This is the fifth book in the Sinclair Saga

This is a serial novel.

It tells the story of a descendant of King Arthur set in the future in an Interstellar Empire.

It carries the story of Isla Marin, the sentient spaceship, and Merlyna, the devastatingly beautiful android that allows the ship to interact with humans and the physical world, forward five hundred years.

The ship has been in hibernation mode since the 21st century to preserve its diminishing supply of anti-matter fuel.

Before going into shutdown the ship had predicted that mankind would come into contact with an alien race some 500 years into the future.

Isla Marin is back.

The first four books are available on Kindle and Amazon.  Links are published under the “About” tab above.

Best to all,

Ted Snedeker

 

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Seventeen

Moore’s World
I

“We have to be careful, Tiger,” Capt. Mick told his second in command.  “There are other predators on this planet besides the aliens.”

The skimmers had floated up over the seawall into a steaming, equatorial jungle.  A black river emptied into the ocean less than a hundred yards from their landing zone.  Capt. Mick sent his lead skimmer ahead on point, following the stream inland.  At its mouth, it formed an estuary, over a hundred yards wide.  It narrowed quickly to half that width a quarter mile into the tangled vegetation.  Jungle foliage crowded down to and over the water on both sides.  Soon, even the faint glow of starlight was lost in the dense overgrowth. Read more

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Sixteen
Sinclair Station – Sparta System

Zachary Sinclair sat behind his nephew Emil’s desk watching the lines of figures march down the simulated screen in front of him.  He was looking at the consolidated balance sheet of the Sinclair family fortune.

The numbers were so large as to be incomprehensible.

“I had no idea…” he mumbled.  The elderly gentleman sitting across from him in one of the armchairs on either side of a love-seat sofa facing the desk said nothing.  He was exhibiting a relaxed posture as if he was familiar with, and comfortable in, the august setting of Emil’s office.  His name was Lathrop Jennings.  He was the comptroller for the Sinclairs, had been for decades, and had been hired by Walter and Emil’s father.  He was regarding the present master-of-station with a bemused look of disapproval.

Mister Jennings had known Zachary since he had been his first employer’s kid brother.  He was intimately familiar with Zachary’s youthful indiscretions.  Lathrop hadn’t approved then, and had, in his own mind, little reason to change his opinion of the man now.  He looked across the desk and compared the two Sinclairs.

Emil had been tall and slender, esthetic, imbued with a sense of style in his dress and manner that his stocky brother lacked.  Zachary had been a linebacker in college and fought in the MMA ring for sport.  He was squat and powerful.  His thrice-broken nose gave his gnarled and battered face an intimidating visage.  Through college, and for four years thereafter, Zachary drank, chased women, and fought.  It was his life, he loved it and didn’t see any reason it shouldn’t go on forever.

His older brother had slightly different ideas.

Jantz Garet Jr. had called Zachary into his office at the ranch on the morning of his brother’s twenty-fifth birthday.  He had brought the young man in, he informed him, to offer him a job.

It was the kind of offer, Zachary discovered, he couldn’t say no to.  The reason being, if he didn’t take it, he was cut off without a farthing.  Zachary was headstrong and rebellious, opinionated and reckless, but he knew very well, JG did not bluff and was not known to make idle jests.  Faced with penury, he took the job.

His major in college had been mining engineering.  Even with all his partying he had graduated cum lade and had, somewhat surprisingly, come away with a decent understanding of his chosen field of endeavor.

His brother had given him a mining company whose sole asset was the mineral rights to a moon-sized asteroid in the far reaches of the belt.  It was a tough assignment, far from the nightlife of Sparta, but after a few months; Zachary found he loved the job, the challenge and the sense of accomplishment derived from wresting wealth from cold, airless rock.

The miners on Igneous were a rowdy lot, tough and stubborn.  They had broken the spirit of the last two supervisors who had tried to corral them into doing their jobs and sent the administrators scurrying for Sparta with their tails between their legs.  Despite the billions of credits the Sinclairs had poured into the operation, it had never turned a profit.

It helped that Zachary was an owner.  It didn’t hurt that within an hour of his arrival on station he had broken the nose and left arm of the station’s union steward and left the two men who had come to the steward’s aid, writhing on the floor, with limbs twisted out of joint.

Within the week the station was running in the black.

Zachary had been out on Igneous a little over three years when disaster struck.  He had turned the operation around and was starting to squirrel away a little nest egg of his own.  Luckily for him, he had been on the opposite side of the moonlet when a stray house-sized asteroid slammed into the main facility traveling at twenty-five kilometers a second.

They saw the flash and felt the impact.  The force was such, it knocked Igneous out of its orbit and sent it spiraling toward the sun.  Nearly a trillion guilders in investment, ore and processed metal was wiped out in a single second.

Zachary and the two engineers who had been with him had been surveying a new vein of scandium and yttrium that promised to be the most exciting find in the last two years.  They spent the next two months trapped in an exploration vehicle, clinging to life, awaiting rescue.

Zachary had spent two months in hospital on Sparta being treated for radiation poisoning, hypoxia, and hypothermia.  When he was released, his brother informed him his mining days were over.  He was given the job of managing the Sinclair estates on Sparta.

Zachary thought he would die on Sparta doing the job he had come to love until Emil had swallowed a bullet from his own gun.  Now he was thrust into the cauldron of Sinclair Station lacking even a ghost of an idea how to run it or what to do next.

“Walter should be here,” Jennings grunted.  “He is the heir, after all.  Just because of some judge…”

It had been twenty years since anyone had had the temerity to challenge Zachary.  As the manager of all the Sinclair estates on Sparta, he had supervised over three thousand employees. The fact that he was being dismissed as unworthy, rankled.  He felt a surge of heat come up in his throat.  “Calm down, you need this man.  You can’t bust his nose like a union steward.  This is a different situation.”  Zachary clamped down on his anger.

“Well, unfortunately, he is not.  He is off somewhere on an important mission, so we’ll have to muddle along until he returns.”

“Zachary, I’ve known you since you were a little boy; are you sure you’re going to be up to running this station and managing the Sinclair businesses.”

There it was, out in the open.  He had been judged and found wanting.  There was no hand of fire, but the implication was pretty damn clear, whether it was written on the wall or not.

Zachary thought about his response, tamped down his anger.  He knew the staff at Sinclair Station had admired Emil.  In fact, they had almost viewed him as a minor god.  They would have accepted Walter, the Navy hero, as the legitimate heir.  His nephew’s reputation of courage and integrity would have ensured a smooth transition of power.

Zachary was going to have to earn it, the staff thought of him as a dumb farmer.

“I don’t know about that, Jennings,” Zachary said through clenched teeth.  “What I do know is, that twenty-three years ago I went out to the far reaches of this belt and in a week turned an operation around that hadn’t made a farthing since it had been established.”  He had used Jennings last name intentionally, setting the relationship in stone. “When I landed on Igneous I didn’t have a clue about hard-rock mining, but I knew how to work and how to get others to work with me.  It succeeded then, and I have to think it will succeed now.”

As the other five department heads filed into the office for their introductory meeting, Lathrop was looking at the man across the desk as if a total stranger had come in to sit down behind it.

Zachary and Lathrop both rose to walk to the conference table at the other side of the office.  Zachary walked to his place at the head of the table beneath the large portrait of Jantz Garet Sr.  As the division officers were getting settled, Emil’s secretary entered the room from her office adjacent to Emil’s desk.  She was carrying a paper in her hand and looking at it as if she was afraid it might explode into flames at any moment.

“I’m sorry to interrupt, Sir, but I thought you would want to see this immediately,” she said as she handed the paper to him and jerked her hand back, relieved to be shed of its menacing presence.

Zachary glanced down at the document and felt his heart rate increase.  It was an inter-lens telex, sent through the lens in microburst packets during the few milliseconds when the lens opened naturally from time to time.

It had the seal of the Imperium and the return address of the IIS headquarters on Byzantium.  Zachary quickly dropped his eyes to the text.

Uncle Zachary,

As I write this I’m leaving for New Jerusalem.  I wish I could come to Sparta and give you this message personally, but I find it impossible at the present time.

When the time is right, I will return to Sparta.

I understand the National probate judge has appointed you as acting head of the Sinclair estate and Chief-of-Station at Sinclair Station.  He has done this in my absence.

As the legitimate heir to the Sparta Sinclair Clan, I want you to know I’m in full agreement with this decision.  I’m asking you to take control of Sinclair Station and manage it to the best of your ability. 

I would like to remind you that from my great-grandfather down to the present, our position has been, we will not surrender ownership or management of Sinclair Station to anyone or any organization.  We will destroy the station and all of its equipment before yielding it, and we will defend it to the best of our ability using all weapons at our disposal.

I would ask that you continue that policy.  If you cannot, then please do not assume the leadership role.  If that is the case, I have enclosed, under separate cover, detailed instructions to turn over management to a trusted friend and former comrade in arms who is named in that document and is living on Sparta.

If you are willing to assume command under those conditions, please accept my sincere gratitude and proceed knowing I’ve every confidence in your ability, loyalty, and competence.

You will find that Sinclair Station has weapons at its disposal unlike anything else the Imperium can field.  If the Emperor or any of his lackeys try to take it, use whatever force is necessary to prevent it.  You must never yield the station.  The fate of the entire human race may depend on Sinclairs retaining possession.

I know how that sounds. Please believe me, as unlikely as it may seem, it is just.that.simple.

You will find attached proxies from my sister and I giving you full authority to vote our combined stock in any stockholder’s meetings.  Those proxies give you total control of the entire Sinclair estate and all its assets.  Use it well.

Best and warmest regards, may God bless you and keep you,

Walter Sinclair

 Zachary stood in shocked silence, studying the telex, rereading it to make sure he understood what it was telling him… and the rest of humanity, for that matter.  Instead of taking his seat he walked to the other end and handed it to Jennings.

Jennings read it, his face turning white as the implications of the telex sank in.  Finally, he looked up at Zachary and smiled sickly.

“Well, little brother, it looks like your time has come.  You are now the richest, most powerful man in the Sparta system.”

***

 President’s Office
New Jerusalem

“I wish I could say you were welcome to our world, Commander, but frankly, you bring so much baggage and potential trouble, I’m afraid I’m conflicted,” President Aaron Ben Gabriel told me.  Rosslyn and I were sitting next to each other in the president’s office in front of his desk on one of two facing sofas.  The president sat across from us with a coffee table between loaded with pastries and a tea service.

“Perhaps what I have to tell you will assuage your misgivings, Mister President,” I replied.

“I hope so.  You realize this is very irregular, I’m being criticized from all sides by agreeing to this meeting.”  I had requested a one-on-one meeting with the president because what I was going to tell him, was not going to be well received, by the Knesset and the ruling hierarchy of the Jewish nation.

We were leaving and we were going to take the child prodigy with us.  Isaac Mendel was a celebrity in Jewish society.  His brilliance in mathematics was only exceeded by his knowledge of Holy Scripture.  He had been speaking at the Cathedral of Solomon since he was twelve, captivating his audiences with his commentary.

He had developed a popular theology, tracing Yahweh’s promises through four-thousand five-hundred years of Jewish history and demonstrating how New Israel was the actual promised land.  His teaching had sparked a revival of faith and a renewed sense of national purpose.  The people thought he had the hand of God on him and was blessed by the Spirit.  Some said he might be the promised Messiah.

My taking him away was not going to sit well.

“I know our presence here has caused you quite a bit of angst.  We are aware, the Imperium is adamant that we be detained and turned over to their tender mercies.  We appreciate your support and continued refusal to bend a knee to the Emperor’s threats and demands.  We know the pressure has had to be intense.”

