Space Pioneer


by Dolores Esteban




I

01

Joining the Space Community

The spaceship shook heavily and then it kind of jumped in space. Jeff was thrown through his room and hit the wall hard. He fell to the floor and lost conscience at once.

When he awoke, the lights had gone out and the alarms were ringing. Jeff stirred. His whole body hurt. He cautiously moved his limbs. His left leg was injured and the small finger of his left hand was dislocated, but as far as he could tell no bones were broken. Jeff rose to his feet and for a second stood, feeling disoriented, but then he remembered the impact. Something had hit the spaceship. An asteroid that the sensors had not detected? They were close to Mars, three more days until joining orbit. Jeff had a feeling that the mission had failed. The realization activated him. He hit a button and shouted into the intercom. Nobody responded.

Jeff hit another button. The door of the room slid open and Jeff exhaled in relief. The emergency systems were working properly. Jeff entered the hallway and saw a body sprawled on the floor. Derek Spencer, the engineer, was lying in a puddle of blood. Jeff made a step towards him, but one look sufficed to tell him that the man was dead. Jeff felt as if a hand was compressing his heart. He fought down the panic and hurried to the cockpit where two astronauts were supposed to monitor the computer systems. Jeff had only just ended his shift and gone to his room, when something had hit the small spaceship.

Jeff entered the cockpit. The pilots were strapped to their seats, but none of them did move. Gordon Lockwood’s eyes were wide open, yet broken. Jeff saw that the man was dead. Mark Emerson, the co-pilot sat upright, his hand reached out towards the console. Jeff realized the man had activated the intercom in order to probably send off an emergency call to Earth. Mark stirred in his seat and his eyelids flickered. Jeff bowed down and spoke to him, but the man did not respond. Then the man’s head dropped forward. Jeff’s heart was pounding fast. He was the last man on board and he had no idea what had happened. Jeff checked the intercom. It was dead.

Only now did Jeff raise his eyes and see that the lid of the front window was open. He gasped in shock at the sight of another spaceship that was ten times the size of his vessel. The outward lights of the foreign spaceship were turned on and blinking red. Had they collided with the foreign ship? Jeff was barely able to manage a coherent thought. Who had built the big spaceship? The Russians or the Chinese? Jeff was staring at the ship. A crackling noise from the intercom interrupted his thoughts. Jeff pressed a button.

“Houston?” he called out.

A computer voice answered in broken English. Jeff didn’t understand a word.

“Damn. Can’t you get out a proper message?” he shouted, but then forced himself to calm down.

Did the message come from the foreign spaceship? Did they want to make contact with him?

“Hold on,” the computer voice said.

There was a long silence. Jeff was close to panic, but then his survival instincts kicked in and  again he forced himself to calm down. The other ship was his only chance. Jeff looked at the two dead men, then willfully turned his eyes away. He grabbed a headset.

“This is Jeff Caspar, first officer of the Daidalos. This is an emergency call,” he said.

“Hold on,” the computer voice replied. “We’re trying to establish a better connection.”

“Roger,” Jeff answered, staring at the ship.

He pulled his eyes away and started checking on his ship. He realized it was severely damaged. The main system was out, but the emergency system was running. Jeff was looking at the displays.

“The oxygen level is going down,” he said.

The intercom crackled again and the computer voice answered. “We’re still working on the connection. Status updates required.”

Jeff wondered why it took so long to establish a connection, but then he decided to better do what they wanted.  He reported to the foreign spaceship.

“Understood,” the voice said. “We’re taking over your ship in short. Hold on.”

“What?” Jeff asked.

He straightened and looked at the foreign ship. Were they able to seize control of his ship? Jeff sensed a shiver running down his spine and blocked out a sudden fear. Now was not the time for fearful thoughts. Jeff focused on the controls instead. Suddenly, a few controls went on and the display changed.

“This is Captain Lest, speaking from the Horus,” a voice said. “I’m communicating with you through our computer intercom. We’ve established a connection.”

Jeff tensed and once again stared at the spaceship.

“We’re in control of your ship. We’ll pull it into our cargo bay. Get ready for getting off the ship,” the foreign captain said.

“Copy that. Getting ready for getting off my ship,” Jeff answered. “I’ll be putting on a pressure suit and will be going to the aft hatch. I should be able to open the hatch  manually.”

“Don’t take any weapons with you,” the captain said. “Contact us once you’re ready. The intercom should work properly now.”

“Copied. Over,” Jeff said.

He looked out of the window. The sight had changed. The foreign spaceship looked even bigger now. Jeff realized they were pulling the Daidalos towards their ship. Jeff pulled his headset off and  took a deep breath. He turned around, glanced at the two dead men and then hurried out of the cockpit to the room where the pressure suits were stored. It took him some time to put a suit on. His body hurt like hell. The dislocated finger was a minor trouble, but something was definitely wrong with his leg. Finally, he had managed to put on the suit. He put on his helmet, attached it to the suit and activated the life system. Jeff sensed another rush of panic, but managed to fight it down. He double checked the suit and then moved to the aft hatch. He activated his helmet intercom.

“Horus? This is Jeff Caspar on the Daidalos. I’m ready to disembark,” he said.

“We have pulled your ship in and secured it. The hatch of our ship is closed and we have established a gravity field. Open the hatch of your ship and move out slowly,” the foreign captain said.

“Copied. Opening the hatch now and getting off the ship,” Jeff replied.

He moved towards the hatch and activated the system that would open it. The system was connected with the main system but could also draw current from a battery. A small hatch opened and revealed a plug connection. Jeff reached out and cautiously pressed a button. It was not easy with the glove, but he had trained the operation. The aft hatch started to open.

Jeff moved forward, but stopped in the opening and looked out. The cargo bay of the foreign ship looked gigantic. It was empty, however. Jeff saw neither cargo containers nor men. He stood for a moment until he realized that they had pushed a ramp to the ship. Jeff walked down slowly, his arms raised to indicate he that didn’t carry a weapon. When he had reached the ground, five men came forward with guns in their hands. They were dressed in gray overalls. Black helmets concealed their faces. Jeff stopped and looked at them, his heart pounding faster. One man stepped towards him. Jeff’s intercom crackled.

“Welcome on board of the Horus, commander Caspar. I’m Captain Lest. We must speak through our computer intercom for the time being because of the different languages. This should change soon, however. Please follow me. I will take you to the sick bay. My men will enter your ship and check on the crew members. I trust you don’t object,” he said.

“Sure,” Jeff replied. “My thanks for coming for my help.”

He felt his reply was somewhat short and inadequate, but once out of the ship, he was close to collapse. He realized he was severely injured. Jeff couldn’t suppress a tremble. The foreign captain realized the state Jeff was in and waved his hand. A vehicle approached, steered by a crew member. Captain Lest pointed at the vehicle that looked like a golf cart. Jeff climbed in.

“He’ll take you to sick bay. I will join you there in short,” Captain Lest said.

Jeff just gave a nod. His helmet seemed to weigh tons. He closed his eyes, but forced them open again. He wanted to see the foreign ship and where they were taking him to.

***

Jeff awoke, feeling disoriented for a few seconds, but then reality kicked in. He tried to sit up, but found he was strapped to a bed. Jeff turned his head left and right and saw what looked like hospital equipment.

The door of the room opened. Jeff tried in vain to sit up. He lifted his head. Two men had entered the room. They were dressed in gray overalls, but didn’t wear helmets. Jeff realized they had taken off his own helmet as well. He took a breath. The two men were looking at him. One of them turned to a display, while the other continued watching Jeff. Then the two of them spoke with each other in a language Jeff didn’t understand, not even the speech melody was familiar to him. They didn’t look neither Chinese nor Russian. Their skin was pale and their hair was blond. Scandinavians? Jeff wondered.

The man turned away from the display and approached Jeff. He reached out his hand and touched Jeff’s left ear. Jeff turned his head aside and struggled. The other man said something and raised his hand in a calming gesture. Jeff turned his eyes and looked at the man next to his bed. The man reached out his hand with his palm up. Jeff saw a clip on it. The man held it against his own ear and pointed at his mouth. Jeff didn’t grasp the signs, but decided to lay still. He closed his eyes The clip was attached to his ear. Jeff lay motionless, his muscles tensed.

“Again, welcome on the Horus. I’m Captain Lest,” one of the men said.

Jeff opened his eyes. The two men looked at him and then exchanged a glance.

“It seems it doesn’t work, doctor,” the man at the end of Jeff’s bed said.

“It must work. I can’t detect a malfunction,” the doctor replied and looked at a display in his hand.

Jeff looked between them. “What is it? A translator device?” he asked.

The men gave him astonished looks.

“Well, yes, but since you didn’t reply, we thought it was not working properly,” the captain replied.

 “Sorry,” Jeff said. “I don’t feel well. Captain Lest?” he asked, looking at the man at the end of his bed.

The man gave a nod.

“Once again my sincerest thanks for getting me on board of your ship. It was a last minute rescue. I’m in your debt,” Jeff said.

The man smiled briefly, then grew serious again. “It was not a last minute rescue, but it was close to one. You’re not in my debt, however. We have caused this accident. Your fellow crew members are dead. I’m very sorry about it. This should not have happened.”

Jeff swallowed. The memories were back. He stirred, but couldn’t move his body. Captain Lest made a sign to the doctor and the man unstrapped Jeff.

“You may sit up, but you must not get out of the bed. Your leg was severely hurt. It’s on the mend, but you need to stay here for another day or two,” the doctor said.

Jeff sat up and tried to move his leg. “Well, it seems that it is all right,” he replied.

“Ligament ruptures and an incomplete bone fracture,” the doctor said.

“I don’t think so,” Jeff said, pulling his knee up.

The doctor gave him a puzzled look. “Well, yes, you’ve been sleeping for thirty-six hours and the  nano bots were working all the time, but the injuries require at least fifty hours in bed. Your system is unknown and we better monitor it longer than usual,” he said.

Jeff was gazing at the man.

“Midad, the man has no idea of our healing systems, I guess,” Captain Lest said with a little smile on his lips.

Midad looked up from his display. “Oh, I forgot. They’re a class C species according to the lists.”

“What are you talking about?” Jeff asked in confusion. “I would have suspected that only the Russians or the Chinese were able to build a spaceship. Where do you come from?”

The men exchanged a look.

“I’m Daglon,” Captain Lest said.

The captain fixed his eyes on Jeff and Jeff stared at the alien captain. Panic was seizing Jeff again and this time he wasn’t able to block out his fear. His mind was filled with horrifying pictures of aliens from space, albeit Captain Lest didn’t look like one of them. He looked more like a human man. Jeff opened his lips, but didn’t say a word.

Captain Lest was smiling. “I see that reality has caught up with you. Let me tell you what happened,” he said. Captain Lest sat down in a chair and looked at Jeff.

“My ship, the Horus, is a warship,” the captain started. It got a few hard shots and we decided to run. Well, actually we didn’t run, but we just hit the buttons and jumped to some unknown place in space. We found ourselves in your solar system, close to the planet that you call Mars. Our engines were damaged and we were orbiting around Mars until they were repaired. This done, we decided to leave your solar system before being detected by Earth. As soon as we had pulled up from the gravity well, we initiated the jump drive. Unfortunately, our external sensors were also defect and that was why we didn’t detect your small vessel. We jumped in space and pulled your ship with us. We’re currently in open space, 8,000 light years - your unit of measurement - away from the planet Earth.”

Jeff’s head sank back. He gazed at the ceiling, processing the words he had heard. Captain Lest didn’t push him. He waited patiently until Jeff turned his eyes to him. Captain Lest looked at him gravely.

“I think you’re the first human in outer space, my congratulations on this, albeit the circumstances are sad,” he said.

“I need to take my dead comrades home,” Jeff said in a pressed voice. “They deserve a proper funeral.” He couldn’t suppress the tears that were coming to his eyes.

Captain Lest watched him quietly. He stood and gave Jeff a nod. “We will continue our talk later.”

Captain Lest left the room. Doctor Midad turned to his displays and entered a command. An instant later, Jeff felt sleepy and tired. Sedatives, he thought. He wondered how they did it without needles and tubes, but before he could finish his thoughts, he had fallen asleep.

*** 

Jeff felt calm and a little detached when he woke again. He pondered on the captain’s words. 8,000 light years from Earth. Jeff had no illusions. They wouldn’t take him nor his dead comrades home. He wondered where they would take him to. He was the first human in outer space and it seemed that all the stories he had laughed at in the past were entirely true. Aliens abducted humans to study them. They had not killed him off right away, but instead had saved him and taken his ship.

Jeff gave a bitter laugh. His ship was useless to them. He was convinced that the Daidalos, an ultra-modern spaceship, the pride of his nation, was just a can, an archaic vessel in the eyes of  the aliens. Jeff compressed his lips. He had loved his ship and he had felt proud to be part of the mission. The trip to Mars had been an enormous risk, but he had been willing to take it. They had told him that the journey could well turn into a one-way trip. He had been aware of it and he would have died for the mission, not in order to get his name into the history books, but because the mission had felt like a step into the future and Jeff had been proud to be a part of it. His comrades had died an honorable death, whereas he had ended up in the alien’s lab. Jeff felt totally cheated.

His unstable condition didn’t go unnoticed. The doctor set him to sleep again. His physical injuries had already healed, but they kept him in sick bay and constantly monitored him. The doctor analyzed Jeff’s bodily functions and his system with the help of specialized computer programs. The human species was not entirely different from many other species in the universe and they were in fact not much different from the Daglon. The bodily functions were similar, the appearance was almost identical, both species breathed oxygen, albeit slightly different concentrations, but so far their passenger coped well with the oxygen level on board. The doctor monitored Jeff and presented his observations to the captain.

“The nano bots healed his body, but his mental condition is bad,” he said.

Captain Lest nodded. He looked out of a window into outer space, before turning back to the doctor.

“He’s lost in space. He’s aware he will never return home,” he said. “I would take him back, if I could, but you know it’s not possible. While I’m not with the Alliance, I agree with them on this point. Never introduce class C species to the space community prematurely. It will only end up in a disaster. It did so in the past. No, we can’t take him back. He would tell them about us. You can anticipate the humans’ reaction.”

“From what we have found out about the species, I know that C species tend to believe that aliens abduct them in order to analyze them in their labs,” the doctor said. “Typical class C beliefs. Superstitious, religious, fearful creatures, but striving at overall power.”

“War is also part of our world,” Captain Lest said.

“As an exception. The exception proves the rule,” the doctor replied.

Lest smiled slightly. “Our warship is not the only one in space,” he said.

“Well, yes,” Midad admitted. “But only class C species throw nuclear bombs on a planet they have traveled to under great hardship. Imagine they would detect the jump drive prematurely.”

“Space jumping doesn’t go unnoticed,” Lest said. “As soon as a species begins experimenting with it, they are secretly monitored by the Alliance. Ultimately, they are approached by the Alliance. Those who do not concur, won’t last long. I agree with the Alliance on it.”

“Well, why have we split up with the Alliance then?” Midad asked.

“Because I don’t like how they step away from guardianship to political authority,” Lest answered.

There was a brief silence.

“Why did you take that human on board?” Midad asked finally.

“We killed three of his comrades. He was the only survivor. Should I have let him behind on his ship? Who am I to sentence an innocent to death?” Lest asked.

“I must change his sedatives in order to change his mental state,” the doctor replied.

He turned to leave the bridge. Lest looked after him.

“Wait,” he called out.

Midad turned back to him.

“He’s homesick. He’s grieving. We need to occupy him. We must give him something to do, so that his heart can heal. He was on a risky mission that could have well led him to death.  He’s not only courageous. He’s curious also. He’s an explorer, willing to step into the unknown, a space pioneer,” Lest said. “I think we might use his talents.”

Midad raised an eyebrow. “Class C, Captain. Do not forget. He might throw a nuclear bomb at you, if only metaphorically.”

The captain looked out of the window into outer space, turning his back to Midad.  “I’ll find him a task, something he can do, so that he can slowly get accustomed to his future. He must learn to deal with the unknown he stepped into,” he said.

“I have a feeling you want to step into the unknown yourself. Hopefully, this will not turn into a disaster,” Midad said drily before leaving the bridge.

Captain Lest didn’t reply. He found that outer space offered endless opportunities and he sensed a thrill of excitement. He rubbed his hands and then turned to go to sick bay.

***


02

Jeff was lying in his bed, gazing at the ceiling, when the captain entered his room. Lest looked at him and smiled.

“Doctor Midad told me you’re all right. I think it’s about time you leave sick bay,” he said.

Jeff sat up, but didn’t give a reply. Lest gave him another smile.

“How about you clean up and get dressed, Jeff Caspar? I would like to show you around on my ship.”

This announcement finally aroused Jeff’s interest. He straightened and looked around for his clothes. He was wearing kind of pajamas, hospital clothing.

Captain Lest pointed at a pile of clothes on a chair. “The doctor had to cut off your clothes, but I ordered to bring garments, a ship overall and boots to your room,” he said.

Jeff looked at the clothes. “Well, I’m going to the bathroom, if you care to wait, captain,” he said.

“Take your time,” Lest replied, turning to a display.

Jeff grabbed the pile of clothes and went into the bathroom. It was small but provided with a shower that Jeff had already used. He rinsed his mouth with the liquid that was supposed to clean his teeth. A couple of minutes later, he reentered the room. Lest looked up from the display.

“Ready to go?” he asked, pointing at the door.

Jeff nodded. He adjusted the clip on his ear. The tool was great, although sometimes the translation was awkward. Some words were clearly out of context, but so far Jeff had gotten the meaning of what the captain and the doctor had said. He had noticed that neither of them had a clip on the ear and he wondered how they understood him.

The door slid open and Lest stepped into the corridor. Jeff followed him. The smell in the hallway was the typical aircraft smell, not exactly stale, but clearly artificial and recycled. They walked down the hallway, up a staircase and entered a room.

“The lounge area and the galley,” Lest explained.

Jeff saw tables and comfortable looking couches and chairs. A counter was to his right. Lest pointed at it.

“We’ll have a meal after our tour through the ship. I understood that so far you have fed on liquids,” he said.

“Correct,” Jeff replied. The liquids had not tasted bad and Jeff had refrained from asking what they were made of, but the prospect of a real meal sounded good to him. “This would be a delight, I think,” he said.

Lest smiled briefly, then walked on. He led Jeff to the cargo bay. The Daidalos was there, moved to the rear and secured. Jeff swallowed at the sight.

“Can I go on board of my ship?” he asked.

Lest gave a nod. “Sure, commander,” he said. “We have removed the bodies.”

“Where are they?” Jeff asked, turning his eyes to the captain.

“They are in preservation caskets in a room of the ship,” Lest said.

“What will you do with them?” Jeff asked.

“No decision taken yet,” Lest replied. He pointed at the Daidalos. “Do you want to go on board and retrieve your personal items?”

Jeff nodded. He walked to the ship and entered it. Lest followed him, but remained standing by the hatch.

“Take your time, commander,” he said sympathetically, aware that this was probably the last time Jeff visited his ship.

Jeff moved through the ship. He stopped every now and then and touched an item. He had loved the Daidalos. Back on Earth, they probably thought that the ship was lost and the men were dead. Jeff felt a lump in his throat, but then he straightened. It was about time to get back to professional. Soldiers died in war, seamen drowned and astronauts got lost in space. The aliens had rescued him, after all. Sooner or later he would find a way home, but for the time being, his life depended on the alien crew and their ship. He better got acquainted with the alien technology. Jeff  refrained from taking along anything. He felt he needed to make a step forward and not a step back. He left his room and went back to the hatch. Lest was awaiting him. He looked at Jeff’s empty hands and gave him a questioning look.

“My life has changed drastically. I have acknowledged the fact,” Jeff said.

A smile spread on the captain’s lips and for the first time he looked warmly at his passenger. Jeff noticed the change. He smiled back at the captain.

“I need something to do,” he said.

Lest nodded. “I’m glad you’re willing to contribute. In fact, I have a task for you.”

“What can I do?” Jeff asked in surprise.

They were crossing the cargo bay.

“The clip on your ear is a translation device,” Lest said. “It’s working, but it’s not working properly.”

Jeff nodded. “How does it work anyway?” he asked. “I see you don’t wear a clip.”

“No,” Lest said. “I have a neural implant. It is a must in the space business. It simplifies the matter a lot.”

Jeff gave Lest a stunned look. Lest smiled briefly. He led Jeff  back to the galley and showed him how to retrieve a meal. Lest handed him a tablet. Jeff saw something that looked like a burger meal. Jeff couldn’t hold back and smelled at it. Lest pointed at the lounge. They sat down at a table. Jeff took a bite and nodded.

“Not bad,” he said. “Now what do you want me to do, Captain Lest?” he asked.

“We connected with your ship when you got stranded, but it wasn’t easy,” Lest said.

“The computer voice,” Jeff replied.

“Yes, our computer was trying to speak in your language, but we didn’t have a language module installed. Naturally,” Lest said. “Your language has not yet been added to the language cloud that’s being used in this part of the universe.”

Jeff gave Lest a questioning look.

“Most people nowadays have a neural implant. It’s connected to the language cloud and receives automatic updates. Thus we can communicate without much delay. We understand each other regardless what language we speak,” Lest explained.

Jeff was fascinated. “How did your computer figure out my language so quickly?” he asked.

“We had been orbiting Mars for a couple of days and we were receiving Earth’s transmissions. We were not interested in them. They were just a by-product, supposed to being stored only temporarily. We noticed your ship shortly after we had completed the jump and quickly identified it as an archaic vessel,” Lest said.

Jeff grimaced, but didn’t say anything.

“Sorry,” Lest said with a small smile. “We figured what had happened and had our computer analyze your planet’s transmissions in order to sequence the language and provide a communication tool.”

“It was done fast,” Jeff said. “How did you do it?”

“Quantum technology,” Lest replied. “That’s how you would describe it, but of course there’s more to it. Well, luckily, we were able to connect with your ship and communicate with you. Our computer has meanwhile worked on improving the module. The translation, however, is rough. I want you to work on it, Jeff Caspar. Refine it before we upload your language to the cloud and it becomes part of the acknowledged languages spoken in space.”

Jeff looked intrigued. There was something he could do. “I’d be happy to help with it,” he said.

“Fine,” Lest replied. “Come, I will show you to your room in the crew’s quarters. No need to go back to sick bay. You can work from your room. You don’t have permission to enter the engine rooms and the deck, of course. I hope you do understand. After all, you’re an alien on board of my ship.”

Jeff’s lips opened slightly, but then he gave a nod. Lest was right. From the captain’s perspective Jeff was the alien on board of the ship.

Lest showed Jeff to his room. It reminded Jeff of his room in the training center on Earth. The familiar sight and the memory depressed him, but he pushed the feeling aside. Lest showed him a console.

“You can log in here to the language module. The computer has generated a couple of learning sessions. It’s interactive,” Lest said. He seized a headset and handed it to Jeff. “Put it on and don’t take off the clip. The computer will communicate with you and thus will refine the vocabulary and so on.”

Jeff sat down and put the headset on. Lest introduced him into the program.

“It would be more efficient with a neural implant, but you must work with the headset for the time being,” he said.

Jeff looked up. “You mean there’s a chance I could get an implant?” he asked.

Lest measured him. “Would you like to get one?” he asked.

“Well, I guess so,” Jeff replied. “I’m new to space, but I can’t imagine I will ever be elsewhere. I want to stay in the space business, I guess.”

Lest gave a laugh. “We’ll see, Jeff Caspar. You can’t get an implant on board of my ship. We’d have to stop by on a planet with a medical center, but you won’t get the implant for free,”  he said.

“In this case I must work with the clip, if you can spare it, that is. I’m a shipwreck and don’t have any money with me,” Jeff said.

Lest smiled. “We don’t have money. We work with credits mostly. Let’s see how you can deal with the language module. I could imagine I’ll cover the costs,” he said.

“You would?” Jeff asked. “Why so, captain?”

“Good question,” Lest replied. “I guess I feel responsible for you. I don’t just want to throw you out on some random planet. I want you to find a job.”

Lest broadened his smile. Jeff was wondering why the captain was interested in his well-being. His thoughts apparently showed on his face. Lest patted Jeff’s shoulder, then turned away and left the room.

Jeff adjusted his headset and started working with the language program. The computer had generated a few lessons based on the transmissions from Earth. The computer voice read text to him and asked Jeff to correct it. It was a tedious work, but Jeff struggled through. A couple of hours later, the computer fastened up. It showed Jeff pictures and as soon as Jeff’s brain had found a word for the displayed item, the next picture appeared on the screen. The images soon got more complex. Jeff understood. The computer was learning context. It was way in the evening when Jeff had enough. He took off his headset and wiped his eyes. His stomach was rumbling. He hesitated, but then he left his room and set out for the galley.

He spotted two crew members in the lounge area. Their talk stopped at Jeff’s entrance and the men eyed him suspiciously. Jeff moved to the counter and examined the computer menu. The words of the meals were written in an unknown language. Daglon, Jeff assumed. He didn’t know which button to press.

“Can I help you?” a man asked.

Jeff turned around. The two men had approached the counter. Like Captain Lest and Doctor Midad, they had also pale skin and blond hair. Jeff found the crew members looked much alike, but this was probably just because he was not familiar with their ethnic group. Nonsense, Jeff thought. They looked human and reminded him of Scandinavians, but they were in fact aliens.

“Yes, I’d appreciate it. I can’t read the words,” he said.

“What would you like to eat?” the man asked.

“A sandwich perhaps,” Jeff replied.

The men eyed him in confusion. The word sandwich had apparently not yet made it to the computer’s database. Jeff thought of the lessons. The computer had shown him the picture of a barbecue.

“A steak would be good also,” he said.

“I’m certain we’ve got the other thing you wanted, but unfortunately I have no clear idea of it, but if you don’t mind eating a steak, well, here it is,” the Daglon man said.

He pressed a button. A minute later a flap opened. Jeff took the tablet and looked at the plate. The steak went along with a green salad and a vegetable that looked like a potato. Jeff was stunned.

“Thank you very much,” he said.

“You’re welcome,” the man replied.

The Daglon men left the lounge area. Jeff looked after them. He couldn’t blame them for being reserved. Captain Lest’s ship was much bigger than the Daidalos, but so far Jeff hadn’t seen many crew members. He wondered how many men were on board. Jeff finished his meal and returned to his room.

The following morning started like the previous evening had ended. Jeff was alone in the galley, wondering how he could get the breakfast he liked. Doctor Midad entered the room. Jeff smiled at him and asked his help, but the doctor just stared at him. He measured Jeff from head to toe, a strange expression on his face, an almost frown. Jeff was taken aback. What had happened to the man? He behaved as if he didn’t remember him and was about to give an alarm that he had just spotted an alien in the galley. Finally, Doctor Midad straightened and smiled a forced smile.

“Can I help you?” he asked.

Jeff told him what he wanted, but refrained from any small talk as the doctor was apparently not in the mood for it. The man had already left the galley when the flap opened and revealed Jeff’s meal. Jeff ate quickly and then returned to his room. Were the good times already over? Jeff worried. He didn’t feel much inclined to work with the language program, but finally he forced himself to continue. The computer had rearranged the lessons. Text and pictures followed in quick succession. Jeff had to fully concentrate.

***


03

Lest and Doctor Midad were alone on the bridge. The spaceship was floating in space on autopilot.

“No mistake, doctor?” Lest asked with an inquisitive look.

“No mistake,” Midad replied. “I’ve double checked the results. I’ve actually checked them four times. No doubt, captain. His DNA is 85% Daglon.”

Lest was pacing the bridge. He stopped and turned to Doctor Midad.

“How can it be?” he asked.

“I was surprised how well his body reacted to the medication. The nano bots worked well without any modifications necessary. His body functions, his system, his physical appearance are almost identical. I was surprised, but didn’t suspect anything. We know that evolution follows the same three or four paths throughout the universe,” Midad replied.

“You said earlier that Jeff’s system is used to a different oxygen level,” Lest said.

“It was, but his system has adjusted meanwhile. The human body can adjust to thinner air, like for instance in the mountains,” Midad said.

Lest wiped his chin and realized he needed a shave. “He needs to shave more often than the Daglon, I noticed,” he said.

Midad smiled. “I didn’t notice this and I don’t think it counts as a major difference,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“People were speculating,” Midad said.

“What kind of speculations?” Lest asked.

“About 45,000 years ago, our Daglon ancestors left the planet Seth. Their destination was Alpha Centauri. The Seth had built a long-distance spaceship, a conventional multigenerational spacecraft. 10,000 settlers set out for Daglon. They arrived several generations later. Their number had dropped to 6,000, but the number sufficed to develop a new civilization. The Daglon elders said that they received a message from Seth soon after their arrival on Daglon. Regarding the speed of light, it must have been sent off six centuries earlier. It was sent before Seth sank into chaos and finally was destroyed. The message revealed that another spaceship had left the planet,” Midad said.

Lest nodded and Midad continued.

“The political and economical elite planned to leave Seth and immigrate to Daglon where the first colonists had settled earlier,” he said. “They built a huge evacuation spaceship. However, they had hesitated too long. The sun Betelgeuse erupted and expanded. There was anarchy and chaos when people finally realized what was going to happen. It was a classical drop back in civilization. Our ancestors were a class C species by our standards. They started killing each other off. The end came ultimately. Betelgeuse swallowed the planet.”

“And what about the speculations you mentioned?” Lest asked.

“We know the Daglon received a message from Seth. It’s stated in our oldest history books. The message mentioned the other spaceship. It had been captured by a group of scientists, men and women. They had fled with the ship. The Daglon waited a long time for this ship to arrive. Six generations went by, but the ship didn’t show up. They finally declared the ship lost in space and ended the wait,” Midad replied. He looked at Lest. “The public has almost forgotten about the Daglon past. Historians, however, have never stopped speculating on what happened ages ago. Some say that the ship’s crew never intended to go to Daglon. The captain of the ship was an experienced pilot and engineer. His name was Re. He was a renowned man. Many historians have speculated that he flew the ship to a well-chosen planet.”

“You always surprise me with your level of education,” Lest said with an acknowledging look.

The hint of a smile showed on Midad’s lips. “Thank you, captain,” he said.

Lest nodded thoughtfully. “You mean the second spaceship reached Earth?” he asked. “A somewhat exciting discovery if it were true. What do you think, doctor? Is it?”

“I’m not sure, captain,” Midad replied. “The Daglon are clearly a class A species, while the humans are clearly class C.”

Lest raised an eyebrow. “Why are you so skeptical, doctor? You have no trust in the humans,” he said.

