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Stealing Sevastopol

Stealing Sevastopol

By GA Douglass all rights reserved

Published by GA Douglass

Copyright© 2017 by GA Douglass, all rights reserved.

Cover art by GA Douglass

Stealing Sevastopol 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.

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

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Preamble: Stealing Sevastopol was written to stand alone although it follows events in the novel Sevastopol that is not required reading to enjoy this. This book in part serves to answer the questions left unresolved at the end of the first and offer a better conclusion to the stories of the characters there. It also exists to address several ideas that the original work never got around to, or were cut because of pacing or tone.

Stealing Sevastopol

Prologue Fallout

Knowledge is strength and ignorance is the sword it wields.”

The Wisdom of Herself

Location: Old Terra beneath depopulated Chicago

There were many abandoned places on the Terran home world. The declining population that had begun dramatically with the Great Wasting had continued with a terrific exodus to established colony worlds leaving many structures and even entire cities no longer in use. These vast tracts of ruins in various states of disrepair and collapse provided opportunities for bold scavengers, cover for criminal activities, and a refuge for clandestine organizations.

In the abandoned places on old Terra the work of the Terran Concordance Intelligence Service went on in secret. Officially the Terran Concordance Intelligence Service had been absorbed by the colonial Terran Intelligence Service over a hundred years ago. It was true that most of their assets and personnel had defected or been co-opted along with the naval forces by the colonial upstart at the height of the age of war, but their work went on.

No longer being an authorized body and there being no oversight for their operations had been a mixed blessing. It was true that they could no longer function openly, and no longer had the combined resources of the Concordance behind them. On the other hand they had their fingers in every industrial, commercial, and finance business of any size on the Terran home world which provided them ample resources. Being free to pursue agendas unimpeded by any political meddling had ultimately been deemed worth any problems that came with it.

Having been there in the days of legitimate work for the Concordance Council Hessler saw the grand scope of events more clearly than most. Diligent paranoia and a faithfully adhered to longevity regimen had allowed him to survive the war and the changes victory had wrought. In his advancing years his hair had faded to a steely grey while his mind and vision for the intelligence organization had remained sharp and clear.

Prior to this modern age the story of the world had been the story of coincidence and accident, but not now. Now events were managed to seem like coincidence and accident, but were coordinated to bring about the intended results. Myriad individual pursuits were managed to encourage the proper outcomes. History was now controlled behind the scenes so that the right people always won, the people who opposed them always lost, and it all looked completely natural. In Hessler’s view it was both natural and inevitable that this system should steadily extend itself to Terra’s wayward colonial children.

In spite of this perfect vision Hessler couldn’t remember if the vista through the slit windows he was looking out was an actual horizon or a recorded projection. He’d been underground in the literal and figurative sense for so long that the subtle differences were becoming lost on him. Rather than addressing this Hessler turned to the conference room and scowled at its contents.

Speaking to no one in particular Hessler said, “Do you know what’s wrong with this conference room?”

Being the only other person present Technician Riddly assumed the question was meant for them and looked up from their console to take in the room. “I see nothing. It looks like every other conference room I’ve ever seen.”

Holding up one finger Hessler proclaimed, “Exactly. The furniture in this room, every aspect of its design, is hundreds of years old. Yet it looks like every other conference room built since. It’s a symptom of the stagnation gripping our civilization.”

Having worked for Hessler for long enough for the mystique to wear off and the job to become just a job Riddly turned his attention back to the console and replied, “Standardization was part of the plan. Unified and cohesive civilizations with uniform standards are strong. That’s how we won the war.”

Nodding in agreement Hessler retorted, “Diverse civilizations are flexible, and that’s how we’re going to win the peace.”

Completing their work Riddly said, “If you say so sir. I’ve got the rest of the committee online if you want to take your place at the table.”

Tolerating minor expressions of dissent among staff was something Hessler had always made a point of. It didn’t really help morale, but it did hurt morale if people felt they were attached to an organization they had no input into. Occasionally the input of subordinates was even useful for keeping grounded.

Hessler smiled pleasantly. “Thank you Riddly. You may go.” Riddly acknowledged the order with a nod and left.

Taking the seat at the head of the table Hessler wiped dust away from the built-in console and with a deep breath held just for a second he opened the connection. Representational images of the other committee members were projected into the chairs around the conference table. While distinctly representational the images provided no clue as to gender, age, or ethnicity as a security measure.

Starting on a positive note Hessler announced, “I can report that our crusading investigator problem will soon be dealt with. He took the bait and is in the process of overstepping his authority with all the enthusiasm we predicted. Within a few hours that entire team will be gone with only their own over eagerness to blame.”

In spite of the victory the mood around the table was grim and that mood quickly found voice, and like all their voices this one was masked by electronic obfuscation software. “This minor victory wouldn’t even have been necessary if our other project hadn’t been such a catastrophe.”

It had been the voice at Hessler’s immediate right and like all of the voices near the head of the table it came from someone working in field operations. Further away from the head of the table were the people involved in information analysis. At the furthest end of the table were those responsible for mundane matters of finance.

Everyone at the table had a code name they could go by. Each code name would identify both them as individuals and what role they served in the organization. As serious professional people they always felt awkward using such measures and instead simply refrained from addressing each other directly.

Sighing at having been put immediately on the defensive Hessler replied, “We knew the expedition was a long shot gamble when we backed it.”

A figure to Hessler’s immediate left added, “The entire fiasco highlights the need for truly long range intelligence ships capable of pan-galactic operations. Sending out the Query was a mistake.”

Another voice from further down the table added, “It was an act of hubris.”

At the far end of the table a more practical voice complained, “It was hard enough to divert resources when we could use the TIS for cover. If pressure from our allies and the colonials force them to shut down then hiding our work will become impossible.”

Jabbing a finger straight down into the tabletop Hessler insisted, “If the Terran Intelligence Service shuts down then our work becomes all the more vital to protect Terran interests. We’ll simply have to find another way to acquire ships and equipment.”

Again the figure to Hessler’s right spoke in order to complain, “We’re facing more than the loss of access to manufacturing capability. We lost an advanced covert intelligence vessel. We also lost her entire crew, intelligence officer Thompson’s irreplaceable decades of experience and training, and hundreds of thousands of hours of work to locate a pristine site of Gardener artifacts only to have that go up in smoke as well.”

One of the intelligence analysts from mid-table spoke to add, “We’ll be dealing with the damage from the public exposure involved for decades.”

Hessler didn’t try to contradict the facts but optimistically noted, “They did recover a working reactionless drive.”

Unlike all current drive technology reactionless drives generated momentum without requiring fuel. The functioning of such systems, which were able to convert electrical energy directly into kinetic energy, was understood only in the most general sense. If they could reverse engineered such a device it had the potential to revolutionize nearly every aspect of civilized life.

Unimpressed by the accomplishments the figure at Hessler’s right complained, “Can we even call that a partial success? It’s not in our hands and it’s not going to be. I have it on good authority that they’re planning to hand it over to a so-called expert from the Consortium.” Disgustedly the voice added, “Those aliens have already attempted to reverse engineer such a device at least once before and accomplished little more than to render it nonfunctional.”

Again the intelligence analyst spoke to add, “Even if they do manage a breakthrough with the device these Consortium aliens have never truly been our allies. They’re fair weather friends at best, looking after their own interests first, and with a record of covertly working with forces hostile to us.”

Seeing that he was having no effect on the desire of the committee members to complain Hessler gave up trying to put a positive spin on events. “I believe that the destruction of the device during research is the objective. The new consensus coming out of our over-educated intellectual elite is that any new technology should be suppressed out of some misguided concern that such technologies could upset the status-quo.”

At Hessler’s left the committee member nodded and said, “Upsetting the status-quo is a valid concern. We came out of the wars on top, and maybe we should just leave well enough alone. Let this artifact be destroyed.”

Getting to what he felt the point of the meeting should be Hessler suggested, “We could take the artifact. There are still a few research stations that aren’t on the official records, others have been put in mothballs and could be stripped for equipment, and we still have the resources to put together our own team of trusted loyalists to reverse engineer the thing.”

