By GA Douglass all rights reserved
Published by GA Douglass
Copyright© 2015 by GA Douglass, all rights reserved.
Cover art by GA Douglass
Law’s Axis is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are, fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
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“Facts are ubiquitous; as is our ability to ignore, misinterpret, and rationalize them away so we can do what we want rather than what the fact points us towards.”
-The Collected Wisdom of Herself.
A voice cleared to submit a request, hesitated in consideration of the risks, and then finally demanded, “All information.”
In spite of instantaneous communications there was no immediate reply. Impatient fingers drummed on the desktop until he deliberately stopped the nervous action. He moved the fingers to close around the starship hull metal pin on his lapel depicting six stylized equines. His thumb distractedly stroked the pin’s polished surface which reminded him of his community and the protection that community provided him.
He was after all a professional making a professional request. Long years of study and training had taken him from his roots as the son of two garden workers in a spacer settlement to head of medical research at that settlement’s Primary Care and Research facility. In accordance with his education, position, and responsibilities he had every right to access the information he was requesting.
Finally the deconstructed, compiled, and reconstructed voice on the other end of the quantum communications network responded, “It was our understanding that your patients were responding to the treatments. If this is the case then there is no need for further information from our archives.”
It was strange to think of himself as having patients as that linked him to a medical profession that hadn’t really existed in thousands of years. Caring for the sick and injured was the domain of infinitely patient, precise, errorless, and inexhaustible machines. He was a researcher interested in the abstract and obscure aspects biology, and yet here in this instance he did have a responsibility to those effectively under his care.
Gesturing to the lobby beyond the crystal clear walls of his office the researcher implored, “Yes and my patients,” the word felt strange in his mouth, “are about to be discharged without benefit of a comprehensive baseline assessment. I need the data from all of the tissue tests that the University has conducted beyond Law’s End to formulate that baseline.”
His gesture to the lobby was a pointless bit of theater lost on his audience but noted by at least one of his colleagues who nodded sympathetically from their office across the lobby. Most of his colleagues were just arriving for their work day where he had been in his office for most of the settlement’s night cycle arguing with University officials and only gradually making his way up that chain of command to someone who could clear him to access the data.
Unsurprisingly the response he got was little changed from what he’d been dealing with all night as the University official replied, “If such data exists there is no record of it in my files.”
Of course the data might well not exist. It was impossible to say what was and was not within the University secure archives without actually accessing them. It was a small hurdle few University officials would undertake without dire and pressing need.
Exercising all the patience he could muster the researcher said, “I need you to check the University’s secure archives. If you can tell me that there’s nothing in there that’s fine.”
It was like talking to a wall made of bureaucracy so dense it had physically manifested itself. “Access to the University’s secure archives requires approval from no less than a University certified class nine mind.”
Seeing a glimmer of hope to advance the topic beyond the circular series of transfers and deferrals the researcher exclaimed, “Great! I’ve already got Professor Cameron’s approval, he’s the University’s leading class ten mind, am I right?”
Rather pointedly the University representative responded, “My records show Professor Cameron is on personal leave at the moment.”
They didn’t say no, but that’s what they meant. It was the political lesson that had been taught by Herself; never say no. There were many ways of not saying yes that were not as confrontational as saying no. The University took the lesson to heart and employed it at every level of their bureaucracy.
Determinedly optimistic the researcher explained, “Yes, that’s because he’s here. His daughter was on the expedition that got trapped beyond Law’s End. I have Professor Cameron standing by and can bring him into the conversation if you need his personal authorization.”
Cameron had said to call him day or night if his authorization was needed. The University certified class ten mind had smiled knowingly when he had said this. Obviously the man’s familiarity with the byzantine nature of University bureaucracy was virtually prescient.
Reluctantly the University bureaucrat replied, “I’ll have to set up a conference with the University secure archives committee. Perhaps in two weeks I could schedule something.”
Groaning internally as he once again launched into a vigorous call for action the researcher stared longingly past the PC&R lobby into the endless green valley that was the Mareville settlement. It was supposed to be his day off and somewhere near the settlement’s daylight simulating roof he knew some friends had gathered to strap wings on their arms and fly in the microgravity found there. He was supposed to be there with them, in pursuit of particular romantic interests, but instead was trapped in his office wrestling with University bureaucracy.
Built along the inside wall of the spherical Mareville settlement the Primary Care and Research structure was a true state of the art medical care center. Most people would never require the services of such a facility as the more mundane self contained automated medical pods were more than capable of dealing with mundane injuries and ailments. Only truly unusual cases, like that for the survivors of the Law’s End incident, necessitated a visit to such an extraordinary medical center.
Chapter 1: “Hero”
“The General is always outranked by the specific because generalizations are generally wrong.”
-The Collected Wisdom of Herself
As Kassad entered the Mareville Primary Care and Research facility he was still focused on how he would convince the Greenes to take alternate transport without tipping his hand. He’d agreed to the charter only to keep up appearances in the first place and it seemed to be one of those little white lies that had enough mass to become a black-hole of oblivion. This wouldn’t be the first time Kassad found himself undone by some flippant remark he’d made.
No matter his lack of preparation Kassad could no longer put off the meeting. An unnecessary attempt at personal oversight of Sabha’s refit had led to his being barred from the shipyards until the work’s completion by the job foreman. Even Canis’ steak which had taken nine hours to be custom grown in the settlement’s protein vats was now gone, and along with it had gone the last of Kassad’s excuses.
Immediately, as if sensing Kassad’s distress, a robot greeter trotted forward to express its concern. “Is there some sort of trouble Mister Mir? Have your symptoms re-expressed themselves? Are you experiencing complications with your treatment?”
As a generic medical design the machine was clearly intended to maximize ease of sanitization with an almost seamless exterior and few joints that almost invited modification. Here the locals had adapted the machine to suit local tastes. Even its limbs ended in stubs decorated with stylistic embellishments so that they would more closely resemble hooves. Such embellishment to a machine was easy enough to implement and required only the creative will to do so.
As one of the faces involved in the now famous “Rescue Beyond Law’s End” (soon to be a major multi-species formatted media presentation) it was no surprise that Kassad’s artificially sculpted Arabic features were instantly recognized. Fortunately he wasn’t as strongly connected to the popular perception of the events as Ursula Greene who was seen as the stylishly tall and fit wife who had risked her life to single handedly mount the expedition that rescued her husband. That the medical personnel in the PC&R and well beyond the Horsehead Nebula were obsessed with what these survivors could tell them about the medical implications of that mysterious region of space had done nothing to promote privacy.
In the crystal clear walled offices surrounding the entry hall the heads of local medical professionals turned their eager attention to the proceedings with barely contained enthusiasm so that Kassad felt the need to announce loudly, “No, I’m just visiting friends.”
Cheerfully switching gears without missing a beat the greeter announced, “Visiting hours run until seven. Please respect scheduled patient rest times.” While in the crystal clear walled offices surrounding the entry the heads of local medical professionals disappointedly went back to what they had been doing.
No one paid much attention to Canis. The dog had emerged virtually unscathed from Law’s End without even so much as a complaint. What medical interest there had been in the dog’s resilience had rapidly faded as being only worthy of interest to veterinarians.
For his part Canis ignored everyone and everything in order to remain focused on keeping pace with his person. Gone was the hyper-alertness and focus the dog had always previously displayed. Now Canis’ was lethargic and expressed a subdued contentment that spoke to having over eaten.
As the lift carried them up to the patient wards Kassad admonished the animal’s gluttony, “I told you not to eat the whole thing in one sitting.”
In response Canis merely licked lazily at the lingering meat oils on his muzzle.
Having communicated with his device the Hospital knew exactly where Kassad wanted to go. Through Kassad’s device it verbally directed him through the mazelike interior to the Greene’s suite. When Kassad arrived he’d had plenty of time to think about what he would say.
Leaning on the frame of the suite’s entry Kassad looked over the happy couple. Ursula sat in the chair next to her now awake husband’s bedside which had folded itself into something like a high backed couch. Her hand reached over to that of her husband their fingers caressed and intertwined, but the real connection was revealed in their eyes and the soft words they spoke to each other.
