“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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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 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.
…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?”
“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
“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.”