“No, I have not,” Midad confirmed. “I’ve listened to Earth’s transmissions that our computer has saved while we were orbiting Mars. The humans remind me of our ancestors. At the point of crisis, our ancestors dropped back to a primitive state. They turned to murder and manslaughter. They had already killed each other long before Betelgeuse swallowed the planet.”

“The Seth were our ancestors, after all, doctor,” Lest said.

“This scares me sometimes,” Midad replied. He paused. “How shall we proceed, captain?”

Lest thought a minute. “We won’t tell Jeff anything for the time being, doctor. Let’s see how he deals with the language program and how he copes with life on an alien spaceship. We can’t take him back to Earth. Imagine what would happen if we did. His future lies in space. He will meet many unknown life forms. Good for him, if he can adept. He won’t last long, if he can’t,” he said.

“Yes, captain,” Midad replied. “We must remain cautious. Don’t promote him because of his genetic profile and don’t promote him for personal reasons.”

“Would I? Why do you think so?” Lest asked.

“Am I mistaken?” Midad asked back. “You have a personal interest in his well-being.”

Lest narrowed his eyes. “Yes, in fact, I have,” he admitted finally. “However, I am the captain of a Daglon warship in the first place. I won’t endanger my ship and my crew. And I won’t endanger my home planet, although I have not been to Daglon for years and have split up with the Alliance. We’re on our own in space, doctor.”

“This is not exactly new,” Midad replied. “By the way, we ought to visit one of the trade planets. We’re running out of credits, captain.”

“I know. We’re close to Cyrus. Just a two-day trip from here. Cyrus has also a medical center where Jeff can get his neural implant,” Lest said.

 “An implant would indeed simplify communications, but who will pay for it?” Midad asked.

“That would be me,” Lest replied, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“Sure, captain,” Midad said. “Your personal account is no concern of mine.”

Lest showed a broad yet artificial smile. Midad nodded curtly and left the bridge.

***

Lest entered Jeff’s room. Jeff took off his headset.

“How are you doing?” Lest asked.

“I’m making progress,” Jeff replied. “Unfortunately, I have little opportunity to test the language module.”

Aside from Lest, the crew members were still being reserved.

“The opportunity will soon arise,” Lest said. “We’re currently flying in space jump mode, but we will end it in short. We’ll reach Cyrus, a trade planet, a couple of hours later.”

Jeff had no clear conception of flying in space jump mode. He had learned meanwhile that the Daglon spaceship was able to travel faster than light. Once the jump drive was activated, the spaceship did not travel through space, but somehow folded space and changed it. It intrigued Jeff a lot and he was eager to learn more about it.

“A trade planet?” he asked.

 “Yes. They also have a medical center. You will get your implant there, if you still want it,” Lest said.

Jeff nodded.

“While they’re working on you, I’ll be trying to make a deal. We’re running out of credits. I run my own business, you know,” Lest said.

Jeff had already wondered why the Daglon warship didn’t belong to a fleet. “I see,” he said slowly, not really grasping Lest’s words.

Lest turned away, but stopped and looked back. “Would you like to watch our approach from the bridge?”

Jeff straightened. “In fact, I would, Captain Lest,” he said.

“Well, come then, Jeff Caspar,” Lest said with a smile.

He showed Jeff to the bridge. Le’Ton, the navigator, and Corr, the pilot, eyed Jeff warily. Lest led Jeff to a seat near a console.

“Sit down here, but don’t touch the console. Any attempt to intervene in any way will result in you being taken back to your room. I must say this as the captain of this ship,” Lest said.

“Understood, captain, “ Jeff replied without taking offence at the command.

The crew members watched the scene, but then turned back to their devices. Lest sat down in the commander’s seat. The Daglon focused on their displays.

“Jump into real space. Countdown,” Lest commanded.

The computer voice counted down. Jeff looked out of the front window and saw a spray of energy sparks.

“Jumped into real space,” the pilot announced.

“Course plotted,” the navigator said. “Arrival at Cyrus in 2-2-4 units Alliance time.”

“That would be in about three hours Earth time,” Lest said.

“Thank you, captain,” Jeff replied.

Jeff saw a light in the distance, the sun of the solar system. The light was faint, the sun was far away, but it grew quickly bigger. Jeff was stunned. The speed of the Daglon spaceship was breath-taking. The ship finally decelerated. A greenish plane came into view. Jeff looked at it in awe.

“Ready to enter orbit,” the navigator said.

“Speed reduced for orbit,” the pilot announced.

“Enter orbit,” the captain commanded.

“On orbit,” the navigator said.

Jeff couldn’t hold back. He stood and looked at the foreign world, a trade planet, where aliens met to arrange their deals. It was all beyond belief. Jeff glanced at the captain. Lest raised an eyebrow. Jeff sat down at once. He seized the arms of his seat tightly.

“Landing required,” the pilot said.

“Vector given,” the navigator announced. “The hangar’s on the third level.”

“Confirm entry,” Lest said.

“Confirmed,” the pilot said

“Data uploaded to the computer,” the navigator announced.

“The computer will take us down,” Corr, the pilot, said. “Ground control won’t take over.”

“Okay. Watch the systems,” Lest said.

The Daglon spaceship entered the atmosphere and touched down. Jeff gasped at the sight of the multi-storey hangar. He saw several ships flying up or going down. None looked remotely like his own vessel. Jeff was overwhelmed. He had often imagined how the world would look many years in the future. Now he realized that the future was old in some parts of the universe.

“Once we have disembarked, a few things must be arranged regarding your identification. I’ll lead you through the steps,” Lest said, turning to Jeff.

The spaceship entered the hangar, touched down and rolled down the runway.

“Ship secured,” the pilot announced.

“All systems out except of the self-defense system,” Lest commanded.

“All systems out. Ground control asks for disembarkation details,” Corr said.

“Send the details,” Lest said.

“Sent and confirmed. You’ll need to go to immigration in order to get the short-time residence permit,” Corr said.

“I know,” Lest replied. “We need to at least partly legalize this operation.”

He rose to his feet and his tone of voice changed. “All right, guys, get your things. We’ll stay in Cyrus tower for two nights,” he said jovially.

Le’Ton and Corr instantly rose to their feet and hurried from the bridge.

Lest turned to Jeff. “I must get you through immigration, but that’s not a big deal on Cyrus. I’ll buy you an identity. You’ll get a chip and your data will be uploaded to the central computer of the population center. You will soon be a legal member of the Alliance. How does this sound to you?” he asked, smiling cordially.

He patted Jeff’s shoulder and then left the bridge. Jeff stood for a moment, stunned by the unfolding events. Finally, he went to his room, packed a few things and then joined the others in the cargo bay. He looked at the Daidalos. Lest followed his gaze.

“We’ll take care of your ship and the bodies soon, however not here. Cyrus is not a good place for it,” he said.

Jeff simply nodded.

Le’Ton opened the hatch and they stepped out into the hangar. A security team received them and led them to a gate.

Lest turned to his crew. “We’ll meet in the tower bar in an hour and make arrangements for the night. Le’Ton, you and I will go to the trade center,” he said.

Le’Ton gave a nod. The men turned away and went down a hallway. Lest turned to Jeff.

“All right, let’s get it done, Jeff. Let’s go to the medical center,” he said.

***



04

Lest and Jeff walked down a corridor and entered a hall. Jeff looked around. The place looked much like an airport terminal on Earth. A few men were moving about, spaceport staff apparently. They wore black boots and  blue overalls and they all looked much like Daglons or humans, only their skin was somewhat grayish. Jeff wondered if all aliens looked more or less alike. He was genuinely surprised.

Lest moved towards a counter and Jeff followed him. The man behind the counter turned to them. He was bald, his skin was gray, and his eyes were of a dark brown. Jeff gazed at the alien man until the spaceport employee gave him a questioning look. Jeff turned his eyes away. Lest intervened and addressed the man. He spoke at some length with him.

“I picked him up in space, you know,” Lest explained. “He needs a neural implant. I want a registered one and an expert doctor working on him. You see, I need to make this somewhat official.”

The man behind the counter studied Jeff and Jeff gazed back at him. Lest pushed an item across the counter. To Jeff it looked like a credit card. The man glanced at it, seized it and put it into a pocket of his overall. He pointed at the door behind the counter, then turned away and consulted a display. He had apparently lost interest in them. Lest walked behind the counter and opened the door. Jeff realized that the captain was no stranger on Cyrus. He seemed to know exactly how to get things done. Jeff followed Lest and they entered the room.

A small being was sitting at a console, typing rapidly on a keyboard. It stopped and looked up when Lest addressed it. Jeff gazed at the alien being. It reminded him of a puppet from the Muppet Show. Jeff  re-evaluated his earlier judgment. His first impression was wrong. Some aliens apparently didn’t look human at all. Lest explained what he wanted. The small alien looked at Jeff and motioned with a tiny hand.

“This is Geldor,” Lest said to Jeff. “He will create your official identity. He must upload the language database to his computer so that he can talk with you. The engineers on my ship saved the data to a device that I have taken along. Jeff, now you will have the opportunity to test the language module and the data you have refined.”

Lest handed the device to the alien. Geldor plugged it to his console and pressed a button.

“This will only take half an hour, if you fully cooperate, that is,” he said.

“What do you want me to do?” Jeff asked.

“Sit down here and answer my questions,” Geldor replied.

“I see that communication is not a problem,” Lest said. “I’ll be back in time, Jeff. Just do what Geldor wants you to do. He will also upload your language to the Alliance database. Once you have your implant, you can directly connect with the database and further refine the data.”

He turned to Geldor. “Make him Daglon,” he said.

Jeff looked at Lest in surprise, but the captain just gave him an encouraging nod and then left the room. Jeff turned his eyes to the alien.

“Are you new to the space community or just in need of an identity change?” Geldor asked.

“I’m a newbie,” Jeff replied.

“This makes it a lot easier. I need not find and delete your traces in the system. Wait a minute,” Geldor said. He eyed Jeff curiously, then turned back to his console. “Daglon, he said. Okay. I’ll ask you questions and you will reply please, preferably a one word reply only.”

“All right,” Jeff said, shifting in his chair and wondering what exactly the alien was going to do.

Geldor started his inquiry. He wanted to know Jeff’s name, age, gender and asked at least twenty more questions. Jeff replied truthfully. Finally, Geldor looked up and smirked.

“I’ve created a whole new identity for you,” he said. “Now wait a minute. I’ll have the chip produced.”

There was a beep. Geldor disappeared under his desk, but reappeared a second later with a tiny chip in his hand.

“Your index finger, please,” he said.

Jeff reached out his hand.  Geldor took an instrument that looked like a vaccination gun. He put the chip into the gun and shot the chip under Jeff’s skin. It was done in a second and didn’t hurt.

“Let’s test it,” Geldor said. He motioned to a desk with several devices. “These are common control devices. Put your index finger on the spots that are marked red. One device after the other, please.”

Jeff did what Geldor had told him.

“Everything’s fine,” Geldor said. “You should get in and out of most spaceports without any difficulties. Just remember your replies. Someone might want to hear them again.”

The door opened and Lest entered.

“We’re done,” Geldor said. “Do you want to transfer the credits, Captain Lest?”

“I think I must,” Lest replied. “Many thanks, Geldor.”

Geldor handed a small box to him, a payment device. Lest looked at the display and raised an eyebrow at the price.

“I must go with the market,” Geldor said with a shrug.

Lest pressed the button. Geldor seized the box and handed Lest the device with the language data. He nodded at them, turned back to his console and leaned forward until his forehead touched the screen. Lest motioned to Jeff to follow him. They left the room.

“Thank you, Captain Lest,” Jeff said. “I feel I’m obliged to you.”

Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Don’t bother. Just don’t cut off your index finger,” he said. “Once you need to get rid of your former identity, visit someone like Geldor. Or help yourself. There are ways to re-program the chip.”

“Do you speak from experience?” Jeff asked.

Lest cast him a glance. “The space business can be hard at times. I’ll tell you more some other day. I’ll take you to the medical center now. I have everything arranged already. I’ll come back and get you the day after tomorrow. I hope I will have made a profitable deal by then. If everything works out well, we’ll be back in space in two days.”

“I had hoped to see more of this alien world,” Jeff said.

“This is not a good place to begin with,” Lest said. “Trust me, there are more beautiful places in space. Unfortunately, I need to visit places like Cyrus. It’s one big complex. The medical center is on the sixth floor. We need to take the elevator.”

The corridors were long, the air stale and smelly. People hurried up and down the hallways. Jeff didn’t have the time to take a closer look at the aliens, because Lest walked fast and Jeff needed to hurry after him. They finally arrived on the sixth floor. Lest opened a door and they entered the medical center. Lest went to the reception. A young woman with long red hair and full red lips welcomed them.

“This is Cari. She’s a trained nurse,” Lest said. “I’ve told her that your language was uploaded earlier, so communication should not be a problem. Just follow her to the waiting room.” Lest patted Jeff’s shoulder. “I’ll be back in two days. Everything will work out well. Good luck, Jeff,” he said.

Jeff nodded. “All right. I will see you in two days, captain,” he said.

Cari interrupted them. She seized Jeff’s hand and pulled him along. Jeff cast another look at Lest before he entered the waiting room. Lest stood idly in the hall for a while until people cast him questioning looks. He turned around abruptly and stepped out into the corridor



“The implant is absolutely awesome, Lest. I can talk with everybody without difficulties,” Jeff said enthusiastically when Lest came back two days later.

“This sounds great, Jeff,” Lest said. A smile was playing on his lips and he was idly leaning against the wall, watching Jeff sitting on his hospital bed.

Lest straightened and a more serious expression replaced his smile when the door opened and  a doctor came in.

“Did everything work out well, doctor?” Lest asked.

“No problem at all, Captain Lest. The implant works properly” the doctor replied. “I was just wondering why a spaceship crew member didn’t have a neural implant in this day and age. I also found that his physiognomy is not entirely Daglon. You know that the implants have adaptations to species. I was having doubts, but it turned out that the implant works properly.”

Lest smiled at the man. “This is what is most important. I trust you don’t put down your findings in an official report,” he said.

“Official reports are not standard procedure on Cyrus, as you know, Captain Lest,” the doctor said. He smiled curtly. “Commander Jeff Caspar is ready to go.”

“Are you?” Lest asked, turning to Jeff.

“I certainly am,” Jeff said with a nod.

A couple of minutes later, they were hurrying down the corridors.
 
“You’re doing fine with the implant?” Lest asked while turning around a corner.

“Yes,” Jeff replied. “I got it yesterday. The surgical operation was done in half an hour. I was able to communicate with everybody right after the surgery. It didn’t hurt and I don’t suffer from any side effects. I’m very impressed.” He gasped. “Why are we running?”

Lest slowed down and turned his head to Jeff. “We’re in a hurry. The cargo’s already on board. We must leave as soon as possible. We have a deadline to meet.”

They were entering the hangar.

“Your ship is ready to go,” a man said. “Your pilot has made all arrangements.”

Lest gave a nod and hurried towards the spaceship. Jeff hastened after him. They entered the ship and the hatch closed automatically. Lest motioned to Jeff to follow him. They moved through the corridors and entered the bridge.

“Where are we going?” Jeff asked.

“The Mohic Empire,” Lest replied. “They settle on two planets and are currently preparing a moon for settlement. They have run out of materials. The Alliance controls the market, but the Mohic Empire is not associated with the Alliance. That’s why they order on Cyrus. However, the Mohic are strict. They won’t pay the  negotiated price., if you don’t deliver in time. The Mohic Empire is far away from Cyrus. Even with the space jump drive it’s hard to cover the distance in time, but I’ll trust we will manage.”

Lest sat down in the commander’s seat. “Corr, tell ground control we’re ready to leave,” he said.

“Clearance for take-off,” the pilot said a minute later.

Jeff settled in his seat. He meanwhile had a clearer idea of Lest’s business. The captain operated outside the law or in a gray area at least. Lest was well known on Cyrus, a shady illegal place, and he had functioning connections. Jeff thought of Geldor. The alien was clearly a hacker. Jeff wondered why the Alliance had not yet shut down the planet and he wondered what exactly the Alliance was and who were its members. What were their goals and on which side of the line were they settled? He wondered if Lest had captured the Daglon warship and had split with the Alliance. Jeff  looked around on the bridge. He had so many questions, but only few answers. He turned his eyes to Lest.

The captain sat upright in the commander’s seat, a self-assured expression on his face. The man had charisma, that was for sure. Lest turned his head and their eyes met. Jeff saw something in the eyes of the captain, a gleam that sent a shiver down his spine. He wondered why Lest had not thrown him out on Cyrus, but had gotten him a Daglon identity and a neural implant instead. Lest’s lips broke into a predatory smile and then he turned his head away. Jeff was staring at the captain.

***

05

Jeff and Lest  met again in the lounge of the ship.

“There’s something that Doctor Midad and I want to tell you,” Lest said.

He led Jeff to the conference room of the ship. Doctor Midad was waiting for them by the door. They sat down at the table. Jeff looked between the Daglon men.

“What’s this about? Is something wrong with me?” he asked.

“Your body responded well to my medication. Your system has meanwhile adapted to the slightly different oxygen level. Your blood levels are normal. You could pass as a Daglon,” Doctor Midad said.

“That’s actually why I wanted a Daglon identity for you,” Lest said.

“Don’t you think that’s somewhat odd?” Midad asked.

“Well, yes,” Jeff replied. “I was already wondering myself why  I resemble the Daglons. The doctor on Cyrus noticed it also. I suspect that evolution is much the same throughout the universe.”

“This is one reason, but it doesn’t fully explain the results. I’ve checked your genetic profile. Your DNA is 85% Daglon,” Doctor Midad said.

“What?” Jeff blurted out. “Are you saying my father was an alien? Or  my mother was abducted by an alien spaceship and got a cloned embryo implanted?”

“Class C,” Midad said, leaning back in his chair. “Acting on superstitious and religious beliefs. I can’t recommend these people join the space community.”

Jeff cast him an offended look. Lest raised his hand.

“Calm,” he said. “Let’s talk it over. Jeff, Doctor Midad ran a few tests on your genetic profile. It’s true. You’re 85% Daglon.”

Jeff straightened.  “How can it be? The result must be wrong,” he said.

“I can explain it,” Doctor Midad said. “The Daglons left their home planet Seth many centuries ago. Seth revolved around the sun that you call Betelgeuse. The sun expanded over the centuries. It’s still expanding, but it will explode very soon, from a cosmic perspective, that is.”

“It’s a red supergiant in the constellation of Orion. It’s about 640 light years from Earth,” Jeff said.

Lest nodded. “Seth was destroyed by the expanding sun. Our ancestors knew of the danger, but they didn’t figure the end would come so soon. They managed to build a multi-generational spaceship. Their civilization was a little ahead of yours, technology-wise, I mean.”

“They were a typical class C species,” Midad said. “Not looking at the facts, but cherishing false hopes. They didn’t work on evacuating the planet, they simply hoped they were mistaken and the end would not come upon them. Irrational, stupid, denying the truth. Sects and cults sprang up. People turned to religion. A dark time fell upon the planet. People started to kill each other off. There was murder and manslaughter all over the planet.”

“The multi-generational spaceship was financed by a private investor,” Lest said. “The man didn’t ignore the facts. He gathered engineers and scientists and other people as well. Once the ship was built, they took off for Alpha Centauri. It was a risky endeavor, but it worked out against all expectations.”

“They named the exoplanet after the financier of the operation. Daglon was his surname,” Midad said.

“The Daglon civilization developed,” Lest carried on. “The colonists had lost contact to Seth, but they ultimately received a message from Seth. It’s stated in the old history books.”

“The message told them that anarchy and chaos were ruling on Seth. The people had dropped back to a primitive state. A small group, the political and economical elite of the planet, had built another spaceship in order to escape,” Midad said. “This spaceship was captured by a group of well-educated men and women. They left with it. They had come from all over the planet and had gathered in the place with the spaceship. The endeavor was organized by a small and strong-willed group of people, the later crew of the ship. Their head was Captain Re. He was the commander of the spaceship.”

Jeff knew what came next. “Let me guess,” he said. “They travelled to Earth.”

“We think they did,” Midad said. “The Daglons have no more information on the operation. There’s just the entry in their oldest history books. The Daglons received the message soon after their arrival. So the message must have been sent off about six centuries earlier. The Daglon suspected that the other spaceship was travelling to Daglon. They waited for centuries, but the ship never came. It was declared lost in space ultimately.”

“The likelihood is very big that they travelled to Earth. Your genetic profile is 85% Daglon. This cannot be just coincidence,” Lest said.

Jeff leaned back in his chair, stunned by the men’s revelations. His mind was processing their words.  There was a brief silence.

“I wonder why the humans are so behind, technology-wise, I mean,” Lest said. “The two spaceships must have reached their respective planets at about the same time, roughly 45,000 Earth years ago.”

“I can’t imagine it’s true,” Jeff said. “Human civilization doesn’t go back so far in time. Civilization started about 8,000 years ago, according to the artifacts we found.”

Lest and Midad exchanged a look.

The doctor scratched his head. “Very odd,” he said.

“Not necessarily so,” Lest said after a moment of thinking. “Perhaps the colonists were only few. Perhaps they lacked technological knowledge in comparison to the Daglon group.”

“Well,” Jeff said. “I think the living conditions were bad back then. 45,000 years ago, the planet was in the grips of the ice age.”

“Ice age,” Midad said. “I don’t understand. Why did they not come to Daglon, but travelled to an inhospitable planet instead?”

“Odd, indeed. We’ll never know,” Lest replied. “Anyway, they arrived and also survived, but mixed up with the natives. I think this also supports the assumption that the living conditions were bad.”

“The planet back then was inhabited by early men, primitive creatures. Homo sapiens was just on the rise,” Jeff said. His eyes widened and he gazed at the Daglon men. “Homo sapiens resembles the Daglons. Homo sapiens entered the stage when the Daglons arrived.”

A smile was playing on Lest’s lips. “Not a coincidence, I think. But why then did you say that human civilization started only 8,000 Earth years ago?” he asked.

“We have not yet found reliable evidence that there was a highly developed civilization before the Flood,” Jeff said.

“The flood?” Lest asked.

“Yes,” Jeff said. “Our oldest religious texts tell of a disastrous flood that submerged the lands and killed most of the people.

Midad gave him a strange look. “Religious texts?” he asked.

Jeff gave a laugh. “Yes, but the Flood was real. There’s evidence of it. The ice age ended abruptly 9,700 BC. The ice melted in only a few years, the sea levels rose hundred meters and more, and huge ice lakes broke. The northern hemisphere had been entirely covered with ice. All the ice melted in just a few years,” he said.

“How can this be?” Midad asked.

Lest gave him a meaningful look. “We’ve already witnessed the results of a planet-forming accident. Think of Breedos,” he said.

“Right,” Midad said. “This makes sense, of course.”

Lest closed his eyes briefly. He was focusing on his neural implant. “We must stop for now. Le’Ton sent me a message. I need to go the bridge.” He rose to his feet. “Good night, Jeff and Midad,” he said and left the conference room.

Midad pushed his chair back.

“Just a minute, please, Doctor Midad,” Jeff said. “Breedos?” he asked.

“The Mohic Empire,” Midad said. “The empire we’re flying to. They need material for forming a moon, ore that they can’t mine by themselves. The Mohics settle on two planets.  They tried to form another planet in their solar system. It’s farther away from the sun. It was entirely covered with ice.”

“What happened?” Jeff asked.

“The Mohics planned to melt the ice by an artificial and controlled greenhouse effect. The operation got out of control. The planet was entirely flooded with water. The water has meanwhile turned back into ice,” Midad replied.

“You think the Seth colonists tried to end the ice age on Earth by a controlled greenhouse effect?” Jeff asked.

“Sounds like it,” Midad said. “I need to hurry now, Jeff. We’ll continue our talk when we will have left the Mohic Empire.”

“I understand it’s a critical operation,” Jeff said, rising to his feet also.

“Delivering the ore to the Mohic Empire?” Midad asked. He smiled slightly. “Last time we were late and they shot our ship after delivering the cargo. The Mohics are aggressive, but they pay very good. We’ll arrive at the edge of their solar system in short, that’s why Lest hurried to the bridge. Rest now. There’s nothing you can do. Have a good night, Jeff,” he said.

Midad gave Jeff a nod and left the room. Jeff walked to the door. The revelation was a shock but also a relief in his eyes. He was 85% Daglon. He straightened.  Jeff suddenly felt he belonged on Lest’s ship. He left the room and walked down the corridor confidently.

Lest contacted him through the neural intercom a short while later and told him to stay in his room. They would touch down on the Mohic planet and discharge the cargo. The crew would not disembark and the ship would leave the very night.

Jeff was lying on his bed and thinking things over. A sudden thought came to his mind. He sat up abruptly.

“Why didn’t occur this to me earlier? It is apparent,” he said.

The planet’s name, Seth, and the name of Lest’s spaceship, Horus, were the names of two ancient Egyptian gods.

***

Jeff and Lest met in the galley the following morning. They were standing at the counter.

“How did the operation go, captain?” Jeff asked.

Lest waved his hand. “No problems at all. We arrived in time. They got the cargo and we got the credits. We have meanwhile left their solar system and are back in outer space. It was late when I finally was able to rest. I’m tired today,” he said.

Jeff took a sip of his drink. It tasted of hot chocolate mixed with coffee. Jeff had meanwhile gotten used to it. He told Lest of his thoughts on the names of the ship and the planet.

“An obvious connection, I think,” Jeff said. “The Egyptians built huge pyramids 5,000 years ago, long after the Flood, and long after the arrival of the spaceship on Earth. Ages had passed, but the Egyptians still used the ancient names. They were obsessed with preservation. They embalmed their dead, the bodies of the elite, and placed them into sarcophagi, huge coffins, kind of preservations tanks. They believed the dead journeyed through the worlds beyond and ultimately left the caskets.”

“Sounds like a cargo cult,” Lest said. “I suspect the second spaceship was not a multi-generational spaceship but a ship with cryo-tanks on board.”

“God, yes,” Jeff said. “They slept all the journey through space. They awoke and climbed out of the tanks, like the Egyptian dead climbing out of their caskets. We need to find out more about the Egyptians. I think they held the knowledge of their origin.”

Lest nodded thoughtfully. “Jeff, how about we travel to Daglon and bury your comrades? They are 85% Daglon as well. I can’t take their bodies back to Earth, but Daglon would be a good place for a funeral. What do you think?” he asked.

Jeff didn’t reply at once.

“Was I being blunt?” Lest asked. “I apologize, Jeff Caspar.”

“I’m fine,” Jeff said. “It’s just the memories. I can’t push them aside all the time.”

“It’s only natural, Jeff. Let me know if I can help you,” Lest said.

He placed his hand on Jeff’s arm. Their eyes met. An instant later, Corr and Le’Ton entered the galley. Lest turned abruptly to the food processor and studied the menu. Jeff seized his cup and took a sip of his drink, then he greeted the Daglon crew members. Corr and Le’Ton gave him curious looks.

***

06

The Daglon men went to the bridge and Jeff went back to his room. He had started to learn the Daglon language with another computer language module and he wanted to continue.

 Lest asked Le’Ton to plot a course to Alpha Centauri.

“Back home? We’ve been away a long time. Why go back now?” Le’Ton asked in surprise.

“It’s time we return to Daglon,” Lest said with the  hint of a smile.

Corr, the pilot, turned his head to him. “The Horus is a registered Daglon warship, captain. We have changed the identification codes, but they would recognize a warship at first sight. We’d have no chance. We can’t enter the Daglon space territory and airspace with the Horus. It’s impossible,” he said.

“This is the difficulty about the trip,” Lest replied. “I was thinking. How about we stop by on Ephos and rent a cruise vessel for the trip?”

Corr gave a laugh and Le’Ton smirked.

“This would surely work out, captain,” the navigator said. “However, tenting a hangar and parking a spaceship is expensive on Ephos.”

“We’ve made a lot of credits with the Mohic Empire,” Lest replied.

“But why go to Daglon anyway?” Corr asked. “Sure, I’d be happy to go home for a while and have no doubt that an undercover the operation would work out, but I’m wondering, captain, what has changed your mind?”

“You know what we’ve been through,” Lest said. “I’m fed up with the Alliance politics. They never held Daglon liable for that unjust war. That’s why we must operate undercover. We’re still wanted, as you know.”

Lest looked at the men. They had been travelling with him through space since they had deserted a war that the Daglon had started. The act of deserting was not an honorable act, but neither had the war been an honorable war. The Daglon had attacked another planet in Alpha Centauri because of its raw materials. The war was the first war the Daglon had conducted since they had left the planet Seth. It had lasted a month.

Lest and the others had been forced to join the war because of their skills as navigators, pilots, and engineers. Nothing, however, went like the Daglon politicians had  figured. The attacked planet fought back and the Daglon suffered big losses. When the Daglon commander ordered kamikaze attacks, Lest decided to quit the job. He pulled the spaceship back from the planet and simply jumped out of real space. He soon found a way to re-program the identification codes of the ship. The act of desertion had made them outlaws. Returning to Daglon was a risk, an almost impossible endeavor, unless one knew how to change identities and cheat space security. They had learned it during their time in space.

The political climate on Daglon had changed after the Alliance had labeled the Daglon a class B species after the war. The Alliance was a union of 29 space-faring nations. The union had started out as a trade union, but the Alliance had also gained political power over the centuries. The members were obliged to follow the rules and laws of the Supreme Court and Council. Violating the laws resulted in severe punishment, re-classification of species and economical repressive measures. Individuals, especially those of a high rank, were seldom held liable, however. The Daglon group that had incited the war had never even been questioned by the Supreme Court.

“I was following the discussion on the news intercom,” Corr said. “The Daglon government made an another huge compensation payment to the Alliance only a couple of days ago.”

“I’m sure this will ultimately settle the unfortunate affair. Daglon will finally get back status A as a species,” Lest said cynically. He straightened. “Tell the others to come to the bridge, Le’Ton. I must inform you on something.”

“Do you want me to contact the human, too?” Le’Ton asked.

“No,” Lest said.

Le’Ton nodded and turned to his console.

Once the engineers and the doctor had come to the bridge, Lest talked to his crew. He told them what Doctor Midad had found out about Jeff. Midad nodded seriously while the captain spoke. The Daglon crew was stunned.

“He’s Daglon, so to speak?” Corr asked in disbelief.

“He’s smaller and his hair is brownish,” Le’Ton said.

Lest gave a laugh. “I beg you, Le’Ton. I’ve already seen Daglon men with brown hair. They’re an exception, yes, but not all Daglons are blond.”