This idea seemed to appeal to the committee member at Hessler’s right although they expressed their misgivings saying, “Taking it from the Consortium would require nothing less than a large scale military operation, and there aren’t a lot of people left we could pin such a strike on,” after a moment they conceded, “however the idea has merit if we can get to it before they can. If we can keep that thing out of the hands of the Consortium then that alone would be worth the effort,” always willing to see the negative in everything they concluded, “although putting together such an operation might take time we don’t have.”

More enthusiastic about the prospect the intelligence analyst still found concerns to voice saying, “Yes, but we can’t afford to draw any more attention to ourselves. We’ll have to use assets that can’t be traced back to us. Right now the Terran Intelligence Service is absorbing responsibility being directed at them, but they certainly suspect that we exist. The harder they’re pushed the harder they’ll push back. If they go down they may well take us with them. The last thing we need is another investigation taking place on the home world.”

Another of the analysts broke their silence to add, “Being publicly and officially recognized gives them a lot of leverage.”

Continuing to herd the discussion in a productive direction Hessler asked, “Then the question becomes who should we have do the job?”

With their obscured face looking around the table the committee member to Hessler’s right asked, “Who can do this kind of job? It’s not like the thing can be smuggled out under a coat.”

From the far end of the table one of the financial oriented committee members suggested, “There’s little more deniable than Bock mercenaries.” It went without saying that there were also none who were less expensive.

Always ready with a complaint the committee member to Hessler’s right argued, “I don’t trust species that can pass on memories like that. Compartmentalizing information is an alien concept to them, and worse than that since we can’t share memories with them they have a harder time seeing us as real then we have seeing them as real.”

Bracing himself to fight opposition Hessler cautiously put forth his recommendation, “This may not be a popular idea, however perhaps we could induce one of the organized outlaw bands we have contacts with to do the job? That would provide us with all the deniability of an ordinary criminal act.”

It was an idea that stunned the committee into silence for a time and then the committee member to Hessler’s left said, “You mean to treat it like an ordinary heist? That does make a certain amount of sense. Criminal work is best left to criminals.”

Pleased with the idea the first analyst nodded in approval. “Working for us and delivering the goods to us.”

This was what Hessler had needed. Everything else was ironing out details. They were now moving in the right direction.

Chapter 1 Raid

Fools rush in because fools believe that they can make a difference, and sometimes the fools are right.”

Admiral Bryce

Location: Old Terra, beneath Manhattan Island

It was a secure and heavily built door. In spite of the patches of oxidation on its heavily worn surface more than a kick from a foot clad in armored boot was going to be needed to complete the job of opening it. Fortunately the proper tools were at hand, and a precisely focused blast removed the entire door frame from the wall in a cloud of dust.

Liu was through the opening at a sprint. Dust clung to and trailed after him as he charged down the darkened windowless hallway with his massively oversized battle rifle at the ready. Speed was essential in order to have any hope of catching the targets off guard. Inside his helmet the sound of his own breathing almost drowned out the noise of his armored boots pounding across the aging concrete.

Dressed head to toe in the most advanced armor available to Terran forces Liu presented a formidable appearance. It gleamed like blue grey steel being a composite of ceramic, plastics, and ship hull metal that should have been impervious to anything short of an anti-vehicle weapon. Strength augmenting servos and load bearing counterweights tailor sculpted to his build allowed him to comfortably carry twice his weight at a run. The sophisticated sensor suite built into the helmet revealed the contents of even the darkest corners even as it linked him with the giant weapon he carried.

Putting his shoulder down Liu triggered an electromechanically enhanced sprint to finish closing the distance with the door at the end of the hall. Instantly his velocity increased from twelve kilometers an hour to over twenty five. It was a dangerous maneuver generating forces that could kill the suit’s wearer if executed improperly.

Impacting perfectly the door shattered under the force. It split from top to bottom a few centimeters in from the hinges. The door ripped free from the sturdy lock as well leaving the doorknob dangling from the frame.

Beyond the shattered doorway was a large windowless room half filled with poorly stacked crates. Among the crates rough looking thugs were still preparing to deal with whatever had breached the outer door. Liu’s dramatic entrance and appearance momentarily stunned them into inaction. Stunned inaction didn’t last as an archaic assault rifle was brought to bear on Liu, but he was already tracking its wielder with his own weapon.

Impractical as a weapon for any unenhanced individual the Chimera Battle Rifle was effective at virtually any range and against any target. It managed this feat of universal utility through a combination of sensor input, sophisticated analysis software, and a built in miniature fabrication unit. Rounds specifically tailored to a target were produced on demand and programmed for the particulars of their task.

Liu pulled the trigger and in one fiftieth of a second the weapon had fabricated, chambered, and discharged a round to deal with the target. In this instance it was a large round of thirty millimeters in diameter. The barrel automatically altered its diameter to accommodate the projectile as it passed providing minute adjustments to ensure the round was placed exactly on target.

The Chimera began analyzing its next target even as the large round closed its distance to the first. Two meters away from impact the thirty millimeter round began to unravel and dramatically bleed off velocity. Long tendrils of programmed polymer engulfed the target and as these sensed body heat they constricted, hardened, and immobilized the target leaving the assault rifle to clatter uselessly to the floor.

Looking at their immobilized companion the thugs then looked to each other. They were considering trying to overwhelm Liu when three more armored figures charged into the room to take up positions to either side of Liu. This show of overwhelming force effectively convinced the criminals to surrender.

Liu’s support team was carrying less dramatically oversized weapons and their armor was of an older and less advanced design. Their gear was painted a distinct dark shade of blue with high contrast white markings. All of this denoted them as Terran Marines assigned to protect the Terran People’s Embassy on old Terra itself.

Two of the marines moved forward in order to begin securing the thugs as the figure next to Liu declared, “You commandos don’t mess around.”

Liu hadn’t been a commando in what felt like a long time. It had taken a lot of physical therapy to get back in fighting shape following the injuries which had ended his career as one of the elite Terran Commandos. Yet even after all this time he was pleased to demonstrate that the skills and well drilled instincts had remained largely intact.

With a tap at the device mounted to his armored wrist Liu retracted his helmet’s faceplate. His unaided dark brown eyes revealed less about the room than the suits sensor systems had, and they struggled to pierce the newly revealed shadows. Light from a single ancient fluorescent bar provided inadequate illumination as Liu brushed away the sweat running down from the hairline of his short cut jet-black hair.

Resisting an urge to curse emphatically Liu replied modestly, “I couldn’t have done it without your help marine.” Two more of the armored marines joined them in the room while two more took up position outside the ruined doorway.

A prominent anchor was stenciled next to the name Richards on the first marine’s armor and they spoke for the group saying, “I doubt that. Still it beats another uneventful day of guarding the embassy.” As the last of the thugs were secured Richards inquired somewhat dubiously, “So were these the guys you were after?”

Frowning at the collection of now cuffed thugs Liu replied simply, “No.”

Behind them a condescending voice declared, “They look more like common smugglers to me.”

Unarmored and unarmed the newcomer joined the more combat ready figures already in the room. He was wearing a slate grey suit without lapels in a style that had been fashionable among government employees for over a century. Everything about his demeanor spoke to the lack of seriousness with which he took the situation.

Liu’s scowl deepened as he admitted, “They are common smugglers.”

In bored tones the grey suited figure said, “Yeah, we still get those on Terra. You can be certain that after taking down this group another will have popped up to take their place in less than a year.” With a condescending grin they added, “Certainly isn’t anything remotely like a rogue intelligence unit, and my superiors are going to take a dim view of the results of this ill advised raid undertaken after your strenuous assurances.”

From the beginning Liu knew that it had been a long shot. The Terran Intelligence Service had been investigating rumors of rogue elements of the old Terran Concordance Intelligence Service ever since that organization had been disbanded. The stakes now were higher than they had ever been which had prompted Liu to stake his career on this raid. It was a risk that hadn’t paid off.