‘Hmmm,” the president, grunted but didn’t reply for a long moment, as if trying to frame an appropriate response, or perhaps debating on telling the whole truth.  Finally, he continued.

“Honestly, up to this point, it has been all talk.  The Imperial fleet is still moored in home-port on Byzantium and the threatened sanctions have not been implemented.  Quite frankly, we are puzzled at the Imperium’s actions.  On one hand, they seem to want you returned at all costs, on the other, they apparently are aware of our inability to accede to their demands.”

“Why are you puzzled?”

“It seems to indicate an unprecedented level of common sense has prevailed at the highest levels of the Imperial government.”

“Yes,” I laughed.  “Common sense and the ruling hierarchy of the Imperium seems to be an oxymoron.  However, what you are seeing is evidence of an internal conflict within the power structure of the Empire.  There is a significant block that is just as happy that I am gone.  I’m a threat to their iron rice bowls.  As long as I’m absent, the status quo isn’t threatened.”

“Well, I can appreciate that.  Your presence here is certainly a threat to our status quo.  You must understand, that to my people, the Empire is a looming, ever-present menace, a towering dragon that threatens to devour us.  A significant plurality of those folks has allowed their fear of Imperial aggression to become obsessive.  They are convinced our harboring you and your ship are harbingers of doom.”

“First, let me assure you, Mister President, the Empire is no threat.  The Imperium is a shadow of its former self.  It’s hobbling along, under attack from within and without.  The body politic is rent with dissension, Islamic terrorism has raised its ugly head again.  Pirates are raiding commercial routes and two different alien races are threatening the borders of the Empire.  Believe me, the dragon has no teeth.”

“Perhaps it is as you say.  However, my people have endured persecution, genocide and slavery for four thousand years.  They have a genetic racial paranoia that is difficult to assuage.  You’re saying the threat is not real will not change that.”

“I understand, Mister President.  That is what I am here to tell you.  We are leaving.”

I could see a sense of relief flow over the chief executive as he smiled and straightened his shoulders, but before he could reply, Rosslyn spoke up.

“The Empire is not an evil threat to anyone.  The Imperium is the bulwark of civilization, the defender of order and the last true hope of mankind.  Without the Empire holding things together humanity slips back into chaos, anarchy, slavery, and oppression.  This is my belief and what I’ve dedicated my life to preserving.”

My sister was a true believer.

I didn’t know what to say.  I had seen some of the seamier undersides of the Imperial bureaucracy and witnessed the corruption of a great number of the Emperor’s lackeys.  I had no illusions about the Imperium being either the bulwark of civilization or the defender of anything other than the oligarchies’ privileges.  I looked at Rosslyn with what had to be a blend of disbelief and sympathy; I loved her, but she was so naive.  Before I could respond, the president spoke up.

“Perhaps it looks like that from the inside looking out.  From our perspective, the Empire is governed as it was founded, state-centric.  That is, the individual is forced to sublimate his or her wellbeing to that of the state.”

“For the most part, that is true.  Any other way leads to chaos and anarchy.”

“Yes, I’m sure that is what you believe.  However, I’m afraid you’re mistaken, there is a better way and I believe we have found it here.”

“I would be interested to hear how that works for you,” Rosslyn said skeptically.

“Israel has tried a number of different types of government through the centuries, ranging from kings to an almost pure democracy.  None of man’s governments seem to work for us.  When the founding fathers came out to the stars, they decided to go back to basics.  They took the book of Deuteronomy, secularized it and developed a code of law to govern our people.  This law puts the individual first.  No man, no matter his station or position is exempt from the law.”

“Who enforces this law?”

“We have judges, just as God instructed the children of Israel.  The judges have a police force to back them up, and they have me and the executive branch of the government to enforce their decrees.”

“Well, I’m happy that it works for you.  You have your way and we have ours…”

“Your way is evil,” the president interrupted.  He said it softly, without judgment, simply stating his case as if it were apparent to the most casual observer.

“Wait one minute…!” Rosslyn bit back.

“The Imperium has an entire people enslaved, disenfranchised and ignored.  There are literally billions of your fellow citizens who are deprived of life, liberty, and property.  How is that not evil?

“That isn’t true!”

“I’m referring to the people you call “skinnies.”

“They are taken care of, pampered…”

“They are trapped in their rings, unable to live on the surface of a planet.  They cannot vote, have no say in their governance, and their lifespans are half of what a citizen can expect.  How is that not slavery?”

“They are not forced to work,” Rosslyn objected.  “…and rejuvenation therapy doesn’t work in microgravity.”

“No, I’ll admit, they are not whipped and beaten, then chained to a workstation.  But incentives and disincentives are built into the structure of their culture.  They really have little choice.”

“Look!” I said forcefully, breaking into their argument.  “We don’t have time for this, as much as I’m sure you two are enjoying it.  We need to get moving.”  I paused to let their attention focus on me and allow them to cool down a moment before going on.  “We need to depart for Calderon.  The only person in the galaxy who can take the formulae we have and tell us how to design and build the equipment necessary to construct a time-bridging star-drive is there.  We will need to take Isaac with us.”

“No, I’m afraid that is impossible,” the president exclaimed.  “…there would be riots.”

“I don’t think so, Mister President.  At this very moment, Isaac is addressing a crowd at the cathedral.  It’s being broadcast worldwide by the media.  He is telling the people that he is going with us of his own free will, and in fact, has been instructed by God to accompany us on a mission to save mankind.”

“Alright,” the president said after a long moments consideration.  “If it is to be done, it is best done quickly.  Begone, then, the sooner the better.”

***

 

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Fifteen

Moore’s World
with the
Imperial Guard, Echo Force – Team Six

Captain E.E. (Mick) McCullum, commanding team six, squirmed uncomfortably in the cramped, confining interior of the entry capsule which protected his life in the wispy upper atmosphere of the planet he was plunging toward.

The stealth ship which had come in on the dark side of the world below had decelerated in orbit to match the planet’s rotation before it had released the fourteen capsules, carrying his team and their equipment, twenty miles above the planet’s surface.  With no speed differential to bleed off, the large planet’s gravity alone was pulling his pod to the surface at an ever-accelerating rate.

Since the shuttle had released them just above the ozone layer, it was smooth sailing for the first moments.  Capt. Mick knew that once they penetrated the ozone layer the buffeting would start.  He just hoped that it wasn’t too severe.

He activated his helmet and looked down between his feet.  The helmet was connected to a network of cameras on the exterior of the pod allowing him a 360-degree view of the environment outside of the capsule.  The pods were designed to descend with their occupant’s feet oriented toward the ground.

The view did not give him a lot of comfort.  There was a storm raging below.  The solid-black cloud layer was lit periodically with vast sheets and frightening stabs of lightning.  It was good news / bad news; the good news was, the storm would conceal their approach.  The bad news was, they would get beat up mercilessly coming down through it.

He felt a tug and a slight deceleration as the stabilizing, drogue-chute deployed that would keep his pod oriented correctly for the descent.  In Moore’s World’s thick atmosphere, the drogue-chute would slow the capsule to a little over a hundred miles an hour.  At five thousand feet, a large parasail would deploy, allowing the pod to touch down as if it had free fallen from no more than four feet.

At least that is what Capt. Mick fervently hoped would happen; going into the sea at one hundred plus miles per hour would not be pleasant.

Capt. Mick did not want to go into the sea at any speed.  The parasail gave him quite a bit of control once deployed.  His plan was to steer the capsule to a beach and land with dry feet.  In his previous six insertions, he had a perfect record.

He had gone into the water every time.

It was one of the burdens of command.  Mick wouldn’t land on a beach until the rest of his unit was down, dry and safe.  That is to say, he could; there was no regulation stating the commander had to wait.  In fact, some of his peers held it was their duty to land first so they could take command sooner.

Capt. Mick felt it was more important that his fire team was on the ground and set up to protect the rest of the unit before he arrived.  They didn’t need him to tell them how to deploy and how to fight in the first moments of an insertion.  They had trained for years for every conceivable scenario.  Only when they were on the beach, set up, and the equipment modules unloaded would his leadership be needed to carry out the mission.

This entire mission had a sense of unreality.  Mankind had never encountered any other sentient, intelligent life in the six hundred years since they had launched their first tentative steps into the cosmos by landing a man on their moon.  If the reports were to be believed, not only had men finally bumped up against another star-faring race; the aliens had reportedly taken over Moore’s World and were eating the human inhabitants.

It seemed like a sick, adolescent joke and, if so when Capt. Mick got his hands on the perpetrators…  In the meantime, he had to proceed on the basis that the fantastic story had at least a modicum of truth.  His orders were clear, find out the truth, determine the alien strength and dispositions, but in no uncertain terms; he was not to start an interspecies war.

Captain McCullum was an anomaly.  He was fifty-five years old; a mustang who had served as an enlisted soldier for thirty years before going to OCS.  He had no family, few friends and knew no other life than serving his Emperor in the Imperial guard.  He had graduated from OCS with his captaincy due to his age and experience.  He would go no higher.  In five years, he would retire from his company commander position, with the best wishes of the service, and enter a new life.  He was not looking forward to it and refused to think about it.

He and his team had been dispatched within days of the alarm being raised, but the iron reality was, although it was only yesterday to them, five years had passed since the scout ship carrying he and his team had dived into the lens connecting his home system, their naval base, and the governor’s office, to this forbidding world.

Once in the system, they had checked back for updates.  Nothing had been heard from Moore’s World in the five years they had been in transit.  That was unsettling.  There was a task force coming behind them that had been launched three months after they departed.

For ninety days, they were on their own.

Beneath Mick’s feet, the maelstrom seemed to clear a bit.  The insertion was planned to slip his team into position where they would land on a beach as the eye of the storm passed over.  It was thought they would have up to a half hour to get assembled and off the beach before the back side of the raging storm hit them.

“Deceleration chute deployment in ten seconds,” the sultry voice of the pod’s AI whispered in his ear.  He braced his legs for the shock.  “Whoomp,” the first of four huge, gossamer-thin chutes deployed above the capsule sending shock waves up his legs as if someone had slammed the bottom of his feet with a ball bat.

A few seconds later and even greater shock raced up from the bottom of the capsule as the three main drag-chutes deployed in a great triple-umbrella over the pod.  Exactly seven seconds later, after a hundred miles per hour of velocity had been purged, they were released to dissolve in the atmosphere without a trace.

The parasail deployed one heartbeat later, slowing the capsule to fifty miles per hour and giving Mick control at last.  He felt his feet come up and his body settle back into the sling-like seat behind him.  Where the capsule descended at speed in a vertical orientation, it was flown in an almost horizontal configuration.  Mick closed his hands around the control handles at his waist and experimented with a couple of shallow turns to verify everything was deployed and working as designed.

His right hand controlled the angle of attack, his left controlled the warping of the sail to give him directional control.  He slowed his descent to less than one hundred feet per minute and made a great circle to observe the scenario below.

“Eleven, twelve…” he mumbled to himself as he counted the deployed parasails below.  A surge of adrenaline hit him as he realized one chute was absent.  He pulled in a sixty-degree turn to give him a wider view; as he swung around, the large gray shape of a cargo pod came into view a couple hundred yards to his right, descending at the same level with him.

“Mick, Sanchez and I are on the ground,” First Lieutenant L.T. (Tiger) Boswell reported in.  “We have control of the cargo pods.”  Mick felt a slight relaxation, knowing his second in command was on the ground and the team’s essential equipment was in his capable hands.

White light from the single large moon flooded the beach as the storm’s eye developed around the landing party.  For once, the plan seemed to be unfolding on schedule.  Mick made two more circling turns around the landing area watching the pods spread out across the beach, discarding their parasails.  As the airfoils were released the interior of the wings were given a shot of helium that carried them aloft to dissolve along with the drogue-chutes.

Mick made one more descending turn that brought him around to the south of the deployed force on final.  As the ground rushed up to meet him he watched the three fire teams scrambling toward the tree-line to take position and the remaining troops clomping around in their enhancement harnesses, stacking their pods in a circle above the high-water mark.

The two cargo pods were sitting at either end of the landing area.  As Mick’s capsule thumped lightly to the ground, released its sail, and shoved its hydraulic arms into the soil to bring it vertical, he watched the near-side of the far cargo pod drop down, revealing its contents.

The front of Mick’s capsule popped open, clamshell-like, and he felt the damp, thick, air wash over him.  It was redolent with the aromas of a living, breathing planet.  The jungle flora mingled with the tangy salt-water breeze from the ocean, slapping in the face him like a physical blow.  Months of breathing the sterile air of the ship and orbiting station where he had been stationed, had become the norm.

He took a long moment and just breathed the fragrant air into his lungs.  It felt like life.  He became invigorated…  Then he caught an unmistakable whiff of the oncoming storm.

“Mick, the fire teams are deployed, the pods are being assembled…” Lieutenant Boswell informed him as Mick stepped out of his capsule wearing his exoskeleton.

“Oversight, do you read,” Mick subvocalized into his throat mike.  He glanced up to his right and focused on a pinpoint of purple light displayed on his helmet’s visor.  He blinked his right eye which connected him to the solar-powered autonomous aircraft sailing high above the storm.

Oversight was a glider equipped with twelve tiny electric motors. It was constructed of carbon nanotubes and transparent graphene film.  It was invisible to radar and difficult even to see visually.  Its enormous wingspan gave it lift in the wispy air at extreme altitudes.  It was equipped with myriad sensors, cameras, and telescopes.  Its rudimentary AI was as faithful as an old dog.

‘Oversight, aye,’ the tinny voice of the glider’s AI responded from far above the storm.  The laser transmitter/receiver on one of the cargo pods had made connection.  “You are clear, no sign of any enemy activity.”

“How much time do we have until the storm hits us?”

“The first rain will return in approximately fourteen minutes,” the AI informed him.

“Okay, Tiger, we seem to be clear of any immediate threats,” Mick told his second-in-command.  “Let’s put the fire team into pods on the perimeter, split into two groups and ride out the storm in the cargo pods.”

Oversight had been a bit optimistic.  The first rain started battering the cargo pod, eleven minutes later, where Mick and half of his team were sheltered, just seconds after the clamshell door closed.

***

 Byzantium
Lake Selene

Retired Fleet Admiral Butner sat in the fighting chair with his feet propped up on the top of the footrest, a cup of fresh coffee balanced on his knee.  His sports fisherman, Lady Lynn, was stopped at sea for the night, frozen in place like an oil drilling platform by her computer-controlled pump/drives.   They had hauled in their lines shortly before sunset and stopped five-hundred yards from a reef-encircled atoll.  In the early morning darkness, he could hear the surf breaking up on the reef.  The breeze off the island carried the pungent odor of reef-life being battered by the waves.

Butner was enjoying the solitude and sense of isolation being at sea gave him.  He especially enjoyed his early morning vigils, with the rest of the crew asleep below.  He had spent fifty-five years in the Navy surrounded by people.  Thirty of those years he had served in various ships where he lived cheek-by-jowl with hundreds of folks, twenty-four-seven with no breaks.

Where some people thrived on this environment, it had been torture for Butner.  He was a very private person who found interacting with his fellows, trying.  Despite this, he had succeeded and been promoted ahead of his peers, to eventually be given the top position in the Navy.  Frankly, he had come to realize after his retirement, he had hated that job.

He remembered wistfully how his wife had loved it.  Amy Carlisle, the Spartan beauty that had captured his heart while he was still in the academy had been the love of his life, mother of his children, best friend, and advisor.

He missed her.  The ache of her loss haunted his thoughts while awake and his dreams when he slept.  He regretted the decades of separation his deployments had brought but consoled himself with the memories of how Amy had enjoyed being the wife of the fleet admiral.

He heard the soft swoosh of the salon’s sliding door, tamped down a surge of resentment at having his memory of Amy interrupted, and forced himself to relax.

“Senator…” the admiral said softly as his old friend walked by and gently patted his shoulder.

“G’morning, Q,” the senator replied, “…and a beautiful morning it appears to be.”  The senator was looking across the stern of the boat at the first rays of the morning sun.  He was in uniform, wearing his white short-sleeved shirt, matching knee-length shorts, boat shoes with socks, and a double bloody Mary clutched in his right hand.  Butner wondered briefly if the camera crew filming the vodka commercial had followed him out.

“Did you know our esteemed captain is a Jew?” Senator Reynolds asked as he turned and sat on the aft rail, looking forward as if he could see the lady he just mentioned.

“I was well aware… so?”

“Well, the political heat… who else knows you have a relationship with her?”

“Reggie, sometimes, you can be such an ass!” Butner exclaimed.  “First, Myrna and I are just friends, she is no older than my youngest daughter.  Second, I don’t give a damn about the prejudices of a few social climbers in the Emperor’s court.”

“You are awfully close friends,” the senator mumbled, suspiciously.  “I see how she makes over you, touches your arm when she speaks to you, pats your hand at dinner, from time to time…”

“Reggie, she is just doing that to pull your chain.  She only does that when she knows you’re watching.  You triggered her when you made a pass.  She is now teasing, perhaps taunting you, just a bit.”

Butner regarded the old senator closely, expecting an outburst of Reynold’s infamous temper, but instead, Reggie chuckled.

“Well, there is no fool like an old fool, I suppose.”

“Exactly Reggie, you must face it, your days as a Lothario, are over.”

“That isn’t what the girls at Morrisons tell me,” Reggie grinned wickedly.  Morrisons was a bar, ensconced surprisingly, in a rather upscale Byzantium neighborhood that catered to “semi-pros.”  These were ladies who were college students and even housewives who hung out at the establishment and could be encouraged to accompany a gentleman back to his bed for a consideration.

Such consideration could be cash, of course, but if the gentleman was prideful, ashamed to admit to paying for sex, a trip to one of the exotic shops along one of the more expensive shopping areas in the city, resulting in a wardrobe enhancement, would sometimes suffice.

“Reggie, please tell me you don’t…”

“A guy’s gotta do what a guy’s gotta do.”

“You do know the media hangs out down there?”

“Ahh,” Reggie grunted dismissively.  “I’m retired, off the payroll, no one cares about what I do or don’t anymore.  Besides, those rejuvenation treatments make me horny as a billy goat.”

“Perhaps if you hadn’t put them off for a couple of decades…”

“That was intentional.  I needed the ‘senior statesman’ look.”

“I’m afraid that toward the end it trended more to the ‘homeless drunk’ look.”

“Why did Myrna not stay in New Israel with the rest of her kind?” the retired senator grunted, ignoring Butner’s barb.

“Reggie, you’re starting to seriously piss me off!” Butner growled.  “As far as I know, she has never even been to New Israel.  She is a third generation Byzantium.  Her father was the conductor at the Philharmonic for twenty-five years.  Myrna herself plays first violin.  Her people are some of the most talented, productive citizens in the Empire.  You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“Okay, okay…” the senator turned around and looked out over the water at the sun peeking up over the horizon as if to change the subject.  Then he turned back around and looked directly at the admiral.  “I can’t believe you’re supporting those people when they defeated you in battle and sent your task force home with its tail between its legs.”

Admiral Butner didn’t reply for a long moment.  His brows furrowed as if he was seriously considering his answer.  When he did reply, he spoke slowly and carefully, as if struggling to maintain control.

“Is this seriously about Imperial relations with the Jewish people, or is it about your pique over being rejected in your attempt to bed our captain?” he asked cryptically, but then went on in the same measured voice.  “Either way, be careful Reggie, you’re on dangerous ground.  I was Commodore Commanding on that expedition to New Israel.”

“Oh… I was not aware…”

“Yes, it was hushed up and locked down tight.  No details of that clusterfuck were ever released, and I doubt ever will be.  It was a poorly conceived and terribly stupid idea, that due to a number of factors was allowed to play out to its inevitable conclusion.”

The admiral got up from the fighting chair and walked over to the rail, staring at the surf breaking up on the reef beyond.  Reggie thought he had finished because he didn’t say anything for at least two full minutes.  But then he continued.

“The Senate was divided, and the Navy did not want any part of the mission.  The fleet admiral resigned rather than order it.  The board was deadlocked for weeks but finally gave in after the Senate threatened to cut all their funds.  The patriarch was in favor because of rumors coming from New Jerusalem about the persecution of the church; which turned out to be pure lies and fabrication.  Since the patriarch was in, the Templars agreed, reluctantly, to go along.  So, in the end, the Emperor and a noisy claque in the Senate got their way.”

“What was the Emperor’s…”

“Greed… greed and avarice,” the admiral replied bitterly.  “The old fat bastard wanted the Jews under his thumb, so he could milk ’em.  The same prevaricators that were claiming church persecution, were telling stories of vast wealth being generated within the bounds of the Israeli system.  The Emperor wanted his pound of flesh.”

“So… what happened?”

“The Israeli Navy is what happened,” the admiral remembered bitterly.  “Our intelligence was wrong about almost everything they thought they knew about the Jews.  Their fleet was four times bigger than we were led to believe.  They had a planet guard with cutters and armed freighters.  They threw everything they had at us.  If that wasn’t bad enough, our communications were compromised.  They knew exactly when we were coming and with what forces.  It was a slaughter.”

“The Empire never went back…”

“No, when we arrived in the system, cooler heads had prevailed since we had departed.  Five years had passed while we were in transit.  When word of our debacle filtered back, the Emperor was dead and there was no appetite for a second bite at the apple.”

“Well, at least we are trading with them and there is dialog…”

“It was a pretty steep price to pay.  They would have agreed to trade and interstate relations if we had simply asked.  We lost a lot of good people out there, for nothing.”

“…and you’re not bitter?”

“Oh, I’m bitter alright, just not at the Israelis.  They did what they had to do.  It was our own political elites that caused the entire mess.”

“Well, I hope they learned their lesson.”

“Hmmm, yes… one can hope…”

“The IIS believes Captain Sinclair is going over to the Israelis, did you know that?”

“No, but I’m not surprised.  Where else would he go?”

“Do you think the Israeli government will turn him over?” the senator asked, ignoring Butner’s rhetorical question.

“Not in a thousand years…  If he goes to the Jews, he will be welcome… and safe,” the admiral mused.  “It’s a damn shame, but I wish him well.  All of our lives may be in his hands.”

The senator was surprised at that statement but was afraid to ask what it might mean.  The implications were just too frightening.

***
New Jerusalem
Temple Mount
Solomon’s Cathedral

“What is the function of this place, what is it used for?” Xianelta asked me in a whisper.  She was huddled close to me, one arm across my shoulders with her tail gently caressing my face.  It was hard to read the alien’s expression, but she seemed to be in awe, perhaps even frightened.

“People come here to pray and to hear the words of their ancient texts read again.  They believe their God speaks to them through the words of the prophets,” I answered in a subdued voice.  The grandeur of this great domed-hall seemed to require reverence.

My little party was standing in the left entrance to the cathedral.  From where we stood we were looking across the grand hall to the raised dais at the far end.  What would have been an altar in a Christian church featured a pair of raised balconies for speakers.  Behind each was a large pedestal holding a partially unfolded scroll.  In the center was a two-story tall painting of Moses, in the wilderness, holding up the golden snake on a staff.  Aaron was beside him, holding his arm.

Subdued light flooded the hall from a ring of windows at the base of the great domed ceiling.  The mosaic tile floor stretched almost a football stadium’s length to the speaker’s platform.  Two colonnaded halls ran down on either side of the great hall leading to the rear of the building where the rabbi’s quarters and offices were located.  The cathedral was home to the patriarch, the senior rabbi of the church of Israel.

When the Jews had come out to the stars the worship practices of the people had morphed into a strange hybrid of ancient Israel and Christianity.  The Jews of New Israel worshiped the God of Abraham, rejected the trinitarian concepts of Christians, but believed salvation was based on the atonement of the predicted Messiah.

The great hall held no other furniture.  The Jews stood when they came to worship.

New Israel was a secular, republican democracy, heavily invested in the ancient faith of their people.  As such, freedom of religion was allowed and protected, to a point.  Christianity was tolerated because of its old testament roots.  Orthodox Judaism was allowed and even given grudging respect.  Islamic practice was strictly prohibited and secularism was looked down upon as a surrender to worldly temptations.

The structure of the Temple Mount gave evidence to the foundations of New Israel’s philosophy.  At the center, and rising above everything else, was a replica of Solomon’s original temple.  It had been built first, very soon after the people arrived and established an economic base assuring their survival.  Dug and recovered from the catacombs beneath the original temple in Jerusalem, the Ark of the Covenant had been placed in the Holy of Holies.  There had been hope that the Shakina Glory might return.

It never had.

Barring that, the sacrificial system of worship was never reinstituted.  The Temple became a place of prayer and a monument to the ancient faith.

To the left of the temple, the Cathedral of Solomon stood.  To the right, lower, on the same level as the cathedral was the Knesset building and the various office buildings of the governing bureaucracy.

All the buildings were faced in the finest, polished marble.  Wide sidewalks and covered promenades connected all three complexes together, with lavish parks and tree-shaded walks softening the effect of mountains of white stone.  It was evident, no expense had been spared to give this center of gravity for the Jewish people a sense of permanence and beauty.

After four thousand years, the Jewish people had found a home.

“I don’t understand, ‘pray’ and ‘worship’ have no meaning for me.  What do these words mean?” Xianelta asked me.

I had to think about that for a long moment.  I had never really considered trying to define those words or concepts.  I had been raised in the catechized in the church.  As such, prayer, faith and worship were as natural to me as breathing.

“Humans believe there is more to life than what we can see and experience through our senses.  We believe there is a spiritual foundation underlying the physical world, put in place by the Creator of everything, seen and unseen,” I said hesitantly, realizing I was barely scratching the surface of this subject.  “Worship is an act of recognizing the existence of this Creator, thanking him for the gift of life.  Prayer is a method of trying to communicate with Him.”

“All humans believe this?”

“Well, not all will admit it… but yes, most humans seem to accept the fact there is more to life than what we can see and feel.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, drawing away from me and studying me from a couple of steps away.  “Your race is insane.”

***

 

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fourteen
New Jerusalem System
In orbit around Hebron, Tarshish’s largest moon

Walter Sinclair

“Commander, the Israeli warship is returning, their captain is hailing us,” Jeanie informed me silently through the data link.  “The Kidon isn’t alone, she seems to be accompanied by a task force.”  When I had been alone on the ship and we were star-fairing, I extended my senses through the data link to access the ship’s sensors directly, becoming almost one with it.  Since I had human company on board, to avoid confusion, I had backed out and allowed the ship’s AI to filter and analyze the sensor data.

I relaxed my control and let the data from the ship’s sensors flow into my consciousness.  My world exploded out and the scent of deep space seemed to permeate my being.  Stars, galaxies, and the great looming void appeared.  I remembered now why I filtered it, the human mind was not meant to assimilate that kind of data in real time. Read more

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Thirteen

“Walter…? Omigod Walter, you can’t stay here, this is the first place they will look…” Rosslyn exclaimed.  She was standing in the door to her room, hair disheveled, wearing a slip-over nightgown cut just above her knees.  She had dark circles under her blood-shot eyes and looked as if she hadn’t slept in days.

“Good to see you too, Sis,” I chided her.

“Oh, Walty, I’m sorry,” she whispered as she stepped up and hugged me to her breast tightly, almost desperately.  I could feel the outline of her tight slender body against me.  She was still in Olympic competition shape.  After a long moment, she stepped back, still holding my arms.  I could still see concern that I was in imminent danger, written across her face.

“Look, Sis, I have Lyna with me.  We put an opti-magnetic screen over the house, she is monitoring all the communication frequencies the Imperial Guard uses.  No one is coming.  We’ll have ten to fifteen minutes warning if they do.  Don’t worry.”

“Hmm… opti-magnetic… more Anastazi magic, I presume.  You have all the neatest toys, Walter Sinclair.”  Rosslyn was somewhat familiar with Lyna’s origins but had never been aboard Isla Marin.  She really didn’t have a clue…  “What are you doing?  Why are you here?”  She asked, but then noticed aunt Helen hovering in the hall.  “Come in,” she whispered to me and stepped back.  “We’ll be down later auntie, I’ll buzz you,” she told the matron of Cascadia, then closed the door in her face.  Poor aunt Helen.

“Let me put something…” Rosslyn said as she disappeared into the bedroom, leaving me standing in the middle of the suite’s parlor.  I noticed she had the windows to the atrium blacked out.

“Cascadia…” I said softly, wondering if the environmental controller would respond to me after all these years.

“Sir?”

“Reduce the tint in the atrium windows to three, please, and open the drapes, leaving the sheers.”  Light started streaming in behind the curtains, which silently drew back into pockets at either end.  One of the many palm trees that studded the atrium was close to Rosslyn’s window.  It spread a fan of shade across the sheers.

I almost said, “thank you,” but I remembered the controller was not programmed to respond to any but direct commands.  When Rosslyn didn’t immediately return, I walked over to the bar, took a cup from the rack and set it in the football-size coffee maker.  A subtle light illuminated the curved interior of the device, telling me it was ready.  “French roast, black,” I told it.  Within three breaths, a stream of fragrant black coffee poured into the cup, causing steam to curl up over it.

“Make me one, too…a latte.”  Rosslyn’s voice came from the bedroom as soon as the aroma of the coffee permeated her room.

By the time my sister came back into the parlor, I had the two coffees sitting on the little ice-cream-shop table by the atrium windows and was sitting in one of the pairs of chairs, waiting.  When she came in, she was fully dressed in a one-piece navy-blue jump-suit over a white silk blouse.  She had tied her hair up in a severe bundle on top of her head and wrapped a white band around the top of her forehead, she had bloused the pant legs into knee-length high heeled boots shined to a mirror-like coal black.  I had to admit, sister or no; Rosslyn was stunning when she chose to be.

It was a shame and a waste.  As far as I knew, Rosslyn had never had a romantic interest in her entire life.  I was reasonably sure she didn’t prefer girls or swing both ways.  She just never seemed to have time for anything other than her work.  I was reasonably sure she had left a string of broken hearts behind her, clear across the Empire.

“Sis, I had forgotten how beautiful you are, you make me wish you were not my sister.”

“You had better be glad I am.  If I weren’t, you would be under arrest right now,” she said without a smile, blowing off the compliment.  “…and you haven’t aged a day, how do you do it?  …more Anastazi magic?”

“Atlantin, actually,” I murmured, “Sis, I need to know if the rumors of an alien POW are true and if they are, where is the prisoner being held.”

“Don’t you think you’re in enough trouble already?  The Navy is after you because they want your ship, the oligarchy wants you out of the way because they are afraid you will upset their rice bowls; you have no allies, even the Church and the Templars are arrayed against you.  Now you want to get involved in the deepest, darkest secret the Imperium is guarding!  Have you lost whatever mind you had left?”

“So, the rumors are true?”

“Do you realize that I’m committing treason by even talking to you?”

“I won’t tell if you don’t.” I quipped with an ironic grin.

“It’s not funny!” She exclaimed, but I could tell she was fighting back a smile.  She finally sat down and took a drink of her latte.  It was like when we were kids, plotting some scheme to steal a few minutes of freedom from Nana’s watchful eye.  She sat looking at me for a long time, saying nothing, sipping her coffee, but a smile finally broke through.

“I didn’t think I would ever see you again.  The story your commodore buddy came up with was so unlikely… I thought you had died in the battle or gone missing,” she paused for a moment then asked, “what was this, “off to see the Wizard, foolishness?”

“It wasn’t foolishness, I went to Calderon.”  I watched as an expression of total incredulity spread across Rosslyn’s face.

“Nana’s fairytale world?  It’s real?  You went there?”

“Yes, to all of the above.”

“I can’t believe it, I thought it was just Nana’s fixation… and dream.  How do you think she knew?”

“She always said her great-grandfather saw it in a vision.  He was a very religious man, almost a saint.  Who knows?”

“What was it like?  Was it perfect like Nana always said?”

“It was perfect until I got there, and I guess, perfect again after I left.  They would not let me stay.  It broke my heart.”

“I’m sorry, Walty, I wish I could have been with you.”  She reached over and placed her hand over mine.  It felt familiar.  It felt good.

“Me too, Sis, me too.”  We didn’t talk for some time, both of us lost in thoughts of lost worlds, lost lives, missed opportunities and roads not taken.  Rosslyn shook it off first.

“Why are you interested in the alien?”

“This senator I talked to said the alien posed no threat to the Empire.  Lyna’s people are convinced the aliens are an existential threat to our entire race.  I need to get to the bottom of this and find out who’s right.  If the Anastazi is correct, then the Empire needs to wake up and start preparing to defend itself.  Lyna and her crew think we are snoozing in the sun, on a beach, where a tsunami is headed.”

“The prisoner is being held on Saint Helena.  The security surrounding her is laughable, almost non-existent.  Saint Helena’s reputation and location are its main security… that and the battlecruiser in synchronous orbit above the island that blasts anything that approaches in the air or on the sea.  Anything getting closer than fifty miles is simply vaporized.”

“Have you seen the alien?”

“Not in person.  I’ve seen videos.”

“Is it possible to communicate with it?”

“It’s a her, and yes, she has learned galactic standard.”

“If I get us to the island, can you get us in to see her?”

“I could, whether I will, is another story.  I’m not willing to throw away my career, my position and everything I’ve worked for my entire life, on the word of an alien android and the possibility of some phantasmal threat.”

“It isn’t a fantasy, they are here already.  They have already attacked and occupied one of the rim worlds.  The word has just not gotten back to Byzantium yet.  I’ve got to talk to the alien.  Something is not computing.”

“Walter, you do not understand!”  Rosslyn was back to addressing me with my full name, as she did when we were kids and she was unhappy with me.  “This is the most closely guarded secret in the Empire’s stash of undercover mysteries.  The battle that has been portrayed as a heroic naval engagement, defending the Empire and keeping everyone safe; was a massive, deadly and unnecessary mistake.  The Oswello was no threat.  They were just looking for a new world to settle, running for their lives.  They thought we were attacking them, our naval command thought they were responding to an unprovoked attack.  The battle should never have happened.”

“Hmm… I can see where there is some potential for embarrassment there.”

“Worse than an embarrassment, I’m afraid.  It was nothing short of genocide.  If it becomes public knowledge, heads will roll; the Emperor himself is not immune.”

“I see…”

“No, I don’t think you do.  You do not want to open this can of worms.”

“I have no choice.  I was the one who committed genocide, if that was what it turns out to be.”

“That’s crazy!  I know you were involved in the battle, but you were just one ship…”

“Yes, one ship… Isla Marin.”

“Oh… that was not in any of the reports.”

“I’m sure it was not; the Navy would have been very embarrassed.  Unfortunately, it’s the truth.  I made the mess, now I’ll have to clean it up.”  I stood up and slid my chair back.  “You’ll need to come with us, Sis, I’m sorry.”

***

Alien

“Does she speak galactic,” I asked the lieutenant who was one of the Oswello’s keepers.

“Yes,” the tiny lady answered me.  “She still has some difficulty with ‘L” sounds and substitutes a “w” from time to time, but she understands the language completely.

“I didn’t realize she was so handsome,” I remarked in surprise.  “The pictures did not do her justice.   The Oswello female was resting on a long, padded bench in the larger of the two-room habitat that had been built for her.

One complete wall of the room was a floor to ceiling glass sliding door.  It opened onto what appeared to be a botanical garden.  The garden featured a massive multi-trunked banyan tree, a profusion of flowers and shrubs and was carpeted with a broad-leafed grass.  There didn’t appear to be any bars or cage structure, but I was guessing there was an invisible force field encasing the garden.

We were observing the alien through a one-way glass that appeared on the other side of the connecting wall like a mirror.

The females were shorter than their male counterparts.  Still, the captive was fully seven-feet tall when she stood straight up.  The Oswello’s fur was multilayered like a Chow or Newfoundland terrier.  Close to their skin was a layer of very fine fur like sheep’s wool.  The outer layer was made up of broad soft hair, each about two inches in length.

This particular female was snow white, both the fur and the hair.  She had a brown patch over her shoulders and running down her chest that gave the impression she was wearing a shawl.

Her face was remarkably Lemur-like.  She had a black face featuring magnificent yellow eyes with black pupils.  Behind her head, she had a ruff that looked like a male lion’s mane.  Her short, pointed ears disappeared into the ruff until she concentrated on some sound then they stood up.  Her short snout seemed to be perfectly formed and balanced for her face to yield an attractive visage.

The Oswello’s paws were identical, both their hands and feet were six-digit appendages with dual opposing thumbs.  Their fingers were long and slender with five joints each.  The captive was demonstrating the flexibility of her legs by holding the tablet she was studying with her right foot and manipulating the screen with both hands.

In her left lower paw, she was holding a green fruit.  From time to time she would lift the fruit to her mouth and take a dainty bite.  Moving her lower limb to her mouth seemed to be an effortless evolution.  When she did, her straight white teeth revealed the omnivorous nature of her kind.

“What is she eating?” I asked the diminutive lieutenant.

“It’s an avocado.  She practically lives on avocados and nuts.”

“No protein?”

“She will eat shrimp from time to time and we fix her broth from boiled fish, but she won’t touch red meat.”

“Is she intelligent?”

“Captain, she is smarter than me, by a long shot,” the lieutenant told me.  She was staring at the alien with undisguised affection.

“That is one magnificent tail!” the alien had wrapped her tail completely around her body and the end was curled up behind her head like a pillow.  The tail was upholstered in soft silky white hair streaked with a subtle auburn tint.

“Yes, their tails serve multiple functions, they are immensely strong, they can hang from their tails in a tree effortlessly but the ends are extremely sensitive and used to keep them apprised of the environment around them in the low light conditions of their home planet.”

“I can see where that would be an advantage.”

“She tells me their tails are used extensively when they mate,” the little lieutenant blushed a bit as if she had revealed a secret.

“I understand they are marsupials.”

“Yes, you can’t see it hidden in all that fine fur, but she has a pouch outside her stomach and two tiny breasts to feed the fetus as it matures.”

“Can I go in?”

“Certainly,” the lieutenant replied after glancing at Rosslyn for permission.  “She is friendly and non-aggressive. In fact, she will be glad to see you.  She seldom sees any men.  The Imperium in its infinite wisdom restricts her care to female officers.”

“Why would she be glad to see me?” I asked cautiously.  I had visions of being raped by a seven-foot-tall lemur.

“Curiosity,” the lieutenant laughed.  “She is intensely curious, especially about human mating rituals.  I get the idea that sex plays an extraordinarily strong part in the alien’s culture.”

“Does she have a name?”

“Boy, does she ever,” the lieutenant laughed.  “It’s something like twenty-six syllables.  Their name reflects their matriarchal lineage back six generations.  It ends in a sound like we would make when we are out of breath and gasping for air.  We call her “Puff.”

“Are you really a magic dragon?”  I asked the alien, remembering the song my grandmother used to sing to me when I was just a toddler.  I was standing just inside the door where her attendant had announced me and given me access to her quarters.

The Oswello did not reply but studied me for a long moment before she emptied her paws by placing the tablet and fruit on the table next to her cot and flowed up in one supple movement to walk across the room fully erect.  It was disconcerting because she so resembled a lemur I expected her to move like one, but her bipedal walk was graceful and very human-like.

She stopped at an arm’s length distance and raised her right paw open facing me as if requesting a “high-five.”  I reached my open hand up and gently touched her open palm with my own.  Her hand was twice the size of mine.

“I recognize you, Walter Sinclair,” she said in a remarkably feminine and melodious voice.  “I’m glad you have come.”  She wrapped her hand around mine and led me back to her couch like she was guiding a small child.  I sensed her strength but her grip was as gentle as a feather.  I felt no concern or even apprehension.  There was something in her body language and the tone of her voice that was comforting and non-threatening.

She released my hand and I took a seat on the single human-sized chair in the room adjacent to her lounge.  She then returned to the half-reclining posture she had affected when I saw her initially.

“When you said you recognize me, did that mean you know who I am, or was it just a greeting?” I asked to open the conversation.

“Oh, I know you, Walter Sinclair.  You were captain of the ship that destroyed my people.”

“You attacked us first and were advancing on our fleet in a military formation.  We responded in kind,” I replied defensively.

“I’m not blaming you, Captain.  It was all a terrible, tragic mistake,” she said with a remarkably human-like sadness.  “My people were fleeing a terrible menace from our home world.  The only other sentient race we had encountered did not have interstellar capability, so we thought the Kinetics had followed us to the system where we crossed paths with your survey ship.”

“The Kinetics?”

“The Kinetics is a malevolent machine AI that destroyed the ancients who created it.  We think it got out of control and the ancients tried to turn it off.  As a result, it has a built-in hatred of biologic sentient life.”

“It sounds nasty.”

“It’s worse than nasty; it’s a terrible danger to my people and now yours as well.”

“Have you related this information to your attendants?”

“I have, but I don’t think any of your leaders take anything I say very seriously.  They treat me like a pet or zoo animal.”

“I doubt that is the case.  I would imagine our leadership is unable to agree on how to react to your information and is trying to come to terms with it.”

“I tried to get an audience with your Emperor to explain the danger, but was not allowed.”

“Unfortunately, the way our system works, it would have done you little good to see the Emperor.  Decision making at that level is spread across four different organizations.  Each one of these power centers is jealous of their prerogatives and position.  As a result, they more often than not, work at cross purposes.”

“Where do you fit into this power structure?”

“That is a good question,” I replied and then paused while I considered the answer.  “I’m outside the existing framework.  I have access to technology that is more advanced than anything the rest of my race possesses so it puts me in a rather unique, but strictly unofficial position.”

“I’m bored and tired of this prison.  Can you get me out of here, Walter Sinclair?”

“I think you’re under a misconception.  You’re not imprisoned.  It is my understanding; you may leave anytime you wish.  You’re being treated like a guest,” I told her and looked at the mirror behind which I knew we were being observed.  “Is that not true?  She can leave anytime she wants, right?”

“She is not imprisoned, but where would she go?”  The lieutenant’s puzzled voice came through the speaker system as if she was standing in the room next to us.

“She can go with me,” I said suddenly, making up my mind.  It was an incredibly crazy notion and I knew I would have to move fast before someone up the chain of command could react.  “Come with me Miss Puff, we are leaving.”  I stood and held out my hand.  She bared her teeth in what I assumed was a smile and flowed up off the couch to take my hand.

Five minutes later we were in the shuttle floating up and away from the city.

The way the seats were arranged in the shuttle we were close, almost touching our shoulders.  I felt a gentle touch on my cheek and discovered the Oswello was caressing my face with the end of her tail.  It felt like the softest goose down.

“Thank you, Walter, you will not regret this,” she assured me with a kitten-like purr.  I decided I liked having my own personal alien and hoped fervently that she was correct in her prediction.

II
aboard Isla Marin

“It’s a machine!” the Oswello exclaimed, barring her teeth and dropping into a defensive posture.  Her right hand was clawing at her own waist reaching for the non-existent weapon that would have been there had she not been a captive.

“It’s okay,” I reassured the alien.  “She is no threat.”  Lyna had met us at the bottom of the ramp.  The shuttle was sitting in the hangar bay of the transport.

“What is this?” Lyna asked.  “Oh, I see,” she said a moment later after I sent her a data pulse through the communicator embedded behind my left ear bringing her up to date.

“Is it wise? You’re already not in the best graces of the political power structure.  Taking their captive isn’t going to endear you to anyone.”

“I don’t have any idea about the wisdom of the decision.  It was a spur of the moment thing. It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“You have Command Authority,” Lyna said resignedly as she turned on her heel and walked away across the hangar bay.  It was what she said when she totally disagreed with something I did.

“Are you sure it is …safe?” the Oswello asked, pausing in mid-sentence as if unsure of how to describe her concern about what she saw as a potential enemy.  To say her experience with AI was not good would have been a dramatic understatement.

“Lyna has been with me since I was a baby.  Not only is she not a threat, but she would also give up her own existence to protect me.”

“It didn’t like me,” Puff stated her observation.

“Lyna evaluates everything on a basis of threat level.  Remember, she is a machine, so ‘like’ or ‘don’t like’ are not concepts she is capable of.  Evidently, she sees having you here as a bit politically risky, but don’t worry.  You are perfectly safe here.”

“None of us are safe as long as the Kinetics are not dealt with.”

“There is that, but let’s take it one step at a time.  You wanted an audience with the Emperor so let us make it happen and we’ll go from there.  How is that?”

“You can get an audience?” Puff exclaimed skeptically.

“It seems His Excellency is most anxious to see me, but he is not going to like, believe or appreciate what I have to tell him.  Adding your little problem to the mix will really make his day.”

“If we are going to see the Emperor, why did we come out here?”

“Oh, we are not going in person, and we are doing nothing until I get my ship and all its protection around me.  We are vulnerable here.  This is just a transporter; the ship is out orbiting Saturn II.  We are in the process of de-orbiting this moon and headed for an interplanetary lens.  Let’s go and see if we can find something to eat.  I’m starved.”

There were not a lot of creature comforts built into a transporter.  The ships function was to move material and personnel from place to place within a planetary system, so it was designed to provide living spaces for a small crew aboard for periods of less than a month.

There was an eat-in galley and four cabins just aft of the bridge on the top level.  That was it.  Everything else was store rooms, hangars, fuel, and machinery bays.  Sophia was sitting at the table in the galley when we came in.  Lyna was standing across from her.  The conversation they were having stopped when we came into the room.

“Who is driving?” I asked Lyna.  My instructions had been to de-orbit and make the best speed out to the ship as soon as I came back aboard.

“Jason is at the helm,” she replied.  It was more of a safety function to have a physical presence on the bridge in case the AI who actually flew the ship needed some button pushed or material moved around in an emergency.  The ship was ninety-nine percent automated but there were still things that had to be physically manipulated from time to time.  Jason was the androidal physical tool that allowed the AI to manipulate material within her spaces.

“How long until we can get a lens?” I asked Lyna.  I was anxious to get back aboard Isla Marin since I had acquired my new mascot.  I was beginning to think absconding with their only alien prisoner might be viewed as an act of war by the ruling class on Byzantium.  Even with the power I had, going to war with the entire Empire was a daunting concept.

“You know as long as we are cloaked we are limited to graviton drive,” Lyna reminded me.  The transporter had reaction motors and microwave impellers as well as the motors that allowed the ship to surf the gravity waves.  The other two means of propulsion would leave a physical energy signature obviating the stealth function of cloaking.  Graviton drive was silent and invisible but it was not very fast.  “There is a lens forming now, it looks to be about twenty hours out unless we drop the cloak and go to reaction engines.”

“No, I don’t want any more attention.  I’ve already poked the hornet’s nest enough.  Twenty hours is fine.  Did I smell fresh bread?”

III

“You do realize this makes you the most powerful man in the Empire,” Rosslyn told me across the conference table in the ready room off Isla Marin’s bridge.  We had just completed a long tour of the ship, even going to spaces I had never been in.  “How much gold is there in the hold?  I couldn’t imagine that much gold in one place outside the Imperial treasury.”

“I don’t know,” I told her truthfully.   “Jeannie, how much gold is there in the hold?”

“Volume, weight or value?” the ship’s AI responded.

“Weight, Jeannie, the total weight would be fine.”

“The total weight is fourteen ounces over fifty tons.”

“Wow, that is almost two billion credits!” Rosslyn exclaimed after she did some quick calculations in her head.  “…and that doesn’t count the platinum, palladium, silver, and raw crystal, I saw stashed away down there.  Not only are you the most powerful man in the Empire, but you could also well be the richest.”

“It’s not important,” I told her earnestly.

“Not important?!!”  Rosslyn exclaimed.  “Do you know what you could do with that much money?”

“Buy a horse ranch?”

I could not remember when I had ever heard Rosslyn laugh out loud, but something about using the incredible wealth in Isla Marin’s hold to buy a horse ranch struck her funny.  She laughed uncontrollably with tears running down her face until she could get control.  After the laughing fit ran down she remarked trying to get her breath.

“You could buy a horse planet!”  That idea sparked another paroxysm of laughter.  “You’re something else brother.  What are your plans?”

“I’m going back to Sparta, claim our inheritance and retire to great-grandfather’s ranch to raise horses.”

This announcement started another laughing bout.  “Stop! Stop!” she squeezed out between guffaws, “You’re killing me.”  When I didn’t smile or react but just looked at her over my fresh coffee she ran down.  She looked at me as if I had become a complete stranger.

“You are serious!” She exclaimed.  “Walter, you cannot do that; the very idea!  It’s ridiculous!  The Empire is beset on all sides with insurrection; alien attacks, terrorist uprisings and overt war on a dozen fronts, and you’re going to Sparta and raise racehorses?  No!  Impossible!  You cannot turn your back on our entire culture and people.”

Rosslyn’s rant was interrupted by a movement at the open door to the bridge.  Sophia walked into the room followed closely by a smiling Lyna.  Sophia had been transformed.  The unisex Navy uniform had been replaced by a one-piece mid-sleeved red dress cut just above the knee.  It appeared to be one large section of linen-like cloth wrapped around and tied at the waist with a large red ribbon just below her left elbow.  The open neck was ornamented with a string of pearls and an impressive cleavage.

Lyna had done wonders with her hair.  It was teased and bushed around her ears and framed her large brown eyes in loose curls of gold and auburn.

My breath caught in my throat as she walked across the room and stopped three steps from my chair.  She smiled and whirled all the way around giving me a 360-degree view.

“Do you like the new me?” she asked coquettishly.

“I liked the old version fine,” I told her, but when I saw the disappointment forming on her face I quickly continued.  “The new version simply blows me away!”

“Who is this?!!” My sister’s icy voice cut through the room and an ominous silence followed.

To my surprise, I heard someone say, “This is Sophia, she is my fiancée.”  When I discovered everyone was looking at me I realized I must have said it.  In a way, I wasn’t surprised; lately, I was the last to know what was going on in my own life.

“Oh Sir, do you mean it?!!” Sophia exclaimed as she danced across the room and squeezed onto my lap facing me.  I scooted the chair back to give us breathing room as Sophia covered my face in kisses.

“Great!” My sister groused.  “You live your life as a bachelor for fifty years and now you’re going to marry someone half your age who calls you ‘Sir,’ that is just great.”

I was tempted to retort with something about marital advice from a seventy-year-old spinster, but remembering my sister’s karate skill set, thought better of it.

“Yes, I mean it,” I whispered to Sophia through her kisses.  “That is if it is what you want.”

“Oh Sir, it’s all that I ever wanted!”

“You have to quit calling me ‘Sir,’” I told her.  “The neighbors will talk.”

She pushed back and looked at me strangely as if this was an idea that had not occurred to her.  “How about Walty?  or… sweetheart?  …No!” She said firmly after considering her options.  “For ten years when I thought of you, I thought ‘Sir.’  ‘Sir’ it is.”

“Ohmigod!” Rosslyn blurted.  “You two are hopeless!”

I laughed out loud.  Then I realized how long it had been since I had been able to actually laugh.  I liked the feeling.  I liked this girl and how she felt in my lap.  I liked it that she made me laugh.  “Maybe Galileal was wrong.  Maybe I can love someone.” I liked that unbidden thought most of all.

“Commander, the Emperor’s office is calling.  They seem to think it is urgent,” the ship’s AI murmured in my earbud.

“Okay,” I subvocalized.  “Put it on the main screen on the bridge, we’ll be right there.”

“Aye Sir, main screen,” Jeannie replied.

“Rosslyn, Lyna, we need to move to the bridge.  Byzantium is hailing us,” I informed my staff, kissed my fiancée and let her disembark from my lap.  “You might want to listen in on this, it could be important,” I told Sophia.  I suddenly realized I needed to include her in my life, and this was my life now, dealing with the Emperor of two hundred fifty odd worlds on a day to day basis.  That thought was startling… and humbling.

The image on the big screen was of an elaborately decorated conference room in the palace.  There were five courtiers seated around the table dressed in their burgundy robes indicating they had just come from or were immediately going to the throne room.

I sat in the command chair with Rosslyn seated to my left.  Lyna stood to my right and Sophia took a seat out of the view of the camera transmitting our images to the Capital.  A small window in the lower quadrant of the screen displayed the view we were sending.

“Captain,” the official at the head of the table began, using the naval rank I had retired with.  I guess he was trying to fit me into a niche of his own thinking.  As a Navy officer, I would be subservient to His Royal Highness and his minions.  “The Emperor has agreed to speak with you, but there will be demands…”

“No!” I cut him off.  “There will be no demands, period the end.  I have information the Emperor needs to hear, if he wants to be informed, then fine.  I’ll agree to no demands and no conditions.”

“Captain, you are in no position…” the official blustered but I cut him off again.

“That is ‘retired captain’ Mister Secretary; an unpaid and uncompensated ‘retired captain’ as well,” I informed his imminence, reminding him he had no official authority over me.  I was officially a civilian.  “I think you should refer to me as ‘Mister Sinclair.’”

This caused a red ‘mute’ sign to pop up on the screen as the ministers conferred among themselves.  This was not going according to their plan, evidently.  After a brief discussion, the ‘mute’ sign disappeared and the minister in charge relented.

“Mister Sinclair, you’re currently holding a POW who was in Imperial custody.  We must insist that this prisoner be returned to our custody immediately.”

“So a state of war has been declared between the Oswello and the Empire,” I stated knowing this was not the case.  War could only be declared by the Senate and ratified by the triumvirate of the Supreme Court.

“…hmm, well no…” the minister mumbled.

“If no state of war exists, then the Oswello who voluntarily came with me could not have been a POW.  Is that not true?”  As I was stating this simple logic, Puff came onto the bridge and sprawled out at my feet.  I didn’t look in her direction but I watched her image as it appeared on the transmitted window on the screen.  “As you can see gentlemen, the alien is with me of her own free will.”

“I’m here voluntarily and wish to remain with Commander Sinclair.  I’ve no desire to return to Byzantium,” Puff told the esteemed gentleman on the screen.  She then leaned back against my shins and placed her head, gently, in my lap.

“I think if you gentlemen would consult Imperial Law, there were guidelines written by the Senate and signed into law by Emperor Stewart which outlined the treatment of alien races, if and when, those races were encountered.  One of the main points of those guidelines was freedom of association of any alien race.”

Not only did the ‘mute’ sign reappear, but the image on the screen froze.  It seemed the ministers needed a bit of privacy.

When the image unfroze, the ministers had taken on a much grimmer appearance.

“Mister Sinclair, we will need legal advice on the finer points of the law regarding aliens, but you need to be aware the Emperor has the authority to order you…”

“Just who the hell do you think you are talking to?” I raised my voice a notch.  “I am, since the death of my brother, chief of the Clan Sinclair of Sparta.  I am a senior knight in the order of the Templars.  My family was one of the six founders of the original Empire.  You may take the Emperor’s authority and stuff it up your …nose.  If you want a civil war with the most powerful system outside of Byzantium, then gentlemen; shoving Imperial authority at me is a good way to start! – Cut it off Jeannie,” I told the AI.  The picture disappeared from the screen to be replaced by an image of the coat of arms of the Sinclairs.

“Wow, Walter, don’t hold back, tell’em what you really think!” my sister exclaimed.  After a moment consideration, she added.  “I predict that diplomacy would not be a good second career choice for you.”

“Perhaps threatening civil war might have been a bit over the top…”

“You think, Sherlock?”

“Commander,” Jeannie buzzed in my earbud.  “The Emperor is on the communication link, should I put him on screen?”

“Yes, Jeannie, let’s see what His Eminence has to say,” I ordered the AI, and then spoke to the room.  “Heads up folks, his Imperial Highness is about to grace us with his presence.”

There were protocols for addressing a sitting Emperor, but I had just stated my position as a founding family clan head.  By the original constitution, this gave me a peerage and eliminated a lot of the folderol associated with an Imperial meeting.  All of this aside, there was no reason to be rude.  We all stood.

When the Emperor’s image appeared, he was behind his desk in his private office.  I bowed slightly and struck my breast with my closed right fist in salute due the office from a Templar knight.  My sister dropped a knee and the Oswello bowed deeply with her tail laid flat on the floor in front of her.

“Your Highness,” I said in greeting and waited.  The Emperor always spoke first.

“This is a private meeting, unrecorded and confidential.  I recognize your peerage, you may be seated,” the Emperor said unemotionally keeping his expression neutral.  I appreciated his control; he must have been furious if the ministers had relayed even a portion of my statements to them.  “My people tell me you are not willing to share the technology allowing us to bridge the time barrier.  Is this true?”

I had to give him one thing.  He cut right to the chase.

“Your Highness, it’s not true.  I gave your engineers and scientists the formulas and math underlying the principles.  This is all I have.  The engineering for implementing technology into actual working equipment is unavailable to me or the AI running the Anastazi vessel.  It would not be possible to reverse engineer the technology since it’s incorporated into the very fabric of the ship.  I’m sorry, Sire but that is just the way it is.”

“I see,” he replied curtly.  This was quite obviously not what he wanted to hear.  “What did you want to tell me?”

“Your Highness, this is the Oswello who we found alive in the wreckage after the battle with her people.”  I intentionally avoided the word ‘captured.’  “It seems there was a terrible misunderstanding and the battle was a tragic mistake.  She has a dire warning for our people – Sire if you would?”

“Yes, yes, go ahead,” the Emperor urged ill-naturedly.  He was still pissed over the time barrier news.

“Our homeworld is a third larger than Byzantium,” the Oswello began.  “Its orbit is closer to its yellow star and is much warmer.  Most of the planet is what you would consider equatorial jungle.  My people had little need for technology.  We lived in the lowest two levels of a triple-layer canopy forest.  The trees gave us all the food we required.

Our birth rate was low; our males are not universally fertile.  Less than one in six are blessed with live sperm.  As a result, the females mated with numerous males during the period when they were fertile in the hope of being blessed with a kit.  Since the paternity of any offspring was indeterminate, we developed into a matriarchal society.

It was a great honor to become pregnant and the young were treated with loving affection by the entire community.”

“This is all very interesting, I am sure,” the Emperor interrupted.  “I fail to see…”

“Please be patient, Sire; she is getting to it,” I told the Emperor, who simply nodded impatiently and made a hand signal ‘bring it on.’

“The point is, your highness, we needed no technology.  We didn’t even have fire.  Our communities were limited to tribes of twenty to thirty females sharing the same portion of forest for centuries.

Then the climate changed.  Several thousand years ago it began to get much colder.  Glaciers formed at the poles and started moving toward the center of the planet.  Food became scarce; conflicts over territory developed and some Oswello were forced out of the jungle where they were forced to develop a primitive technology to survive.

Once they had tools and learned to control fire, they advanced very quickly.  Unlike your culture, that I’ve been studying, we had a single language and homogeneity of race.  As a result, we never experienced war.  In less than a thousand years from coming down from the trees, we developed rudimentary space travel and sent explorers to our nearest moon.”

“When was this?” the Emperor asked, finally relaxing and getting into the story.

“Three hundred of your years ago.”

“You have come a long way in three hundred years!”

“Yes Sire, it brings me to the crux of my story.  We discovered the technology of the ancients on our nearest moon.  An alien race had built a tunnel complex deep inside of the rocky iron crust opposite our planet.  They had been building a sanctuary to hide from the Artificial Intelligence they themselves had created.”

“I take it they never occupied the sanctuary,” the Emperor stated evidently following the narrative with interest.

“You are correct,” the Oswello said sadly.  “All the indications are, the builders left to bring a group of colonizers and never returned.  We deduced the AI they were trying to escape must have killed them or at least kept them from returning.  By the time we discovered the complex, it was already over a thousand years old.  It didn’t appear likely the builders would ever return.”

“So, your people appropriated the technology of the ancients.  That is how you advanced so quickly?”

“Yes Sire, that is correct.”

“So, did you actually make contact with this supposed hostile AI?”

“No Sire, we deduced a threat that had been able to destroy the ancients would be far beyond our ability to deal with.  We ran.”

“You left no one on your homeworld?”

“No Sire, we embarked everyone and did our best to leave no trace that we had ever existed.  It was a one-hundred-year evolution.”

“My God, do you mean we’ve destroyed your entire race?” The Emperor exclaimed in shock.

“Oh no Sire, we built over twenty generation ships and set off in different directions.  Each generation ship and its escorts charted their own course and left no record of where they were headed.”

“Well, that is a relief!” the Emperor sighed.  “I cannot express how sorry I am that our actions destroyed your people’s ship…”

“Your Highness, it’s not your people’s fault.  We fired first.  We had no sensors to determine there were life forms on the ship we encountered.  We were convinced we had run into the Kinetics and were fighting for our very lives.”

“Did you relate this story to the…” the Emperor hesitated on how to describe the staff that had been keeping the Oswello and interviewing her.   “…handlers who were taking care of you here?”

“Yes Sire, I outlined the threat but did not go into any detail.  Commander Sinclair is the first human I told the entire story to.”

“That explains…” the Emperor started, but then seemed to have another thought.  “Uh, Commander…” he stumbled over the title, evidently confused over why a retired captain was taking a demotion.  “We need that ship.  You must bring it back here and turn it over to the Admiralty.”

“I’m sorry, Sire,” I told him.  “That is the one thing I cannot do.”

The Emperor’s face became red almost immediately.  He was evidently struggling to retain control of his temper.  He was not accustomed to being told no.

“We need that ship.  The Empire is coming apart at the seams and this time distortion thing makes dealing with problems at the edges of the Empire almost impossible.”  The Emperor said as if he were talking to himself.  Then he looked directly at me and came halfway out of his chair with his hands flat on his desk.

“I am the Emperor!  I am ordering you to bring that ship back here and turn it over immediately!”  He slammed one hand on the desk in frustration and anger.  “You have no right to keep that vessel for your private plaything!  There are two hundred fifty billion people in the Empire!  You are one man!  You have no right!”  The Emperor was so angry that he was spitting saliva with every word.  A trickle ran down his chin and his face was livid.

“Sire, with all due respect…” I started but he cut me off.

“I am ordering you, I am ordering…”

“Cut him off, Jeanie,” I subvocalized.  The Emperor’s angry visage disappeared from the viewer.

“That went well,” my sister told me ironically.  “I may have been wrong; I just didn’t recognize your latent diplomatic skills.  That was quite an accomplishment.  In one five-minute conversation, you have made enemies of the entire human Empire.”

“He is a bit over impressed with his own power.  He forgets he is just one branch of a quadrumvirate structure.  The Navy is a little bit more understanding.”

“Perhaps, but there will be voices in the Senate looking for your head on a platter.”

“I know; the Emperor has his claque.”

“You need to make your case to the Supreme Council.”

“No, what I need to do is figure out how to get them what they want.”

“You’re not giving them Isla Marin!”

“Hardly, she isn’t mine to give away; you know that.  What they need is to be able to penetrate the gravity lenses to a depth where they can get past the time dilation factor.”

“I thought you said…”

“I said neither I nor Isla Marin could fabricate, or even tell the Imperial engineers how to fabricate, the equipment necessary to bridge the time gap, but, if all else fails, I may have met someone who could do it – if he would.”

“Who would that be?”

“He is a perfect man living on a perfect world.  The question is: would he agree to help a fallen race?  I have my doubts, but I could ask… eventually.  First, I think we will give the Israeli scientists a crack at it.  Galileal is far away and I’m not quite sure if we could find his world a second time.  The first time was dumb luck… and perhaps some divine intervention.”

***

Orbiting unnamed white dwarf
Tau Lambda 248 System
Walter Sinclair

The next lens will open into the Israeli system,” I told my sister and Sophia.  We were sitting at the conference table in my ready room off Isla Marin’s bridge with the Oswello, Puff.  The Anastazi droids had built her a padded couch for the opposite end of the table.  She found human chairs difficult to manage with her tail.  “We have close to forty-eight hours before the lens is fully mature.  This is a good time to go over all of the data we have and see if we can form a coherent picture of the threats facing the Empire.”

I glanced up over my right shoulder.  Lyna was standing where she always seemed to be, close, comfortable.  I tried to not take her for granted, but she was as much a part of me now as one of my own limbs.  “Let’s see the animation,” I told her silently, through our data link.

The paneled outside wall melted away into a 3D star map of the Empire.  The view was zoomed out several parsecs displaying all the stars in the Orion spur within the bounds of the Empire.  It was a sea of stars, running in a band diagonally across the display from the top left to the bottom right.  There were over ten thousand systems within the bounds of human-occupied space.

I took control of the display through my communicator, blanked out all the uninhabited systems, and zoomed in to where the Empire filled the screen.  This was the Sigma Cluster, two hundred fifty systems within fifty light years of Byzantium.  The systems were color-coded to indicate their current status.

The original twenty planets closest to Byzantium were dark blue, indicating their political and economic ties to the Imperial system.  The first six systems clustered at the center were indicated with blue stars, each a marker for a founding family.  As the distance from the center increased, the colors tended to fade as the systems gained more and more autonomy.  The implacable tyranny of distance and time was quite evident.

Scattered around the periphery were systems tinted with various shades of green.  These indicated planets that had been seeded by scout ships and were in various states of being terra-formed.  The darker green, the more advanced the flora and fauna of the seeded world would be.

Among the green systems were a few yellow.  These were systems where a developed planet had started a colony but the settlement was not yet self-sufficient.  At the extreme edge of human space, scattered among the yellow and green planets were a few red worlds.  It was an angry red as if were an indication of cancer on the living body of the Empire.  These were systems occupied and controlled by Islamic pirates.

One system was unique.  It was not far from the original twenty worlds, indicating it had been settled quite early.  It was a stark white.  This was the settlement of the Jews, beholding to no one other than their own living God, their traditions, and the belief of their own uniqueness as the chosen people.

I tilted the view and zoomed in on a world at the far edge of the Empire closer to the center of the galaxy.  There was a planet there that was flashing red.

“This is Moore’s World, where the aliens have landed,” I told the ladies.

“The Kinetics?” Sophia gasped.

“No, these are the aliens that Isla Marin encountered on her journey across the galaxy when she originally came to our neck of the woods.”

“Who are they?” Rosslyn asked with a menacing scowl as if she was ready to sail out and take them on single-handed.

“They are the Gnu, and they are a nasty bunch.”

“Nasty is hardly the word,” the Oswello said with a shudder.

“How do you know about them when no one else in the Empire is even remotely aware…” Rosslyn left her question unfinished but looked at me with an expression of disbelief.

“Isla Marin was monitoring communications coming from the scout ship that encountered the Gnu and was captured by them.  Then Xianelta filled me in on the details.  Her people had been victimized for generations by the Gnu.”

“Zinelta?” Rosslyn asked suspiciously.

“Zhi-a-nelta,” I corrected her, sounding out the correct diminutive of our Oswello guest’s name.  I was not comfortable with “Puff” and had coaxed the alien into helping me come up with a word we could pronounce and yet approximate her true name.

“You two have become quite friendly,” Rosslyn stated flatly with a sense of disapproval.

In fact, I guess I had become like a favored pet to the large alien.  I had noticed Sophia and Rosslyn had become a bit jealous of the fawning attention Xianelta paid me.  Originally, I had placed the alien’s lounge next to my chair at the head of the table but had to move it, because having her close was too much of a distraction.  She would constantly caress my arm with her fingers, and my cheek with the end of her tail.  I didn’t mind, in fact, I rather enjoyed it.  Her touch with feather-soft and she smelled so good.  I guessed that she exuded some pheromones, that inexplicably, were cross-species attractive.

“The star system where the Oswello originated had two life-bearing planets.  The Gnu originated on the other world.  They had developed, or discovered and borrowed, interplanetary capability before the Oswello.  For generations, they would raid the Oswello world and take captives for slaves,” I explained, ignoring her barb.

“Yes, when we finally could understand, and utilize, the ancient’s technology, we were able to slip some spies into the Gnu capital and get some understanding of their capabilities.  We had a spy on their world when they captured their first human,” Xianelta interjected.

“What you’re about to see is an enactment generated by Isla Marin using the information garnered from the scout ship’s signals and a data chip Xianelta had hidden in her pouch.”

The starscape disappeared and was replaced by a view of a mountain looking out over a broad valley.  On the far horizon, a dirty brown river could be seen through a smoky, murky atmosphere.  Between the river and the mountain, a city filled the foreground.

“This is the homeworld of the Gnu,” Xianelta explained.

“Well, it is a damn ugly place,” Sophia observed.  The sky was red and the light from the dim sun gave a faint illumination to the surrounding barren landscape.  There was a thick overcast further detracting from the visibility.

“Yes, the Gnu have raped it, polluted and despoiled it.  It is practically a dead world.”

“How did you…?”

“We were able to get a drone onto the planet, mimicking the design one of the Gnu’s own ag bots.”  This was hardly illuminating, but I let it go for now.  I guessed more answers were coming.

The view from the mountain faded out and re-imaged into a large cathedral-like hall.  At one end, an ugly apparition was seated on a massive throne.  It seemed familiar as if a racial memory had been triggered.

Upon further examination, I decided the bi-pedal monster was much uglier than even my worst nightmares had been able to conjure up.  The abomination on the throne had huge eyes like a fly with multi-facets.  Its arms were long and slender ending in clawed fingers.  His skin was a light orange with scales tipped in yellow.  From the middle of his forehead, a bony ridge ran up over the top of his out-size head, giving him the appearance of wearing a Mohawk haircut.

The four entities sitting to each side and a step down from the throne were smaller and smooth headed lacking the bony ridge and much more colorful.  Their scales ran the gamut from yellow to red-orange to a striking deep red.  Their heads were framed in multi-hued feathers.  I assumed they were females.

Below the throne on the floor of the hall stood two lines of what appeared to be guards, forming a hallway between their facing ranks, to the entrance to the room.  The ranked soldiers were smaller, colorless versions of the monster on the throne.  They were wearing tinted copper helmets so I could not determine the details of their head construction.  They were holding spears, the two lines facing each other and were as motionless as if they were statues.

As he looked closer at the hall, it struck him that it was shabby.  There was litter on the floor and the windows high in the wall looked as if they had been built by some retarded child.  Nothing was plumb, level or square.  Everything in the hall had a cobbled-together look as if the entire massive structure might collapse in on itself at any moment.  Just looking at it made me uncomfortable; it was like a visual “fingernails on a blackboard” feeling.

As I watched audio was slowly added to the visualization.  The females were chatting among themselves in a buzzing and clicking tongue that reminded me of porpoises communicating.  Just below the Gnu’s muttering, I heard whimpering.  It was coming from the four wagon sized cages sitting along the walls.

The cages were stuffed with naked human children.

All the Gnu’s attention was fixed on the two massive doors opposite the throne.  Evidently, they were waiting for something of import.  The ladies suddenly fell silent as the doors swung open.

Two guard types appeared pulling one of the wagon cages.  Inside of this cage was a single man.  He was naked save a thin loincloth.  His skin was bronze colored.  He was young, slender and muscular.  I felt he had the features of an American Indian, but the prominent tattoo on his muscular left arm showed six stars and an anchor.  He was an Imperial Fleet marine.

The guards pulled the wagon rattling and banging on less than perfectly round wooden wheels up to the bottom of the stone stairway leading to the throne.

“This is an animation,” Xianelta whispered as if the participants in the drama below might hear her.  “We never actually witnessed this or filmed it.  This scenario played out shortly before we made our escape from our home system.”  Xianelta repeated what I had already explained as if to reassure herself it wasn’t really happening.  The 3D animation was frighteningly realistic.”

“Why is this important?”

“It’s the record of the first Terran the Gnu ever encountered.  Up to this moment, the Gnu thought that humans were weak and unable to resist their predation.”

“He is one naked, unarmed man, what can he do?”

“You will see.  It is not…” she seemed to be struggling to find the right descriptor, “comforting…”

There was a momentary lull in the action as one of the guards climbed up on the wagon and was fumbling with the cage as if trying to open it.  I glanced around the hall as a buzz and click swept the floor.  He had seen the several hundred royals gathered around in small groups drinking from large flagons.

It finally dawned on me what I was witnessing.

This was a dinner party and the main course was in the cages on the other wagons.  I felt the anger rising in my throat and a killing rage start to boil up, threatening to erupt into a primal scream.

The guards didn’t seem to regard the prisoner with any fear or respect.  A single guard accompanied the cage opener.  He was armed with a spear that he was holding loosely at waist level apparently intending on prodding the captive out of the cage with it when the door was opened.

I examined the young man in the cage carefully as the front side of the cage merely fell forward leaving that end open.  There was no hinge or hardware; just an assemblage of bars lashed together with a rope-like material.  The Gnu did not seem particularly competent in their construction skills.

The prisoner’s body was bruised and battered.  One eye was black, swollen and ugly.  His upper lip was split.  There was no visible blood; evidently, he had been cleaned up for this appearance but he had been severely handled.

As I had guessed, the armed guard stuck his spear through the bars to prod the captive out of the open end of the cage.  Rather than cower away from the weapon, the prisoner grabbed it and wrenched it from the guard’s grip.  He spun it around and thrust the blade beneath the chin of the unarmed guard standing in the open gate.  A gout of green blood sprayed out from beneath the copper helmet as a chittering, bubbling scream filled the hall.

All movement in the hall was frozen for a long moment as the shocked audience looked on in horror.  They were being attacked by their supper.

“Yes!” I shouted, as my heart filled with racial pride at the action of the young warrior.  “Get the bastards!”

As the soldier in front of him was collapsing, the human warrior grabbed the sword at the Gnu’s waist and let the falling momentum of its body unsheathe the sword into his hand.

He stepped over the fallen soldier, shifted his grip on the spear and launched it overhand in the direction of the stage impaling one of the females, who looked down at the spear now protruding from her chest in disbelief.

A wave of protesting, high-pitched screams echoed through the hall as the gathered guests witnessed this horror in disbelief and anger.

The human warrior was only getting started.

The other guard came around the cage pulling at the sword at his waist.  He never completed the movement.  The sword that entered just above his belt and traveled up to just beneath his chin completely disemboweled him.  Green blood sprayed across the wagon.  The human warrior danced aside avoiding the deluge.

He spun on his heel and shouted a battle cry as he charged the stage.  His intent was apparent.  He was going for the top guy.

The females were not defenseless.  The uninjured trio leaped to their feet forming a barrier between their king and the threat sprinting up the steps.  Short daggers appeared in their hands and their ugly mouths peeled back revealing sharp yellow teeth.  They hissed like a coven of rattlesnakes.

I wondered at the behavior of the guards in the hall.  So far, they had not moved.  They still stood frozen in place like toy soldiers.

There was a lesson here.

The Gnu did not deal with surprise well.  Their reaction time was very slow.

The young man did not slow down.  He was racing up the steps with the sword in his right hand extended behind him.  As he approached the center female, he swung the sword up in a blur of motion impacting her extended knife hand at the wrist.  The knife went spinning away, still gripped in the severed paw.

Avoiding the spout of green blood, the warrior shouldered the female aside and confronted the king.  His eminence had finally gotten into the game.  He was standing, wielding a sword easily as long as the man in front of him was tall.  As the king had stood, the guards on the floor had all come to life and were charging the stairway.

They needn’t have bothered.

The human warrior’s bravery could not offset the tremendous physical inequity of a royal armed Gnu.  He met the human’s charge with a spray of liquid from an orifice beneath his nostrils.  The green liquid impacted the warrior in the face, instantly blinding him.  Smoke came up from where the acid was eating into his face.  He shoved the sword forward in a last desperate attack, but the king casually batted it aside and decapitated the warrior with a single swipe of his enormous sword.

The last thing I saw as the image faded was the king chewing on the severed arm of the warrior at his feet.

I guess that belies any comforting, ironic thought in the face of death, “They can kill you, but they can’t eat you…”

A long silence settled over the room as the starscape of the Empire replaced the setting of the animation.

“There is a strange dichotomy,” Rosslyn broke the spell.  “These Gnu…” she stumbled over the word as if reluctant to even use it.  “…evidently are a star-faring race, yet… spears and swords?”  She looked at Xianelta for an explanation.

“The Gnu are very tribal.  As a result, there is a lot of internecine warfare.  They seem to have restricted weapon technology, on their homeworld, to edged weapons, hoping to avoid wholesale slaughter of their race.”

“Yet they developed space travel…”

“No, they simply are using the technology of the ancients.  It seems the refugees from the Kinetics initially tried to settle on the Gnu’s homeworld.  Perhaps they gave up that idea because of conflict with the Gnu.  In any case, my people were never able to determine what happened with any certainty.  Eventually, the advance party of the ancients debarked to our moon, leaving enough technology behind for the Gnu to eventually escape their own world.

“Are the Gnu the race Isla Marin discovered she thought would eventually be a threat to humankind?” Rosslyn asked, looking at Lyna.  “…or was it the Kinetics?”

“We never encountered the Kinetics, it was, indeed, the Gnu.”

“They don’t seem to be much of a threat… I mean, swords, spears…”

“Don’t be fooled, they have mastered a lot of the ancient’s technology.  They are a significant threat, and they learn quickly.  Mankind will have to be very careful.”

***

 

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve
Byzantium
Lake Selene

Retired Admiral Howard Quincy Butner stood at the bridge of his forty-six-foot sports fisherman watching the charging graphic on the screen slowly filling the empty rectangle with green.  The graphene capacitors being charged fed her twin electric motors which could power the craft at flank speed for seventy-two hours.  At trolling speed, she was good for a week at sea.

Since his mandatory retirement, the admiral had moved to his family’s house on the lake full time, choosing to remain on Byzantium rather than return home to Tarantos.  There was little there for him any longer.  Most of his friends and family had passed years ago.  His many deployments had put a hundred-year gap between when he had been raised and today.  It was an unfortunate fact of life for Navy officers. Read more

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven

Omicron 5
in orbit around an unnamed gas giant

“What now, Commander?” Lyna asked me softly, barely audible.  She was kneading my neck as I sat back at the head of the conference table in my office off the bridge of Isla Marin.

We had worked our way back from the edge of the galaxy and the mysterious forbidden planet.  Omicron 5 was a large G class star at the fringe of Imperial space.  From here we could go anywhere in the Empire in a couple of transitions.  It had taken the better part of a year to claw our way back.  I hadn’t been fully aware of how far out my fruitless search had taken us. Read more

Chapter Ten

Chapter Ten

Calderon

Calderon

 

 “What are we doing out here?” Lyna asked me.  She was clearly unhappy.

I didn’t answer her.  I would have been happy to share with her.  The unfortunate truth was, in the near term, I had no idea what we were doing or where we were going.

“When will we get a lens to get out of here?” I countered her question with another one.

“It could be in a few hours.  The gravity flux has been building toward a lens formation over the last twenty hours, but where it will take us isn’t clear at the moment.  It is more than likely that it will be back toward the center of the galaxy, not further out.” Read more

Chapter Nine

Chapter Nine
Byzantium – Imperial HQ
Fleet Admiral Howard Quincy Butner’s office

“This development is a threat to the very fabric of our society,” the High Counselor said gravely.

“Yes, three hundred years of stability are at risk of being blown away in the storm,” the Pontiff agreed.

“Well Gentlemen, I know this criminal activity is disturbing, but I don’t know if it is that serious,” Admiral Butner remarked skeptically. Read more

Chapter Eight

Chapter Eight
Sparta System
Aboard Isla Marin – Anastazi starship

When I woke up, I was disoriented.  There was an itching beneath my left ear, when I reached up to scratch it; I felt a thin metallic ring embedded behind my earlobe.  Then it all came rushing back.  Lyna had convinced me to allow the ship to surgically implant a device in my head so I could communicate with the ship’s AI directly.

“Good morning Commander,” Jeannie’s voice resonated softly at the edge of my perception, but clear as new ice.  “How are you feeling?”

“Stunned, I think is the best description,” I experimented forming a mental sub-vocalization.  “And my ear itches.” Read more