“Jeff Caspar’s genetic profile is 85% Daglon,” Midad said. “15% is early human.”

The Daglon men looked between each other. Lest told them of his idea of burying the human men on Daglon and  maybe unload Jeff’s spaceship there, too. After a brief discussion, the men warmed up to his idea.

“I second it,” Le’Ton said. “Just imagine you were in his shoes. Lost in space, cut off your origin, no chance to ever go home. I vote for taking the caskets to Daglon.”

The others agreed.

“We can’t fly to Daglon with the Horus. A rented cruise vessel is a good idea, but can we transfer Jeff’s ship and the caskets to the vessel without this being noticed?” Corr asked.

Le’Ton made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Nobody will control a rented hangar on Ephos as long as you pay for it,” he said.

“So we’re agreed? We want to spend tons of credits on this operation?” Lest asked.

“I trust the Mohics will continue on forming their moon for a while,” Le’Ton said. “We should be able to deliver them more of the stuff they want.”

The others nodded and laughed. Less dissolved the meeting.

***

A couple of days passed by. They were flying through space with the space jump drive and were finally approaching Ephos, a planet at the edge of the Daglon solar system. The men had assembled on the bridge.

“Goodness,” Jeff exclaimed at the sight of Ephos. The whole planet was illuminated by artificial lights. “This place looks like Las Vegas.”

“Las Vegas?” Lest asked.

“A city in Nevada,” Jeff explained. “A major point of tourism and a center of the gambling and entertainment industries. Casinos, hotels and the like.”

“I see,” Lest said. “Yes, Ephos is just like this. The whole planet is an amusement park. I think there’s nothing you won’t find there. Spaceships from all parts of the galaxy stop by and the crews  spend a few days of vacation on Ephos. Ephos’ main concern is profit. The security controls are somewhat lax.”

Lest had already arranged their stay. He had rented a hangar for a fortnight and booked a cruise vessel. It was small, didn’t have a space jump drive and was supposed to cruise through the solar system at a low speed, so that the passengers could enjoy the sight of the planets and moons and make short trips to them. They would travel to Daglon, the fourth planet of the solar system, from Ephos.

The Horus was approaching Ephos. Touch-down was easy. They were instructed to roll deep into the hangar in order to make space for the rented cruise vessel. Lest, Le’Ton, Corr, and Jeff got off the ship, while the doctor and the engineers stayed on the Horus. The controls were brief. An employee of the hangar company and an agent of the travel company welcomed them. Lest talked with the men and settled the accounts. A short while later, the cruise vessel rolled in.

Jeff was speechless. He had expected a small vessel, but the ship was four times the size of the Daidalos.

“Awesome,” he said. “This ship is a cruise vessel? I can barely believe it.”

Lest smirked. “It’s supposed to touch down and take off often. It’s in space all around the year. The Daidalos is a fine little ship, but nobody around here would take a trip with it, unless you have a thrill for adventure and want to risk a one-way trip,” he said.

Jeff compressed his lips. He was hurt but had to admit that the captain was right in a sense.

“How will you transfer my ship? It’s small, but it’s heavy,” he said.

“The hangar has transportation facilities. We’ll hover your ship over,” Lest said.

The pilot of the cruise vessel got out and greeted them. They entered the ship and the man introduced the Daglon men into the main functions of the ship. This done, he left the hangar. The Daglon men inspected the cargo bay of the ship. Lest contacted his engineers on the Horus via his neural implant intercom.

“Your ship and the caskets are ready for being transferred,” Lest said to Jeff. He turned to Le’Ton and Corr. “Get the hover facility under work and help the others with the transfer.”

The pilot and the navigator left the cruise vessel.

“The hangar is empty,” Lest said. “I suspect it’s being monitored, but nothing will happen because I paid an additional amount for absolute privacy.”

Jeff was feeling guilty. The captain spent lot of credits on him. Lest must have read Jeff’s thoughts. He made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“This endeavor will pay off, I’m fairly sure,” he said. “I have something in mind. I want to speak with someone on Daglon. Then we’ll talk about your future as well.”

Lest turned away and moved to the entrance of the ship. Jeff followed him slowly. His heart was pounding faster. So far, they had not talked about his future. The captain had made clear to him that he would not take him back to Earth. Was this why they travelled to Daglon in the first place? Did Lest want to get rid of him?

Jeff was no longer keen on visiting Daglon. Lest looked back at him and Jeff turned his head away.

***

The trip to Daglon was short. The ship covered the distance, that was about the distance from Pluto to Earth, in only twelve hours at maximum speed. Jeff was sitting in a chair in the ship’s lounge and was staring into the room. His face showed a frown and he had crossed his arms in front of his chest. He winced when he spotted Lest in the doorway. The captain mustered him.

“Is something bugging you, Jeff?” Lest asked.

Jeff gave him a sulky look.

“Get a grip on yourself, commander Jeff Caspar. Your behavior is not exactly a recommendation for a job in the space business,” Lest said angrily.

“Who would take me on board of a ship anyway? I lack the skills. I’m not part of the future. I’m a relict in your eyes. Class C species,” Jeff said.

Lest sat down in a chair, leaned forward and looked at Jeff.

“You have the skills and the brains, Jeff. You’re a pilot and you steered a spaceship. You will catch up with Daglon space technology,” he said. “I want to speak with a man on Daglon. I think I can warm him up for a mission, especially now that Daglon has regained status A as a species. It was on the news this morning.”

“What kind of mission?” Jeff asked.

“Some investigation on the origin of species. Man and Daglon originate from Seth,” Lest said. He focused on his neural intercom, then looked at Jeff. “A message from Le’Ton. I must go to the cockpit, Jeff. We need to get a few things done before we’re landing on Daglon.” Lest focused again on his intercom. “Okay, Le’Ton,” he said. “Reprogram the chips and make us clerks of some business company.”

Lest stood and caught a skeptical look from Jeff.

“We can’t enter Daglon territory with our real identities, that’s why I have the finger chips reprogrammed,” Lest said.

He left the lounge. Jeff gazed after the captain and wondered what sort of criminal had rescued him.

Finally, Jeff stood and moved to the panorama window of the cruise vessel. He was struck by the sight of the planet. Daglon looked much like the planet Earth. Jeff saw continents, white clouds and blue oceans. Jeff’s bad mood was gone in an instant and he looked forward to visiting Daglon, the home of Man’s brothers and maybe his new home as well.

***


07

II

Undercover Operations

The cruise vessel was granted access to Daglon. It descended and flew at a moderate speed, much like an aircraft on Earth. Jeff looked out of the panorama window and was stunned at the sight. They were crossing a densely populated area. Jeff saw cities and towns. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make out any details, but he was enjoying the view. They left the populated area and flew across woods and fields. The ship descended and steered towards a town in the distance. It slowed down and was hovering over the city. Jeff was feeling overwhelmed.

“What do you think?” Lest asked. He had joined Jeff in the lounge area of the cruise vessel.

Jeff turned around. He hadn’t heard the captain approaching.

“It’s fantastic,” he said. “The city reminds me of some Asian cities, but the high towers and the buildings look even more futuristic than those cities on Earth. Is it a capital or a business center?”

Lest gave a laugh. “No, this place isn’t a real city. It’s a museum and a leisure park. It was built in the style of the old days. The name of the place is Amun,” he said.

Jeff looked at Lest in disbelief and then turned back to the window. “In the style of the old days,” he repeated Lest’s words.

“Yes,” Lest said. “The style was modern 10,000 years ago. The place is to us most likely what the Egyptian pyramids are to the humans.”

Jeff turned his head to Lest. He looked shocked. Lest patted his shoulder.

“You made a big jump, Jeff Caspar,” he said. “Not only through space, but also through time in a sense.”

Jeff didn’t reply. He turned back to the window instead.

“We’ll touch down at the park’s airport,” Lest said. “The park is a place of major interest. We won’t attract much attention there.”

The captain went back into the cockpit. The ship landed a short while later and rolled down a runway. Finally, it came to a halt in a parking lot. Lest, Corr, and Le’Ton came into the lounge. The two engineers and the doctor joined them also.

“Okay,” Lest said. “We’ll get off the ship and pass the security controls together. Then you can go wherever you please. We’ll stay in touch, of course. I’ll let you know in time when we will leave the planet. I suggest we’ll gather in Amun.”

The others agreed. Jeff stood at some distance, watching the men. They were excited, probably eager to meet up with relatives and friends whom they had not seen in a long time.

“Now we better get dressed,” Lest said.

The men grabbed their bags that they had stored in the lounge and changed clothes. Jeff had seen them only in their space overalls. Now they were dressed in sweaters and kind of cargo pants. The men looked like ordinary human men. Lest turned to Jeff with a pile of clothes that he had taken from his bag.

“Put these on, Jeff,” he said. “They’re not exactly your size. We can get you some clothes in Amun.”

Jeff took the clothes from Lest’s hands. “Where exactly are we going?” he asked.

“You and I will stay in Amun, while the others go elsewhere. I’ll tell you the details later,” Lest said.

Jeff took off his space overall. The Daglon men were watching him closely.

“I really can’t see where the 15% non-Daglon are,” Le’Ton blurted out.

“Shut up, Le’Ton,” Lest said. “Now, come on, guys, turn your eyes away and let Jeff Caspar get dressed.”

The men laughed and moved towards the entrance of the ship. Jeff put on Lest’s clothes, beige cargo pants and a blue sweater. He turned around to follow the Daglon men and saw Lest, clad entirely in black, standing in the doorway and gazing at him. Their eyes met. Lest turned around abruptly and joined the others. Jeff followed him. Le’Ton opened the hatch and the crew got off the cruise vessel. Lest locked the ship and then they all headed towards the entrance of a building. Security staff had no particular interest in them. They passed the controls in just a few minutes and then they stood in a large hall. The men wished each other a nice holiday and then hurried towards the exit. Lest and Jeff remained in the hall.

“How do they get away from here?” Jeff asked.

“Air taxis,” Lest replied. “They’re somewhat expensive for long-distance rides, but we’ve earned a lot of credits. We have a ship account, but each man has also his personal account. Earnings are split, you know.”

Jeff nodded. “I see,” he said. “What are we going to do now, captain?”

“I’ve booked a suite in one of the hotels,” Lest replied. “I will meet up with my contact person in the lounge.”

He motioned to Jeff to follow him. They left the hall and Lest waved for an air taxi that was hovering close by in the air. The taxi took them to a building, a high tower that looked as if it was made entirely of glass. They entered the hotel and walked to a counter. Lest spoke with the receptionist while Jeff stood idly, gazing around. Lest waved his hand and Jeff walked over. They crossed the hall and entered an elevator. Jeff told Lest that Daglon’s old days reminded him much of Earth’s most avant-garde places. Lest gave a laugh.

“I thought you’d feel comfortable here. I’m sure you will be able to deal with how things work in the leisure and history park,” he said.

The elevator came to a halt. They went down a corridor and stopped in front of a room. Lest opened the door with a key card. Jeff was stunned. The suite had two bedrooms, a sitting room, a bathroom and a kitchenette. The furniture looked noble and exquisite.

“Daglon and humans have indeed much in common,” he said while inspecting the rooms. “This hotel looks like a five star hotel on Earth.”

“Naturally,” Lest replied. “You’re 85% Daglon. I think the 15% early man are vastly suppressed, except of perhaps the fact that you need to shave more often and the body hair I saw on your chest.”

Jeff stopped short in his movement and turned his eyes to Lest. Lest was smiling broadly.

“Excuse me a minute, please, Lest,” Jeff said, heading for the bathroom.

Lest’s smile vanished.

He was standing in one of the bedrooms when Jeff came back and was focusing on his neural intercom. Lest gave Jeff a sulky look and closed the door. Jeff looked at the door and shook his head. He sat down on the couch and paged through what was probably the menu of the hotel’s restaurant. Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to read it, although he had started to learn the Daglon language. Jeff threw the brochure on the table, just when Lest entered the room.

Lest pointed at the menu. “Are you hungry? Try with this,” he said, taking a device from a sideboard and handing it to Jeff. “You can activate it here. It will connect with your neural implant and show you images of the meals.” Lest didn’t sound exactly cheerful, but his bad mood had luckily gone.

“Thanks,” Jeff said. He took the device, but didn’t activate it. “What do you have in mind, Lest? What’s going on here?” he asked.

Lest sat down. “I’m busy arranging things, Jeff,” he said. “I have a contact on Daglon, a man with many connections. He’s my former trainer, a very respectable man. I trust he won’t inform the authorities of me and my crew being here. He owes me a favor. It’s a personal thing, but it has nothing to do with the war.”

“Which war?” Jeff asked.

“The war the Daglon conducted against Aenes, the sixth planet of the solar system. The Daglon were after rare raw materials. I told you the Alliance controls the market. The Alliance is a union of 29 space-faring nations. It has enormous economical and political power. The price of the ore is held up artificially. The material is even more expensive on Cyrus. That’s why the Daglon decided to wage war. The unwise act cost them label A as a species. They have only recently regained A status, mainly because of transferring large sums of credits to Aenes, the planet they had attacked, and as well to the Alliance,” Lest said.

“Why has the Alliance not yet shut down Cyrus?” Jeff asked.

Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “Individual motives. Alliance officials run their own shady business and undercover operations on Cyrus,” he said.

Jeff nodded. “And what was your role in that war?” he asked.

Lest leaned back. “I think you can figure it out by now. I deserted. I fled with the crew and the ship,” he said. “We’ve found our place in space, like many others. I run my own business and the others have a share in it. Like I said, earnings are split.”

“Are you a raider, a smuggler, or what?” Jeff asked, leaning back in his chair.

Lest smiled. “Not exactly,” he replied. “Yes, I operate in a gray area mostly. Most operations are legal, but sometimes I must in fact switch to the illegal side, if an operation requires it, that is. However, no murder, no killing, if not in a true fight.”

Jeff crossed his arms and turned his eyes away. The captain had admitted what Jeff had already figured out. Lest’s operations were at least partly criminal. Jeff looked at Lest. Lest was studying him.

 “How long have you been operating in space?” Jeff asked.

“Twelve years,” Lest said. He paused. “How old are you, Jeff?” he asked.

“I’m thirty,” Jeff said.

Lest smiled briefly. “I’m thirty-two,” he said. He rose to his feet and moved to the window.
“I will meet up with my contact person in short. I suspect the man wants to see you, Jeff. Would this be all right with you?” he asked, turning back to Jeff.

Jeff shrugged. What was he supposed to answer? He didn’t know the man nor had Lest told him more of his plans.

“We must arrange the funeral of my comrades,” he said instead.

“I will discuss this with the man also,” Lest replied.

Lest smiled briefly, then went into the bathroom and closed the door. Jeff heard him shower. A short while later, Lest came back into the sitting room.

“I’m going down to the lounge now,” he said.

Jeff watched Lest leave, then sat motionless for a minute, wondering again what was going on. Lest had something in mind, some secret undercover plan, and there wasn’t much Jeff could do but wait until Lest would tell him about it. Jeff focused on his neural implant and connected with the language database. He found he could as well work on refining the language instead of just sitting around, feeling worried and bored.

An hour later, Lest returned in company of an older man. The man looked at Jeff curiously and reached out his hand.

“I’m Ezer Malk. I feel honored to meet you, Jeff Caspar,” he said.

Jeff greeted him. Ezer Malk turned to Lest.

“Now I understand that choice of yours,” Ezer Malk said. A brief mocking smile crossed his face.

Lest narrowed his eyes, but didn’t reply. He turned around and walked to the mini-bar. Jeff looked between the two men in confusion. Ezer Malk turned to Jeff and smiled cordially.

“You look very much Daglon indeed. I tend to believe that what Lest told me is true. What is the name of your planet?”

Lest interrupted him. “Why don’t we sit down and talk things over,” he said.

He pointed at the couch and the chairs. The others sat down. Lest placed three glasses and a bottle on the table. He sat down as well and poured them drinks. Ezer Malk leaned back, crossed his arms and looked between Jeff and the captain.

“Captain Lest told me you’re having problems. He asked my help and I will do what I can,” Ezer Malk said finally. “We can store your ship in Amun. The place is a leisure park, but also a museum that keeps many artifacts. Your ship will fit in well, I think. I very much would like to see it.”

“The Daidalos was a very modern spaceship on Earth, but I fear the ship is just an artifact in your eyes,” Jeff said. “It’s on board of the cruise vessel.”

 “Is it that small a ship?” Ezer asked with a puzzled look.

“Yes,” Jeff replied. “The Daidalos is a small spaceship, just as it was intended to be.”

“Ah, a short-distance shuttle, I see,” Ezer said. “The elders used them also. I think it would perfectly fit in one of the museums. Lest said you didn’t want to attract attention. I understand perfectly. This is not an official contact between species. You’re kind of stranded in space, I heard.”

“This is true,” Jeff simply said.

Lest explained in more detail what had happened.

“Most unfortunate,” Ezer said. “But you were lucky. Many lone spaceships wouldn’t take strangers on board. It’s something I do not approve of, but each captain must judge a situation on his own. Each situation is different. Anyway, I heard your crew members died. I certainly can arrange an honorable funeral.”

Ezer turned to Lest. “There’s a military cemetery in the Beliad region. It was used in the old days, but it’s still taken care of. This would be a good place, I think,” he said.

Lest nodded and turned to Jeff. “The Beliad region is borderland,” he explained. “The frontier doesn’t officially exist anymore because the Daglon states united about 2,500 years ago, but the borderland is still a thinly populated area. The old cemetery is located there.”

“I suggest we unload the spaceship tomorrow. I’ll talk with the manager of the museum. He’ll help us with the operation,” Ezer said.

“Are you sure he won’t inform the press?” Jeff asked.

“Feed the news channels on the intercom,” Lest explained.

“Ah,” Ezer replied. “No, he won’t. You must know that I fund this museum, Jeff.”

Jeff gave a laugh. “I think it’s just about the same everywhere in the galaxy.”

Ezer smirked. “Evolution follows the same paths throughout the universe, it seems,”

“We could fly to the Beliad region tomorrow,” Lest suggested.

Ezer agreed. “We can spend the night in the Beliad region and we’ll arrange the funeral at dawn,” Ezer  said. He looked at Jeff. “We must make this somewhat secret. Dawn is a good time. There won’t be any spectators around at this time of the day.”

Jeff nodded, although he wasn’t entirely convinced of the idea. An undercover operation was not exactly what he had in mind.

Ezer gave him a sympathetic smile. “Early morning is a good time for a funeral in the Beliad region. Time and place are well chosen, Jeff. You will see that dawn is just fine.”

Jeff smiled briefly. He took his glass and emptied it. “Okay, I must trust your advice. There’s not much else I can do anyway,” he said.

“There’s something else I want to discuss,” Lest said. “I have a plan, an operation that I guess will be of interest to you, Ezer.”

***


08

“I want to find out about the fate of the second spaceship,” Lest said. “It left Seth 45,000 years ago. It was declared lost in space, but I don’t believe it got lost. People have been speculating for ages and many said it travelled to a well-defined place. You must know of these speculations, Ezer.”

Ezer nodded slowly. “Sure I do, but all in good time, Lest,” he said. “We were left without an answer for centuries. We can wait another couple of days. No need to hurry, I think.”

“I need to go back to Ephos in twelve days and retrieve the Horus,” Lest said. “I rented a hangar.”

Ezer gave a laugh. “This is not a problem at all, Lest. Give me the intercom address of the hangar company and I will arrange a longer stay, if necessary.” He paused, his eyes fixed on Lest. “I’m a wealthy man, but I spend my credits wisely. I might fund your mission, Lest, but, please, provide me with more information first.”

“Yes, what do you have in mind, Lest?” Jeff asked uncomfortably.

“I think the second spaceship travelled to Earth. They must have arrived about 45,000 years ago, but civilization on Earth developed only thousands of years later. I was wondering. What happened back then? What happened to the Seth fugitives?” Lest said. He turned to Ezer. “Jeff told me of the ancient Egyptians who built huge pyramids 5,000 years ago. The Egyptians used the ancient Seth names. Jeff told me that Horus, the name of my ship, and Seth are the names of ancient Egyptian gods. I think the Egyptians were descendants of the Seth colonists and I suspect that they held the knowledge of their origin.” Lest leaned back and looked between Jeff and Ezer. “I want to find out what happened back then and I want to do some research. In short, I want to jump back in time.”

Ezer straightened and Jeff shifted uncomfortably in his chair. There was a brief silence. Lest looked eagerly between the two men.

“This is plain impossible,” Jeff said finally.

“It’s not,” Lest replied. “I jump through space all the time. Space and time are entwined.”

“True, Lest, but the space jump drive is fairly common throughout  space, whereas only few species are in control of the time jump drive,” Ezer said.

“I know,” Lest replied. “Level A species only have permission to work with the time jump drive. The Daglons were A until twelve years ago and they regained status A a couple of days ago. I’m fairly sure that the Daglons know how to operate the time jump drive.” He leaned forward and fixed his eyes on Ezer. “Ezer, I want a time jump drive for my ship and jump back in time in order to find out what happened on Earth.”

Ezer crossed his arms in front of his chest. He didn’t reply and instead mustered Lest. Jeff looked between the two men. He sensed that something was going wrong. The atmosphere in the room was tensed.

“See, Ezer,” Lest said. “You would get the information exclusively. You’d be the one who officially had the idea of researching Earth’s past and  you will get an entry into the history books. How does this sound to you? I don’t seek fame. All I want is a time jump drive.”

“You want a hell of a lot,” Ezer said. He emptied his glass, placed it on the table and looked at the door.

“Think about it, Ezer,” Lest urged. “Don’t miss the opportunity.”

“Why are you so interested in this mission, Lest?” Ezer asked. “Do you just want to get hold of a time jump drive in order to sell it for tons of credits or what?”

Lest leaned back and crossed his arms. “I may have become a somewhat shady figure, but I’m not a common thief. I would never steal from the Daglons and I would never steal from you, Ezer,” he said.

“I know, I know. Let me think about it, Lest,” Ezer said. He rose to his feet. “I’m going to my room now and will arrange the transfer of Jeff’s ship. We’ll get it done tomorrow morning and then we can fly to the Beliad region. I will arrange for the trip also.”

Ezer nodded at Jeff and cast Lest a look. “All in good time, Lest. We’ll talk about your plan tomorrow. Good night and thanks for contacting me,” he said.

Lest gave Ezer a curt nod, stood and went to the window. Night had fallen meanwhile.

Jeff rose to his feet. “Good night, Ezer,” he said, shaking the man’s hand. He opened the door for him.

Ezer measured Jeff. “I would like to spend more time with you, Jeff, just to get a feeling for your species. I travelled through space a lot when I was younger, always in the service of Daglon. I retired when they declared the war. I couldn’t relate to my own people anymore. I want to get to know you better before I take a decision,” he said.

“Certainly,” Jeff replied. “I’m also wondering if Lest’s plan is a good plan.”

Ezer gave Jeff a brief smile, wished him a good night and then walked down the corridor. Jeff closed the door. Lest turned around and glared at him.

“I heard what you said,” he hissed. “Why did you stab me in the back, Jeff?”

“What? Stop it, Lest. I didn’t stab you in the back,” Jeff said. “Actually, I don’t understand your intentions. Why do you want to explore Earth’s past? Why don’t you jump back and visit Seth or your own planet Daglon, if you really must jump back in time. Isn’t it dangerous anyway? Wouldn’t a time jump change the course of time?”

Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “We wouldn’t change anything. We would just observe and watch,” he said.

He sat down in a chair and leaned back, exhaled deeply and looked at Jeff.

“Are you not interested in Earth’s past? Don’t you want to find out about the truth? Don’t you want to know if the humans descended from Seth settlers?” he asked.

Jeff sat down on the couch. “The genetic profile is proof of it. Why do you want to jump back and visit the ancient Egyptians, Lest? It doesn’t make sense to me. If at all, whey not jump back to the time when the settlers built up the colony?”

Lest crossed his arms in front of his chest. Jeff leaned forward and looked at Lest.

“What do you really want, Lest? Tell me,” he said.

Lest took a breath. “I was thinking,” he replied. “You told me of the Egyptian’s preservation cult. They preserved the ancient Seth names. I was wondering what else they might have preserved. It can’t hurt to have a look. Daglon’s history is well known and documented. We have many artifacts. The past holds no secrets on Daglon.”

“I’m not convinced,” Jeff said. “Are you really just planning a sightseeing trip? Do you want Ezer to steal a time jump drive for a fun trip? Come on, Lest. Are you kidding me?”

“Hell, no,” Lest exclaimed. “I don’t want him to steal the time jump drive.” He stood and walked to the window. “You’re right, Jeff.  It was a foolish idea. Ezer would have to make the operation somewhat official in order to legally get hold of the drive. He would have to reveal the reason of the operation and the mission’s target, of course.”

“Yes,” Jeff replied. “The inevitable would happen. The Daglons would visit Earth and probably claim the planet. The people on Earth would all freak out. The politicians would be the first to adept to the new situation and they would try to establish political connections with Daglon. I suspect the nations would  fiercely compete.”

“This is typical class C behavior,” Lest said. “But you’re right, Jeff. I could imagine that the human politicians and lobbyists would put pressure on Daglon by exorbitant claims and demands. This can’t be in Daglon’s interest. The Daglon government would have to somehow handle the matter. Not an easy task, considering our common origin. The Alliance would also intervene sooner or later. They’re always in search of new markets.”

“Daglon could cut off the connections. The planet is too far away for us to reach,” Jeff said.

“Sure,” Lest replied. “But the Alliance would not stop to capture the new market. They would also take political influence. The 29 nations are superior to Earth, technology-wise. Earth would never be the same.”

There was a brief silence.

“An undercover operation would certainly be best then,” Jeff said.

“You have changed your mind?” Lest asked. “I thought you didn’t want to jump back at all.”

 “How does a time jump drive work anyway?” Jeff asked. “Like a space jump drive?”

“Similar,” Lest said.

He seized the menu brochure that Jeff had read earlier, ripped a page out and placed it on the table.

“Look at this word on top of the page and this word at the bottom,” he said.  “Let’s assume these words are solar systems and the distance between them is one Earth light year. A conventional spaceship will cover the distance in a certain amount of time, depending on the ship’s speed. It would cover the distance in one Earth year at light speed.”

Jeff nodded.

“If you want to shorten the trip, you must fly with a space jump drive,” Lest said. He folded the paper several times in the middle. “Now the distance between the solar systems is shorter,” he said.

“Space is folded, so to speak,” Jeff replied.

Lest nodded. He unfolded the paper and placed it back on the table.

“Now imagine the tabletop represents present time. The past is below the table. Now, how can you travel back in time? For instance, how can you reach the floor?” he asked.

“I would have to fold the space below the table,” Jeff said. “You mean the time jump drive works similar to the space jump drive?”

Lest looked up. “Space and time are entwined.  I think you know this. It’s basic knowledge,” he said.

“Space-time,” Jeff replied. “An interwoven continuum.” He leaned back and looked at Lest. “I understand the concept, although I still have no clear idea of how space is folded, technology-wise, I mean. The Daglons are an advanced species and have mastered space-time. The humans are way behind.”

Lest smirked. “We’ve not yet grasped the concept entirely,” he said. “We know how to handle the space jump drive. Every species operating in space has learned how to use it. The time jump drive so far is only used in research, because of a few accidents in the past. The Alliance set strict rules and every nation abides to them, at least in this part of the galaxy.”

“And you would jump back despite the risks?” Jeff asked.

“I would,” Lest replied. “I’d like to step into the unknown. The trip might well turn into a one-way trip. It’s a risk, but I’m willing to take it. I don’t want to get into the history books. The operation would be a step into the future and I’d feel proud to be a part of it.”

Jeff’s suspicions faded at Lest’s words. He had felt the same when he had been chosen for the mission to Mars.

“I understand you now, “ he said. “These are the thoughts and dreams of a space pioneer.”

Lest looked at him with surprise, but then smiled.

“I think, we have a lot in common, Jeff Caspar,” he said.

Jeff smirked. Lest rose to his feet, walked over and placed his hand on Jeff’s shoulder.

“Let’s rest now. We have a lot to do tomorrow,” he said.

They exchanged a look. Lest hesitated, but then turned around and went into his bedroom. Jeff remained sitting on the couch for a while.

***


09

Ezer came to their suite the following morning. Lest apologized to him. Ezer made a dismissive gesture with his hand.

“Nothing to dwell on, Lest. You had a rough time. I know how a long stay in space can stress you out,” he said.

Lest smiled briefly, but didn’t reply. He seized his bag instead.

“Ready, Jeff?” he asked. “We’ll be away for one day and one night.”

They left the suite, went down to  the hotel’s restaurant and had a quick breakfast.

“I’ve spoken with the director of the museum, Duff Alee,” Ezer said. “We’ll store Jeff’s ship in a basement room that is not open to visitors. I arranged for a hover container size 3. It will be docked to the ship. I hope, Lest, you can hover Jeff’s ship into the container on your own. I don’t want the clerk of the container company see the cargo.”

“We should manage this,” Lest replied.

 “How will we get the container into the basement of the museum?” Jeff asked.

“Same way,” Ezer said. “A ramp leads down to the basement. It was built for this exact reason, transferring cargo down to the store rooms. Once the ship is inside, I will lock the room. Not even Duff will be able to open the door.”

“You’ll have a personalized lock system installed?” Lest asked.

“Already have,” Ezer said with a smile.

 “When did you do this? It’s just about breakfast time,” Lest said with surprise.

 “I’m an early riser, always have been, you ought to know, Lest,” Ezer replied.

“Yes, I remember,” Lest said with a grin. He turned to Jeff. “Ezer was my practical trainer. We trained countless times when dawn was breaking. I hated it.”

Ezer gave a laugh. “But you have become a good pilot, one of the best. A pity you turned your back on Daglon.”

Lest’s grin disappeared. He frowned at Ezer.

Ezer raised his hand. “A good captain learns from his mistakes, else he won’t be a captain for long,” he said.

“Right,” Lest said curtly. He seized his cup and emptied it.

“You said you left Daglon twelve years ago,” Jeff said despite Lest’s annoyance. “You were a pilot at the age of twenty?”

“Yes,” Lest replied. “Pilot, navigator, and engineer.”

“Our education system allows for it,” Ezer explained. “Children start a specialized training at the age of ten. I was a pilot in the service of Daglon, but I was also a trainer. More a trainer than a pilot in my later years. The space flight school has an excellent reputation. 70% of the students are Daglon, 30% come from everywhere in space.”

“Awesome,” Jeff said. “I received a full training also, but I didn’t start at such a young age.”