Already in enough trouble for his actions Liu wasn’t about to put up with the snide remarks in silence and snapped, “Auditor, if you don’t have anything useful to add then just do your job in silence.” Even as he said it he knew the order had only a slim chance of being obeyed.

Undeterred by the rebuke the auditor explained, “I’ve checked the budget reports and there are no unaccounted for funds. Take it from an auditor; if a government agency isn’t getting funded then it doesn’t exist. Everyone who didn’t defect to you guys either retired or moved off world… to do whatever it is you colonials do off world.”

The mass defections remained a sore spot in relations between the Terran People’s Alliance and the old Terran Concordance that still managed affairs for the home world. It was widely understood that the Concordance was a pale shadow of its once formidable self. It struggled to maintain order on a world weakened by its leadership’s bumbling in the wars, general depopulation, and a drain of talent to the colonies it had worked so hard to establish.

In theory the lingering presence of covert intelligence operations on the home world would explain a host of mysteries that had plagued the post war reality. Resentment and a longing to return to the better days of the past were motivation enough for the formation of the alleged shadow intelligence organization. Evidence was sparse, but the Terran Intelligence Service had to make the effort to discover the truth. If they failed it would just point the finger of blame for everything more firmly at them.

Having had more than enough of the Concordance’s auditor and their attitude Liu said, “I’m sure you won’t mind taking charge of this rabble and seeing that they and their contraband are turned over to the proper authorities?” The auditor simply smiled and shrugged in response as Liu turned to the still fully armored Richards and apologized, “I’m personally grateful for the assistance of you and your troops. You have my sincere apologies for having wasted your time.”

Taking the failure in stride Richards replied, “Not at all. It was nice to get out and stretch my legs,” Richards hooked one thumb towards the ruined door on the floor concluding, “and watching you breach that second door was a real treat.” Turning to face their prisoners Richards barked, “Move out. We’re getting this rabble turned over, and we are going to be back at the embassy before evening meal, or my full displeasure will be known to each of you in excruciating detail.”

Leaving Liu alone with his failure the group began to escort the prisoners out of the room. He’d exceeded his mandate and his jurisdiction with nothing to show for it. Whatever excuses he’d used to rationalize the raid now seemed hollow even to his own thinking. Sparing the room a final glance Liu followed the others back out of the abandoned structure.

There was tremendous pressure upon the Terran Intelligence Service to either provide proof of its innocence or dramatically curtail its operations. An increasing number of minor incidents, culminating with the disastrous events involving the Sevastopol survey mission, had blame pointing firmly to the Terran Intelligence Service. What had been a nuisance was now undermining Terran Intelligence Service credibility with their partners in the colonial alliance.

It had been Liu’s hope to capture a cell of the rogue intelligence organization so that they could be held accountable for their actions. If this had worked it would have resolved the situation neatly, but it hadn’t. With that hope dashed Liu couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere on Terra someone was laughing at him.

Chapter 2 Witch Hunt

A captain’s loyalty to their crew is the price of a crew’s loyalty to their captain.”

Admiral Bryce

Location: Ural, Incident Review Board Hall, First Settlement

Feeling like a child being scolded by a parent Taras listened to the chair of the review board’s chair as they reiterated the events that had brought him before them saying, “You were captain of the Sevastopol during the advanced charting expedition. You were captain of the Sevastopol during the unscheduled diversion to rescue the stranded crew of the Query. Your rescue culminated in a reactor detonation that killed an unknown number of indigenous peoples. You were captain of the Sevastopol during a mutiny during the course of which the Sevastopol suffered significant internal damage, injuries, and deaths, as well as the loss of most of its fuel. You were captain of the Sevastopol during an unauthorized expedition to a previously unknown site of presumably Gardener construction that ended with the destruction of that site and with yet more serious structural damage to the Sevastopol itself. You were captain of the Sevastopol during all of these events and yet you have no explanation for these events?”

Every situation is unique. This is a universal constant that has never stopped people from simplifying, generalizing, and conflating one situation with another more familiar to them. Because of this fact the efforts to understand a unique set of circumstances are best made by persons with broad experience.

Review boards are made up of veterans of ship services who knew every aspect of the trade. They were a group of expert peers there to apply their experience and knowledge of shipboard operations to a situation so as to determine why it had happened. In theory this would best determine if the decisions made and actions taken were in keeping with accepted standards, or if new standards had to be devised.

In reality the review boards knew the outcome of the actions in question which tended to bias their decisions. No one wants to look at a disaster and claim that if they had been in charge things wouldn’t have been any better let alone admit that things could have been quite worse. As a result they tended to be hanging juries looking to damn a captain rather than exonerate them.

Knowing that the review board glaring down at him from behind their elevated bench had no reason to go easy on him Taras nervously ran one hand through the short shock of dark blond hair that was growing on his head. Before him the review board recited facts culled from his own reports as if their investigations had turned them up. It was like a monstrous unstoppable avalanche of bureaucratic illogic that could be dispelled if Taras could somehow find the right words, and in his mind he searched for the right thing to say.

Having never been trained in public speaking Taras struggled to put his thoughts into the words he needed saying, “We did the best we could under very trying circumstances. I’m very proud of my crew, and I stand by them and their actions.” The words fell short of Taras’ feelings.

As undeniably proud of his crew as he was Taras felt awkward, and even though seated he had to fight the habit of straightening his uniform. It was his dress uniform and while not as gaudy as a naval uniform, there being no braid and only a single row of meritorious citation ribbons jockeying for position with unit and service insignia, Taras had always found it to be pretentious garb for a simple working man. Now that he was faced with the impending dire verdict of the review board he desired little more than to set the uniform aside forever.

In front of where Taras was seated the review board sat looking down on him in the room set aside for such hearings. It was a windowless room that was paneled, floored, and filled with furniture made from the same dark rainbow streaked wood native to the world. Even the ceiling and light fixtures were framed with the same wood and it spoke of the practicality of a people who lived on a world dominated by aggressive forest.

Perplexed by Taras’ statement of loyalty the review board glanced at each other dubiously from their not too lofty bench. They were only seated high enough to look down on him so long as he remained seated. If Taras had been feeling more confrontational he would have stood and looked down upon them in return, but in truth he just wanted the process to be over.

For their part the review board seemed comfortable with the review going forward forever. They represented heads of departments of control and coordination for four areas of work in space; logistics, construction, operations planning, and interspecies affairs. Each of them had their own reasons for not wanting a clear conclusion to result from their efforts.

Leading the board was Nadia Nesky, the current head of Survey Service Operations Planning, and the most senior member of the review board. She’d been an instructor when Taras had been in training. He remembered her as a hard and no nonsense instructor. He evidently hadn’t made enough of an impression for her to remember him at all.

Nadia expressed profound disappointment with Taras’ words as she inquired sharply, “Does your ‘proud support’ extend to the mutineers?”

They’d been over this more than once already and Taras’ patience was wearing thin. “As I’ve said before they were misled into mutiny by Thompson, a professional sociopathic manipulator, and as I’ve pointed out repeatedly they ended the mutiny on their own.”

That they’d been ordered by the Survey Service to rescue Thompson and the stranded crew of the ill fated Query in that distant galaxy went, and would continue to go, without saying. The Survey Service itself had sent the order on behalf of the Terran Intelligence Service. The Terran Intelligence Service claimed the request was a response generated by an automated system monitoring an abandoned quantum communications channel. For the most part everyone was treating the events as if the entire ordeal had been prompted by Taras’ own desire for adventure.

Meanwhile Thompson’s role in the events was still being determined by medical professionals. Due to strict privacy laws any conclusion they reached was destined to remain eternally under the iron clad shroud of patient confidentiality. That left Taras to take the blame.

Leaning more severely towards Taras Nadia inquired sharply, “And the head of engineering? She has already voluntarily submitted herself for neurological evaluation and psychological reconstruction. Do you still stand by her as well?”

