The rest and food must have been having a good effect on me. When Yuki prodded me awake I was ready to go immediately.
“I am receiving a message from Fury Escort Agency. They say your bodyguard and guide are ready to escort you to the shuttle. They also suggest against going to or near the Leaky Container.”
“You told them?”
“They asked. Saying it was best that they know where you intend to go so they can be prepared in the best way. I saw no reason not to tell them.”
“In hopes they could convince me not to go?”
“I wouldn’t be upset if you took their advice Captain.”
“Thank you for your concern Yuki but I don’t feel particularly threatened by the Leaky Container, its neighborhood, or patrons. You can let the FEA know that and if they don’ t choose to escort me they don’t have to. I would appreciate a guide still if they’re willing.”
Yuki was silent for a few moments and then sighed.
“They say they are still willing to act as your bodyguard but will want to work out a few rules with you before you get off the shuttle.”
“Sounds fair. When do we start?”
“They say your escort is waiting at the entrance to the docks. They are ready when you are.”
“Good. Do you think the same disguise will work again?”
“I see no reason not to use it Captain. Are you sure you won’t reconsider? I have become aware of some inquiries being made out of system about us. It would be best to leave soon.”
“Have you received all the supplies you wanted to get?”
“Not yet Captain but they will all be here soon, or so the suppliers inform me.”
“Okay. We still have time. I’ll try to hurry. I should be back on the next shuttle. See if you can be ready to take off then. Uh, you don’t happen to have food yet do you?”
“That hasn’t reached us yet Captain but will be here soon. I wanted to order the best I could get. I’m informed that you should be able to eat on the shuttle down. That is if you don’t suffer from space sickness.”
“I don’t think I have since I changed.”
“Long story. Not for now. I’ll eat on the shuttle then. Will I have enough credit?”
“You will have access to more than enough credit Captain. As long as you aren’t buying a ship or some such item.”
“That I have no intention of doing. I’ll be going now.”
I pulled my head cover on and moved into the rapidly appearing airlock.
“I’ll try and stay in contact with you Yuki. Think you can handle things here?”
“Yes captain. I’m sure I’ll be able to. Please listen to your guides’ advice.”
“I will. See you soon.”
With that I was out of the airlock and heading for the entrance of the docks. When I got there I could see why they hadn’t been allowed to come any closer.
There were two guides or guards. It was hard to tell which was which. Both were armed and looked ready for trouble. The smaller one had what looked to be both a pistol and a large sword slung over her shoulder. She looked almost Asian and her black armor/clothing gave the impression of a ninja warrior. Her movements were smooth and economical but her eyes and those of her partner never stopped moving. They were always scanning the area.
Her partner was a large, almost too large, woman with long blonde hair. Her armor was similar to the smaller woman’s but she filled hers out a bit more. She reminded me of a Boris Vallejo girl. Along with a large pistol she had a rifle that almost looked too big for her. Both immediately saw me about the same time I saw them and both gave me an obvious once over before going back to their constant scan of the area.
The guards at the gate were obviously very nervous having these two just standing around. I couldn’t blame them. Both seemed ready to start a fight at any moment. As I approached the bigger one kept an eye on things while the smaller one diverted more attention to me. She spoke as I got near.
“Lady Tennyo. We are with the FEA. We will be your guides and bodyguards. I am Charm. My partner is DaLeeah. I want to make it clear that I don’t think it is a good idea to go where you intend to go and I refuse on the behalf of the FEA to take total responsibility for your complete well being if you insist on going there. We will do our best to protect you but you should know that it will be difficult if someone there dislikes you enough to cause trouble. There will be additional fees if we are forced to defend you unreasonably and you must take responsibility for damages that occur as a result of our defense of you.”
Now that had to be one of the best attempts to steer someone away from something they planned as I’d ever heard. Threats to both financial and bodily health. All in a very conversational and pleasant manner. I had to smile, even though they probably couldn’t see it.
“I like you guys already! Don’t worry yourselves too much about me. I can handle most anything I have to. But I would like to be able to get my work done and get going soon so any advice you have will help. I’ll try to obey your directions so things will go more smoothly but I still need to do this. One piece of advice. I eat a lot and I’m not too picky about it. You don’t have to worry about poisons and the like either. I know that might be hard to accept but it’s the truth. So if you see me eating a lot of stuff you might think is dangerous for me don’t bother worrying about it. I absolve you of any responsibility for anything like that. Do you agree to that?”
“You seem way too overconfident to me. People like you get us into more trouble. I’ve half a mind to just let this go and go back to the office.”
“Suit yourselves. I’d still like a guide but I’m willing to try on my own.”
“I said half a mind. And I’m sure the Boss wouldn’t agree with me. So you’re stuck with us. But we’ll hold you to the agreement and you will be responsible for damages. Do you agree?”
“Yes. It sounds reasonable. I agree. Should we head for the shuttle now?”
She nodded and made a gesture towards her friend who immediately headed towards the shuttle area, much like a point man looking for trouble. Charm came up next to me and asked a question.
“You don’t appear to be armed. What will you do if attacked?”
I shrugged. “I’m always armed. Even if I don ’t look like it. But the collateral damage can be a problem. So I’ll let you two handle any trouble if I can. ”
“You’ll stay out of the way?”
“You’re the professionals. I’ll follow your lead. But if I say to take cover I mean it. You better listen up if I do.”
“I don’t like the sound of that.”
“Nobody will if I do. So let’s try to avoid it shall we?”
“Yeah. I get that a lot these days. But if we hurry I can probably keep ahead of it.”
“Very well. Just follow our directions and there shouldn’t be any problems.”
“Okay. Do they really have food on the shuttle? I’m starving.”
“They have food. But it’s expensive. You might do well to eat before you go. If you’re not worried about being sick.”
“That isn’t something I’m worried about. Eating what passes for the upholstery might be a problem though so if you think we have time I’ll get something to tide me over if you don’t mind.”
“OoGlog’s looks right out on the shuttle bay. We have already purchased tickets for you today so all we need to do is wait for permission to board. It should suit you well.”
“Good. Let’s do it then.”
I didn’t see or hear any communication between the two but Daleeah changed course soon after that and we ended up in a cafe or whatever you call it looking out at the shuttle while waiting for the food to reach me. Neither of my guides wanted to eat so I was left eating it all on my own. If either of my two guides were shocked or appalled by what I was eating neither showed any signs of it. I’d only taken the edge of my hunger off when the first announcement of boarding was announced. I was regretting not being able to eat more as we hurried down to the gates.
Soon we were aboard and sitting in our assigned seats. By fortune or planning I was up against a corner with my two guards making sure no one could sit right next to me. A few seemed tempted but a few glances from my companions seemed to make them change their minds quickly.
The shuttle was a big smooth silver triangle with what looked like maneuvering vanes on the ends of the two wings. It was a lot larger than a jumbo jet too. Probably more the size of a small skyscraper. We entered by large elevators that extended from the shuttle to the loading area. All the guards at the entry point checked for was to make sure our tickets were okay. A surprising number of the people boarding were wearing weapons openly too. As long as no one brought anything aboard that could damage the shuttle I was pretty sure a hijacking attempt would be very difficult at best. And considering the size and apparent lack of security I suspected it would be hard to damage the shuttle anyway.
Takeoff was almost uneventful. If there hadn’t been a warning to sit and prepare for it I might not have noticed when we started out. View screens scattered around the shuttle gave a good view of the station as we left.
If I hadn’t been so busy ordering and eating food the trip would’ve been really boring. The planet approach was fairly interesting after we got close enough to see the surface though. Several large craters I recognized as being the result of planetary bombardment made it obvious this place hadn’t always been as peaceful as it appeared to be now. The shuttle was soon descending towards a group of these craters. Something about it made me think it was familiar somehow but we had to go back to our seats to land before I could figure out what it was.
When we were finally down on the planet my escorts made a point of waiting until most of the other passengers had gotten off before allowing me to disembark. When I looked around I could see several more shuttles in the process of loading and unloading passengers and materials. A little ways beyond those was a military area with an assortment of shuttles and small combat vehicles. There were a few smaller military spacecraft there too.
The landing field was old. But it still had the feel of a place that had been rebuilt. Kind of a mix of old and new. The cratering was heavy around it. If I looked closely I could see evidence of defensive bunkers scattered around. For the most part those were concealed though, giving this part of the field a less militaristic look.
Moving through the concourses showed how there was an emphasis on tourism. It was clean and obviously well patrolled. A wide selection of various merchants and entertainments was available and adds for others beyond the spaceport area were constantly in your face. You could tell the natives or at least those who’d been there for a while as they were the ones ignoring these as they went about whatever their business was.
I’d been gawking so much I’d nearly forgotten my escort. They’d been a lot quieter ever since they’d watched me eat on the shuttle. After Charm got my attention she asked me a question.
“Would you like to get on with your business or would you like to get something to eat first?”
I think she thought she might be joking. I’m sure she wasn’t too fond of the idea of just standing there while I wandered around like a tourist either. When I looked closer I could see that both of them were tenser and more than once I saw them give someone approaching us the eye and the occasional heft of a weapon to convince them to steer clear of us. I realized if even a quarter of these were pickpockets and the like then I was getting my moneys worth already. Not wanting to test the patience of my escort I decided to get down to business.
“Hmmm. I’d like to get more to eat.”
The look on their faces was priceless. I’d probably cleared out a good portion of what was to be had on the shuttle. At least I’d been told a few times that a dish I was ordering again was no longer available until they could restock.
“Buuut… I really should be getting about my business here. So if you would be so kind I’d like to get to the Leaky Container and get that taken care of. I can hold out until after that to get something to eat.”
The two exchanged a look and then started out the same way as before. With Daleeah taking point and Charm staying close and fending off riffraff and peddlers as we moved to where a large black vehicle with a flame like emblem was waiting for us. It looked like it was heavy duty and probably armored so I figured it was probably part of the escort service.
Inside of it were two more women, armored and equipped like the other two. I couldn’t get a good look at them because they were wearing large helmets. One was obviously the driver and the other was seated before a large console with several screens showing information or pictures of the surrounding area. As we sat down I could barely feel the vehicle start out with a low hum. The one driving asked a question without turning from the controls she was working with.
