A Walk in the Cloud Forest
Simone finished her weekly report and saved it to the cube that would be sent back to the Tymbrimi home world. She had outfitted five more ships. By now the Kaum Legit were doing their own outfitting and she was simply supervising. In the weeks since she had been working with them, thirty ships had been converted to the Omicron Drives. The Kaum Legit ships were designed for trade: they only had defensive systems to prevent piracy. The systems were effective in keeping such ships away, but had little use offensively. The Kaum Legit had no interest in anything more. She had been warned that the Kaum Legit would sit out any conflict, but she had hoped to convince them to actively support humans. But thousands of years of peaceful accommodation and trade were not overcome by the efforts of one lone human however desperate her need.
Her weekly report completed, she began a message to Eleanor. She recorded the message and included images she had taken from the cloud forest.
The Kaum Legit have kept me busy which is just as well. Better to be greasy to the elbow and fall into bed at the end of the day than pine away. Not that my hosts would allow such mawkish behavior. Shuzi Jibbub has me over nearly every night. I have met Shuzi Jibbub’s family. Each family is a bit like a tribe. There are elders who make decisions and they stay home, raise children and maintain the home. There are the young adults who run shops, work in factories and otherwise run the economy. They also make sure the elders are comfortable. Each Kaum Legit receives training from an early age. Some are trained for leadership. Some are trained for support and nurture. They seem to work this out without any resentment which is astonishing to me. The children are generally taught and cared for by the elders.
Every ten days we get a day off. On my last day off, Shuzi Jibbub took me to the local mountain. These are like nothing I have seen before. Kaum is a very warm and wet planet. But if one gets high enough, even Kaum cools off. The mountains are steep and jagged like the Alps, but there the similarity ends. The temperature never cools enough to allow snow, but the air condenses the humidity. So the mountains are constantly wet and cloudy. The effect is something they call a “cloud forest.” The trees are taller than the clock tower of London and so dense that no light ever reaches the ground. England has no forests left I suppose. There are parts of old Germany and Switzerland that have old dense forests where sparse light reaches the floor, but no trees come close to these heights. These forests are so tall that there are multiple life zones along the length of the tree. The Kaum Legit have built amazing bridges so one can walk through the crowns of the trees. As one walks into a clearing, the forest below stretches out and you realize you are hundreds of feet above the ground. One walks among flocks of brightly colored birds. They have the most amazing colors – blues, red, yellows and greens. Some birds have tails so long, I have no idea how they fly. The variety of insects and amphibians baffles the mind. Animals have elaborate and bright camouflage to mimic flowers or other animals. Others are the size of a fist or larger. Vast colonies bugs create moving marches by the millions and consume every living thing in their path by sheer numbers. The Kaum Legit believe they came from amphibians and have carefully preserved zones such as these like a memorial to their ancestors.
Shuzi Jibbub has also introduced me to their version of Cloud Sailing. The small vessels fly air currents and go high into the atmosphere…so high that one needs a mask to breathe. Then the vessel soars down to the surface skimming along the edge of clouds and weather fronts. Apparently it is frightfully fast. I have not tried it, but thought of you as I watched a pair of sailors skim along the clouds as I was walking on a bridge. If you were to pilot one, I am sure I would have immense fun. The Kaum Legit supply the facilities for the venture but do not fly themselves. They find the whole activity too risky for their taste and they do not like the chill air.
I hope this letter finds you well. Nights are terribly lonely and I look forward to the day we are together again.
Simone closed the file and locked it with a key that Eleanor knew. She sighed a little, sent it off to the drone for it’s next trip and then headed for dinner.
The Power of Peons
John stared at the screen he was looking at. He was supposed to be reading something by Jonathan Swift, but he found he had been looking at the same page for the last five minutes. He closed the view of the book. He rested his head in his hands and closed his eyes. After a moment, he shook himself, got up and headed out of his quarters for a walk.
The Mollocots were having the work done on a station not unlike Tau Ceti. Hallways separated quarters and working areas. The hallways were wider than Tau Ceti. But there was a dividing line in all hallways. There was a wide section for Mollocots and dignitaries such as himself. On one side was a narrow pathway that workers were expected to stay in or experience a reminder in pain. John might have chuckled at the idea of him being an Irish dignitary, but the supposed irony held no humor. He had seen a Menanggung stumble once and then writhe in pain until his co-workers pulled him back over the boundary.
John’s wandering took him to a pub. Inside he saw a familiar shock of purple hair sitting on a stool with feet barely reaching the foot rests. He sat down next to the Tymbrimi and waved to the Hoon bartender.
Ami Giggledust looked up from her drink, “Bad day?”
John moaned, “You have no idea.”
Giggledust shrugged and said, “You might be surprised.”
John shook his head, “You’re right. You see the same shit I do. Agbo Uroo decided that my team was moving too slow.”
Giggledust winced as she said, “Oh that is bad. It happened to me last week.”
John pinched his brow, “I tried to reason with her. She ignored me. Then I shouted at her.”
Giggledust shook her head, “Bad idea.”
John sighed, “I found out. Since she can’t do anything to me, she applied that heinous collar long enough to lay them out for 15 minutes. She only stopped after I apologized and begged her to let them finish.” He laughed hoarsely and his voice caught, “The four Hoon would not allow me to apologize to them. They said I was perfectly reasonable in my request. Supervisor Agbo Uroo simply found them lacking and so they must accept their punishment.” He crumpled a napkin in front of him and said, “I yell in frustration and they get the pain. Then they won’t let me say I am sorry.” He turned to Giggledust and said, “What did you do?”
Giggledust faced him and leaned in, “Have you been keeping good track of the time to do the work?”
John said, “Of course. Millicent told me how the deal works. I can only work so many hours – Thank God.”
Giggledust raised her glass, “Perfect. Let Agbo Uroo have her jollies shocking the servants for week. Then go to Zhaat Ussah and show him the difference. Show how many tasks you have left and how many hours you have left. We both know Agbo Uroo’s stimulation is slowing things down. Zhaat Ussah is not an idiot. He will see that too. Agbo Uroo will be reassigned. I will bet on it.”
He leaned back and squinted, “That works? Isn’t she some favorite niece or something?”
Giggledust smirked, “That’s how she got the job. But Zhaat Ussah has other masters as well, not the least is the council who wants these ships done.” She leaned back, “I’ve done it couple times now. Works like a charm.”
John shook his head, “But they keep doing the same thing with the same system.” He looked at his hands and said, “They know the system is flawed but they keep using it. They won’t switch in the face of evidence.”
Giggledust said sweetly with a wink,”Ah the innocence of philosophy and logic shatters against the cliff of evolutionary drive and political fear. You’re kind of cute with that lost look.”
John sighed, “Not the picture of an ally when I need someone to back me up fighting the status quo.”
Giggledust snorted, “The Mollocots are no one’s picture of an ally except maybe themselves. And I would put good money that they would sell out a grandmother or two for a bigger slice of the pie.” John propped his head on his hand as a glass of wine arrive. He toyed with the glass. Giggledust ruffled his hair, “Why the long looks big one? I thought we solved your problem.”
“Just feeling a bit alone before a big fight.”
Giggledust smiled warmly, “Now that is silly. You humans are making an impression here. You just can’t see it.”
John took a drink and said, “That is true…I really can’t see it.”
She leaned in and said, “Ignore the Mollocots…the slugs as Liam O’Hannigan calls them.” She grinned thinly, “Look at the captives.”
John quirked his mouth, “Sure I work with them. But I can’t help them and they are hardly in a position to fight next to us when the Guild arrives at Earth.”
She winked, “But they have relatives they send messages to. They may buy their freedom eventually.” She leaned back and took a long drink, “You humans have made an impression.” She slapped his knee and turned him to face a table that had a Hoon pilot talking with a Kaum Legit trader. John looked at them confused and then the two of them raised their glasses and bowed a little towards him. She turned him back to the bar and ordered herself another drink. “Another month of work here and the Hoon will follow you into a ring of fire and the Kaum Legit will supply you with a suit for the stunt.”
John looked at his wine glass and then glanced at her, “And what of the Tymbrimi…”
Giggledust laughed and thumped the bar, “Oh we’ll be there…mostly out of morbid curiosity. But we’ll be there.”
The Art of Jujitsu
Eleanor was now able to see the Uycarrans as a species and not just a Millicent or John Smith. In general, they were solitary and used stations and asteroids as trading posts for whatever they had obtained from their sources. They tended to cultivate a small set of trading partners and clients and build up markets with those goods. Ian, Brian’s AI explained that Uycarrans, over time, favored one or two locations and then tended to take on cultural traits of their trading partners. The Uycarran’s might not have a planet anymore, but they each had a home of some sort to claim. The trading posts and asteroids were the one place where they gathered and caught up.
Eleanor wiped sweat from her brow as she practiced sparing. The young Uycarran was almost as tall as she was and yet was biologically no more than twelve as Eleanor understood him. Eleanor was panting, but the young Uycarran’s breathing was nearly normal. Full of confidence, he rushed her and grabbed at her waist. But it wasn’t there. Eleanor had shifted and grabbed the boy’s shoulders and pulled him down with his own momentum. He flipped over her and landed on his back with a grunt. Eleanor flipped back over and put a hand on his chest. Brian Tuireann shouted, “Fall and match.”
The Uycarran boy protested, “I could have gotten up.”
Brian smiled thinly, “Not with a knife in your neck or chest. Which she surely would have put there, if I know her training and her friends.”
The boy turned his head and narrowed his eyes. Eleanor smiled flicked her wrist and a knife appeared. His eyes got wide. She flicked her wrist and it disappeared. She got up and pulled him up. She took a towel from one of the girls in the class. Eleanor was nearly two meters and the pre-adolescent girl was nearly at her chest. Eleanor mouthed a silent thank you to the girl who blushed. Eleanor drank some water and handed the bottle to the teen boy and said to Brian, “Rachael was teaching me. I probably would have thrown the knife while we were ‘sizing up’.” She turned to the boy and said, “Millicent trains us to fight. She is bigger, heavier, and faster than we humans…even me. We learned from her to use our opponents momentum to bring them down. The rush was your mistake.”
The teenager shook his head and then bowed formally. Eleanor bowed back. Brian said to the class, “You heard her. Practice falling and pulling your opponent over. Use the momentum against them.”
The young girl came back up and tapped Eleanor’s arm and asked, “Are you going to do more building later?”
Eleanor wiped her face and grimaced at her sore muscles and bruises from a workout with children. She looked at the girl, “I am not sure. My regular assistant has the day off.” She eyed the girl, pursed her lips and said, “Do you know anyone who could help with the tools?”
The girl almost squealed, “I can.”
Eleanor smiled and said, “Be at the factory in 2 hours. I need to recover from this class.” She panted dramatically. The girl ran off and began her own workout.
Brian Tuireann laughed and put his arm around Eleanor’s shoulder and pulled her towards the exit of the gym. “I told Millicent and John you people are the best sales tools. You can bet there will be dinner conversation tonight at her house.”
Eleanor stretched an arm and groaned, “Many more of those demonstrations of yours and you will need a new sales person.”
Brian waved it way, “Bah…let the nanos do their work. Uycarran are meeting a real live human who is not a barbarian, can flip them if they aren’t careful, and you are getting stronger.”
Ian interrupted with a slight lilt, ” While you have been shamelessly flirting with your guest, a new message drone arrived. I expect it has a message from her girlfriend.”
Brian shrugged, “I know she is spoken for. Besides she is not my type.”
Eleanor felt her blood rush at the conversation, but said nothing.
Ian said, “There is also a forwarded message from Millicent Morgaine.”
Brian said, “I will take it in my room.” He bowed to Eleanor left the gym and headed to her room. She went to her own room.
After a shower, Eleanor read Simone’s message and sighed. Sailing in the clouds sounded delightful. And the jungle planet sounded so much more interesting than the tour of space stations and asteroids that she had been consigned to. This was the fourth stop – a small space station orbiting a gas giant in the Andorra Beta system. Brian Tuirian was working his way through the Uycarran outposts and outfitting every Uycarran ship he could. At each stop, he would find the next place to go to distribute the Omicron devices. After every Uycarran ship at the stop had an Omicron drive, Eleanor and Brian and Ian would head to the next location. Eleanor viewed the pictures of the cloud forest as Ian was explained how the Kaum Legit had preserved the forest. Ian paused and said, “Brian requires your presence at an emergency meeting with the Uycarrans. As quickly as possible.”
“What does he want with me?”
“Brian would prefer to tell everyone this news at once.”
Her hair was a mess as always after a shower. It could take an hour to get the dark, tightly curled hair controlled again. “This sounds formal. Is there an appropriate attire?”
Ian said, “I would recommend your Earth work clothes.The colors in those are dreadful, but Brian is the only one other than me in that room who will notice. They are clean and you can argue they are traditional. Wear them smartly. You will be representing your race.”
Eleanor pulled a comb through her hair trying to get it to at least be tied in bun. “You need to work on how to put a girl at ease.”
Ian said, “Charles is more adept at that. But he has no sense of style. I cannot believe he lets Millicent out in some of those styles. Anyway, get dressed. Your hair will be fine.”
Eleanor wore her work smocks from the Woodson factory floor. They were clean and pressed and probably looked brighter than they ever had in their natural environment. She draped a pair of work gloves over her tool belt. She found the dress code a bit odd, but Liam had described some of the business meetings back with the Tymbrimi. This was what Uycarrans do. As she entered the room, she felt short which was unusual for a woman who was thin and 6’ 2”. The Uycarrans were tall and thin by nature. All were wore some garb representing their market interests. Brian’s interests in the Tymbrimi were reflected in a multi hued unisuit and bright green hair. He gestured to her to a seat near him. A few more Uycarrans arrived and Brian Tuireann began the meeting.
“I have watched this message. Before I say anything, I will play it so you can make your own impressions.” He started the message
Millicent sat in her own London fine gown as she explained what happened when she vistedher sponsor’s planet. The Guild had been waiting. The locals had aided in her finally escaping. When she told of the missiles fired, there was a collective gasp in the room. Her image said, “Obviously I am here. But they are now after me. They will certainly wonder how a ship can ‘disappear’ and they will be after humans as much as they are after me. I only see this escalating. Approach your trade partners carefully. This action may be sooner than some would like, but it was inevitable. Good luck and you will hear more soon.”
Brian closed the image and then looked around the room, “Comments?”
“So she pulled us into a war?”
Brian puffed his cheeks out, “Not yet. Millicent is right. The Guild is focusing on her and on the humans right now. But you can expect more scrutiny in the short term.”
“But they won’t catch her and then they will take it out on us is what you are saying.”
Brian shrugged and tilted his head a little, “If we’re being honest here, your ships now have Guild forbidden technology. You can hardly expect them to ignore that.” He straightened a bit and said, “On the up side, they will never catch you with these devices. “
“What about the humans? What happens to them?” Eleanor flinched at the question and its implications. Brian looked at Eleanor. She took a deep breath and then said, “After Brian Tuireean says I am finished, I will be meeting my fellows at a prearranged point. We will return to Earth to defend it.”
That caused someone in the room to laugh, “With what? Your race is still stuck in your gravity well.”
Eleanor smiled thinly, “Not all of us. And those of us out here have learned a few useful techniques for fighting large ungainly foes.”
The same voice asked, “And what are those?”
Brian Turriean answered this time, “Ask your children. They have been working with her.”
A Test of Determination
Rachael pushed herself between the parallel bars for the 20th time and then rested herself in her chair. Neville Carter-Frasier was sparing with Iti Greeneyes. She was taunting him and dancing around trying to tap him with her sword.
“With all that reach, you haven’t touched me.”
Neville reached out and she dodged quickly. Neville stepped back before Iti could respond.
“Tall as a bloody Uycarran and still nothing.”
Rachael wiped her face with a towel and smiled as Neville grinned at Iti thinly. He had learned hard knocks sparring with Smith. He learned to wait until the moment was right. He moved around lightly and then he jumped, swung a leg around and Iti fell. Neville quickly trapped her under a knee. Rachael clapped, “Well done, Neville.”
Iti Greeneyes got up with Neville’s help and said, “I was beginning to wonder. You are cautious but you’ve got speed and reach”
Neville handed her a towel and said, “You don’t show many weaknesses. I couldn’t find an opening.”
Iti wiped her face down and looked over at Rachael and said, “Do you spar?”
From the other side of the gym, Smith said, “With me only. I can’t risk her hurting others.”
Rachael rolled her eyes and moved her chair to a station of dumbbell weights. She needed to work out her abdomen muscles. She said, “I don’t spar so much as practice defense.” She patted her chair, “And I have a few tricks hidden. I stay in shape enough to stay mobile in a spat.”
Iti eyed the chair and said, “That seems …limiting.”
Smith said, “I plan to have her next to me when I visit the Guild Hall.” He looked over the smaller Tymbrimi with her blue hair and thin build. “I might agree to a practice with Rachael, but you would have to sign a waver.”
Iti groaned, “Fine…enough already. You want to protect her. Just say that.”
Rachael was annoyed. She turned. Iti was looking at Smith. Rachael slipped out the revised bolo. With a quick and silent toss, she tangled Iti Greeneyes legs and then pulled the rope back. Greeneyes was on her back and rolling around. Rachael threw two knives that planted themselves one next to each of Greeneyes hands. Rachael had a baton out and rolled over to Iti. The heavy baton rested on Rachael’s knees as Rachael looked down at Iti and grinned thinly.
Iti snarled, “You…”
Rachael snapped, “Sneaking is a survival skill.” She wrapped up the bolo and stowed it in a compartment, “I don’t play fair.” She braced herself and put out a hand for Iti. Iti took and it pulled herself up. Rachael said, “I like you so I’d rather not hurt you. Can we call this a draw and let it rest?”
Greeneyes looked at her and then at Neville. Neville shrugged, “She is always on my side when we spar.” Greeneyes looked at Smith. He crossed his arms and said, “I did warn you.” Iti Greeneyes shook her head and then laughed, “Gods help the Guild agents who cross you Rachael Weiz.” She bent down and picked up the throwing knives and handed them to Rachael. Rachael bowed her head and stowed the knives in her suit.
Neville tossed both women towels. The three were discussing sparring and workout challenges. Rachael noticed that Smith seemed a bit distracted by something in his notebook. After a moment he looked up and frowned. He moved to the door saying as he left, “A dispatch arrived from Morgaine. Guild agents may need that heavenly help sooner than we had expected. Everyone get cleaned up and dressed. We will be meeting with the rest of the Uycarrans. Formal dress Weiz and Carter-Frasier. Formal dress and be sharp.”
A Quick Departure
Simone was sleeping when Shuzi Jibbub entered her quarters. Simone pulled the sheets up on herself and Shuzi Jibbub who was a bright yellow apologized quickly, “I am sorry for the intrusion Simone Campbell, but it is time for you to leave presently. And we wanted to talk to you directly.”
She blinked and rubbed her eyes with hand and said, “What is going on? Why the rush? Why come in my room?…god what time is it?” Shuzi Jibbub pressed a button and the lights got bright. Simone moaned and hid under the sheets, “Ahhh… don’t do that?” She looked at the clock set for her time, “My God…it is 3:30 in the morning!”
Shuzi Jibbub’s color shifted to a more normal blue and apologized again, “I apologize but we must hurry Simone Campbell.” He tapped some keys on the key board and a message came into the room. “This is the Guild ship Peaceful Searcher. By order of the Guild Master of Tau Ceti, all humans and Uycarrans are to be held for quarantine. Failure to comply with this directive will place this planet at risk.”
Simone found herself wide awake and she sat up in the bed disregarding the sheet. “Shit. What happened?”
Shuzi Jibbub blinked at her and then said, “I do not know for sure. The elders are saying that Millicent Morgaine and your human companions fired on a Guild ship. Please Simone Campbell. You must pack so we may spirit you away.”
Simone closed her eyes and rubbed her head. Her gut twisted in knots. The Kaum Legit would not fight. Surely they would not risk the planet to hide her. “What if they find me here?”
Shuzi Jibbub’s color went a light red with a mild annoyance, “Please stop asking silly questions and assemble your things now.” He waved his hands around fiercely, “The Kaum Legit have been hiding things from the Guild for centuries. You are a small matter. Your machines have made our efforts in deception easier. Now get up. Get dressed and assemble your things for departure.”
Simone, “Fine…leave. I will be out in a moment. Do I have time for a shower?”
Shuzi Jibbub blinked his eyes, shook his head and turned blue, “You humans are ridiculously modest. Your natural covering is of no more interest to me than mine is to you…and no you don’t have time for shower.” And he left.
Simone got up and slipped on a unisuit quickly. In addition to her clothes and a notebook, she carefully packed two items: a set of seeds from the cloud forest and a new smock for Eleanor. Her bagged packed, she looked around the room to see if she missed anything. There was nothing that would identify her to searchers or that she would miss.
Out in the hall, Shuzi Jibbub hustled her out onto the street. It was dark. There was a vehicle with darkened windows waiting and Shuzi Jibbub helped her into the back of the vehicle. Shuzi Jibbub said, “The Kaum Legit stand by humans, but it is best if few of us actually know what happened to you.” He went a lighter shade of yellow and said, “we are poor liars.”
Simone sighed a little and said, “There are worse racial defects.” She then eyed him narrowly, “If the Kaum Legit say they stand with humans, why will they not help us defend ourselves?”
Shuzi Jibbub’s color went a light red, “If we trade with you in defiance of the Guild, does that not help? If we keep you supplied through blockades and sieges, is that meaningless? No, we will not fight. My pardon, friend Simone Campbell but it has become our nature not to fight…we simply do not know aggression. We find aggression strange. I know this is odd for an evolved species. There are entire careers, universities and museums devoted to trying explain our evolutionary rise. None has succeeded in my mind.”
Simone raised her eyebrows, “Your race intrigues me even as I have to leave. Did my Sir Darwin miss something?”
Shuzi Jibbub blinked twice and said, “We are far older than any other race in the Guild. We watch other races rise.” He blinked and said, “And we have watched some fall.” He faced forward and said, “We take a longer view than others can comprehend.”
Buildings passed by the conveyance quickly. The trip took at least thirty minutes. Again Simone was hustled from the darkened car almost directly into a ship with no lights to illumine the exchange. Shuzi Jibbub blinked and then bowed. “Simone Campbell we part ways. I have learned much about space time and much about the good nature of humans. I hope you and your race thrive and I am not alone in this wish.”
Simone’s throat got tight, but she managed say hoarsely, “Shuzi Jibbub. I am sad our ways are parting so precipitously. I hope circumstances will allows us to meet again in the future. Regardless, I have learned how much I do not know and how much wisdom I have yet to gain…”
Even in the dark, Simone could see Shuzi Jibbub turn a dark blue. Shuzi Jibbub watched as she was led to the ship by other Kaum Legit. The Kaum Legit who was guiding her to a hold in the ship apologized as he pointed to a small space in the wall. “Simone Campbell we apologize for further inconvenience. We believe it will be several hours before you can move freely. But we request you stay in this space until we get past the sensors on the Guild ships.
The space he pointed to was a small tube in the wall. When she ducked in, the room appeared to be 2 meters cubed. There as small pad to stretch out plus the necessary conveniences. It was a tiny space and the time might be long, but she fit. She could spend some hours being bored as they passed by Guild ships and be grateful Eleanor did not have to squeeze into this space.
Friends in Low Places
John watched the assembly being set in place on the ship. Two Menanggung secured the ring assembly quickly and began attaching the wires. Two Hoon were lowering the console into the operations area. Giggledust’s advice was prescient. After a week of “encouragement” by Agbo Uroo, John took his production numbers to Zhaat Ussah. Agbo Uroo was replaced by a mollocot who was less interested in discipline and more interested in meeting deadlines by whatever means necessary. The workers around him picked up their pace accordingly and production number exceeded previous weeks significantly. John was only watching at this point. The crews he supervised were making their own decisions and solving their own problems. A Menanggung waved at John that the ring assembly was attached. John came over and viewed the attachments and ran a small test to make sure they would turn safely. He looked at that the two Menanggung and said, “Well done. Everything is in place. It should be ready for flight test as soon as the console is in place.” Both hopped ever so slightly and showed grins. They bowed slightly to John and then looked to the supervisor. John sighed at the thought, but it was the main reward for work well done. John looked to the supervising Mollocot and nodded positively. The Mollocot pressed a button. John could see the tension leave the two crew. John closed his eyes until the process completed. The Menanggung sat on benches and sighed. The supervisor said from the scaffold, “Well done. As we have finished early, you will receive the remaining time as personal. We start another ship tomorrow. Do not tarry, we are almost caught up with the original deadline.”
Both Menanggung bowed and said, “Yes sir,” and then scurried away. The two Hoon working on the console finished their jobs. John checked their work. He grinned widely and said, “Excellent, the circuits are complete. This ship is ready for flight testing.” The Hoon also grinned widely bowed and then offered their hands. Startled, John shook himself and then shook both of their hands. John nodded to the supervisor. The Hoon shouted, “Supervisor Breem, we wish our reward to be applied to our contract if that is acceptable.” The supervisor, stared for a moment and then said, “Very well, I will send you the paperwork, file it tonight or the bonus will be lost. We start a new ship tomorrow. Do not be late.” Both Hoon bowed low and the supervisor left.
John took off his smock and headed to the door. One of the Hoon, Kso’ok Tsoyush, bowed deeply and said, “A moment sir.”
John rolled his eyes and said, “Of course, Kso’ok. Please do not exceed your need for honor. I find your homage…disquieting.”
Kso’ook rose and viewed him with one eye, This may be our last meeting. I wish to pass a message.”
John frowned, “I know nothing of the sort. There are several ships to be outfitted yet.”
Kso’ook shrugged expressively, “We vassals hear things. There is a message I must pass.”
John waved him on, “Fine, tell me the message and please tell your family I hope for their health.”
Kso’ook said, “The Guild is seeking and confining all humans. I fear this is our last day together. You and yours have been respectful and helped as you could. We have felt respect and honor.”
John closed his eyes, “It was so little.” His voice caught, “I have tried to make up for mistakes of the past…but there is so little that I could do for you.”
Kso’ook grasped his hand and smiled a many tooth grin, “You cannot imagine that value you have given. Know this – the Hoon will stand with the humans when the time comes.”
John’s eyes went wide. The implications were astonishing. He stuttered, “I…I …I’m not sure we can..” He glanced around the room to check if they were alone, “Kso’ook we fight slavery on our own planet. I don’t think we could do anything here to fix this.”
Kso’ook gripped John’s hand tighter, “You recognize there are things that need repair. We are patient and serving the Mollocots has its own purpose for us. I speak for many … the Hoon will stand with you.” He squeezed once more and then left to join the other servants as they headed for quarters.
John stood speechless until a younger mollocot waved for his attention. “Mr. O’Malley Zhaat Ussah wishes to speak with you. Now.”
John headed over to the factory headquarters. In the office was a low, long desk fashioned for Mollocots. Mollocots did not sit so much as rest long ways. The desk was at a height that a Mollocot could work in this position. The desk was piled with papers and Zhaat Ussah was shuffling some of those papers. He waved to a conventional chair as John entered. He spoke without looking up, “You are right on time. I am woefully behind. There is some paperwork to be dealt with that has taken my time.”
John sat and said, “Fitting so many ships must generate quite a bit.”
Zhaat Ussa looked up and made a toothy grin that was not reassuring, “It is going much better now. Agbo Uroo needs some training when working with outsiders.” He paused and folded his hands on his chest.”An issue has arisen. A Guild ship has arrived in the system. “
John’s pulse raised, “Really?”
Zhaat Ussah eyed a set of papers and pushed them aside. “Yes. They broadcast some message about humans and detaining. I simply have not had time to read it fully.” John eyed him narrowly, but said nothing. “You do not trust us. Fine. I trust you little as well. But we nearly have our allotment of fast ships and crews here do your work.” He glanced at the pile he had pushed aside, “I would hardly be a valuable ally if I turned over such an asset.” He grabbed another stack of papers and handed them over the desk, “Take these to the Tymbrimi. It is their exit papers and a voucher for payment. I imagine they may have a space for an extra passenger. If you hurry, the lot of you should be well on the way to a gas giant. That remarkable drive of yours will hide you the rest of the way”
John took the papers and said, “Surely the Guild has said all ships need to stay on the planet or in the system.”
Zhaat Ussah spread his hands over the mounds of paper and said, “I have no idea if they did. It may be hours before I get to such a low priority message.” He lowered his eyes and began working on another stack of papers. “Leave Mr.O’Malley. The reward for you is high enough to cause second thoughts in others.” John bowed and moved to the door. As he left, Zhaat Ussah said, “Expect us to stay neutral in your coming war. We have no interest in picking a fight with the Guild and Earth is too far away for us to care even with the Omicron drives. Now profit is another matter.” He looked up and smiled thinly, “I do not foresee any interference from in ships that might come to your aid as long as they pay their travel fees.” He looked back down at the desk and continued shuffling papers. “Now leave before I change my mind about that reward.”
A Final Commitment
Rachael rolled into the conference room and Neville was behind her. In line with formal Uycarran meetings, she was wearing her work clothes from her father’s clock shop. Neville was wearing a waist coat of gray. Her apron was armored and she was certain Neville’s vest was if not his entire suit. He also sported a saber. Smith was in conversation with someone but waved the two of them to the front. Iti Greeneyes was also in the room wearing a brightly colored unisuit and sporting bright green hair. She nodded to the two them as they moved forward.
After they positioned themselves, Smith said loudly, “A call to order.” The others started taking seats. Other than Greeneyes, Rachael and Neville everyone else in the room was Uycarran. Rachael and Iti were short by nature, but even Neville looked short compared to most of the people in this room. There were a variety of clothing styles and the room was split evenly between women and men. Everyone of them seemed to be staring at humans in the front with unreadable expressions. Rachael muttered, “Camille, what haven’t you told me?”
Camille responded lightly, “You will find out soon enough.”
Rachael responded quietly, “I may find some data storage maintenance to work on after this meeting.”
Camille said, “I was ordered not to. It doesn’t matter now.”
Rachael straightened herself and said, “Look sharp, Neville. We will be getting important news.” She said in a lower voice, “Smith has decided to surprise us.” Smith glanced over in Rachael and Neville’s direction and smiled lightly.
Smith stood and said, “I have received the latest dispatch from Millicent Morgaine. Matters have changed. ” He looked at the ceiling and said, “Play the message, Camille. Send the other AIs a copy as well.” A hologram of Millicent appeared. She explained her experience with her Kalish sponsor: the Guild presence and apparent plan to hold her and the humans; her escape and finally her firing of missiles at a Guild ship as she fled the planet. “
There was silence but the room was filled with tension. A man in a long black coat stood. Camille informed Rachael and Neville that it was Tecumsah Quanah. “The first war started like this. It was small and then we got caught in crossfire defending ourselves.”
Smith folded his hands staring at Quanah, “You say ‘first’. Does that mean there will be a second?”
The man lost his composure and snarled, “There will be now. Morgaine left us no choice.”
Smith shrugged. He leaned on the table and crossed his hands. He smiled thinly at Quanah, “Oh I expect with a bit of deference and a few payoffs, you could distance yourself from her regrettable actions.” Smith stared at Quanah. “Is that what you want?” He leaned back and looked around the room and said loudly, “Is that what you all want? A bit more peace for a little less dignity.”
A woman wearing tight fitting dark armor stood up. She had a dark brown skin not unlike Eleanor’s and a short crop of hair that was strait and combed to the sides. Camille informed Neville and Rachael that it was Draga. She typically traded with Luxia, a planet of austere militaristic culture. Her goods were weapons and military advisers.She said loudly, “No dammit. We want our dignity as you shouted so loudly.” She clenched her fists and said more quietly, “But this wasn’t planned. We aren’t ready.”
Smith stared around the room. Then said, “Miss Weiz, how many ships have been outfitted with the Omicron devices.”
Rachael consulted her notebook and said, “216 under our control. That includes ships under Tymbrimi, Uycarran, Kaum Legit, and Mollocots control.”
Draga said, “See. Only the Tymbrimi and the Uycarran will be fighting. The Kaum Legit never fight and the Mollocots…” She waved dismissively. “The Mollocots will be more satisfied with the Guild managing Earth.”
Rachael grimaced at the assessment but Smith said, “Anything else Miss Weiz?”
Rachael said, “The Tymbrimi have been outfitting Hoon and Menanggung ships since we left. That probably adds another 50 to 100. The Kaum Legit will be outfitting Menanggung. There are half a dozen more races that Uycarran, Tymbrimi, and Kaum Legit trade with. Since we teach how to install as well as how to use the technology, there is at least twice as many as the 216 under our control. It is probably closer to four or five times that number.” She paused and looked at Draga. The woman said nothing crossing her arms. Rachael said, “Camille, show the distribution map.” The image of Millicent was replace by an image of the galaxy. “Start with known contracts and highlight by race.” 200 dots appeared and were concentrated in five zones. “Now show Tymbrimi, Uycarran, Mollocot and Kaum Legit space.” The areas and dots were spread out over a quarter of the galaxy.
Draga pointed at the sparsely covered map and said, “We are spread out and too few.”
She played chess with her uncle growing up. He would set traps for Rachael to fall into. Rachael smiled as sprung hers, “Camille project distribution rate of 30% monthly growth rate of distribution over past four months. Assume Hoon, Menanggung, Luxian, and Yevath races.” The screen suddenly had three times as many dots and the distribution was far more even over half the galaxy. There was whistle and someone said, “Damn.” Rachael muttered “Check.”
Draga stuttered and said, “You have no way to prove this.”
Rachael leaned back and crossed her arms, “We have been getting dispatches from other crews to prove our numbers. Abu Silverbeam, Clio Oloo, and Brian Tuireean have been sending their numbers to Smith. My projections are based on their data. Camille, overlay species who have pledged support of the Coalition.” Several new colors showed systems of planets and stars controlled by the species of the Coalition. The colors were no longer isolated. They blended into two significant swaths that almost surrounded the area loyal to the Guild.
Neville gestured at the image, “Do you think you can work with that?” Rachael muttered, “Check, again. Mate in two moves.”
Draga sat down, staring at the image with her chin resting on her fist. Another voice said, “How do we coordinate?” Rachael saw Iti Greeneyes roll her eyes.
Smith raised his hands, “How do you think we got this message?” He leaned forward and sneered, “I am starting to sympathize with Morgaine about the Coalition’s timidity. What have you people been doing for these years?” He gestured to the map and said, “Show me Tuirreean’s position.” He got up and paced the room, “Some of us meet Tuirreann, Silverbeam, Ciom Olo and decide our strategy. The rest of us go and build more ships.” Tecumsah Quanah stood up sayng, “This is Morgaine’s matter with the humans. Let her solve it. The Guild is offering a sizable reward for these humans. I say turn them over and leave the traitor Morgaine to Guild mercies.”
Rachael gasped.Neville muttered, “Bastard”. Iti Greeneyes made a move towards her weapon. But it was Smith who acted most decisively. With speed Rachael had not seen before, he leapt the table and his feet slammed into Quanah. Quanah tried to get up but Smith slammed him against the table. Uycarrans were simultaneously pulling away from the fight and holding others back. Smith shouted, “Camille block communications.” Quanah grunted, pushed back hard and smashed Smith into the bulkhead of the ship. He then headbutted Smith who fell.
Neville made to move, but Rachael put an arm out. Neville hissed, “What do we do?”
Rachael responded, “nothing. Either could break you like a biscuit.”
Smith got up and shook himself. Quanah pulled out a knife and rushed Smith. The knife lunged but only found air. Smith grabbed Quanah’s wrist and turned. The knife clattered to the floor. Smith smashed Quanah’s head on the table. There was a crunch and the table bent where it had cracked. Quanah moaned but stayed down on the broken table. Smith pulled out a handkerchief and daubed a cut on his head. He picked up the knife and jammed it into the table next to Quanah’s head. He leaned down and hissed, “I have significant interests in Earth. I will not have those interests compromised.” Smith got up. He looked at Draga and said, “Camille is going to check his AI for problem communications. What is she going to find?”
Draga stood and put her arms behind her back in a firm stance, “Tecumsah Quanah has been agitating for a neutral stance for ages.”
Smith lifted Quanah’s head by his hair and said in his face, “Neutrality is no longer an option.” He let go and Quanah sagged a bit. Smith looked around the and said, “Neutrality is not an option. Anyone who thinks it is or wants to sit out the coming war should leave now.” It was quiet. A man and a woman moved towards Quanah to help him. Smith put a hand on Quanah’s shoulder and held him down. “He stays with me until I know how much damage he has done.” Two other Uycarran moved to restrain Quanah. Smith nodded at the two and moved to the head of the room. He said to the pair that were going to help, “Leave a destination and I will tell him where to meet you. Go…the house of Smith will have no further business with you.”
Rachael could see the shoulders of the two drop. Then the woman who had questioned Rachael said, “Go…the house of Draga will have no further business with you.” One by one, each Uycarran made the same scripted rejection. The two looked pained with each statement. She was almost sorry for the pair. But they would have sold her and Neville out to the Guild for peace. In that, Smith was right, the price was too high. When the last declaration was made, the pair moved toward the door. The woman looked at Rachael, “We are not a charity. We have no business supporting a Guild hard case.”
Iti Greeneyes glared daggers, “So says the worst Guild hard case in history. It seems Tymbrimi charity is forgotten. I will let Abu Silverbeam know your business is suspect.”
Rachael stared back at the woman and said, “Leave before Neville and I dismantle that drive on your ship. It was invented and manufactured by Guild hard cases.”
The two Uycarran turned and left a silent room. Neville said quietly, “Terra simpre libre.”
Loyalty is Overrated
Alfred Redman set the weights down and watched Winifred Stanhope and Findley Brown trade blows in their fencing practice. Brown was not her match, but no one else on the ship was close. Brown parried Winifred’s attack and then tried his own thrust. She easily knocked aside his blade with her metallic hand, stepped forward and put the tip on his chest. “Point.”
Brown tore off his face mask in a fury. “That shouldn’t count. You used your damned metal hand to push aside a blade.”
Winifred pursed her lips saying, “Really Findley. That sounds childish and petty in more ways than I can count.” She took off her own mask and said, “Put more effort into your attacks. And less into your arguments. “
Brown growled and charged. Before Alfred realized what he was doing, Findley was on Winifred. But Winifred had caught his practice blade in her hand and stopped its motion. This caused Brown to stumble. She brought her other hand down on his head and he dropped to the floor. She twisted his arm behind his back and leaned down, “You need practice at this as well.” She tightened her grip and he yelped, “Shall we have a little round of hand to hand as well? Or are you done with your tantrum?”
Brown grunted and then his body relaxed. Alfred thought the boy is a fool who will be killed quickly if he keeps that attitude. The gym door opened and in walked an Elomin. His face was bright red with a black pattern. Covering his head were a dozen or so inch long horns. The bright red and black pattern skin was contrasted by a drab a gray robe style tunic that came down to his legs. His pants were also loose and gray. The Elomin nodded to Alfred but addressed Winifred, “Hello Miss Stanhope. Sairu Vuq here. And I am passing a message from Guild Master Woochu Zouz. He requests your immediate presence.”
Winifred let Brown go with a little shove. “We will freshen up and be there shortly.”
The guard took a resting position, “Guild Master Zouz is aware of your exercises. Regardless, he wants to see you now.” He glanced at Alfred and said, “All three of you.”
Alfred kept his face straight but gave a slight nod. He tossed a towel to Winifred, picked up one of his own and one for Findley Brown. He came up to Brown and said, “I can help you make better attacks, but your temper will be the death of you.” Brown grunted and snatched the towel out of his hand.
Each cleaned the worst of the sweat and grime off, dried off and drank some water. Winifred nodded to Brown and offered her arm. The two headed out the door. Alfred trailed walking with the guard, Sairu Vuq. Alfred asked, “I thought we were going to a bit of leave.”
Vuq said, “We will be leaving sooner than expected. Fueling is being finished faster. We still need provisions.” He looked at Alfred and said, “I believe Guild Master Zouz wants to discuss recent developments with Miss Stanhope before we proceed.” Alfred raised an eyebrow but said nothing. Vuq looked forward, “I only know that much and suspect you will know more than me after discussion with Guild Master Zouz.”
Alfred stroked his mustache and said, “Thank you. One prefers any information going into a conversation with a Guild master.” The Elohim nodded. Alfred said, “I expect I could use some lunch after this meeting. Can you recommend a place?”
Vuq smiled a toothy grin and said, “I know an excellent soup place. But it is very hard to find. I can take you there after you freshen up a bit.” They arrived at the Guild Master’s quarters. Vuq opened the door revealing an expansive office for such a small ship.
A deep voice came from a large light blue, human form. “Thank you yeoman Vuq. Please wait outside the door”. The man had very pale hair and wore a gray and black tunic. He was standing behind a large clear table that had papers as well as consoles. He was looking out a window at the space port activity. Winifred entered the room and took a seat immediately opposite Woochu Zouz. Brown took another chair next to the table. Alfred positioned himself by the door as it closed. Zouz turned to show that his eyes were nearly as pale as his hair. He sat in the working chair behind the desk.
Winifred spoke, “Are we in trouble, Woochu?”
Zouz turned around and then began to drum his arm with his fingers, “You personally? No. But Morgaine has escalated matters.”
Winifred smirked, “Surely this isn’t a surprise. I have been telling you about her leanings and dealings since Tau Ceti.”
Zouz frowned and folded his hands behind his back. “Not all of us are surprised. However, a Guild agent caught her and human companions at one of her old haunts. The agent was supposed to detain them all.”
Winifred looked at her hand and practiced some motions as she said, “But he failed.”
Zouz put his hands out, “There is evidence of collusion with locals. But we don’t know for sure because the local population scattered to the desert and the agent in question died in an explosion. Regardless, when Morgaine left she shot at a Guild ship and severely damaged it before disappearing.”
Alfred kept his expression neutral. Brown snorted. Winfred closed her hand into a fist, “And someone is surprised by this behavior after my information?”
Zouz frowned at her and then said, “The Guild agent at the planet had a reputation for overestimating his prowess and underestimating others.” He shrugged, “He was someone’s son. That he was incompetent is irrelevant now that he is dead.” Hhe sat at the desk and leaned forward. “Tau Ceti station has issued an edict in response. All humans are to be detained and sent for reeducation.”
Brown leaned forward, “You would do that to us? We’re helping you!”
Redman said loudly, “Shut up Findley. Let him finish.” Brown grumbled but sat back down.
Zouz nodded at Alfred and continued, “I know you’re helping us and so does everyone else on this ship. Tau Ceti isn’t so sure. We have many stops ahead and everyone has been bombarded by how barbaric humans are. The edict is a natural progression. ”
Alfred started filing his nails, “So rather than trying to explain our freedom of movement at every stop, we need to stay under wraps until our particular situation can be made clear.”
Woochu Zouz practically sighed in relief, “Exactly. The press on this edict is massive. And it follows months of an information campaign on your backward ways.” Brown grumbled but said nothing.
Winifred eyed Zouz narrowly, “My cooperation on the drives is going to be severely hampered if I am treated like a prisoner. I have spent most of the last year locked up or stuck on this ship. I had counted on these stops to see some culture and experience…the local flair.” Alfred rolled his eyes.
Zouz put his hands out, “Miss Stanhope, Winifred I want your satisfaction with this trip. But I have concerns for your safety as well. If you were walking about, the local security would detain you and we would be days fighting bureaucracy getting you and Mr. Brown free. Worse, some vigilant local might take matters in his or her own hands and shoot you on the spot. Our campaign has been rather lurid about human habits.”
Winifred sighed dramatically, “I had been looking forward to a bit of shopping and indulging in the local …atmosphere.”
Zouz said, “We can accommodate just about anything Miss Stanhope.” Alfred smiled. That promise would likely be sorely tested. Zouz continued, “Just make your requests known to Sairu Vuq he will be your guard until we clear your status up.”
Winifred said, “I suppose a bit of hardship for a good cause is only reasonable.” And then stood.
Zouz stood and motioned to the door, “I appreciate your patience and understanding. Anything you want. Vuq will see to your needs.” Alfred wondered how that was going to work out.