It felt to Taras as if they were asking him to change the story to better fit what they wanted to hear. Waves of dissatisfaction rolled off the review board with every answer Taras gave, and yet they kept asking the same questions. As if they believed they could change his testimony simply by refusing to acknowledge it.

Blinking in stunned thought of how many times they’d already been over this Taras rephrased what had become his stock response saying, “All of us who work out in space are aware of the psychological stresses involved. None of us are immune, and I will not allow such a distinguished career to be smeared in a quest for a scapegoat. Let me state once again, clearly, and for the record that Elena never failed to carry out any lawful order I gave her.” There was a grey area where the orders may not have been followed promptly due to concern over their legality, but as far as Taras was concerned that was none of the review board’s business.

Nadia recoiled at the statement and its accusation. “We understand that your loyalty to your crew is absolute, and you need to understand that we are not looking for someone to blame. I remind you that even though your certifications and authority have been revoked you still hold responsibilities to the community you were a part of, and I would caution you to be grateful that as of yet there are no charges to be pressed. At this time we are simply trying to understand what happened, and your voluntary cooperation is a necessary part of that.”

Taras knew perfectly well they didn’t need fourteen separate meetings of the review board to determine what had happened. They certainly didn’t need to repeatedly ask the exact same questions over the exact same issues. They knew what had happened and were looking for some way to make it not the fault of the bureaucracy, the Survey Service, the Intelligence Service, or the politicians. Everyone was desperately worried that blame might be assigned to them yet there was plenty that had gone wrong and plenty of blame to be assigned.

At the heart of the issue was the detonation of the Query’s reactor. This had probably devastated, if not completely destroyed, the Stone Age civilization of amorph life forms they’d encountered during the rescue that they’d been ordered to carry out. Revelation of this tragedy, even if only as a rumor, had prompted broad outrage. Unfortunately any evidence as to the explosion having been purposefully triggered had been vaporized along with the wreck of the Query, and the wild speculation that had taken place in the absence of facts was worse than any truth.

Destruction of a primitive civilization in another galaxy had been the spark for a round of general anti-Terran sentiment expressed by amorph life forms in the Milky Way. Fears that a new round of fighting might be triggered by the event had even the stoutest of political operatives nervous, and they wanted the situation dealt with but didn’t know how to do so. So it was that the job of finding some way to placate the outraged had been passed to this review board.

Glancing to her fellow review board members for some unspoken confirmation Nadia raised one hand to draw the meeting to an end saying to Taras, “We’ll meet again after the Founding Festival, and I suggest you use that time to gain some appreciation for what we’re trying to accomplish here.” The six person review board rose as one and exited towards the rear of the room muttering amongst themselves and leaving Taras to wonder if his words had actually managed to make things worse.

Even the idea of yet another meeting was one that Taras found inexcusable, and he wanted to shout that they could meet over and over forever. He would forever refuse to falsify his testimony, and forever refuse to offer up a scapegoat. Of course no one had actually asked him to do such a thing. It was even possible that his take on the review board’s intentions was a paranoid fantasy entirely fabricated out of his own frustrations.

Grasping for something to say in order to change what had happened Taras clenched his hands into fists over and over out of frustration. Seeing that he was going to be left alone in the room Taras angrily pushed away from the table and stood. Moving to leave as well Taras stopped at the large double doors of the chamber’s main entrance to look back at the forms of the review board as they finished existing. He grappled with himself over what to say and what not to say, and realized that he’d probably be better off not throwing around accusations.

It was all about validation. Everyone wanted to be told they had made the right decisions, taken the proper actions, and done the right thing. They wanted to be told that every problem was someone else’s fault, but that wasn’t reality. In reality there was plenty of blame to go around, and a lot that had simply happened and was no one’s fault at all, but reality rarely validated self aggrandizing opinions.

Shaking his head at the situation Taras left the room. Outside the chambers of the review board was a high ceilinged empty hallway with the far wall being window from floor to ceiling. The window stretched along the length of the long hallway as far as the eye could see in either direction. Below him stretched farmland still in shadow as the artificially enhanced sun climbed into the sky; it was still early morning, the meeting had been brief.

Most buildings on Ural were built into the hundred meter high walls that surrounded lands cleared for agriculture in order to keep the otherwise unbroken world spanning native forests at bay. As a result interior spaces tended to be tall and narrow with long horizontal stretches of high ceilinged shops and offices above machinery spaces on the lower levels and with housing on top.

In order to be effective at keeping native life at bay the wall had to surpass the massive native trees in height. This architectural need to fill up vertical space had helped to make high ceilinged rooms a staple feature of Ural architecture. This also meant that Offices generally looked out over farmland while homes looked out over treetops. Nearly every home and office window offered a scenic vista.

A few benches lined the interior wall of the hallway but they were as vacant as the rest of it. Beyond the administrative and political classes in these offices public interest in the story of the Sevastopol’s journey had waned. Everyone was distracted by the annual celebration of the world’s first settlement, and in the absence of facts they waited patiently for the verdict of the review board.

The public trusted that the various services would deliver the kind of wise and selfless decision that was expected of modern governance. Even here in these halls, where fault and blame served as sword and shield in battles of office politics, the servants of the public good assumed that good intentions were enough. No one really cared about the details and Taras wondered why he cared.

Beyond the tall window the farmlands within the enclosure stretched off as far as the eye could see in the diffuse and partially artificial illumination. The weak ruddy light from the local star was supplemented by solar mirrors in orbits that closely followed its path through the sky effectively providing an analog of Terrestrial normal lighting. It had taken nearly a hundred years to get the system set up and was one of the world’s greatest achievements with the names and dates involved still proudly taught to school children.

Everything Taras saw served as present proof that there were other things a man could do with their life. Endlessly struggling against bureaucratic forces was certainly no life at all. Although he had no idea when the current turmoil would permit him to move on Taras determined that he would move on with his life.

For Taras the point of living was what that life meant to those who came after that life had ended. Acts that passed down something tangible, be it new knowledge or a system of solar mirrors, these were things worth doing. Each individual constantly adding value to the civilization they were a part of was what built communities worth living in.

Outside a train passed by casting a deeper shadow on the hallway as it did, and revealing Taras’ own image staring back at him. Every walled settlement on Ural had a train running along its inside perimeter that was elevated to maximize the amount of precious cleared land within. There was no way Taras could reach the local transit station before it departed, but then again there really wasn’t anywhere he needed to go.

At the moment all Taras could do was go home, and so he turned to walk down the long hallway towards the transit station. Along the way the floor to ceiling window continued to show his reflection, and remind him of the trap his current life had become. Taras found himself picking up his pace in an effort to avoid looking out the window.

As Taras turned up the stairs leading to the transit station he made eye contact with his reflection where mirror Taras seemed to be urging patience. It was entirely likely that the number of meetings were designed to make a show of how seriously they were taking the situation. If it were all a show for the benefit of aliens that would explain why the Survey Service ordered Review Board seemed to have already come to a decision and could think of no new questions to ask.

Certainly the potential genocide of native peoples they’d been witness to justified even more scrutiny than this. There had been calls from off world and other species for something closer to an inquisition. Nothing like this kind of loss of life had happened since the end of the wars, and no one wanted a return to that level of routine destruction.

Unfortunately there was no way to know what had really happened even for those who had been present. The events and the facts left in their wake were a galaxy away. Doubtlessly even if they could return the reactor overload would had destroyed any evidence as completely as it had the primitives and very nearly the rescue team itself. Thompson alone knew what had really happened and at Taras’ insistence the intelligence man had been immediately placed in closely guarded medical isolation upon their return.

Medical professionals sensitive to their patient’s privacy had yet to provide a complete verdict on Thompson’s mental state, and Taras suspected it might be beyond their experience. They were more accustomed and adept at dealing with such common maladies as depression and ordinary forms of dementia rather than dangerous psychotic behavior. More to the point they usually practiced preventive treatments rather than being sought out to repair a mind that had already been broken; let alone a mind intentionally broken.

That Thompson’s mind was an intentional product was another idea which was more theory than fact, and again only Thompson knew the truth. Taras could say what he believed and present what evidence he had, but the truth was a secret. It would take an expert in secrets to work out the truth and such experts were not forthcoming.

Certainly it was true that nothing Thompson said could be trusted. His words served only expedience and could only be trusted to corrupt and pervert any investigation in a most skillful way. The threat of Thompson had been established by Taras staking his career on it, and now that career balanced precariously over the gapping maw of an abyss

Chapter 3 Victory or Death

The importance of a concept to a group is measurable by how many unique terms they have to describe it.”

Introduction to Xeno-Psychology

Location: Sol system, outbound flight path

Intelligence Vessel Eight One Nine was a sleek delta hulled vehicle known informally as Eon by her crew. Unlike most ships designed for intelligence work Eon had been intended to support direct covert operations rather than simply make remote observations. She was fitted with sophisticated systems to deceive both active and passive sensor systems in order to make covert landings on hostile worlds, but at the moment these were not active.

Sensor baffling systems on the Eon tended to interfere with the bulky quantum communication gear she also carried. It may have been the smallest vessel ever to have been equipped for faster than light communication. It was a feat of engineering and technical prowess that had required the sacrifice of most of the ship’s crew facilities.

Living conditions aboard the Eon were very Spartan. Even the very rudimentary food dispenser had simply been mounted in the short hallway between spaces in order to cede space to the communications equipment. With so little space remaining sophisticated automation had been required to reduce the number of crew to those needed to oversee the automation. Heat from electronics and warm bodies in close proximity gave every space in the Eon an almost tropical climate that the life support systems struggled to keep under control.

Crew spaces were limited to a set of triple stacked bunks and a few space efficient working areas such as the tiny cockpit like bridge that the entire crew was currently wedged into. The bridge itself was the size of a walk in closet with its four stations arranged around each other back to back and with access by ladder leading up and out. Each station was modular and could be easily reformatted to serve any desired purpose, but each was dedicated to a specific role out of habit and tradition.

The lone benefit of Eon’s arrangement was that it allowed for constant contact with the Terran Intelligence Services administration. Constant contact with intelligence administration officials allowed for both ship and service to be kept appraised of events. It also allowed for a high degree of micromanagement of crew activities, and as such it took a special kind of person to be considered for service aboard a vessel like the Eon.

Because of the level of oversight and bad accommodations Eon was considered just one step short of punishment detail. Operatives who were seen as needing more supervision than usual ended up assigned to ships like the Eon. Where normal procedures allowed operatives in the field considerable leeway in how they handled matters those aboard the Eon were much more closely monitored.

Communications specialist Li reported the inevitable with resignation, “Admin has sent a message in text only format, for your eyes only, and they are on standby for a reply.”

Li was the only female member of the Eon’s crew. She was short and stocky with short black hair cropped into a utilitarian bowl shape, a perpetually sour expression, and an attitude to match. Good at her job where the equipment was concerned she was much less effective with the people her job required her to interact with.

Since they were all seated back to back everyone heard the announcement prompting navigator Wang casually inquired, “Want me to delay our warp to Ural?”

As a point of pride Wang didn’t take anything too seriously with his blond hair and blue eyes worn over a perpetual grin that only varied in intensity. His lanky frame seemed custom made for lounging in microgravity environments, and he could inevitably be seen reclining with limbs splayed limply when in space and not on duty. He had a flippant attitude that was only partially offset by his proficiency at getting the Eon from one point to another.

Engineer, mechanic, and electrician Yan grimaced at the thought of a delay complaining, “I just got the warp engines balanced for a trip to Ural. Don’t tell me they’re going to have us running in circles again.” Where Wang was lanky, fair, and laid-back Yan was rotund, dark, and pedant, and where Li worked better with machines than people Yan often struggled with the automation systems that were supposed to make his job easier.

Turning in his seat Liu spared each of his crew a glance before ordering, “Send it to my station.” He already knew what his superiors were going to say.

Due to bandwidth restrictions the message was transmitted in text and Liu read it without needing it translated into audible speech, “Taking embassy security forces on a wild goose chase across Terra. What were you thinking?”

In truth Liu had been thinking that even if they didn’t turn up anything the bold action might flush out his true quarry. Unfortunately even apprehending the ordinary criminals had only succeeded in provoking complaints from the Concordance.

As Liu’s drill sergeant in the Commandos had been fond of saying, “Success can excuse many decisions, but failure just makes everything worse.”

Even without reading the signature on the transmission Liu knew he was speaking to his immediate supervisor and typed his reply, “It wasn’t a good lead, but it was the only lead I had.”

Moments later Liu’s supervisor replied, “The senior staffers are going to pitch a fit when they find out. You had best return to Xinjiang to defend your actions in person.”

The world of Xinjiang was the seat of the Terran Intelligence Service, but most people living there paid that fact little notice. It was an old world of long dead conical volcanoes jutting from warm shallow seas. Citrus fruit and nuts were prime exports along with rare earths found in abundance in the ancient volcanic vents.

Before Liu could compose a response another message arrived from his supervisor. “I’m not going to cover for you on this. There’s too much political pressure from the Bock.”

Enemy to no one and friend to none the Bock were easy to underestimate. Their amorph structure which was akin to that of an enormous amoeba, short lifespan, and driving concern with uniformly raising the standard of living for their people made them seem almost harmless. Perhaps they even were harmless as individuals, but as a collective they were formidable.

His supervisor had been bluntly honest and Liu had to begrudgingly respect that, but he replied, “I’m headed to Ural. If there is any evidence of what really happened with the Sevastopol it will be there.”

As if they had been expecting this his supervisor’s response came back almost instantly. “The Survey Service has made it clear that they won’t cooperate. You might as well come home before the seniors order you to return.”

Admitting failure wasn’t in Liu’s nature and after a moment he typed, “I still have the Eon command codes.”

Every ship had a set of codes that identified the biometrics of the individual assigned to command it. Some of the authority granted by command codes could be delegated to subordinates, and some of it could be overridden by outside authorities. The Eon would remain in Liu’s control until he voluntarily surrendered command, had it stripped from him by an override code, or the computer systems could be presented with clear evidence of incapacitation.

As he read the response Liu could almost hear the disapproving tone in his supervisor’s voice. “That’s a dangerous game. You’re looking at a desk assignment now, but if you go rogue you aren’t going to have any friends to back you up.”

In theory Liu had considerable authority in how he pursued his assignment. In practice the Terran Intelligence Service administration could exercise a variety of means to ensure he did what they wanted. The balancing act was to ensure that the administration thought he was doing what they wanted while providing them with deniability if things went wrong, and in this way they would leave him to pursue his own plans.

Knowing that the only shot for success he had was to gamble against the odds and hope the results would validate his actions Liu typed, “I’m not going rogue. I’m finishing the job I was assigned to do.”

Liu’s supervisor replied bluntly, “You’re trying to finish a job that can’t be finished. Expect an official recall notice before you reach Ural.”

Liu was grateful that he didn’t need to worry about the crew reading over his shoulder. He fully expected each of them to eagerly embrace any suggestion that they end the mission. Fortunately none of them were truly literate and would only know they had were being recalled when the symbology in the official orders arrived.

Wang stretched languidly in their chair with only the loose safety harness belting keeping him from floating off as he inquired, “So what’s the word boss? Are they bringing us back to the barn?”

In support of the idea Yan added, “We‘re balanced for either trip, but I have to admit that Eon could use some time in dry dock.” Yan always had plans for some expensive and time consuming modification that would theoretically make his job easier and possibly improve ship performance.

Technically they hadn’t been ordered back yet and so Liu could technically answer with honesty, “Not yet.” Behind Liu’s back the crew responded to his assertion by giving each other looks to gauge how much the others believed Liu assertion.

With the consensus being that none of them believed Liu in the slightest Wang started up the warp drive and concluded, “Seventeen hours to Ural and all the borscht we can eat.”

Liu took advantage of the trip time to organize his thoughts. Tracking down what had really happened might be impossible, but he was going to try. The alternative to success loomed in an ominous murk and filled him with a dread that he couldn’t define.

