It is the year 3885, two years after the end of the fifty year war between the Mind Empire of Hame and the Alios Protectorate. Without an outside threat to focus on, the Human and Alien peoples bound only by faith and commerce in the Mind Empire are beginning to fracture and squabble for power among themselves. To stop the growing discontent, the Navy remained active in its role as space security for the Empire and commissioned new officers to replace the dead and retired of the old command. Skrilxya Yonamey and Benjamin Rikaron are two of these officers. A former combat-master Sergeant of the Malluman Auxiliaries whose kind rarely receive a position in fleet command and an witty, adaptable, bridge adjutant from the human gentry slated for promotion. Skrilxya and Ben find themselves in need of the other's perspective or else their latest escort mission will end in political disaster.
05:00 Hours [Standard]: 17th April, 3885. In orbit of I'yrcon.
Second Commissioner Yonamey was not happy to be in command of the Happy Customer. It was an old starship, 2000 meters from bow to stern, one of the first B-3 models to come out of production at the Jovian Shipyard, in 3682 if she recalled the dedication plaque correctly. Skrilxya drew her index finger talon and picked some dust off the wall. The cleaning drones hadn't been through the corridors this week. She brushed the dust off her finger to the floor with disdain. Skrilxya walked with purpose to the bridge as the hallway's hidden machines moaned and buzzed around her.
Just as she left the postern hall and entered the forward mess she spied Eric Bumby, the junior-most adjutant for the bridge crew. A short and scrawny Haman human like Third Commissioner Rikaron, but lacking Ben's maturity and wit. He was messing with a nutrient paste tube when he saw the Second Commissioner approach. He jumped to attention and said with a proud salute: "Good morning Ma'am!"
"Good Morning Ensign, at ease" Skrilxya said with a short snarl. Grinning to show her teeth to the young Haman in what he would recognize as a smile she probed him for small talk. "Did you sleep well on the jump from Hame?"
"Yes Ma'am, I did Ma'am."
"Splendid, it was a short jump but a safe one. Have you been to I'yrcon before?"
"No I have not Ma'am! I have been to Corovan, Tao, Kuhamar, Old Hame and Lune, Mars, Mercuria..."
"Thank you Ensign" Skrilxya stopped him. "I see you have travelled well enough. This system should be a treat then. I'yrcon is the biggest metropolitan planet in the Empire, apart from Hame itself. There is a lot to do, and since we will probably be here for a while, I'll make sure you get some leave to go sight-seeing."
"Thank you kindly Ma'am" said Ensign Bumby, "Permission to ask a question Ma'am?"
"You may ask one question." She nodded.
"Thank you Ma'am, is I'yrcon's being the biggest population center outside of Hame-Sol the reason we are escorting the Priests here."
"Your perception is getting better Ensign Bumby! You are right, and I have a special task for you in relation to this mission. You are going to help Lieutenant Siwakoro monitor surface to orbit communications during your shifts."
"Thank you very much Ma'am!"
"Dismissed Ensign" said Skrilxya with another nod as she left Ensign Bumby and proceeded to the bridge. She knew that assignment would keep the Ensign out of trouble and out of the way of trying to join the escort team. He was impressionable and still had a lot to learn. She trusted that Lieutenant Siwakoro would keep Bumby out of trouble and focused.
The door chime rang as Skrilxya stood before the double-door into the bridge rotunda. As it slid open she could see the command crew bright awake and working hard. Lieutenant Gordon Siwakoro was hard at work at his station monitoring public and decrypted private comms-chatter. Lieutenant Eris Nimitzon was doing a routine double-check on life support, she was very particular and Skrilxya liked that. Lieutenant Othalia Orion was also doing a routine check of engineering systems and communicating with the other decks. Advising her was Lieutenant Rilya Jungabney and Ensign Ali Naon, both were unique specimens. Rilya was a Malluman who was skilled in technically complicated math and engineering principles. She studied at a premier institute in orbit of San, something Iyns didn't usually do. Ali was a cyborg who interfaced with the ship almost as much as the Navigator Pilot. They were still technically human because Haman humanity didn't draw a thick line between beast and machine. Skrilxya thought both Rilya and Ali were odd, but they did good work, and made sure Lieutenant Orion's fantastic schemes to keep the Happy Customer alive in the void stayed feasible. At the front there were two other Hamans: Lieutenants Kadia Gilvon and Blaise Fitzshuttle, the 'calculators' who aided the Navigator and directed the ships flight path. In the center of the room, showing two sleepy guests of honor the finer points of the bridge, was Third Commissioner Benjamin Rikaron.