At a casual glance the room looked in every way exactly what the uninitiated would expect to see from media depictions; medical white and cream with splashes of pastel colors to offset the presence of ominous medical equipment. After no more than a moment’s study strange details unique to the Mareville settlement began to leap out. Here the back of a chair with an overly stylized back, there a subtle pattern woven into fabrics, and doubtlessly many small flourishes that would take a more trained eye to pick out. Locals considered these details to be both good luck and an important part of the settlement’s cultural heritage. Visitors from more civilized regions found the ubiquitous nature of the theme to be disconcerting even when they didn’t consciously recognize it.
Still not having any idea of how he would convince the Greenes to take alternate transportation Kassad bluntly stated, “You two look like you could use another week at least.”
A pleasantly surprised Ursula Greene, now wearing the loose fitting charcoal colored fabrics of a University professional instead of the skin tight pressure suit Kassad had grown accustomed to seeing her in, announced his arrival jovially saying, “Well, speak of the devil and he appears. We were just talking about you.”
At the sound of the familiar voice Canis seemed to focus then took a few steps into the room before lying down on the floor. After a moment he settled his chin onto the floor between his forelegs. As everyone looked on Canis’ tail slapped at the floor and he again licked at the trace meat oils on his face.
Concerned over the unusual behavior Ursula inquired, “What’s wrong with Canis?”
Poking the dog gently with one toe Kassad replied nonchalantly, “Oh him? He overate. Otherwise he’s fine.”
In spite of Canis’ demeanor he was by all accounts in top shape. What physiological and psychological tests that were available for his species had revealed no lingering effects. Even his black, white, and brown coat, that tended to put Kassad in mind of a uniform, had been groomed to an immaculate state.
Looking over the animal dozing on his floor Ursula’s husband, still dressed in the gleaming white PC&R patient gown, remarked dubiously, “So this is the heroic space cop dog I keep hearing about?” Then he abruptly changed topics with an almost contagious cheerfulness to inquire, “So Ursa tells me you’re some kind of smuggler.”
Almost laughing at the description Kassad conceded the point, “Well I don’t like to brag, as it’s bad for business, however I did once smuggle a giant space amoeba out of a quarantine zone.”
While Ursula gave Kassad a more than skeptical look her husband was intrigued and inquired, “Giant space amoeba? How big do amoebas get?”
Spreading the thumb and pinky on his left hand to their maximum extent Kassad explained, “They’re harmless enough, but very fragile. The life support unit took up most of the cargo bay, and it took almost an hour to reach orbit.”
As Canis’ eyes closed sleepily Ursula continued putting an arm around her husband, “I suppose I should introduce my husband Hank.”
It was an unusual enough of a name to Kassad’s ears to provoke him into inquiring, “Hank, is that short for something?”
Close cropped light brown hair and freshly shaved beard framed a face unrecognizable as one of the grime incrusted forms they’d rescued from beyond Law’s End as the perfectly ordinary Hank smiled amiably saying, “No, it’s just Hank. It’s a bit of a family name. I’m told it goes all the way back to old Terra.”
Ursula Greene’s husband wasn’t quite as strongly built as his wife. He had that wiry athletic build that suggested he practiced one of the fashionable lightning fast martial arts for the social interaction it afforded, and not out of less civilized practical concerns. Kassad guessed that the man had never even considered raising a hand with real violent intent.
From a casual glance at the couple one would never have guessed that Ursula was the one with a desk job unless careful notice was paid to the man’s hands. While only lightly calloused they were also covered with small scars of the sort one accumulated when they worked hands-on with machines. The blood-blister under Hank’s left thumb may have been a leftover from the man’s experiences beyond Law’s End but Kassad suspected it was more in place than out of it.
Misjudging the nature of Kassad’s appraising gaze Ursula was quick to add, “Although it has been known to skip a generation here and there.” And the couple shared a smile at the inside joke.
The impression Hank gave Kassad was as an amiable, thoughtful, and soft spoken person. More socially outgoing than his wife Hank had alert eyes that were quick to follow up eye contact with a friendly smile. He was almost the poster child for the gregarious extrovert technician that companies liked to identify with the customer service support for their products. He was someone accustomed through training and frequent application of his natural disposition to patiently working through complex technical problems efficiently and reassuringly.
Unable to mistake Kassad’s reluctance for shyness Ursula demanded, “Stop standing in the doorway like a stranger and have a seat.”
Deciding that the situation called for as much honesty as possible Kassad explained, “I don’t want to intrude. I was just stopping by to check on you and see if I couldn’t talk you out of chartering the Sabha. She’s not really a passenger ship.”
Casually Ursula dashed Kassad’s hopes for an easy termination of their agreement. “Not a chance. We intend to express our gratitude.”
With a firm but friendly nod Hank added, “You’re stuck with us.”
Holding up both hands palm out Kassad tried not to overplay his position. “If you’re worried about me you don’t have to be. This really isn’t necessary. I’ll be fine.”
Ursula Greene remained adamant, “Shut up and accept our gratitude.”
“Ursa!” Hank Greene exclaimed before catching on that the remark wasn’t intended with any real belligerence.
Embarrassed by the rebuke Ursula apologized, “I’m sorry. I’m still annoyed over my father leaving without saying anything.”
It was as if a piece of a greater puzzle had slipped into place and Kassad quirked an eyebrow in interest. “Your father was here? I would have liked to meet him myself.”
Raising one eyebrow at the comment Ursula replied, “I’m surprised you didn’t see him at the trial. He works for a company that works for the big pan-Laniakea corporations settling legal problems in local jurisdictions. So whoever funded the Law’s End research project has him on retainer through intermediaries,” her voice rife with matter of fact disappointment Ursula added, “or he wouldn’t have been here at all.”
For Kassad the thought of having to be versed and flexible enough in legal matters to function across the hundred thousand galaxies was an intriguing one. Internally he began to speculate on the possibility of a universal foundation for legal codes that might make such a profession practical. Doubtlessly there were algorithms that made such a system work, and their underpinnings were intriguing.
With a nod Hank added, “He’s the one who got us into the Law’s End project in the first place.”
With a frown Ursula bitterly concluded, “Which I should have known better than to accept. I can’t believe I let us get drawn into this whole mess. He’s been doing this to me my whole life and…” she looked down at her hands and shook her head, “I should have known better.”
Trying to put a more positive spin on things that could make the couple more amenable to his suggestions Kassad opined, “I think all parents mean well. They just have a lot of baggage their children are never aware of.”
While the bit of philosophy may have connected with the husband Ursula rejected it out of hand complaining, “Oh, I’m aware of his baggage. I spent my childhood running from one end of Laniakea to the other because of his baggage.”
Not wanting his wife to dwell on her past Hank quickly changed the subject saying, “What we’re trying to say is thank you. Even if you don’t want to admit it you are a hero, and someone should recognize that even if it is just us.”
Instinctively Kassad tried to downplay his importance. “It was a job. All jobs are dangerous out here.” A small belch from the floor drew Kassad’s attention. “If anyone is a hero here it’s Canis. I don’t know how he managed to hit the throttle, however none of us would have made it out without him, and he’s currently digesting his reward.”
Lying sleepily contented on the suite’s floor a protein saturated Canis licked at the memory of steak oils on his muzzle for what Kassad thought surely must have been the hundredth time.
Pulling free from her past regrets Ursula commented, “It’s just a happy coincidence that we’ll be released in time to make it aboard the newly refurbished Sabha.”
Outwardly Kassad smiled amiably, but inwardly Kassad groaned. It was a bit of timing that could have been a lot better in his mind. Repairs of the ship coinciding with repairs on the Law’s End survivors provided few excuses to decline their request of a charter. Certainly refusing would have raised too many flags with the local authorities and the thought of pushing his luck with Captain Connelly, well… Kassad had been thrown out of University for inappropriate activities, not suicidal ones.