Chapter 4 Petitioning the Lions in their Den

Fighting doesn’t solve anything; however a well timed preemptive strike can avoid a lot of fighting.”

Ka’Hath philosophy

Location: Faire-Reer Flotilla

Access through an oversized airlock let Johnson know that he was in alien territory. It helped force him into a frame of mind that would not rely on conventional expectations which would almost certainly not hold true here. Everything here was alien, and even the name Johnson was alien to him, but like everything else in his job it was necessary.

In truth Johnson had been expecting something closer to a Niven type asteroid when he’d been told where his assignment was taking him. Such asteroids were melted down and shaped like blown glass into spheres. They were then spun on their axis to provide an approximation of gravity within, and were reasonably habitable. What they had here was a failed version of that.

Somewhere in the process of expanding this asteroid while in a molten state it had developed a fault. Most likely a collection of mineral deposits within the asteroid had resisted even distribution and formed into a breach allowing the internal pressure to escape. In an effort to remove the offending minerals the asteroid had been tunneled out, but for some unknown reason the project had been abandoned half finished and others had adapted the resulting structure to their own uses.

Some of the chambers in the asteroid had obviously been formed by bubbles of trapped gasses found naturally within the rock. They were gracefully curved smooth walled enclosures that tended towards spherical shapes like bubbles in glass. These provided readymade chambers within the stone that had been joined to the main chamber by tunnels bored out with fusion torches.

Where fusion torches had been used to clear space in the rock the walls they left had a rougher appearance. Inconceivably hot plasma winds had whipped the surface of the stone and left deep grooves in its surface. Sharper protrusions left by the process had been rounded off with more traditional hand tools further adding to the rough hewn look of such areas.

Using his hands Johnson propelled himself through the tunnels as he took stock of his situation. No guide had been provided to him although many eyes watched his progress, and would doubtlessly intercept him should he attempt to go somewhere he shouldn’t. He was here to negotiate a very specific job and everyone in the flotilla knew it, but more importantly the aliens needed what Johnson could offer and they knew that.

It would have been a mistake for Johnson to dismiss the locals as being too proud to show how desperate they were. They were evolved from an ambush predator species and as in all things would express their desperation if and when the moment was appropriate. If Johnson failed in his task that would mean breaking down the ship he’d arrived in for whatever value it held, and possibly breaking down Johnson himself.

Ka’Hath certainly had the tools to break down Johnson himself. They averaged two and a half meters in height, had extended muzzles to hold a carnivore’s set of teeth, and razor sharp claws on the ends of powerful limbs. In spite of their scales, tufts of vibrantly colored fur, and vaguely cat-like appearance the Ka’Hath were among the most terrestrial of aliens Terran people had encountered right down to the political infighting.

These Ka’Hath of the Faire-Reer, essentially meaning Good-People of the Righteous-People, were outlaws although they didn’t see it that way. They had failed to change with a changing galaxy and so had found themselves on the outside when the center had shifted. Where others might have resented those responsible for the change that had left them isolated and desperate the Faire-Reer had only been hardened by the experience.

In recent years the Faire-Reer had limited their presence beyond their flotilla. Elsewhere they might be outnumbered and subject to persecution for the thin reasons that strong groups always found to justify maltreatment of the weak. Instead they had gathered their strength in one place making them less of a threat and target to those who had branded them as outcast. From their small flotilla they avoided upsetting the major powers while exploiting every opportunity afforded them; when the moment was appropriate.

At present the center of the Faire-Reer flotilla was the hollowed out asteroid of stone, nickel, and iron. Here the leadership met and managed the affairs and rationed the resources of the extended family. That their current seat of power had been until recently little more than one of the innumerable waypoints for smugglers in the galaxy was a sign of how far they had fallen.

Once the powerful Faire-Reer had commanded fleets feared across the galaxy as dispensers of justice for pay. Fortunes had changed with the rise of the Terran peoples. Now they could barely manage to put together raiding parties to scavenge the parts they needed to keep what they had left running.

This was not an entirely unusual story as the ending of the age of war had brought many changes to the galaxy. A balance of power had been established and now the Terran people could claim clear dominance. None were left that could contend with their technological prowess with proof being the many worlds razed in their wake.

As a particular victim of political maneuvering the Faire-Reer flotilla was one of the poorer groups of Ka’Hath. The Faire-Reer been officially prohibited from commercial dealings by the now galaxy spanning Consortium whose power had grown by riding on Terran coat tails. Unable to trade for what they needed to survive the Faire-Reer had been driven to engage in raiding, but Johnson was under no illusion that they liked their circumstances.

As Johnson came to the center of the asteroid the tunnels opened up into a large cavern which was the remnant of the failed effort to transform the rock into a sphere. There was an open center defined by numerous pockets bored back into the rock. Clusters of emissaries, representatives, and leaders had staked out territory in various pockets where they could surround themselves with supporters and hold small courts of their own. The central court was dominated by rows of anchor points around a raised dais upon which perched a large Ka’Hath surrounded by blades in a variety of lengths and styles.

Deftly securing his legs to an anchor point on the floor Johnson positioned himself before the central figure whose body was splayed out in the customary half sleeping fashion of their species. Out of courtesy Johnson waited to be acknowledged. The big predator could not be expected to immediately engage with a supplicant who had not proven their worth in deeds or words.

Only the dismissive flick of a large ladle like ear was allotted to cede permission for Johnson to present his case.

Purposefully dropping his voice down low and raising his volume into something that the big aliens would find more agreeable Johnson explained, “We understand it was politics that got your band cut off from trade and technology agreements, and we know that you’ve been raiding fringe worlds to keep your ships running. We’d like to help you as it would benefit us if you don’t have to engage in this disruptive behavior anymore.” As lies went it had the benefit of being true.

Eyes never more than cracked open into thin slits the big alien flexed one large clawed hand by way of preamble to the low rumbling which Johnson’s personal device instantly translated as, “You want something and so you tell us that we want something.” The big head shifted slightly. “Tell us Terran what you want, tell us what is it you’re offering, and then we will decide if what you are offering is comparable to what you are asking.”

Despite the casual manner of the Ka’Hath leader Johnson knew this was a carefully presented threat display. While the subtleties were doubtlessly lost on Johnson it was amazing how easily the idea that he was not in charge translated. It told him that if he failed to present an appealing offer no effort would be made to safeguard him. It also warned him that he would face the full repercussions of any perceived insult.

To steady his nerves Johnson reassured himself that it was the similarities in biology, driving similar goals, which allowed them to interact so successfully. Understanding those similarities and differences gave him leverage in the negotiation. It also let him know exactly how much force he could apply.

In terms of development the critical difference between the Terrestrial and Ka’Hath civilization was the result of their birth ratio of ten or more females for every male. This difference in population compositions meant that Ka’Hath females had traditionally been considered more disposable than the males. As a result females tended to favor hazardous occupations, and their culture reinforced the merits of females who pursued such vocations long after science and technology provided its counterbalance to biology. For Johnson this meant that, as a female dominated group of Ka’Hath, they would be more likely to favor aggressive action and any offer that allowed them to be more aggressively active.

This knowledge reassured Johnson as he presented his offer, “Twelve jump drives and four of the last generation of upgraded warp drives. We’ll retrofit them to your ships, provide in use and maintenance training, and we can even throw in enough spare parts to last a few years.”

Making an approving show of stretching themselves into an alert and awake state the big alien admitted, “Our people would benefit greatly from improved mobility. What do you ask in return?”

Knowing that the aliens would have no qualms about the task so long as he presented it properly Johnson explained carefully saying, “An artifact was recently recovered, and we’d like you to secure it for us. It weighs about half a ton is about a meter and a half in diameter. So you’ll need a crew to move it and a ship to haul it. A Consortium ship is currently on its way to pick this artifact up so moving quickly to obtain it is of the essence.” Mention of the Consortium of aliens which had risen to power riding on Terran coat tails piqued interest from the big alien.