Ben Rikaron was thin but broad shouldered and stood at a height of six feet and three inches, two feet shorter than Skrilxya but respectable for a standard human. He wore his beard and mustache clean and his white and black uniform was well pressed, showing no wrinkles. He was a smooth talker and knew it, which made he and Skrilxya decide immediately that he would be the main "handler" for their charges before they even considered that the elderly Grand Master Sedrick Landing might have apprehensions about working with a Malluman officer, or that the Grand Master's young aide Kalvin Kepler was a distant cousin of Ben's through a well travelled and wealthy family among the colonial gentry. Haman and Malluman families both in this era stayed well connected out to fourth and fifth cousins regularly, and the importance of family was one thing the two cultures could always agree on.
Ben was busy showing Master Landing and young Kalvin the way the Captain could interface the ship systems when he noticed Skrilxya trigger the door chime. As he wrapped up his explanation he announced cheerfully "Captain on Deck!" The other Lieutenants stood at attention. Skrilxya paused with her hands behind her back and stood at attention herself. "Crew Report, what is our current orbital status?"
"Lieutenant Gilvon reporting Ma'am: en route to I'yrcon geosync standard position three. We will be able to dock at Port Marlowe or South Polar Tower in 3.5 hours, Captain's choice."
"All systems calm?" Skrilxya asked. The Lieutenants reported in one by one, ending with Ben who replied "Third Commissioner Rikaron reporting, all crew and passengers in good health and spirits, Ma'am! We await your orders."
"All at ease," she said, and the crew released and went back to their work. Ben stood their smiling in a way that Skrilxya found utterly stupid but seemed to bring the best out of people. She stood bronze-eyed and stern, not bearing her teeth, and approached him and their guests.
"Jamon Landing" she said with a bow, using the honorific reserved for the psychic clergy. To her surprise he returned a polite nod of the head "Commissioner Yonamey, your first officer has been a delightful tour guide of this vessel. Quite an old ship yes?"
"That's correct your grace" Skrilxya said "I was surprised they wanted to use it, but its holding up thanks to good bones and a fine crew." She gave a glance to Lieutenant Orion, and Orion took the gesture with pride. Master Landing smiled and closed his eyes. "I have given many thanks to the Holy Spirit for a safe voyage. I only hope this trip has not been in vain. The High Sages demand order and I am here to give it to the people of I'yrcon."
"I pray you shall, Jamon" Skrilxya said. "I am a native of the system, my family lives on Yotun. So I know what task awaits you. Have you met with Governor Opalton before?"
"I have written correspondence to him, he rarely replies" Master Landing said with a shrug. "I know he is holding out for Jamon Mendoz to be approved, but their Eminences were insistent that I fill the position of planetary Archbishop and sit on the Governor's council instead."
"Then I suggest we make haste to the Capital at once. Siwakoro, have you determined that the Governor is at home?"
Lieutenant Siwakoro responded promptly "Ma'am! The Governor is at the Governor's Palace this week, I've crossed referenced his staff and the petitioners applications for audiences."
"Very good, Gilvon and Fitzshuttle, please set a course for South Polar Tower, we'll be departing for a meeting with the Governor upon docking!"
"Yes sir!" both the bridge-pilots replied. The ship made adjustments to its course, and through the window projection which encompassed the wall they could see the growing shape of I'yrcon and their approach toward the space elevator above the south pole.
Over the next three hours the Happy Customer would make a steady approach to South Polar Tower, appearing for all intents and purposes like a military contractor supply vessel rather than an Envoy from the Capital. The cargo manifest consisted of goods for the planetary defense force, but the very short passenger manifest did not list the church rank of the two guests of honor Sedrick Landing and Kalvin Kepler.
This was a purposeful distraction orchestrated by Skrilxya and Ben's patron in the Navy, Admiral Jeanbatis Jotaro. The navy's usual upgraded vessels would have been too easily recognized by the Governor's administration, and the High Sages suspected that Opalton would refuse Landing the right to enter the planet if he came with the Envoy's party or another capital ship belonging to the top brass. So while the official envoy of Nuncio Sarena Vulcana and the Admirals were already present, Commissioners Yonamey and Rikaron would sneak Landing in and use him to strengthen their chances of success. Getting an audience with Opalton would likely be the next challenge.
08:15 Hours [Standard]: 17th April, 3885. South Polar Tower docking spires.
The Happy Customer had parked comfortably at the berth designed for ships of Galleon tonnage. Skrilxya was in one of the "coat rooms" where space-suits and spare uniforms were kept, occupying herself with choosing her disguise. Third Commissioner Rikaron entered the room swiftly, turned to his commander and said "Our dummy captain and Lieutenant Siwakoro are working like a charm!"
Skrilxya breathed a sigh of relief. "Very lucky that Opalton only trusts biologicals to make weapons delivery."
"He only trusts biologicals because he can buy them out" Ben said as he approached his own disguised suit. "He trusts the machines he can control and make himself. It's only in interstellar trade that he demands biological pilots from his trading partners."
"Right" Skrilxya said curtly. "So little honor among Hamans, no integrity."
"On the contrary," Ben remarked "Opalton bribes the merchants to protect his honor and the honor of his cronies. That's the main motive of colonial administrators across the Empire. Honor goes hand in hand with effective control and profit."
"That is alien to me" said Skrilxya.
"Just so, I don't subscribe to it either" Ben shrugged. "Some people need to be forced to do right."
"And that" said Skrilxya as she hefted a helmet and gloves to go with her vacuum suit "is why we need to get Master Landings to the surface to confront Opalton."
Ben nodded and agreed. He was undressed to his skinsuit and preparing his own vacuum suit "I was surprised you decided to come straight to South Polar Tower. Don't you think Port Marlowe would have been more subtle?"
"And make us put the whole southern hemisphere between us and Opalton? No, too risky." Skrilxya almost growled under her breath as she put on the gloves and boots "too many variables with his security forces. Especially with no more Aliosan invasions to distract them."
"Well in that case" Ben said as he zipped up his first layer "don't you think it would be wise to use a different plan? The Gunner-Pod is big enough to get picked up by drone-radar. And even if we make it through, where will we land?"
"I have thought of that." Skrilxya said tugging at her right boot. Just then, another Malluman already partly suited for the void entered the room. "Bolamey!" Skrilxya said pleased. "Did Lieutenant Orion fix the Pod?"
"She did" growled Bolamey, a large Malluman by their own standards at nine feet in height.
"Did she really manage to re-code it?" Ben said with a smile.
"Yep! It'll register as a maintenance pod to the radar drones. And like you said, Opalton trusts the machines he programmed himself." Skrilxya said with a wry, reptilian, wink.
Ben slapped his knee happily "well then, now we just have to land safely! Where are we landing then?"
"That was planned by Jamon Landing and Jamona Vulcana. There is a mechanical depot-tower close to the Governor's palace that we can set the Pod on autopilot to reach. Vulcana's Malluman aides will be positioned below to meet us. We drop out before it lands in the depot and they meet us outside a diner called the "Grease-Wagon".
"Great," Ben said, "I think we have fifteen minutes until the window is open. Let's go check up on our "cargo.""
Meanwhile in another nearby room Master Landings and his young aide Kalvin Kepler were also dressing for the void, though with greater difficulty than their military escort.
Kalvin was messing with some of the controls on the vacuum suit while Master Landings was uncomfortably fitting his boots onto his feet. “Just for the ride down” the old man muttered to himself. Kalvin asked him: “Do you need any help Jamon?”
“No thank you my son, I am able to suit myself” Master Landings said with a grunt and a tug of bootstraps.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?” asked Kalvin.
“What, an orbital drop? Once when I was about your age, it was on Mars so the gravity was much lighter than I’yrcon’s but terminal velocity feels pretty much the same everywhere. Good news is we will be inside a ship.”
“Right, it’s just one pod though, and until now I’ve never actually left Hame.”
“Well then you are in for quite a sight, and you’ve got me and your cousin Ben along with you!”
“Yep,” Kalvin said, still nervous as Skrilxya and Ben walked through the door. “It’s time,” said the Second Commissioner. The two clerics finished assembling their suites and walked with the Commissioners and their Sergeant-At-Arms Bolamey. Skrilxya radioed the bridge and informed Orion and Siwakoro that they were in command of the Happy Customer until they returned and were commanded to keep it in dry dock. The five then boarded a rail-cart in the nearby access tunnel and shot down the hull of the ship to the gunner-pod bay. One of the pods was ready for launch, a small maintenance type of craft that could comfortably seat two, maybe three. Five large people now were crammed inside and Bolamey took the pilot slot. There was some negotiation about space in the craft when Bolamey decided simply to lift off and exit the ship. She would begin broadcasting the codes as ordered and remarked “this will take them off our trail.”
“Good” Skrilxya said “they’ll see us as a worn down tug, nothing more, going in for repairs on the surface.”
“Next part is the shield,” Ben said dryly. The gunner-pod was driven slowly away from the docking spires linking the Happy Customer to the platform-city of South Polar Tower. They watched the light number of crew in spacesuits servicing the hull shrink and disappear as they began a wide arc of descent. Then Bolamey picked up speed. They took all of fifteen minutes to descend from 900,000 feet to 400,000 feet, where they approached the layer of the shield-bubble.
Every great metropolitan planet of the Mind Empire was equipped with such a bubble, with specific gates for aero-space craft to exit and enter. The one exception was maintenance craft, which could pass through any point. The trick was to enter slowly and pass through the plasmic membrane, otherwise they would bounce and be obliterated like the asteroids which often struck the shield.
As Bolamey slowed the descent she told Ben to hop on the controls with her, together they maneuvered the craft to turn and land on the shield. As they touched it, slowly it began to sink at a creeping pace. Ben calibrated the thrusters and Bolamey turned the craft to optimize their entry. Skrilxya was pleased with their teamwork. Beforehand Bolamey and Ben could hardly get along, but they excelled with common purpose.
Suddenly, the craft plopped through and began dropping. After letting it fall naturally for a few seconds that seemed like minutes, Bolamey engaged the atmospheric thrusters and guided the craft down and across.
Now the vista of I’yrcon City was revealing itself between the clouds. The gunner-pod seemed like less than a speck to anyone on the ground as it approached the metropolis that encompassed the sub-continent island near the planet's south pole. There were many great towers, including the base of the space elevator, that bore stylized faces and monuments to sacred saints of the church and the founders of the planet’s society. There were great spires and domes in Haman style stretching and poking through the clouds, and among those were skinny rod-like constructs like the one they approached with great speed.
It looked almost like a very tall cactus with many spines reaching out to plug drones and small craft into itself. As they got within twenty miles of this tower and nearly three miles above the ground Bolamey gave the signal: “we are in tractor distance.”
She released the controls and showed everyone that the craft was now being dragged in automatically by a magnetically charged field that would re-route the automatic craft toward their home base. It was the same for maintenance crews like they were pretending to be.
“Any word from the ship?” Skrilxya asked.
“No” Bolamey said. “We don’t have open communication with them at this time.”
“Then we have to go with the drop.” Skrilxya said.
“You’re sure about that?” Ben asked.
“Yes, better to get straight to the landing site than have to climb down that and get caught by security cameras.”
“Very good,” Ben said. “Alright Jamon, cousin, let's get you ready to fly!”
Everyone's suits were equipped with thrusters that could get them to the surface. The suits were meant for this part of the mission and as a precaution in case their craft was destroyed. Kalvin was nervous about the jump, but Ben reassured him that this was a safe procedure and he only needed to maintain good mental control. Something that as a psychic adept he was training to do anyway.
The buttons were simple enough, and Kalvin meditated to himself as he prepared to exit the craft. Skrilxya crouched behind him at the opening door. “Come now boy, this part is easy.” She gave him a light push out of the pod with her right hand and she followed quickly after him.
She could hear him screaming over their in-helmet radios but he soon quieted down and began adjusting himself with the suit thrusters. She did likewise and maneuvered herself next to him. “I’ve got my eyes on you” she said.
“Yes Ma’am” he replied quietly. Skrilxya found it hard to believe that this was Ben’s cousin, although he did say they were distantly related, and she remembered herself and her own sisters.
Skrilxya turned upward to see Ben proving her mental note, doing tricks in the air as he watched the Grand Master, and Bolamey above them. All five were slowly falling toward the ground in one of the suburbs. Skrilxya directed all five toward the "Grease-Wagon", which stood on the side of the road inconspicuously in a one story rectangular building with a big neon light.
Two by two their feet touched gravel and they disengaged the thrusters. Skrilxya and Ben were the first to take off their helmets and look around the back lot of the restaurant where they landed. To the side of the building they saw one Haman and four Mallumans approaching. At first Skrilxya breathed a sigh of relief, but then she found herself struck with trepidation. She recognized the clan emblem of the Mallumans in that group, but it wasn't Qornamey, like Sarena's allies were. It was the emblem of the Ruby Banner, a clan native to this system and rivals to her own clan. Moreover, they were loyal to Opalton.
The Haman with them was wearing a black cloak and golden accessories, including a mask with a scowling face on it. He introduced himself to the five. "I am Sheriff Modin Keltos, member of the Governor's Institute. I'd like you all to come with me."
Before they could answer or make any moves in response he drew a charged pistol. "Come quietly, the Governor requests a private audience with his grace the Grand Master."
To be continued...