Ezer looked at Jeff with interest. Lest turned his head to him.

“You had a full training?” he asked.

“Yes,” Jeff replied. “We were only four on our mission to Mars. If anyone dropped out for whatever reason, the others had to step in.”

“Interesting,” Ezer said. He placed his hands together and looked into the room thoughtfully.

“I would like to steer a ship again, but unfortunately  I can’t. I don’t understand Daglon space technology. I feel I’m a complete beginner,” Jeff said.

“Nonsense,” Lest replied. “You steered a spaceship from Earth to Mars. You would have made it there and back, if I had not dragged you through space, that is.”

“Lest was always looking for a risky maneuver,” Ezer said. “It meant a lot of fun to him.”

Lest gave a laugh. “Finished?” he asked. “We ought to go now, I think.”

***

They went to the parking lot. The hover container had already arrived. It was hovering in the air and a man stood idly next to it. Lest instructed the man to dock the container to the ship and then he entered the cruise vessel and activated an onboard hover cargo facility. Jeff opened the security locks that kept his ship in the assigned place. It was a tiring work for only two men, but they finally managed to hover the Daidalos into the container. They undocked the container, Jeff and Lest left the cruise vessel and joined Ezer in the parking lot. The container was hovered to the museum. Duff Alee, the director of the museum was waiting for them.

“I heard you picked up some space oddity,” the man said curiously.

“An old vessel floating in space,” Lest replied. “I thought I’d take it to Daglon.”

“We’ll lock the artifact up until I have more time to investigate it,” Ezer said. “I fund this museum, Duff, and I personally pick the artifacts that I want to display.”

“No need to worry, Honorable Malk, I assure you that nobody will see the ship,”
Duff Alee said, wiping his forehead with a handkerchief.

The man hastened after the container that was being hovered down the ramp.

“How was I?” Ezer asked. “A true prig and snob. I’m sure Duff won’t try to open the basement room.”

Jeff’s spaceship was stored in the basement room and the room was locked. Ezer, Lest, and Jeff went back to the parking lot. Lest opened the hatch of the cruise vessel and they entered the ship.

“Off to the Beliad region,” Ezer said, walking to the galley. “Let’s enjoy this trip.”

“Enjoy yourself, Ezer. I must go to the cockpit and steer the ship,” Lest said drily.

He left. Jeff looked after him and then turned back to Ezer.

“Go, Jeff,” Ezer said, waving his hand. “I can occupy myself.”

Jeff went into the cockpit and sat down in the co-pilots seat. For the first time since his rescue, he felt like a pilot again.

 “Watch the systems, Jeff Caspar,” Lest said with a nod.

“Copy that. Watch the systems,” Jeff replied with a smile.

A couple of minutes later, ground control gave them clearance for takeoff. The cruise vessel took off and sped up.

Jeff looked at the controls. They were not entirely alien to him. He had seen similar controls on the Daglon warship and a few even reminded him of the Daidalos. An idea occurred to him. He focused on his neural implant and activated the language module that was connected with the Alliance database. The computer had shown him pictures in quick succession during his lessons and the software had associated words and context with them. Jeff wondered if it worked the other way round also. He focused on the displays and the implant at the same time.

“It’s absolutely great,” Jeff said.

“What?” Lest asked, looking over.

“I’ve connected to the database,” Jeff explained. “It kind of translates what I see. I’m beginning to understand what the displays are there for. I fed the database with Earth context during the lessons on your ship. The database now feeds back to me, in a sense. I’m beginning to understand.”

“Very good,” Lest replied with a nod. “We should continue to work with this concept.”

They arrived at a small airport in the Beliad region three hours later and touched down. The ship rolled down a runway and came to a halt.

“All systems out,” Lest said, unstrapped and rose to his feet.

Jeff unstrapped and stood also. They found Ezer sleeping in a chair in the lounge. Lest patted the man’s shoulder. Ezer looked around drowsily.

“Oh,” he said. “I think I missed all the flight. What time is it?”

“Late in the afternoon,” Lest replied.

“Well, the men should be here already,” Ezer said, moving towards a window. “Yes, they’re waiting outside. Lest, can you establish a connection with the hovercraft over there?”

“Do you have a direct line code?” Lest asked.

“Yes, try 77854,” Ezer said.

Lest went back into the cockpit to establish a connection. Ezer followed him while Jeff remained in the lounge. A couple of minutes passed, then the hovercraft was hovering towards their ship. Ezer and Lest came back into the lounge. Lest’s face showed a frown. Jeff gave him a questioning look, but Lest ignored him.

“We’ll move on with the hovercraft. An Ephos cruise vessel in the place with the cemetery would attract unwanted attention,” Ezer said.

The smaller vehicle docked to their ship. Two men came over and greeted Ezer respectfully. Ezer introduced his friends to Lest and Jeff. The men didn’t ask questions. They had apparently been instructed earlier. They transferred the caskets to the smaller ship. The vehicle undocked. They all climbed into it and the hovercraft left the airport. Ezer’s friends steered the vehicle, the other men were seated in the cabin. None of them spoke for a while.

“Who are these men?” Jeff asked finally.

“Friends of mine,” Ezer said. “Combat veterans. They fought also in that unfortunate war twelve years ago. I told them that Lest quit the job. They fought to the end, but believe me, they do understand him. They can relate to your feelings, Lest, and they understand that you want to take your fallen comrades home, Jeff. I didn’t tell them more, because I didn’t want to make up a lie, but they asked no questions. They are honest men.”

They reached the cemetery. The hovercraft stopped and Ezer’s friends joined them in the cabin.

“Let’s get this done professionally,” Ezer said. He turned to Lest and Jeff. “You’ll stay on board of the hovercraft while we’re arranging things.”

Jeff protested, but Lest placed his hand on his arm. “Calm, Jeff,” he said. “Let them do what needs to be done.”

Ezer and his friends got off the vehicle. Jeff moved to the window and looked out.

“What are they doing?” he asked.

“They’re letting the caskets down,” Lest replied.

“What?” Jeff exclaimed, turning around and heading for the hatch. “They can’t just let them down. I want a proper funeral.”

“Wait,” Lest called out, hurrying after him. He seized Jeff’s arm.

“Let me go!” Jeff shouted and fought with Lest, but Lest shoved him back into the ship.

Jeff slumped down in a seat. “I want an explanation,” he exclaimed.

“This place is a military operation place,” Lest said. “Ezer pulled a few strings. We have no official permission to be here and no one will find out, if all is done quickly.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? Ezer promised a proper funeral. Why did you make up a lie?” Jeff shouted.

“Ezer informed me on the change of operation only a short while ago when he joined me in the cockpit. I cannot do anything about it,” Lest said. “We’re here undercover. We must play along.”

Lest walked to the window. Half an hour went by. They didn’t exchange a word until the men came back. Jeff jumped from his seat.

“That’s not how we had discussed it,” he shouted.

“We’re in a hurry, Jeff. We must not stay here for long,” Ezer replied shortly. “Come now, I will show you to the burial place.”

They left the hovercraft. Ezer showed Jeff to a place with a willow tree.

 “If you want to stay here for a couple of minutes...,” Ezer started.

“Yes, please,” Jeff interrupted him. “I need a couple of minutes to gather my thoughts and say a proper farewell to my friends.”

“Certainly,” Ezer replied. “We will be waiting by the hovercraft. Just don’t take too long.”

Jeff nodded curtly. He would have liked to punch Ezer in the face and he guessed that his emotions showed clearly. Ezer walked back to the hovercraft. Jeff looked at the burial place.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “Who would have guessed it would end like this?”

“They’ll venture into the unknown and the unknown holds no fears for them. I wish them good luck on their journey and I hope that we will meet again,” Lest said.

He had approached Jeff silently. Jeff turned to him. Tears showed in the corner of his eyes. Lest took Jeff’s hand and squeezed it.

“This is not right,” Jeff said.

“No, it is not,” Lest replied. “We’ll come here again and make it right. We’ll come here at dawn and not at dusk. We’ll come here when the sun is rising and the birds are singing and are greeting the break of the morning. We’ll come here again, not undercover, but as free and honorable men. Promised, Jeff Caspar.”

He drew back his hand and patted Jeff’s shoulder. “Come now, let’s go back,” he said.

Ezer and his friends were waiting in front of the hovercraft. Jeff looked at Ezer and was shocked at the contemptuous grin on the man’s face. Ezer instantly turned his eyes away.  The men entered the hovercraft.

The ride back was not a pleasure. They sat in silence, the atmosphere was tensed. The hovercraft finally arrived at the airport and the men got off the vehicle.

“All right, let’s go to the airport hotel,” Lest said.

“No, we won’t stay for the night in the Beliad region. We’ll fly back to Amun at once,” Ezer commanded.

“What?” Lest asked. “That’s not how we planned it.”

“No discussions, Captain Lest. You’ll follow my command,” Ezer said arrogantly.

Lest protested again, but Ezer ignored him. Jeff looked uncomfortably between the men. Finally, Lest gave in and followed Ezer. He motioned to Jeff to come along. They entered the cruise vessel and Lest went into the cockpit without a word. Ezer sat down in a seat in the lounge, leaned back and closed his eyes. Jeff joined Lest in the cockpit. Ground control gave them clearance for take-off. They sat silently all through the flight. Lest looked grimly ahead. It was close to midnight when they arrived at Amun. They left the ship and Ezer told Lest and Jeff that he would travel on the very night. The man hurried towards the air taxi stand without a proper goodbye. Lest and Jeff were entirely perplexed.

“This isn’t right. This is not how we discussed it,” Lest said angrily.

“Yes, I fear that something is going very wrong,” Jeff replied.

***


10

Jeff and Lest entered the hotel and went to their suite.

“Someone was in the room,” Jeff said. “This chair didn’t stand by the window when we left in the morning.”

“Room service,” Lest replied. He sat down on the couch, wiping his eyes. “I wonder where Ezer is going in the dead of the night. Why didn’t he mention his plan earlier?”

Jeff gave no reply. He opened a wardrobe. “Look,” he exclaimed. “I’ve taken along two space overalls. The one with the Horus emblem was on top of the other. Now the other one is on top.”

“What’s wrong with you, Jeff? You’re probably just mistaken,” Lest said tiredly.

“Nothing’s wrong with me, but something’s wrong with the situation,” Jeff said angrily.

Lest looked at him.

“I had an uneasy feeling all day long,” Jeff said. “Why did Ezer ask us to take along things for a night in the Beliad region, when we actually spent only a couple of hours there? He told me the burial place was a suited place in a beautiful region, but all I saw was a willow tree. This wasn’t a funeral. It wasn’t right, Lest.”

“I didn’t expect this totally rushed operation either,” Lest replied. “He lied to me, too. It didn’t work out like I had planned it. I got him hooked. He spent time and credits on us. He stored your ship and flew with us to the Beliad region. It seemed he was interested in the mission to Earth and interested to get more information on the planet.”

Jeff’s eyes widened. “Can’t you see, Lest?” he asked. “He has my ship. He can retrieve the information he wants from the ship’s computer. Earth’s co-ordinates. He’ll find Earth without us.”

Lest jumped to his feet. “I’m not a complete idiot,” he shouted. “I had the data transferred to the computer of my ship. I left behind only scrambled data. He can’t make anything of it.”

“This is probably why we are here now and not buried in the Beliad region,” Jeff said drily.
“He wants to interrogate us thoroughly before killing us off.”

Lest was pacing the room. “They investigated your ship while we were away and found the data was useless. Shit. Now they need to question us. But why did Ezer leave?”

“Perhaps he can’t operate on his own and must meet up with someone first. I suspect they’ll come here soon in order to get us,” Jeff said. “He must think we’re dumb enough to not figure out his plan.”

“We need to get out of here at once. Let’s get our things packed,” Lest said urgently.

“What about the others?” Jeff asked.

“We can’t wait for them,” Lest replied, seizing his bag from the floor. “I’ll send them a message. They must leave on their own and we’ll pick them up in space.”

“What if Ezer is monitoring your intercom?” Jeff asked.

“We don’t use the official lines when undercover, Jeff. We’re not that dumb,” Lest replied. He focused on his neural implant. “I’ve sent them a message, but I can’t wait for a reply. Come on now, Jeff , let’s get out of here.”

They left the suite ten minutes later. Nobody paid them attention when they crossed the lounge and left the hotel. Lest had already paid in advance. An air taxi took them to the spaceport. They got to their rented ship without difficulties. Lest locked the entrance and went straight into the cockpit. Jeff sat down in the co-pilot’s seat.

“Can you steer the ship and fly back to Ephos without the help of your crew?” Jeff asked

“I’m not flying this ship on my own, Commander Jeff Caspar,” Lest said, turning his eyes to Jeff.  “You’re the co-pilot obviously.”

“I’m not familiar with alien technology,” Jeff said.

“You had a full training: pilot, navigator, and engineer. Get a grip on yourself, commander,” Lest said sharply.

“All right, captain,” Jeff replied, turning his eyes to the displays.

Lest spoke to ground control, then touched his temple and focused on his neural implant.

“Le’Ton has replied,” he said. “They’ll gather in Khonsu, another tourism center, and get on a charter flight to Heket, a private space platform with wellness hotels. The platform is half way between Daglon and Ephos. We’ll pick them up there.”

Ground control directed the spaceship to a runway. They got clearance for take-off. The ship sped up, took off and climbed quickly into the air. Lest accelerated the ship as soon as they had left the planet. The ship shot through space at maximum speed.

***

“Check and correct the plotted course, commander,” Lest said.

“Roger,” Jeff replied.

A few seconds passed. Lest looked over. “The screen on the right,” he said. “We’re on autopilot. I just want you to get familiar with the navigation systems.”

Jeff nodded and focused on the screen. 

“Eleven and a half hours. We must not let concentration go down,” Lest said.

“Are you tired?” Jeff asked.

“Not exactly,” Lest replied. “How about you?”

“Neither,” Jeff said. “It’s the adrenalin. Do you think they have already figured out that we’ve fled? Ezer could send a ship after us.”

“I remember something he said. He said he would speak to the hangar company on Ephos, if we wanted to stay longer on Daglon,” Lest said. “His influence apparently reaches this far. I have underestimated the man. He was in the military, after all.”

“He told me he retired at the outbreak of war. Deems me odd. His friends fought to the end,” Jeff said.

“He worked behind the scenes,” Lest replied. “They were working on the time jump drive. There were rumors that they used it to destabilize the economy on the attacked planet. This was one of the reasons why the Alliance degraded Daglon. No real evidence, though. Ezer retired in time to avoid the investigations.”

“How comes you know about it?” Jeff asked.

Lest glanced at him. “I was his favorite trainee and student. He told me too much. That was his mistake.”

Jeff cast him an awkward look. Lest gave a laugh.

“Yes, he’s twenty years older than I am. I was seventeen, he thirty-seven. I admired him, his skills, his connections, his looks,” Lest said. He looked ahead. “It lasted only one year.”

“What happened?” Jeff asked.

“He favored another student after the summer vacations,” Lest said.

There was a short silence.

“Do you want to take revenge on him?” Jeff asked. “Is this what you plan?

Lest was thinking. “Not exactly,” he said.  “Sure, he lost my respect. He didn’t treat me right. He lost interest in me and  he didn’t care to tell me.”

“I know what you mean,” Jeff replied. “Like the rushed funeral. My comrades deserved better. I’m feeling cheated and hurt.”

“Yes,” Lest said. “I felt cheated and hurt, too, and I find that I deserve someone better, someone who really cares.” He fell silent.

Jeff watched him, but Lest didn’t continue.

“I was under the impression you had not entirely lost contact with him,” Jeff said finally.

“True,” Lest replied. “I met him on Cyrus once or twice a year. He told me of a secret project, but he didn’t go into details. It had to do with the time jump drive. He asked me several times if I wanted to join his team as a pilot. He offered me to clear my name in exchange, but I always declined his offer.”

“Did he plan to use the time jump drive for raiding operations?” Jeff asked.

“He was fantasizing about retrieving artifacts. It intrigued him,” Lest said.

 “If he wanted you to join his team, why didn’t he ask you again when we came to Daglon?” Jeff asked.

“He has meanwhile found a pilot, I guess. I think he has finished fantasizing,” Lest said. “I should have taken up on his offer earlier. I could have stopped him from raiding and ruining planets. I have waited too long.”

“Would Earth go to ruin, if he jumped back in time?” Jeff asked with concern.

“It happened to Kwain, a planet in a solar system about 50 light years from Daglon,” Lest said. “They went back fifty years and messed around for a day before they needed to run. Soon after their return, the climate changed on the planet. One day it was hot, the other day bitter cold. It seemed the planet could not choose between a period of drought or a period of cold. The weather was unstable for twenty years. People ultimately left the planet.”

“That was thirty years ago. Why does it affect you? You were one year old, a baby child,” Jeff said.

“My father worked with the Alliance. He was on an evacuation ship. The ship got into a raging storm and crashed. No survivors,” Lest said. “And no compensations from the Alliance. My mother needed to struggle through.”

There was a brief silence. They looked ahead.

“I understand,” Jeff said finally. “I understand now why you fight Ezer and don’t side with the Alliance. You’re a lonely rider in space.”

Lest gazed at him, then gave a laugh. “Well, a rider maybe, but not a raider, although I work in the gray area, I have to admit,” he said. “And what about you, Jeff? You have told little to nothing about your past.”

Jeff looked at Lest. “I’m an only child. My parents were proud when I was chosen for the mission to Mars. They must think that I’m dead,” he said.

Lest gave a barely visible nod. “This is not right either, Jeff,” he replied. “I admit that I didn’t want to take you back to Earth in order to avoid a crisis. How would you have explained what happened in space? How would you have explained your return to Earth? Aliens rescued me, you would have said. Can you imagine what would have happened?”

“Yes,” Jeff said. “I’m beginning to accept my fate and yet I think that my parents deserve to know that I’m alive.”

“I will find a way to let them know,” Lest said. “Promised, Jeff Caspar.”

“You promise me a lot, Captain Lest. Why?” Jeff asked.

Lest looked over. “Because I like you, Commander Jeff Casper,” he said with a smile.

Jeff studied him. “Likewise, Captain Lest,” he said finally, returning the smile.

An alarm interrupted them. The men focused on the controls.

“Object on collision course,” Jeff exclaimed.

Lest reached out, pressed a few buttons and activated the screens. “A small asteroid,” he said.

“Collision in six minutes,” Jeff warned.

“Course correction zero zero five seven,” Lest said, manually reprogramming the course.

The ship changed course and the alarm stopped ringing.

Jeff exhaled. “Why did the ship’s sensors detect the object so late?” he asked.

“This is a cruise vessel, Jeff. It’s designed for short fun trips. These trips are cheap or even a bonus for Ephos’ guests. Maintenance of the ships is low,” Lest replied.

“I wished we were back on the Horus,” Jeff said.

“Nine more hours. Take a nap,” Lest suggested.

“No, I won’t. I’ll activate my neural implant and connect to the language database,” Jeff replied.

“Okay. I’m trying to pull information via the intercom lines. Maybe I find something out about Ezer,” Lest said.

The hours went by. They were approaching Ephos. Ships were flying to and from the planet. Lest slowed the spaceship down.

“It’s about noon and traffic is heavy. That’s good. Security controls will be lax,” he said.
“Le’Ton sent me a message four hours ago before they embarked on the tourist ship. No difficulties so far. They’ll reach Heket in two hours. If everything works out well, we’ll arrive at the space platform at about the same time. The Horus is faster than the cruise vessel and I will jump in space in case I must.”

“What about Ezer? Did you find out anything about him?” Jeff asked.

“I checked the news feeds on the intercom,” Lest replied. “He’s said to sponsor many projects, the museum in Amun, a historical society and a private flight training school, for instance. A few reporters wondered how he had made his fortune. He can’t have inherited it. His parents weren’t that well-off. The pay in the military is good, but not that good to make a fortune. A critical reporter speculated that the military had bribed him to silence. He mentioned the rumors about the time jump drive and Ezer’s surprising retirement at the beginning of the war.”

“The man was  hard on Ezer’s tracks,” Jeff said.

Lest nodded. “I was wondering why Ezer sponsors a historical society, but it’s plain to see, isn’t it?” he said.

“He wanted to find out about a promising target for his hunt for artifacts. What does the historical society focus on?” Jeff asked.

“The history of Daglon,” Lest replied. “I checked their information feeds. Two historians are heads of the society. I have a feeling they know more about Daglon’s origin than they sold the public for centuries.”

“They might already know where the second spaceship flew to. They might already know Earth’s co-coordinates,” Jeff said.

“They didn’t kill us off. They planned to retrieve more information from us. Ezer headed back to Amun to meet up with someone. Good for us,” Lest said. “Thus we were able to escape.”

“They can’t let us run,” Jeff said.

Lest nodded. “Yes, I’m pretty sure they’ll send a ship after us.”

They reached Ephos. The cruise vessel descended.

***


11

Lest contacted ground control and they gave him permit to descend to the hangar section where the Horus was parked.

“They let us in quickly. They might be already waiting for us,” Lest said.

“Why then don’t you stop the landing approach?” Jeff asked.

“I devised a plan. My experiences on planets like Cyrus have certainly paid off. We’ll tell them we’re two pilots in the service of Ezer Malk,” Lest said with a grin.

A message came in. Lest listened and then he gave Jeff a meaningful look.

“The hangar company transmitted a message. It said the Horus was ready for take-off like Ezer Malk had instructed. I told you that his influence reaches this far. Anyway, this simplifies the matter.”

“He actually wants to capture the Horus,” Jeff said in disbelief.

“He rightly assumes that I have transferred the data of your ship to the Horus,” Lest said.

“His men must be on the way,” Jeff replied. “The hangar company is expecting them.”

“I suspect they left Daglon a couple of hours after us with a faster ship,” Lest said. “They have not yet arrived. Time is on our side. I’m sure we’ll make it.”

“They’ve unlocked the Horus,” Jeff said. “This is plain incredible.”

“I will enforce security measures once we’re back in space. I’ve made a mistake, Jeff. I underestimated Ezer. I won’t make the same mistake again,” Lest said. “Now, let’s go down and get my ship, then pick up my crew and get out of the solar system. We’ll jump far out into space and make a few more jumps to cover our trace.”

 The ship touched down and rolled into the assigned hangar.

“Let me do the talk,” Lest said. “Once you open your mouth, they’ll now you’re not Daglon.”

“Won’t they recognize our faces?” Jeff asked.

“All Daglon men look very much alike. They’ll rely primarily on the sent codes and digital information, a common mistake in these days. Just don’t put your finger with the chip on any device,” Lest said. “And we must leave our bags behind. They mustn’t see the Horus ship overalls we’ve taken along, of course.”

The ship halted and they got off. An employee of the hangar company awaited them. He eyed them warily.

“I trust you return the cruise vessel without any malfunctions. Else the travel agency will give me hell,” he said.

“We wouldn’t have made it here with a malfunctioning ship,” Lest replied. “Ezer Malk had the men arrested when their cover blew. They claimed to be business men on a fun trip to Daglon, but in reality they were undercover agents. They wanted to spy on the space artifacts that Ezer Malk stores in his museum. Their attempts were hopelessly amateurish. Ezer Malk learned they came to Ephos in a Daglon warship. They must have stolen it. Where is it?”

The man pointed at a gate. “In the next hangar. It’s ready for take-off. If you would confirm your arrival, please,” he said, holding out a device to them.

“Wait a minute,” Lest said, touching his temple. “I’m getting a message. Commander, would you please go and check on the warship?”

Jeff instantly walked off to the gate. The employee made a few steps after him.

“Wait,” Lest shouted after the man. “I’m the captain. I’m the chief of this operation.”

The man turned back to Lest and waited resignedly. Jeff crossed the gate and caught sight of the Horus. The ship stood on the runway. The hatch was open and the lights were on. Jeff approached the ship with a haughty demeanor. Two engineers were standing on the runway. Their skin was grayish and their skulls were prolonged. The men were clearly not Daglon. There was a good chance they would not realize he wasn’t Daglon either, because they would communicate via their neural implants.

“Ezer Malk sent us to get the ship. Is everything ready?” Jeff asked, not stopping his steps.

He approached the entrance. The engineers followed him. Jeff gave them a questioning look.

“The main computer has an additional lock,” one of the men said. “We were able to move the ship to this hangar and activate the general systems, but you can’t take off without the main system unlocked.”

“Thanks,” Jeff said with an acknowledging nod and entered the Horus.

The engineers looked after him, but remained standing on the runway. Jeff went directly to the bridge and sat down in the navigator’s seat. He checked the controls and displays. The main controls were dead. Jeff leaned back. A couple of minutes went by, then Lest came running on the bridge. He sat down in the pilot’s seat and started to activate the main system. The controls and displays went on.

“I had to knock down that persistent employee. He didn’t stop bothering me with his identification gadget. Now let’s get out of here before they will close the hangar,” Lest said.

“What about the engineers on the runway?” Jeff asked.

“I told them to run. I guess they understood the urgency of the matter,” Lest replied.

He focused on the controls and pressed a few buttons. The ship was rolling towards the hangar opening. Ground control asked them to halt the ship instantly.

“Screw you,” Lest said drily and cut off the connection.

He accelerated the spaceship. The ship shot out into open space. An alarm started ringing.

“Incoming spaceship on collision course,” Jeff shouted.

Lest hit a button. “Computer. Course correction,” he said.

The ship climbed up abruptly. Jeff and Lest were pressed into their seats. The alarm stopped and a couple of minutes later the ship flew smoothly through space. Lest plotted the course to Heket. He was entering commands.

“What are you doing?” Jeff asked.

“I’m reprogramming the ship’s registration code,” Lest said. “Ezer will give out the code we used to land on Ephos to all spaceports in the solar system. We can’t land on Heket with the former code.”

“It seems that hacking codes is essential in the space business,” Jeff said.

 “It’s indeed vital,” Lest replied with a grin.

An hour went by. Jeff wiped his eyes.

“Tired?” Lest asked.

“Thirty-two hours without sleep,” Jeff said.

“One more hour,” Lest said. “Le’Ton has just sent me a message. They have arrived at Heket and will be waiting for us in the transit area of the spaceport, unless they will be arrested. I’ll wait until the very last minute before I contact ground control.”

“Won’t they recognize the type of the ship by sight?” Jeff asked.

“Sure,” Lest said. “They will see a Daglon warship. I can’t make it a cargo vessel. I’ll use the code of an active warship, though. My men can’t reprogram their finger chips and change their identity codes. Ezer certainly gave the codes out that the men used to enter Daglon. We’ll pretend that Daglon security sent us to pick up the men, criminals on the run.”

Jeff stared at Lest in disbelief. “Do you really think you’ll get through with this plan?”

“I don’t have much of a choice, have I?” Lest asked, glancing over and then turning back to the controls.

Jeff studied Lest. The man had two personality sides. On Daglon, he had shown his sensitive side. His actions were driven by personal motives, his father’s death, Ezer’s betrayal. Lest didn’t lack emotions at all. He had been able to relate to Jeff’s feelings and he had supported him several times. Lest had a sense for fairness and justice and he clearly cared for others. He took an enormous risk to pick up his crew. Lest had made a mistake. He had underestimated Ezer, but he had admitted his mistake without trying to blame others for it, which in Jeff’s eyes spoke in favor of Lest.

Lest’s other personality side was darker. Once on board of his ship, he had returned to captain mode. Lest was an outlaw and commanded a stolen ship, he ran his own business and operated illegally in space. Jeff had seen Cyrus, the shady place, where the captain was well-known and acknowledged. The captain was reckless and his morals were doubtful, his actions leaned clearly towards the criminal. Lest was smart and clever and able to push concerns aside. He wasn’t bold, however. His plans were well thought-out, even when he needed to devise them quickly. Lest was a man who could easily trick and cheat others and without scruples did so if necessary. His keen mind made him dangerous, but Lest didn’t act on intellect alone. His actions were also determined by emotions.

Lest hadn’t seen through Ezer Malk. The man had tricked him completely. Jeff wondered how Lest would take his failure on the emotional side. Lest combined a keen mind and hurt feelings. Was this combination a ticking bomb?

Lest gave him a questioning look. Jeff realized he had been staring at him.

“I was just wondering what I’ve gotten involved in,” Jeff said.

Lest smiled briefly. “No time for second thoughts, commander,” he said. “We’ll touch down in a couple of minutes. I’ve informed Le’Ton via a secret intercom line. They’ll play along. Now I must inform ground control of our mission.”

Jeff leaned back and closed his eyes. The operation was chanceless in his opinion, but what could he do? He had to play along as well.

Ground control cleared the ship for landing. Lest descended the Horus and followed the instructions. The Daglon warship was directed to a hangar. The place looked much like the one on Ephos. The ship halted and Lest powered down the system.

“You’ll stay on board, Jeff,” he said, rising to his feet. He hurried from the bridge.

Jeff sat silently, staring at the displays. He expected police or security staff to enter the ship at any moment. Nothing happened, though, and Jeff allowed himself to relax. Half an hour passed by and Jeff wondered what was going on outside. Finally, he heard voices. Lest entered the bridge, followed by Le’Ton, Corr, Doctor Midad and the two engineers. The men had wide grins on their faces. Lest held his thumb up.

“Now let’s get out of here,” he said, unable to hide his relief.

The engineers left the bridge and the other men sat down.

“Make ready for take-off,” Lest commanded. “Le’Ton, plot a course to the edge of the solar system. We’ll jump far out into space and make a few more jumps to cover our trace.”

The men strapped to their seats. Corr contacted ground control and Le’Ton checked the navigations systems.

“Ground control, requesting clearance for take-off, Daglon warship DWS114,” Corr said.

Ground control answered promptly and the Horus took off. The ship reached the jump point a couple of hours later.

“Jump drive activated,” Corr announced.

The sound of the engines changed.

“All right,” Lest said. “Three jumps in quick succession.”

A short while later, the Horus was far away from the Daglon solar system. The spaceship was floating in outer space on autopilot. The men assembled in the galley.

“This was a close escape. They arrested us when we got off the charter ship and locked us up in a room. Ezer Malk had given out our identification codes,” Le’Ton recounted.

“Luckily, our captain was very convincing,” Corr said. “They had no doubt he was Ezer’s henchman.”

“I would appreciate it if you filled us with the details, captain,” Doctor Midad said. “My hasty departure somewhat disturbed my friends. It was past midnight when I woke them and after a brief goodbye stormed out of their house."

Corr gave a laugh. “You should have seen my sister and her husband. They actually threatened to call emergency when I packed my things in the dead of the night.”