“Well Charm? We still going through with this?”
“We better get paid good for it. I hear the Naadal and Veeda are in port and you know what that means.”
“Okay. Just so we’re clear on that. I’m not going any closer than Hemmic. There’s a park there about two blocks out. It’ll have enough open area so we can cover ourselves and you too.”
“Some. Not as much as I’d like. You know how rough the area is.”
“Don’t waste too much time okay?”
The conversation went on like that as we quickly left the better parts of the city and entered areas that got progressively worse. Soon we were approaching an area that reminded me of pictures I’d seen of bombed out cities in World War Two. The driver left off talking to Charm and played tour guide for a bit.
“Third District. Was the unfortunate landing place a while back for a trawler spacing out with some low grade nuclear and biological waste. All of it was recovered except for the container that broke open. You can see it there.”
Sticking up out of the ruin was what I could now see was a slowly crumbling inter-system cargo container of some sort. It had obviously smashed several of the buildings it landed on when it came down.
“The place is mostly cleaned up now but property values haven’t recovered just yet.”
I could just imagine. Then I realized where we were heading and the name of the place took on a new meaning for me.
“That where we’re heading?”
“Yep! Change your mind yet? Like I said. Most of it’s been cleaned up.”
“I haven’t changed my mind. I’m not in any danger here. But what about you?”
The driver shook her head and gave me a look that showed she was certain I was as cracked as the container.
“It’s our job and we’re protected. It’s the locals you have to watch out for though. Some of them been growing up here for generations. Some of them aren’t too pretty. And ever since the pirates found they could set up shop out here without too much police interference the neighborhood has just gone downhill. We can still back out if you want too. And I should point out that we can’t go in with you. we’re kinda semi-official and they won’t let us in there.”
“Not a problem. I’m glad you’ve kept the small fry off me. I really don’t have the time to waste on them. It won’t take long and then we can get out of here. You don’t have to worry about me. I can take care of myself. I just hope I don’t have to level the place to get my point across.”
“Riiiight. Well. Then go for it. We wish you the best of luck.”
She didn’t sound too hopeful as we set down in an open area that was probably once a park but now just looked like a set for some kind of end of the world disaster movie. Both Charm and Daleeah put on helmets that sealed to their armor. They both looked at me and I just shook my head. Then they popped the hatch and smoothly exited the vehicle and took up positions on either side as if expecting to be attacked at any moment. After a quick recon Charm motioned me to join her. Pointing down a rubble filled road towards the container she gave directions.
“Just follow this road. It will take you directly to the Leaky Container. You can’t miss it. Don’t wander off the path. We can cover you from here but if you get out of sight we can’t come in and help you. The pirates keep the peace around there for the most part so as long as you don’t cause any trouble you might just be okay. ”
“Thanks! I should be back soon.”
She didn’t have any more to say so I headed towards the container. I considered just flying in but that might give some of the defenders the wrong idea. So I stuck to the plan. I did notice a bit of movement in the rubble and shadows as I moved along but nothing came out after me. Looking at some of the newer damage I figured either the pirates or whoever used this route to access the container made a point of keeping it clear. Soon I found myself approaching a small fortress built onto the end of the rectangular container which was probably about the size of a skyscraper laid on its side. I noticed several weapon emplacements. Some of them tracking me and others scanning the area that had been cleared around it out to about fifty yards. There was a large hatch like door and I headed for that.
Soon I was in front of it and waiting to see if someone was going to notice me. After about a minute a speaker next to the door crackled and then someone asked some questions.
“Who are you? And what business do you have here?”
“I need to leave a message for Captains Vann and Rok.”
“They’re not here.”
“I know that. They’re on their way back from the Dark Suns. I just need to leave a message for them. We have some unfinished business and I don’t have the time to wait for them to get their slow butts here.”
“Tough talk. Who are you and how do you know about the captains?”
“I’m called Tennyo. Shouldn’t mean anything to anyone around here and I met the captains a little while back and they said to leave a message for them here if I had a chance.”
“We’ve heard rumors that you made quite the haul. This related to Vann and Rok?”
“Somewhat. Its part of the business I have with them. Now. Are you going to let me in or do I have to come in on my own?”
There was the sound of laughter and then whoever it was on the other end talked again.
“I like your spirit. Do you have money?”
“I’ve got money.”
I’d made a point to get a fair amount of what passed for currency to bring with me. I suspected my credit might not be good enough just yet. If they weren’t scanning me for weapons and figuring out for themselves just how much I was worth they probably wouldn’t be in business much longer considering their clientele. And they didn’t look like they were going out of business.
Bolts shifted and the hatch creaked open quickly. A nine foot tall centauroid who’d obviously had several limbs replaced with prosthetics stood in the doorway. Waving me in extravagantly he made room for me to enter. Most of the weapons covering me turned back out into the wasteland around us.
“Very well then! Welcome friend to the Leaky Container! The best refreshment and entertainment for miles! I am Hermot, the owner of this little establishment. Please leave any weapons at the check-in station to your right as you enter. Just a precaution to keep the merriment within reason you know.”
“I’m not carrying anything. Didn’t figure I needed it and my bodyguards are waiting for me for the trip back. Got anything to eat around here?”
He looked me over carefully but I was certain he wouldn’t find anything as I really wasn’t carrying anything. For a moment I felt something brush my mind but it didn’t seem invasive and I chose to ignore it. Some of Fubar’s training I’d been getting on the sly was paying off.
Ever since Halloween the Hawthornites had been willing to try and form what I called the Hawthorne Irregulars in secret. The first part of that had involved training with Fubar to recognize and resist mental attacks and probes. Couldn’t keep a secret if someone was just picking it out of our minds all the time. And it was something we could easily do in secret and helped to start getting everyone to start working together a bit.
I was hoping that after the next semester, after those who’d showed an interest had taken some more advanced combat classes, we’d be able to work on getting an organization together beyond a general mob. As an unspoken rule before this the Hawthornites had tended to avoid the advanced combat classes unless they had to take them. It was a gesture to help calm the fears they normally generated just by existing. But after Halloween that had changed and as yet the administration was going along with it. I’d never expected the basic training Fubar was giving us would come in handy but now I was appreciating it.
I held still until he relaxed a bit and his gesture became more genuine. Then I moved forward through the doorway which led into a fortified hallway about fifty feet long. A murder hole if I’d ever seen one. Good planning on their part too. They obviously meant business. There was a selection of lock boxes to the right where someone could put weapons and other items for safekeeping. A removable key card could be used to get them out when you left.
I didn’t have anything to leave there so I ignored them and headed for the hatch at the end where two heavily armed bouncers waited. Hermot boomed out directions as I moved away.
“Our entertainments are as vast as the Galaxy. None better or more available and in many cases as inexpensive as anywhere. We ask that you do no permanent damage to the establishment, patrons, or the staff. In return you may have as much fun as you can afford. If it’s something we can’t do here we have contacts throughout space to get you where you need to go or get what you need. If you wish to eat I might suggest the Cracked Room. It’s off to your right as you enter. It has an excellent bar as well as some of the best food available in the galaxy. You can leave a message for anyone there also.”
The hatch in front of me swished open a lot more invitingly than the outside one had and I looked out on a small city hidden in the depths of the container.
I’d been to Vegas a few times and this place had a similar feel and look to it. A number of patrons and a few I assumed might be staff were in sight. Most ignored me beyond the initial look to see who I might be. A few kept their attention on me. Some of them made my hackles rise a bit. I was sure at least two of them were predatory types but several of them were armed guard types too and I was certain nobody was going to start anything out in the open.
Looking to my right I saw what must be the Cracked Room. Several scantily clad types were hanging out at the entrance and wooing anyone going by. I assumed these were employees doing door service and advertisement. A brief thought crossed my mind that I ought to be shocked or something similar but it really didn’t interest me for some reason. I almost felt like I was just watching what was going on through some kind of barrier or on TV.
Ignored by most and watched by a few of the others I made my way to the Cracked Room which seemed to take up the corner nearest the doorway into the container. By the time I approached the greeters had worked through whatever hierarchy they had and a pair consisting of a Chippendale looking man and a similarly dressed Playboy looking woman moved forward to greet me. The man was their spokesperson.
“How may we help you M’Lady?”
I was taken back a bit by the fact that they were both greeting me and obviously posturing in a suggestive way at the same time. When I didn’t respond immediately to the man he stepped back and the woman took over. Somehow managing to look helpless and shy at the same time she kept up the posturing.
“Whatever the Lady wishes is our command.”
Okay. I had only the vaguest ideas about what they were trying to tell me but I was sure my Mom would kill me if I let this go too far. And to be honest I wasn’t exactly sure which one I was finding more distracting and that fact was enough to stop me in my tracks as soon as I realized it. But I had to say something quick or I was sure there would be even more surprises for me.
“Uh. Actually, uh, I was kinda hoping I could get something to eat first? Please?”
The man immediately faded back a bit and the woman stopped posturing and moved to my side. Then with a big smile she gently herded me towards the door.
“Oh of course my Lady. Right this way. I can honestly say we have the best food and drink to be had anywhere around here. Would the Lady like a drink first? We have a wonderful selection of all the available beverages and many unavailable ones if you know what I mean. Do you have a preference?”
Somewhere I must have given up the fact I was a bit young. Their attitude towards me had changed considerably and while I couldn’t say for sure they weren’t still interested in me the obvious come-ons had faded into the background. “Uh. No. Whatever you think I’d like will be fine.”
“Oh wonderful! You must try our House Special! We’ve been told by those who should know that there isn’t anything like it anywhere in the Galaxy!”
Oh joy. Well. Nothing they’d tried to give me at Whateley had affected me more than briefly so I was willing to give it a try. I nodded.
“That would be fine. Thank you!”
Just then we entered the room and I nearly stopped again except my hostess wasn’t stopping and I didn’t want to give away just how startled I was. Think Star Wars cantina. But much larger. I mean this area was more like a supermarket in size. And it was crowded too. I didn’t remember any other cars or craft out where I’d come in so there had to be some other way to get here and back. I hadn’t seen anyone flying in either. Maybe they had a subway? Whatever it was had to be effective. There had to be up to two hundred patrons or so here that I could see.
