, “we’re hoping they’ll take the other ship, hide, and stay alive. But what we’ve asked them is to find a way to disrupt and delay the Klaadians without tipping our hand.” She reflected a moment, “We couldn’t be sure what their chances would be, but couldn’t just let them be caged up either. We took the risk and gave them best chance we could.”
Susan sat still, her face blank, betraying no emotion. “You have my support.” She turned to look at Cam.
Cam paused, still stunned, looking across the table at Maggie for anything else. That was all of it, he realized, and thought again of John Cantor. He remembered him well—a dedicated, trustworthy, and capable warrior. He began nodding his head. His words came reluctantly, but sincerely. “This is a high risk. It could cost us two years. We need to re-think our preparation. But I can’t—won’t—second guess you. And it’s probably what John would have wanted, whatever the odds. So I’m okay. I’ll support it. Just a question… did you tell him how to incapacitate the Klaadian crew?”
Maggie frowned. She had wished she could’ve, but it might have jeopardized the plan if she’d tried. The Klaadians could have become suspicious. “It wasn’t possible. Our conversation was being transcribed, although we did hint how to access their ship’s computers. Their only advantages were surprise and their greater numbers. They should outnumber the awake crew by about nine to one.”
“If they’re not seen first…” Cam paused. “Still, you gave them good odds. I’m sure the best you could. And I have a lot of confidence in John.” Cam felt more hopeful. “If anyone can take that ship, he can, and I trust him to raise hell in the Klaadian backyard. So we hope for the best, and we expect the worst. We’ll need to accelerate everything we’re doing now, and maybe plan more for contingencies in case we fail. Not much choice.”
Maggie didn’t disagree. It made sense, and somewhere in the back of her mind she’d known all along. They’d all known their time might be shorter. Now it was just time to fess up—to the Council at least.
“We’ll need to expand our exploration. Regardless of how comfortable we might become on our defenses, we will need more than one viable exo-planet to hide ourselves and earth evacuees.” Susan added.
“Yes, that makes sense.” Maggie agreed. “And we have the tools. We can assign one to the scout survey ships, and maybe requisition some Keplars. It’s just the extra manpower we’ll have to worry about.”
“That’d suffice.” Susan nodded once. “We’ll find the manpower.”
Mike asked, “So we’re unanimous on this?”
“On this, yes.” Cam looked straight into Mike’s eyes, challenging him. “Are there any other surprises you haven’t told us?”
“No. This is it.”
“I’d say this was enough,” said Susan calmly. “It changes everything – strategies, construction schedules, and perhaps attitudes among key, critical personnel. There is a lot to do to avoid catastrophe, but on the upside—if Major Cantor is successful—we might be well ahead in our preparations. As you said,” she turned her head towards Cam, “hope for the best, expect the worst.”
“One more thing,” Maggie interjected, “we don’t tell earth—at least not until we have to. We can’t afford to have them speculate or back off their support.”
“Agreed,” said Cam. Susan just nodded.
“I have to say.” Maggie added, “we apologize for the surprise, but we would never have gotten this far if we’d admitted the possibility of another ship early on. Especially one that’d be seen as being under U.S. military control.”
“Enough said,” Cam spoke firmly, “we’ve got a lot more to do in a lot less time. Let’s get started.” The time for talk was over.