Space Pioneer 4

Akar Kazbek

by Dolores Esteban




The Horus returned from a trip to the Mohic Empire and landed on Cyrus, the space hub for many illegal or half-legal transactions in space. The ship was directed to a hangar and the men got off, except of Galven and Forrit who performed an engine check and supervised the refueling of the tanks.

A hovercraft tanker was directed to a hatch with inbuilt fueling tubes. The fueling crew plugged the tubes to their vehicle and Helium-3, necessary for travel in real space, was sucked from the hovercraft into the ship’s tanks.

Doctor Midad went to the medical center to catch up on the latest developments in the medical field. A doctor showed him a newly developed emergency kit.

“These nano-bot strips are a great success,” the man said. “The strips work more effectively than the older ones. Applied to an injury, the healing process starts immediately. A deep gash is two-third repaired before you get the man to sickbay. Combat crews buy the kits en masse.”

“What’s the price of a kit?” Doctor Midad asked.

“120 credits, if you buy one in the medical center’s shop,” the doctor replied. “You can get cheaper kits in many places on Cyrus, but ours are certified. We produce them in a sterile lab. You never know how and where the others were produced.”

Midad nodded thoughtfully. “What about a discount?” he asked.

“Two percent if you buy ten kits, three if you buy fifty and five if you buy one hundred or more,” the man said.

“Well, ten kits should suffice,” Midad said, smiling slightly.

The Cyrus doctor led Midad to the medical shop, then wished him a good day and left. Midad went back to the hub’s main hall, carrying a recyclable polythene bag.

Corr and Le’Ton looked for gadgets in a second hand shop. Most devices were outdated, but they knew from previous visits that at times a crate of the latest gadgets could be found in the store.

“I would love to find this Atkon game station expansion that I heard of,” Le’Ton said. “It shouldn’t be difficult to build it into our onboard game station.”

“What’s the game about?” Corr asked.

“Ships of various species unite and attack a pirate tower,” Le’Ton said. “The space tower is under control of a nefarious pirate leader. His name is Catlil. The game is set in the solar system Tau Ceti.”

The game was a popular reality based game. The pirate Nanuq Kitlali had taken control of the Tau Ceti system. The system was beyond Alliance territory and belonged to the Titan Empire, but a couple of years ago the pirate Nanuq Kitlali had invaded the system, planted a platform between the third and the fourth planet and erected a tower. The nefarious ruler commanded an army of several hundred men, hired guns, feared for their ruthless and cruel acts that often ended lethal for those who offered resistance. Nanuq Kitlali was the self-appointed ruler of the pirate empire in this now lawless part of space. He engaged mainly in drug smuggling, but didn’t shy away from a kidnap or people smuggling to finance his empire.

“The game’s based on Kitlali’s tower,” Le’Ton said.

“What’s the name of the game?” Corr asked.

“Catlil’s Demise,” Le’Ton replied.

The men rummaged through the crates.

Finally, Corr held a box up. “Is this the game?” he asked, handing it to Le’Ton.

“Hey, yes,” Le’Ton said. “Thanks, Corr. Do you think we can pay it from the ship’s account? It would be for general entertainment on board.”

“I’ll contact Lest,” Corr said. He touched his temple, focused on his neural implant and sent Lest a message. “He’s coming to the store. He’s already in the mall,” he said.

Lest entered the shop a short while later and joined the men. Le’Ton handed him the box with the game.

“How much is it?” Lest asked.

“The official price is 275 credits,” Le’Ton said. “We should get it cheaper here.”

“Can we see if it runs properly?” Lest asked.

Le’Ton shrugged. “You must ask the shop owner. He’s over there,” he said.

Lest went to the counter.

The man took the box from Lest’s hand. “I’m afraid I can’t install it here. The game is huge. Install it on your ship and run a test. Come back within an hour or two if you can’t get it running and I’ll refund the money you paid,” he said.

“What’s the price of the box?” Lest asked.

“It’s a popular game,” the man said. “I can’t reduce the price much. 250 credits.”

“This isn’t much of a discount,” Lest said. “200.”

“230,” the man replied. “This is my final word.”

“All right, I’ll buy it,” Lest said. He told the man the number of the ship’s account.

“Very well,” the man replied, seizing the payment device.

The men left the shop. Le’Ton and Corr were eager to get back to the ship and test the game. Lest moved on and visited a couple of shops. He finally spotted Jeff and Hulton. Each man was carrying a small box.

“What’s this?” Lest asked, pointing at the boxes.

“Microwave meals,” Jeff replied. “We ordered ten big crates for the ship, but they’ll be delivered only tomorrow. So we took a few meals along.”

“Why?” Lest asked. “I thought we’d eat at Abydos as long as we’re on Cyrus. I’ve got a good table in the restaurant.”

Abydos was a popular restaurant on Cyrus that offered fresh food from everywhere in space. The place was usually crowded and reservations had to be made.

“Corr sent me a message and asked if we could get them a few meals. He and Le’Ton are occupied with installing a game on the ship’s computer,” Hulton replied.

“I know. I paid for the box,” Lest replied. “Okay, let’s go back to the ship.”

They met Doctor Midad in the hangar. The men entered the ship. Jeff stowed away the meals in the galley, Doctor Midad went to sickbay, and Hulton joined Corr and Le’Ton in the gaming room. Lest entered the galley.

“We’re on a planet and they could escape the confinement of the ship, but what do they do? Hide in sickbay or sit jammed together in the ship’s gaming room,” he said, shaking his head. “We’ll leave the ship together for dinner. I’ll issue a command if they don’t come freely. I don’t want us to get weird from being too long in space.”

Jeff just smirked.

The men left the ship in the evening and went to the restaurant. Le’Ton and Corr had complained, but Lest had silenced them. They had just sat down at their table when Lest received a message to his neural implant. Lest grimaced.

“Perez contacted me. He heard we’re on Cyrus. He wants me to come to his office after dinner. He sounded nervous. That’s new. It kind of makes me curious,” he said.

“Will you go? He dumped you,” Doctor Midad said.

“I’m going, but he won’t get me to sign a contract right away. I will thoroughly think over his offer,” Lest replied. “Okay, let’s enjoy our meals. What will you eat, Jeff?

“Orean steak and Atkon eggplants and tomatoes,” Jeff said. “Orean steak tastes much like a steak on Earth.”

“I’ll take this, too,” Lest said.

It was already late when Lest went to Perez’ office. The man had waited for him. Two Goyans were also present. The men jumped from their seats when Lest entered the office.

It was way past midnight when Lest left the office with the copy of a signed contract in a pocket of his overall. According to Perez, he was the only one capable of helping the Goyan Jokin Trescothik out of his predicament. After hearing the Goyan’s story, Lest thought the dealer had a point. He had pushed aside his doubts and had signed the contract.

The Horus left Cyrus two days later.

***

The ship dropped out of real space. A distant speck showed on the main screen.

“Corr, send the code Perez provided,” Lest said.

“Code confirmed,” Corr replied. “We’re assigned a hangar on the second level.”

The Horus decelerated. The speck on the screen grew bigger and finally turned into the highly resolved image of a space tower on an artificial platform. The platform was located between the third and the fourth planet of the solar system Tau Ceti.

“The tower looks exactly like Catlil’s tower in the game,” Le’Ton said. “Catlil is a self-appointed ruler of a pirate empire.”

“Well, his real name is Nanuq Kitlali,” Lest said. “He’s engaged mainly in drug smuggling, but doesn’t shy away from a kidnap or people smuggling to finance his empire.”

A kidnap was the reason why the Horus was on the way to the platform that Nanuq Kitlali called Kumari in his language, meaning ‘center of the universe’. The pirates had abducted Jokin Trescothik, the Goyan ambassador, on his way to Epsilon Eridani for an Alliance meeting. Nanuq Kitlali had attacked the ambassador’s spaceship, a huge Goyan cruiser, and the accompanying four battleships when the ships had dropped back in real space for a stopover and refueling on an Alliance platform. The pirates had shot down the Goyan battleships without effort and had disabled the electronics of the main ship with an ion laser gun. The ambassador’s ship was towed to the pirate platform. A few men who had offered resistance upon arrival were relentlessly killed by the pirates. The rest of the crew and Jokin Trescothik’s travel companions were released one after the other for ransom money, but the negotiations on Jokin’s release had dragged on for a year.

Finally, Alliance stepped in and offered to pay fifty percent of the demanded sum. Nanuq Kitlali agreed on the sum, but declined any Alliance ship entering his system and refused to send a pirate ship into Alliance territory. The negotiations were stuck again. A distant relative of Jokin Trescothik, a high-rank Alliance politician, finally organized the exchange of man and credits privately. He contacted the Cyrus dealer Perez who had a spacewide net of henchmen and had eyes and ears everywhere. Perez had hired the Horus crew. The operation sounded easy: Fly into Tau Ceti and touch down in the assigned hangar, get Jokin Trescothik on board and contact Perez who then will manage the credit transfer. Take off from the pirate platform, leave Tau Ceti, and take the ambassador to Epsilon Eridani. The operation sounded almost too simple.

“Full alarm mode and all shields on,” Lest commanded.

“Ground control sent the vector. Touchdown in two minutes,” Le’Ton, the navigator, said.

The Horus landed, rolled down the runway and came to a halt.

“Ground control requires identification,” Le’Ton said.

“Ship on stand-by mode. Send second code,” Lest commanded.

“Security is in the hall,” Hulton said. “Six hover vehicles.”

“Hangar hatch is closing,” Jeff said.

Lest straightened.

“Second code sent. Await confirmation,” Corr said.

The ship shook heavily for a second.

“Ship is mag-locked,” Hulton said.

“This wasn’t part of the negotiations,” Lest said. “Can the ship pull free from the locks?”

“Shouldn’t be difficult,” Corr replied. “The applied mag-field can’t lock a Daglon warship for long. Pulling free might result in hangar destruction, however.”

“Well, who would care?” Lest asked, moving to the front console where the four men focused on their screens and devices.

“Incoming communication request,” Le’Ton said.

“Send to main screen,” Lest said.

The main screen activated and showed the face of a middle-aged male. Nanuq Kitlali looked from the screen. The pirate ruler made no secret of his identity. He could have passed as a Titan, but he was of Orean origin.

“Open the rear hatch. We’ll come on board,” Kitlali said.

“I want to speak to Jokin Trescothik,” Lest replied.

Kitlali didn’t reply, but turned his head and waved his hand. A figure was dragged in front of the camera. Jokin Trescothik looked with widened eyes on the Horus bridge. Lest muted the intercom channel.

“He looks younger than he looks in the images. Can we be sure this man is Jokin Trescothik?” he asked, turning to Doctor Midad who was seated at a side console.

“I’ll run a fast test on his genetic profile once he’s on board of the ship,” Midad said. “I’m going down to the cargo bay. I have my kit ready,” the doctor said, rising to his feet and seizing a box from the console.

Lest activated the ship’s intercom. “Galven, Forrit, suit up and go to the cargo bay. Meet Doctor Midad there. We’ll open the hatch for the pirates. Should anything go wrong, close the hatch manually. Wait for further commands.”

The engineers confirmed.

Lest opened the channel to the pirate. “The hatch will be opened in ten minutes. Send four men without weapons in, as was negotiated. Take the Goyan ambassador on board,” he said.

“Confirmed,” Nanuq Kitlali replied, a faint smile curling his lips.

Lest closed the external intercom line. “Scan the hangar hatch, Hulton. We might want to blast it open,” he said.

The four men at the front console exchanged sideways glances, but didn’t comment.

“Scan of hangar hatch completed,” Hulton said after a while. “Two missiles should break it.”

“Get them ready,” Lest said. “Cargo bay on the main screen.”

Jeff sent the images of the monitoring system to the screen. The cargo bay was empty, but the door opened a short while later and Galven and Forrit, suited up in combat suits, entered the bay. Doctor Midad followed them.

“Deactivate the combat suits for now,” Lest said through the intercom. “Negotiations say no weapons on both sides. We’ll scan the four men when they enter.”

Lest re-established the connection to the pirate leader. “Rear hatch opening,” he said.

Nanuq Kitlali didn’t reply. The rear hatch opened and the ramp went down. A minute later, four men entered the ship. The scanning systems showed their combat suits were deactivated. The pirates had the Goyan ambassador in tow. Two men seized him and pushed him forward. Jokin Trescothik stumbled, made two awkward steps and then stood motionless in the cargo bay. His hands were bound in front of his body.

Doctor Midad approached the man and spoke to him. He opened his kit, placed an analysis plaster on Jokin’s cheek and turned his eyes to the display that was integrated in the box. A minute passed by. Every man in the cargo bay stood motionless. The image on the main screen looked frozen. Finally, Doctor Midad looked up. He made a sign with his hand and touched his temple. Lest focused on his neural implant and the incoming message, then ordered to re-open the channel to the pirate leader.

“Doctor Midad’s genetic analysis proved the man is Jokin Trescothik,” he said. “I’m contacting Perez on Cyrus.”

“I’m watching my account for the incoming credits,” the pirate said mockingly. “My men will stay on board of your ship until everything’s settled.”

“Fine,” Lest replied. He muted the channel. “Corr, establish a connection to Perez.”

Corr activated the space crease intercom that allowed to exchange messages over long distances without major delays. Perez’ face showed on the main screen.

“The ambassador is on board of the ship. Doctor Midad tested the genetic profile and verified the ambassador’s identity,” Lest said.

A Goyan whispered to Perez. Perez gave a nod.

“I’m transferring the credits. Get out of the system soon, Lest. Good luck,” the Cyrus dealer said.

“Thanks, Perez. We might need it,” Lest replied.

“Difficulties, captain?” Perez asked.

“The ship is mag-locked and the hangar hatch is closed. It shouldn’t be difficult to get out, though,” Lest said. “I’ll contact you when we’re back in outer space. Lest, out.”

Lest ended the transmission and switched to the channel that connected the Horus with the pirate leader.

“Captain Lest here. You should have received the credits by now,” he said.

“Confirmed,” Kitlali replied. “You have a good ship, captain. A Daglon warship is rare to get. You have a fine ship and I have a fine tower. Your ship looks good in my hangar.”

“My ship looks even better flying in space,” Lest replied.

“No doubt,” Kitlali replied. “But you might want to re-consider which side you prefer to work for.”

“No time for second thoughts,” Lest said. “The Goyan booked a trip home. Open the hangar hatch and release the mag-locks. We’re ready for take-off. Call your men out.”

Kitlali smiled an amused smile, then ended the transmission. Galven called the bridge and reported that the four pirates had left the cargo bay.

“Pull in the ramp and close the rear hatch,” Lest commanded. “Power up engines for take-off.”

The engines came on. The ship shook briefly.

“Mag-locks released,” Corr said.

“Hangar hatch is opening,” Jeff said.

“Ready for take-off. Contact ground control,” Lest said.

“Take-off requested,” Corr said.

“Ground control sent outbound vector and clearance for take-off,” Le’Ton said.

“Take-off,” Lest commanded, leaning back in his chair and crossing his arms.

The sound of the engines grew louder. The Horus turned und taxied, accelerated and shot out into space. The ship followed the assigned flight vector and left Kitlali’s tower behind.

And then all electronics failed simultaneously. The lights went out, the main computer shut down, the stalled engines groaned and then fell silent. The men strapped in instinctively.

“What’s this?” Lest shouted in the dark.

“All electronics failed,” Corr said. “The ship’s falling through space. Vector unknown.”

“Onboard gravity gone,” Le’Ton reported. “Life support systems don’t work. Air will last thirty hours.”

A long minute went by, then a crackle could be heard through the ship’s intercom. Electronic power was back.

“Backup chemical reactor came on,” Galven said from the engine room. “Emergency systems are running.”

The emergency lights on the bridge flickered, then stabilized. The bridge was drowned in a dim blue light.

“Computer is booting in safe mode. Eleven seconds until boot complete,” Corr reported.

“Standby systems are running,” Hulton said a minute later.

“Internal intercom on. External intercom on. Onboard gravity on. Life supporting systems have full power,” Jeff said.

“Defensive shields on and working 100%,” Hulton said.

“Main engines coming on,” Galven said from the engine room.

“Scan for engine failure initialized,” Forrit said.

Lest unstrapped with a rash movement of his hand and jumped from his seat.

“The son of a bitch tried to take the Horus out,” he  shouted. “Open a channel to Kitlali.”

Kitlali’s face showed on the screen. The pirate leader was grinning.

“This was a surprise, wasn’t it, captain?” he asked. “I was feeling generous, though. We didn’t destroy your ship, we just disabled it. How did it feel, Captain Lest?”

 Lest’s look could have blasted the main screen, but he forced himself to calmness.

“Impressive, Kitlali,” he said. “But only cowards attack from behind.”

Kitlali’s mouth twisted. He leaned forward and hit a button. The transmission ended and the main screen went dark.

“Sack of shit,” Lest hissed. He exhaled and turned to his crew. “Status updates.”

“I’m attempting to locate the transmission source, Kitlali’s tower,” Hulton said.

“Computer is in standard mode. All systems are working,” Corr said.

“Computer initialized self-scan for damages to software and hardware,” Jeff said.

“The navigation systems are working properly,” Le’Ton said. “The computer located the sun of the system and determined the distance to the Horus.”

“Kitlali tower located,” Hulton said. “The computer determined the distance to the Horus. I’ll  send the data to Le’Ton.”

“Thanks,” Le’Ton said. “We have enough data to determine the ship’s location and re-set our flight path.”

“The computer stopped the ship. Current speed and acceleration zero. The ship is floating in space,” Corr said.

“The computer determined the ship’s position,” Le’Ton said. “Vertical deviation from planned flight path three degrees. Horizontal deviation zero. The ship followed a straight course. Course correction is programmed.”

Lest sat down in his seat. He hit a button on his seat panel. “Lest here. Galven, Forrit, update,  please.”

“The engine stall caused a few minor damages. Nothing to worry about,” Galven said. “Main engines run with 89%. power. We can make it out of the system and into space jump mode without problems. Repairs can be done onboard. Ship can go in full stealth mode, but I would advise you wait until we have done a full analysis.”

“Thanks, Galven,” Lest replied. “Okay, Le’Ton, set course on Epsilon Eridani. Corr, initialize space jump mode at the edge of the system. Jeff, watch the computer scans for damages and failures. Hulton, keep an eye on space. Shoot down any pirate ship upon detection.”

Lest hit another button. “Lest here. Doctor Midad, how are things in sickbay?”

“The systems are recalibrating,” Midad replied. “The isolated emergency system came on and sustained most medical systems. What was this, Lest?”

“Kitlali disabled our electronics,” Lest replied.

“Did the shields not work properly?” Midad asked.

“The Horus has the latest shields and they worked 100%. Nanuq Kitlali has a weapon that bypassed these shields. I must contact Perez. How’s the Goyan ambassador doing?” Lest asked.

“He’s in good health, as far as I can tell,” Doctor Midad said. “I’ll run a full medical analysis once the systems finished calibrating.”

“Thanks, Midad,” Lest said. He closed the connection. “Corr, establish a connection to Perez.”

The Cyrus dealer was on the main screen a minute later.

“What went wrong?” Perez asked.

“How do you know?” Lest asked back.

“Your report is delayed,” Perez said.

“The delay is minor,” Lest replied. “All right, listen, Perez.”

Lest reported the incident. Perez twisted his mouth.

“Your ship’s entirely overhauled. I sold  you the latest shields,” Perez said. “I heard rumors of a very advanced weapon that might bypass them, though. This weapon is said to be in the development stage.  Hard to imagine Kitlali seized a prototype. I will look into this, of course. Back to the Goyan ambassador, Lest. How’s Jokin Trescothik doing? The Goyans want  to speak to him.”

“He’s in sickbay. Doctor Midad is checking on him,” Lest said.

“Okay, switch us to sickbay,” Perez said.

“Put him through, Corr,” Lest said. “Le’Ton, where are we?”

“We’re leaving the system in seventy-five minutes,” Le’Ton said.

“I’m going down to sickbay to speak with the Goyan ambassador,” Lest said. “I’ll be back on the bridge before we’ll switch to space jump mode.”

Lest  left the bridge and went to sickbay. The Goyan was sitting on the edge of a bed. Doctor Midad had applied several monitoring plasters to the man’s skin. Jokin Trescothik was a slim and medium-sized man. His brown hair was cut short. He was shaved and looked cleaned up. The man was dressed in a plain beige shirt and trousers.

“Welcome on board of my ship, ambassador. I’m Captain Lest,” Lest greeted the man.

Jokin Trescothik looked up, a faint smile on his lips.

“I thank you, Captain Lest, for taking me home. From what just happened on your ship, I must conclude that Kitlali didn’t want to let us go,” he said.

“Showmanship on his part,” Lest replied. “You appear to be in good health. Did the pirates treat you well?”

“I got what I needed, food and drink, and a bed to sleep in. I was mostly on my own in a cell,” Jokin Trescothik said.

“They kept you for more than a year. Quite a long time,” Lest said.

“Yes,” the Goyan replied. “I’ve just spoken with a Goyan official and a relative. I told them I was glad to finally come home and thanked them for their efforts.”

“We’re not flying to Goya. It’s too far away,” Lest replied. “We’re supposed to take you to Epsilon Eridani.”

“I know,” Jokin said. “It will only be a stopover for me.”

Lest nodded. “Doctor Midad will check on your health and will then take you to your quarters. He’ll introduce you into the ship’s intercom system. Feel free to call on the bridge whenever you want to,” he said. “You’re free to move around on the ship, but don’t enter the bridge without previous consent. Doctor Midad will show you the lounge and the galley.”

“I think I must rest,” Jokin said. “This day and the previous days were stressful.”

“Sure,” Lest said, giving another nod. “Rest well, ambassador.”

Jokin nodded faintly in return.

Lest went back on the bridge. The ship arrived at the edge of the solar system and Lest commanded the switch to space jump mode. The Horus dropped out of real space and continued on its course to Epsilon Eridani.

The following two days were uneventful. The Goyan ambassador stayed in his room for most of the time. The engineers repaired the damage on the engines. The computer finished the software and hardware scans and self-repaired a couple of damages. Hulton went through the remaining errors and worked on erasing them.

The third day of their trip passed by. The men had dinner in the lounge, when Jokin Trescothik entered the room. He looked around insecurely until he spotted the captain.

Lest rose from his chair to greet the man. He provided Jokin with a meal and a drink and invited him to his table. Jeff and Midad pushed their chairs aside. Lest placed a chair between them and the Goyan ambassador sat down. All conversations had stopped. The men watched the Goyan silently. Lest introduced his crew to the ambassador. The atmosphere relaxed.

“Quite a crowd on this ship,” Jokin said. “I almost forgot how crowded a spaceship is. I was locked away in a cell too long. How is the trip going? When will we reach Epsilon Eridani, Captain Lest?”

“Tomorrow evening,” Lest replied. “We’ll contact Perez when we drop back into real space.”

Jokin cast Lest a questioning look. “Why must we contact him again? Isn’t there a contact person in the system Epsilon Eridani?”

Lest leaned back in his chair and folded his hands. “It’s just a minor problem, but we can’t exactly proceed as you probably think we will,” he said.

Jokin put down his fork and looked at Lest with fearful eyes. “Why? What happened?” he asked.

Lest raised his hand. “I think you are aware that you are on board of a Daglon warship,” he said.

“Yes, I recognized the type of the ship,” Jokin replied. “It’s one of the best Alliance warships.”

“Exactly,” Lest said. “It’s just that I don’t work for the Alliance.”

“What does this mean?” Jokin asked with a worried look.

Lest told Jokin about the long negotiations between the Goyans and the pirate.

“You see this mission isn’t an official Goyan or Alliance mission, although the Alliance paid fifty percent of the ransom. Kitlali didn’t want Alliance in his derelict system and didn’t want to take you to Alliance territory. He feared to be run down by Alliance ships. A distant relative of yours, Akin Ascothik, stepped in and resumed the negotiations. He organized the rescue mission privately. Perez was the mediator. The man has many connections,” Lest said.

“Akin Ascothik? My great-uncle’s stepbrother?” Jokin said. “I still can’t see the problem, Captain Lest.”

“Your relative hired Perez. Perez contacted me and hired my ship and my crew. I’m not Alliance, but Epsilon Eridana is a center of Alliance operations. We cannot enter the system,” Lest said.

Jokin stared at Lest. “You fear detection? Are you a pirate?” he asked.

“No, I’m not a pirate. I run my own business. I operate in the gray markets. My operations are legal,” Lest said. “Mostly,” he added with a brief smile.

“I have no right to judge on your operations, captain. Nobody else came for my rescue. You saved my life and I’m in your debt. Tell me, Captain Lest, what is the plan then?”

“We’ll take you to a mining asteroid in the asteroid belt at the edge of the solar system. Perez has organized another spacecraft, a mining vessel, that will pick you up there and take you to Akar Kazbek, the main planet of the system. Captain and crew of the mining ship won’t ask any questions, ambassador,” Lest said.

“My name’s Jokin,” the Goyan said. “I don’t like the idea of getting off your ship on a mining asteroid.”

“You will be safe, Jokin,” Lest said. “Everything’s organized and prepared. We’ll check back with Perez when we drop back into real space.”

Jokin continued eating and started a conversation with the crew, but his smiles were faint and brief and his look was clouded until he retired to his room for the night.

“The man fears for his life. It’s written in his face,” Jeff said.

“The man is traumatized,” Doctor Midad said. “He was kidnapped and locked away for more than a year. Part of the crew of the main ship and the entire crew of four battleships died, whereas he was released due to a distant relative’s intervention. Jokin Trescothik isn’t a man who takes such things lightly.”

***


The ship dropped out of real space. Lest contacted Perez.

“Lest here. The trip was uneventful. One hour until arrival on the asteroid,” Lest said.

“Cancel the approach at once, Lest,” Perez said in an urgent voice. “The miners went on strike. Demonstrations grew increasingly aggressive. Riots started today. Alliance is on the way to the asteroid belt. A few ships are already there. Our mining ship can’t land on the asteroid and take off from there unimpeded. The Goyans are working on a plan. We’ll set something up. Wait for further instructions.”

Lest straightened and inhaled deeply. “Perez, forget about it. There’s no way I’ll land the Horus on Akar Kazbek.”

“We’ll set something up, Lest,” Perez said and ended the transmission.

The main screen went dark. Lest was staring at it.

“Damn,” he said, turning to the front console. “Corr, full stealth mode, additional shields. Le’Ton, send a map of the system to the screen.”

The map showed the sun and the nine planets of the system. A brief description of the planets was included in the map.

The first planet was a solid celestial body with a hot and toxic atmosphere. The second planet, a terraformed rock planet, was partly inhabited, but wide areas were left untouched. They were covered with boulders, huge basalt rocks, the result of volcanic activity in the past. The planet was a center of scientific research. The third planet Akar Kazbek, the main planet of the system and a major center of Alliance activities and operations, was densely populated. The fourth planet resembled Akar Kazbek closely and was also populated. The second, third and fourth planet were under complete Alliance control. The fifth and sixth planets were gas giants. The three outer planets were solid but too cold for settlement, the average temperature was 50 to 110°C below zero, but Alliance military had nonetheless set up a couple of outposts there.

The space between the planets was studded with platforms and probes. Many probes were military probes that observed and recorded all incoming and leaving spaceships. The recordings were kept for a year and were then discarded, according to official Alliance statements, but nobody believed it. The official flight corridors were documented in the map. It was mandatory to use them because traffic was heavy round the clock.

“Forty-five minutes until arrival on the asteroid,” Corr said.

“Cancel approach,” Lest said. “Le’Ton, plot a route to the outmost planet. We’ll go into orbit until we hear from Perez once more.”

The Horus passed the asteroid belt and set course on the ninth planet of the system. They avoided the two main flight corridors in the area and moved along the boundary of a secondary flight corridor for cargo vessels. The ship reached the ninth planet, Lambda Eridani, and went into orbit.

Two hours had passed by when Perez called the ship again. “Perez here, Where are you, Lest?” the dealer asked.

“Orbiting the ninth planet,” Lest replied.

“How’s the ambassador doing?” Perez asked.

“Fine, I suppose. I’ve not yet informed him on the change of operation. He’s in his room,” Lest replied.

“Good,” Perez said. “Listen, Lest. The Goyan ship, a commercial passenger ship, that is supposed to take the ambassador on board on Akar Kazbek, cut down its speed and is coming in slow. They sent an emergency code due to engine failure and were assigned a secure flight corridor, E2T3. Line up with the ship. It will land in sector G8 of the main spaceport on Akar Kazbek.”

“What do you think, Perez? I can’t land the ship in an Alliance spaceport. Too many vessels everywhere. How do you think should we land there and take off? They’ll detect the Horus as soon as we’ll enter the atmosphere.”

“Nonsense, Lest,” Perez replied. “They won’t detect the Horus in stealth mode. Just do what I’ll say. We worked something out. You’ll leave the flight corridor immediately after entering the atmosphere. Land the Horus in Aphea, a closed airport at the edge of a desert, three hundred nautical miles from the main spaceport. I’m sending the coordinates. The Goyans on Akar Kazbek chartered a hovercraft and are already on their way to Aphea,” Perez said.

“Nicely thought out,” Lest said. “I see a minor fault, though. Leaving the secure flight corridor and dashing through Alliance airspace might prove a little difficult. I’m thinking of a possible collision with another craft.”

“Well, Lest, everybody has a part in the plot. That’s why I hired you  and your ship. I trust you can wing it,” Perez said with a smirk. “I mean, I’m confident you’ll know how to improvise.”

“Thanks,” Lest said sourly. “When will the Goyan ship enter the system?”

“In fifteen minutes,” Perez said. “Flight corridor E2T3 is about fifteen degrees clockwise from your current position. Check the map of the system. The Goyan ship communicates with Akar Kazbek ground control on emergency channel E111. And, Lest, good luck.”

“Thanks, Perez. Lest, out,” Lest said. He turned to the front console. “Jeff, identify corridor E2T3 and program the course. You and Corr are in charge of the line-up with the Goyan ship. Le’Ton, check out Aphea and the air traffic in the sector. Plot the safest path to Aphea.”

“Little time to do this properly,” Le’Ton said.

“Well, rise to a challenge,” Lest replied. “I’m confident you can.”

“Roger, captain,” Le’Ton said, focusing back on his screens.

“Hulton, watch out for the Goyan ship and monitor channel E111,” Lest said.

Lest leaned back in his chair and looked at the main screen. The Horus left orbit and proceeded to flight corridor E2E3 where they waited for the Goyan ship. Thirty minutes went by.

“The sensors detected the Goyan ship,” Hulton said finally. “The Goyan ship is slow.”

“Ready the Horus for line-up,” Lest said.

“Ship is ready for line-up,” Corr confirmed a minute later.

“Visual contact with the Goyan ship established,” Hulton said.

“Image to the screen,” Lest said.

The screen activated and showed a big Goyan spaceship, clearly a commercial passenger ship. Blue external lights were switched on and the ship moved along the flight corridor at a slow but steady speed.

“The Goyan ship is on redundancy systems,” Hulton said.

“Can we listen in on the talk between ground control and ship?” Lest asked.

“I’m monitoring the channel,” Hulton said. “I’m sending the transmission to the bridge intercom.”

Cydona ground control requested a status update from the Goyan ship. A male voice, presumably the Goyan captain, replied. The man reported that the ship’s redundancy systems worked properly and that the engineers attempted to reboot the ship’s main engines. His reply was accurate and to the point, but the words were clipped and pressed. The undertone revealed the man’s stress.

“He sounds as if he fears his ship will go down and won’t make it to Akar Kazbek. The man is a good actor,” Lest said.

“Either this or he fears detection of his fraud,” Jeff said.

“Correct. I can actually relate to his concerns,” Lest replied drily.

“The Horus has lined up with the ship,” Corr said. “The Goyan ship moves steady and on a straight course. The Horus adapted to the Goyan ship’s speed.”

“The airport Aphea is located at the edge of a desert and is partly buried in sand. The airport was given up twenty years ago because of the expanding desert,” Le’Ton said. “We can’t use the main runways. They’re all covered with sand. But there’s a vast parking area that’s not yet entirely covered with sand. A hover landing shouldn’t be a problem. Air traffic is practically zero in this sector. The main spaceport is the center of flight activities. I suggest we leave flight corridor E2E3 immediately after entering the atmosphere and fly due north. The main spaceport is located on the northwestern coast on 20° latitude. Only ocean up to the northern pole. Flights come in mainly from southern directions and there are only two official northern flight corridors. We can avoid them and fly into Aphea from a northern direction. I’ll plot a course.”

“Good work, Le’Ton,” Lest said. “Jeff, status update, please.”

“We’re passing the sixth planet in twenty minutes,” Jeff replied. “Arrival at Akar Kazbek in approximately six hours.”

“Can the Goyan ship run another six hours on the redundancy systems?” Lest asked. “They must perform a landing, too.”

“It should work out,” Hulton said. “The Goyan captain just informed ground control that they have another six hours and forty minutes on the redundancy systems. Ground control suggested landing on the fourth planet, but the Goyan captain declined. He’s confident his ship will make it to Akar Kazbek in time.”

“The man knows his metes and bounds,” Lest said, rising from his seat. “I’m going to speak with the ambassador. It’s time to inform him on the change of operation.”

***

“What happened, captain,” Jokin Trecothik asked. “Shouldn’t we have arrived already?”

Lest reported the new plans to the man. Jokin tensed.

“It was my first official mission as a Goyan ambassador. It all went terribly wrong. I think I must resign from my position,” he said.

“Why, ambassador? The Goyans put a lot of effort in getting you back,” Lest said. “You must not disappoint them.”

Jokin smiled faintly. “I wish it were over already. When will we land on Akar Kazbek?”

“In a couple of hours. Stay in your quarters, Jokin. I’ll keep you updated,” Lest said.

Jokin nodded and took a deep breath. He sat down in a seat and clenched the arms of the chair. “Thank you, Captain Lest,” he said.

Lest gave him a nod, then left and went back on the bridge.

The two ships moved along the assigned flight corridor, the Goyan ship with its emergency lights switched on and the Horus in full stealth mode.

***

The ships approached Akar Kazbek. The Goyan captain was given the entry vector and the Goyan ship started the descent. The Horus increased the distance to the Goyan ship. The two ships entered the planet’s atmosphere. The Goyan ship followed the path to sector G8 of the main spaceport and the Horus pulled away and dashed due north. The Horus decelerated and made a wide left turn. Avoiding the two official northern flight corridors, the Horus flew back south and set course on Aphea. The external sensors didn’t depict any objects traversing the ship’s route. The plan seemed to work out, but the atmosphere on the bridge was nonetheless tensed. The Horus decelerated and the ship continued its flight at the speed of a conventional aircraft.

“Arrival at Aphea in five minutes,” Corr said.

“Coordinates of the parking area are entered,” Le’Ton said.

The ship arrived and hovered over the deserted airport. The sensors were scanning the area.

“The area is empty. No signs of any operations under way,” Hulton said. “The Goyan’s hover vehicle is not yet there.”

“Okay, touch down,” Lest commanded. “We’ll wait for the Goyans down there.”

Corr initialized the hover landing and the ship landed smoothly in the parking area.

“Ship in standby mode,” Lest said. “Hulton, any sign of the Goyan hovercraft? Scan the farther surroundings and the roads to the airport.”

Twenty minutes passed by. Lest was pacing the bridge impatiently. Finally, the sensors detected an approaching vehicle.

“Zoom in, please.” Lest said, looking at the main screen.

A hovercraft was coming down the main road to the airport. The vehicle entered the airport area and proceeded to the parking site. It stopped at the entrance, the doors opened and four Goyans climbed out. They looked around. One man pulled out a device and spoke into it.

“Stealth mode out,” Lest said.

The Goyans jumped when the Daglon warship became visible. They gazed at it, one Goyan pointed at the ship, another at the hovercraft.

“Open external communication channel,” Lest said.

“Channel open,” Corr replied.

“Captain Lest speaking. I see you and the hovercraft. Please identify yourselves,” he said.

The Goyans jumped and then hurried towards the ship.

“Can we be sure these are the men who are supposed to pick up Jokin?” Jeff asked from the console.

“Contact Perez,” Lest said.

The Cyrus dealer was on the main screen a few seconds later.

“Lest, I see you made it,” Perez said with a smile.

“Four individuals are approaching the ship,” Lest said. “They look Goyan, but can we be sure these are the men who were sent to pick up Jokin Trescothik?”

“I’m sending an alpha-numeric code that the Goyans on Cyrus provided,” Perez said. “The Goyans on Akar Kazbek must provide this exact same code. Ask them to contact the ship. They carry a portable device.”

“All right, Perez,” Lest replied. “Hold the line.”

Perez confirmed with a nod.

“Provide me with a safe channel, Corr,” Lest said.

Corr sent a channel code and Lest activated the external intercom.

“Contact the ship on channel D282,” he said.

The Goyans stopped and bent over their device. A short time later, the Horus computer announced an incoming message. The Goyans sent the alpha-numeric code.

“Check the code against the code Perez sent, Hulton,” Lest said.

“Each code has a sequence of 117,892 numbers and letters. The computer compared the codes. The codes are identical,” Hulton said.

“The codes are identical, Perez,” Lest said. “We’ll open the rear hatch in a couple of minutes. I’ll go and get the ambassador.”

Lest left the bridge and went to the quarters. He entered Jokin Trescothik’s room. Lest smiled amiably at the man.

“Ambassador, are you ready to get off the ship?” he asked.

Jokin wiped his forehead, then straightened and smiled at the captain. “The final part of the trip was hard to bear, but it was nothing compared to my long stay in Nanuq Kitlali’s tower. I’m ready to get off the ship. I thank you again, Captain Lest,” he said.

Lest gave him a nod and motioned at the door. The Goyan ambassador left the room. Lest showed him to the cargo bay and contacted the bridge.

“Open the rear hatch, Hulton,” he said.

The hatch opened and the ramp went down. Lest and Jokin left the ship. The four Goyans outside moved closer and stopped, gazing up the ramp.

“Father,” Jokin called out at the sight of the men.

He hurried down the ramp. An elderly Goyan opened his arms and hugged the young ambassador.

Lest went down the ramp. One of the Goyans turned to him, while the rest gathered around Jokin Trescothik.

“I’m Ittin Istcothik, the Goyan ambassador on Akar Kazbek. I came here to pick up my young colleague and arrange his safe travel home. I thank you, Captain Lest, on behalf of the Goyan nation,” the man said.

Lest gave the man a nod. “He’s a nice man,” he said. “He had much to endure.”

Ittin Istcothik nodded. “This is why I brought his father and his two brothers,” he said with a sideways glance at the group. “Family is important to the Goyans. His family has suffered, too.” The man turned his eyes back to Lest. “Good luck on your journey, Captain Lest.”

“Good luck on yours,” Lest replied with a smile. He turned away and ascended the ramp.

“Captain,” Jokin called out.

Lest turned back. Jokin and his father and brothers looked up to him.

“My sincerest thanks again, Captain Lest,” Jokin said.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, ambassador,” Lest replied with a nod. “Have a good trip home.”

Lest moved up the ramp and entered the cargo bay. He hit a button and closed the hatch manually. The captain went back on the bridge.

“Ready for take-off,” Lest said, sitting down in his chair. “Wait until the Goyans have left the area, then switch the ship back to stealth mode. Le’Ton, take up another challenge and plot us a safe route to orbit.”

“Yes, captain,” Le’Ton said in a flattered voice and turned back to the screens with a smile.

“Take up a challenge and rise to it. Bear in mind that what goes up must come down,” Hulton said drily.

“Shut up,” Le’Ton snapped.

The others laughed. Lest made a dismissive gesture with his hand and turned his eyes to the main screen. The airport area was deserted. The Goyans had left with the hovercraft.

“Perez. Lest here,” Lest said.

“I hear you,” Perez replied. “I heard the ambassador is in safe hands. Good work, Lest. I filled your ship’s account. The Goyans released the money. Where are you going? To Cyrus or elsewhere?”

“We’ll set course on Cyrus. I’ll see you there,” Lest replied.

They ended the transmission and the screen went black. Lest leaned back in his chair.

“All right,” he said. “Corr, initiate take-off .”

***

The Horus climbed to orbit and followed the path Le’Ton had plotted. The ship moved along the boundary of a flight corridor for mining ships. The corridor was less frequented than usual due to the miner’s strike and only two ships came their way and passed by. The Daglon warship moved on, shielded and undetected by the cargo ships. As soon as the Horus had left the solar system, Lest commanded the switch to space jump mode. The sound of the engines changed, the light on the bridge flickered and the Horus dropped out of real space. The ship set course on Cyrus.

The Horus was on autopilot. The crew went to the galley and the lounge.

“I’m glad things turned out well in the end,” Doctor Midad said, placing a plate with a sandwich on the galley counter.

“Yes,” Lest said, poking in a pile of scrambled eggs. “It was a tough mission.”

“I’m never sure which side Perez is on,” Jeff said. “He organized the illegal Titan weapon transport and acted as a mediator in the Goyan ambassador’s kidnap.”

“Perez is a criminal, but he acts within certain limits,” Lest said, reaching out for a salt shaker. “He  has a set of personal ethics. Believe it or not.”

The trip to Cyrus was uneventful. The Horus touched down in the assigned hangar and the men got off the ship. Lest went to Perez’ office. The dealer stood behind his counter, checking the display of a device. He looked up when Lest entered.

“Lest. Glad to see you. How are you doing?” he asked.

“Fine,” Lest replied. “How are things going, Perez?”

“I can’t complain,” Perez replied with a smirk. “You did an excellent job with the Goyan ambassador, Lest. What are your plans?”

“We’re going to enjoy the comforts of the planet,” Lest said. “We’ll stay on Cyrus for a couple of days. No plans yet. I’ll have the ship overhauled and updated.”

“I could offer you some new equipment,” Perez said.

“That’s why I came here,” Lest replied.

Perez pointed at the table in the corner of his room. “Let’s sit down and talk, Lest,” he said amiably.

He knocked at the back door of the room and a henchman looked out. Perez spoke to him, the man disappeared and came back a short while later with a small tray in his hands. He placed two glasses of Serena tea on the table.

Perez locked the front door, sat down and rubbed his hands. Lest smiled inwardly. He seized his glass and took a sip. It was going to be a long talk and tough negotiations, he guessed.

***




© 2015 Dolores Esteban

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First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction