"Hardly," Kumerian snorted. "The truth is not dangerous to the Empire. The problem is that it would confuse the civilians, maybe scare them, and all for nothing. We will win, and this whole thing will be a memory. It's your job to make sure that it's a good memory for the civilians. Noble warriors, defending their way of life, that sort of thing. The tribute from the Frax represents one or two percent of the Imperial budget. Without it, taxes would have to be raised. The more money the Empire takes out of the economy, the worse the condition of the civilians becomes. If the economy gets too bad, there could be revolts. The revolts would hardly have any chance of success, but they would take time and cost money."
"Ok, so I just need to focus my reports on the hard-working soldiers of the Empire, their courage and sacrifice, their values of honor and selfless obedience," the reporter said. "I can handle that, but just for myself, I want to know what is really going on out there."
"Oh, you do, do you?" Kumerian chided. "All right, I will explain it, but only briefly. To understand the full extent of it, you would need a degree in economics, not journalism, but I can paint the broad strokes and you can form the picture for yourself. You have shown a keen mind and could have earned a place in military intelligence, had you pursued that path."
Karisma smiled at that. Few had much respect for the hard work she had endured to earn a university education, but it had come as a shock that military officers also worked hard, and had earned university degrees equal to her own in difficulty while simultaneously qualifying for the demanding Warrior Caste. She had spent more time in the ship's gym in the last week than she had spent in her home gym in the previous year. But was she trying to survive, or fit in?
"Do you understand how things were before the Frax started this war?" Kumerian asked.
"I think so," Karisma said. "They were sort of part of the Empire, but not really."
"That's too simplistic. It works like this," Kumerian began. "The Frax exist as the independent Kaltic Freestate on the border between the Klingon Empire and the Kzinti Hegemony. They are not part of the Empire, but they are close to us economically, politically, and geographically. They live their lives, exploit their planets, run their economy, and try to make the best living they can for their civilians. The Klingon Empire could just conquer them, but finds it convenient to have the Frax as a buffer zone against the Tigermen. Klingon and Kzinti warships never have to fight because they are a thousand parsecs apart, a thousand parsecs that belong to the independent Frax.
"The Kzintis could conquer the Frax, except that doing so would mean war with the Klingon Empire. We want the Kzintis farther away, and we regard the Frax as within our zone of interest. Treaties we have with the Frax provide that the Klingon Empire will protect the Frax from any Kzinti invasion, which is why the Frax Navy doesn't have to be as big as it would have to be if they were defending themselves. In exchange for our protection, the Frax pay us a financial tribute, and give us trading privileges. Those same trade treaties restrict the trade between the Frax and the Kzintis - and the Kzintis don't like it."
"Do the Kzintis want to trade with the Frax?" Karisma asked. "Do they need to?"
"Trade is always beneficial," Kumerian answered, "and the Kzinti Hegemony would be better for expanded trade with the Frax, but what the Kzintis want more is to break the links between the Frax and the Klingon Empire."
"They want to liberate the Frax?" the reporter asked.
"No, to enslave them," Kumerian said. "Do you know how the Kzintis treat the species inside the Hegemony?"
"I cannot say I really knew there were any species inside the Hegemony," Karisma answered. "Wait, I think I remember something being mentioned about that in school."
Kumerian smiled. The Empire found no reason to give its civilians much of an education in such things. "There are many planets with indigenous species," Kumerian said, "dozens inside the Klingon Empire, maybe a dozen inside the Hegemony. The Kzintis do not allow those species off of their planets. They loot them with brutal taxes and demands for tribute."
"Whereas in the Klingon Empire," Karisma interrupted, with something she learned in her high school civics class, "indigenous species take their places among the stars alongside the Imperial Race."
"Correct," Kumerian smiled, and she smiled back. "Most of my crew is non-Klingon, as you know. All of them serve the Empire with the same loyalty and dedication as I do, myself."
"So what is going on with the Kzintis and the Frax?" she asked. "I don't understand."
"The Frax don't want to pay tribute to the Empire," Kumerian said. "If they kept the money for themselves, and could trade equally with the Empire and the Hegemony, they'd have more for themselves."
"I got that part," the reporter asked. "Where do the Kzintis come into the picture?"
"I will get there," Kumerian smiled. "The Frax have their own fleet, which isn't very big. They diverted some of their economy to increased military production, making their fleet bigger, but it's still not strong enough to resist the Empire. If they stopped paying tribute, their fleet would not be able to stop the Northern Fleet from just walking in and forcing them to pay."