Focusing large eyes on Johnson the big alien inquired, “If they are coming for it then who has this artifact?”

Knowing that this would be the tricky part Johnson tried to be precise and so avoid accusations of deception by saying, “Our information indicates it’s onboard an unarmed survey ship named Sevastopol. The ship is currently docked in the ship yards over Ural under ordinary security.”

With a tap Johnson sent the relevant information from his personal device to the local data system. This caused a minor commotion as the information was disseminated around the room. Sounds of both approval and disapproval resonated in the chamber.

Drumming the backs of their claws against the table the big Ka’Hath reviewed the information before concluding in hissing rumbles which translated as, “This is one of your colonies. These are your people.”

Spreading his hands innocently Johnson explained, “It’s complicated, and involves internal politics, but I’m sure you can understand why we cannot be seen to have any involvement in this.”

Giving the small Terran creature a hard look the Ka’Hath leader considered the request anew and then concluded, “Our ships will not be able to make it there before the device is recovered by the Consortium. That adds layers of complexity to the task. We will have to move quickly, covertly, and use swift Terran commercial transports if we are to make it there ahead of the Consortium. This will doubtlessly require specialized support.”

Realizing that he’d been successful in his task Johnson smiled and replied, “We can arrange anything you need within reason. It’s good to know we could count on you to undertake a complex time constrained operation like this, and you should know that you can count on us to come through for you.”

A flick of razor sharp claw dismissed Johnson’s words. “We can agree to the work, but your offer is insufficient.”

It wasn’t like Ka’Hath to haggle too strenuously. This may have hinted at the gang’s situation being more desperate than reports had indicated, or it may have simply been that they found the politics of the job distasteful. In either case time was critical enough that Johnson was unwilling to walk away without at least suggesting a counteroffer.

Uncertain how much more they could actually divert from production without their efforts raising suspicions Johnson said, “We may be able to provide more drives, but diverting that much industrial output without raising suspicion will take time.”

Both of the big alien’s ears flicked in dismissal of the offer, and then they explained, “Drives do not interest us. We are locked out of this market and need someplace new to start over. We need a new homeworld and this galaxy will no longer tolerate us. You are launching colonial expeditions to other galaxies. We want passage out of this one, and settlement on a world where we can begin anew.”

Johnson considered the request carefully before replying, “That’s possible. It wouldn’t directly violate our formal agreements with the Consortium and it can be publicly justified as a means of curbing disruptive raiding. If we have our people present your case properly we may even be able to provide resources to help you get your colony started,” it actually seemed as if fulfilling this request might be easier than diverting faster than light equipment from production, “but we are going to need that artifact. Bring it to us and we’ll exert our influence over the colonial affairs office to get you transport to a new home.”

Producing a large knife the length of a terrestrial forearm the big Ka’Hath moved towards Johnson and presented the weapon edge down and point to one side. Johnson reached out his own hands. The blade passed from one set of hands to the other thereby sealing the deal.

For a large carnivore like the Ka’Hath a knife was a practical symbol. It was expected that a blade given in such a manner would be used in daily life as a constant reminder of whatever pact had been made. Over time, with use, and sharpening the blades would diminish, but they would never be discarded. They could only ever be returned.

A Ka’Hath who was active in their community could be expected to have dozens of blades on their person at any time. At great length they’d be able to recount the meaning and story behind each one. While Terrestrials were less dependent on cutting tools than the large predatory aliens these Ka’Hath would treat the transfer with the same seriousness they treated such dealings among themselves.

With the job accepted the big Ka’Hath called upon the leaders of the flotilla to hash out how such a thing could be done. There was much posturing and threatening, within the bounds of acceptable Ka’Hath etiquette, as the details were discussed. In their own time honored way they decided how to approach the problem.

Johnson watched the proceedings in distracted interest. That a plan was decided upon quickly was more important than whatever the plan actually was. He had absolute confidence in the aliens to accomplish a goal they set their minds towards, and if that required escalating levels of violence then that was perfectly acceptable.

Unfortunately for Johnson’s mild curiosity his translation software was failing to keep up with the discussion. Without the translator all there was were the hisses, pops, rumbling growls, and low barks that made up the Ka’Hath language. A fair amount of the language was also body language, posture, and posturing to provide emphasis on particular words and phrases, and keeping up with all of this from multiple sources was too much for the machine.

When their leader moved to speak the room grew quiet and the translator managed to catch up. “We understand what must be done. It must be done quickly. With whom shall we place the future of the Faire-Reer?”

One shout answered, “A team of our best warriors!”

With a flickering of both ears their leader dismissed the notion. “No. We cannot fight our way through the Terran people if we expect them to transport us to a new home.”

The first voice complained, “There is not enough time to do this stealthily.”

With grace the leader conceded, “True, but we must act with swift restraint.”

After a moment of consideration another voice spoke, “What is needed is a team that knows Terran ways so as to avoid provoking them.”

Yet another voice observed, “We need skilled warriors who can exercise restraint and cunning.” The answer to this ended all discussion.

“Tiff Eck.” There was a long silence as the Ka’Hath who had spoken drifted forward to an anchor point near the center and then said in thickly accented standard Terrestrial broken into segments of equal words with heavily blended syllables, “I know the ways of Terrans. I have experience with their machines.” Then in their native language concluded, “I can do this for the Faire-Reer.”

It was very inefficient for Ka’Hath to speak in Terran Standard. They had to manage their words carefully in between gulps of air needed to match Terran volume, tone, and pitch. This wasn’t helped in the fact that they didn’t produce sounds in the same way that a terrestrial throat did which resulted in complex words being simplified. The approximation resulted in surprisingly intelligible approximation that could be easily understood by even the most accent challenged individual.

The assembled leaders seemed to accept this quickly and then one asked, “Who will aid you in this great matter?”

Tiff Eck, the one who had volunteered and come forward to speak, and explained in their own language, “This is a task for one, a blade running in the night. If blood is spilled it will stain only me, and the Terran people will be able to forgive the Faire-Reer.”

Noises of consensus filled the cavernous space, overloading the translation software once again, and after a time Johnson inquired, “What resources are you going to need?”

Tiff Eck already had a plan in mind and quickly answered, “Local currency, transit on a Terran ship, information on this world’s organization, false identification, and a proxy.”

Grasping the kind of plan that the alien had in mind Johnson smiled at the request and replied, “That won’t be a problem.”

Chapter 5 A Convergence of Agendas

We work in the dark to protect the light.”

Terran Intelligence Service motto

Location Ural, First Settlement Star Port

While the Eon could land like a conventional aircraft there was a universal preference by pilots to use the vectored thrust nozzles to bring the craft in vertically. In large part this preference was a result of training that almost universally focused on the more common vertical takeoff and landing vehicles. To an extent it was also the result of a pilot’s preference for more control over their approach.

Eon lowered to the tarmac on twin columns of perfectly balanced fusion fire. Structures built into the landing field absorbed and the tremendous heat and converted much of it into usable energy.

Grinning broadly Wang announced, “Touchdown with one hundred thousand liters to spare.”

Unimpressed by the accomplishment Li announced, “We’ve received new orders. We are directed to return to Xinjiang immediately.” Liu was impressed that they’d actually had managed to land on Ural before the Terran Intelligence Service administration’s orders had finally caught up with them.

Yan complained, “We just got here. They can’t even give me time to stretch my legs?”

Glancing at the message Liu started to climb out of the Eon’s bridge saying, “I’m going to finish my investigation.”

The three crew of the Eon looked at each other in shock at the statement and then quickly followed with Li insisting, “It’s an explicit order.”

Stopping at the food dispenser for a cup of the hot liquid that served in place of coffee Liu explained, “They didn’t end the mission and I still have my command authority. If they want to rescind that they can send someone out here to do it. They know where to find me. Until then I will continue this investigation to the best of my abilities.”

Leaning seriously against the bulkhead next to the food dispenser Wang implored, “Listen boss, I’m sure you’re doing what you think is right, but I’m not killing my career to satisfy your obsession.” Holding up his hands so as to ward off any insult he might have given the former commando Wang added, “No offense or anything.”

