A Despicable Act of Courage

by

Scott Langley

SLang1365@aol.com

http://members.aol.com/SLang1365/slang.htm

 

 

 

Yet another state dinner, a diplomatic function to which the primaries would just as soon forgo.  The pomp and circumstance of the event served as a reminder to the people of just how important and influential these two beings were.  The primaries didn't need ceremony, they already knew, they felt it every time they made a decision that, right or wrong, would always come back to haunt them.  But, none so much as the pact that sealed their fates so many years before.

Evening's end found the two principals sitting alone in a small library, sneaking away from the inane banter and ruminations that substitute for policy-making.  These two men knew who made policy, it was neither they nor their thronging underlings, and, after decades of misconceptions, they knew it was not even the Science Council.

"You look terrible, Ernie."  Ambassador Nigel Smythe, the United Solar Coalition's representative to the Idorian Julum'Pa and honorary First Ambassador to the Imzaar, etc., etc., was the only being in the Union with the familiarity, audacity, and political clout to call Marshal 'Cutlass' Molders 'Ernie' to his face.

Molders chaffed at the familiarity, but said nothing.  The time to object was decades distant, the opportunity long gone.  "I don't sleep well Nigel, I never have, you know that.  And lately, . . . I keep seeing her face."

Smythe gulped at the warm, fermented housa juice.  It burned his throat, warmed his belly, and loosened the tightly wound knots of his mind.  "Happens every time you get a bloody promotion.  And you, my friend, have just been given command of the most important sector in the Union.  Next step is the Executive Council for you, the strings are wound."  Smythe said with a resignation that came from experience.

Molders grinned despite himself.  It had been too long since he had heard Smythe talk openly, his speech a colorful stew of archaic Earther, spacer slang, and quaint Idorian colloquialisms.  "It's been nearly thirty years."

"It's been more than thirty bloody years."  Smythe huffed.  "And that doesn't matter.  We did a terrible thing.  Neither of us would be here otherwise.  And, I'm quite sure neither of us deserve to be here because of it."  Another gulp and Smythe drained the small clay mug.  "But you, you Ernie, you went and named your daughter for the bitch.  It's no wonder you have nightmares.  Your little girl is supposed to be the joy of your life.  Instead, every time you look in her eyes, she's a reminder of our most despicable act of cowardice."

"She was a hero."  Molders said without any real conviction, only repeating the public rhetoric.

"She was a bloody green shirt, a political hack who had no idea what she was doing.  We made her a hero."

 

Thirty, no, more than thirty, bloody years ago

Against the star lit velvet of space spun a type G dwarf star, remarkable only for the pair of inner planets capable of supporting terrestrial life.  Even this, in and of itself, was not entirely remarkable, not in a universe where many such worlds were 'terra-formed' and seeded by the ancients, a second hand gift to younger civilizations.

Into this system ventured the Union Star Vessel Leavitt, appearing in normal Einsteinian space from nowhere and everywhere.  Her flux engines spewed neutrinos and x-rays, using the star's own gravity to bend space and time and brush infinity.  Flux engine shut down, main and maneuvering thrusters fired, shooting plasma for hundreds of kilometers, until the Leavitt slipped into an inconspicuous stellar orbit.

Then she went cold, propulsion systems shut down, heat radiators inactive, no active transmissions or sensor signals.  Now she was at her most vulnerable, immediately following her noisy system entry and without the aggressive sensors that would both detect anything that had seen and taken notice and further betray her presence.

While cold, hoping to be mistaken for an innocuous iron core asteroid, she watched passively, transmitting no active signals, only absorbing and analyzing the space around her.  She did this with a gamut of telescope arrays: radio, gamma ray, x-ray, infrared, neutrino detectors watching for active flux engines, and, least effective of all, optical.

A virtual army of information systems officers worked twenty-five hours a day, ten days a week analyzing the passively collected data.  So far, they had nothing to show but the cataloging of planet-killing asteroids, an in-depth analysis of the star's magnetic lines, and detailed examinations of the system's planets, not just the habitable ones.

But, one day, an iso too clever for his own good, found something.  To his colleagues, it was nothing more than background noise, cosmic radiation.  Some told him he was wasting time with it.  But, he found the pattern, broke the code, revealed the signal.  The Senior Information Systems Officer brought it to the Captain.

Using her artificial gravity field, the Leavitt pushed against a nearby asteroid, entering a transfer orbit that would put her into a wide elliptical orbit around the innermost habitable planet.  The Captain's strategy was to disguise the Leavitt's movement as a random collision and hope the watchers on that planet, the originators of the signal, would think the Leavitt was an iron core asteroid, the victim of that collision.