"So, if their fleet isn't big enough, why did they stop paying tribute and start this war?" Karisma interrupted.
"As I said, I will get there," Kumerian scolded. "Unable to build enough ships to resist the Empire, they made a secret deal with the Kzintis. At least, I think they did. From what I have read of the intelligence reports, it's the only explanation, and a few inconclusive datapoints support that conclusion. The Kzintis provided materials, and maybe even manpower, to build more ships. The Frax fleet has tripled in the last two years. There is no way their economy or their shipyards could support such an expansion. They just cannot do it. Somebody did it for them, and that somebody could only be the Kzintis."
"The Frax do have a border with the Lyrans and the Federation," Karisma said. "Could they be involved?"
"Unlikely," Kumerian said. "The Lyrans are our allies and respect our control over the Frax. The Federation has no reason to provoke a war with us, and could not defend the Frax against the Kzintis, or against us, for that matter."
"So, the Kzintis helped the Frax build more ships," she noted. "Does that give the Frax enough ships to stop the Northern Fleet from forcing them to pay tribute?"
"Perhaps," Kumerian admitted, "but not against the combined might of the Northern Fleet and the Northern Reserve Fleet."
"So, we can just crush them?" Karisma asked. "Then why did they even try?"
"Well, I said they were insane to have tried," Kumerian said. "The Empire cannot afford to allow this to happen. For one thing, if we did allow it, the Kzintis would just move in and crush them instead, and we'd have the Tigermen on our doorsteps. That is just not going to happen."
"Then what is the point?" Karisma asked. "I just don't get this. Why start a fight they cannot win?"
"As I said, they just have to avoid losing for a short while," Kumerian answered.
"What would happen then?" the reporter asked.
"The Kzintis would intervene, and the Frax think they'd come as friends," Kumerian said. "The combined Kzinti and Frax fleets just might make a fight of it, if the Empire fails to show resolve."
"But the Empire would show resolve?" Karisma asked.
"Has, and will," Kumerian answered. "Which is why the entire Home Fleet, with the first division of the Imperial War Reserve, is right behind the Northern Reserve Fleet. We are going to send so many ships into Frax territory that the Kzintis will stand down and the Frax will surrender or be destroyed."
"No other possible outcome," Karisma said, a statement of fact rather than a question.
"No other possible outcome," Kumerian said. "The Empire wants this over with. We move in three entire fleets, the Frax surrender, we confiscate two-thirds of their ships, the Kzintis stand down and take the financial loss of their foolish gamble."
CAPTAIN'S QUARTERS, DESTRUCTION
Approaching Frax Space, Three Days Later
"What is it?" Kumerian growled into the intercom.
"Message from Northern Fleet," the technician replied. "It's a level three code. Do you want it sent to your terminal or shall I have the communications officer open it?"
"Tell him to go ahead," Kumerian said. Anything in a level three code was not that secret; the whole crew would know the contents before breakfast.
Holding down the mute button, he reached for her shoulder, reminding himself to be gentle. "You had better wake up," he said. "Karisma, wake up."
"What?" she asked, raising her head.
"I am receiving a message from Northern Fleet Headquarters. We are still twelve hours from contact with the Frax, so this is going to change things."
"How?" she asked, pushing herself erect.
"Either the war is over - or the fighting is going to start earlier than expected," he said. "Either way, we're getting up."
"Captain," came the voice on the intercom, "the Frax are not going to back down."
"Blast it," Kumerian sighed. "I had hoped they'd come to their senses. Is the text important?"
"Not very," the communications officer replied, "some attached intelligence files, some statements by the Frax commander, new deployment orders. We're not going to join the main fleet. We're going after a small Frax detachment that entered Klingon space. They seem to be going for the communications relay station at Lumbertok."
"What are they playing at?" Kumerian wondered aloud. "Lumbertok is five hours from here?"
"At cruising speed, yes. Three hours at high speed," the officer replied. He knew what would follow.
"Damn it all," Kumerian shook his head. "Tell the watch officer to go to high speed and head for Lumbertok. Wake everybody up, commend the cooks for their hard work, but I want a hot breakfast ready in 30 minutes. Tell the other ships to follow us. You did give them a heads up?"
"My apologies," the communications officer said, "but I did break protocol in that way, to the extent that I told them a level three message had been received. They could guess that a further message would follow. I shall report to security for punishment at once."
"Not necessary," Kumerian said. "You used your judgment, and you were right ... this time."