Following closely behind Wang and always very direct Li said, “The orders are marked ‘return immediately’. So if you’re not going to authorize the ship to depart then… we’re going to have to abandon the ship and take commercial transport.”

Nodding in agreement Liu replied, “I understand.” then to the engineer who had belatedly joined them added, “No sense in you staying either Yan. There’s enough traffic between Ural and Xinjiang that you three shouldn’t have any trouble finding a liner able to take on passengers.”

The trio looked at each other uncertainly and then Li observed, “Of course you could release the command codes and let us take the ship back.”

Nodding in emphatic agreement Wang added, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. Not that I want to spend any more time in this can than I have to, but the seniors will probably be less annoyed with you if you didn’t keep the ship.”

Also in agreement with the consensus Yan chimed in, “It’s not like you can fly this thing by yourself.”

Looking over the faces of his former crew Liu said, “I appreciate your concern, however my answer must be no. The TIS needs evidence to exonerate itself, and so my fate is joined to its. From the minute I decided to risk that raid my only remaining chance to save my own career has been to find some real answers. In pursuit of that the Eon is an asset I don’t plan on giving up.” Liu tried to smile encouragingly, “Enjoy your trip.”

While the crew packed and arranged their transport home Liu kept busy on the local data network identifying possible leads. Most of what he could go after were witnesses from the crew and whatever data could be pried out of the survey service networks. These were placed in order of priority based on their potential pay out and the amount of leg work they would require.

Gathering a standard data penetration kit disguised to look like ordinary luggage Liu departed the Eon. Only as he left did he realize that his crew was already gone. While they hadn’t said good bye Liu silently wished them a safe journey.

Using identification that formally identified Liu as a Terran Intelligence Service agent he was able to bypass a routine customs scan of his luggage and the illicit equipment it carried. It was one of the few privileges that local authority was expected to extend to the Terran Intelligence Service. In return Liu’s presence was officially recorded and he could expect to be given extra careful watch by local security forces. Given Liu’s current predicament it was a fair trade off.

As Liu loaded his luggage into a transport outside the star port terminal he reflected that he might not have much time. His seniors back at the Terran Intelligence Service headquarters on Xinjiang could send someone out to seize the Eon in just a few days. On the other hand they could let him continue to work the case as he was with the pretense of deniability if he should muck things up again. There was no way of knowing if maintaining the precariousness of Liu’s position suited the service’s leadership or if they truly had lost faith in his ability to complete his assigned task.

There wasn’t any sense in worrying too much about what his superiors might do. As so long as there was a chance to complete the assignment Liu was committed to pursue it. For the moment that meant securing access to the local data network, and the easiest way to do that was to rent a room. Some things in the trade never changed.

Inside the transport Liu found the generically pleasant interior common to such things. Everything was lightly padded to protect the passengers as they entered and exited the vehicle. Everything was smooth and un-textured so it could be easily cleaned. There were no visible controls save for a screen to accommodate visual communication.

As Liu situated himself automated customer service software inquired, “Where would you like to go today?”

There was a comforting familiarity to the question that Liu answered with, “I’ll be on world a week or two on business and I’ll need a place to stay.”

Earnestly the machine answered in the audio visual form of what was most likely a paid advertisement. “The Lux is Ural’s largest resort hotel. Its amenities are capable of serving anything from individual tourists to convention…” Liu cut the machine off.

“The Lux will be fine.” If it truly was the largest resort then that meant it would be all the easier for him to blend in.

Organizing payment the machine announced, “Projected fare costs are being presented on the internal display and your personal device. Please approve the transaction now.” Liu approved the payment with a tap at the personal device strapped to his wrist and the machine trundled off offering, “I can call ahead to make reservations for you.”

Looking out the transport’s window over the sprawling farmland that surrounded the star port Liu considered the offer before accepting. “That will be fine. A single bed should be sufficient; something economical.”

It was always good to appear as if ones arrival was expected. Unexpected visitors are always much more welcome when there is documentation proving they were expected. For Terran people the unknown and unexpected was always a threat that was at the very least to be held in suspicion.

Checking into the Lux Resort was an efficiently automated process behind a pleasant facade of smiling service industry employees. Soon Liu was in his small suite, and he wasted no time setting up the data penetration gear. It would take time for the automated systems to obfuscate their presence from local security systems, and more time to set up a series of repeaters to direct their actions through. This would be the most time consuming and possibly the most important aspect of the job, but Liu wouldn’t be there to supervise it.

After setting up the equipment to run without his supervision Liu headed out. There were a number of interviews he could perform in order to gather information directly, and those had to begin immediately. Unfortunately these would have to be conducted as a Terran Intelligence Service agent rather than in the guise of whatever authority would illicit the most cooperation.

Chapter 6 The Hunt is Afoot

Motivations of aliens are among the least alien thing about them. They want, they need, and they rationalize. Those are the basics of all intelligent life.”

Introduction to Xeno-Psychology

Location Ural Star Port, First Settlement

Terrans had made good allies. During the war they had been so in desperate need of allies they had expended much effort in order to appear reliable to a fault. That was in the past.

Now the Terrans were ascendant and they no longer needed allies. Perhaps it was habit that kept them from exerting dominance over the other species, but it couldn’t last. Things had changed, and as all Ka’Hath knew, more change always follows change.

Tiff Eck surveyed the busy star port concourse as the little creatures moved around her and towards the security checkpoint. Terran star ports often doubled as local transportation hubs for their world and this one was no exception. Where interstellar transports such the one Tiff Eck had arrived on might bring in a few hundred visitors in a day the local commuter shuttles moved thousands, and it was this that lent the concourse all its noise and energy.

Stretching her shoulders after the cramped confinement within the Terran transport Tiff Eck took stock of herself. In order to avoid drawing attention she was completely unarmed. Aside for her own natural and formidable teeth and claws there was not a single blade of obligation on her body. In order to move quickly she was carrying as little as possible.

The one concession Tiff Eck allowed to her mission was the sophisticated garment that concealed much of the dark aquamarine fur covering her body. It was ruggedly built, and would provide decent protection against ranged weapons. It was also sealable against environmental conditions with a built in miniature self contained life support system of Terran manufacture. Most usefully for her present circumstance it had a built in data system capable of interfacing with Terrestrial equipment which would aid in her immediate need for information.

Spotting a public terminal Tiff Eck strode towards it on heavily built digitigrade legs and the crowd of small beings parted around her. Powerful arms extended to the console meant for much shorter beings. Curved backs of long razor sharp claws served in place of fingertips to open the proper menus. When the machine shrieked acknowledgement at Tiff Eck in the local language her ears flicked in annoyance.

Stretching her neck far beyond the limits of what Terran physiology would have permitted Tiff Eck grunted to clear her throat then spoke the Terrestrial tongue in deep rumbling tones. “Inquiry on all local medical facilities.” The machine rambled for a time and once she had what she needed Tiff Eck interrupted, “Inquiry on all local ship yards.” Again the machine provided all relevant information.

It didn’t take long for Tiff Eck to transfer all required information to her own data systems, and soon she merged back into the flow of semi-chaotic traffic. The Terran people always reminded her of the prey creatures that wealthy Ka’Hath hunted for sport except that these did not flee from the presence of a predator in their midst. Some looked at her in wonder at the novelty of an alien, but they were not afraid.

***

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Stealing Sevastopol

The crew of the long range survey vessel Sevastopol having survived the perils of a distant galaxy has returned to the world of Ural after a long journey. Now the ancient artifact that helped them return to the safe embrace of civilization has become an object sought after by the very forces which instigated their odyssey. As the crew of the Sevastopol tries to move on with their lives a clandestine organization makes plans for a heist to steal the valuable artifact and the power to shape the future it represents for anyone who can unlock its secrets.

  • Author: GA Douglass
  • Published: 2017-08-02 20:35:08
  • Words: 70825
Stealing Sevastopol Stealing Sevastopol