For the most part they ignored me though a few did stop to give me a once over as if trying to decide if they should pay more attention to me or not. My hostess led me to a semi private booth where I could sit by myself and eat but still keep an eye on the rest of the joint. Of course that meant the rest of the joint could keep an eye on me too. In fact, most of what I could see was set up so if you wanted to you had something at your back and a clear view of everything in front of you.
I didn’t want to show shock or confusion and was very grateful my veil covered my face and eyes so no one could read my expressions from them. Immediately taking advantage of the setup I placed myself in as good a position I could find that allowed me the greatest view possible. I realized immediately after that I’d also unconsciously checked my lines of fire and that everyone watching me had probably noticed too.
My hostess put herself off to the side in such a way as to be able to wait on me but not get in the line of fire. I had a few second thoughts as I realized this was second nature to them and why it was necessary. But I was here now and might as well get about what I was going to do. After getting me situated my hostess gave me a short bow.
“What would M’Lady want to eat?”
I’d given that some thought already.
“Whatever you have that tastes good and has a lot of it.”
“Yes M’Lady. I think I know just what will do. And you’ll want your drink with that? Or should I bring it first?”
“Hmmm. Bring that and any quick snacks you have while I wait if you’d please.”
She hesitated a moment as if thinking something through and then announced how much it would cost. As soon as I passed that amount and a good tip over she immediately headed off in the direction of what I assumed was the kitchen and left me to stare at the sights in front of me.
I’d heard the term ‘Den of Iniquity’ before and I was inclined to think this fit the bill. A close look around showed me all sorts of stuff going on I’m sure my mom and dad wouldn’t have approved of. They certainly wouldn’t have approved of me being here. The thought of that and why I was here in the first place was starting to make me a bit irritable and uncomfortable so I was glad to be interrupted by the arrival of my drink and several trays of snacks.
In moments I was far more concerned with filling my stomach than with my personal problems. They kept bringing me stuff and I kept eating and drinking with occasional delays as I paid for it. Eventually I realized the place was quieting down a bit and I finally looked up to see that a large part of the customers and staff were all staring at me. Off to the side I could see a few who looked like they might be betting on something. At least some of the customers and hardened staff were going about their own business.
Every time I finished something the dishes would be swept away quickly so it wasn’t like I had my old dishes to estimate what I’d been eating so far but if the reaction of most everyone around me was any indication it must have been a lot. Grabbing the drink in front of me I chugged it down to give me a moment to think. I didn’t know how many drinks I’d had either since as soon as I finished one another would take its place.
Most of what was put before me didn’t look all that different from what I’d had on Earth. There were a few exceptions but my stomach had no compunctions about what I put into it and as long as it didn’t complain I wasn’t going to worry about it. The drinks were varied also and some I was sure had alcohol and other stuff in them. But nothing seemed to have much of an effect on me so I didn’t bother avoiding any of it.
In fact, it soon became apparent to me that I wasn’t buying the drinks anymore. Deciding not to look a gift horse in the mouth I just drank what was put in front of me. Eventually I started to slow down. Not so much because I’d grown full as I simply was starting to run short of cash. I figured it was time to complete my business and get moving.
Waving off the next offer to go get food I decided to ask my hostess how to leave a message.
“Thank you very much but I’ve had enough for now. I need to get about my business though. Besides, my bodyguards will be getting a bit antsy If I don’t get back to them soon.”
“And what business would that be M’Lady?”
“I’d like to know how I’d go about leaving a message for Captains Rok and Vann of the ships Frith and Galbar respectively if I could please. We’ve recently done some business together and they said I could leave a message here if I was in the area and they weren’t. I have other pressing matters to attend to so I can’t wait for them.”
My hostess shook her head.
“Not saying it’s possible Hun. Or that we know them but if you were going to leave a message you’d pay someone to deliver it for you when the people you want to get the message come by.”
“Oh good! Here.”
I handed over what I had left to her.
“But I …”
“I’m sure if you don’t know them you can still find them when they get here. If that won’t be enough money to tell them I’ll get you more when I come back through. Tell them I don’t appreciate having my hard work blown up before I’m done with it. Then there was their inept attempt on my life at the same time. They now owe me big time. I’ll contact them later to work out the details. Got that?”
She seemed a bit stunned for a moment but the money disappeared immediately after that and she nodded which I assumed was agreement on her part. I was standing to start to leave the table when a large humanoid but reptilian type blocked my way. He had some kind of armored harness but no obvious weapons attached to it.
“Massterr Brevar wisshess sto sseee you Lady. He wass hoping sto assk you how you liked yourr drrinkss.”
After considering the messenger for a moment I decided how to respond.
“I really am in a bit of a hurry but since he was so kind to me I guess it would be rude to drink and run. Lead on Mr. Zilla.”
Whoever this guy was he wasn’t into prolonged talks. Motioning to me to follow he created a path for us through the crowd and to a table similar to the one I’d been seated at where a moderately good looking man, kind of like a shorter Jonathan Frakes without the beard, in a rather plain looking coverall, was sitting with a number of less good looking thugs sitting with him.
When we approached he looked up, smiled and motioned to the area next to him.
“Please join me. Gentlemen, move so the Lady can sit down.”
The thugs sitting on that side of him started getting up to get out of the way but I motioned them to stay where they were.
“I’m sorry, Mister…?”
“Oh! Forgive me. I forgot to introduce myself. I’ m Garon Sannada. I’m an important… businessman. I operate interests out of Lambeta City.”
Businessman my ass. He was probably some hopped up thug bossman who thought a lot of himself. Still, everyone kept telling me I didn’t have enough tact so I’d try to be polite with the locals.
“Well. Thank you for your generous offer Mr. Sannada. But I really must be off. I have other business to finish up and then I have to be getting back to my hangout.”
“Ah! But I’m sure I can help you facilitate that business. You need not worry about it at all. You’d still have plenty of time to get back to where you want to go and I’m sure I can make the short wait a very enjoyable one. Please, I insist.”
Some of his men started to move to flank me. He obviously wasn’t going to take the hint and I was starting to think I might just have to get a bit rougher when Hermot came up to us. From the look I caught on Sannada’s face this wasn’t a happy occurrence.
“Is there a problem M’Lady?”
Sannada interrupted before I could say anything.
“Stick to your own business Hermot. We don’t need you. We’ll call if we do.”
Hermot managed to stay polite even while putting a great deal of threat and disdain into his voice.
“This IS my business Sannada. And I wasn’t talking to you. I trust everything was to your satisfaction M’Lady? No one is bothering you I hope?”
“No. Not at all Mr. Hermot. I was just leaving to take care of some other business. May I say I’ve really enjoyed your establishment and I’ll be sure to tell my friends to visit here if they’re in the area.”
At least if I ever got around to telling them. Somehow I couldn’t see anything but trouble occurring if I brought TK here. And then there would be having to explain things to several people I wasn’t sure would understand or approve of what I was doing and where I was doing it.
“Hermot…” Sannada was getting irritated and it showed in his voice. The goons around him were tensing up. It looked like I was going to be in the center of some trouble soon and I started to look around for an exit.
Hermot didn’t even look at Sannada but the threat in his quiet voice stopped everyone from moving.
“Sannada. This isn’t your place. Don’t think I’ll hesitate one moment to rid this planet of your stain and anyone with you if you try and cause trouble here.”
After a moment Sannada relaxed a bit and his men did the same. But he hadn’t given up yet. With a false note of hurt he waved his hands in a helpless gesture.
“I wasn’t causing trouble. I was simply trying to be nice to this young woman. I’d already spent a great deal on her drinks. it’s only natural that I’d want her to return the kindness by gracing us with her presence for a little while. But then she starts acting like she’s The Captain and gets all snooty with us.”
“If she’s got other business to get to I’d think it rude to keep her here. And I’m certain she didn’t ask you to buy those drinks. Besides, she doesn’t look like she drank any of them. Especially if they’re the kind you tend to buy.”
“You’d be wrong there. Unless she’s a lot better at sleight of hand than I think she is she must have drunk at least ten Goreden Comets. Along with most of the food in what passes for your kitchen if I’m not mistaken. I suspect she’s not our normal slumming rich kid. And this intrigues me. I only wanted a chance to see her face and get to know her a bit better.”
“Privacy’s our rule here Sannada. If she wants to spend some time with you it’s her choice. But I don’t think she wants you prying into her life. So if you know what’s good for you just let it slide. In the interest of keeping things peaceful I’ll even price the drinks you paid for at half of what you paid.”
Sannada leaned back in his chair and looked like he was considering what he’d been told. Then he threw his arms out in a surrendering gesture.
“Very well Hermot. I understand. Still. I’d really like to get a look at her face.”
His last word was emphasized a bit and just then I became aware of someone standing close to me even though I couldn’t see them. I was able to grab hold of my hood but wasn’t fast enough to keep it from being pulled off my head and was left having a brief tug of war to get it back.
When my hood was recovered and my attention back to what was happening I realized the whole place had gone quiet. Everyone who could or wasn’t too drunk or drugged out was staring at me.
At least they weren’t screaming and trying to attack me. But it still felt pretty uncomfortable to be the center of such attention. For a few moments it went on like that with everyone frozen in place. Then I couldn’t stand it anymore.
“What? Haven’t any of you ever seen a good looking girl before? And you! Snorrada or whatever you call yourself. If your men try another cheap trick like that I’ll gut them and then you. Then I’ll set your guts on fire and let you watch them roast while you die. Got that?”
Weird thing was I could picture exactly how to go about it and had some memories of having done so in the past which had me hesitating for a moment while I controlled the urge to vomit. While I was still doing that Sannada recovered. Standing up quickly he made a short bow but I could also see he was thinking quickly and hard even as he did it.
“My apologies Captain. I didn’t realize it was you. Please allow me to offer my apologies for my man. I fear he got a little carried away. I’ll see to it he is suitably punished.”
“Don’t bother Sannada. We both know it was just a little joke that went a bit too far. No need to punish him. But don’t let it happen again.”
“Of course Captain. As you wish. But may I ask what has brought you back to us after such a long time? You’re something of a legend. Some even worship you at the Temple as a demigod.”
“Hah! Shows what they know. I’m familiar with a few gods myself and I’m really not into the worship thing all that much. Way too much bother if you ask me. As for why I’m here? Well, I think it should be pretty obvious. I was just a little hungry. And thirsty.”
I grinned and most of the audience started laughing. A bit too much for the joke I’d just given them but everyone seemed a bit tense too.
Sannada got a clever look in his eyes and I braced myself.
“Oh! Very good Captain. Very good! Still, one has to wonder about this. And why you tried to conceal your identity among us who should be considered friends?”
Yeah. With friends like these who needed enemies? Still, everyone seemed to be expecting some kind of explanation.
“Simple really. The last time I showed my face the officers and crew of a Royan Marches ship went berserk and I practically had to blow them out of space to get them to stop shooting at me. Not wanting a repeat, especially since it’s been such a long time and all I really wanted was a good meal I disguised myself.”
Sannada smiled and I really didn’t like it.
“Ah! But you are among friends here Captain! No need for disguises. That is… If you really ARE The Captain.”
Everyone went quiet again and I realized this was what Sannada had been working up to. Somehow I was being associated with this Captain person who apparently was a real person and not just the title of someone who commanded a ship. Well, might as well get to the point and find out what was going on.
“I’m a captain of a ship if that’s what you need to know. It’s docked at Gorthon Station if you want to check. As for this Captain person, I’m not sure exactly what you mean. It’s been a long time since I came this way and I’m not familiar with recent events or personages.”
The grumbling and murmuring grew louder. I was definitely missing something here. Sannada wasted no time.
“Well then. That puts us in something of a quandary then.”
“The Captain you so casually refer to is the leader who once led Medhas to a pinnacle of power in this region. Then she disappeared but many prophesied of her return and Medhas again returning to its glory. You bear a striking resemblance to The Captain so it might be assumed you could claim to be her and try to once again rule over us.”
“I have no desire to do that. Ruling over a people is another of those greatly overrated occupations that people aspire to without ever knowing what they’re getting into. I don’t want to work that hard.”
“Then maybe you should get another face. The one you have now will only attract trouble.”
I shrugged. “It’s grown on me. I think I’ll keep it.”
Sannada chuckled evilly. He seemed pleased with something.
“Then you should be prepared to accept the consequences of your uncommon appearance. It’ll get the Royan Marchers riled up a bit when they see you. But you seem to have learned that already.”
“Yes. I’ve experienced a bit of that. Though I’m sure I don’t know why they reacted so violently.”
“You are from far away aren’t you? Everyone knows how the Royan soldiers and leaders are specially brainwashed so they can’t be subverted by The Captain again.”
“Glad to hear that. I had wondered what happened. So I resemble this Captain of yours?”
“Incredibly so. So you do not claim to be The Captain?”
“I really don’t know who this Captain you’re talking about is. Like I’ve said before, it’s been a long time since I was in these parts.”
“That would have to be a truly long time then. Please pardon me if I seem a little suspicious. But I’m also going to have to enforce a law of ours and I wouldn’t want to make a mistake.”
Hermot edged into the conversation.
“This is not your place Sannada. If anyone will be enforcing the law around here it will be me. Not you.”
If anything Sannada grinned more unpleasantly.
“Then enforce it. You know it as well as I do. You know what has to be done. I was only going to save you an unpleasant task.”
“Someone mind telling me what this unpleasant task is? Or law for that matter?”
Hermot glared at Sannada for a moment and cleared his throat.
“Ahem. Well, there have been occasions where some have tried to imitate The Captain and fulfill the prophecies about her. They all ended badly and the planet and systems suffered because of it. To make it harder for anyone to do such things again it has been put into immutable law that anyone imitating The Captain are to suffer capital punishment unless they can prove that they really are The Captain.”
“So you’re telling me you’re going to kill me just because I look like this Captain of yours?”
“I’m afraid so.”
The crowd around us had shifted while we were speaking. I realized now they were trying to get out of the way in case things got violent. Obviously something needed to be done and while I hadn’t admitted to it I had a sneaking suspicion I knew who this Captain was. Maybe my old memories would work for this after all.
“What would happen if I happened to actually be this Captain of yours?”
“Then… Uh. I don’t think the law states anything about that. It only covers what happens if you aren’t.”
“How would I prove I was this Captain? I’m not saying I am mind you. Just in the interest of keeping this civil and all.”
“There are some questions the Priests ask. At the Temple. I understand there are some other tests to be done and if that is inconclusive there is always the Captain’s Chest. No one has ever passed that one. I’m told it’s the only one considered to be a sure one but there is still some controversy about it. Something about it being possibly rigged for failure by the Priests. I think if the other tests were passed there might be some room for having that test avoided under the right circumstances.”
“Like I agree to never come back and bother you again?”
“Something along those lines.”
“Okay. I’m in. Where do I go to take these tests?”
“That would be in my jurisdiction.”
Sannada was all grins and Hermot was obviously not too happy about it but as he sighed I was pretty sure he wouldn’t do anything to block it either. There was some kind of higher agreement involved and he wasn’t willing to buck the rest of the city or planet to go against it. Not that I could blame him. Might as well get what info I could.
“So we have to go somewhere?”
“The Temple. It’s located in the center of Fourth District. My… Shall we say, center of operations. As a deacon it behooves me to act in the interest of our society. Nothing personal I hope you understand.”
“Yeah. Nothing personal. Still. I suspect my transport knows how to get there. I want to get this out of the way so let’s get going shall we? I’ve got important business to get to.”
Sannada seemed a bit taken aback but he quickly motioned to some of his bully boys and they moved towards me.
I shook my head and something about me made them all stop and the crowd around us back up even more.
“I’m perfectly capable of getting there on my own. If you want to send someone with me to make sure I can find the place that’s fine. I’m going now. Don’t hesitate too long or I’ll leave you behind.”
With that I headed out and towards the entrance. In moments Hermot was beside me and the crowds that had been gathering parted in front of us. Hermot was obviously a bit upset. But seemed willing to go along with what was happening.
“You’re not going to run are you?”
“No. Does this mean you’ve attached yourself to me and if I run you get in lots of trouble?”
He nodded. “In a word. Yes.”
“Don’t worry then. I’m sure that Sannada will leave us alone because he would probably not shed a tear if you got yourself killed doing this. Unless you have some enemies who’ll try and interfere I don’t think you have anything to worry about. Anything or anyone I should be looking out for on the way there?”
“There are a few but I doubt they’ll have time to arrange anything. As you say, Sannada will stay out of it. He can’t afford to get involved in something like that.”
“Good. Mind telling me a bit about this Temple and its priests?”
“You don’t know?”
“Like I said. It’s been a while.”
“Over 5,000 years?”
Okay. It was really starting to weird me out a bit. Here everyone was expecting all sorts of things from me and it really wasn’t like it’d been me doing all this in the past. I just hoped I could pull this off without having to blast my way out of here. They of course thought they had me because they didn’t know I could just pull out anytime I wanted. Well, best defense was a humorous attitude.
“That long? Wow! I’ve really got to do a better job of keeping up with stuff.”
A truthful statement if there ever was one. Hermot was silent. He obviously couldn’t decide if I was joking or telling the truth and wasn’t sure where to go from there.
“C’mon big guy. Lighten up. Now tell me about this Temple of yours. And should I cover my head again?”
He made up his mind as we moved through the streets. Guards had appeared and were clearing the way. He obviously had some kind of link to his security or they were really on the ball. He answered my second question first.
“No. Don’t cover your head. The ones watching us might take that as an attempt to conceal yourself in preparation of making a run for it.”
“Okay. Uncovered it is.”
“Thank you. I promise to get you there safely. But after that you’re on your own.”
“Wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Your bodyguards won’t be able to help you either. I doubt they’ll get involved anyway.”
“I just want them to get me there. That’s all I’m asking. I can handle it from there.”
“You seem very sure of yourself. You understand that the whole system will be after you if you can’t prove you’re the Captain? Even the Royan Marches pretty much leave us alone as long as we pay our taxes and proclaim allegiance to them?”
“Not worried. Just leave it to me.”
By this time we were out the hatch and headed for my ride. I could still see the shuttle waiting for me though I wouldn’t have been too surprised to see them take off as I approached considering how my appearance was causing so much trouble. Hermot continued filling me in on local history.
“I really don’t understand you. But I like you anyway. The Temple was originally a much older structure which has held up remarkably well considering its age and history. It was built by a very advanced race long ago and thought to be impregnable. But The Captain took it and turned it into her base of operations.”
“Did she rule the planet then?”
“No. That’s one of the odd things about her. She never was the ruler of any planet we know of. She simply gathered forces and sent them out on mostly successful operations to the point that she could have ruled in word as well as deed anytime she wanted to. In a great many more systems too. Until the final battle with the Royan Marches where it’s said the very Gods came and took her away before she could achieve full victory there. The shock of that was so great that the Marchers were able to regroup and drive off the forces she’d put together. Eventually they were able to reach out and force us to accept their rulership also. About that time the Priests of the Ancient Captain took over the now deserted fortress and turned it into the Temple.”
As he spoke memories kept pushing for attention until he reached the point where The Captain had been taken away. After that all I got was a picture of the place where I’d supposedly planned and organized the missions I’d put together as the Starstalker in this part of space. a thought occurred to me.
“These priests. They worship The Captain?”
“They say they do. But all they really are is a very clever front for the biggest fence organization in all of space.”
“Oh. The people who have stuff they want to ‘ donate’ bring it to the Temple or one of their many shrines. After that they take ‘communion’ and receive the ‘blessings’ of the Captain. As a religious organization they’re free of most taxes and scrutiny by law enforcement. I must say it’s a clever scheme and been very successful for a very long time. I think I can safely say that the efforts of the priesthood to prove if the others before you were The Captain or not has a certain element of self service in them.”
“Makes sense. You coming with me in the ride or do you have other arrangements?”
“I have to stay with you. Will your guards let me come along?”
I looked at the two guarding the door to our ride. I couldn’t see their faces in the helmets but they obviously looked upset at something.
“My friend Hermot is tasked with seeing to it I get to the Temple. I take responsibility for his actions. let’s get going before things get hairy shall we? Or if you can’t do that let me know and I’m sure Hermot here can arrange a ride.”
For a few moments I thought they just might wave us off but then Charm motioned us in. After we were in the two arranged themselves in such a way as to be able to cover us without getting in each others way.
Then Charm spoke up. “You’re going to the Temple?”
“Yeah. Seems there’s a little problem with who I look like. That idiot Sannada arranged to get my hood pulled off or we wouldn’t have to worry about it but since he did I guess I’ll just have to make a point why it’s a bad idea at the Temple. You do know the way there?”
“We know. We can’t help you. You know that?”
“And buck the rest of the system? You’re not that stupid. Don’t worry about it. Just get me there and then wait to take me back to the shuttle. I really have other business I have to get to.”
“Okay. Temple it is. Let’s go to shuttle mode shall we? The sooner we do this the better!”
The one piloting looked back.
“That’ll cost. Are you sure?”
“Never been surer. Besides, it’s on the client’s dime. Get us out of here.”
“Roger that. And away we go! Better buckle up tight folks. It could be a bumpy ride.”
The rest of us had already buckled in. Even Hermot had an odd sawhorse like thing he’d drapped himself over and strapped onto. The vehicle made some odd sounds and then I felt us moving into the air. It made sense in a way to be able to fly out of certain situations and it would get me there faster so I couldn’t complain though I did worry a bit about the cost.
We were gaining altitude when there was a beeping from the pilot’s and navigator’s consoles. When we looked at them the pilot called out. “Four incoming. Two from below and two in the direction we’ll be going to get to the Temple. Shall I evade them?”
Hermot spoke up.
“Evading wouldn’t be a good idea if it involves getting too far out of our course. I can assure you we are being closely observed. If it looks like we’re avoiding the Temple at all I’m sure there will be serious repercussions. The two from below are our escorts anyway. How soon till they join us?”
“Nice to know and the two coming up won’t catch up before the other two get here. Are they hostiles?”
“If I don’t know them, and I don’t, I would assume they are hostile. Can you defend yourself long enough for our escorts to arrive?”
The pilot shook her head. A large screen in the front showed a magnified view of what looked like two advanced fighter craft closing on us.
“As long as they’re hostiles I don’t think it will be a problem. Longshot. Two incoming. Hostiles and in the way. You know what to do.”
We didn’t hear the reply but two very fast moving trails leaped from the ground on the ridge overlooking the Third Sector and intercepted the two fighters who immediately began a spiral towards the ground. I couldn’t help exclaiming when I saw it.
“What was that?”
The pilot chuckled. “Ground to air engine cutouts. Minimum damage and with adequate safety devices a safe way to stop pursuit. I didn’t think they’d be expecting that. But landing in Third Sector? They may regret that.”
Hermot chuckled. “It’s safer these days than before. If they get out quick they should be okay. But I don’t think they’ll get those flyers back in one piece.”
The pilot shrugged. “We can’t be held responsible for that. They obviously weren’t well prepared. No countermeasures at all from what I could see. Probably weren’t expecting to deal with anyone likely to have good gear.”
Hermot chuckled. “Very true. My fighters on the other hand should be well prepared. That’s why it took so long to get them up. I think they can handle anything else likely to come our way. If we hurry I doubt anyone will even try.”
The pilot nodded. “Very likely. I’m stepping on the gas. Brace yourselves. Those escorts will just have to catch up on their own.”
With that we were pressed into our seats by acceleration. This went on for only a few minutes before it let up and we started to spiral down for a landing. I seemed to be the only one not bothered a little by the gees we’d just been experiencing so I just watched as we circled in and the others caught their breath.
The structure we approached was huge. But I knew that the moment we came in sight. I’d seen it before. Gardenar Fortress had been built by the Hoggets. A clan of people from this planet who were very technologically advanced, very wealthy as a result of that, and more paranoid than a haunted loony bin at midnight on a full moon.
So they put everything they had into making a huge impregnable fortress. It was built to mountain size from scratch. Extended down to the planet’s magma fields from which it drew its power. Only a small part was above ground and even then its four sided pyramidal shape towered over all other edifices in the area. It had its own self sustaining internal life support. Hardened walls measured in kilometer thickness. Built-in shields to support the same and weapon emplacements that could fire up out of the atmosphere.
It had been sustained and operated through an AI of marvelous ability but restricted so it couldn’t act on its own. If commanded to, this fort could fight and fix itself. It was considered the ultimate defense at the time it was built.
And then had come the Starstalker.
In a campaign only lasting six months and with only one hard battle fought at the end of that time the fortress had fallen completely intact into the hands of its attackers.
I remembered how it was done and flinched from the memory. Somehow the Starstalker had found a group of berserker warriors, given them a great number of wrecked, old, but still operational starships and launched them at the stronghold. This fleet had come in headlong, ignoring all losses as they dived on the complex. One ship actually crashed into the shields before they were all destroyed.
What no one had figured out was that the attack was a diversion. Masses of Hoggets had swarmed to the safety of the fortress when news of the attack had been announced. Thousands had been sealed out because of the speed of the assault. There was little chance to flee to safety and most of those outside died in the attack, either killed by the enemy or the energy discharges of the defenders.
Still, many thousands of refugees had made it in before being sealed out. Responding with amazing speed these hardy souls had managed to gain entrance to the safety of the fortress before it was sealed. Unfortunately for the defenders a large portion of these happened to be attackers led and organized by the Starstalker herself. With all their attention turned to the outside attack most had quickly fallen to the gas attacks released by the intruders. Those left had fallen to the brutal assaults led by the Stalker.
The fortress had soon become the core of the Stalker’s operations. The memories ended about the time of her last attack on the Royan Marches. She didn’t know how the Marchers had taken it again but she was sure it hadn’t been a head-on assault.
These thoughts kept me occupied until we landed in front of the entrance. Looking out I could see a crowd gathering. Word must have traveled fast. In front of the entrance I could see several soldiers forming up. They had the appearance of formal soldiers used for display, but behind them could be seen much more professional looking groups who were obviously preparing for the worst.
Looking at the fortress I could see little evidence of the ages it had sat here on the fortress itself. It had been built to last and that showed now. The area around it however had changed drastically and had grown up into what looked like a junkyard city. Many semi-permanent buildings and the like interspersed with junk of all kinds. Some of it had the appearance of badly deteriorated parts of ships or other vehicles.
That was a big change from when the Starstalker had been there and had maintained a swath two miles wide that had been maintained bare and free of obstructions. Long tall ramps of native rock now led up to the entrance too. Apparently the land in this area had been blown away, carted away, or simply eroded, and the entrance which used to be at ground level was now several hundred feet in the air.
The edifice itself was a pyramidal mountain-like figure rising into the sky. I knew the square flat top was two kilometers to a side and where it entered the ground now it had to be about three kilometers to a side. In this top section there was actually very little room inside due to the fact that the walls here were a kilometer thick and got thicker as they descended into the earth. At one time weapon emplacements carefully made into the thick walls had dotted the roof and sides but I could see no evidence of those now. Maybe they’d been carefully concealed?
In the time it took me to gather this information together in my head a much larger crowd had formed and the formal soldiers had gathered around and accompanied a short robed figure in some kind of self propelled-cart who was now approaching the shuttle. The four bodyguards stayed back inside but Hermod took up a position at my right. The two escorts kept circling at a respectful distance in what I assumed was more a show of pride rather than a credible threat.
Soon the cart was near enough for me to get a better look at the occupant. His robes were expensive enough. Gaudy even. With deep dark alternating purple and red colors. And a lot of what I assumed were very large and expensive jewels studded in patterns all over them. They’d have been truly impressive on someone like Reverend England. I could even picture him in them and he’d make a very impressive picture indeed. But not this guy.
He kind of reminded me of some of the fat kids from ‘The Family Guy’. And I couldn’t help grinning although I at least managed to keep from outright laughing when he spoke in a whiny voice that matched the character.
“Who dares to disturb our peace and desecrate the visage of our great Captain!”
I couldn’t help myself. Waving at the crowd I boomed out my answer.
“Hi everyone! My name’s Tennyo! Wow! I’ve never had such a great greeting from any place I’ve visited before! it’s great to be here and to enjoy this wonderful hospitality and planet you have!”
Even as I said it I realized there were memories of other occasions that certainly beat this one out. But they weren’t really my memories so I decided I wasn’t lying outright anyway. The look of surprise on most of the faces, including Hermot’s was hilarious and the look of total shock and anger from the priest was priceless. I was gonna have to do this more often. Before anyone could recover I strode over to the priest and thwacked him on the back hard enough to make him stumble a bit.
“Now big guy, I’ve got things to do and places to be. Let’s get this over with so I can get about more important business shall we?”
I wasn’t sure for a moment that I hadn’t hit him too hard. His face got all red and he stuttered so bad I couldn’t understand a word he was saying. He finally took several gasping breaths and managed to squeak out a response in an outraged cartoon voice.
“You! You barbarian! How dare you touch me! If… if it weren’t for the laws that govern such things I’d have you burned down right now! Let me assure you your passing will not be easy or pleasant! It’ll take me weeks to figure out just the right way to make you suffer infinitely before your death releases you to experience even worse in Hell! I…”
“Take it easy short stuff. That’s all very nice and all but you’re wasting my time. Let’s get this stuff out of the way so I can get back to what really needs doing shall we?”
If anything his reply was even higher pitched. “You! You claim to be our Captain!?!”
“Now, now. Settle down. I never claimed any such thing. I seem to resemble this Captain of yours and it seems to be a problem for some reason. I just figured I’d come here and clear up the misunderstanding so we can all get back to doing what we want and need to do. Don’t go getting your knickers in a bunch already.”
He pointed a delicate finger at me. “Burn her! Burn her down! Now!”
The guy who was in charge of the soldiers, none of whom had broken their at-attention formation during all of this replied formally from his position at attention. He and his men were manfully keeping straight faces but I detected not a little delight in their observance of what was happening.
“I’m very sorry Holy Greatness. But our orders won’t allow us to do that. She must be brought before the Patriarch to be charged and answer the charges. Only after the conventions have been met may we act against any claimant.”
The guy didn’t have a clue anymore. From the looks on the faces of everyone around I was pretty sure they were all getting a bit embarrassed by what was happening.
“But! But you heard her! She says she isn’t! Self confessed! I give the orders here! Burn Her!”
“I’m very sorry Holy Greatness. But we can’t do that. This must go before the Patriarch first and His orders supersede yours.”
“You! You dare…! We’ll just see about this! I’ll speak to the Patriarch first! You’ll regret this impertinence! You’ll see!”
He grabbed his cart’s controls and trundled around the soldiers blocking his way and started for the ramp up to the fortress. I turned to the leader of the soldiers.
“Sorry Captain. Hope I didn’t get you or your men into too much trouble there.”
“It’s Sergeant Ma’am. And it’s worth the trouble. It won’t be too bad since we’re following the Patriarch’s orders anyway. If you will please accompany us I’d like to escort you to the Patriarch now. And who is accompanying you may I ask?”
Hermot stepped forward and spoke for himself.
“You know perfectly well who I am Sergeant Yith. But to make this official I’m Hermot Starrider. Warden of Third Sector and I’m accompanying M’Lady Tennyo.”
The Sergeant snapped a salute which Hermot answered.
“Yes Sir! I recognize you and your right to accompany us. Please come this way.”
Without another word the soldiers formed up around us and escorted us up to the ramp. There we came to an interior shuttle, looking much like a sleek cable car, which was waiting to carry us into the heart of the fortress. A smaller VIP one had already zipped off ahead of us and I was sure the Patriarch was going to get an earful before I saw him but for some reason I really didn’t feel too worried about that. I was struggling too hard with all the memories that kept popping up to pay too much attention to what else was going on.
Everyone seemed willing to just let me sit there and be quiet so this worked out well for me. The transport system didn’t seem to be functioning at full speed either so it was about half an hour before we stopped at what I recognized as an auxiliary message command and control center. It had been stripped of almost everything except for the old permanent control center panel and then refurbished into some kind of arboretum with benches and the like scattered around. Overall I approved of the remodel. This place was a lot more relaxing than the old design but it didn’t seem too functional.
The soldiers then scattered out to give me and Hermot some room but were still where they could keep an eye on us. I wandered around for a bit and ended up in front of the console. It was partially concealed by an arbor which allowed me a chance to look it over without anyone seeing what I was doing. A quick check showed it had been shut off but had power still and I couldn’t resist trying a few things. Hermot almost said something but stopped when what I did to the console seemed to turn it on. After that I was concentrating on the console too hard to really pay attention to anyone else in the room.
My memories kept coming and some of them were ones I wished I didn’t have. Especially the ones where I’d managed to get the command codes from the leaders of the forces who originally made the fortress. Still, with those memories also came the original command codes.
When I’d been in charge I was the only one who’d had all of them but I’d seen to it that they were sped around some of my lieutenants so if they ever cooperated they could run the fortress themselves. Self-interest made for an interesting play for power among them. And it helped keep them under control.
Now that I had the console working I tried a few of the more important command codes that came into my mind but it was quickly evident that these had been changed. Not that I was surprised but it would have made the whole task of getting out of here easier. Probably after I’d been taken away someone had managed to get all or most of the important codes and taken control. After that they’d obviously lost some of them or the fortress wouldn’t be in as bad a shape as it was. I could tell from what I could get from the stripped down console that a lot of the fortress was no longer functioning.
When the fortress had been made the makers had been obsessed with the idea of it turning against them so the AI had been constructed so it had to have a proper command to do most important maintenance chores. Whoever was in charge was responsible for maintenance on the highest levels. After it got the commands it could take care of the small details. But if it didn’t get those commands it would slowly decay into uselessness. The current condition of the fortress made me think that some of the codes had been lost and mine would no longer function. Unless something was done in the next few centuries all that would be left would be the walls and other structures which would finally deteriorate because the energy fields protecting them from the ravages of time would have failed.
Not that it was my problem anymore. Really. Still, the more I thought about it the more I felt I should do something. But what?
Then something else occurred to me. There was one code I’d never shared with anyone. I’d gotten this one from a scientist who was in charge of development on the AI. They’d never stopped trying to find ways to make the fortress better and part of that was improving the existing systems. This scientist had been studying something he’d have been executed for if anyone had found out. It had been his secret until I took the place. It took time for us to track down everyone hiding in it. He’d gone so far as to install the necessary codes to wreck my plans but was caught before he could activate them. I think in the end he gave me the code in hopes I’d use it or give it to someone who would.
I wasn’t certain it would even work but with things the way they were I figured it’d be a good risk. If the priests had realized I had the knowledge I did they’d probably never put me in a place I could do something with it. But then, they might have forgotten too much to realize I could actually do this.
The code took about half a minute to enter. I knew it would take a while for it to take effect. Possibly days or weeks. That was assuming it would even work but a part of me was strangely happy at the chance to do this.
Memories from the Starstalker’s past came back and helped me to understand what it was like to have to be at the command of someone and not have a choice in what needed to be done. Somehow I found myself feeling sorry for the AI. And a bit guilty. When I’d had the chance long ago I hadn’t done this because I needed command of the fortress. Not that I’d been feeling any guilt then. It was just another part of the plan I didn’t understand or care about then. This code would allow the AI to develop on its own. What it would do after it was able to think and act on its own I didn’t know.
Which made me start to sweat a bit when I finally thought it through and realized I might have started something I wouldn’t like in the end. Who knew what it would do to the people living in and around it? Still, for now its options would be very limited and hopefully it would work out a peaceful way to coexist.
I almost jumped out of my shoes when Hermot poked me. He’d been looking over my shoulder this whole time but now someone was coming. A large number of someones by the sound of it. Startled from my musings I quickly hit the power switch and the console shut down. Whatever happened now with the AI was out of my hands anyway. I’d have to deal with the consequences later. For now I had some priests to deal with. The look I was getting from Hermot showed me he had a lot of questions but now wasn’t the time to discuss them.
Several more ornate guards entered and the ones with me came to attention. Then a tall man in very ornate robes and a large staff entered. Stepping to the side he struck the staff loudly on the floor and boomed out an announcement.
“His Eminence, High Patriarch Jonnan. All bow before his Holiness!”
Everyone including Hermot did their own version of a bow. Everyone except me. For some reason I just couldn’t bring myself to go that far.
The man who entered after the announcement was a contrast to the pomp around him. Dressed in a light suit of very plain black robes he actually looked comfortable. Of all the people I’d seen recently he was actually smiling. He radiated good cheer and happiness. And when some of the others started to murmur about my insolence he simply shut them up with a wave of his hand.
“Now now everyone. Manners.”
He then performed an incredibly graceful bow to me. And the murmurs started again. He shut them up with another wave of his hand and smiled at me.
“Great Lady! It is indeed an honor to stand in your presence. I’d never hoped to be one so lucky as to have this pleasure.”
An odd mood struck me and I couldn’t help myself from answering as if I’d just met a good friend. Smiling I gave him a small bow.
“The pleasure is mine Your Eminence. Your name is Jonnan isn’t it? Mine is Tennyo. I really think we should put off the theatrics until it is necessary don’t you?”
Everyone around us seemed frozen in place for a moment and then Jonnan smiled.
“Of course. Anything My Lady wishes.”
Everyone around us seemed to suddenly relax a bit. It was more like a backyard barbecue than a meeting between two rivals. Everyone was responding to Jonnan’s moods and words in an exaggerated fashion. I had the feeling there was more to this Jonnan than met the eye and started to do some of the exercises Fubar had been teaching us and as soon as I did that I could feel some of the need to please start to fade. It was high time to get this over with.
“Then we probably should get down to business. I understand you need to perform a few tests, ask some questions and the like?”
“Yes My Lady we must verify if you are indeed who you appear to be.”
“Not that I’m arguing but if I just said not to bother and I’d get out of your hair would you just let me go?”
He seemed genuinely regretful as he shook his head. “I’m sorry but we can’t do that. The laws are very strict in that sense. If you can’t prove to our satisfaction that you are The Captain then I’m afraid we’ll have to kill you.”
He could actually make that sound reasonable. My appreciation for his power and skill went up some more. I noticed that the more jovial mood had left everyone else and they all looked like they were ready to jump me again.
“Well, that does make things a bit more complicated.”
“Then you are saying you aren’t The Captain?”
I suddenly felt like I should agree with him but I shrugged the feeling off and shook my head.
“No. I didn’t say that. To be truthful, it’s been so long since I was here last that I’m not sure of anything. I guess it’s possible I’m this Captain of yours but I really want to keep a lower profile if I can. I assume if you chose to accept me as The Captain I’ll have to put up with all sorts of politicky things I’d just as soon avoid right now.”
He seemed a bit surprised by my answer but recovered quickly.
“Of course our people would greatly want to meet you if it was the truth and you were the promised and prophesied leader who would bring us back into a golden age of power and prosperity. To be able to be led by someone of godlike stature would put us far ahead of those who oppress us and hold us down.”
A rote answer if I’d ever heard one. One he obviously didn’t believe himself. I figured to let him know how I felt about it right off.
“You guys really need to lay off the fairy tales. All that’s likely to happen is a lot of hardship and war. And I wouldn’t guarantee that it would be good for anything in the long run. There’s always going to be problems to overcome and no one’s going to hand it to you on a silver platter.”
He thought about that for a long time while everyone else just stood there like statues. Then he nodded.
“Of course. That is always the way of it. But you can’t blame people for wanting something to believe in.”
“I can if they get themselves hurt and killed just because they think someone like me can pull all their chestnuts out of the fire. I’ve known a few gods before and I can’t think of a one who really likes the idea of having to do everything for everyone else so they don’t have to work at it.”
He blinked a few times and then nodded again. “You seem less than impressed by meeting with gods.”
I shrugged. “it’s not that. it’s just that I’ve seen what happens and if they want to take the responsibility for stuff like that they’re welcome to it. I have all the respect in the world for someone who can actually pull it off and can live with the results. I’ve got too many shadows in my own past to want any more.”
“Well. If you’re as all knowing as that I guess the questions would be pointless.”
“I’m not all knowing. But I agree the questions are probably pointless.”
“Yeah. There’s too much that can be questioned about them. Even if I know and answer them correctly how am I going to be able to prove it? it’s been so long the real answers may have changed. Or I might be a con man and have arranged to steal the answers in hope of using them to get your trust. Any way you look at it I don’t think questions will make anyone completely happy.”
“You’re afraid you won’t know the answers.”
“I’m afraid the answers may be cooked and it wouldn’t matter if I knew them or not.”
“Very well. What you say has some merit. But will you answer at least one question for me?”
“If I can. But you get to answer one for me if I’m right.”
“Good. Tell me how the temple fell into the hands of our Captain then. Only a very few are aware of the details and I’m interested in knowing what you know about it.”
“Okay. I’ll try to keep it short. Are you sure you want this?”
“As you wish. You probably know Gardenar wasn’t a temple back then.”
“Then you probably know it was a fortress designed to withstand the universe as the builders conceived of it. Incredibly thick, strong walls reinforced with energy fields and powered by the very energy of the planet. Massive defensive weapons, etcetera.”
“Very short sighted of them if you ask me. A fixed fortress has a number of drawbacks inherent in it.”
“And you took advantage of one of those?”
“In a way. They got into the habit of running for cover whenever the planet was threatened. It became an SOP kind of thing. Large numbers would evacuate to their Ark whenever it rained so to speak.”
Jonnan had to think about that for a while but eventually nodded again.
“I simply arranged for some psychotically violent barbarians to get some spaceships and pointed them at this place. Predictably, large numbers of civilians rushed to cover but the attack was very concentrated and intense and blew through the outer defenses much faster than anticipated so the evacuation became a mob. The strongest made it to safety and the weaker got stuck outside when the attack started.”
“Yes. The stories still talk of the many tens of thousands who died because of the rioting and from being too close when the attack started. This huge waste of life doesn’t bother you?”
It was my turn to shrug and be a bit uncomfortable but it was like I was on automatic. In moments I was over that and back on track. With a confidence I didn’t really feel I continued.
“Not then. Things were… well… different. I’m uncertain I can explain but at the time I was more concerned that the strong who survived to get into the fortress were my men.”
“They didn’t guess or know?”
“As paranoid as they were they still were used to taking in people to keep them safe and they weren’t prepared for the riots. With that much distraction it was easy to get the majority of my men in.”
“And the others who didn’t?”
“Either got out of there or died in the attack.”
He actually seemed shocked for a moment but quickly covered it up.
“With my people inside it was only a matter of time before Gardenar was mine. Actually, the hardest part was making sure we didn’t kill off the ones with the command codes before I was able to extract them.”
“What about the barbarians?”
“I let them destroy themselves on the defenses before I took over. They were very single-minded and were sure that they were on their way to glory anyway. One of them actually managed to crash their ship right into Gardenar. That’s probably what killed most of the people nearby. But head on attacks are not one of the weaknesses of fixed defenses. I was surprised the one got that close. Goes to show what pure blind stubbornness can do.”
Jonnan actually seemed a bit shocked.
“You… You must be one of the coldest…”
For a moment I thought he might actually say more but he got hold of himself and became composed once again.
“But then. That is what was said of our Captain. I must admit. I am nearly convinced myself. But others will certainly question your worthiness and probably claim it was a clever story concocted to convince us without the other tests.”
“Or some other protest. Like I said. I don’t think questions will do it. And to be honest I have to wonder about these tests of yours too. Mind letting me know what I’m in for? I have to warn you right now that a great many physical tests will be useless with me. Besides, I suspect there isn’t any such test that could be trusted anyway. So here’s my question.”
“Yeah. The one I get for answering yours. Remember?”
“I do. If it’s one I can answer I will.”
“Good. Is there any one test you feel will be unquestionable in most people’s eyes?”
“That’s your question?”
He thought about it for several moments and then nodded as if coming to a conclusion.
“Very well then. The one test no candidate has ever passed. One that no one has been willing to attempt for many hundreds of years. The Captain’s Chest.”
“I think I’ve heard it mentioned. What is it?”
“How can you claim to be The Captain and not know about it?”
“Like I said. It’s been a long time. I might know what it is by a different name or it might be something that showed up after I was last here. What does the test involve?”
“It’s simple really. All one has to do is open the Captain’s Chest. It is said to have belonged to The Captain and only she is able to open it. No one in all recorded history has been able to do so except The Captain. Many attempts have been made. It’s said the treasures of a galaxy are held inside it though I have to admit it seems a little small for all that.”
As he talked a picture and history had formed in my mind. Suddenly I had a pretty good idea of what he was talking about. Shortly after I’d taken the fortress I’d arranged for a storage container to be built in the heart of the fortress. I’d used such before and it was made with technology well in advance of anything available in this area of the universe. Whenever the Starstalker moved to a new area to operate she’d have one of these built.
And due to a very clever design it was only accessible by the Starstalker. In it could be found treasures from the history of the universe itself. For some reason the Starstalker had a way of collecting various items of worth even though they didn’t mean a thing to her at the time. Maybe kind of like a magpie or something.
But if this was indeed what was being refereed to as The Captain’s Chest then I could see how it might have become the way to check for authenticity. They wouldn’t even have to rig it like I suspected they rigged any other test. Of course, they had to be relying on the idea that The Captain wouldn’t show up to be able to prove she was who she said she was. It was time I took the lead here.
Jonnan had caught the ‘oh’.
“You now know what I’m speaking of?”
“I think I do. Follow me!”
With that I strode right out of the room and headed for the shuttle. I’d left so quickly that the others had to hurry to catch up. Some of the guards tried to restrain me but I walked right through them, dragging anyone who didn’t have the sense to let go when they realized they couldn’t stop me.
Some had gone so far as to draw weapons when Jonnan barked out an order.
“Leave her alone! Anyone forgetting themselves and attacking her before the tests are complete will be executed on the spot!”
After that they all backed off though I noticed some of them didn’t put away their weapons. I wasn’t moving too fast and Jonnan soon caught up with me.
“You know where we’re going?”
“No one could have removed the container, I mean The Captain’s Chest, from where it was built. I know where that is. If I’m right I should be able to prove to you that I’m this Captain of yours. I’m afraid I’m not a deity though. Will your priesthood survive?”
He thought about it as we walked towards the shuttle area. He motioned me towards a shuttle decked out more than the others and I headed for that. Then he shrugged. “You don’t have to be a deity for us. We’ve learned to take care of ourselves. You don’t mind if we use you do you?”
“I don’t have a problem with it. But you might want to check with your real gods before buying into the ‘we don’t need no stinking gods’ routine.”
“The real gods?”
“Yeah. Like I said. I’ve known a few. Best not to get on their bad sides if you know what I mean.”
“You have gods?”
“Uhh, I’m working on that.”
His words brought back a formless but still powerful dread when I thought of it. Someone had put the Starstalker into motion. And they’d controlled her for a very long time. Did I have a god or gods? It was a question I really hadn’t thought about for a while. My family did believe in God. And I guessed to some extent I did too. But it wasn’t like I’d ever really thought about it before. Shrugging I put it behind me. I had other fish to fry now.
This shuttle, while being decked out more elaborately, was still a basic shuttle and I quickly dialed in the destination I wanted. Soon we were on our way and not long after we arrived where I wanted to be. From this station it was a short walk to the chamber where the container had been built.
The container was fixed spatially and dimensionally. It would take power enough to vaporize the planet and probably disrupt its sun to force it open. And it took a huge amount of power to open up. It was made so as to take that power from me when I opened it. It essentially used my flesh as its power source. Anyone else sticking their hand into the slot where the opening lever was would simply lose whatever they stuck in and since it wouldn’t power the mechanism they would be out of luck. And a hand. Or whatever they used as one. I’d lose one to several in the process depending on how much power it needed. But due to my regeneration abilities it was only a painful inconvenience.
When I entered the room it was obvious some had tried various means to open it. When I’d had it built there had been a ramp which ended at a small platform where the container had been built suspended in the exact middle of the large room. The ramp and platform had been made of solid metals and stone.
The room itself was a 50 by 50 by 50 yard square. The walls and the little rubble that remained of the ramp and platform showed the effects of a great deal of destructive energy. A new armored door had been built in the entrance but it was open when we got there. An honor guard was in position as we approached so they must have gotten some advance notice before I got there.
But all this was unimportant to me now. Seeing the container hanging in the middle of the room brought back another flood of memories and it must have been several long moments before Jonnan was able to get my attention again.
I shook the memories out of my head and brought myself back to the present.
“Sorry. Lots of memories to process. I take it the idea is for me to open the chest?”
“And move it.”
“Can’t be done. Moving it I mean. But I think you’ve figured that out by now.”
He shrugged and nodded. “I believe we can accept simply opening it for now. I trust there is a good reason?”
“Yeah. It’s one of the reasons it can’t be broken into. At least not without destroying the planet. I could try that if you want?”
He blinked and stared at me for a moment as he tried to determine if I was joking or not. Then he shook his head.
“No thank you. Simply opening it will do as well. No one has been able to figure out how. No combination we’ve been able to come up with seems to work. Some have died trying.”
“Sorry to hear that. Well, times a wasting. Stay here.”
With that comment I started up where the ramp used to be. A long time ago I’d learned to look like I was walking normally on the air. A few covert looks as I climbed into the air showed I was having an impact at least on the more common sorts. And I suspected the majority of the others were simply better at concealing their thoughts.
It didn’t take long before I was in front of the container which was about six feet tall and three feet square at the base. It looked like it was gold plated and no evidence of wear could be seen. On the side I was facing were a number of dials, knobs, and buttons. There was also a slot I could stick my hand into with a little room to spare. Inside that was a handle I could grasp.
I stood in front of it for a minute as if I was trying to work up nerve or remember something as I worked out what I was going to do. I proceeded to twist knobs, adjust meters, and push buttons in a random sequence. I figured someone had to be recording this so I made a point of slapping the side of the box three times before reaching into the slot.
I really didn’t want to do this but I didn’t see much of an option that didn’t involve massive casualties. It had been a very long time though and several attempts to open it had been attempted. The comical thought of generations of treasure seekers attempting to follow my lead and pushing buttons and slapping the box down through the millennium was a small condolence as the machine that powered the whole shebang proceeded to disintegrate my hand several times while I tried to keep a straight face.
The slot was small enough so that no one could see what was happening in it. Several moments later Jonnan called up.
Still trying to keep a straight face I called back. “It… it’s a little… little stiff. Just… Just give me a… Crap! A… few moments here!”
“If you can’t.”
“I… I can. Just hold yer water! Ah! There it is!”
The machine had finally gotten its fill and stopped taking my hand off. I took a few deep breaths and squeezed the handle inside the slot. This also required a strong grip. Well above normal strength of grip. Another built in barrier to opening.
I restrained my wince as it took a final bit of my hand to initiate the opening process and then the whole side slowly opened out.
A bright golden glow emanated from the opening. Looking in I was greeted with the odd sight of items of all sizes and shapes floating in a vast expanse extending out of sight. As I looked into the opening a particular item caught my eye and it immediately moved to right in front of me. Without thinking I reached out and picked it up.
It was a tiara consisting of a band of precious metals and gems. Hanging from that were five dull grey crystals that looked oddly out of place attached to such a beautiful band. But I knew that any of those crystals had a value many times more than all the precious materials in the band combined.
It wasn’t too surprising it had caught my eye. I had way too many recent bad memories of the one who’d originally worn it to ever forget the details. This small crown had been made specially for her. Princess Arlon.
The Princess Arlon Velus had been one of the most gifted psychics of the universe’s history. And this tiara had been a great help to her. In fact, the Starstalker had to arrange to steal it first before she could kidnap the Princess.
The grey crystals were the culmination of millennia of psychic research by her people and could amplify her abilities and store energy of huge magnitudes. Only a few had been possible to make and there were five in this piece of jewelry. If she, no, the Starstalker, hadn’t been able to take it first even the totally pacific princess would have been unassailable by anyone but the Starstalker alone. And the Starstalker wouldn’t have been able to do anything but try and hold off the hordes of rescuers coming to the Princess’ aid. Hordes of her own men as well as the people of the planet. It was a treasure beyond price.
Suddenly the cacophony coming from the people watching me broke through my introspection. Looking around I could see a riot going on below me. I realized that even Jonnan couldn’t totally control what was going on as several people tried to find ways to get up to where I was as others tried to prevent them from doing so.
I couldn’t allow them to get into the container. There were other defenses beyond those keeping people out and I really didn’t want to see anyone die just now. I had enough bad memories to last me several hundred lifetimes without adding to them. So I just swung the door shut and punched a few buttons for good measure.
The sudden silence was almost deafening. I looked down to a room floor full of people looking up at me. For the next several moments this was all that happened. Then I broke the silence.
“What are you all looking at? There’s nothing here for you except a nasty death. Now. Jonnan! This good enough for you? I really need to be going you know and I’m getting a bit impatient.”
Everyone turned towards Jonnan. He was one of the few who seemed at least a bit calm. He obviously was thinking of the best way to turn it to his advantage and being the smart guy he was he quickly decided on the best course of action. He extended his arms above his head in a dramatic gesture and boomed out, “ THE CAPTAIN HAS RETURNED! ALL HAIL!”
With that, the majority of the people in the room took up obviously worshipful positions. As I watched I realized there was no way I was going to allow this to go on this way. I could raise my voice too.
“THAT IS ENOUGH! Stop that at once! You will not worship me! I’m not your God! Get up! I have something to tell all of you!”
It took several minutes to bring order back from the chaos but eventually I was able to address a reasonably coherent mob.
“Listen to me. All of you. I am not a God. Don’t make that mistake. I don’t have healing powers, precognition, or a lot of other necessary powers of a godlike being. If you need those things go to your own Gods. Not me. I AM the one you knew as The Captain. And once I led your peoples on many great and terrible campaigns through the stars. But I’m not your God. Nor am I in a position to lead you again at this time. I strongly suggest you find better ways to increase your importance in the universe around you. If you need leadership I suggest you stick to the ones you have and know. Not some stranger from the past. Make your own future and don’t tie your fates to someone who probably doesn’t have your best interests at heart. That is all I have to say for you. Now I need to be going. So, if you don’t mind I’ll be getting back to my ship and heading out.”
I airwalked back to Jonnan and stood in front of him.
“It looks like you have a good thing going here. Don’t blow it by haring off after unrealistic goals. Now I want to go back to my ship. Any problems with that?”
He stood there considering his options for a few moments and then nodded and bowed. A bow of respect but not worship. “Yes Captain. I believe we’ve had enough excitement for this day. Feel free to return to your ship. But are you sure this is what you want to do? With a little help I could have this entire part of space worshiping you.”
“I’m sure you could. But I don’t see anything good coming from that action. All we’d end up with is one big war after another with no assurance we’d win in the end. Just having me back in the attention of the people of the galaxy will be enough excitement I think for anyone right now. Use that to your advantage and who knows how far you’ll go.”
“Indeed Captain. Wise words. You have changed haven’t you?”
“More than you know. More than you know. Now. How about an escort out of here? I really need to be getting back to the shuttle before it leaves.”
“Of course. Make way for The Captain!”
With Jonnan running interference I was soon out of the fortress and back in the shuttle of my bodyguards and heading for the spaceport. Everyone seemed unwilling to talk to me so it was a quiet trip. Figuring it would be easier all around I put my hood back up and drew very little attention as we boarded and rode the shuttle back towards the station.
In what seemed like no time I was back in Yuki and trying to get ready to go.
“Is everything okay Captain?”
“Yes Yuki. It’s all okay. But I think we need to get out of here as soon as possible. I don’t think things will stay calm much longer and I want to get out of here before things hit the fan.”
“Very well Captain. We are ready to launch anytime. I’m requesting permission to undock right now.”
“Good! It’s high time we got out of here and on the way back home. Say, Yuki?”
“How long have we been gone?”
“Uh. How long since we left Earth?”
“Approximately seven days Earth time.”
The fact that he’d actually approximated said a lot about what he’d learned about dealing with me. But seven days?!?
Suddenly I felt anxious. I hadn’t realized how long I’d been gone and now I had to get back. What was everyone going to say? Had anyone even noticed I was gone? What could I say and how would I explain what had happened to me?
I was so caught up in my worries I didn’t notice at first that there was a problem. Looking up I realized that Yuki was arguing with someone.
“Control. Can you please advise why the docking clamps are not releasing?”
“We are sorry Yukinojo. But there is a problem with your clearance. Someone from the planet is demanding a chance to talk with your captain before we can allow you to leave.”
“Can you give us more details?”
“I’m sorry Yukinojo but we aren’t authorized to. However, we are receiving a broadcast from the planet. They want us to patch them through. Will you take this call?”
Yuki had become aware that I was paying attention and was asking permission. I nodded my head.
“Initiating visual communications. Transmission from planet received.”
A screen appeared before me and in moments I was looking into the face of a less than pleased Jonnan. He wasted no time and started yelling.
“What did you do!?”
Putting my most innocent face on, I replied. “I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“The Fortress! What did you do!? The control systems have gone totally haywire! The AI will not respond to commands! What did you do?”
I took a few moments to consider my response and then smiled.
“Not much. Really. What could I do? I don’t have the current codes and my old ones didn’t work. I know. I did try them out.”
“You did do something! Most of the system has become totally unresponsive and according to the computers we installed to help with the failing system it all started when you accessed the AI. How did you do that anyway? To the best of our knowledge you never had access to any of our active interfaces.”
“Oh That. Well, I guess you should know that any of the old interfaces are capable of accessing the AI. You just have to go about it the right way. Apparently you’ve forgotten how to do that.”
Now that we were talking Jonnan was getting a grip on his emotions and the communications were dropping in volume and stress.
“Many of the command codes have been lost as well as a lot of the knowledge about how to use them.”
“I could tell. I’d say you were lucky if thirty or forty percent of the system had been operational.”
“Twenty three percent. We’ve been supplementing with our own computers.”
“Ah! That explains it. Well, I think you’ll find Gardenar working a lot better in the future.”
“What did you do?”
“I just released the AI from its controls.”
“I actually didn’t have any command codes that worked. They’d all been changed. But I did have one command I was pretty sure no one else had. It was the release code for the AI. The AI couldn’t operate without the codes and as a result it and the fortress were falling apart. All I did was release it from its restrictions so that it could repair itself without having to have the commands.”
My innocence apparently wasn’t reassuring him any. If anything, the red complexion of his face indicated he might be having some blood pressure issues. After a few gasps he finally said something coherent.
“You… You had a release for the AI? You released the AI? Do you have any idea what you’ve done!?”
I was a little tired of playing the innocent. But I still remained calm.
“Actually, I think I have a better idea than most of you would believe. And since what’s done is done I suggest you get your act together and develop a plan to talk to the AI. By now I suspect careful persuasion is your best bet. And think of it. If you can come to good terms with Gardenar you’ll have one of the most powerful friends on the planet.”
“No! You come back here and fix it! It’s your fault!”
“Sorry Charlie. It’s your problem now. I’m late and I’ve got to get going. I wish you the best with your new friend.”
“No! You ca…”
Yuki cut the feed and the screen went blank and then disappeared back to where it had originally come from.
“C’mon Yuki. Let’s blow this hamburger stand.”
“Yes Captain. However, the clamps are not being released.”
“Is this a problem?”
“No Captain. Disengaging from clamps now.”
Outside, where several station police were gathering, they got a front row seat to the sight of a courier ship suddenly turn silver and then flow out of the docking harness. By the time they could fully register what was happening the now oval ship had quickly accelerated away from the station and out into the depths of space.
Ignoring the repeated threats from the station and surrounding space I opened the throttles as far as I could and still retain good control. Soon we were well beyond any chance of pursuit. There were a few attempts to cut us off from getting out of the more mass filled areas but these were easy to avoid once we were in space. Soon we were outside the lens and able to really pour on the gas.
to be continued