“Well, I was lucky then,” Le’Ton said. “I had just left a party and was waiting at an air taxi stand. It took me to the Khonsu spaceport."

Lest informed his crew. An excited discussion followed.

“I agree with you,” Le’Ton said. “Ezer Malk is up to something.”

“He last approached you on Cyrus two years ago, didn't he? Why didn’t he approach you again?” Midad asked.

“I think  he found another pilot,”  Lest replied.

“He just wanted to retrieve information from us. He’s interested in Earth’s co-ordinates. Why else should he have tried to capture the Horus? Lest transferred the data of my ship to the Horus computer,” Jeff said.

“We need to find out about Ezer’s plans,” Doctor Midad said.

“We can’t return to Daglon. This would be far too dangerous,” Corr said. “We must operate via the intercom. We need to gain access to his computer systems.”

Lest nodded thoughtfully. “We need to enforce our security systems first. They unlocked the Horus. This must not happen again,” he said.

“The ships needs a general overhaul, captain,” Le’Ton said. “The ship is twelve years old. We need a hardware and software update.”

“This operation will cost us a lot of credits, but I think the Mohic Empire will gladly pay for it,” Lest said with a wink at the men.

The Horus floated in outer space for a couple of days. The men rested and checked on their ship. Then they flew to Cyrus to wrap up a deal. They exclusively worked for the Mohic Empire the following weeks.

***

12

“We’ve made enough credits for now,” Lest said after another trip to the Mohic Empire. “I’m fed up with the Mohics anyway. They can’t even convey a proper greeting. Let’s fly back to Cyrus and get the ship updated. I’ve already talked with a few men via the intercom. Le’Ton, you will practice with Jeff. You will show him the basics of space navigation while the engineers overhaul the ship.”

Le’Ton looked shocked and opened his mouth to protest.

Lest raised his hand. “Stop, Le’Ton,” he said. “We share our earnings. Everybody on the ship contributes. I can’t take Jeff back to Earth, I can’t take him to Daglon, and I won’t throw him out somewhere in space. I took a decision. Jeff will stay on the Horus, but he must contribute like everybody else does.” He looked at Jeff.

Jeff nodded. “I certainly will, captain,” he said.

Lest turned to Le’Ton. “I was asking around on Cyrus via the intercom. I spoke with Peres. He’s a downright criminal, but he can procure whatever you want. Don’t ask me about his connections. Anyway, he told me that the time jump drive is under construction in many places. He had no chance to obtain one so far, but he has the navigation software and he offered it to me. From what he told me, it’s quite impressive but largely different from what we know. The package goes along with simulation lessons. I bought it. We’ll install it on an isolated computer on board and you, Le’Ton, will learn the software inside out. You’ll be first space navigator and only time navigator. Jeff will be second space navigator. He must take over the space navigation once you navigate through time.”

Lest’s crew looked at Lest with widened eyes.

“You actually want to travel through time?” Doctor Midad asked.

“There’s a good chance we must jump in time in order to stop Ezer,” Lest said. “I want it done properly. No messing around with space and absolutely no messing around with time.”  He turned to Le’Ton. “What do you think? Is it an option?”

“Sure, captain. This sounds reasonable to me. I will make Jeff an excellent space navigator,” Le’Ton said with radiant eyes. He had forgotten about his concerns and protests. Time navigator was apparently a job he thought he’d enjoy.

“Good,” Lest said with a content look. “Let’s fly to Cyrus.”

***

The first week on Cyrus was stressful. Lest hired mechanics and engineers who updated the Daglon warship in a rented hangar. Things got quieter in the second week. The ship’s hardware and software was completely updated at the end of the week. Le’Ton started to work with Jeff. The training was a full-time training and lasted three weeks.

Lest, Corr and Midad were on board sparsely. Jeff had no clear idea of what the three men were doing on Cyrus. The two engineers, Galven and Forit, were refining the computer systems.

Five weeks had gone by when Lest held another meeting in the galley.

“Okay,” he said. “We were all somewhat busy. I heard, Jeff, that you’re doing fine. You will practice in space very soon. Le’Ton, the time jump software will arrive tomorrow. I hired a man who will introduce you to it. A time jump drive will come along with the software. Peres made it possible. We’ll install the software on an isolated computer and only connect it with the main system when we’re running a test in space. Once all is working properly, we’ll integrate it to the main computer. We’ll deliver cargo to the Mohics again for a couple of weeks. The purchases and updates cost a lot of credits and we need to refill our accounts. This done, we’ll start our operation.”

The men nodded admiringly.

“You’ve arranged it all in the briefest of times,” Jeff said.

Lest smiled. “We’re in a hurry. Corr, Midad, and I were asking around on Cyrus and we have retrieved important information. You know that I met Ezer every now and then on Cyrus in the previous couple of years. The encounters were accidental. We usually met in a bar. Each time Ezer mentioned a project he was working on and he asked me several times to join it. I last met him on Cyrus two years ago. We were wondering if he had not come to the planet again or simply had avoided any encounter,” he said.

Lest straightened. “We found out that he was on Cyrus many times after our last meeting. Peres told me in confidence that Ezer hired a man, a genius hacker and software programmer. Peres had arranged  the deal. It cost Ezer a lot of credits. This man programmed a time jump software. I’ve hired the man and I have bought his software. He’ll introduce Le’Ton to it. It took  us a while to find the man and persuade him to co-operate, but the sum of credits I offered finally made him accept the deal. He has improved the software meanwhile.”

“I’ve found out something, too,” Doctor Midad said. “It’s very disturbing. I asked the doctors and nurses on Cyrus if they had seen anything unusual in the previous months. Ezer Malk brought a man to the medical center only one month ago. The man was severely injured. His internal organs were damaged. The doctors said that so far they had never seen the type of injuries. It seemed the organs had partially returned to an almost fetal state. They questioned the man and finally he told them that he was the pilot of Ezer Malk’s ship. The man had been running a time jump test. The ship was supposed to jump back three hundred years, but due to a malfunction of the computer system it only jumped back thirty years. The man was thirty-one years old when he jumped back. He arrived at a time when he was already born and was a baby child.”

“For heaven’s sake,” Jeff exclaimed, already anticipating Doctor Midad’s next words.

“His two physical bodies started to melt together,” the doctor said in a sober voice. “Quantum physics at work. His particles attracted each other and started joining and melting together. He jumped back to the present time when he realized that something was wrong, but it was already too late. Ezer took the injured man to the medical center on Cyrus. He refused to answer any questions, left the center and never came back. The unfortunate man died. He had no chance, according to the doctors.”

“Ezer Malk is ruthless,” Jeff said in a disgusted voice.

“And you really want me to navigate you back in time, captain?” Le’Ton asked. “It’s absolutely dangerous.”

“A malfunction of a system can happen at any time,” Galven, one of engineers said.

“Yes, a time jump is dangerous and a big risk. That’s why the Alliance set up rules and monitors the official projects,” Lest said.

“Our project is a secret project. We would operate unofficially,” Le’Ton remarked.

“That’s why we must monitor the system ourselves,” Lest said. “Like I said, the man who developed the software has meanwhile improved it. He’ll run a few tests with us in space.”

“The hardware could malfunction as well,” Galven said.

“That’s why I have the Horus updated and double checked,” Lest said. “There’s still a residual risk, though, but I fear we must take it. Doctor Midad, go on, please.”

The doctor cleared his throat. “The dying man told them that they had already jumped back several times without difficulties. They had explored Daglon’s past and had jumped back 45,000 years,” he said. “They jumped back to the planet Seth in order to find out what had happened to the second spaceship that the historical records mentioned and they wanted to retrieve artifacts for Ezer’s archeological museum in Amun.”

“Shit,” Jeff hissed. “We’re too late. Ezer has already found out about Earth’s co-ordinates, hasn’t he?”

“That’s what the man said,” Doctor Midad confirmed. “He said they had visited the planet that the second spaceship had flown to. They visited the Seth colony on Earth 45,000 years ago.”

“According to the man, they had gone to Earth only once, but intended to jump again with a bigger and improved spaceship. The time jump test went totally wrong, however,” Lest said.

“Ezer Malk is ruthless and I still think he wanted to get rid of us in the Beliad region,” Jeff said. “We thought they had unsuccessfully tried to read the information of my ship’s computer, but they already knew Earth’s co-ordinates. Why did Ezer change his plan the very last minute and not kill us? Did he hope to find out something else? We were talking about the Egyptians and their preservation cult. We were talking about artifacts.”

“Time jumps are extremely dangerous. Think of the planet Kwain,” Doctor Midad said. “Just visiting a place and having a look is harmless maybe, but actually getting involved in the events can change the timeline. Ezer is after Daglon and Earth artifacts. He might consider it too dangerous to raid the Seth settlers on Earth. Raiding a place where artifacts are already stored and well preserved might deem him easier and free of risk.”

“Yes,” Lest said. “This sounds plausible to me.”

“Ezer made a mistake. He should have killed us once he had the chance to. Luckily, he had a moment of scruples or doubts,” Jeff said.

“Or maybe he was just in a hurry,” Lest said. “Anyway, I think Ezer is trying to go to Earth. The time jump accident happened one month ago. He might have already found a new pilot. We must soon get acquainted  with the time jump system and run a few tests. And unfortunately we must work for the Mohic Empire again for a fortnight or so in order to earn more credits. I paid Peres a sum in advance, but I must settle my account before we start with our time jump operation. Ezer is ahead of us. I trust, however, that we will be able to catch up with him. Ezer broke Alliance rules and he will be messing around with time for selfish reasons. Ezer is dangerous. We must stop him from raiding Earth and changing the planet’s timeline.”

“I definitely don’t want Earth to go to ruin like the planet Kwain,” Jeff said.

Lest rose to his feet and looked at his crew. “Who’s in? Raise your hands, please,” he said.

All hands went up.

Lest smiled contentedly. “The name of our operation is Mission to Earth.”

***



13

III

Mission to Earth

They worked for the Mohic Empire again. Jeff took Le’Ton’s place on the bridge, while the navigator was running time jump simulations. His training and practice on Earth helped Jeff a lot. He got accustomed to the Daglon navigation system quickly. He had also studied the Daglon language and with Doctor Midad’s help and the computer lessons had made quick and successful progress. He understood all relevant computer messages. His neural implant was also a highly effective tool. Lest let Jeff plot the course from Cyrus to the Mohic Empire and back. The captain had an eye on Jeff in the beginning, but soon let him work on his own. Hulton, the man Lest had hired to train Le’Ton was a reclusive and quiet man, however smart and observant. The captain and the crew members were suspicious in the beginning, but Le’Ton told them that the man did an excellent job. The first navigator trusted Hulton, although the man was secretive and withdrawn. Finally, the time had come to run a test in space. They planned to make a time jump to an uninhabited solar system and visit a small planet.

The men gathered in the galley.

“This planet is a hot and uninhabitable planet in our time, but geological investigations have shown that the climate was mild about 60,000 years in the past,” Lest said. “The planet was of interest some twenty years ago when scientists were looking for mineral resources. They didn’t find what they were looking for here, but they studied the planet closely. The scientific reports are documented and verified. Corr and I have been looking for a good place to run a time jump test. This planet appears to be an excellent target. We’ll jump back 60,000 years and have a look at the planet.”

“Isn’t it too big a time jump?” Doctor Midad asked with a skeptical look.

“It doesn’t matter how far we jump back,” Hulton said. “Sixty years or sixty thousand. It doesn’t make a difference in case we get lost.”

“I think he’s right,” Doctor Midad said reluctantly.

The men exchanged uneasy looks.

“Is there a chance we can jump back to the position in time and space that we will jump off?” Jeff asked.

“Sure,” Hulton replied with a grin. “The software works properly, the hardware, too. Nothing can go wrong. I will personally monitor Le’Ton.”

Le’Ton shot Hulton a dark look, but then straightened. “He’s right. It’s my first time, so he’ll better assist me with the jump,” he said.

Lest nodded. “All right, when do we get started?”

“We’ll check the systems once more,” Hulton said with a nod at Le’Ton. “We’ll be ready in an hour.”

***

The men assembled on the bridge. Lest sat down in the commander’s seat. Hulton and Le’Ton finished connecting the  time jump drive and the software with the main computer. All eyes were resting on Hulton when the man focused on the system and ran the final checks.

“Ready,” Hulton finally announced.

“Okay. Jeff, have you plotted the course to a safe position in space?” Lest asked.

“Yes, captain,” Jeff replied. “I’ve entered the co-ordinates. They’re based on the computer’s calculation of the sun and the three planets’ orbits and their spins for the past 60,000 years. We’ll do a short jump in space to a spot that is safe in our time and that was safe as well 60,000 years ago. 95% safe, I must say. We won’t collide with the sun or the planets after the jump, but of course we don’t know if other objects, asteroids for instance, happened to pass by there in the past. The computer calculated co-ordinates that suggest that any object from outer space would have long been deflected by the planets’ gravity and the computer is supposed to detect any objects upon arrival and make an emergency jump if necessary, but you’ll never know for sure, of course.”

“That’s the residual risk,” Hulton said, turning to Lest.

Lest gave a nod. “We’ll take this risk. Corr and Jeff, navigate the Horus to that spot in space.”

The spaceship arrived at the planned position after a brief jump in space. The men looked at Le’Ton and Hulton. The atmosphere was slightly tensed.

“Okay,” Lest said calmly, watching the men. “We’re ready. I’d say we jump back in time.”

“Roger,” Le’Ton replied promptly.

The navigator focused on his displays and entered a code. Hulton watched him and nodded.

“Ready for the time jump,” Le’Ton announced.

“Countdown time jump,” Lest said.

“Countdown...5...4...3...2...1...jump,” Le’Ton said, reading the countdown from his screen.

The light in the ship grew brighter for a millisecond, but then everything looked exactly as it had before.

“Time jump completed,” Le’Ton said.

“Jumped back 60,000 years exactly,” Hulton added.

“Absolute space co-ordinates unaltered,” Jeff said.

“Relative positions have changed. We’re closer to the third planet,” Corr said.

Lest rose to his feet and looked over the bridge. “Check the solar system for any changes. Once this is done, we’ll fly to the second planet of the system,” he said.

“Everything’s much like it was before,” Le’Ton said a couple of minutes later. “Three planets are orbiting around the sun. The orbits of the first and the second planet are the same, the third planet is closer to the sun.”

“We should arrive at the second planet without any problems,” Corr reported after a quick scan of the solar system.

“Okay,” Lest said. “Let’s get there. We’ll be orbiting the planet for a while and have the computer gather weather data. This should suffice as a test.”

Doctor Midad, who had come to the bridge to watch the jump, cleared his throat. “We must not forget to jump back into the future, captain. Outer space looks much the same, but we must not forget that we’re way back  in the past,” he said.

Lest nodded. He sat down in his seat. “We’ll return to the exact co-ordinates from where we started in a couple of hours.”

The spaceship was orbiting around the planet and the computer was gathering weather data. The men looked out of the ship’s panorama window.

“Heavy clouds,” Lest said. “Like the scientists said. They concluded that the climate was mild and humid in the past.”

“I wonder what happened,” Doctor Midad said. “It seems the atmosphere was suddenly gone.”

“An impact,” Jeff suggested. “A comet or a vast asteroid perhaps.”

“Most likely,” Lest said. He touched his temple and focused. “The computer has finished a rough analysis. Let’s have a look at the data. Le’Ton, please, activate the main screen.”

Words and figures showed on the screen of the ship. The men were studying them.

“Mediterranean climate,” Jeff said. The others gave him questioning looks. “A climate zone on Earth,” he explained.

“Vastly different from the data in the future,” Doctor Midad said. “This planet was a habitable place in the past. Maybe it is inhabited.”

“The scientists didn’t find any trace of a civilization, but maybe there is primitive life down there,” Lest said. He turned around and moved to his seat. “All right, we’ve made it into the past, but the test’s not yet finished. Corr and Jeff, get us back to the spot in space from where we will jump back into the future. Le’Ton and Hulton, get prepared also.”

The men focused on their displays. Jeff looked briefly out of the window. The planet looked like a beautiful jewel, but something had turned it into a blistering hell. A comet impact? Jeff shuddered at the realization of what was meant with the term residual risk. What if the comet had crossed this supposedly safe spot in space just the moment they had turned up in the past?

The time jump back was successful also. The Horus was orbiting around the second planet on autopilot. The men gathered in the galley. Hulton joined the men for the first time instead of closing himself up in his room.

“Your software is excellent. Where did you learn programming?” Lest asked.

Hulton smiled. “On Cyrus. I grew up on the planet,” he said.

“You grew up in this shady place. How comes?” Midad asked. “I would have guessed you were from Styphos.”

“Why so?” Hulton asked, sounding astonished.

“Your dark hair, the tone of your skin, and the shape of your eyes,” Doctor Midad replied. “Although you’re not as tall as they are. You’re more the Daglon size.”

“My mother was Daglon. My father came from Styphos,” Hulton said. He was hesitating for an instant, but then decided to continue. “My father was a space pirate. He joined a pirate crew when he was very young. He lived all his life on board of a ship. And he died when the spaceship was shot down.”

Jeff and the Daglon men exchanged a look.

“He brought you and your mother to Cyrus?” Jeff asked.

Hulton shook his head. “My mother was on the spaceship, too. She was never without him. However, I was on Cyrus at that time. They wanted me to go to school there. I was thirteen when they died.”

“That’s hard,” Jeff said. “How did you cope with it?”

Hulton didn’t reply, he looked between the Daglon men and Jeff instead. “Jeff, you’re not from this part of the galaxy, are you?” he asked.

“No, I’m not from this part of the universe,” Jeff replied, leaning back in his chair. Past memories were overwhelming him.

“We picked Jeff up in space,” Lest explained. “His spaceship had an accident. He was the only survivor.”

“That’s hard, too,” Hulton said sympathetically, “but you’ve found a good new place, I think.” He turned to Lest. “You’re not exactly a space pirate, are you?”

“Not exactly,” Lest replied, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“But you know Cyrus well,” Hulton carried on. “And you’re well known on Cyrus also. I was asking around a bit after you had approached me. You run your own business, I’ve heard, Captain Lest. Why are you so keen to jump back in time? First, I thought, you want to sell the software and the time jump drive, but now I think you want to use it yourself, don’t you?”

Lest narrowed his eyes. “I hired you and I pay you a lot of credits for doing an excellent job and not for asking me questions,” he said.

Hulton smiled and took a sip of his drink. He placed the glass cautiously on the table, then  looked at Lest.

“Like I said, I was asking around before I agreed on the deal. I heard you were asking around also. You were asking for Ezer Malk. The man bought my software, too,” he said.

“That’s correct,” Lest replied.

“I suspect you plan to go to where Ezer Malk wants to go to also,” Hulton said.

“Possibly,” Lest said curtly, seizing a bottle and pouring himself a drink.

“But you don’t have an exact idea where he wants to go,” Hulton continued.

Lest didn’t reply. He took a sip of his drink and turned the glass in his hand, examining closely the liquid. Jeff and the Daglon men looked between Hulton and Lest. The atmosphere was suddenly tensed.

Hulton seized his glass, emptied it and rose to his feet. “Good night,” he said and moved to the doorway. There he stopped and looked back at the men.

“I could help you with tracking Ezer Malk,” he said. “I infected his software. I installed a program that is sending his data to my computer system.”

“Interesting,” Lest said, still studying his glass. He placed it down abruptly and fixed his eyes on Hulton. “Did you infect my software, too?” he asked. “Because if so, I think you must leave my ship.”

“Would you know if I did?” Hulton asked back with an arrogant look.

The predatory smile appeared on Lest’s lips. “I surely would. Your system is being monitored by our main computer. There are others on Cyrus who do an excellent job, too. A very skilled man was among the technicians who updated the ship,” he said.

Hulton compressed his lips and shot Lest an angry look. Le’Ton and Corr rose to their feet. Doctor Midad and Jeff exchanged an anxious look.

Lest raised his hand. “Sit down,” he said to Le’Ton and Corr. “And you, Hulton, come back, please. You have done a good job so far and I see no reason to dismiss you.”

Hulton hesitated, but then returned. He sat down again,  measured Lest and nodded.

“Okay,” he said. “I know that Ezer Malk is interested in Daglon’s past. The Daglon originate from a planet called Seth and it is said that more settlers left the planet in the past in order to travel to a planet called Earth.”

“We know this,” Lest said. “We know Daglon history. We’re Daglon, just as a reminder.”

“Just a brief summary to let you know that I possess the knowledge also,” Hulton said, sounding annoyed.

“Would you please talk like reasonable men do,” Doctor Midad intervened. “We really don’t have time for quarrels.”

“You’re right, Doctor Midad,” Lest said, shifting in his chair. He turned to Hulton. “All right, what is it you want? Do you have valuable information? What you’ve told us so far, is not new at all. We know that Ezer Malk wants to jump back in time and steal artifacts from the planet Earth, Jeff’s home planet, by the way.”

Hulton turned his head to Jeff. “Your species originates from Seth? How can it be that the Daglon are so much more advanced? Don’t get me wrong, Jeff. You’re doing fine, but you’re apparently a space pioneer,” he said bluntly.

Jeff cast him a dark look and crossed his arms in front of his chest.

“He’s a trained pilot, navigator, and engineer. He had a fine spaceship, the Daidalos,” Lest said.

“Suited for short distance trips. That’s what Ezer Malk said,” Jeff added.

Doctor Midad intervened again.

“The planet Seth was doomed to ruin. Two groups escaped. They travelled to different planets. Seth’s civilization has survived on Daglon. The other group settled on Earth. We don’t know exactly what happened to them, but we must suspect that Seth’s knowledge and technology was largely lost,” he said.

Hulton studied Jeff, nodding thoughtfully. “I understand. Your species had to start all over again.” He looked from one to the other. “Ezer Malk wants to jump back in time to gather artifacts. That’s what he told me. They must have been stored in a secret place somewhere on the planet Earth and at some time in the past.”

“I could imagine that many objects are still hidden somewhere. We have not found a lot, actually we have found nothing,” Jeff said.

“The objects are still hidden in our time? Why does Ezer want to  jump back in time then to steal them?” Doctor Midad asked.

“The planet was thinly populated back then and high-tech was not yet invented,” Jeff said. “A jump back in time makes it easier for Ezer to steal the items.”

“Where are these items stored?” Hulton asked.

“I suspect they are hidden in the pyramids,” Jeff replied “And maybe in the underground passage between the pyramids and the Sphinx. NASA investigated the Great Pyramid a couple of decades ago. However, I don’t know if they found anything that was of use for them.”

Hulton and the Daglon men gave Jeff questioning looks. Jeff cleared his throat and then told them of the Egyptians and their pyramids and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

“It seems to me that not only Ezer Malk is after what the Seth settlers left on Earth, but your space scientists are after those items also,” Doctor Midad said.

“You say items and objects. What kind of objects? Devices, gadgets, machines?” Hulton asked. “Do you want to steal them also?”

“No,” Lest said sharply. “We want to stop Ezer from raiding the planet and changing the timeline.”

“Is it your business? Why does it bother you?” Hulton asked.

Jeff couldn’t hold back. “Earth is my home planet. I won’t let Ezer raid and plunder my home,” he shouted.

Lest reached out and placed his hand on Jeff’s arm. Jeff calmed and leaned back in his chair.

Hulton looked between them. “I see,” he said, rising to his feet. “It’s late and I’m tired. I wish you good night. We’ll talk again tomorrow.”

Lest gave the man a curt nod and Jeff mumbled a good night. Hulton left the galley. Doctor Midad and the others followed him soon. Everybody withdrew to their quarters.

***





14

Lest and Jeff met in the galley the following morning.

“Did you really have Hulton’s software infected?” Jeff asked.

“No, I was bluffing,” Lest replied. “I’m sure he checked on his software and he had a sleepless night. Serves him right, I think.”

He had just finished speaking when Hulton entered the galley. He measured the men, then went to the food processor and ordered an enormous pile of scrambled eggs.

Jeff and Lest exchanged a look. Hulton placed his plate on the counter and looked at Lest.

 “I was thinking,” he said. “I’m willing to help you with your operation. It intrigues me, I’m curious and I might learn many new things.”

“And how do you think you can help us?” Lest asked, pressing a button of the food processor in order to get himself a cup of coffee.

“Like I said, I infected Ezer Malk’s software. The man was secretive and I was curious to see what he had in mind,” Hulton replied. “The software is sending status reports to me. I checked the protocols last night. His spaceship jumped to a place in space a week ago. I checked the co-ordinates. They are the co-ordinates of the planet Earth.”

“Shit,” Jeff exclaimed. “We’re too late. Did he already jump back in time?”

“He activated the time jump drive, according to the protocol I’ve received. He jumped back a week ago,” Hulton said.

“He jumped into the past, but has not yet come back? Do I understand this correctly?” Lest asked.

“That’s how I read the protocols,” Hulton replied. “I’ve not received any transmissions since the time Ezer Malk activated the time jump drive.”

“It makes sense,” Jeff said. “You can’t receive transmissions from the past.”

“We receive them all the time,” Hulton said, “because of the vastness of the universe. It’s  basic knowledge and a matter of fact.”

Jeff shot the man a dark look. “I’m not as dumb as you apparently think I am,” he said.

“Stop it!” Lest said, sounding annoyed. “Hulton, you understood Jeff’s words very well. Why do you try to twist them? We’ll either co-operate or we won’t. I won’t deal with this back and forth of yours. You can get off my spaceship at any time you want and you will surely get off once I command it.”

Hulton raised his hands. “Sorry, captain,” he said. “I can be cynical at times. I’ll try to stop this demeanor of mine for the time being. Jeff’s right. I can’t receive transmissions from Ezer Malk’s ship because they are far back in the past. And like you said, Captain Lest, they have not yet returned to the present time.”

“He jumped back a week ago. That’s a long stay in the past,” Lest said thoughtfully. “They might have already meddled with the timeline.”

“They might have had an accident when travelling back or maybe after arriving in the past. Ezer Malk’s ship might be lost,” Hulton said.

“Or maybe they have just not yet found what they were looking for and they don’t care for the timeline a bit,” Jeff said.

“We can only find out what happened if we travel back too. We must jump back from the exact co-ordinates they did,” Hulton said.

“How far did they jump back? Do you have an idea?” Lest asked.

“Sure,” Hulton replied. “The protocol states the exact time length of the jump. 8-2-15 standard.”

Lest and Jeff checked their neural implants.

“4,617 Daglon years back in the past,” Lest said.

“4,650 Earth years exactly,” Jeff said. “That’s 2,586 BC.”

“BC?” Lest asked.

“It’s too long a story for now,” Jeff said. “BC is the year zero. It marks the start of the western calendar. It marks a religious event.”

Hulton and Lest gave him odd looks.

“It must have been an important event,” Lest said.

Jeff was feeling awkward. “Ehm, yes,” he said. “Believers do say so.”

Hulton eyed Jeff curiously. “Your planet has not yet gotten B status, has it?” he asked.

“No,” Jeff replied, compressing his lips.

“The planet Earth is not yet officially registered in the list of space civilizations,” Lest explained.

“I see,” Hulton said slowly. “I don’t understand why you let him navigate your ship, Captain Lest. Isn’t it a bit of a risk?”

Jeff narrowed his eyes and opened his mouth to protest. Lest raised his hand.

“Jeff’s doing fine,” he said curtly. “Hulton, please, if we want to make progress in the matter, we must co-operate and think outside the box.”

“Definitely, captain. I was just wondering,” the man said meekly. He was scratching his head.

Neither Lest nor Jeff gave a reply. They focused on their meals instead. Hulton looked between the men and finally cleared his throat.

“Question. What are we going to do now, captain?” he asked.

Lest looked up. “That’s obvious, I think. We’ll jump back in time and chase Ezer Malk,” he said.

***

Lest had his crew check again on the spaceship. When every bit of hardware and software was functioning properly, Lest commanded the start of the operation. They made a space jump to Earth. Everything went smoothly. The ship was floating in space at a safe distance from the planet in order to avoid detection by Earth’s satellites. Lest had the main computer calculate the exact co-ordinates for the time jump, based on the data Hulton had received from Ezer Malk’s software and taking into account the movements of the planet Earth and the sun. The distance of the calculated starting point of the time jump from Earth was about the distance of Jupiter from the sun.

“Ezer jumped back in time at a safe distance from Earth,” Lest said. “I think it was a wise decision, considering the satellites that are orbiting the  planet. I can’t imagine they would detect the Horus because of our protection shields, but I can’t be sure, of course.”

They had gathered on the bridge. Jeff was standing by the window. He was looking out into space. He had spent a lot of the time by the window after their arrival in the solar system. Jeff didn’t see Earth, but he saw Jupiter and although he had never seen Jupiter like this before, he now felt as if he was almost home. Lest now and then looked over to Jeff, but mostly let him be. Now and then he urged him to go and get himself something to eat and drink or take a rest in his room, but Jeff refused to even listen. Lest finally called Doctor Midad to come to the bridge. The doctor looked at the lonely man by the window.

“A form of homesickness,” he said. “He wants to be home, but fears that he will never return.”

“This assumption might very well be correct,” Lest said.

Midad gave him a disapproving look. “I’m not sure you can imagine how he feels, captain. Jeff feels like he’s kind of banned from his home planet Earth,” he said.

“I can relate very well to his feelings, Doctor Midad. I can’t go back to my home planet Daglon as a free man either,” Lest said sharply.

“Correct,” Midad replied. “Returning for me wouldn’t be easy either, but I wouldn’t face the consequences that you certainly would have to face. I apologize, Captain Lest.”

Lest reached out and patted his friend’s shoulder. “Try to distract Jeff. It’s hard, but he must get adjusted to the situation. That’s how life is in space. He must learn to cope with it.”

Midad smiled vaguely, then moved over to Jeff. He spoke softly to him and finally Jeff followed the doctor and left the bridge. Lest looked after them.

***

They reached the starting point of their time jump operation the following day. The men assembled on the bridge.

“We’re one hour away from the point from where Ezer Malk’s ship jumped back in time,” Lest informed the men. “That’s for safety measures,” he said. “It could well be that Ezer’s main ship is cruising in the area, while he himself flew to Earth in a smaller shuttle. We don’t want to bump into his main ship after the jump.”

“Won’t they locate the Horus after our jump?” Jeff asked.

“This won’t happen,” Lest said. “We’ll activate our protection shields and switch off all devices that send off data. They won’t be able to receive the faintest ping from any of our systems. Corr and I have checked and double-checked them. The Horus will be in full stealth mode.”

“We should be able to locate their ship, though, provided they did not make it invisible also,” Corr said.

