Silver Wordsmith: An author's journey
It was still more than a half hour left until noon when Rzena ceased the shuffling of papers Angzal was convinced was mostly for show and declared that he was heading out to lunch.
“A bit early for you isn’t it?” Angzal observed casually.
“Don’t you have an appointment with Congressmember Reyes at 11:30?” he replied with the same sort of feigned breeziness, though Angzal noted a prey-like jitter underneath Rzena’s tone.
“It’s reason enough to take a whole day off let alone duck out for an early lunch.”
Angzal had been posted here for a month, and for a month this appointment crept forward in her calendar, usually postponed two or three days at a time on the eve of the scheduled meeting. When Angzal asked her predecessor, who had stayed on for a brief transition period, about the appointment with Congressmember Reyes, she laughed and then took off for a much cushier position on Kai Thori, leaving the meeting solely Angzal’s responsibility. Rzena, who had worked at the embassy for over fifteen years, was equally unhelpful.
“I’ve got ten minutes left. You sure you can’t give me a little heads-up as to what I’m in for?” Angzal asked.
“Hmm, yes, but she might be early, so it’s ten minutes I’d sooner not waste. And besides, why would I want to ruin the surprise when you’ve waited this long?” Rzena scrunched his nose at her and headed for the door of their cramped office, flicking a tail that had begun to lose some its colour and sheen in his age.
“Rzena, so help me if you go through that door I will hunt you down and eat your heart,” Angzal snarled at his retreating back.
“I’ll take that chance.” And with a parting swipe of his tail, Rzena shut the door.
Rzena had been in this associate role for so long, and had now witnessed the full terms of several of what were supposed to have been his superiors, that he acted like he was the essential cog at the embassy, while the officials that were periodically sent from the homeworld were serving as mere shiny gloss over the true machinery.
What annoyed Angzal was less the attitude itself, and more that he was probably right. Few Mraboran had the patience to stay on Earth for as long as he did, so the experience he accumulated was possibly worth more than her own title. Though she would have preferred if he didn’t mete out his knowledge in miserly portions and only when Angzal had earned it based on his sole criteria she was yet to decipher.
There wasn’t much by way of publicly available Intelnet info on Congressmember Frances Reyes. Newly elected and already splashing about to create whatever waves she could, Reyes was considered to be within the ranks of the non-interventionists, though whereas most non-interventionists saw wider conflicts as none of Humanity’s concern, Reyes actively insisted they were everyone else’s problem to solve.
The clock on the wall was simultaneously too slow and not fast enough. Ideally, it would have just skipped ahead about a half hour; instead, it counted down the slow painful minutes to the appointed time that was approaching too quickly. The office, though diminutive to the point of insult, at least had a few plants and a window that opened up to the bay around which the city had been nestled.
Her native Mrabr had its shares of inland seas and an abundance of lakes, but nothing that approached the grand splendor of the seemingly endless Mer Pacific. It was incredible to her that Humans had almost succeeded in destroying this beauty over two thousand years earlier, and all the more impressed they managed to clean it up so well since.
Her admiration of the great greyish-blue expanse was interrupted by a knock on the door that made her turn and push the tips of her ears to the back of her head, though the gesture would likely have been entirely lost on a Human. The door clicked open before Angzal had a chance to invite the visitor in, which caused an involuntary low growl to slip from her throat as Congressmember Reyes entered the room.
“You’re not the deputy consul,” Reyes observed by way of introduction.
“Starting to wish I wasn’t,” came Angzal’s reply.
With her wide slightly pointed nose, stern mouth and dark eyebrows, Reyes’s face seemed to be poised to break through whatever hapless obstacle stood in her way, a silent challenge Angzal accepted out of spite before Reyes even had a chance to state her case.
“Well we’re both here now,” Reyes said, the level of annoyance in her voice seemingly unaffected by Angzal’s remark.
“Please, take a seat,” Angzal offered. Reyes didn’t budge.
“Did the previous deputy consul have a chance to brief you on our demands before she left?” That word ‘demands’ certainly didn’t bode well.
“Unfortunately, due to the developing situation around Krevali, my transition to this post has been a bit hectic.”
“Spare me the lecture, I’m fully aware of the situation around Krevali.” Being this far out in the sticks, that contention seemed like quite an exaggeration to Angzal. “Whatever’s been keeping you lot so busy that you continuously postponed our meeting seems to have amounted to little more than the Mraboran Protectorate protecting its own tails.”
Why did every species without a tail find it so necessary to point out the Mraboran’s any chance they got?
“The Thorian avoids the stasis pods. But he does sleep.” Boro said. “Looks to me like you missed him by a couple of hours. I suggest next time you steer clear of the drink.” Boro eyed his own, and took a long sip from it. “Now go, get some sleep. It’s going to be lonely and quiet here for the next week with most of the crew in stasis, Lieutenant Guraty and myself included, at least for the next couple of days. Even the Captain’s got a few days off shift, though he generally also avoids the pods.”
They all heard him, but he knew that it was Meslina who was the only one who understood. She finished off her tea, and rose from the table; the other two following suit.
“Goodnight, Commander, Lieutenant,” she said.
“Night Mez.” Boro gestured at her with his own drink, and soon Boro and Surch were alone as Meeron, taking the hint, left two dinner specials out for them and made himself scarce.
“You can order them all into stasis, you know,” Surch suggested when the double doors to the galley stopped swinging after Meeron’s departure.
“Why would I need to do something like that?”
“I don’t think Intelligence will be very happy if we kill their Thorian.”
“Intelligence aren’t the ones having to cart him around.”
“The Captain won’t be, either.”
“We’ll be fine without him. The way he talks, I don’t understand what his angle is in all this, and I think we’re better off navigating through the Empire without his help. But they won’t kill him either, not with Meslina around.”
“She lost her dad in the Last Gasp, never even had a chance to meet him,” Surch reminded Boro as he rolled his empty glass on the table.
“I know.” Every file; off by heart. “But I trust her. The worst he’ll get is a few dents to go along with those bumps.”
Boro watched Surch’s face, the pilot clenching and unclenching his jaw muscles as he righted his glass again. It had been fifteen years since they graduated and ten years since they’d last seen each other after serving five months together on the starship Astarte. Since then, Surch moved from one non-descript assignment to another, stints that hardly deserved footnotes in a surprisingly bare file – mostly patrols around the periphery of the Outer Rim Confederacy, as far out as the borders of the Adaract Hive. Boro wondered what happened in the meantime that would allow Surch to land a gig like the Forseti and how Surch managed to lose sight of what Boro was struggling against here, despite the long and lonely nature of Surch’s own deployments, and what the two of them experienced when they were cadets.
“You remember the Academy, that one Winti who always got the better of you?” Boro asked.
Surch rubbed his eyes – dark brown, tired and seemingly looking off into that distant past, and took a deep breath. “How could I forget?”
“You were a better pilot, of course, but he knew how to use every quirk of the simulator to his advantage, even if it would have been completely irrelevant in the real world.” Even so many years after graduation, Boro could see that this was more than a little water under the bridge for Surch. “Remember that night when our groups tried to settle it with a brawl?”
Surch chuckled and shook his head. “We thought we planned it out so well.”
“And yet …”
“The Admiral had me doing gravity simulations until I threw up. Then had me clean that up and start over.”
“Same. That didn’t solve anything though, did it?” Boro asked and watched whatever smile Surch had drain away from his face.
“Hated each other more than ever. Until that one live exercise.” Surch was frowning, avoiding eye contact. He didn’t need Boro to remind him of where this was going, but Boro pressed on anyway. “You and the Winti were neck-and-neck for the most of it, I was bringing up the rear with a couple of his friends, until one of them had that power failure. I might have clipped their wing, or the other in the Winti’s crew did. We never did figure it out. But we did receive a short burst of a distress call before they cut out. You did too, as did the Winti. We were all within range and were supposed to hold back until help arrived. But we weren’t that far off the finish line. Less than an hour was it? And we assumed the pack would have been bringing up the rear, or at least that the damaged ship wouldn’t drift so far from the course.”
Boro paused then, listening to Surch’s even breathing in the dim light of the after-hours galley. There was little left in Boro’s glass, but it was enough. This was for the best. Surch knew it. It was how things have always worked.
“Two months in the hospital,” Surch whispered, “and then never returned to the Academy. Never flown again.”
“But the rest of us, the ones that stayed on, we were fast friends then, and helped each other succeed instead of getting in each other’s way. Do you see what I’m saying?”
“I see more than you know,” Surch answered, putting his palms on the table and pushing himself back in the chair. Boro watched him carefully as the pilot returned the empty glass to the counter, straightened his uniform and gave a small cough. “I tell you this as a friend, Boro. But not all of us recovered as easily as you. Good night.”
“You’re not staying for dinner?”
And with that, Surch Guraty left the galley, and went to put himself in stasis, and Boro was left alone, in a living breathing ship, with the responsibility to keep its lungs fresh and its arteries clear resting solely on his shoulders.
The conversation with the Thorian stayed with Boro during the days that followed. It irked him like benign parasite residing beneath the skull in the back of his head. A new stasis rotation had begun, and with that, half the military crew and most of the civilians went into their pods for a week, scheduled to come out about a day before they reached Yshot Station.
But not the Thorian. He lurked somewhere in the ship, and it bothered Boro to acknowledge that even as second-in-command, he actively avoided the galley to steer clear of their next conversation. Tonight though, after a long bridge shift that ended at an hour when even the Thorian would be sane enough to head to bed, he thought he would be safe.
“Want to head up for a bite to eat?” Surch asked. “Meeron said he’s left hot meals to last a few days.”
“I hope it’s fish,” Boro answered under his breath.
“What’s that?” Surch chuckled.
“Careful there, Boro, who’s going to do all that paperwork once you’ve cracked as well?”
Boro tried to laugh, but all he managed was an exhale and to walk slightly less slumped.
“Speaking of which,” Surch added, glancing behind his shoulder. “You think Maggie will be okay there all by herself?”
“She’ll be fine. She breathes this ship. If anything, she’s better off being plugged in. Without all that data flowing through it, I imagine a mind like hers would get bored pretty fast.”
“Must take a weird one to do what she’s doing.” Surch’s voice dropped, even though they were well out of earshot of the bridge by then. “I hear that half of them crack before they’ve had the implants for a full year.”
“I hear half of them crack before they even get them.”
When they reached the galley, they were surprised to find that Meeron had not in fact turned in, and that he had company to boot. In the dimmed lights of the galley, they could see Meeron pouring three drinks from a dusty bottle full of dark liquid, as the intended recipients sat huddled at a nearby table – Meslina, the Nabak, and Eframe Gonsyn. The little scene froze upon the entry of the two officers. Meslina, who had her back turned to them, let out a resigned sigh.
“Commander! Lieutenant!” Meeron started cheerfully, then paused, and in a swift motion downed a drink with one hand and pulled out two more glasses from underneath the counter with the other. “Care to join us?”
Boro looked at Surch, who shrugged and said, “Count me in.”
Boro took the empty chair next to Meslina and Surch pulled one up from the adjacent table and sat on it backwards, his legs straddling the back of the chair and arms resting over it. Surch maintained a smile while Boro tried to keep his expression cold and level, playing the part of the stern Second-in-Command who’s willing to listen.
“So, might I ask what brings you all here at this unsightly hour?” Surch broke the silence after it had lasted for a sufficiently uncomfortable amount of time. Eframe and the Nabak looked at each other, and then at Meslina. Meeron stepped in, placing the drinks in front of everyone but the Comms Officer. Surch gave it a short sniff, and then drank it in one gulp. “And don’t tell me it’s the fine drink. Meeron, do us all a favour, if you’re going to smuggle something on board, could you at least make it good?”
“Got some choice things coming our way at Yshot Station, but, uh, you never heard it from me.”
In the silence that followed, Meeron returned with a mug of steaming black tea for Meslina, who hovered her nose over the drink and took a deep inhale with her eyes closed.
“And I can see that it’s not the lively conversation that’s the draw of the hour either.” Surch moved his gaze from one person to the next, but all three avoided eye contact with both him and Boro. “Hey Meeron,” Surch called, looked down at his drink. “I didn’t say stop.” Meeron nodded and the refill was swiftly delivered.
Surch sipped it this time, and looked like he was about to make another attempt to break the ice, when Boro stepped in. “Look, we can pretend that I don’t know everything that happens on this ship, and that I don’t already have a pretty good idea of why you’re here. If I was in your position, I might have been at this table too, who knows. But we’re here now, and we can either continue to avoid talking about why, or we can accept that we’re all on the same team.” Boro laid his hands on the table in front of him, intertwining his fingers.
Meslina shrugged slightly, her hands wrapped around her mug, and the Nabak spoke in his gravelly half-growl. “It’s the Thorian.”
“Yes, I recall a couple of days ago here you made your feelings about him very clear.”
“Any chance I get.”
“Get a lot of chances, do you?”
“You know how he is, roaming about the ship like it’s his. It’s how his kind treat everything … and everyone.”
“Like they treat Nabak?” Boro prompted.
Boro couldn’t tell whether the Nabak was looking directly at him, or taking his cues from Meslina – their species’ eyes were almost entirely black, with little by way of discernible pupils or irises. It made it harder to maintain eye contact than even with the Thorian and his damnable glasses. The dense stubble that covered their entire face and the two vestigial tusks on either side of their mouth made for an ensemble that Boro did not find altogether pleasing.
“You know it’s not just about Nabak, Commander.” Meslina paused to take a long sip of her tea and in that time Boro again wondered why she never addressed him by his name. “Not many of the crew are happy about this arrangement.”
“Yeah, we’re just the only ones not afraid to show it,” Eframe added.
Boro tried to soften the withering look he wanted to give Eframe, which seemed to work, since the engineer’s expression didn’t falter.
Surch shifted in his chair, the second drink left unfished before him. “Have any of you actually tried to talk to the guy?” He asked.
“I think that’s more of the Commander’s area, isn’t it?” Eframe remarked, while the Nabak let out a grunt that sounded to Boro like a burst of laughter.
“Yes, Sivian?” Surch prompted.
“I tried once. Not sure what I was expecting. He just listened to me, with that stupid look on his face they all have where they don’t try to hide that they think they’re better than you. And then he said we Nabak should be so lucky that the Thorians got to us before the Hatvan did.”
“Charming,” Surch said after clearing his throat.
“You were on Nabak during the insurrection?” Boro asked. Every file, he’d read them all, able to recite them all, opening his tablet only to make it seem like he didn’t. He knew the answers before he asked the questions.
“No.” The Nabak’s mouth contorted so it looked like all four of his tusks were aimed at a single point just in front of his face. “We escaped to the Mraboran Protectorate during the last exodus, before they really tightened it up. I had family left there though, less now after the Revolution. Even less with the Butcher in charge.”
Boro said nothing to this. He let the dark cloak of this silence descend over the table. Soak into all present, especially Surch, who for whatever reason seemed to have some kind of soft spot for the Thorian. Surch finished the remainder of his drink. This was a good sign.
“Humans are not exactly new to war, Mr. Mikarik,” Boro said pleasantly. It wouldn’t have been the first time he had to sit through a lecture from a member of another species about Humanity’s neophyte status in the Known Reaches, though he preferred when the conversation took place in some dive of a bar with none of his superior officers in earshot and he felt the familiar itch in his knuckles.
Mikarik’s hand, which was carrying another forkful to his mouth, froze for a moment. The spectacle of watching the Thorian eat had lost its novelty and just made Boro lose interest in his own lunch.
“Oh, I’m well aware of that,” Mikarik answered. “You’re so efficient at it you nearly wiped yourselves out of existence a couple of thousand years ago.”
Boro cocked his head to the side, using a smile to hide what was bubbling on the surface, thinking a sneer was probably the best he was managing “Probably,” he said, allowing his eyes to drift back down to his tablet. “But you’re not exactly career military yourself. That was your first major conflict, and the Mraboran incident was only your what, fifth or sixth engagement?”
“I don’t necessarily speak for myself when I talk of experience. I speak for the tradition that raised me, that forged Empires when you were still climbing out of a Dark Ages you sent yourself to.”
“And yet here you are,” Boro looked up again and spread his hands in a gesture that meant to encompass the whole ship, “supposedly turning your back on that tradition and betraying the Empire you now defend.”
“My relationship with the Empire is my own.” The Thorian lowered his forearms, picked up a generous forkful of fish and stuffed it in his mouth, chewing it with his eyes pinned on Boro through his glasses. “And it’s complicated.”
“I have no doubt about that, but that’s not how our Nabak sees it.”
“You mean Sivian?”
It was that damned ghost of a smile again.
“Yes, Sivian,” Boro gritted through his teeth.
“No, I don’t think he does.”
“Do you think he should?” Boro asked.
“I’m sure you’re aware of what happened towards the end of that war.”
“I do, but that hardly did nothing to undo what already happened, did it?”
Was that really a tinge of regret that Boro saw creep across the Thorian’s face and disappear? Were they even capable of regret? Dr. Sufai might know, or else that Vaparozh xenologist, one of them could shed a light on whether he was only seeing things, but in any case, the Thorian had no answer so Boro pressed on.
“The Mraboran have likely not forgotten.”
“Good thing we don’t have any Mraboran on board,” the Thorian remarked.
“But we do have a Nabak.”
“As I’m sure you’ve noticed how the rest of the crew act around you.”
“Is there a point to all this, Commander?” The Thorian asked with a deep sigh and a long look at his plate. “Because between this conversation and the revolting fish, I’d sooner focus on my lunch.”
“Mr. Mikarik, I’m in a delicate position.” Boro dropped his voice. “I’ve got a Comms Officer, a very capable experienced officer, unable to take some sporty ribbing from my ship’s steward. I’ve got a civilian Head Engineer who’s having a hard time working with my Techever. I’ve got maintenance crew showing up in medbay because of a game of cards, and above all,” Boro looked around and leaned in conspiratorially, “there’s a Captain who is so focused on the smooth operations of the bridge that he believes that the rest of the ship is running as smoothly.”
“But you know what they all have in common, Mr. Mikarik?” Boro relaxed back into his chair, making sure to project his next sentence. “None of them particularly like that there’s a Thorian on board. You’re not in a great position either, and maybe that was my mistake. Maybe that’s how I failed my crew. I made you feel too comfortable. We’re barely one week out of Yshot Station, and you’ll gain access to the only place on the ship that’s so far been free of your presence. There’s a Captain there who might be tempted to make the same mistakes I have. And I’ll be there to make sure that he doesn’t. I just wanted you to know that before it becomes a problem between the two of us.” He gave the Thorian a purposefully fake smile, and rose from the table. “As you said, I should let you return to your lunch. Enjoy.”
The Thorian watched him as Boro tucked in his chair, pocketed his tablet and then turned his back to place his empty dishes on the kitchen counter. Only then did the Thorian call out to him, in his cold voice that often gave Boro an uncomfortable tickling sensation behind his ears. “Commander.”
Boro turned around, saying nothing.
“That’s not entirely true though, is it?” The Thorian continued. “There’s one person that doesn’t mind that I’m on board. Someone who’s quite pleased with the fact that they have a handy excuse in their arsenal, and can blame all their personal failings on the Thorian.”
This time, before he turned to leave, Boro was sure that it was, in fact, a smile.
The Thorian, who stood just inside the galley door, eyed the three approaching crewmembers with some interest, and perhaps expected what was coming. From where Boro was sitting, it was hard to truly discern the Thorian’s expression behind the glasses that shielded his eyes from lights that had been attuned to the brightness of Humanity’s homeworld. The Nabak took first honours – built like a boar and with an ugly mug to match – the Thorian had more than a foot on him but still took a broad shoulder into the kidney, or whatever Thorian equivalent resided in that part of the abdomen. Eframe followed in close second, this time jostling the Thorian shoulder-to-shoulder. Boro thought that Meslina would opt for something more creative but she repeated Eframe’s gesture, the Thorian swaying back with each collision like a jammed revolving door.
It was juvenile stuff, reminiscent of how cadets elbowed within the pecking order at the Academy. Boro’s only regret was that Surch had just stepped out and missed it.
Boro had always heard that a Thorian’s forehead horns, though more akin to mere bumps, did something funny when they were steamed. Unfortunately, it didn’t seem like Boro or the others remaining in the galley were in for any sort of show. The Thorian attempted to discretely take a deep breath, straightened his shirt, and approached the counter of Meeron’s kitchen.
“What do you have for me today, Meeron?” The Thorian asked, propping his elbows up on the counter.
Meeron stood with his arms crossed for a moment, chewing on his lip, and then responded, his colonial accent sounding thicker than normal. “Only fish.”
The Thorian gave him a tight-lipped smile and surveyed the room without moving his elbows. There were only two fish dishes in the place, while the rest ate salad, or chicken or some packaged protein paste that may once upon a time have contained a certain percentage of a cow. He turned back to Meeron, who shrugged.
“Then fish it is.”
When the Thorian turned around after receiving his fish portion, notably with no sides, Boro flagged him down with a curt wave.
“Mr. Mikarik,” Boro greeted him as the Thorian lowered himself into the chair across from Boro. Early on in their journey, Mikarik insisted that there was no “Mister” or anything of the sort attaching to Thorian names, but eventually gave up on the corrections.
“Commander,” the Thorian answered, poking at the fish with his fork.
“Take it you’re not a big fan of fish?”
“Not particularly. It’s far too …”
“Fishy?” Boro suggested.
“Yes, I suppose for lack of a better word. We’re not exactly keen on sea food. Especially the little ones, so this is a learning experience for me.”
“In that case, here’s to learning experiences,” Boro said, lifting up his own forkful of flaky white meat, and after swallowing, continued. “So, I’ve been reading your file.”
“A solid indicator that it's about time you put yourself in stasis.”
Boro forced a laugh. “Yes, true maybe. You’ve flown during the Nabak Insurrection, haven’t you?”
“That’s what I like about you, Commander, never afraid to go straight to the point.”
“Should I be afraid?”
“Not at all. But I think maybe there’s reason for me to be?”
It annoyed Boro that he couldn’t tell whether the Thorian was smiling or not. Pretty much every sentient species smiled, a quirk of convergent evolution that seemed to be in ample supply in the Known Reaches. The Thorians that he chanced to meet though, were not as generous with the expression, and this one in particular seemed to always have his lips curled slightly to confuse Boro’s Human-adjusted eyes. More to avoid the Thorian’s expression than to refresh his memory, Boro picked up his personal computer tablet and, selecting a conveniently located shortcut, pulled up Mikarik’s file.
“You’ve seven confirmed fighter-to-fighter kills during that campaign,” Boro said, without lifting his eyes, and getting some satisfaction in the Thorian making the slightest move to try to read the tablet from where he was sitting.
“I’m a decent pilot.” The Thorian leaned back in his chair.
“And a decent shot it seems.”
If a single Thorian possessed an ego outside whatever collective selfishness drove the species, Boro thought that he could see it behind the tint of Mikarik’s glasses and around the corners of his mouth.
“If I recall, you’ve also distinguished yourself in operations that took down three larger vessels, one of which was …”
The sparkle of pleasure and faint smile vacated the Thorian’s face, and instead took residence on Boro’s.
“A Mraboran humanitarian ship, was it?”
After a moment, Mikarik put his elbows on the table, the sides of his arms facing forward, and his hands clasped under his chin.
“Have you ever been in a battle, Commander? I mean a real battle. Not a training exercise, or hanging back on the sidelines while two heavy ships engage in nothing more than a cursory exchange of fire just so they can report back to their superiors that they tried? Your father has. I’ve heard of him. Captain Avanthy Stevin? Admiral by now, I gather. Probably the only Human of note that I’d heard of until your friends from Intelligence picked me up on Kargoosh. But beyond that, Humanity is young, and small, and in all fairness, ambitious, but it’s inexperienced and is hardly in a position to criticize a power like the Empire on the conduct of war.”
Boro hovered patiently trying not breathe too loudly behind the Head Engineer.
“You’re not going to leave before I allow Maggie access back into my systems, are you?” Aimi asked without looking up at him, fingers busy at the console.
“I know this is an unusual situation for you, and if I was in your place, I’d have some choice words about the Navy too.” Was it possible to see someone rolling their eyes while looking at the back of their head? Boro shrugged and pressed on. “But first and foremost, this is a military ship.”
“Spare me, Commander. I’ve had the pleasure of talking to Captain Pueson and I don’t need him to send an echo up here.”
Boro realized this was the longest she had kept still, but just as the thought passed through his mind, she was on the move again.
“On the books, the Forseti is a research vessel. As far as its organized, the Forseti is a research vessel. In its mission, the Forseti is a research vessel. But then there’s the command crew, and don’t get me started on your little weapons dungeon which frankly the less I know about, the better I feel. Why a research vessel needs to be armed as if we’re going to fight off the entire Empire by ourselves is – anyway. At the end of the day, I make sure you have air to breathe, I make sure you have running water. My team and I are busy getting the ship where you say we need it to go, and making sure that no one sees it while we’re getting there. But what do I know? I’m just a lowly civilian,” she gave him a cruel smile. “I’m not invited to the officers’ table and yet I’m supposed to accept being bossed around by a glorified personal organizer.”
“Is that what this is really about? A seat at the table?”
To her credit, Aimi did her best to hide that she was grinding her teeth.
“What this is about, Commander.” Never before had his title sounded so much like some sort of derision, “is that it’s my job to make sure the ship doesn’t come apart at the seams. And you need to do a better job of making sure the crew doesn’t do the same. You can let Maggie know she can have full access again, but from now on, this is a partnership. Not a chain of command. Understood?”
Boro’s mind was torn between having to acquiesce to the ultimatum and repeating Pueson’s words about the Forseti being first and foremost a military vessel. Both options seemed to lack the nuance that recognized that the Forseti was, on the books, a research vessel; a research vessel that was outfitted with what Aimi had so lovingly referred to as “the dungeon”.
“I will speak, to Maggie.” His response, spoken coolly despite the pounding he felt in his temple, didn’t satisfy him, but it at least left him in the position of a benevolent compromiser. Whether that registered with the Engineer remained a mystery to Boro, since without any kind of acknowledgement or even a nod, she returned to her work.
Back on the bridge, it took Surch one look at Boro to say, “I see that went well.”
Boro wanted to laugh it off, but everything in his head sounded clumsy and peevish. “To Ishikawa’s credit, she runs a tight ship, even if we’d apparently failed to provide one.”
“What’s that?” Surch asked.
“I’ll fill you in later. The important thing is to remember that it’s expected that our civilian crew will have some adjustment difficulties, but it’s in everyone’s best interests to cooperate.” As he said this, he cast his glance over to Maggie, who stood in the same leaning position she had been in when he left.
“I take it the threats against my life have been rescinded?” She asked.
“In a manner of speaking.”
“Good. I like Ishikawa. She knows her ship.”
“Of course,” Maggie answered with a vague smile, “it’s ours.” She then placed her left hand, the one with lighter grey veins running through her otherwise deep brown skin, over five circular holes in her console, each only a few millimetres in diameter, and metallic tubes wriggled from between her nails and each of her fingertips and inserted themselves into the entry ports.
Most of the time, the galley was a fairly deserted place, with only a handful of people in it a time, but there were peaks, especially between shifts, when as much as half the population of the ship ate and drank together, their chatter melting together into a cheerful din. For whatever reason, though he had struck Boro as a largely solitary creature, the Thorian preferred to make his appearances during these times. Perhaps he derived a sort of pleasure from the reactions of some of the crew that filtered towards him through the room, which wouldn’t have surprised Boro, because who knew what these Thorians truly derived their pleasure from. So it caused little surprise, but no small amount of irritation, when the Thorian deigned show up during the last such peak before the start of the next stasis rotation, which was about to effectively deprive the Thorian of his audience for a week.
Most heads perked up at his entrance, faces adorned with a mix of idle to disgusted curiosity as well as freshly-sharpened eye daggers being sent towards the door of the galley. Head Engineer Ishikawa and Dr. Sufai, who often sat at the same table, were some of the few that hadn’t bothered even looking up.
The deliberate scrape of three chairs across the floor made Boro shudder, not entirely from the sound. Meslina, a junior engineer named Eframe Gonsyn, and the Nabak all rose. They left behind plates of unfinished food and headed for the galley door.
There was some sort of occupational requirement for Techevers to be a bit different. A generous way to describe them would be ‘loopy’; however, Boro suspected that “absolutely unhinged” was a more appropriate label. And though some of the kinks have been worked out of this experiment that was now in its second decade, as self-induced attrition among them was at an all-time low, Boro still believed they were largely a hindrance, rather than the promised ultimate link between human and machine.
Boro took a deep breath and cocked his head to the side. “Okay Maggie, you’re going to have to walk me through this one.”
“Very well. Engineer Ishikawa made it very clear that if I go rooting around her systems again without her permission, that she will personally, and I quote ‘Rip all those little dangly things from my fingers and shove them all the way – ’”
“Thank you, Maggie, that’s enough.”
“Are you sure? It went on for quite some time and I’ve got it all pretty much committed to memory.”
“No, that’s alright.”
“Too bad. Aimi has a fantastic command of language and an absolute arsenal of synonyms for various body parts.”
Boro had no answer but threw back a pleading look at Surch, who shrugged and said, “That sounds like your bread and butter, Commander.”
When he entered the engine room, nothing told Boro that anything was out of the ordinary. Aimi moved in fits and spurts, punching at buttons in a way that put about five times more wear and tear on them than necessary, but this was standard operating procedure for the Head Engineer. The engines themselves hummed away peacefully, stretched along either side of the room. As Boro walked between them towards the back of the room where the reactor was located, Aimi continued to ignore him as the two other engineers on duty cast furtive glances between him and their boss. At the heart of the reactor stood a translucent chamber where, suspended at its centre, was a black glassy ball about the width of Boro’s thumbnail that not only provided the ship with power but also the necessary touch of inexplicable magic needed for it to skim the surface of subspace at speeds that were magnitudes above the speed of light. When he leaned in to take a closer look at the quivering shadow that enveloped it, Aimi appeared behind him and asked, “Surely, we shouldn’t have to expect an inspection every time there’s a minor hiccup down here?”
“Inspection?” Boro feigned surprise with two innocently raised eyebrows. “I’d think of it as more of a house call.”
“Whatever you prefer to call, I think it hardly warrants any attention.”
“And what is ‘it’, exactly?”
“Just the drop being temperamental, nothing new, especially with this one.” Aimi threw up her chin in the direction of the black sphere behind Boro.
“How do you mean?”
“I don’t know where it’s been repurposed from, but it’s seen some things over its lifetime. Not sure who in their right mind thought that it was a good idea to make it power a skimmer and keep the ship ghosted for several months at a time. It acts up here and there, so I’m forced to make decisions as to what bears the brunt of its moods. And considering that the ghost is what’s keeping the ship alive, a figured a little drop of speed would be nothing to write home about.”
Boro’s lip curled into the start of a smile, wondering how it was that the time Aimi and Surch were evidently spending together had slipped past his attention.
“Maybe we could have skipped this whole conversation if you allowed Maggie to do her job,” Boro suggested.
“Ah, so that’s why you’re here.” Aimi, as if having completely lost all interest, continued her rounds of instruments and displays.
“I hear there may have been an exchange of words.”
“In all fairness to Maggie, it was a very one-sided exchange.”
“I figured,” Boro said with a smirk that must somehow have been audible since Aimi wheeled on him.
“Commander, maybe it’s easy for you, squirreled away on your bridge, to forget what’s going on elsewhere on the ship, but from where I’m standing, it’s hardly pretty.” Her glasses slipped down a slightly long pale nose, the lights of the engine room accentuating the hard set of her jaw. “Some genius, in the Navy, mind you, these are your friends here, gave us a drop that’s more fit to power a very large toaster instead of an ORC starship. Some other genius, or maybe it’s the same genius, decided to give a Thorian free reign of the ship. My second’s a Nabak, gitang it, how do you think that affects him when that smug bumpy-headed asshole pokes his head in? And on top of that, no matter what I’m doing, no matter what I’m in the middle of, I’ve got that Techever rooting around in my systems, telling me how to do my job.”
Boro barely opened his mouth to speak when Aimi put up her hand, her fingers spread. “I know they’re the Navy’s favourite toy right now, but I’ve never worked with a Techever before. No one even bothered to tell me there was one on board this ship until one day Maggie calls down and tries to tell me how to run my engines. Commander, I’ve been an engineer on a comet chaser that was basically just cobbled together spare parts and I feel like that was run better than the Forseti.”
“I think you’re exaggerating.”
“Well if you’re finding nothing unusual, then I’m really concerned about the state of our Navy.” She turned away before she finished her sentence, and Boro followed her silently as she walked to a panel at the opposite end of the engine room and started typing in commands.
What Boro did know, is that Drain Vortexes were, by and large, a useless cosmic phenomenon. Appearing within or around the Known Reaches once every twenty or thirty years, they allowed for well-shielded ships to travel through them over great distances in a fraction of what it normally took, which on the surface sounded appealing, but the wormholes usually led to some random desolate spot in Dead Space and had the irritating tendency of collapsing on themselves without warning after only a few months. When the Iastret lost several ships to the sudden closing of the last Drain Vortex, leaving more than a hundred of their people stranded about six years from Iastret space with provisions to barely last a year, one would have assumed all interest in the wormholes would have faded. This would have been true for pretty much any other species, except the Iastret were crafted from a different cloth, and as though proving the utility of the wormholes would somehow avenge their lost people, they set out to dissect the data they had collected in earnest.
What they found was whereas the technology currently used for faster-than-light travel was able to skip a vessel along the surface of subspace, the Drain Vortexes acted as a whirlpool that created a passage of normal space through the surrounding subspace. They further concluded that with the right equipment and technical expertise the details of which made Boro’s mind slip through his own Drain Vortex to a secluded beach somewhere in the Mer Pacific, a ship could penetrate through the walls of the wormhole, and find itself fully immersed in subspace. From there, provided that everyone on board the ship survived the journey, which the Iastret whole-heartedly assured they would, the data that would be collected would be analyzed to allow the ship to puncture a hole back into normal space, and then freely back and forth, cutting down interstellar travel times down to fractions.
To get this mission financed, the Iastret had essentially promised the whole galaxy – if there was anything of worth out there beyond Dead Space – a crossing that would theoretically take almost half a century would take less than a year. And similarly, a crossing of the entire Known Reaches would be a matter of a mere couple days and not six months.
The Iastret were smart. This was a truth generally acknowledged, like the fact that the Thorians were arrogant bastards, and that the Hatvan were stuck-up bastards. But were the Iastret smart enough to break through the surface of subspace without crushing the ship to the size of a grain of sand? Boro wasn’t sure how keen he was to be a willing participant in that experiment.
Not to mention that what remained unsaid during that briefing, despite hovering like a cold razor against the necks of the whole crew, was the main reason why the ship had to maximize its provisions at Yshot Station. This wormhole’s other end was flung out about a four years’ journey into Dead Space. If it were to collapse when they were on the other side, or worse, while they were still in it, best case scenario was being stranded several years’ journey from home without a single planet with even a shred of organic life along the way.
Less than a week after the incident in the galley, just when Meslina started showing her face there again and even shared a laugh with Meeron as if nothing even happened but for the slight undertone that if something were to ever happen again, one of them might not live to laugh about it, Boro thought that he could make it to the end of the rotation without another pressure valve releasing all over his day.
He was on bridge duty, a place that had frequently grown more crowded and where he was forced to appear more and more often. Yshot Station itself was in a far-flung corner of Iastret space near the frontier of the Thorian Empire, but the quickest way there lay through relatively dense confluence of Iastret and Vaparozh space, which required a bit more vigilance to stay off sensors. Increased vigilance, however, was pretty much where the excitement peaked and Boro spent most of the time on the bridge talking to Surch and trying not to gag whenever the Parsk Nahur moved and wafted some of his strong aroma in Boro’s direction.
The little cautioning sound that came from Surch’s console nearly startled Boro into a call for red alert.
“Report.” Boro ordered.
“Report?” Surch chuckled. “I know you’ve got your infinite love for paperwork, but I don’t think I can squeeze an essay out of this one.”
“Just tell me what’s going on.”
“Rounding down? Absolutely nothing. Looks like there’s a small drop in power to engines, but nothing worth writing home about.”
Surch had been using the phrase more and more frequently as they neared Yshot Station – the one time they would be given the opportunity to write home before going off the grid as they entered Thorian space. The way Surch joked, nothing ever happened on the ship that was worth writing home about and claimed that the only content of his communication back to Earth would be, “Hey ma, send samosas.”
The alarm and the problem it identified were trivial, but trying to sneak a ghosted ship through a narrow strip between busy shipping lanes made Boro all the more aware that all trivial problems had ambitions to become something greater. Even if Surch, who was used to mostly flying single-person starfighters that required looking at issues with a narrow lens, was unphased by it, Boro liked to think there was a reason he had earned a command position well ahead of his classmate, and that was his ability to see the big picture. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a reliable insight into the big picture was conspicuously quiet.
Maggie Okoth, the Techever, was standing leaning with her back against the far curved wall of the bridge. She never sat, which for whatever reason bothered Boro.
“Maggie, you have a read for me on that engine trouble?” Boro asked.
Surch cleared his throat.
“On that minor engine abnormality that Lieutenant Guraty guarantees won’t kill us in the long run.”
“Nope,” the Techever answered, a baffling smile across her lips.
“Pretty much a big ‘nope’.”
“You have to pardon my crude metaphor,” Boro replied in response to the Intelligence officer’s assurances over the Thorian’s viability as an asset, “but if you tell me a lion’s got no teeth or claws and ask me to spend a night in its cage, it doesn’t mean I’ll be sleeping. Between Nabak, the Hatvan Troubles, and the Last Gasp, we’ll have people who either fought against them or knew somehow who did.” He could feel Meslina stiffen in the chair next to his. “There’s got to be a better way. If you can just go back to the previous screen.” The Intelligence officer obliged. “Admiral, you said we’re getting a full load of provisions at Yshot Station in any event. So why not just take the longer way around – would be far easier to snake down the border of Vaparozh territory, head a ways deep into Dead Space and then follow the borders of the Thorian Empire. And with barely any ships around, we can make better time without comprising our ghost.”
Admiral Fan stepped in then and the Intelligence officer once more took a step away and absorbed nearly her entire presence back into herself. Boro made a mental note to keep track of her, but moments later found himself neglecting to remember that she was around.
“Your proposal, Commander Stevin, would still put you almost a month outside of your estimated arrival,” Admiral Fan explained. “A month that you likely don’t have.”
“Better get there a month late, than not get there at all.” Boro hadn’t bothered to consider the possibility that his retort was out of line, but then Captain Pueson added his voice to the conservation.
“We will get there, Commander Stevin. And we will get there on the timeline urged by our Iastret allies.”
“If the Iastret want to get there that badly, then they should fly there themselves, they’ve got a much shorter trip, and the wings for it to boot.”
“That’s quite enough, Commander.” Pueson’s voice dropped by a few degrees and Boro made sure to keep his eyes on Admiral Fan and off his Captain. “One of the founding principles of the Outer Rim Confederacy was to show that we could do better; that the rest of the Known Reaches had been missing out while Humans languished in their own little corner of space. This means showing that we have an ability to work with anyone out there, even with someone who had formerly been an enemy.” The Captain stood then, walking in measured steps to stand next to the Admiral. He may have initially chosen to sit with his people, but now he stood in front of them like a class of sullen schoolchildren – the message was clear as to who was in charge at the end of the day. “There are aspects of this mission that are uncomfortable, I’m not going to deny you that. But at all times you have to keep in mind that if we’re successful, we may be able to redraw the political map of the Known Reaches with the ORC, and by extension, Humanity, at its highest place. And once we’re there, I expect that we can show that military and technological superiority can be shared instead of hoarded, and it will start on this ship. Is that understood by everyone?” Captain Pueson’s expression was a mix of warmth and sternness that only made Boro queasy, but he nodded and agreed along with the other two, and the Captain seemed sufficiently pacified, though did not relinquish his new spot at the head of the room.
If this sermon was any indication, this was gearing up to be a longer trip than Boro anticipated. To either side of him, some of the tension seemed to go out of Surch and Meslina’s spines, and they nodded. Boro always suspected this soft spot in Surch ever since their Academy days, one of the things that likely prevented him from rising as high as Boro had if they were in the same graduating class. Meslina though had initially struck him as someone who would have resisted this gradual erosion of the pride that Boro believed should have been the core tenet of Humanity’s continued foray into the Known Reaches.
Boro, for his part, believed that it was no coincidence that the Human feet that included his father had been so instrumental at the Battle of Krevali and the Thorian’s defeat in the War of the Last Gasp shortly thereafter. Humanity, as other races would put it, even those who spent millennia under the boot of someone else’s empire, was late to the party. What these others had not considered, and what apparently more and more of the Navy high brass were losing their grasp on, was that the outsider’s perspective gave Humanity a fresh outlook, a clearer view into the stagnation that gripped the Known Reaches, where, save for the Last Gasp, the landscape had for years been defined by minor tussles. As a countermeasure to the Thorian Empire, came the ever-increasing idea of cooperation amongst all those who were not Thorian, which solidified the status quo, and therefore Humanity’s place on the periphery.
“To your earlier point, Commander Stevin,” Admiral Fan continued with a light smile, “part of the Iastret research team that has been studying Drain Vortexes since their last appearance and that have been instrumental in identifying their potential will be joining you on board as well.”
The Admiral then continued into a more detailed breakdown of what they were up against, complete with slide after slide of charts and graphs that made Boro think that if he hadn’t paid much attention to astrography during the Academy days it was decidedly too late to start now. And in any case, he had sufficient understanding to let the Iastret do their business without confounding him too much.
It wasn’t hard for Boro to imagine how things had probably gone down in the galley between when he left and when they received Dr. Sufai’s call. Meeron was born and raised on Bykol, a largely agricultural world near the borders of the Human Interstellar Dominion, and had only moved off-world a few years earlier. Meslina had cut her teeth out of the Academy almost twenty years earlier during the Unification Resistance, when some of Earth’s outermost colonies, particularly the self-sufficient ones including Bykol, rejected the authority of the newly formed ORC – Outer Rim Confederacy, which joined the Humans, Winti and Fusir into a single alliance. Unlikely that Meslina and Meeron ever actually saw any combat on opposite sides of each other, but the tension was still there. Someone looked at someone sideways. Someone probably dropped the word “rockhopper”, used by homeworlders to elicit an image of tiny insignificant rocks even though they were sometimes two or even three times larger than Earth itself. That’s probably when “milkweed” was tossed back. Normally these things could be laughed-out, a sort of competition as to who could take the worst insult without breaking a sweat, but this whole mission was beginning to take its toll.
The complete radio silence that was necessary to keep the ship ghosted had left everyone feeling more alone in the darkness of space than any of them were used to.
“That’s a lot of time to be flying ghosted,” Surch had said, his mouth hidden behind the brown hand that stroked his trimmed dark beard, when the Forseti’s senior officers were first presented with a flight plan at their mission briefing back on Earth. Admiral Sarita Fan stood by the display, hands clasped in front of her, waiting for the room to process her presentation. Captain Pueson sat at attention, while Meslina had her arms crossed and was leaning back in her chair like Surch.
Boro interlaced his fingers and pointed towards the map. “At least there’s the layover at Yshot Station.”
“I’m afraid it’s not that kind of layover,” Admiral Fan corrected. “The Station has been made to look mostly decommissioned, and there will be no disembarking. You’ll be flying there light to make good time and then stock up to the brim for the next leg of your journey.”
“Yeah, about that, Admiral,” Surch said. “From Yshot Station out beyond the Thorian frontier in what’s basically a straight line? No offence to all you good folks in Intelligence but unless you’ve got someone on the inside steering this, I don’t see how we can stay off the Thorians’ sensors, even when ghosted.”
The other woman with Admiral Fan, shorter by a head and with the kind of presence that made Boro forget that she was even in the room, stepped into the light of the wall projection. “Your concerns are perfectly valid, Lieutenant Guraty, but you will have all the help you’ll need.” The Intelligence officer, who thought that introductions were an unnecessary frivolity and therefore didn’t choose to share her name, looked down at her personal terminal.
“I have a feeling we’re not going to like this,” Surch said and shifted uneasily in his chair.
“Me too,” Meslina added.
The display switched to a photo of a now-familiar Thorian face. The three officers of the Forseti groaned, while Captain Pueson sat implacable but for the air escaping through his slightly pursed lips.
“If there’s anything you’d like to say,” Captain Pueson said without taking his eyes off the display, “now is likely the only time to do so.”
The officers cast each other brief glances, professionalism and outrage vying for control under the surface, but before anyone of them could formulate a coherent sentence, the Intelligence officer continued.
“We had been working for quite some time to identify a viable asset. Mikarik may not be the ideal candidate to take down the whole Empire,” the pause and expression on her face suggested that this had been an Intelligence idea of a joke, but the room didn’t budge from its stone-faced stare, “but his experience should serve to be useful on this mission. He spent two decades doing commercial freight including a stint with the Anthar Kai where he also served for a year aboard a pirate hunter. Nearly six years in the Thorian Navy.”
“The Navy?” Surch asked with a whistle but the interruption was ignored.
“Deserted several years ago during the Nabak Insurrection where he earned two Hard-to-Kill medals – an honour that only a Thorian mind would be twisted enough to cook up for enemy combatants.” That one actually did get a chuckle out of Surch and Meslina. “There’s no place for him left in the Empire, and he’s been doing for-hire work on the borderlands. He knows enough about both commercial and military ship movement across the Empire to be able to plot a course that would keep you ought of sight.”
Surch threw a sideways glance at Boro, who was starting to feel a bit unsettled under the Thorian’s digital gaze.
“I understand he’s got a colourful resume,” Boro started, “but he’s still a Thorian. Doesn’t their little collective hive mind prevent them for serving other interests?”
The Intelligence officer shifted a little and put on a smile. Boro was certain that it was not meant to be friendly. “A ‘hive-mind’ is not exactly how we would describe Thorian collective empathy, and individual Thorians have almost as much capacity to be self-serving as the species itself. That said, it had long been rumoured that there are those among them that are severed from this collective ability to feel the mood of the species. ‘Netkarthi’ is what they’re called in their general parlance, though mostly the concept is dismissed as a bogeyman, either a myth or a figment of foreign propaganda. But regardless of what the Thorians’ official line is, it is our understanding that they do exist, and that Mikarik is one of them. If there’s anyone to rely on for this mission, it’s him, and you can be assured of that.”
Michael is a husband, father of two, lawyer, writer, and is currently working on his first novel, at a snail's pace. A very leisurely snail. All opinions are author's own.