Some days after the Leavitt entered her transfer orbit, Senior Lieutenant Nigel Smythe ducked through an open hatch and entered a cramped work area.  Despite the dozen or more occupants, it was quiet save the gentle thrum of flowing energy.  As he walked by row after row of the workstations padded with sound absorbing foam, he could hear snippets of conversation between the ISO’s and the computer.  Most were bland, even toned, logical, almost as if the computer was talking to itself.  These were the stalwarts of the information systems division, the minds trained to think in the same two dimensions as the computer's.

One of the ISO’s snapped tersely in the pidgin of Union Standard and computer code.  The computer's unflappable voice maintained a constant soothing tone, all the more frustrating to an ISO stymied by a block in logic that he had spent the last several hours attempting to circumvent.

As he walked, Smythe looked from side to side.  He was trying to match a face to a name, a particular name, but, he didn't know the iso's, never saw much of them.  Since entering the system, the iso's worked too many hours for social interaction.  Their entire work schedule was spent in front of an interface panel, as they were now, talking with the ship's computer, analyzing data, and sending it 'upstairs'.

"Machine . . . pause.  What can I help you with Nigel?"  The Senior Information Systems Officer, commonly known as the SISO, turned in his chair and stood as Smythe's tall, lanky frame passed the corner of his eye.  Smythe and the SISO were peers in rank and position, both were department heads, but Smythe was younger, taller, more handsome, and more popular with their young Captain.  It was a resentment the SISO could not help and that Smythe could not help but return.

"I'm looking for an eye-es-oh."

"That's all we've got down here."  The SISO chortled.  "Anyone in particular?"

Smythe shrugged his shoulders.  "Doesn't make a rat's ass to me, but SHE sent me for the one who found the planetary signal.  Is that him?"

SHE was Commander Maria Anyara, the Leavitt's Executive and Senior Science Officer, although a Science Officer, especially a Senior Science Officer, had little to do with science.  Anyara was, by training, a lawyer.

Known as 'green shirts' throughout the Fleet, it was the Senior Science Officer's job to act as objective observer in assuring the Captain carried out the Science Council's directives.  SHE was not to be crossed and the SISO was not about to do so. Crossing the Science Council could end a career.  "That's him, . . . Molders."  The SISO pointed accusatorially and returned to his work.

Smythe was glad to see that Molders was the one cursing the machine.  It showed he had some fire in his belly.

Smythe went to the three-sided booth, its sound proof design effectively blocked Smythe and the SISO's conversation from the iso.   He laid his right hand on Molders' shoulder and tapped with the nub of his middle finger, chopped short at the first knuckle.

Molders spun in his seat, angered at the interruption, clearly ready to burst.  Seeing the senior officer, he stood to attention, the top of his head reaching Smythe's brow.  "At ease, Lieutenant."  Molders was a Junior Lieutenant, not having earned a single eight-pointed star for his shoulder strap compared to the two borne by Smythe.

The Junior Lieutenant stood clumsily and awkwardly 'at ease' with no less tension.  "Would you come with me please?  Commander Anyara has a job for you."  Smythe waited until they had left the work area before continuing.  "You moved this entire ship, Lieutenant, that's not an easy thing to do."

"I did?"

"Oh yes you did.  Or rather that signal you picked up the other day did.  Commander Anyara wants to determine its source, even pulled the Science Council's weight against the Captain."

Molders had less trouble navigating the low hatchways and moved much more sprightly than the gangly Senior Lieutenant.  "We know its source, sir.  I already traced it to . . ."

"I know, Lieutenant, but Commander Anyara wants to touch it."

"Sir?"

"She wants to go planetside and find out exactly what is broadcasting.  If it's Vasilic, she wants to blow it to bits."

Molders stopped cold.  "Wait a second, here."  Smythe stopped a few steps ahead and looked back at the Junior Lieutenant.  "You don't need me for this.  That's the marines' job.  That's how it works.  We find the data, take it back to Fleet Command.  Fleet Command can send a frigate."

"I know how it bloody well works Lieutenant.  But our Ms. Anyara wants to be a bloody hero, even if she kills us doing it.  Now come along, we've got orders."

A few seconds of uncomfortable silence passed, in which Molders followed Smythe unenthusiastically.  "So, what do they call you, Lieutenant?"  The Senior Lieutenant asked gently, trying to put the young man at ease.

"Junior Lieutenant Enrico Molders, sir."

Smythe shook his head vigorously.  "No, your friends, what do they call you?  Rico, Ric, Ernie?"

Molders shrugged.  "Just Enrico, sir."

"Fine, Ernie it is."

 

*   *   *

 

The capsule shook violently as it plunged through the atmosphere.  Its heat shield burned and pealed away in successive layers.  Molders grabbed onto the armrest, muscles straining, knuckles white.  "You don't need me for this, you need a pilot"  He griped through clenched teeth.

"Don't be ridiculous."  Smythe replied, as calm as you please.  "The computer is in complete control of our flight and landing.  You know that, you're the computer man.  The only thing we need a pilot for is the shuttle extraction.  But, since that won't be for another four . . ."

Molders had stopped listening before Smythe had reminded him that he was the computer man.  All he could hear was the thunder in his ears and the rattle of his teeth.  Anyara mouthed silent prayers, eyes shut serenely, hands lightly closed over the hand holds set above her crash couch's headrest.

As the capsule thundered into the troposphere, the final layers of heat shield were ejected.  Braking rockets fired, burning their entire reactant mass in less than a second.  Another few kilometers, the tri-foils deployed.  Their 'disguise' was revealed.  The plan, such as it was, was for the capsule to simulate a meteor broken free in the collision that had sent the Leavitt asteroid on its orbit adjacent the planet.  Once caught in the planet's gravity well, it spiraled inward, burning across the sky.

With the heat shield burned away and the tri-foils deployed, there was no disguising the controlled landing that would bring them the remaining few kilometers to the surface.  As with the Leavitt's system entry, the best they could hope for was that no one was watching.  Or, that any watchers believed the meteor was completely burned in the atmosphere.

The tri-foil's four support pylons were packed tightly against the hull.  Gas canisters exploded within the supports, snapping their packings and pressurizing them until they were fully distended.  Sails stretched taut between each support, dragging at the atmosphere, tossed by the winds and slowing their descent.

The capsule tumbled, spinning in all directions.  It was more than Molders could take.  He was too disoriented to even be sure he had thrown-up.  Smythe, gagging on the smell and splattered with wet chunks, was sure.  It didn't get any better.

Hitting the surface at sixty meters per second, the capsule bounced back up into the sky.  It bounced four times before finally settling, top side facing down.  The fleeters hung upside down.  The planet's gravity, just higher than Earth norm, pulled at them so that the harnesses pressed through the thick flight suits and dug into their flesh, leaving bruises across their chests and shoulders.  Anyara took in a deep gasp for air, breathing for the first time since the braking rockets fired more than five minutes ago.

"Sit tight, Ernie, the bloody ride's not over yet."  Smythe said, now visibly shaken, but still more quickly recovered than the other two.  Molders, face pale, flight suit and hair dotted with half-digested supper, stopped fumbling with his harness and let it support his increased weight.  He was grateful to be still.

The capsule's sensors analyzed their position and selectively deflated the pylons.  In a series of jarring starts and stops, the capsule rolled until they were seated in the fully upright position.  "We've come to a full stop.  Now it's safe to unfasten your seat belt."  Said Smythe.

 

*   *   *

 

It was a dark, overcast night.  Hail bounced off the capsule and pelted them with enough force to sting even through the insulated parkas they now wore over their flight suits.  They were near the center of an immense crater.  The flat, smooth, igneous bed was surrounded by a steep, shear, mountainous rim.  The flat bed made the perfect landing sight and was close to the signal's point of origin. 

Smythe leaned over the side of the capsule, pulling survival kits from stowage under each crash couch and tossing them to Anyara and Molders.  Grabbing the RTT pistol from Molders’ uplifted seat, he pursed his lips and shook his head slightly.  Quickly and discretely, hoping Anyara would not notice, he tossed the weapon to Molders.

The information systems officer, unaware of the favor Smythe was attempting, grabbed the weapon with a flourish.  The holster snaps fastened beneath the parka’s left arm with a series of small pops.  Smythe noted the younger man’s enthusiasm and shook his head sympathetically, if he did not know to help himself  . . .

Anyara stomped toward the iso, stumbling on the smooth icy rock.  As Molders looked on in something akin to shock, the Senior Science Officer grabbed the RTT from its holster.  "Did the quartermaster issue this?"  Anyara glared angrily, shaking the RTT in Molders' face.

"No, sir."  Molders snapped to attention.  "I bypassed the quartermaster's security protocols and took it myself."  Molders had assumed he would need to be armed and Anyara had not issued any orders or even equipment requisitions.

Anyara pressed the thumbpad to activate the weapon, and fired it at Molders.  The iso yelped at the impact, falling backwards and landing hard on his ass.  "What was that for?"  He yelled with uncontrolled anger.

"Shut up."  Anyara barked.  "Stand at attention."

Smythe chortled just loud enough to be heard.  Anyara wanted desperately to lash out at the Englishman.  But, she knew that no matter what she said, the Senior Systems Engineer would make her look foolish.  So, she concentrated on the information systems officer who scrambled clumsily to his feet.  "Do you know why these are issued for shipboard engagements only?"

"Yes, sir. "  The RTT fired mag-slugs, propelled by repulsive magnetic forces.  Each mag-slug was a small battery that discharged on impact.  It non-lethally incapacitated its target and caused a minimum of property damage.  The slug's discharge velocity could be set to bounce off flesh or dent duraplast.

"Do we look shipboard to you?  Why in the Void didn't you get a Kutsuru or something else we could use?"  She thrust the RTT back on him.  "At least set it for maximum discharge.  An armored Vasilic might know he's been shot."

Molders fumbled with the RTT's settings.  The weapon was heavy in his hands, a combination of the high gravity and sore muscles.  Smythe tossed out the last of the equipment, sealed the capsule door and hopped to the ground.  He hit the ice and slid right into Molders.  They heard a hum, Molders felt the slight vibration as the RTT fired, and then heard a sickening thud, like a rock hitting a ripe melon.  Smythe saw the blue flash of light against Anyara's head.  The science officer jerked forward and crumpled to the ground.

"Oh, bloody good shot."  Smythe blurted with a congratulatory self-indulgence.

Molders looked between Anyara's still form and Smythe's sardonic grin with stunned disbelief.  "No.  You don't understand.  It was set at maximum discharge."

"Yes, I know.  I was right there when she ordered you to do it.  And don't think I won't say so at the inquiry."

"Inquiry?"

"You don't kill a science officer without so much as an inquiry."

"They're going to court martial me."  Molders said, his breathing becoming quick, rapid gasps.

"Very likely."

Something gripped at Molders' chest.  He suddenly found himself unable to breathe.  Gasping for air, he doubled over, hands on knees.

"Don't worry Ernie.  It was an accident.  Say, do you know what they call a dead green shirt?  A good start."

Molders looked up at Smythe, absolutely incredulous that the Senior Systems Engineer could be taking this so lightly.  "Are you sure she's dead?"  He asked as his breathing settled.

Smythe shrugged and went over to Anyara.  He knelt over her.  Steam rose from the left half of her blackened skull.  His comp-pad was strapped to the back to his forearm.  Issuing the machine a few instructions, he waved it over the body as if performing some primitive incantation.  "Dead as the Void."

"Oh damn."  Molders dropped to the ground and sat in the thin layer of snow.  "What have I done?"

"You had the sense to requisition your own weapon for one.  Do you know how many regs SHE violated getting us down here?  This sort of thing was absolutely inevitable.  If the Captain weren’t scared silly of what the Science Council could do to her career, we wouldn't be out here in the first place.  It's always the bloody Science Council; no one has the balls to stand up to them.

"And you, no offense Ernie, but you have no business being here at all.  You're just an iso.  You should be talking to a bloody interface panel.  You just happen to be unlucky enough to be good at your job.  A bloody fine piece of work it was too, by the way.  Picking the Vasilic signal out of their background noise encoding.  But what else did she think you could do for us?

"As for the weapons, the Commander issued no orders, at least not to me.  I checked out my own equipment as well.  Not once did she check to see that we were properly equipped.  What sort of mission commander doesn't set out equipment specs?  A bloody green shirt, that's what.  I have no bloody idea what's in her kit.

It all flowed out.  All of the anger and frustration.  The months of taking orders from someone who had no idea what their job was supposed to be, someone who was making it up as she went along, and getting away with it.  Someone who ignored his advice simply because the idea was his and not hers.  Not that the ideas were anything special, they were just standard procedure and common sense, something to which she had never been exposed.  It all came out like a eulogy of the damned.  "By the Void, she never even asked you if you brought enough ammunition.  I'd bet a year's salary she had no idea that the RTT can be set to discharge with enough velocity to puncture a bloody titanium hull.  Can be as bloody effective as a laser.  Of course you have to be able to get past the overrides to do it.  But I'm sure that would be no problem for her, if she even knew they existed."

Smythe paused to look into Molders' dumbfounded eyes, then pointed at Anyara.  "That's what happens when you send a lawyer to do real work."

 

*   *   *

 

Muscles, cramped and sore from days of inactivity aboard the capsule and, now, strenuous marching and climbing under high gravity, threatened to rebel, pulling at Molders so that he just wanted to curl up in the snow.  Smythe, easily able to reconcile the limits of his body with practical realities, had no trouble jabbing the small vials of muscle relaxant and amphetamines into his shoulder.  Molders had determined that he would be stronger; he did not need artificial means to force his body through this.  So, he marched on in pain.

"One day, ship's crews will be fully integrated."  Smythe commented.

Molders didn't want to have this conversation, or any other for that matter.  For some reason, Smythe insisted on prattling about Idorians.  Intent on being disagreeable, Molders shot back.  "It'll never happen.  The species are too different.  Not just physically either, psychologically.  Look at what happened with Marshal Rangav.  Idorians put their own interests over anyone else's'."

"That's not true, Ernie.  They put the interests of the clan above all.  Even Marshal Rangav conceded he was mistaken.  It just took a little Solkar logic to convince him that the interests of the Union were the interests of the clan."

"How many lives did it take to convince him?"

"It was an unfortunate incident."  Smythe agreed, as chipper as ever despite the death of Anyara and the long march up the side of the crater.  The crater was many kilometers around with spiked, jagged edges that shot straight into the sky.  It blocked them from the ferocious wind that howled around its peaks.  "But Rangav is the exception that everyone uses as the standard.  I would put ten human crewmen against a single Idorian kel'ijabra."

Molders head throbbed.  It didn't really ache, but it would soon.  "Can we just stop talking about the . . .?"

"Get down."  Smythe whispered through gritted teeth before Molders had a chance to reply and pushed the iso down behind some rocks.

"What is it?"  Molders crumpled, his tired muscles grateful for the rest.

"Vasilic I think."  Smythe crouched low beside him and told him the target's bearing.

Molders looked up at the distant figure dressed in tatters.  "Good eyes.  I never would have spotted him."

"I didn't, the scanner did."  Smythe's comm-set, with the integrated video display unit built over the goggles, was watching the figure in the infrared.

"Can he see us?"  Molders, his thoughts savaged by the smoking ruin of a once promising career, had not been paying attention, marching sluggishly behind the senior officer.

"I don't think so.  But, he's definitely seen the capsule."  Smythe's VDU magnified the image and switched from infrared to optical.

"What's it doing?"  Molders asked after several minutes of quiet.

More than a kilometer distant, it sat on its haunches, eerily still.  Ice clung to its shoulders, snow piled around its feet.  "Nothing, just sitting there."

"Does it know we're here?"

With a grunt, Smythe pulled off his glove with his teeth and held a finger up to the wind.  A comp-pad or scanner would have given more precise data, but with less effect.  Besides, a wet finger was all Smythe needed, he knew his enemy, he'd seen all the training vids.  The wind, a gentle breeze, blew from behind them at a twenty-degree angle across the Vasilic.  So much for the element of surprise.  "It bloody well does.  Probably not our exact location, but it's got our general direction and distance.  Unless it can't smell anything."

"That would explain why it's out here."  Vasilic that lost their sense of smell, their species' prime sense, as important to them as a human's vision, often wandered off to die.  At least that was what the Xenocyclopedia Galactica told them.

"Ernie, you must have the luck of your ancestors, your problems are solved."  Smythe propped the Kutsuru laser rifle against a boulder for support.  The Kutsuru was a short, stocky weapon, a rectangular box the length of a man's forearm and four times as thick.  Smythe's comp-pad took the targeting laser data from the Kutsuru's scanner and translated it into a set of cross hairs that floated in the comm-set's VDU.

Holding the weapon steady between the boulder and his shoulder, his thumb rolled the small ball, making fine adjustments to the emitter, until the cross hairs rested over the Vasilic.  He could have used the computer, it would have settled the cross hairs anywhere he indicated, but it was much more satisfying doing it himself.

To the humans, the blackened, smoldering char appeared the instant Smythe lay his finger over the trigger pad.  The Vasilic simply fell over, probably only consciously aware of his demise for the fraction of a second it took the invisible beam to lance through his entire body, burning the internal organs in its path.

In infrared, the upper thorax, pierced by the beam, glowed brightly.  "Got him, Ernie."

 

*   *   *

 

"There's no way this is a Warrior."  Molders said after Smythe had turned the body with his foot, Kutsuru over cautiously aimed at its head.  Smythe kneeled down and pulled away the hood.  Short, rounded tusks extended from the jaw just below the ears.  He grabbed a tusk and turned the head from side to side, examining it carefully.  Tiny yellow eyes with black pinpoint pupils were set deep into the skull and protected by a heavy brow ridge.  It had green skin and an elongated chin that protruded from between the ineffectual tusks.

It looked Vasilic, but, it was too small and under developed to belong to the Warrior caste that the Union fleeters were trained to recognize and fight.  Also, the tusks of a True Warrior were long enough and sharp enough to gouge another Vasilic in the face-to-face combat that was used, the Xenocyclopedia Galactica speculated, for mating rituals and dominance games.  These tusks did not protrude beyond the pug nose, completely useless in a fight.

"Probably some other caste."  Smythe commented, although he had no real idea what it was, they were even assuming it was Vasilic.   It was humanoid, an Orion Variant, but so were humans, Idorians, Solkar, and a small body of other species.

All they knew of the Vasilic was the sketchy data and theories presented in the Xenocyclopedia Galactica, XG for short.  That data was collected during the Earth-Vasilic Wars, almost a century ago.  And, it came from the other species of the Union, primarily the Idorians who had fought the Vasilic long before letting themselves be known to the humans.

"We are going to have to either drag Anyara up here, or our new friend down there."  Smythe ran a hand through the alien's rags.  "Bloody hell, there are no weapons."  Smythe muttered having completed his search.

Molders considered as the implications sunk in.  It was an accident.  Smythe would say it was an accident.  As for Smythe, killing the enemy was no crime.  Making it look as if the Vasilic killed Anyara was.  They were only going to make this thing worse.  "No one is going to believe a Vasilic with an RTT."

"I was hoping to find a laser."  He stood and looked at Molders, his eyes cold and hard.  "We're going to have to burn the head, Ernie.  Make it look like a laser blast.  I was hoping for a Vasilic laser."  Hands on hips, the Kutsuru swung free, slapping against his upper thigh.  He scanned the horizon deliberately, looking for more Vasilic.

Molders made his decision.  "Better to bring Anyara up here.  The computer knows we all made it out of the capsule.  Cleaner to move her away.  It'll get messy if we have to start fiddling with the logs."

"What's going to get messy is accounting for this with an unarmed being who may or may not be Vasilic."

"What do we do?"  Molders asked.

"He came from that way."  Smythe's arm pointed straight up the crater rim in the direction of the trail taken by the corpse at their feet.  "Our mission objective is also that way.  It's too great a coincidence, don't you think?  Let's hope there are more of them and let's hope they have weapons."

 

*   *   *

 

There were no other Vasilic on their way up, no signs of traps or sensors.  Upon clearing the crater's crest, matters became less hopeful.  They found themselves over-looking a radar dish that had to have been used to send Molder's signal.

Next to the dish was a domed building.  The Vasilic's tracks, a trench cut through the deep snow around the rim, lead directly to that building.  Scanning on every wavelength, there was no sign of life.

Dull red light poured from the domed building, escaping through a tiny dot at the base.  The tracks lead directly from that dot up the slope of the rim.  "Looks like our friend left the lights on for us."

Molders and Smythe followed the same trail, heads constantly turning back and forth, hoping there was another Vasilic, and praying to the Void they saw it before it saw them.  At trail's end, the light was just as it appeared; Round Tusk had not closed the door.

They stepped inside, Kutsuru and RTT ready to fire at anything that moved.  Still, nothing.  It was warm and humid.  The lights were a dim red.  It would take a few minutes for their eyes to adjust.  But, their first impression was neither the heat nor the light, it was the pungent, tangy aromas that swirled and wrapped around them, stinging their eyes and gagging them.

The building was one large room.  At its center was a large optical telescope with a diameter as great as its length.  It was on an altazimuth mounting, fixed to a brace that encircled the entire dome so that it could swivel three hundred and sixty degrees.  The mounting was fastened to the building's interior so that there was a three-meter clearing from floor to framework. 

The open space was a model of Vasilic austerity.  Other than the telescope, the dome was mostly empty.  Electronic and photonic equipment with only a few computer interface panels were at the room's center.  Piled in one small nook were strips of padding that appeared to be bedding and were scattered through with assorted alien personal effects, none of which spilled beyond the nook. 

Molders immediately went to the interface panels, taking his comp-pad from his forearm and slamming it down on the small table.  He had to stand.  There was no chair.  According to the XG, the Vasilic generally preferred to simply crouch on their haunches.  He activated the comp-pad's XG Vasilic database and linked it into the computer.

"Void damn it."  It only took Smythe a few minutes to search the entire dome, including the storage areas shut away from the rest of the building.  "There's nothing here.  Not so much as one of their bloody great knives."

"I don't think it was one of their Warrior Class."

"No, he bloody well wasn't.  Which leaves us with another problem, Ernie.  If Round Tusk is nothing more than an astronomer, then I fried a non-combatant civilian to make it look like he killed a bloody green shirt.  Or, better yet, maybe he's not even Vasilic.  Either way, it's going to go very badly."

"What do they call you?"  Molders asked without raising his eyes from the comp-pad's display.

"What?"

"Your friends, if you have any.  Nigel, Nige, Smitty?"  His voice reverberated through the dome.

Smythe dropped the strips of padding and, in long strides, went to the interface panels.  "What are you playing at, Ernie?"  In the heat and humidity, he let his parka hang open.

"Fine, Nige it is."  He stepped away from the comp-pad to give Smythe a clear view.  "He was definitely Vasilic.  The database is only having trouble with some of the technical jargon, it's classifying them as dialect differences between Warrior and Scientific castes.  And, look at this."

Smythe leaned in close to see the string of numbers that popped into the holographic display sphere.  At first, he looked at the display impassively, and then his eyes grew wide.

"It's a transponder code."  Molders informed him needlessly.

"I see that."

"A ship's transponder code and it's not the Leavitt's, we weren't broadcasting.

"It's a Vasilic ship, type C."  Smythe's grin turned to a toothy smile and a hearty laugh.  "Turn this bloody great telescope on it and start recording everything."

Molders extracted the relevant data.  Apparently, Round Tusk had come across the transponder by accident.  There was no communication between planet and Vasilic scout ship.  Fixing the bearing and time, he extrapolated the Vasilic's ship's position.  "There."  He said as it appeared on the comp-pad display as an orbit outside the star systems outer planets.  "It's on the other side of the planet now.  We won't be able to see it for months."

"Shame."  There was no question of threat to the Leavitt.  The Vasilic scout's orbit was so distant that it would take years for the two ships to maneuver to each other's position under conventional propulsion.  If the Vasilic tried to take a short cut by jumping in-system through flux, the Leavitt would detect the anomalous neutrino and x-ray emissions long before she was in any real danger.

"Well, that's something to bring with us."

"There's more."

"I was hoping there might be."  Said Smythe.

"Two more transponder codes."  Molders reported.

"Type B."  Smythe mused over the display.  "Destroyers.  A scout and two destroyers.  Looks like we could turn this into the prelude of an invasion."

"The dish next door was a radio telescope.  The signal I picked up was broadcast from it.  According to this, it was nothing more than a sounding."  A transmission that would be reflected from the Leavitt.

"So he's definitely some sort of an observer, a spy."

Molders shook his head.  "No, I don't think so.  Except for the transponder codes, which he seemed to have picked up by accident, I can't find anything here that would have military relevance.  If this is a log, then it looks like he saw the Leavitt, but thought it was an asteroid.  He sent the sounding to bounce a signal off of her, to get a better fix on her position.

"He saw the capsule and recorded it as a meteor fragment from the Leavitt, or rather the asteroid he thought was the Leavitt.  He says the capsule displayed some unusual trajectories, likely due to upper atmosphere turbulence.  His last entry reports that it landed in the crater and he was going to investigate."

"So he's nothing more than an astronomer."  Smythe shrugged.

"He's an astronomer with a transponder code.  Whether he communicated with them or not, he had the means.  He's an astronomer who found the Leavitt.  He may not have known what it was, but you, this log, and I are the only ones who know that.  This log can be erased, all but the parts we need, and I'm not telling."

"Oh, Ernie, I don't know about this."

"Come on."  Molders exclaimed.  "You're ready to make it look like Anyara was killed by a Vasilic Warrior.  Well we don't have a Warrior.  The next best thing is a spy and we can make one of those."

"What's that?"  Smythe pointed at the small utility shed.

"Power plant.  Small fusion reactor."  Molders answered matter-of-factly.

"Ernie, we found our smoking gun."

 

*   *   *

 

Ameri Osrosum suffered the officers a bare glance as they walked into her stateroom.  Bleary eyed and tousled, she hunched over one of five active display comp-pads scattered over her desk while data flashed across the larger display of the computer interface panel.  She wore a light, short sleeved void black duty shirt that, damp with sweat, clung to her boyish frame.

On each of her shirt's shoulder straps, three gold, eight-pointed stars formed a triangle.  She was younger than either of the officers standing before her, sweating heavily in standard duty uniforms.

Heat, unable to escape into space without betraying their position, built within the Leavitt.  While the ship was nowhere near capacity, it was beyond tolerable comfort levels.

Osrosum rubbed at her brow.  She didn't want to do this.  She was hot and she was anxious.  It was extremely stressful for her to keep the ship cold and quiet for so long.  And now, with Smythe and that iso's return, she was desperate to make her report to Fleet Command.  But, they had to wait until the Leavitt's orbit took her to an optimal flux point.  Then, they would make the heat dump and activate the flux engine.

"I need to clear up a few discrepancies in your reports."  Smythe and Molders exchanged a suspicious glance.  They had four weeks to wait for the shuttle.  In that time, their story was simple and they had gone over it often enough that there should be no discrepancies.

Osrosum still did not bother to look up at them.  "Senior Lieutenant Smythe's report refers to the 'True Warrior.'  Junior Lieutenant Molders makes mention of an astronomer.  Both reports say there was a single Vasilic at the tracking station."

Smythe rolled his eyes and pursed his lips.  Molders glanced back sheepishly.

"Vasilic Warriors do not make good astronomers.  The boys in intelligence will pick that one apart.  Which is it, Warrior or astronomer?"  She looked up at them for the first time.

"Warrior, it was definitely a Warrior."  Smythe answered promptly, without hesitation.  Molders nodded in vigorous agreement, parroting Smythe's reply.

"Good, as long as you are both in agreement.  Okay, . . ."  She glanced over the comp-pad with her main report.  What was the iso's name?  Oh, yes, there it was.  The whine of the over-worked ventilation system was about to drive her mad.  ". . . the fusion reactor that went critical . . ."  the one that destroyed the listening outpost and vaporized both Anyara and the Vasilic 'Warrior'  " . . ., Junior Lieutenant Molders' cross fire set it off?"

Smythe's mind went blank.  He couldn't remember what they had said.  But he knew Osrosum, she wanted a simple straightforward, uncomplicated report for Fleet Command.  "That's right."

"The quartermaster's inventory says that Junior Lieutenant Molders drew an RTT.  An RTT cracked the housing on a fusion reactor?"  Osrosum's eyes moved from Smythe to Molders.

Smythe again looked to Molders accusatorially.  It was the one detail of their story he did not like.  A detail that Molders assured him 'any iso who knew a dec point of the BABEL interface system could finagle it.'

"I don't understand."  Molders pleaded.  "There must be a mistake.  Why would I draw an RTT on an away team?"

"It says right here . . .” Osrosum motioned toward one of the comp-pads and then paused.  Craning her head, she leaned over for a closer look.  "Oh, I'm sorry, you're right.  It says you requisitioned a Kutsuru.  Where did I see RTT?"  She scrolled through the inventory, looking for the requisition that she must have confused with Molders'.  "Oh well, never mind."

She pushed away from her desk and looked up at them.  "I must say, you two look remarkably well for having spent four weeks with no shelter other than the capsule."

They had, in fact, spent most of the time in the observatory, detonating the fusion reactor just before the shuttle or Leavitt would be in position to detect the explosion, less than a week.  "A testament to the Gagarin Institute's survival training and solid Union technology."  Smythe quipped.

"Of course." Said the Captain.  "This whole situation involving Anyara and the Vasilic doesn't feel right."

"Death never does."  Smythe, the voice of experience for all his thirty-two Earther years of life, punctuated Osrosum's unease.

"No, I suppose not.  Now, listen carefully.  If Fleet Command won't accept this report . . ."  Osrosum waved the comp-pad at them.  " . . . there will be an investigation.  If there is an investigation, Fleet Command will not act on this intelligence and the Science Council is going to be involved.  However, if Fleet Command sends a force against your 'prelude to an invasion,' . . ."  She looked directly at Smythe as she referred to his colorful phrasing.  ". . . we will all be, . . . well off.  So, let me just say I want to avoid any Science Council entanglements.  There will be no Science Council entanglements."  It was more of a command.

"No, sir.  There will be none.  Commander Anyara died in the line of duty.  She died so that we could get this data to Fleet Command."  Said Smythe.  "She was a hero.  The Science Council has few enough of those as it is.  They need a hero.  I cannot see how there would be entanglements."

"There had better not be.  Now, Lieutenant, . . . "  She turned to Molders.  ". . . if you can afford the admin. fees, I can give you a field promotion to full Lieutenant."

"Yes, sir, thank you sir."  The promotion finally put Molders on the Captains' List, albeit the very bottom.

"As for you, . . ."  She turned on Smythe.  ". . . I need a new exec.  Do you want the job?"

Smythe's reply was neither as quick nor enthusiastic as Molders.  "With rank?"  He was not about to take the headaches without getting another star for his shoulder.

"Yes, you can have the rank."  She said grudgingly, knowing Smythe was the perfect being for the job.  Because he was the perfect being, he knew better than to jump into it blindly.  And, he knew Osrosum was one of the few Captains who had influence enough to promise rank and deliver it.  Aside from that, he finally had a chance to run this ship the way he knew it should be run.

"Then yes, of course I want it."  A promotion to Commander moved him up four slots on the List, virtually guaranteeing a ship of his own, . . . only a matter of time.

 

Copyright 1998 by Scott Langley

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