“I can’t imagine they did, because there’s no reason for them to go in stealth mode,” Lest said. “They jumped back into the planet’s archaic past. There won’t be satellites orbiting in space that could detect Ezer’s ship or ours.”

“The Egyptian civilization was by no means archaic,” Jeff said.

“Relatively spoken,” Lest said. “We’ve retrieved the relevant data from your planet, Jeff. Earth’s database is easy to access. 4,650 years ago, the Great Pyramid was not yet finished. It was under construction. Ezer most likely assumed that the ancient Seth devices were stored in the pyramid. Jumping back to a time when the pyramid was under construction and its entrances not yet sealed will simplify the matter because he can just walk in and get what he wants.”

“We must assume that hundreds if not thousands Egyptians are around and that the construction site is being protected,” Jeff said.

“Certainly,” Lest replied. “However, it shouldn’t be too difficult to gain access to the site with Daglon technology, but we won’t land on the planet right away. We’ll be tracking Ezer’s main ship first.”

“It won’t be difficult,” Hulton said. “I should be able to perceive data from Ezer’s ship after our arrival. We can analyze the data. We might find out more about Ezer’s plans. And we must have the Horus computer analyze Earth data first, climate and the like. We must make sure we can land without endangering the ship and ourselves.”

“Will we go down with the Horus or fly in a shuttle?” Jeff asked.

“I’ve not yet decided on this,” Lest replied. “It depends on the results of the computer analysis and on Ezer’s movements, but I’m leaning towards going down with the Horus. We can escape more easily in case of an emergency take-off.”

“The main system is currently refining the data for the time jump,” Corr said.

When the calculations were done, Lest gave the command to start the operation. Corr and Jeff navigated the ship to the space co-ordinates that the computer had calculated. Le’Ton and Hulton were focusing on the time jump system. Lest gave the command to jump back into the past. The light on the bridge got brighter for a split second, then everything looked normal again. The men focused on their devices. The main computer calculated their actual position in the solar system, based on the position of the sun and the planets. They had arrived exactly where they had planned.

“Hulton, status update, please,” Lest said.

“I’ve got Ezer’s ship,” Hulton said after a couple of minutes. “The ship has not changed its position. It’s still in the area where it jumped to.”

“Are you receiving any data from Ezer’s ship?” Lest asked.

“Yes,” Hulton replied. “Like I had expected, everything’s working fine. The data from Ezer’s ship will go to the main computer of the Horus for analysis.”

“He jumped back in time more than a week ago. There should be plenty of relevant data,” Lest said.

“We’re getting the data from the time jump software in the first place,” Hulton replied. “But it shouldn’t be difficult to gain access to their main system also.”

“Go for it, as long as you won’t leave a trace,” Lest said, joining the men by the console.

He looked at Hulton’s screen. It showed figures and symbols. They were changing in quick succession. Data was being transmitted from Ezer’s ship.

“We’re hard on your heels, Ezer,” Lest said with the predatory smile on his lips.

***


15

Hulton was working on gaining access to Ezer’s computer, while the others were monitoring Ezer’s ship and the planet Earth in the distance. The engineers were once again checking on the ship and refining the systems. An hour had gone by when Hulton reported that he had established a line to Ezer’s main computer. The man set to analyzing the incoming data. Another two hours passed by and then Hulton announced that he was ready to report on his findings. He turned to the men who had assembled on the bridge.

“Ezer and his crew were monitoring the planet after the time jump for a couple of days,” he said. “They spent three days with gathering and analyzing data. Gravity, climate, atmosphere, everything you need to look into before going down on an unknown planet.”

“Perfect,” Lest said. “This will save us a lot of time. We won’t have to rerun the analysis. I trust Ezer completely in this respect. What did he find out? Anything worth of interest?”

“The planet’s conditions resemble Daglon’s largely,” Hulton replied. “The oxygen level is slightly different, but this shouldn’t be a problem at all. Daglon and Earth are almost twin planets.”

“The Seth discovered two planets suited for settlement, but unfortunately the ones in charge acted too late on the finding. They missed the chance to evacuate the whole planet. That’s the whim of fate or maybe just bad timing,” Lest said. He straightened. “Anyway, I suspect Ezer left in a shuttle. When did he leave for Earth? Did you find out about it, Hulton?”

“Three persons left the main ship in a shuttle five days ago. Ezer Malk, Dayton Deer, and Espos Min, according to the passenger manifest that was saved to the main computer,” Hulton said.

“I’ve never heard the names of the other men. Did you find any information about them?” Lest asked.

“Dayton Deer is a pilot, navigator, and engineer,” Hulton said after scanning the data again. He looked up with surprise. “He’s twenty years of age. He has just finished spaceflight school.”

Lest’s eyes narrowed. “Another young pilot who Ezer will try to spoil or already has. It’s absolutely sickening. I kind of hate Ezer Malk. I must admit that I’ve never really liked the man. It was blindness on my part,” he said.

Hulton gave him a puzzled look and glanced at the other men, but none of them said a word, although everybody knew exactly what was going on. Lest made a gesture with his hand and inhaled deeply.

“Ezer Malk tends to take advantage of his students,” he said in a more sober voice. “That’s it about it.”

Hulton was apparently still not able to make the connections. He looked from one to the other and then cleared his throat.

“Espos Min is a scientist, a linguist to be precisely,” he continued. “He published several studies on the late Seth and early Daglon language.”

“I suspect the man is supposed to serve as a translator,” Lest said.

“Why?” Hulton asked. “Centuries have gone by since the Seth landed on Earth. Their language most likely disappeared long ago. We know from Earth’s database that many different languages were already spoken on the planet at the time of the Ancient Egyptians.”

“I could imagine that the Ancient Egyptians have preserved the Seth language,” Jeff said. “They preserved everything. I could imagine that Pharaoh Cheops and his High Priests knew how to read and speak the Seth language. Think of the Great Pyramid. It’s a masterpiece. I can’t imagine they built it entirely on their own. They must have had plans and instructions, written in the Seth language most likely.”

“Yes,” Lest said. “Some words have also survived in the Daglon language to our day, the name of my spaceship, for instance. The meaning of the word Horus is the same in the Egyptian language. Falcon. I looked it up in the data that we have pulled from Earth.”

“It’s not a very creative name for a spaceship. I find it lacks ingenuity,” Hulton remarked.

Lest frowned at the man. Jeff intervened.

“It’s a fitting name for a spaceship,” he said quickly. “Two lunar modules on Earth were named Eagle and Falcon. Apollo 11 was the spaceflight that landed the first humans on the Moon in 1969, ninety-five years ago. The name of the landing module was Eagle. A later landing module was called Falcon.”

“Are you saying your species entered space for the first time ninety-five years ago?” Hulton asked with a staggered look.

“A few endeavors were undertaken earlier, but we landed on the Moon ninety-five years ago. That’s correct,” Jeff said, crossing his arms in front of his chest.

“You said you were on your way to Mars when Captain Lest picked you up in space. Are you saying it took your species ninety-five years to make the next step into space?” Hulton asked in disbelief.

“Sort of,” Jeff replied curtly. He leaned back in his seat.

“I cannot believe it,” Hulton said. “That’s simply archaic. I don’t have words for it.”

“Then why don’t you hold your tongue and keep your mouth shut?” Lest asked sharply.

Hulton turned away, shaking his head.

“We need more information. What did the linguist find out? Also, any ideas how we want to proceed in case we must get off the Horus? I can’t imagine we’d pass as Egyptian natives,” Jeff said. “And where will we hide our spaceship or shuttle?”

“Where did Ezer hide his shuttle, by the way?” Lest asked. “Hulton, can you trace the flight of the shuttle and the landing site? The flight data should be documented and saved to the computer of the main ship.”

“I’ve already found out that they went down on the planet at night,” Hulton said. “I should be able to locate the landing place of the shuttle. Give me a minute. I’m re-scanning the data.”

“We’ll land with the Horus and not with a shuttle,” Lest said after a moment of consideration. “I’ve made my mind up right now.”

“I’ve traced the landing site,” Hulton said, pointing at the screen in front of him.

A map showed a river and symbols that marked ancient monuments.

“This is the river Nile,” Jeff said. “And this is the Nile Delta. The pyramids are located south-west of it.”

“Ezer’s shuttle landed here,” Hulton said. “The red cross west of the pyramids marks the landing place.”

“He landed in the desert,” Jeff said in astonishment.

“Where else should he land without taking the risk of being detected right after touch-down?” Hulton asked, raising an eyebrow.

Jeff ignored the man. “How far is it from the landing site to the pyramid?”

“Twenty minutes or so with a Daglon Cherti shuttle,” Hulton said.

“A Cherti shuttle? I heard it was not supposed to be released before the Alliance Grand Meeting in two years,” Lest said.

“The official version of the Cherti is not yet released,” Hulton replied, “but the beta version is already available for testing. Available to the space companies that have a license for testing, I mean.”

“How did Ezer manage to get hold of a Cherti?” Lest wondered.

Hulton shrugged. “It wasn’t difficult, I guess. Ezer Malk runs a private space institution, he knows how to pull strings, and he has a lot of money and many connections.”

“This is true,” Jeff replied, thinking of their flight to the Beliad region. “What’s it about this Cherti shuttle?” he asked.

“A Cherti shuttle can fly in space, air, and hover over the ground,” Hulton said. “It has advanced stealth technology. It can hide completely from sight. Alternatively, it can reflect an image to deceive observers. The technology isn’t exactly new. It has in fact been in use for centuries, but it’s said that it was brought to perfection. Combined with the wide range of applications, the vehicle is perfect for Ezer’s operation. They can hover from their landing place to the pyramid site and park there without being noticed. The Cherti is faster than other shuttles of the same size and it can take off a planet with a cold start unlike any other shuttle. This is the key advantage. The Cherti can also carry a lot of weight. They can easily transport small to medium sized artifacts. They would have to land with the spaceship in order to retrieve bigger objects, however.”

“They might want to land with the main ship at a later time,” Lest said. “I suspect they landed with the shuttle in order to scan and scour the area.”

“The word cherti sounds Egyptian,” Jeff said.

Hulton checked Earth’s database. “Cherti is a god of the underworld and the ferryman of the dead,” he said.

There was a brief silence.

“Sounds like a bad omen, if you ask me,” Jeff said.

“It shows again that the Egyptian language and the old Daglon language originate from the language spoken on Seth,” Lest said.

“The old Daglon language?” Jeff asked.

“The words horus and cherti aren’t used in everyday Daglon language anymore, although everybody still understands them,” Lest explained. “They’re still used in classic literature and for example in stage plays. They’re also used for naming ships and spaceships.”

“It’s the same with the name of my ship,” Jeff said with a smile. “Daidalos is an ancient Greek name.”

“It seems that Daglons and Earthers have very much in common. This habit is probably in your genes,” Hulton said. “Anyway, Captain Lest, why did the Daglons name their shuttle after Cherti, the ferryman of the dead?”

“Chert is something between a carrier and a cruiser. Cherti is the smaller version of it,” Lest said. “Cherti is a shuttle, a ferry, in the Daglon language, albeit it is not the ferry of the dead. The meanings of the Daglon and the Egyptian word are not entirely the same. Ezer hired a linguist. Did the man save anything to the main computer? A dictionary maybe or voice recordings, anything that might be of help?” Lest asked.

“I’m going to check on this right away. I will report back to you,” Hulton said, turning to his devices.

The others left the bridge.

***

An hour later, Hulton joined Lest and Jeff in the lounge. He carried a pile of papers in his hand.

“The linguist fed the main computer with his studies and the computer generated a list of words,” he said, waving the papers. “The list is kind of a dictionary. The man listed Daglon and Egyptian words and their respective meanings.”

Hulton placed the papers on the table. The men bent forward and studied the lists.

“Quite a number of corresponding words,” Lest said after brushing through the papers.

“I’ve found a voice recording also,” Hulton said. “The scientist recorded the words. I can send the recoding to your neural implants, if you want to listen.”

Lest gave Hulton a nod. The man focused on his implant and sent the message. The men listened to the voice recording.

“There’s no doubt about the Daglon words,” Lest said. “Can we be sure about the Egyptian words, though? I suspect he derived the pronunciation from the old Daglon words.”

“We’ll find out about it when we speak with the natives,” Hulton said.

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Jeff said. “We’ll never pass as Egyptian natives.”

“We need not pass as Egyptians,” Hulton said. “We could be traders, coming from afar. It’s not entirely incorrect, is it? I can check Earth’s database to find a fitting country of origin.”

“Postpone this for later,” Lest said. “I don’t really intend to meet any humans down there. My major concern is where we can land the Horus without the ship being detected.”

He seized a portable device that was placed on the table. Lest opened it and connected it with the main computer. A map of Earth showed on the display. Lest zoomed in.

“How about we land in the eastern desert?” he asked, pointing at the Sinai Peninsula. “The computer can check the area and pick a suitable landing site. We’ll leave the Horus there and move on in a shuttle. Our shuttle isn’t a Cherti, but it’s not a bad shuttle either. We can cover the distance from the landing site to the pyramid in a couple of hours. Nobody should spot us, if we travel at night.”

The others agreed. The captain and the crew got back to work. Le’Ton plotted a course and Corr started the engines.

The Horus was approaching Earth.

***



16

The spaceship descended to Earth and landed on the Sinai Peninsula. It came down smoothly on a plateau high up in the southern mountains at night. The ship was in full stealth and defense alert mode. The external sensors of the ship were scanning the area and the main computer was processing and analyzing the incoming data.

“Everything’s quiet on the plateau. No sign of anybody being around,” Corr said after checking the analysis results. “Shall we send off a drone to check the slopes of the mountain, captain?”

“No,” Lest said. “The external sensors cover the entire plateau. They will register if anybody enters it. I doubt, however, that anybody will show up here. Ezer’s shuttle is parked west of the pyramid. Can you trace the shuttle, by the way, Hulton?”

“Not directly,” Hulton replied. “I have not yet established a connection with Ezer’s shuttle, but I’m working on it. I’m however monitoring the computer of his main ship in space. The computer gets updates from Ezer’s shuttle. The shuttle has not been moving since I located it a couple of hours ago. Ezer and the other two men are apparently occupied with something on board.”

“They’re analyzing and studying artifacts perhaps,” Jeff said.

“I suggest we make our shuttle ready and fly over to the pyramid compound as long as Ezer is not moving around,” Lest said.

The others agreed. The shuttle left the Horus an hour later with direction to the Great Pyramid of Giza. On board of the shuttle were Lest, Jeff and Doctor Midad. Corr, the pilot, and Le’Ton, the navigator, remained on the Horus. They had order to leave the planet and jump back through time in case of a fatal incident that occurred to the three men on board of the shuttle. Hulton also remained on the Horus. He was in charge of checking on Ezer Malk’s ship and controlling the transmissions between the Horus and the Horus shuttle.

The shuttle flew at a high altitude and arrived at the pyramid compound an hour before dawn was breaking. Lest descended and slowed down the shuttle. They were cruising across the place. The men didn’t see much when looking out of the windows, but the shuttle sensors were scanning the area thoroughly and the computer was generating good images of the place. The shuttle was flying on a pre-programmed route. The autopilot was in control of the maneuvers and the flight was subtle and smooth. The men eagerly studied the incoming images of the Great Pyramid.

“This pyramid is quite a big building,” Doctor Midad said, pointing at the image on the screen.

“The pyramid is not yet finished, but the building is already enormous and quite impressive. I wonder how they erected it. It’s odd. I would have expected a vast area with construction material and equipment and also accommodation places for the hundreds of workers that must work on the site, but the construction site is not as big as I had imagined it,” Lest said.

“What’s this?” Doctor Midad asked, pointing at a line on the image.

Lest studied it. “A fence. The place is fenced, I think.” He looked at a display to his left. “Dawn is breaking soon,” he said. “I suggest we climb higher and watch from further above.”

“How long can we stay up in the air?” Jeff asked.

“The shuttle can fly for fifty hours, then we must refuel,” Lest said. He touched his temple and focused on his neural implant, then reported to the others. “Hulton gave me an update. The Horus main computer is receiving pings from Ezer’s shuttle. They’re not in stealth mode and apparently don’t fear being detected by any advanced technology. Hulton was tracking the pings. Ezer’s shuttle is still parked west of the Great Pyramid. I suggest we fly there and try to spot it.”

Lest entered a new route into the console. The shuttle climbed higher and cruised to the west.

“Are we shielded from sight or can anybody see our shuttle?” Doctor Midad asked when dawn was breaking.

“Our shuttle is not entirely invisible. It doesn’t have full stealth capabilities,” Lest said. “I doubt, however, that the natives can spot it as we are flying at a high altitude. I can’t be sure about Ezer’s shuttle, though. I have no doubt its sensors would detect our shuttle, if they were scanning the sky, but I’m quite certain that they won’t do so. Why should they watch the sky when the real danger is on the ground? They must make sure that their shuttle is invisible to the natives. This means they must use their energy resources for the shuttle’s protection shields. They must start and fly back to the main ship in a while. They can’t waste their resources. I’m fairly sure they’re not monitoring the sky.”

“The Cherti shuttle carries more fuel than our shuttle, I think,” Doctor Midad said.

“Yes,” Lest replied. “According to Hulton, a Cherti shuttle can fly for 160 hours.”

Jeff was calculating. “About one Earth week,” he said. “He must leave in the course of the day, if I calculated correctly.”

“Right,” Lest said with a nod. “I suspect they’re preparing for leaving the planet.”

“What are they waiting for?” Doctor Midad asked. “Why didn’t they leave the planet at night?”

“Ezer never wastes a minute of time. Whatever he does, he carries it to an extreme,” Lest said cynically.

“I can’t imagine he found anything of interest. Else he would have left earlier, I think,” Doctor Midad said.

“He was not necessarily retrieving artifacts right now,” Lest replied. “Perhaps he was just scanning the area. He might come back any time soon, either with the shuttle or the main ship.”

“Do you think the natives have spotted him or noticed any of his activities?” Jeff asked.

“I don’t think so,” Lest said. “Ezer is reckless maybe, but he’s rarely careless. I’m convinced he has it all planned out and left nothing to chance.” He pointed at the screen. “All you see is desert sand, but this is the place where Ezer’s shuttle is parked.”

“The protection shield functions properly,” Jeff said. “It’s sending off the image of desert sand. I must admit this is excellent work. I don’t see any fringes that would reveal that something is not quite right down there.”

Lest reprogrammed the course and the shuttle climbed higher.

“Let’s have a look at the town to the east,” he said.

The shuttle flew across the town and the observation system scanned it. The men studied the images on the screen.

“The town doesn’t look as archaic as I had imagined it,” Lest said.

“It’s called Memphis in my time, but the original name of the town was Men-nefer,” Jeff said.

“It’s a big town. It reminds me of Amun, the historic site on Daglon,” Doctor Midad remarked.

“Right,” Lest said. “Ezer must have rejoiced at the sight. If in any way possible, he would retrieve the whole town and take it to Daglon.”

They were cruising over the town for a couple more minutes, then Lest decided to fly back to the construction site and have a closer look at it in broad daylight.

“I read the pyramid was clad with limestone and that it had a golden top. I can’t see it. The pyramid is not yet finished, but the place looks deserted,” Jeff said.

“Perhaps they have abandoned the construction for the time being,” Lest replied. “There are in fact no signs of intensive activities.”

He was interrupted by a beeping sound.

“An incoming signal,” Lest said, grabbing his headset.

“Ezer Malk?” Midad asked in an alarmed voice.

“Unlikely,” Lest replied. He looked at a display. “It’s coming from somewhere in the city.”

Midad and Jeff exchanged a surprised look. Lest concentrated on the signal, but then stopped and touched his temple. He focused on his neural implant instead.

“Try and track them and report back to me,” Lest said, then turned to the others. “This was Hulton. Ezer’s shuttle left the planet and entered orbit a couple of minutes ago.”

“They’re flying back to the main ship,” Midad said. “They might jump back into the future any time soon. We should follow and chase them, captain.”

“Wait,” Jeff said. “What about the incoming signal? It didn’t come from Ezer’s ship. It came from the city. What was it? Was it artificial?”

“I’ve recorded it,” Lest said. “I’ll send the data to Hulton for analysis. The signal was faint, but regular. It came from somewhere in town, but the shuttle computer wasn’t able to locate the exact co-ordinates.”

Lest activated his neural implant and opened a channel to the Horus. Hulton confirmed that Ezer’s ship was back in space and that there was no need any more to be secretive. Lest sent him the data package and then looked at Jeff and Midad.

“If the signal was artificial, then somebody was deliberately sending it off,” he said.

“Could it be that one of Ezer’s men stayed on the planet and was fiddling with a device?” Midad asked.

“Let me listen to the recording,” Jeff said.

Lest took off the headset and handed it to Jeff, then pressed a button and started the recording.

“It sounds like a tracking ping,” Jeff said. “I suspect that somebody was tracking our shuttle.”

“This signal might have come from Ezer’s shuttle when it was climbing to orbit,” Doctor Midad warned.

“Ezer won’t identify us. I’ve changed the shuttle’s identification code and the transponder is off anyway,” Lest said. “I’m sure the signal came from the city, but you’re right, Doctor Midad. I must warn the Horus, just to make sure they’re fully alert.”

Lest focused on his neural implant and spoke with the crew on board of the main ship. He turned back to Midad and Jeff.

“Hulton was able to locate the source of the signals. He sent me the exact co-ordinates,” he said. Lest reprogrammed the course of the shuttle. “Let’s have a look at the place.”

“Hopefully, Ezer left before these signals were sent off,” Doctor Midad said. “I refuse to think of what he would do if he concluded that someone sent off the signals with an advanced technology gadget. An ancient Seth device perhaps. Ezer would want to get hold of it.”

“We must stop him,” Jeff said grimly. “He mustn’t change Earth’s timeline.”

“It’s a critical operation,” Lest replied. “We must be cautious. We mustn’t get involved in whatever too much, else we would also change the timeline.”

The shuttle was circling over Men-Nefer. Lest entered the co-ordinates into the observation system and the system started recording the ground. The shuttle computer received real time pictures and displayed them on the screen. The men leaned forward. The screen showed a three-story stone building with a flat roof, two big balconies and a patio. A man was standing on a balcony.

“I don’t see any antennas,” Lest said. “The sender of the signals must have used a portable device. No more incoming signals, however. The man either got interrupted or he gave up tracking us.”

“Do you think the man we see on the screen was tracking our shuttle?” Midad asked. “I can’t see him clearly. Can you zoom in, please, Lest?”

Lest zoomed in and they saw the man more clearly. He was watering plants on the balcony. The man was dressed in a knee-length white tunic. His hair was black and he had a neat pageboy hairstyle. His skin looked tanned.

“He looks exactly like I imagined an Ancient Egyptian,” Jeff said.

The following six pictures showed the same scenery, but the seventh image showed a different scene. Another man had stepped out on the balcony. He was tall and blond and resembled Doctor Midad closely.

“What on earth...?” Jeff blurted out.

The men were staring at the screen. Five more pictures showed the blond man speaking with the other. The next pictures showed an empty balcony. The two men had entered the house.

“He’s Daglon. Earth’s history must be rewritten, but if the timeline remains consistent, then the humans will never learn the full truth,” Jeff said.

“He’s not Daglon. He’s a Seth descendant, however,” Doctor Midad corrected.

“We must contact him. No way I will leave this planet without having spoken to him,” Lest said.

He reprogrammed the course and the shuttle returned to the Horus.

***


17

The shuttle reached the Horus and the men went straight on the bridge. Corr, Le’Ton and Hulton didn’t look up and focused on their screens and controls instead. Jeff and Midad exchanged a puzzled look. Lest looked at the men, raising an eyebrow.

“What’s going on here? Is anything wrong?” he asked, sitting down in his seat.

“An individual approached the Horus a short while after you left with the shuttle,” Le’Ton said in a sober voice.

“What?” Lest exclaimed, jumping from his seat. “Report, Le’Ton,” he commanded.

“The ship was in stealth and defense alert mode. The place seemed to be safe, but we were nonetheless scanning the area. Since everything was quiet, we changed the ship’s mode to parking mode in order to not waste our energy resources. The parking lights were on,” Le’Ton reported. “We spotted a figure approaching the ship. We zoomed in with the night surveillance system and saw a man with a torch and a stick in his hand. He was moving towards the Horus.”

“Someone was that high up in the mountains?” Doctor Midad asked, joining the men by the console. “Was the man a native or could he have been one of Ezer’s men?”

“He looked like a native. He was dressed in a long and ragged robe and he was wearing sandals. I don’t think he belonged to Ezer’s crew. I’m mainly concluding this from the events that followed the initial incident,” Le’Ton said and then fell silent.

“What exactly happened?” Lest asked, moving towards the console.

“The man raised his stick. It turned out it was a plasma weapon. He shot it in the air. We immediately put the ship on alert,” Le’Ton said, glancing up.

“A native with a plasma weapon? I don’t understand,” Doctor Midad said in confusion.

“The man continued approaching the Horus,” Le’Ton carried on. “He pointed with the weapon at the Horus and then bowed to the ship. He knelt down and touched the ground with his forehead. Then he got on his feet again and raised his arms in the air.”

“We suspected that his gestures were gestures of worship,” Hulton said. “Anyway, we were alarmed. We thought that if there was one man, then there were probably others. So we sent a out a drone and had it scan the area.”

“Why didn’t you report back to me?” Lest asked angrily.

“We had to take a quick decision,” Le’Ton replied. “The drone detected  tents in the valley on the other side of the mountain. A lot of tents. The people came out at dawn. There are actually several hundred persons down there. Men, women, and children.”

“Holy crap!” Lest hissed. “Who would have thought that this desert was inhabited? This man will certainly report to the others what he has seen.”

“This incident might change the timeline,” Doctor Midad said with concern.

“That’s not all, I’m afraid,” Le’Ton said meekly.

“What else?” Lest asked, glaring at the navigator.

“The man kept approaching the Horus,” Le’Ton said. “We decided to scare him away. We switched on the lights of the ship. This impressed him greatly. He repeated his gestures of worship. Unfortunately, he didn’t back away, but kept moving towards the ship.”

Corr pointed at a screen. “This picture shows the man.”

The screen showed a middle-aged man with what looked like a stick in his hand. A thorough look, however, revealed the stick’s artificial nature. It was clearly a plasma handgun, albeit one long out of date in space.

“The man reminded me of the Kygryn nomads,” Hulton said. “They live in an isolated area on Cyrus and close themselves up. They have almost no contact to civilization due to their cult. Their religious codex is strict. They follow only a couple of laws.”

“What has this to do with our situation?” Lest asked impatiently.

“Hulton played along with the man’s behavior,” Corr said. “We opened a channel and talked to the man.”

“You did what?” Lest asked in disbelief, looking from one to the other.

“I don’t know what to say,” Doctor Midad said, shaking his head. “I think this was very imprudent.”

Jeff just gazed at the men. Corr and Le’Ton shifted uncomfortably in their seats. Hulton, however, straightened and cleared his throat.

“I thanked the man for coming all the way up on the mountain and told him to follow the rules,” he said. “I looked up the Kygryn laws in the database and read the ten commandments to him. I told him to go and stick to them. I read the old Daglon translation to him.”

“This impressed him a lot,” Le’Ton said. “He must have understood the ancient version of Daglon.”

Corr nodded. “He bowed deeply, turned around and moved away with measured steps, but then he started to run like a weasel,” he said.

“God, what have you done?” Jeff exclaimed, his voice horrified. “This man was Moses. You have changed the timeline. My planet will go to ruin now.”

The others turned to him.

“Moses?” Doctor Midad asked. “You know the man’s name, Jeff?”

Jeff nodded and summarized the story as it was written down in the Bible.

“I always imagined the man was in his eighties, with white hair and a long white beard, but Moses apparently wasn’t an old man. Anyway, you played god and gave him the Ten Commandments. This was a serious mistake,” he said.

“I don’t think it was,” Doctor Midad said thoughtfully. “I think this incident actually healed the timeline. Can’t you see? Everything is now exactly as is stated in this holy book.”

“Except that Moses didn’t meet God but the Horus,” Jeff said drily.

“Well, I can’t imagine the man ever met a deity in person,” Midad said. “If he goes and tells the Ten Commandments to his people, then everything is just fine, I think.”

“The drone continued watching him,” Corr said. “He ran down the path to a few men who were apparently waiting for him halfway down the mountain. They sat down on the ground until dawn was breaking. Then the man activated his plasma weapon and used it at as a cutter. He cut stone plates from a rock and now they’re sitting on the ground, working on the plates.”

“God,” Jeff said. “They’re carving the Ten Commandments on the stone plates right now.”

“You mention your god a lot,” Lest said with a smirk. “The concept of god must have been preserved on Earth for a long time.”

“Thanks to the Horus intervention,” Jeff said with a frown.

Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand. “If Doctor Midad’s conclusion is correct, then this incident actually healed the timeline. I don’t approve of what you did,” he said, looking from Corr to Le’Ton and Hulton. “You acted carelessly. You should have reported back to me. I don’t want a thing like this happen again, but I won’t dwell on it for now, because our situation is somewhat tough. If the incident healed the timeline, then consequently someone must have damaged it previously.”

“Ezer Malk,” Jeff said.

“Most likely,” Midad said. “It also means that the space-time continuum has self-healing capabilities. This theory has long been discussed, but evidence unfortunately has never been found. The concept, however, is widely believed in by various species in space. Science is not happy with beliefs, but scientists are beginning to open their minds.” He took a deep breath.

Lest raised his hand and stopped him. “This is all very interesting, Doctor Midad, but unfortunately we don’t have time for it now,” he said. “Let’s discuss this some other day. We must focus on the matter at hand. Earth’s timeline has healed due to the incident, but the incident might have also revealed our presence to Ezer. Sending off the drone and using the transmitter to speak to Moses might not have gone unnoticed. It much depends on the capabilities of Ezer’s shuttle and his main ship in space.”

“Ezer has left for now, but I’m sure he’ll come back. If he wants to retrieve more than just a single and small artifact, then he must come back and land with the main ship. I fear this is exactly what Ezer has in mind,” Jeff said.

“We’ll relocate the Horus and then we will try to contact the man we saw,” Lest said.

“Which man? Moses?” Corr asked in confusion.

Lest summarized what they had discovered. “It seems the man is a Seth descendant. We suspect that he was tracking our shuttle. He’s got technical equipment and he knows how to use it. We must contact the man.”

“We can’t just fly into town,” Jeff said skeptically.

“I didn’t suggest we land in Men-Nefer. We won’t fly into town with the shuttle. We’ll try to establish a contact with the man from the Horus instead,” Lest said.