Pitching his proposal again Kassad explained, “It’s just the exterior that is being resurfaced. The insides are still the same for the most part. You won’t be harming me if you wait here a week for that liner to come in. You’ll be a lot more comfortable, and I understand the rest of the research team has already booked passage on it.”
A bit too self consciously Hank declared, “Over the past year I’ve seen enough of those faces to last me for the rest of my life.” As if realizing how insincere he sounded Hank quickly added, “Anyway they’re all heading back to their desk jobs and family, while I still don’t have a contract and my family is here with…” Hank’s explanation was cut off by the arrival of local technicians who pushed with wordless insistence past Kassad hauling a hologram projector on a low trolley.
Like most of the local professionals they wore understated lightly colored coveralls adorned only with the shoulder patch representing the settlement. The circular patch was embroidered with six stylized horses over an equally stylized representation of the settlement itself. More symbolic than practical the coveralls were of the sort capable of encasing their wearer in the event of pressure loss, but the symbol on the patch was ubiquitous for all locals, although often replaced by a smaller pin.
From his prior experience in Mareville Kassad knew each of the animals on the patch represented one of the Mobile Automated Resource Extractors central to the settlement’s founding. Over the many years following the settlement’s founding an impenetrably deep background of lore and mythology had been developed for each. Knowledge of this lore was not a legal prerequisite to becoming a resident, but locals looked down on those who lacked basic knowledge of it just as they admired those who had mastered the more obscure elements of it.
Without comment, or even acknowledgement of the room’s occupants, the technicians completed their work and departed. Behind them they left a holographic projector extended to the boundaries of the room between Kassad and the Greenes. Before Kassad could comment the symbol for ‘standby’ appeared hovering in the air above the projector.
Realizing what this meant Kassad excused himself saying, “I should probably come back later.”
In stern refusal of his excuse Ursula commanded, “No. Sit. Stay.” It was all she could manage as she and her husband followed the focusing commands of the machine intent upon its proper alignment.
As if in response to Ursula’s command Canis rolled over onto his side where he lay in front of the projector, kicking one foot kicked absently at the air for a moment before settling down again.
Chapter 2: “Inquisition”
“History is always made by common, ordinary people. There is no other kind.”
-The Collected Wisdom of Herself
With Ursula’s insistence, and since Canis clearly wasn’t going anywhere, Kassad quickly formulated a strategy to deal with the impending broadcast. He pulled one of the room’s other horseshoe backed chairs over into the far corner. From here he hoped to be out of range of the projector’s visual pick-ups so as to be excluded as much as possible from the conversation.
In a more friendly tone than his wife’s Hank insisted, “This won’t take long.”
A short countdown appeared and was immediately followed by the University representatives flickering into life. There were five of them seated boy-girl-boy-girl-boy behind a low table that was projected high enough that everyone in the room had to look up to make eye contact. To Kassad’s eye they looked no less arrogantly self-assured now then when they had passed judgment on him all those years ago.
From behind the figures were semi-translucent but even their more solid front was no more than a low resolution projection. Given the relatively slow data transmission rates over the quantum communications network most of what was seen came preloaded with motion and sound largely generated by software on the receiving end. In spite of this it was a clear display of authority that they consumed enough bandwidth to put on this show rather than settle for the more practical and common audio to text to audio translated transmission.
There was nothing in the presentation to make it clear where The University authorities were transmitting from. It wasn’t even possible to tell if they were on the same world as each other, but the projection did its best to present them as being in the same room and at the same table. In spite of the software’s efforts the ends of that projected table were cut off by the walls of the PC&R patient suite along with elbows of those seated there.
In preamble the center figure spoke. “This interview is for the purposes of establishing the facts in relation to the ongoing investigation of the incident at Law’s End and the illicit research program undertaken there. While this is not a court of law, and your compliance in answering these questions is not compulsory, your assistance will predispose the University towards you, and resistance will predispose the University against you.” It was a standard introduction with subtle threat that University proceedings usually began with some variant of.
It was no small threat to have the University predisposed against a person. Such a disposition could make it difficult for an individual to be approved for insurance, and if a person couldn’t be insured they couldn’t be employed. It hadn’t always been a sentence of exile from civilized worlds, but as the influence of the University had grown it had effectively become that.
The obvious threat was not lost on either of the Greenes and Hank responded with forced calm and the rote required response, “I’m happy to assist the University in this investigation.” Certainly it was understood that while this wasn’t a trial its official record would be considered evidence in most civilized courts.
Dressed in University grey the nondescript woman seated to the central figure’s immediate left the spoke, “We understand that you had no idea the research project was not a University approved program, is this correct?”
Hank Greene was still in his PC&R bed where the facility’s monitoring equipment could keep an eye on his recovery. The few excursions from the room allowed thus far had involved trips to physical therapy sessions to further assess his condition. Even though he was scheduled to be released in a few hours, and this interview had been approved, bed-rest remained mandated.
For a moment Hank was conflicted as to how best to respond but Ursula was sitting in a chair at the bedside and gave her husband’s hand a squeeze of support that helped him find words. “No, it is my testimony that the Law’s End project was University sanctioned. I verified that all the legal documentation was in order before accepting the job. I can’t speak to how this deception was perpetrated, but the authorization was legitimate.”
Ursula nodded in affirmation of the statement and gave her husband’s hand another squeeze. She’d been sitting in the room for the majority of the past few days, although it had felt like weeks. It would have taken more than insistence from a University investigative panel to tear her away from his side.
Technically the interview about events concerning what was becoming known as the ‘Law’s End incident’ was supposed to be a matter of public record. In keeping with the University’s policies the information was being considered private simply because it was conveniently taking place in a PC&R recovery suite. This convenience had been enough to keep media out, but not his wife or even Kassad who sat so far off in his chosen corner that only the boots on the ends of his stretched out legs peaked into the transmission field.
From the far right of the table Mister Missing-Right-Elbow spoke. “On the surface it seems your actions are in keeping with University standards, however if this situation had been standard then there would be no need for this investigation, and in that context we have to ask about your knowledge concerning the shift of the Law’s End barrier and the destruction of the research platform.”
Rolling his eyes at the predictable form of University questioning Kassad threaded his fingers across his lap as he leaned back in the chair he occupied. He’d only dropped by to wish the couple well and casually talk them out of the charter flight he’d previously and very publically agreed to. He knew that remaining would test his less than spectacular self restraint when it came to University arrogance.
As the junior most member of the research team Hank was confident that they didn’t really expect him to know anything with certainty and answered directly saying, “I was not involved in any events with respect to any activities which could be responsible for the shift in the Law’s End barrier. It was commonly believed at the time that the event was either natural or the result of actions by the Lawless.”
There was enough evidence to support the belief that peoples lived in the other-physical law governed parts of the Cosmos, but that was about all that was known. Attributing motivations or agendas to the people beyond Law’s End was a popular trope in mass media entertainment productions that had very little basis in scientific fact. In spite of the lack of evidence the belief persisted that those known only as the Lawless were the ones responsible for bottling up Laniakea within the Law’s End barrier.
Reasserting himself the central figure at the table inquired, “And what do you know about the destruction of the research platform?”
Again Hank could answer directly and without having to fear the answer reflecting poorly on him. “We were told that its destruction was to keep information out of the hands of the Lawless.” As irritated as he may have been about University abandonment of the research team Hank had to keep reminding himself not to risk the institution’s ire.
Misses Generic-University-Woman-Left demanded, “And what about the Lawship Armhamon? Why did the research team fail to yield to their demands?”
Of course Hank had little knowledge of any aspect of the program outside of his primary duties which were maintaining and preparing equipment, and certainly did not involve making operational decisions. “I have no knowledge of any Lawship involvement or intervention with the project. The first I heard about the Armhamon was when I was questioned by her crew after I woke up here in the PC&R.” The exchange of looks by the University representatives made it clear they both found this an acceptable answer and that it confirmed Hank’s lack of value in aid to their investigation.
Any further questions were halted by the raised hand from the central figure who then spoke to say, “The Committee has one final question for you Mister Greene, if you knew then what you know now, would you still have taken this job?”
Quoting the University’s motto Hank Greene answered, “Knowledge changes everything.” Then he added, “Although how that would have changed my actions I can only speculate on. Certainly any excuse to avoid working in space also serves as a persuasive argument against it.” Closing with that bit of commonly accepted wisdom was a clear affirmation that Hank wouldn’t cause trouble.
Again Misses Generic-University-Woman-Left interjected herself, “The Committee is grateful for your assistance in shedding light on these events, and we wish you a speedy recovery, however we also note that Kassad Mir is present and it would be remiss of us to not warn you against further entanglements with this individual.” Kassad rolled his eyes at the statement.
Anger flashed across Hank’s face and he let loose with threadbare restraint, “I understand your concerns, however he did risk his life to save mine while you were busy trying to murder me.” The comment left the dignified University representatives aghast.
It was a comment that caused Kassad to smile in spite of his desire to pretend the proceedings weren’t happening in front of him. In part he smiled at the recognition of his heroics which he could not deny felt good in spite of whatever protests he made for the sake of modesty. More than that Kassad was unabashedly delighted to watch the University elite squirm in the face of the bold accusation.
With the pin on her blazer denoting her as a legal representative Misses Generic-University-Woman-Right firmly rebuffed the accusation, “That is a gross over simplification Mister Greene.”
Knowing that the law was on his side should he take the issue to court but not knowing how far University influence might bend those laws Hank rebutted, “Not really. I was alive and then you intervened in such a way that had you been successful I would not have been alive. Now I may not be some great mind of the University but it seems to me like that is the sort of thing called ‘attempted murder’, or ‘attempted mass murder’ if you count everyone else. Even setting all that aside I’m more than a little irate that my wife had to risk her own life and hire a pirate to come rescue me.”
With a sharp bark at the offending word Canis rolled over onto his back with his legs kicking up into the air. The dog’s sound and movement drew the attention of the University representatives who were shocked to varying degrees by the revelation of the animal’s presence. At the various reactions Kassad had to cover his mouth with one hand to avoid laughing out loud.
Misses Generic-University-Woman-Left could be heard quietly asking Mister Missing-Left-Elbow, “Is that a pony?” and the question was met with a befuddled shrug from her colleague and even more laughing from Kassad who found himself having increasing difficulty remaining seated.
Attempting to restore decorum to the proceedings the central figure explained, “Our most reliable information said that you would be long dead before we could organize a rescue.”
Hank wasn’t impressed by the excuse. “That’s strange because once the research team was cut off my wife became the leading expert on Law’s End, and she certainly wasn’t telling you that. I’m more than a little curious who you decided to consult instead of listening to her?”
With most of the University elite still distracted by the animal on the floor before them, and rather than respond, the University simply cut the link. Doubtless they had little time to waste with an investigation interview of the most junior member of the research team. Savorne and the other researchers would receive the bulk of the University’s attention and not some general technician with an attitude.
His frustration unappeased Hank Greene hurled one word at the now empty air. “Jerks.”
Ursula leaned in to her husband his hostile demeanor melted under the embrace as she said, “Let it go. We can sort all that out later.” Her optimism that the system of civilization would right itself remained unflappable.
Quickly recomposing himself Kassad jumped at the opportunity to distance the Greenes from himself saying, “I certainly don’t want you to get into any more trouble than you already are. I know how intractable The University can get when it wants to make a point, and how easy it is to get caught up in those wheels. Perhaps you should reconsider taking that liner?”
Equally insistent on not taking the liner Hank replied, “Chartering you to take us on vacation is the least we can do to repay your heroism.”
Unable to restrain his grin at hearing the word spoken in reference to himself Kassad spread his hands in a faux-humble protest, “I’m no hero. I leave that title for your wife…” Kassad trailed off as the inverted dog’s tail wagged lazily, “and Canis of course.”
A small woof of approval escaped the canine on the floor.
With her mind made up Ursula Greene was insistent, “Well in that case we’re doing it for Canis. So stop complaining. It’s a short trip anyway.”
Chapter 3: “Running on Empty”
“As a matter of commercial reality an empty cargo hold represents a lost opportunity. Everywhere a trader goes there will be someone who wants something. Because people generally expect to receive something in exchange for something it is considered good business practice for the ship’s hold to actually contain something to trade in kind. With a little imagination, and persuasion, what the locals want will coincidentally happen to be what’s in the trader’s hold.”
-Fundamentals of Independent Merchant Operations
Appearing in finely detailed resolution in spite of intense magnification the Mareville airlock was displayed on the bridge of the Armhamon. The command room for the big warship, with its no-nonsense arrangement of grey consoles and bare deck metal surfaces, was strangely triangular so that from its wide rear bulkhead the room narrowed to a point. Bridge stations were situated forward and to the side of the central commanding officer’s chair within the wedge shaped compartment.
Because of its peculiar geometry the Armhamon’s main display was formed from two large panels converging at an angle. In order to remove the angular distortion on the displays the images were skewed to present an artificially unified picture. As a result no one who wasn’t sitting in the commanding officer’s chair could readily make out anything on the screen with any clarity.
At present everyone knew that the image on the Armhamon’s main display was the same as that on every other monitor; the Mareville airlock. From the presentation it appeared as if they were no more than a hundred meters distant instead of the kilometers that separated them. It was a view that had watched the passage of many vessels to and from the settlement as they lay in wait for their quarry.
There was a sense of quiet determination on the bridge of the Armhamon. Faces would occasionally look up from consoles to glance around and verify the reality surrounding them remained unchanged. Everyone expected something to happen, for new orders to come, but they didn’t come. Crew avoided conversations because there was only one topic everyone was thinking of and no one wanted to be the one responsible for broaching it.
Replying to the voice only communication coming from one of the swing arm mounted displays on her command chair Andrews said, “Possibly two weeks, maybe more. I’ll send updates as the situation warrants.”
While on detached duty the Armhamon answered to a political appointee, slick and well versed in the avoidance of responsibility, who coolly replied, “Of course the reputation of the Armhamon is more than ample to keep our space pacified for a time, but eventually our needs will have to take precedent.” Precedent over what he didn’t say.
As if bored by the demand Captain Andrews coldly stated, “University interests are the interests of us all.”
It was a dance that the parties knew very well and the rote response from the political appointee came back, “Of course. Do what you must to uphold the Code of Law.” It was unclear who terminated the quantum network communication first, but Andrews assumed it was her.
With a sternness that was carefully crafted so that it could easily be mistaken for anger Captain Andrews barked, “Deck Officer.”
Pulling himself away from the concerns of the ship’s maintenance staff with a few final words of encouragement the ship’s second-in-command known as the Deck Officer answered his captain’s call crisply with a, “Aye Captain.”
Considering the unmoving image on the screen in front of her quietly now that she had the Deck Officer’s attention Captain Andrews eventually announced, “The target vessel has had long enough to make repairs assuming a minimum amount of local competence in such matters. As such I want this ship focused like a laser on the settlement’s docking entrance.”
Everything possible had already been done as a quick glance around the bridge revealed, but if his captain wanted a summary of their efforts then the Deck Officer was prepared to provide it. “Yes Captain. The port authority’s schedule has the Sabha’s departure time listed,” before he could conclude by detailing the precautions they were taking Andrew’s cut him off.
“Don’t assume those schedules haven’t been falsified.” Andrew’s growled. “You will keep the Sabha’s particulars cycling through the sensor systems to look for any match. Anything remotely close must be subjected to intense scrutiny. I don’t want to lose my target to an altered IFF beacon, modified drive signature, fudged departure schedules, or an attempt to slip out inside the cargo hold of a larger vessel. “
Professionally the Deck Officer replied, “Of course Captain. All precautions are being taken.”
Not convinced Andrew’s continued, “Be diplomatic, but don’t let any vessel capable of hiding that ship in their hold through without a close range active scan.”
Having already taken that possibility into consideration the Deck Officer announced, “We’ve already identified two large freight hauling candidates in the departure schedule Captain.”
Ignoring the proficiency Captain Andrews snapped, “Be quick. The last thing we need is the locals filing complaints against harassment of legitimate business which could bring our credentials up for review.”
All of these concerns had been previously addressed and the captain had been present when the Deck Officer had been dealing with them. Either she hadn’t been paying attention or wanted him to think she hadn’t. There was no reading the captain’s mind and ultimately it didn’t matter.
As if the orders were something he’d never have been able to consider on his own the Deck Officer answered, “No Captain. We’ll be very efficient. There’ll be no room for grievances.”
There was not a hint of confidence in her crew as Andrews leaned forward in her command chair and proclaimed, “Once I have that ship I am confident that even if you can’t find anything wrong during the inspection I will find cause to seize the vessel. Remember Deck Officer that when properly applied the Code of Law is a bludgeon that can break even the most honest of spacefarers.” Everyone aboard the Armhamon knew that Captain Andrews was an expert in wielding the Code of Law to achieve her ends. “I want an order to stand down to be delivered immediately and repeatedly in full view of the local traffic control so it is part of their official record. Either this Kassad will allow his vessel to be boarded or, even better, attempt to flee allowing the Armhamon to turn her weapons on them. Either way the Sabha is within my grasp, and Captain Kassad will be at my mercy. There will be no escape for the smuggler this time.”
As the Deck Officer acknowledged the order Captain Andrews departed without further comment, but then no one expected Captain Andrews to be on the bridge of the Armhamon for any of this. Aboard the Armhamon the first rule of command was providing a buffer between the decision maker and the consequences of those decisions. Responsibility to carry out Andrews’ orders had been delegated to the crew under her, and they knew well the consequences of failure.
For the hundredth time since beginning their vigil the Officer of the Deck checked the Mareville navigational authority’s departure schedule. Most of the departures and arrivals were mining crews going to and from their claims in the nebulae as self sufficiency was a priority of most such settlements. Gradually the Sabha’s listed departure time crept towards the top of the listing, and nothing could be left to chance.
But then it wouldn’t be the first time Kassad had evaded a Lawship.
As far as Kassad was concerned the Armhamon was a fairly minor concern. Once he had determined how he was going to deal with the Lawship he had a myriad of more present problems to occupy his attention. If Kassad couldn’t get the Sabha operational then Armhamon would have no one to pursue.
Originally designed to be operated by a crew of a dozen the Sabha’s military specification automation was capable of completing its missions even if the entire crew were killed. While this sophisticated automation allowed Kassad to crew the ship alone it also meant that even the most minor decision making and administrative tasks fell on his shoulders. It was one thing to let a machine plot and fly a course, but few in Laniakea would accept a purchase order from one, and few ship captains would take the machine’s word on operating condition without inspecting for them self.
Complexities of ship maintenance along with the desire for companionship did much to keep the number of single person operations down to those who most valued the advantages it offered. Being a lone man operation allowed Kassad to shoulder complete responsibility and bear all consequences himself, and that was the way he liked it. Small matters of concern to Kassad were the extra burden of inspections and maintenance he shouldered himself if it meant he was untethered.
On this trip, and despite his best efforts, Kassad would not be alone. Having the Greenes along meant that they would be sharing certain risks. Of course there were plenty of risks involved in space travel, but those were well known. The risks of this particular trip were something Kassad had to keep to himself and that deception bothered him greatly.
There was also a second reason why Kassad didn’t want the Greenes around more than was absolutely necessary. Ursula’s husband was the sort of person Kassad would have gone out of his way to mock and belittle when he was younger and supremely confident in his superiority. Now every time Kassad looked at the man there was a sense of embarrassment and guilt over events distant in time and space.
Although the search for identity was universal few ever became as completely comfortable in their chosen role. Honest to the point of gullibility, earnest to the point of being easily taken advantage of, and hard working Hank Greene. Hank was the opposite of everything the young Kassad Mir had aspired to be.
As a youth Kassad had been trained and conditioned to focus on the development of his mind to the exclusion of everything else. Skeptical to the point of being off-handedly dismissive, dispassionate to the point of being callous, and an introvert who assumed all problems could be overcome through thought coupled with the work of others. Only after his experiences at university did Kassad grow to appreciate, and even envy, this backbone of modern technological civilization that Hank Greene represented.
There was only one course of action left open to Kassad and that was to abandon his charter at the null gravity docks along the Mareville settlement’s axis. Sabha had been delivered and as soon as Kassad signed off his approval on the work he had arranged to make a quick escape. Unfortunately there was nothing quick about inspecting a complete hull resurfacing of a starship, and now he was compelled by common sense to tromp all over the Sabha’s hull with his boot’s magnetics turned on.
In media representations magnetic boots provided individual artificial gravity, but in reality they were no more than an anchor point and Kassad hated to use them. They didn’t so much stick a person to a surface so much as they stuck a person’s feet to the surface while the rest of the body remained free floating. The potential to wrench an ankle or strain a tibial or extensor was a minimal concern next to the constant stress of prolonged use of lower leg muscles to maintain the body’s orientation.
Kassad was passing the clipboard bearing his marks of approval back to the shipyard’s administrative robot when the cart conveying the Greene’s arrived. Ursula was wearing the newer of her spacer style vacuum suits while Hank wore a less practical variation of the blue over khaki that was the universal uniform for technical professions. Ursula stretched to adjust the fit of her traveling clothing while Hank argued with the cuffs of his trouser legs that seemed determined to visit his knees.
As the little monorail cart pulled up it extended guide-rails towards the open loading doors of the Sabha to make it easier for passengers to traverse the gap. It was a mark of the settlement’s cosmopolitan nature that such an allowance was made for non-spacers. No true spacer, or anyone hoping to pass for one, would ever have made use of such railings.
Kassad was still thinking of a way to delay their boarding so he could make his escape when the Sabha’s cargo robot trundled out to handle the couple’s luggage. Doubtlessly the robot had been summoned by the dock handling software routines. It wasn’t uncommon for people to injure themselves in low gravity by attempting acts common to them in more familiar conditions. So to forestall any attempts by those inexperienced in microgravity to attempt cargo handling a machine was called to perform the task.
Abandoning his charter was one thing that Kassad could rationalize with his conscience as they could easily arrange for alternate transportation. Stealing their luggage was an unacceptable step too far for his pirate sensibilities. With this and the port’s involvement Kassad felt that his hands were tied for good.
At this point any attempt to abort the Sabha’s departure process would send a flag to the Mareville port traffic authority. With the Armhamon doubtlessly still loitering nearby to harass the Sabha upon departure they’d equally undoubtedly be instantly aware of any such changes. The last thing Kassad wanted was to give anyone any indication that something was afoot.
Smiling amiably Kassad greeted the couple and welcomed them aboard while thinking, ‘Well, it is just a simple courier run. How bad could this be?’ Of course the answer to that was entirely a matter of how hard the Armhamon would make it for them.
Once aboard Hank was openly fascinated by the layout of the vessel. Belly-landers like the Sabha were fairly rare in the age of reactionless drives, and so wall-floors and the like had become a novelty. In the weightless environment every surface of Sabha held possibilities that could only be guessed at by the uninitiated.
Chapter 4: “Casual Escape”
“To be honest there’s no good way of breaking a blockade.”
-Excerpt from testimony at the trial of Captain Allison Graves, convicted pirate
Triple checking systems for the third time Kassad waited for the Mareville airlock to cycle and reconsidered the more preferable of his already expired options. The idea of shipping out as a passenger and Sabha shipped out as cargo at a later date had been the most appealing one. This like so many of the more appealing schemes was rendered impractical by the nature of the valuable cargo he’d agreed to transport. Data cards were incredibly dense volumes of information, not the sort of thing that people walked around with, so that the item’s very presence would have immediately raised suspicions.
Having already thwarted the altered physics beyond Law’s End thwarting a pursuing Lawship should have been anti-climactic. As a sometime smuggler Kassad knew that remaining inconspicuous was the key to success, but here and now that option was gone. Fame was a liability that would likely put him out of business more surely than the determination of any Lawship captain; however before he could consider hanging up his captain’s hat there was this one last job to complete.
There were two last runs if Kassad included the simple passenger charter for Ursula and Hank Greene. Failed efforts to disentangle himself from his innocent passengers had left him in the uncomfortable position of serving two masters. The goals of Cameron and the Greenes were likely to be at odds with each other unless Kassad were able to manage them with finesse. Critical to this was making certain that the Greenes never suspected that they were a secondary objective in this journey.
As the Sabha waited and Kassad worried the Greenes were making themselves comfortable in the Sabha’s brightly adorned lounge area. The novelty of free-fall hadn’t worn off for Hank Greene who was torn between juggling his device and watching the passenger safety instruction video playing out on its display. Ursula Greene fidgeted in the acceleration couch next to her husband.
It wasn’t just the free fall that Hank was enjoying but the interior design as well. Every transport he had ever been in up to this point had minimal decoration so that the eyes of passengers would be drawn to the only color to break from a sea of beige and cream. Inevitably all color was reserved for the pictographic emergency instructions reassuring the passengers that no matter what happened there was a plan in place.
It also helped distract Hank that the Sabha was a belly-lander with separate orientations for landing and being in flight that gave every surface of the living space a dual purpose. Most of the alternate surface uses were obvious but some, like hand and foot holds, took a bit more thought for Hank to puzzle out. Not quite a fun-house level distracting peculiarity, but certainly the Sabha was a vessel from another age.
Hank wasn’t so distracted that he missed the hints of his wife’s body language and so with an amused smile Hank stopped his experiment in perpetual motion and leaned into Ursula. “You sighed?”
Honestly uncertain Ursula replied, “Did I?” Her husband nodded knowingly prompting her to respond, “I guess I became accustomed to sitting in the cockpit.”
With a small smile Hank encouraged, “We’ve got another minute at least for the airlock to cycle. Go ahead. I’ll be fine.” And he playfully spun the device between his hands again to emphasize the point.
Unbuckling Ursula leaned back against her husband to plant a firm kiss on his face saying, “You’re the best.” before unbuckling to propel herself towards the Sabha’s cockpit with a kick from her powerful legs.
A fully meal recovered Canis barked a greeting from his acceleration bed as Ursula entered the Sabha’s cockpit.
Pulling herself into the copilot seat Ursula asked, “Mind if I join you?”
The response was an automatic and distracted, “Not at all.” A second later, glancing over at the intruder, Kassad smiled. “I take it you missed the front row seats?” Turning back to his console indicators Kassad jokingly warned, “You’d best take care or you might find yourself addicted to the lifestyle.”
With a self deprecating smirk Ursula admitted, “I never used to think about this sort of thing. It was always something that other people dealt with so I wouldn’t be bothered. A year ago I’d be finding things to keep myself productive… if I couldn’t find a way out of taking such a trip.”
With the last buckle snapped into place Ursula looked up and was awestruck by the sight. Beyond the Sabha the wraparound rendered the airlock interior in glorious detail and color. A sea of brightly color coded desk sized blocks surrounded the Sabha in evenly spaced rows, and beyond this surreal cubist dream the walls of the massive airlock interior arced around them gleaming brightly in coppers and chrome.
Above Sabha, and so close that they could have held a conversation, a material handling spacer clad in bulky industrial vacuum suit sat in an open seated barge. Trailing off behind the barge was a line of cubes marked as holding compressed gas in a train stretching off out of their line of sight. The bargeman waved to the Sabha and, for a moment forgetting that the view was just an artificial construct and not an actual window, Ursula reflexively began to wave back.
Finding it odd that there weren’t any other star-craft in the airlock Ursula inquired, “Is there always this much…” at a loss for a word to adequately describe the scene Ursula eventually shrugged in surrender, “‘stuff’ transiting through the airlock?”
Looking around in an over exaggerated way as if noticing the sea of boxes for the first time Kassad remarked innocently, “That is odd.” Making an exaggerated show of checking the navigational traffic control directions he concluded, “We’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.”
Her suspicions raised Ursula glared at Kassad accusingly.
While the Armhamon’s sensor crew watched for the target to emerge her Deck Officer kept a keen eye on the settlement’s docking and departure schedules. It was a wary and experienced eye on the lookout for any tricks.
As the airlock cycled open they knew to expect the Sabha but instead there was only an open frame bulk freighter. Another check of the Mareville navigation track confirmed the Sabha clearing the airlock. The two sets of data did not line up.
With the captain off the bridge the Deck Officer and sensor operator exchanged confused and alarmed looks until finally the Deck Officer shouted, “They can’t be invisible. Find them.”
Mareville’s airlock was located at one end of the sphere’s axis. At the other end of Mareville’s axis was located a secondary airlock in keeping with spacer preference for everything to have a backup. Ship traffic was routinely routed through the main airlock while the secondary saw a steady flow of raw and processed matter from the nebula routed through it. It didn’t take long for the crew of the Armhamon to guess that their quarry had exited on the opposite side of the sphere.
With the mass of the settlement between them the Sabha wouldn’t be able to receive the hails of the Armhamon. If the smaller ship couldn’t receive the hails they would not be legally required to heed them. Obviously Kassad’s escape plan was hinged on maintaining that separation.
With a barely stifled curse the Deck Officer slammed his palm down on the emergency maneuvers alarm and shouted, “Navigation, bring us about ninety degrees to port and maximum acceleration.” They pushed their reactionless drives hard to clear the mass of the settlement.
It had taken a personal request from Kassad to the Mareville traffic control supervisor to get the Sabha authorized departure access through the secondary airlock. Keeping that minor change off the record was a relatively minor matter of precipitating a minor scheduling error. The somewhat bigger issue of finagling the material schedules to admit the Sabha’s bulk was nothing that a modest fee couldn’t accommodate.
Another called in favor had granted the Sabha a feed from the traffic control sensors on the far side of the sphere. With knowledge of the Armhamon’s movements Kassad could maneuver to keep the settlement between the Armhamon and the Sabha. With luck they’d have been away before the Armhamon discovered the deception, but luck was not with them.
As Kassad watched the Armhamon began accelerating at a velocity remarkable for the large warship’s mass prompting Kassad to quickly announce over the Sabha’s internal communications circuit, “At this time we’ll be maneuvering to reach a safe jump transit distance. Please remain seated and buckled in until we complete our transit.” Carefully managing Sabha’s reaction drives to keep the exhaust from posing a threat to settlement or surrounding vessels Kassad began rapidly building velocity.
Her suspicions growing Ursula asked, “Why aren’t we using the warp drive to clear the nebula?”
With acceleration forces dramatically climbing Kassad was hard pressed to sound nonchalant replying, “Don’t want to disrupt the nebula unduly.” That it was also a lot harder to track jump drive transits than to follow a warp drive’s trail went unsaid.
At first the lightly loaded the smaller and more nimble Sabha was easily able to keep the mass of Mareville between herself and the aggressive Armhamon. Gradually the increasing velocity of the Armhamon and the growing distance between Sabha and the sheltering mass of the Mareville settlement required ever increasing thrust from Sabha’s engines. Soon they were pushing three gravities of acceleration to maintain their dwindling cover.
Through gritted teeth Ursula observed, “It seems like we’re accelerating awfully hard.”
Knowing perfectly well that he was pushing in excess of three gravities of acceleration in his mad dive to reach a safe transit distance Kassad expressed bewilderment, “Really?” Kassad couldn’t hide his strained breathing as they pushed past four gravities, feathering the reaction drives to avoid washing Mareville in potentially deadly exhaust. “This is just routine navigational maneuvering.” Pushing towards five gravities cut off any further commentary by his passenger.
In spite of the Sabha’s fierce maneuvering the further she got from the Mareville settlement the harder it became to keep that mass between her and the Armhamon until eventually the Lawship’s orders blared over the communication’s circuit. “Private vessel Sabha, this is the Lawship Armhamon you will…”
The sentence may have been finished but the Sabha was no longer anywhere in the area to receive it. As their acceleration declined Kassad’s hand lifted off the jump transit button and his face bore an openly relived expression. A quick check of their surroundings with the passive sensor array revealed that they were safely within one of the gaps between galactic arms.
Eyes wide at the conclusion of the maneuvering Ursula demanded to know, “What was that all about? And don’t tell me that was routine maneuvering.”
Holding up his hands in preemptive defense of his innocence Kassad protested, “I didn’t want to subject you or your husband to the Armhamon.”
With a shake Canis leapt out of his bed and went off to perform his routine post-transit inspection of the Sabha.
Momentarily distracted by the dog Ursula soon turned her attention back to Kassad to ask, “I thought that was behind us?”
“It is now.” Kassad said with a short triumphant laugh as he programmed in the new course, then noticing that this answer didn’t mollify his passenger added, “They’ve been lurking around Mareville to pick me up.”
A completely unconvinced Ursula inquired, “But you don’t have anything onboard that would get you in trouble… do you?”
With a snort of derision Kassad dismissed the concern saying, “Captain Andrews is an obsessive type, I’m sure she’d contrive some excuse to detain me indefinitely, and I didn’t want my passengers inconvenienced by a Lawship with an irrational grudge against me.”
In growing skepticism Ursula asked, “Is that all it was?”
Making a show of not paying full attention as he crosschecked navigational settings Kassad replied, “Of course.”
Kassad’s short replies were making Ursula increasingly suspect. “You don’t have anything onboard that would get you in trouble?”
Still fiddling with the navigational inputs Kassad responded, “Of course not.” Certainly nothing that the Armhamon had any reason to suspect was onboard.
Annoyingly unconvinced Ursula persisted, “Kassad?”
Deliberately ignoring the implication of Ursula’s tone Kassad replied innocently with a simple, “Yes?”
More sternly Greene demanded, “Kassad Mir?”
Kassad’s eyes widened as if confused by the insistent inquiry. “What?”
Now convinced that Kassad was hiding something Ursula demanded, “What do you have onboard?”
In fact Kassad had pointedly avoided pushing the issue of his trade ban in Mareville in case the local cargo broker tried saddling him with some heavy freight that would restrict his maneuvering. “Nothing, just you two… and Canis of course.”
Groaning at the only and obvious conclusion Ursula dropped her face into her hands. “You have that data card don’t you?”
Momentarily flummoxed by Ursula’s insight Kassad stammered, “What? How? No. Why would you think that?” And of more concern was the reality that if Ursula could think of it then certainly the Armhamon could.
Ursula massaged her temples with her finger tips and groaned, “How? How did you manage to do that?” Suddenly she presented both hands palms out and fingers spread. “No! I don’t want to know. I shouldn’t even be aboard this ship. What was I thinking?”
Surrendering to his passenger’s convictions Kassad rebutted, “Hey, I tried to get you to wait for the liner.”
Frustration and anger barely contained Ursula snapped, “Really? Because I don’t recall you saying ‘Hey Ursula why don’t you wait for the transport so you don’t get mixed up in another one of my hair brained schemes that ends with us all in a penal colony together?’”
Raising one finger to make a point Kassad said, “Technically the last time it was your hair brained scheme that I was mixed up in.”
Shaking her head Ursula couldn’t find words to express her frustration. “You should have told us that you couldn’t take us.”
Raising a second finger on his other hand to make a different point, Kassad explained, “I did everything short of begging you to take the liner, but you insisted on coming along.”
Staring out into the star field projected on Sabha’s cockpit walls Ursula said, “This was Hank’s idea, I wanted to take the liner, and I still feel guilty about Law’s End.” Squeezing her eyes shut Ursula admitted a second error of judgment that had landed both of their lives in danger. “I just wanted Hank to be happy, and every time I try I mess things up even more.”
Recognizing Ursula’s pain did nothing to help Kassad to understand it. “You have nothing to feel guilty about. You did more than anyone could expect.”
Not expecting the pirate to understand her guilt Ursula fought back her remorse with anger saying, “You should have told me. After all we’ve been through did you think we would run to tell that Lawship captain what you were up to? Is your life really so convoluted that a lie is your default option?”
In an effort to mollify his passenger Kassad conceded, “Perhaps you’re right. I’m not in the habit of discussing the work I’ve been hired to do, perhaps I should have made an exception, but here we are. You’re still going on vacation I’m just going to do a bit of perfectly legal courier work along the way. It’s less than an hour to the Triangulum Australe Deep Space Research Station and I’ll have you back on your vacation before you know it.”
Locating a research station in deep space had many benefits. Being able to conduct experiments away from strong gravitational interference was the most obvious benefit. That space is very large and finding anything randomly situated away from large masses was a boon for privacy and secrecy.
The revelation struck Ursula like a blow to her gut. “Research station?”
Nodding as if they were in agreement Kassad added, “It’s just a little diversion.”
Still not quite believing her situation Ursula rephrased the words to try to make them seem less alien, “We’re going to a research station?”
Again nodding Kassad agreed, “Yes, that has been established.”
With the situation thus clarified Ursula ordered, “Drop us off first.”
Kassad would have liked nothing better than to disentangle himself from his passengers, but that was impossible. “I can’t. It’s a priority shipment. Stop worrying. I’ve got the latest charts, and Sabha is in pristine condition. We’ll be fine.”
Ursula’s voice dropped into low and dangerous tones. “Drop. Us. Off.”
Kassad was quick to concede the desirability of that course of action. “I would love to, I really would. The problem is that Armhamon will, at the very least, have put a hold order out on us. We can’t outrun the Code of Law. If I land at any decent place I’ll be stuck there until they finish searching the Sabha.”
Chapter 5: “Flight”
“In the short run there is stability that can be gained from exiling those who cannot or will not conform to our cultural standards. In the long run we can expect that this policy will result in a rigid inflexibility that cannot weather even the slightest breeze of change.”
-Alexander Romanoff, reformer
It was true that you could not outrun the Code of Law. At its heart was a system of faster than light communications arrays linking every settlement that could afford their subsidized cost along with all the Lawships capable of carrying one of the devices. Quantum entangled particles within these arrays allowed for instant communication across the hundred thousand galaxies.
Dressed in University grays the static image on the Armhamon’s bridge display announced without preamble, “We need you to apprehend the Sabha and retrieve the data card containing the Law’s End research data.”
Having begun the conversation annoyed at having been summoned for the communication Captain Andrews now had that annoyance escalated into animosity by the insult of the insinuation that she’d failed in her prior task. “I passed that information to your representative here. They told me that it was going to be destroyed.”
Replying only begrudgingly, as if offended at having to deal with such petty matters, the University representative reluctantly admitted, “Once the data had been delivered to a secure facility, and in due diligence, we verified the contents of the card before destruction.” Unlike the elaborate live video stream this University representative restricted themselves to a static image and reconstructed audio. “The data card you retrieved has been determined to be part of a civilian navigational chart set and not the Law’s End data set.”
Andrew’s vision narrowed at the enraging revelation that she had been duped. Anger bled into every corner of her being so that she almost vibrated with its intense energy. Her hands clenched at the armrests of her command chair with her fingers digging deeply into the freshly repaired padding and threatening to rend it asunder once more.
The Armhamon’s Deck Officer suppressed a moan of anguish at the revelation. Far worse than the news itself this University buffoon had just revealed that deception in front of the Armhamon’s bridge crew. This public humiliation would surely goad Captain Andrews into pursuing a costly vendetta in spite of common sense.
Worse than this in the Deck Officer’s mind he felt it was inevitable that the crew of the Armhamon would receive the worst of their captain’s fury. Unable to vent her boiling rage at the cause or the University representative Andrews would expel her hostility upon those around her. It was all the worse that everyone was all too aware of failure responsible for her rage.
Glaring at the disembodied voice’s avatar the Deck Officer did what damage control her could by interjecting himself into the conversation harshly, “If your people had let us verify the data on the Armhamon none of this would have happened. You self-righteous University fools and your all important secrets have placed the whole of Laniakea in jeopardy.”
With obvious irritation in his voice the University representative replied, “Captain Andrews remind your underling that the University serves the greater good, as do you.” Preferring to have himself as the lightning rod in this disaster the Deck Officer started to launch an escalated verbal retaliation on the University man only to be cut off by Captain Andrews raised hand.
In a deadly serious tone that no one listening could fail to grasp the seriousness of Captain Andrews demanded, “Grant me Omega Priority.”
Originally Omega Priority had been conceived as a way to rally Lawships into a fighting force in the event of war, and the Deck Officer had to admit that demanding it was a masterful move on the part of the captain. It would effectively place the entire Lawship force, no matter their sponsoring authority, under her personal command for the duration of the emergency. With that kind of force the Sabha could be quickly run to ground.
Less convinced of the idea’s merits the University man replied, “I’ll have to organize a full meeting of the University board. That could take days and even then I doubt they’ll grant that kind of power for anything short of a full scale invasion.”
University and Lawship operations had always been closely intertwined. University officials set the standards and ran the approval process for Lawship status while simultaneously managing the oversight and magistrate system. It was technically possible for any Lawship captain to declare a situation to be an Omega Priority; however without University approval they faced severe repercussions.
Like an unstoppable object Captain Andrews bulled ahead in the face of the University representative’s objections, “No, you’re going to grant Omega Priority to me personally, on your own authority, and in light of the danger that this data represents. If the board wants to rescind that authority then that is what could take days, and in the meantime I’ll use that authority and make certain that data is either returned to University custody or destroyed.” The Deck Officer had no illusions that the data could survive Captain Andrews’ wrath, but the cost worried him.
With the benefits of such a course of action obvious the University representative weighed the action carefully against their own interests. “Evoking Omega Priority could get us both into a lot of trouble. What exactly is it you’re planning Captain Andrews?”
The wickedness of Captain Andrews’ smile put the entire bridge crew on edge as she explained, “Compared to the number of Lawships in the hundred thousand galaxies there aren’t that many research facilities off of the University’s books, and I plan on locking them down. All of them.” It would be a bold action, but one largely unseen by the public since most illicit research stations were kept secret by those who operated them.
While the course of action had its merits the University representative wasn’t ready to put their career on the line without a certainty of results. “For obvious reasons our knowledge of exact numbers and placement of black-research facilities is limited. How do you intend to overcome that?”
With a smirk Andrews replied, “Lawships are not required to report everything they learn in the course of an investigation. Give me Omega Priority and I can compel every Lawship captain to share what they know and pump their informants for everything they don’t.” Andrews leaned forward grinning demonically and speaking mostly to the empty space in front of her say, “I’ll have him and his ship inside a week.”
In spite of the shortness of the trip Kassad had reassured Ursula twice that they were almost there and that it wasn’t something that she should worry about and yet she kept trying to argue reason with him. “It’s like I’m dealing with a younger and more annoying version of my father. What is wrong with people who live out here? Does living in space make you all crazy, or do you just have to be crazy to live out here in the first place?”
Somehow the short trip to the research station was taking far longer than it seemed possible and Kassad was running out of delaying arguments. “I’m just running a package from point A to point B, while running some passengers from point A to point C, so don’t start projecting your daddy issues on me.” Kassad diplomatically restrained himself from pointing out the difference between those who worked in space and those who simply traversed it as part of their job.
Preemptively rubbing at her temples to hold the inevitable headache at bay Ursula inquired, “And I’m correct in assuming point B is not a University approved facility?”
Trying to present his employer in the best possible light Kassad explained, “Eret & Nograd is an old and reputable company, and they run several private research stations throughout the hundred thousand galaxies.”
The name was immediately familiar to Ursula from her basic studies of history as a student, “Eret & Nograd? We’re taking the data on how to weaponize reality to the largest weapons manufacturer in Laniakea?”
Completely missing Ursula’s obvious anxiety over the revelation Kassad explained cheerfully, “Technically they’re only the third largest in terms of manufacturing, and heavily diversified. Fortunately they have more liquid assets than the first two.” In response to Ursula’s glare Kassad shrugged saying, “I satisfied due diligence before accepting the contract.”
Somewhere inside Kassad’s subconscious there was a prodding that he immediately associated with a deeper connection. It was a sensation he had often been compelled to feel as a child, a desire to understand a piece of a mystery and its place in the greater mystery. Ursula’s father was part of the current situation and try as he might to dismiss that involvement as mundane Kassad couldn’t deny his curiosity.
Throwing up her hands in exasperation Ursula exclaimed, “Of course you satisfied due diligence; you are just like my father. You’ve got all your legalese and paperwork in order while completely missing the point of what it is you are doing.” Admitting to herself that the argument had already devolved into venting for her anger at herself Ursula threw up her hands. “You’re right. Why did I expect anything else from you? This is all my fault. Can I really be that bad of a judge of character? Is it even possible?”
Ursula’s self-recrimination was simply more fuel to the fire of Kassad’s curiosity concerning her parent and how they might relate to his own situation. “First of all you’re overreacting. You need to calm down and take a deep breath. After that I’ll point out that this is the second time you’ve brought up your father as being responsible for all of this. He must be very important?”
It was a question that annoyed Ursula and at first she dismissed it as a distraction. “My father? He’s nobody. He’s just a lawyer.” Finally relenting to Kassad’s advice Ursula took a deep breath and after exhaling explained, “My father does arbitration work for hire. Right now that means he’s working for a company that either works for or is owned by the company that financed the Law’s End expedition.” As a child Ursula had struggled to understand why her father’s work was so different from that of other fathers who lived on a single world. “He’s always travelling somewhere to convince someone that their interests and the interests of the company he represents are one and the same. As a result he generally knows more about what is going on in Laniakea than most world governments.” Ursula remembered the event in bitter hindsight. “So I wasn’t too surprised when he came to me with this great job opportunity to get me in good with the University and the company his company was working for. It sounded like it would be perfect for both me and Hank.”
Not unfamiliar with parental problems Kassad inquired, “And you blame him for everything that went wrong?”
Confronted with the starkly simplistic merits of her own assertion Ursula denied it saying, “No. I blame myself.”
Being even more familiar with the ever spiraling trap of placing blame Kassad suggested, “You might want to consider that the universe is so vast and complex that there is no way for anyone to truly predict what the results of their actions will be. In my experience all we can do is the best we can and what happens is more often than not no one’s fault.”
Setting aside her anger was not something Ursula was prepared to do. “I suppose you have a perfect relationship with your parents?”
It was an accusation so far from the truth that Kassad couldn’t help but laugh before admitting, “No, my father disowned me when I was thrown out of the University.” After a moment of introspection Kassad said in tones mixed with equal parts regret and bitter amusement, “I don’t think I’ve ever actually had a real conversation with my mother. That’s probably why your parental problems resonate with me. I wonder what things would be like if my parents wanted me in their lives. I have to think that would be worth something.”
Feeling as if Kassad might have had too different a life from her own to understand her predicament Ursula retorted bitterly, “So you think I should just let people who repeatedly lie to me and hurt me continue to do so because it’s better than nothing?”
With unmistakable parallels between Ursula’s current state of mind and the one he himself had struggled with for so long Kassad was drawn into old memories as he responded, “Forgiveness and trust are two separate things, but in my experience we are ultimately the ones who lie to and hurt ourselves the most. We tell ourselves lies to make the things we do and the reasons we have good enough to carry forward. We hurt ourselves and then we blame the world for letting us do so.”
Unimpressed by the advice Ursula asked, “Is that the philosophy of a pirate?”
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For Kassad Mir, captain of the independent vessel Sabha, it was supposed to be a simple courier run. Deliver the data recovered from the Law's End expedition to a research center where it could be utilized to advance scientific understanding. For Ursula and Hank Greene, the couple made famous by the Law's End rescue, it was supposed to be the start of a long overdue vacation. After separation for over a year by distance and events it would be their chance to start fresh. For Canis, former customs service dog, it would be another chance for excitement and adventure. Complicating the straightforward task are those who want the Law's End data for themselves, a sadistic Lawship captain pursuing a vendetta, and those who fear what the data represents and want it destroyed. Because knowledge changes everything.