“Ezer might detect the transmissions,” Jeff warned.

“He’s up in space now, but of course we must hurry. He might come back any time soon,” Lest said. He turned to Le’Ton and Corr. “Consult the map and find a safer place for the Horus, then relocate the ship.”

The men nodded and turned to their devices. Lest looked at Doctor Midad.

“Doctor, we lack sleep, but we must focus. We need to stay awake and remain concentrated for a couple more hours. Is there anything that can help us with it?” he asked.

Midad nodded. “The computer is monitoring your body functions. Your neural implants send data to the main computer. I will program the computer to stimulate your brain and level of attention. I’m hesitant to use this particular software, though. I have never used it before.”

“You can actually make the computer influence our brains?” Jeff asked with a perplexed look.

“I heard rumors about it, but nobody has ever offered the software to me. This software is implemented on my ship? I didn’t know it,” Lest said.

“The software was implemented when the ship was updated for the Daglon war. A time stamp is proof of it,” Midad explained.

“Are you saying they wanted to control the captains and the crews with the software?” Lest asked in disbelief.

“The men on board of the warships were considered Daglon soldiers that were supposed to execute commands,” Midad replied. “The war wasn’t justified and many men were unwilling to join it or were prone to quit when the war lasted way too long. The software was designed to stop these thoughts.”

“I was right to quit this unfortunate war,” Lest said in a disgusted voice. “Why didn’t the software affect me and my crew? Why didn’t they track us later with it?”

“You got out of their reach before they activated the software,” Midad replied. “Internal investigations uncovered the operation later, but it was never revealed to the public. The Alliance prohibited the use of the software ultimately, but it’s still produced illegally on Cyrus and I heard it sells very well. It’s a weapon of war, now used in illegal wars, and it’s very expensive.”

“One more reason to stop Ezer Malk,” Lest said. “He was an actor behind the scenes. He had a finger in the pie. I’m certain of it.” He turned to the navigator. “Le’Ton, have you found a safer place for the Horus?”

“I suggest we fly north and land in the desert,” Le’Ton said. “We can send off a drone and have it scan the place thoroughly.”

Lest gave him a nod. He turned to Hulton. “Check again where the tracking signals came from. Refine the target and get a communication channel ready. Think of how they used to do it in the old days.”

Hulton gave him a questioning look, but Lest just shrugged and left the bridge. Doctor Midad followed him.

“Like in the old days,” Hulton mumbled. “What the hell did he mean by this?”

“Stretch your imagination,” Le’Ton said with a grin. “Seth was destroyed 45,000 years ago. Unfortunately, I have no idea what kind of equipment our ancestors used and which channels they used for communications. I’m afraid, Hulton, I can’t help you with the task.”

“I’m having an idea,” Jeff said. “Lest said the data of my ship has been transferred to the Horus. I think the man’s equipment is not as advanced as the Horus technology is. We received his tracking signals, but I doubt we will be able to successfully communicate with him. Can we run a simulation of my ship on the Horus main computer? I want to establish a connection with the man from the Daidalos.”

Corr and Le’Ton looked at Jeff in confusion, but Hulton understood what Jeff had in mind. He rubbed his chin, thinking.

“This should work out,” he said finally. “You can use my computer and my system software. I’ll provide a section for your ship’s data and you can simulate flying your ship. Much like Le’Ton simulated doing the time jumps.”

Le’Ton gave Hulton access to the data. Hulton transferred the data to his own computer and opened a simulation program. The screen showed an interactive console that was programmed to adapt to the input data. Hulton imported the data of Jeff’s ship and the console on the screen changed and restructured itself.

“What’s this?” Hulton asked, leaning forward. “Something must have gone wrong. A lot of controls are missing.”

“No, everything’s fine. The console looks like the console on the Daidalos. The Daidalos was my ship. I flew with it to Mars,” Jeff said calmly.

“You flew with an almost dysfunctional ship?” Hulton exclaimed with a horrified look.

Jeff frowned at Hulton. “Now would you please help me with checking the communication systems or do you prefer lamenting?” he asked.

Corr gave a laugh and Le’Ton looked over curiously. Hulton grimaced and gave no reply, but finally focused on the data. Soon he was entirely absorbed in the job. The sent-off drone had meanwhile scanned the area north of the pyramid site. The area was devoid of people. Corr and Le’Ton relocated the spaceship.

***


18

Doctor Midad activated the brain simulation software under careful watch of the captain himself.

“We need to speak to the Seth man. However, he won’t speak our version of the Daglon language. The language has developed and changed over the centuries,” Lest said.

“I’d start out with the most ancient Daglon words to see if the man understands them,” Doctor Midad suggested while monitoring the body functions of the crew members.

“And how can I find out about these words?” Lest asked. “I know a few old Daglon words, but I certainly can’t claim to speak the ancient language.”

“Well, why don’t you use the language module Jeff worked with when he refined his language?” Midad asked, turning to Lest. “Jeff’s language was uploaded to the Alliance database and he has since worked on refining it. The translator devices and the neural implants get the data from there. Why don’t you check if there’s a database of the Seth language? I’m fairly sure they have preserved what is known of it.”

“There’s a problem with this approach, doctor,” Lest said. “We jumped back in time. We’re out of reach of the Alliance database.”

“The Alliance was actually founded 8,000 years ago and the language database was one of the first things they implemented,” Doctor Midad said. “We jumped back only 4,600 years.”

“Okay,” Lest replied. “But I think it’s too dangerous to connect to their system. They might notice our attempt. This could affect the timeline. The time-space continuum might have self-healing capabilities to a degree, but the planet Kwain tells a different story.”

“Yes,” Midad said thoughtfully. “It’s probably too big a risk. Then why don’t you ask Hulton to search Ezer’s computer again? I don’t think the list of words that the linguist saved to the computer of Ezer’s ship is all they have on the ancient language. You said yourself that Ezer plans every detail carefully. Don’t you think he connected to the Alliance database and downloaded the Seth language data to his ship, provided that it was stored there?”

“A good idea, Doctor Midad,” Lest replied. “I will talk to Hulton.”

Lest went back on the bridge. Jeff turned to him.

“We’ve figured out a plan on how to contact the Seth man,” he said. “I will try to contact him with the Daidalos radio communication system.” He pointed at the screen. “This is a simulation software. Hulton imported the data from the Daidalos and I will operate as if on my ship. My ship’s systems are archaic from your point of view. The Seth man, however, might be able to receive and read the data. We received his pings. I’ll work with the channel he used.”

“The transmissions will go through the Horus computer anyway,” Lest said. “So what’s the point of it?”

“Yes, we will use the Horus computer for actually sending the data packages off, but my approach limits our communication possibilities and thus saves us a lot of time.”

“It limits our possibilities widely,” Hulton said drily. “You cannot do much with this backward console. We have a tracker and a rudimentary radio communication system. Satellite communication won’t work because no satellites are orbiting the planet. Space crease communication systems are not available at all.”

“We didn’t see any signs of real high-tech technology in Men-Nefer,” Jeff said. “It seems the Seth descendants preserved some devices and they still know how to us them, but they apparently don’t have the means and the equipment to build up a high-tech civilization. They have either lost the knowledge or the equipment or both. I figure it best we try to contact the man on a basic level of communication.”

“Which Jeff’s system truly provides,” Hulton said, nodding at the screen. “Jeff has a point. In case he’s right, we won’t waste time with trying to establish a connection on more sophisticated levels.”

Lest looked between Jeff and Hulton. “All right. Why don’t you start and try then?” he asked.

“We need to define the message we want to send,” Jeff said. “I was thinking of the Seth solar system, the distance of the planet to the sun, for instance. The Daglons have saved the information and the Seth descendants might have preserved it as well. I suggest we try with the decimal system. I’m sending pi and the circumference of the planet Seth and the radius of its orbit around the sun.”

Lest nodded. “It might work out. Transmit the data as a regular package, and then we will wait for a response.”

Jeff started transmitting the data. Every package was followed by thirty seconds silence. Jeff stopped the transmissions after thirty minutes. They waited for half an hour, then Jeff repeated the transmissions. Ten minutes after Jeff had sent off the last data package, the computer announced an incoming message. The men jumped to their feet and gathered behind Jeff. The transmission lasted ten minutes. The Horus computer analyzed the signals and showed the results on a screen.

“They’ve repeated our transmission,” Lest said. “This doesn’t necessarily mean they were able to read and understand the data.”

“Someone has replied at least,” Jeff said. “Someone is listening and is able to answer. We’re making progress.”

“The signals were coming from the same co-ordinates as the previously sent-off signals,” Hulton said.

Lest nodded. “Go on, Jeff. Send the data again, but leave out the radius. Let’s see what they do,” he said.

Jeff transmitted the data. Only ten minutes later, they got a response. It was a short message.

“The radius,” Lest said as the computer showed the result. “They’re in fact communicating, but we still don’t know if they really understand the numbers or if it’s just guesswork. They might have just sent back the number that was missing in our second transmission. Repeat this with pi and Earth’s orbit around the sun and leave out the circumference of Earth.”

Earth’s data was saved to the Horus computer. Hulton imported the figures into the simulation software and Jeff sent the data package off. The reply took longer this time, but it ultimately came. The answer was correct. The sender had transmitted the circumference of Earth.

“This shows that they know what we’re doing and that they have an idea of their solar system,” Lest said.

He was interrupted by another incoming message.

“Ah,” Lest said with an acknowledging smile. “They won’t just reply. They’re seizing control of this conversation. Let’s see what they want.”

The message contained the numbers from zero to ninety and ended with an additional number. The men were looking at the screen, trying to figure out what the sender’s message was supposed to convey. A few minutes went by.

“The numbers from zero to ninety might indicate latitudinal lines,” Jeff said finally. “We still use this system. The last number might mark the latitudinal line of their transmitting station. The zero line would be the reference line. Can we compute this?”

“Sure,” Le’Ton, said. He typed on his console and a three-dimensional picture of Earth appeared on the screen. He mapped the latitudinal lines and reddened the line that presumably marked the line of the sender’s transmitting station.

“Correct,” Hulton said. “The line goes through the co-ordinates of the place where the signals are being sent off. Their latitude system is in fact the system still used on Earth.”

Lest nodded. “Transmit the latitude of their transmitting station. Let them know we understood,” he said.

A couple of minutes later, a reply came in. The short message repeated the number of the latitude of the sender’s transmitting station and added a new number.”

“Presumably the longitude number of their transmitting station,” Lest said. “Could you map the longitude lines, Le’Ton.”

“Try an angular system with 360 degrees for the longitude lines,” Jeff said.

Le’Ton mapped the lines and then zoomed into the picture. Hulton leaned forward and typed on his console. Another map appeared on the screen.

“The shuttle mapped the area while you were flying over it. This is the town Men-Nefer,” he said. “This point indicates the pyramid. Le’Ton, I’ll send you the co-ordinates of the pyramid Map them in, please. I suspect the pyramid is their reference point for latitudes and longitudes.”

Le’Ton imported the file. “That’s it,” he said. “Hulton was right. The pyramid is the reference point of their geographic coordinate system.”

“Okay,” Lest said. “Send them the co-ordinates of their transmitting station based on their system.”

Jeff transmitted the numbers and a reply came in very soon. The sender sent a double zero, paused thirty seconds and sent another data package. The computer analyzed it. The package contained the numbers from zero to twenty-three.

“The double zero indicates the pyramid site. But the numbers from zero to twenty-three? What do they want now?” Hulton asked in confusion.

“That’s easy,” Jeff said. “We divide the day in twenty-four hours. I’m certain they’re indicating at the time system.”

“The time system hasn’t changed in 4,600 years?” Lest asked with surprise.

“No,” Jeff replied. “We don’t easily give up what is tried and tested. I mean we like to preserve what has stood the test of time, so to speak. This hasn’t changed since the time of the Ancient Egyptians,” he said with a smile. “I guess they want to fix a meeting on the pyramid compound. We just need to fix the hour.”

“I see,” Lest replied. He was thinking. “I suggest we fly there at night with the shuttle. Things should be quiet by then. I want to reduce the risk of the shuttle being seen and I don’t want lurkers on the pyramid compound. What would be a good time? What do you think, Jeff?”

“Eleven in the evening?” Jeff mused. “This would be the number twenty-three. I could imagine the town will be asleep by then. We must of course scan the site before touching down with the shuttle.”

Lest nodded. “Okay. Send them a double zero and the number twenty-three. Repeat the message three times,” Lest said.

Jeff sent the message and the answer came promptly. The unknown sender repeated their message three times. The men on the Horus waited for a while longer, but no more messages came in.

“That’s it,” Lest said. “We better rest now for a couple of hours. Corr, put the ship on alert and send a drone off to watch out and scan the area. Hutlon, anything new about Ezer’s shuttle and main ship?”

“The main ship has not moved. The shuttle will reach the main ship in about twelve hours, if they continue at the same speed,” Hulton said.

Lest nodded. He touched his temple, focused on his neural implant and told Doctor Midad to deactivate the brain simulation software. Lest turned back to the men on the bridge.

“All right, off to the quarters,” he said.

***

The computer woke them in the evening. The men assembled on the bridge.

“The engineers are getting the shuttle ready for departure. I will pilot it,” Lest said. “Doctor Midad, you will come with me. You’re the most educated regarding culture and language things. Jeff, you will come along also. Earth is your home planet, after all. Corr, Le’Ton, and Hulton, you will stay on the Horus. Keep the ship on alert. No solo actions this time. Always report back to me unless there’s a case of emergency. In this case you will leave the planet and jump into the future. Any decisions from that point you must take on your own.”

“We won’t leave you behind, captain,” Le’Ton protested.

Lest made a gesture with his hand. “No discussions. This is a command. Now, Hulton, calculate the time for the departure of the shuttle. I want to arrive thirty minutes earlier in order to scan the place. Le’Ton, plot the course of the shuttle and transfer the data to it. Corr, check the alert and communication systems.”

Lest turned to Midad and Jeff.

“Let’s go to the galley and grab something to eat and discuss how we will proceed after landing on the pyramid compound. We’ll stop by the armory and get a few weapons, just to make sure we can defend ourselves,” he said.

Lest left the bridge. Doctor Midad and Jeff followed him.

The shuttle left the main ship two hours later. The flight through the night was smooth and uneventful. They arrived at the pyramid compound at half past ten. The shuttle was cruising over the area. Everything was dark on the ground. The surveillance system was scanning the pyramid site and the surrounding areas. The compound and the adjoining places and streets were empty. Lest started the descent.

They had not received another message and had not sent off another one. The operation was risky, but none of the men wanted to step back from it now. They sat quietly in their seats and focused on the displays and controls, suppressing their nervousness and excitement.

The shuttle descended and hovered over the pyramid. Jeff wondered how the Seth man had discovered the small ship. Was the man hawk-eyed and had seen the shuttle cruising in the sky? Had he been looking out for a spaceship? Had the Seth descendants waited centuries for someone to find them? Jeff had no idea, but he was certain he would learn the truth in a couple of minutes, provided the man was actually waiting for them down on the ground.

Lest landed the shuttle and put it on alert mode. The surveillance system was scanning the area, but didn’t detect anybody outside. The three men in the shuttle were staring at the screen. They winced when three figures stepped out of the shadows and slowly approached the shuttle. The unknown men stopped ten meters from the vehicle and raised their hands, thus indicating that they did not carry any weapons.

The three men in the shuttle kept looking at the screen for another while, then Lest unstrapped and rose to his feet. Doctor Midad took a deep breath and also got out of his seat. Jeff sat a while longer and looked at the three figures on the screen. There was no denying the truth. His home planet Earth held a secret that Jeff was not sure should ever be revealed. Finally, he rose to his feet.

Lest opened the shuttle door manually. He let down the ramp and stepped out. Jeff and Midad followed him. The three men went down the ramp slowly. The three figures moved on as well. The two groups met half-way. The men stopped and looked at each other.

“Life is composed of two parts that which is past a dream and that which is to come a wish,” one of the Seth man said in ancient Daglon.

Lest and Jeff struggled to get the meaning of the words, but Doctor Midad answered promptly.

“What is coming is better than what is gone,” he repeated the greeting, using the modern version of the Daglon language.

The six men looked at each other, stunned and in disbelief, but then they relaxed and a smile spread on their faces.

“We have much to talk about,” one of the Seth men said.

Lest gave a nod. “In fact, we have,” he said.

***
19

IV

Back to the Future


The meeting was brief and the conversation difficult. The Daglon language had derived from the Seth language, but it had undergone many changes in the 45,000 years that had followed the emigration from Seth. The three men on Earth, Seth descendants as well, had preserved the Seth language the best they could, but their language had also changed and developed. Only Doctor Midad, the most educated of the Horus crew regarding cultural and linguistic knowledge, was able to communicate with the three men to a certain degree.

The six men didn’t leave the pyramid compound. The place was safe as it was fenced and could not be observed from the outside. The Seth men conversed with Doctor Midad and soon it was clear that the men actually descended from the settlers who had left their home planet Seth and had flown to Earth. The settlers had tried to preserve Seth knowledge and technology, but much had been lost during the ages.

Midad suddenly got excited after listening for a couple of minutes to the leader of the Seth group. The doctor turned to Lest and Jeff.

“As far as I understand, they have a few computer systems running, hidden and in a secret place, and one of these computers holds a language database. We should try to import the data to the main computer of the Horus. I could prepare ear clips for the men,” he said.

“Like the one I used before I got my neural implant?” Jeff asked.

“Exactly,” Doctor Midad replied.

“Ask them if they can provide the data,” Lest said. “The Horus computer should be able to develop a language database that will allow us to converse more easily.”

Midad turned back to the men. The men got excited and one of them hurried and left the compound. He returned forty minutes later with a portable device in his hand. He handed it to Doctor Midad who passed it on to Lest. The captain turned it in his hands and studied it while the others were watching him. Lest looked up.

“I can’t see how I can connect it to the computer,” he said. “I need to talk to Hulton and the engineers on the Horus.”

Jeff reached out and seized the device. He held it in front of his eyes, because the place was only sparsely lit by a torch light that the Seth men had brought.

“It looks like an external hard drive,” Jeff said. “It’s a hardware problem, but I think the engineers will solve it. I’m confident we’ll be able to import and read the data.”

Lest suggested they fly back to the Horus. Doctor Midad talked with the Seth men. They agreed to meet again on the pyramid compound at eleven o’clock the following night.

***

The engineers on the Horus examined the hard drive and after some trying and fiddling they were able to connect it to the spaceship’s main computer. Unfortunately, the data was unreadable. The Daglon men were disappointed.

“The Daidalos could again help to solve this problem,” Jeff said.” How about we import the data to my virtual ship.”

“Go ahead,” Lest said, stepping back from the console.

Hulton sat down and activated the simulation program. The image of the Daidalos cockpit appeared on the screen. Hulton imported the data from the Seth external hard drive. A bar showed the progress of the import and a couple of minutes later a message said that the import had been successful. Jeff tried to open the data, but the format of the files was unknown.

“Give me some time. I’m confident I can open the files,” Hulton said, seizing his keyboard.

“If anybody, then it’s you who can do the job,” Jeff said.

Hulton nodded absently. He was already absorbed in his task. Jeff joined Lest and the other Daglon men. They stood for a while, watching Hulton, until the man looked up with a frown.

“I can’t focus with you staring at my back,” he said.

The men left the bridge and went to the galley. They had a snack and then sat idly in the lounge. They were waiting patiently for Hulton to finish his job. They knew this was a crucial point in their mission. Much depended on Hulton’s success and the computer’s ability to develop a Seth language database. Doctor Midad came to the lounge area with three ear clips in his hand. He placed them on the table.

“These are older models,” he said. “I knew I had seen them a couple of years ago. I suppose they belonged to the original supplies of the ship. According to the time stamp, they were produced before the war. Nobody uses this kind of clips anymore. Everybody goes for neural implants these days, or the Kallwet ear clips, if necessary. There’s no delay in translation with the modern clips due to the Kallwet patent. The sound quality is excellent and you’re barely aware of wearing the clip. This all was different with the older clips. I don’t remember anybody who did not complain about them. However, the older clips were able to process all data formats, whereas the Kallwet clips only process the Alliance standard format.”

“All language data in the database are Alliance standard format,” Lest said.

Doctor Midad cast him a look. “Isn’t Hulton currently working on retrieving non-standard format?” he asked.

“True,” Lest replied. “But, provided we’re able to retrieve the data, we must then try to convert the files into standard format. It would simplify things a lot. The Horus computer works with the standard format and currently with the spaceship’s language module. We’re not connected to the Alliance database at present, doctor. We have the latest version of Daglon and English implemented on the ship. The older clips won’t hurt, however. Let’s take these for the operation.”

Another hour went by and then Hulton appeared in the doorway with his thumb up. The men jumped from their seats and went on the bridge. They gathered behind Hulton, who was sitting at the console and pointing at the screen in front of him. A blue bar showed 8% processed.

“The computer is importing the data,” Hulton said. “We won’t need the virtual Daidalos for the import. I was able to convert the Seth data format with an outdated converter tool. I used my own computer for this. It wasn’t an easy job and I’ll save you the details, but it worked out in the end. I converted the data to standard format with another tool and then started transferring the files to the Horus computer. The main computer will analyze the data and save it to the spaceship’s language database.”

“Won’t the computer send the data to the Alliance database automatically?” Doctor Midad asked. “I understood the Horus computer sent Jeff’s language to the Alliance computer. Won’t the Alliance notice the addition to the database?”

“I think Hulton can stop the computer from automatically sending the data off,” Lest said.

“I guess I’m not an expert in the engineering field. I better stop adding noise,” Midad said.

Lest smiled. “No noise, Doctor Midad,” he said. “Ask Le’Ton for assistance. The clips must in fact not connect to the Alliance database. They must pull the data from the Horus computer. See if they need to be re-programmed.”

Le’Ton sat down in the navigator’s seat and pointed at the seat next to him. Midad sat down and pulled the clips from a pocket of his space overall.

“I’ll change the defaults of the clips,” Le’Ton said. “But first I must find them in the system. If they belonged to the ship’s original equipment, the hardware should be registered with the main system and the corresponding software components should be installed. You said the clips have a time stamp. Do they have a registration number also?”

Midad examined the clips and soon found the numbers. Le’Ton entered them into his console.

Lest turned to Jeff. “The men introduced themselves to us, but I didn’t understand their names properly,” he said.

“The one who seemed to be the leader of the group called himself Osiris,” Jeff replied. “I didn’t get the other names either.”

“Osiris?” Lest asked. “What’s the meaning of the name in Ancient Egypt?”

“I looked it up,” Jeff said. “Osiris was an Egyptian god. He was the ruler of the dead. He was also called the king of the living because the blessed dead were considered the living ones.”

“A twisted concept,” Lest replied.

“Not so much if you think of Seth’s history,” Jeff said. “The planet was destroyed and the inhabitants died. Only a small group of survivors made it to Earth 45,000 years ago. They arrived at the time of the ice age. The Seth species was on the brink of extinction.”

“Right,” Lest said. “They left Seth after the Daglon settlers, but they most likely didn’t know if the Daglons survived.”

Lest went to the captain’s seat and sat down. Jeff moved to a side console and opened the database they had pulled from Earth and saved to the Horus computer. He continued reading about the Egyptian gods.

***

Hulton finally announced that the language database was ready, but couldn’t tell if it functioned and would work with the ear clips properly.

“We’ll find out about it soon,” Lest said, rising from his seat. “Midad, Le’Ton, are the ear clips ready?”

The two men confirmed and Midad put the clips in a pocket of his overall.

It was evening meanwhile.

“All right,” Lest said. “Midad, Jeff, let’s get prepared for our next meeting with the men. Corr, what’s going on outside?”

“The drone is monitoring the ship and the area. It has not yet spotted any activities,” Corr replied.

“Hopefully, Ezer has not yet come back,” Doctor Midad said, turning to Lest. “Many hours have gone by. Is Hulton monitoring the movements of Ezer’s shuttle and his main ship?”

“Yes,” Lest replied. “Anything new, Hulton?” he asked.

“No,” Hulton said. “The main ship has not moved and the shuttle is still on its way. It will arrive at the main ship in approximately two hours.”

“Okay, keep monitoring the shuttle and the ship,” Lest said.

He left the bridge. Doctor Midad and Jeff followed him. They got prepared for their next trip to the pyramid compound. The shuttle left the main ship a couple of hours later. The flight was short and uneventful. Lest landed the shuttle. The place was empty and quiet. They remained sitting in the shuttle, monitoring the compound. At eleven the three Seth men were approaching the shuttle. The shuttle’s systems had not registered their entry to the  compound.

“It seems to me as if they come out of nowhere,” Midad said.

“Odd, indeed,” Lest replied. He zoomed in and looked at the surveillance screen. “The same three men, unarmed. All right, let’s open the hatch and get out.”


***

Lest, Midad, and Jeff went down the ramp. The Seth men bowed to them and said a greeting that again only Doctor Midad was able to understand. The doctor stepped forward and pulled the ear clips from his pocket. He showed the Seth men how to attach them to their ears. The men did like he had told them and then looked at Doctor Midad expectantly.

“May I introduce myself,” the doctor said. “My name is Doctor Midad.”

The Seth men gazed at Midad for an instant, then turned to each other and exchanged excited looks. Finally, one of the men stepped forward and bowed to the captain.

“I understood you were the leader of this group and the pilot of the vehicle. My name is Osiris. My greetings to you,” he said.

“I’m Captain Lest,” Lest said with a nod. “This vehicle is only a shuttle. My spaceship is parked in the desert north of this place. I greet you on behalf of my crew.”

Osiris looked at Lest, then turned his head to Jeff and studied his face curiously.

“My name is Jeff Caspar,” Jeff said and smiled briefly. He felt the urge to add that Earth was his home planet, but decided against already revealing the fact. He bowed slightly instead.

The other Seth men stepped forward as well. They introduced themselves as Hemiunu and Imhotep. They smiled politely and bowed their heads. There was a brief silence, then Osiris smiled and touched his ear.

“This device will make our conversation much easier. I thank you for providing these clips. I figure it was a lot of work to get them working,” he said.

“Not so much,” Lest said with a smile. “Well, it took us a couple of hours to get it done, but we ultimately managed. We had to convert your data.”

Osiris smiled again and made a gesture with his hand.

“Come,” he said. “We’ll lead you to a place where we can talk more comfortably. Your shuttle will be safe here. No one will enter the compound. The fence is high and will prevent anybody from entering the compund.”

“Are you sure about it?” Lest asked doubtfully.

“The fence is carrying current tonight,” Osiris said with a meaningful look. “Anybody touching or climbing it, will experience the work of magic.” His smile broadened a bit.

“Magic?” Jeff asked. “Are you saying the Egyptians have no idea of advanced technologies?”

Osiris measured Jeff before he replied. “Only few humans caught a glimpse of it. It’s better for them and it’s better for us. Now come, please, and follow us.”

“We’ll take you to my house,” Imhotep said. “I have a meal prepared for late guests.”

“There we can talk,” the third Seth man, Hemiunu, added.

Lest gave a nod. The Seth men turned around and crossed the compound. Lest, Jeff, and Midad followed them closely. Osiris led the group to the pyramid and stopped in front of the entrance. He turned to Jeff and the Daglon men.

“This pyramid was built for various reasons and there are many chambers in it. The building will ultimately be closed and the entrance will be sealed to the public. However, we will still have access to the building in the future,” he said. “We have built a tunnel to it.”

***


20

Osiris crouched down and seized an item from the ground. It was a flashlight. The light was strong and illuminated the tunnel. Lest and Jeff exchanged a glance and Doctor Midad raised an eyebrow. Osiris walked quickly, leading the way. The tunnel led down under the ground. They walked a while, then climbed up a long staircase.

Imhotep pulled a key card from a pocket and opened a door. The men stepped into an empty chamber. Imhotep locked the door and moved on. He pulled out another key card and opened another door. Once more they climbed a staircase and finally entered a pantry. A door led into an atrium. Hemiunu switched off the flashlight and put it on a sideboard. The light of oil lamps illuminated the front hall.

Jeff looked around. Aside from the flashlight on the sideboard, he didn’t spot any items that looked modern at all. Only the three men were not exactly dressed like he had expected it. They didn’t wear long robes, but tunics and pants that Jeff reminded  of his own leisure clothes, only the fabric was finer.

Jeff was gazing at the three men and blushed when he realized that they noticed him staring. He smoothed down his space overall in embarrassment. The space overalls were designed for a stay on the bridge of a ship with its cool temperatures due to the machines and devices. The air in the Egyptian atrium, however, was hot and stifled and smelled intensely of flowery fragrances and tar, most likely from the oil lamps. Lest and Midad were also sweating. The captain wiped his forehead and Doctor Midad started to cough. The Seth men looked at each other.

 “Let’s go up to my rooms on the upper floor. It’s cooler up there and the rooms can be locked. I’ll have Khepri take the food up there,” Imhotep said with a smile.

He clapped his hands. A door opened and a young man stepped into the hall. He was dressed in a knee-length tunic and leggings and he had a pageboy hairstyle. His skin was tanned and he was smaller than the others. Jeff recognized the man they had seen on the balcony. He had been  watering plants and flowers. The young man looked curiously between them.

“Khepri, my guests have come a long way. They are hungry and thirsty and they prefer cooler air. We won’t dine downstairs but in the upper dining room instead. Would you take the food upstairs, please,” Imhotep said.

Khepri glanced at the guests, then bowed to Imhotep and retreated. Imhotep made an inviting gesture with his hand and led the men to a staircase. They went up to the third floor and stopped in a small entry room. Imhotep entered a code into a terminal in the wall and the door to the room slid open. Lest, Midad and Jeff exchanged a look.

Imhotep pointed at the doorway. “Please, enter,” he said.

They entered the room and Imhotep closed the door to his private chamber. A couch and three chairs were arranged around a table; wooden sideboards stood by the walls. A large window was on one side of the room. It was open, but a silken curtain hid the view to the outside. Imhotep pointed at the couch and the chairs.

“Please, take a seat and make yourselves comfortable,” he said.

Lest, Midad and Jeff sat down on the couch. Osiris and Hemiunu sat down in chairs, while Imhotep remained standing. A minute later Khepri opened the door and pushed a tea cart into the room. The cart was filled with jars and mugs and plates and bowls with various dishes. The pleasant smell of food was filling the room.

“This was quick,” Doctor Midad said with surprise. “How did he manage to get this cart up to the third floor so quickly?”

“Khepri used the hydraulic goods elevator,” Imhotep said with a smile.

Lest, Midad and Jeff exchanged another glance. The Seth men watched them with motionless faces. Khepri placed the dishware and the food on the table, then bowed to Imhotep and left. Imhotep locked the room.

“A hydraulic elevator. Is it commonly used in the households?” Doctor Midad asked, turning his eyes to Imhotep.

Imhotep smiled. “It’s used only in a few places. We don’t want the technique to become known to the public,” he said.

“Why not?” Lest asked. “It seems to me that Seth knowledge isn’t entirely lost. Why do you want to keep it a secret?”

Imhotep looked at Osiris and made a gesture with his hand. Osiris cleared his throat.

“Like you said, it’s Seth knowledge. We have tried to preserve as much as we could, however, it became increasingly difficult over the centuries because the Seth population had decreased.” He paused, measuring the guests from outer space. “A group of men and women left the planet Seth 45,000 years ago. I trust you know what happened back then?”

Lest nodded. “The first emigrants travelled to Daglon. The settlements prospered and the population grew. Seth knowledge and technology wasn’t lost on Daglon. It has advanced over the centuries. Doctor Midad and I are from Daglon,” he said.

The Seth men exchanged a look and Osiris glanced at Jeff, but refrained from asking where he came from if not from Daglon either. Jeff didn’t want to interrupt Lest’s explanations and so he remained silent for now. The captain continued.

“The Daglons learned of a second spaceship that had left the planet Seth during the riots. We didn’t know where this ship travelled to and what had become of the settlers. We do know now, however. The second spaceship travelled to Earth.”

Osiris nodded. “Yes. The Seth scientists had discovered the exoplanet, but unfortunately did not analyze it thoroughly, or more likely, they didn’t have the time to examine it carefully. When our ancestors arrived here, they found the planet wasn’t a hospitable place. The planet was almost entirely covered with ice and snow. They arrived at the time of an ice age.”

“The ice age ended only a couple of thousands years ago,” Jeff said.

The Seth men looked at him curiously.

“How do you know?”Hemiunu asked. “Did you study the planet’s geological history?”

Doctor Midad intervened. “Please, go on, Osiris. What happened after the settler’s arrival?” he asked.

“They erected a settlement on an island of the inland sea,” Osiris said. “The inland sea is the sea where the river Nile flows into. It’s the sea that our land adjoins to. Back then, at the time of the ice age, the sea levels were low and the vast western ocean and the inland sea were not connected. The inland sea had almost dried out. There was a big island in the center that was surrounded by water. The water was a natural protection barrier. The lands to the east and to the south of the sea were fertile lands. Unfortunately, they were inhabited by big and dangerous animals and also primitive men.”

Jeff crossed his arms and measured Osiris with a dark look.

“You don’t look happy with my words,” Osiris said.

“I was just wondering what happened to the primitive men,” Jeff said. “Are the Egyptians their descendants?”

“It’s more complicated,” Imhotep said.

Hemiunu and Osiris nodded at his words. Osiris carried on.

“The Seth lived on the island for many centuries, however their number had declined over the ages. They had adjusted to the planet’s conditions to a degree, but the planet was too alien during the ice age to adjust entirely. It turned out that ninety percent of the descendents were infertile,” he said.

“I’m sorry to hear this,” Doctor Midad replied. “But apparently you found a way to generate offspring. In vitro fertilization, I suspect.”

The Seth men looked at him curiously.

“I’m a doctor,” Midad explained. “So naturally this comes to my mind at once.”

Osiris nodded. “Yes, in vitro fertilization was what they tried in the beginning, but it didn’t really work out. Most of the Seth women were not capable of bearing children,” he said.

“So the Seth mixed with the natives, the primitive men?” Jeff asked. “How did they do it? In vitro as well?”

“Let me explain what they did,” Imhotep said. “You might feel taken aback, but consider their situation. I’m a doctor as well. I can understand their reasoning.”

Imhotep looked between his guests. Lest made a gesture with his hand, inviting him to continue.

“First, they modified the primitive men genetically and then they combined the human DNA and their own DNA,” he said.

“I see,” Jeff said. “God created man in his image.”

Lest gave him a warning look, but it was already too late. The Seth men were staring at Jeff.

“It seems you have studied our culture for a considerable amount of time, before contacting us,” Osiris said.

“What exactly is the purpose of your visit?” Hemiunu, who so far had been quiet, asked sharply.

Imhotep raised his hand.

“We all descend from Seth. We’re the same kin. So let us talk and finish this talk in peace. We have a lot to explain, but I think you have likewise. Let’s talk it over among friends,” he said.

“Yes,” Lest replied. “Ages have gone by since the two spaceships left Seth. We need to catch up on what has happened since then, but naturally this cannot be done in a just a few hours.”

Imhotep smiled. “I will carry on then,” he said. He nodded at Jeff. “Like you put it, the Seth created man in their image. First, they modified primitive men and later they mixed up with them. This happened several thousand years after the arrival of the spaceship. Their efforts were successful. The population grew steadily, but the then inhabitants of the island were already descendents of Seth and Man. Some were more like the Seth, some more like the primitive men, but the differences vanished over the ages, only few Seth families were able to keep up an unaltered bloodline, especially after The Flood when the population had declined drastically.”

“The Flood is an event that we need to discuss also,” Jeff said.

“I judge from your features and looks that you three are members of those families,” Doctor Midad said at the same time.

“The ruling Seth class survived The Flood. I understand now what Project Noah was all about,” Jeff said, leaning back with a frown.

“What do you know of Project Noah? Why do you know of it anyway?” Hemiunu asked warily.

The atmosphere in the room was suddenly tensed. Lest and Midad spoke up simultaneously to calm the situation, but Imhotep silenced them with a wave of his hand. He pointed at Jeff.

“You don’t look Daglon,” he said. “In fact, I and my friends have more in common with your companions than you have with them. And yet you don’t look entirely different. You remind me of the northern men that I have seen a few years ago. You look like a human, albeit with a lot of Seth DNA. Explain. Who are you and what do you want?”

Jeff glanced at the others. They were all staring at him. Jeff straightened and took a deep breath.

“I’m from Earth,” he said. “I always thought I was 100% human, but Doctor Midad found out that I’m 85% Daglon.”

“We picked him up in space,” Lest said.

The Seth men looked between Jeff and Lest in confusion.

“My spaceship had an accident,” Jeff said. “Captain Lest was so kind to take me on board of his ship.”

“I wasn’t aware that humans have mastered space technology, a technology we have not yet been able to reverse-engineer,” Hemiunu said in a low voice. “Where do these humans live? I have not heard of the place.”

“It’s a bit more complicated,” Jeff replied. “I’m from Earth. The place is correct, but the timeframe isn’t.”

Osiris and Imhotep studied him with puzzled faces, but Hemiunu nodded thoughtfully.

“I think I do understand. Osiris is the scribe, the keeper of the archives, or however you would want to describe what he does. Imhotep is a doctor, a renowned man who often is called by the Pharaoh. The Pharaoh is a man who thinks he is king, but he has no real clue of what is going on or what happened in the past,” he said. “I’m a technician and an architect. I erected the pyramid you saw with a technology that I have reverse-engineered. I have been working on back-engineering advanced Seth technologies that were lost over the centuries. And I have discovered and managed a lot and I have understood even more so.”

He paused, giving everybody a meaningful look. “The Seth knew that space and time are entwined, but they were not able to really work with the concept. Our ancestors came here in a conventional spaceship. They travelled for six hundred years, sleeping in cryo-tanks. They would have arrived earlier if they had travelled faster than light, which you can only do when you know how to fold space to shorten the distance,” he said. He looked at Lest. “You’re the captain of the spaceship. I suspect you did not fly a long time from your planet to ours. You folded space, didn’t you?” he asked.

“This is correct,” Lest replied. “This is exactly what we did. It was part of our operation.”

Hemiunu nodded again. He shifted his eyes to Jeff and gave him a knowing look. A faint smile appeared on his lips.

“Like Osiris said, the Seth and the humans mixed with each other. They have a future. You’re proof of it. I trust that my words are not just wishful thinking,” he said.

“You’re right,” Jeff replied, smiling at Hemiunu. “I’m from Earth, but I come from Earth’s future. The Daglons know how to fold space and time.”

Osiris looked at him in apparent awe and Imhotep let out a sigh of surprise, only Hemiunu looked unaffected.

“It is a pleasure to meet you,” he said, nodding his head at Jeff and with warmth in his voice.

Jeff nodded in return. “I have not travelled into the past in order to pay you a visit,” he said. “Earth’s future is at stake. A space jump is a risk, but a time jump is even more dangerous, because the timeline can be changed when meddling with the past too much. It will affect the future and can change things drastically. If Ezer Malk succeeds and implements his plan, then Earth might well go to ruin.”

“Ezer Malk?” Imhotep asked.

“Who is Ezer Malk?” Osiris asked, shifting in his chair uncomfortably.

“What does this man have in mind?” Hemiunu asked, sounding alarmed.

***


21

“It’s hard to believe,” Osiris said, after Lest had told them of Ezer. “And you think the man wants to raid the pyramid and get hold of the ancient Seth devices?”

“You were tracking our shuttle. We were wondering how you had noticed it,” Lest said. “Didn’t you spot Ezer’s shuttle either?”

“You said the man spent a couple of days here. It’s frightening. We didn’t detect him and his shuttle,” Hemiunu replied.

“I happened to see your shuttle in the sky when it reflected the morning sun,” Imhotep explained. “I knew at once what I was seeing. I have read the ancient Seth records many times. I’m the keeper of our archives. The Seth wrote down a lot about spaceships and shuttles.”

“I told them you spotted the shuttle. I told them you were hawk-eyed,” Jeff said with a smile.

Imhotep smiled back. “I’m sharp-eyed, yes. I saw the vehicle only briefly, but I instantly knew it was a shuttle. We have often wondered if more of the Seth had survived and if they would ultimately look for the planet that our ancestors had travelled to. When I saw your shuttle cruising the sky, I was excited at the sighting and reported to Hemiunu and Osiris at once.”

“We have radio sets,” Hemiunu said. “That’s how we communicate secretly with each other. I suggested we use them in order to contact the crew of the shuttle. I’m happy that our efforts worked out.”

“You had no clue of Ezer scouring the place?” Doctor Midad asked. He turned his head to Lest. “Do you think Ezer has received the tracking signals also?”

“Hulton is monitoring Ezer’s shuttle. It left the planet shortly before we received the tracking signals. I have no idea if Ezer received them either,” Lest said. “It doesn’t matter anyway. I suspect he will return in order to retrieve artifacts. We must stop him from raiding the planet and from changing the timeline.”

“The time-space continuum has self-healing capabilities,” Doctor Midad said. “We’ve witnessed it ourselves. The timeline is able to heal to a degree. I guess it much depends on how seriously the past was altered. Sometimes the timeline won’t heal, however. We have witnessed this also in space.”

He told the Seth men of the planet Kwain and the incident on Mount Sinai.

“So there’s where they went,” Osiris said. “Moses, the preacher, started a riot. He fled with several hundred men, women, and children. The Pharaoh sent soldiers after them, but they were stopped by the Red Sea that was unexpectedly rising. The sea flooded the lands. We think the flood was maybe caused by an earthquake. Anyway, the soldiers were stopped. We suspected that Moses and his people wandered north-east, but apparently they went south. They must have crossed the desert.”

“I’m wondering why,” Imhotep said. “Did they get lost in the desert or what?”

“Who cares?” Hemiunu asked. “The man was a rabble-rouser. I’m not sad to see him gone. He protested against the erection of the pyramid and he stole a weapon from a secret chamber.”

“We saw his stick-like weapon,” Lest said. “It’s a plasma handgun, albeit one out of date in space.”

 “We are planning to store the ancient devices in a secret place. Too many of these gadgets are scattered all over the town in the homes of the few true Seth,” Hemiunu said.

“Where do you want to store the devices? In the pyramid?” Doctor Midad asked.

“Nothing was found in the pyramids. There are four pyramids in my time,” Jeff said.

“Yes, I’m planning three more,” Hemiunu said with a smile. “I’m happy to hear that I will accomplish the task.”

“How did you erect the pyramid anyway?” Jeff asked. “We have never found out how you did it.”

Hemiunu’s smile broadened. “Well, the construction plans are ancient. The Seth erected many pyramids on the island in the inland sea. I used ancient technology that I have back-engineered. It’s the most advanced technology that I have been able to reverse-engineer.”

He explained the technology to Jeff and the others.

“3D printing? You printed the boulders?” Jeff asked in disbelief.

“Yes,” Hemiunu said. “We can produce a boulder quickly.”

“This technology is widely used in space,” Lest said. “The Mohics are experts in the field.” You have done an amazing job, Hemiunu. I think that back-engineering the technology was difficult.”

“Trial and error and a lot of nights of tedious study,” Hemiunu replied. “But my efforts worked out in the end. The pyramid is almost finished.”

“We actually planned to store the devices inside the pyramid,” Imhotep said. He looked at Jeff. “Are you sure? The pyramid was empty when they opened it?”

“I’m fairly sure,” Jeff replied. He looked between Lest and Midad. “Do you think that Ezer will succeed and steal the devices?”

“He might want to steal them before they are being transferred into the pyramid,” Lest said. “He was scouring the place. He saw the pyramid is almost finished. I’m sure he has drawn his conclusions.”

Midad raised his hand. “Sorry for interrupting this conversation. Dawn is breaking soon. We better get back to the shuttle,” he said.

“The hours went by quickly,” Imhotep said. “You’re right, Doctor Midad. You better leave before dawn is breaking.” He rose to his feet. “Come, I will take you back to the pyramid compound, but we should set a time for our next meeting. We have to discuss many more things and we need to make a plan on how to proceed. We certainly don’t want this man to come back and steal the ancient Seth devices.”

The others stood also. They left the room and Imhotep led them down the staircase. The house was quiet.

“Khepri’s gone,” Imhotep said. “But he will come back at sunrise.”

“It seems you have introduced the man into many secrets,” Doctor Midad said. “Aren’t you afraid he will reveal them to others?”

“No,” Imhotep replied. “Khepri is well aware of what he would lose, if he chose to steal and run.”

He opened the door to the pantry. The men stepped inside. Imhotep led them back to the pyramid compound. They stopped in front of the shuttle.

“I was thinking,” Lest said. “We can come here only at night. It’s a risky endeavor. How about you come over to my main ship for a couple of days? Could you make it? I could pick you up tonight with the shuttle.”

The Seth men grew excited. They were talking with each other. Finally, Osiris turned to Lest and bowed to him.

“We’d feel honored to be your guests, Captain Lest,” he said.

Lest nodded back. “Good. I will pick you up on the pyramid compound at eleven in the evening. Is this fine with you?”

“We’ll be here in time,” Osiris replied.

The Seth men bowed again. Lest, Jeff, and Doctor Midad nodded.

“Oh,”  Midad said, touching his ear. “I’d better take the clips along.”

The Seth men handed back their clips, then turned away and entered the pyramid. Lest, Jeff, and Midad climbed into the shuttle and flew back to the Horus.

***

Lest picked the men up the following evening. He showed them around on the Horus and introduced them to his crew. The men assembled in the lounge after the tour through the ship, only Hulton remained on the bridge. The Seth men were stunned by the futuristic spaceship.

“It isn’t like I had imagined it,” Osiris said. “Your ship is amazing, Captain Lest. I feel honored to be your guest.”

“Yes, your spaceship is very impressive,” Imhotep said. “Our ancestors travelled to Earth in an even larger ship. It’s a pity that so much knowledge is lost.”

“A lot is actually preserved, construction plans and the like, however, we don’t have the means to build a spaceship. We lack resources and manpower, skilled engineers and technicians,” Hemiunu said.

“How many true Seth do still live in Men-Nefer?” Jeff asked.

“Ninety-five,” Imhotep replied. “We can’t do much but preserve what has been passed on to us.”

“We must think of how to proceed,” Lest said. “Hulton is monitoring Ezer’s ship. He has not detected any signs of the ship changing its course. However, Ezer’s ship is still around. They have not yet jumped back to the future.”

Doctor Midad spoke up, but Lest waved his hand and touched his temple.

“A message from Hulton,” he said.

Lest listened, then jumped from his chair. “Forget what I said. Hulton has just informed me that Ezer’s ship is moving towards Earth. All men on the bridge at once,” he said.

The men hurried on the bridge. Lest told them to sit down and strap to their seats. Osiris and his companions looked shocked at the news. Doctor Midad led the men to side seats and helped them to strap to their seats. Jeff sat down next to Corr and Le’Ton. They checked their displays and controls. Lest sat down in the captain’s seat.

“Full power,” he commanded. “We’re climbing into orbit. Hulton, status update, please.”

“Ezer’s ship is moving at a constant speed. It’s heading for Earth,” Hulton said. “I’ve passed the data to Le’Ton and Jeff. They can watch Ezer’s ship, while I continue to scour his computer in order to find out about his plans.”

The engines were powered on and the ship vibrated heavily at the almost cold start. A minute later, the Horus took off and rapidly climbed to orbit. Doctor Midad was sitting next to the Seth men who looked utterly uncomfortable on their first and unexpected trip into space. Midad tried to calm them.

“Ezer’s ship is approaching fast,” Corr said. “It will be here in three hours and twenty minutes.”

“I’ve detected an internal protocol,” Hulton said. “The ship’s cargo bay was cleared from stuff they had taken along. I have no idea what was in the twenty crates that they’ve thrown out into space, but now they have plenty of space in the cargo bay.”

“They want to pick up stuff from Earth. Artifacts. Ancient Seth devices,” Jeff said drily. “I suspect they will land on the pyramid compound. If I was looking for artifacts, then this was the place I would go to.”

“The arrival of Ezer’s ship cannot go completely unnoticed,” Hulton said. “The natives would notice the raid of the pyramid. I think that after an initial period of shock, they would enter the compound and try to hamper Ezer’s operations.”

“The period of shock might be long enough to retrieve what he wants,” Jeff said. “Bear in mind that the natives have never seen a spaceship. They might think that a demon has landed on the pyramid compound. Think of Moses on Mount Sinai.”

Hulton nodded. “You’re probably right, Jeff,” he said. “In particular if Ezer chooses to shoot the ship’s weapons.”

Lest turned to the Seth men. “You said you wanted to store the items in the pyramid, but have not yet transferred them there. Where are the objects now?” he asked.

“Most are still in the homes of the Seth and some are stored in a few secret places outside the town, but we have already transferred quite a number of bigger items into the hall under the Sphinx,” Imhotep said. “There’s a tunnel from this hall to the pyramid.”

“I suspect that Ezer has detected these corridors when scanning the area,” Jeff said. “He plans to enter the tunnel and raid the hall.”

“The ship is on a straight course to Earth. Speed constant. Arrival in three hours,” Le’Ton said.

“Leave orbit,” Lest commanded. “Plot a course to Earth’s moon. We will hide in its shadow.”

The Horus changed its position. The ship was on alarm and  in stealth mode. They were waiting for Ezer’s main ship that had set course on Earth.

***


22

 “Ezer’s ship will pass the moon’s orbit in twenty minutes,” Corr said. “It will pass by in weapon range.”

“We can monitor the ship’s movements, but we can’t intercept what’s spoken on the bridge,” Hulton said.

“Open a channel to Ezer’s ship,” Lest commanded. “I must talk with him. I won’t just shoot his spaceship down.”

“If he gets through with his plan, then this will only be the beginning of massive raids in the future,” Jeff said.

“I must at least give him a chance to turn around and give up on his plan,” Lest replied. “Open a channel, Corr,” he commanded.

Lest straightened and looked at the video conference screen. The image was shaky, but then stabilized. Ezer Malk’s face appeared on the screen. The man was grinning.

“What a surprise. How are you doing, Lest?” Ezer Malk greeted the captain.

“Stop your endeavor at once, Ezer, and drop your plan,” Lest said. “Whatever you have in mind, it will seriously damage the timeline.”

“Who cares?” Ezer asked in a mocking voice. “The Earthlings are a primitive species. They are not entitled to claim the Seth heritage. I won’t negotiate with them; I’ll save the legacy from their hands instead. The Daglons are the righteous heirs and I will negotiate only with the  Daglon leadership. I remain in good standing with many powerful men. Really, Lest, who are you to want to stop me? In all honesty, I’m fed up with your going after me all the time.”

“Shut up. It was you who came on me, just as a reminder, Ezer,” Lest shouted.

All eyes turned to the captain. Ezer smiled contemptuously.

“I don’t really have time for personal sensibilities,” he said. “And in all honesty, Lest, I really can’t see why you can’t get over what was not even an affair. I didn’t promise you anything, did I? I wanted to maintain good relations instead. I offered you a position as a pilot on my team, but you couldn’t bring yourself to accept the offer. You could have shared the fame and the fortune that comes with this enterprise, but unfortunately you didn’t see your chance. You were a top pilot, Lest, but, alas, you chose to end up second best. Over and out.”

Ezer closed the channel and his face disappeared from the screen. Not a sound was to be heard on the bridge.

“Fire,” Lest said into the dead silence. “Plasma missiles one, two, and three at the target. Countdown thirty seconds.”

“Captain Lest...,” Corr started.

Lest waved his hand and Corr fell silent.

“Captain Lest,” Doctor Midad said calmly. “I’d advise...”

“No advice needed,” Lest interrupted him.

Lest stared ahead, then slowly looked around on the bridge. His eyes stopped at Jeff. They  exchanged a long look. Lest took a breath and made a step back.

“I’m putting aside personal sensibilities, but as the captain of this spaceship, I must take a serious and far-reaching decision. I’ve decided to protect the planet Earth from the intended raid by Ezer Malk and any possible raids in the future. Corr, missiles ready for launch, but wait for my next command. We’ll keep monitoring Ezer’s ship for now.”

Lest sat down in his seat. Corr activated the plasma missiles. The men settled in their seats and looked at their devices. A few minutes passed. The tension was fading, but Hulton interrupted the silence with a shout.

“Missile approaching,” Hulton warned. “Ezer has fired a H-0 plasma missile. Impact in forty-one seconds.”

“Additional shields on,” Lest shouted. “Emergency space jump, distance E2. Reprogram missiles after space jump. Set target. Activate  plasma missiles one, two, and three.”

“Additional shields on,” Corr shouted.

“Emergency space jump E2 in three seconds,” Le’Ton announced. “Three, two, one.”

The spaceship jumped through space and the men were thrown about in their seats. The ship was vibrating heavily after the jump and several alarms went off.

“Space jump drive overheated,” an engineer announced over the ship’s intercom.

“Ezer’s missile exploded at distance E2 off our current position,” Jeff said.

“Plasma missiles one, two, three reprogrammed and activated,” Corr said.

“Ezer’s ship is preparing for a time jump,” Hulton announced. He stopped short. “Hell, what’s this?” he said in alarm and turned to Lest in shock. Hulton’s left eye was twitching. “The computer detected a weapon signature coming from Ezer’s ship. An XTRM plasma missile. The pre-sequence is loaded.”

“He can’t be serious. He’s far too close to the planet,” Le’Ton shouted hysterically.

“Think of the Edyle war,” Doctor Midad screamed. “The XTRM missile did not only destroy the targeted second planet, but the first and the third also. This is madness!”

Lest rose to his feet. “How many seconds until time jump and missile launch?” he asked without the faintest sign of mental pressure or stress.

“Thirty-two until time jump and thirty until missile launch.” Hulton said.

“He wants to get out of here before the missile explodes,” Lest said calmly. “Corr, fire plasma missiles one, two, and three. Countdown three seconds,” he commanded.

Corr entered the command and pressed a button. The computer counted down. The numbers showed in red on the main screen. They seemed to change in slow motion. A screaming sound announced the end of the countdown. The three plasma missiles shot off in direction of Ezer’s ship.

“Impact in five seconds,” Corr said.

“Time jump reprogrammed. Ezer’s ship will jump in four seconds from now,” Hulton said in a stifled voice. “Four, three, two, one.”

“Impact,” Corr said. “All three missiles found the target.”

“Time jump was initiated, possibly not fully activated and completed. Lost connection to Ezer’s ship,” Hulton said.

“Scanning the area for debris,” Le’Ton said. “Send scans to main screen.”

The men looked at the screen. Corr zoomed in to the last  position of Ezer’s ship. The screen was black.

“No visual remains. Plasma radiation residuals detected,” Le’Ton said.

“Did the missiles hit the ship or did Ezer escape?” Doctor Midad asked nervously from the background.

“Hulton?” Lest asked.
 
“I’m analyzing the data, captain,” Hulton said. “Impact of the missiles 216 milliseconds before the time jump was fully activated. The target’s destroyed.”

The men turned their eyes at the captain. Lest was looking at the screen.

“Mission completed,” he said.

A few seconds passed. Lest pushed his hands into the pockets of his overall, still looking at  the black screen. “Well,” he said. “Your last move wasn’t exactly clever, Ezer. I guess it was blindness on your part.”

Lest turned to his crew. “You’ve done an excellent job,” he said.

He cast Jeff the hint of a smile and Jeff returned it.

Lest turned to Osiris, Imhotep, and Hemiunu. “How did you like your first trip into space,” he asked. “I hope you didn’t find it unpleasant and stressful. You can’t really anticipate what you encounter in space at times.”

“It was an unforgettable experience,” Imhotep said, smiling faintly. “Although it certainly had traits of a nightmare.”

Lest gave a laugh and the others joined in. The tensed atmosphere on board disappeared and the men were relaxing.

“All men to the galley,” Lest said cheerfully. “I think it’s time we relax.”

The day ended with a merry get-together.

***

The men met again the following morning. The atmosphere was serious.

“As the captain of this ship, I must take a difficult decision,” Lest said, looking at the three passengers on board of the ship.

Osiris raised his hand. “I know what’s on your mind, Captain Lest,” he said. “Imhotep, Hemiunu and I have already discussed it. The discussion was short and the decision unanimous. We want you to take us back to Earth. That’s the place where we belong to.”

“I would have taken the risk to change the timeline. I would have taken you to Daglon, if you had wished so,” Lest said.

“No need to take this risk,” Osiris said with a smile. “Our decision is final.”

“We were never meant to leave the planet for good,” Imhotep said. “We have often discussed leaving the planet, but we never found a way to build a spaceship. And now that we have the opportunity to leave, it doesn’t appeal to us anymore.”

“Why not?” Jeff asked, genuinely surprised.

“Because of you, Jeff,” Imhotep said. “You come from Earth’s future and thus we have learned that Seth and Man will survive. We know that our efforts won’t be in vain and now we’re at peace at last.”

“Jeff, you told us of the four pyramids in your time. The first one is not yet finished and the three others are not yet built, but I want to accomplish my mission and you let me know that I will,” Hemiunu said with a smirk.

Jeff cast him a smile and nodded.

The Seth men were taken back to Earth the following day. They had only asked for a device filled with data of Earth and space. Lest had granted their wish unceremoniously. The men promised to use the data cautiously in order to not damage the timeline. The Horus once again touched down in the desert at night and Lest took the three men to the pyramid compound with the shuttle. Jeff and Doctor Midad accompanied them. Once again the two groups stood facing each other.

“Life is composed of two parts that which is past a dream and that which is to come a wish,” Doctor Midad said in ancient Daglon, bowing to the three men.

Jeff and Lest followed Doctor Midad’s example and also bowed to the Seth men.

“What is coming is better than what is gone,” Imhotep repeated the greeting, using the modern version of the Daglon language.

He bowed to Lest, Jeff and Doctor Midad. Imhotep and Hemiunu smiled and bowed as well.

“If you ever have the opportunity, come and see us some time,” Hemiunu said. “I would want you to see the pyramids in full splendor.”

“We have a saying. You always meet twice,” Lest said with a smile.

“It was a pleasure to meet you. I hope our paths cross again,” Jeff replied.

“It’s merely a matter of time, I hope,” Doctor Midad said.

“After all, space and time are entwined,” Osiris replied with a smile.

The three men turned around and entered the pyramid. Jeff, Lest and Doctor Midad stood for an instant, then got back into their shuttle.

The Horus climbed to orbit a couple of hours later and returned to the point in space where they had arrived after their jump into the past. Lest had the computer re-calculate the time jump and the crew double check the systems. This done, the captain commanded the time jump back into the future. The jump was successful.

***

The spaceship was floating in space. The men assembled in the galley.

“We’re close to Cyrus. Our mission’s completed,” Lest said.

“I see what’s coming. The Mohic Empire,” Le’Ton, the navigator, sighed.

Corr, the pilot, rolled his eyes. Doctor Midad and Jeff exchanged a look, but both remained silent. Lest didn’t reply and turned his eyes to Hulton instead.

“I know what you’re going to tell me, captain,” Hulton said, straightening in his chair. “I have prepared myself for it. I must get off your ship. This was the deal, Captain Lest.”

“Hulton, I want to thank you for your excellent work. We would not have made it without you,” Lest said.

The captain paused, looking from one to the other. Jeff and the Daglon men acknowledged his words with a nod. Hulton cleared his throat.

“I have truly enjoyed this trip. I have learned a lot,” Hulton said simply, the cynical man apparently at a loss of words or not in the mood for cutting remarks.

Lest looked at him seriously, but then the predatory smile appeared on his lips.

“I was thinking,” he said. “I would be a fool to let go such a talent. I’m offering you a job on board of my ship. Would you accept it? What do you think, Hulton?”

Hulton looked at Lest in disbelief, but then a smile appeared on his lips.

“I will gladly accept your offer. Thank you very much, Captain Lest. I feel truly honored,” he said.

“Welcome on board of my ship, Hulton,” Lest said with a smile, then turned to the others. “I was thinking. I’ve made my mind up on where we’ll go next,” he said.

“Not the Mohic Empire?” Jeff asked.

“Not the Mohic Empire,” Lest said with a smirk. “We’ll take a vacation. Three weeks on Daglon. How does this sound to you?” he asked.

The men were enthusiastic about the prospect. Lest had the Horus make a space jump to Daglon. The ship touched down in Amun and the men separated to pursue their own pleasures and plans. Lest and Jeff travelled to the Beliad region.

***

They were standing under the willow-tree that marked the burial place of Jeff’s comrades. Three marble stones were erected with the men’s names engraved on them. Dawn was breaking and the first light of the sun showed on the horizon. Hundreds of birds were singing,  greeting the new morning as the sun of Daglon was rising.

“I promised you that we will come back to the place. Now here we are,” Lest said.

“It’s a beautiful morning,” Jeff replied. “I’m coming to terms with my past and I look forward to the future.”

He turned his eyes to Lest. They exchanged a long look. Jeff reached out his hand and Lest seized it.

***






© 2014 Dolores Esteban

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First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction