Worlds At War, Chapter 1
J. M. F. Stokes
Adrian keyed his comm over to the hard link. "That should do it. What's the status on your end?"
"Intake's at 98%," replied Yed. "That's 2% better than normal for this siphon. Nice work!"
Yed Hadraw was a tall, gangly fellow who had joined Bix Gas Mining within weeks of Adrian. His face was pocked from adolescent acne scars and he had a blinding shock of blond hair that looked like it hadn't been combed in years. Nevertheless, they had become fast friends in training, and as Adrian earned the right to choose his Orbital Mission Coordinator he frequently asked for Yed. Now it was rare for them to work apart.
"Better head back," Yed said. "Looks like a serious high-atmosphere storm is brewing."
"Thanks for the tip. On my way out." Adrian disengaged the hard link from the siphon tube and watched rusty swirls of turbulent atmosphere play with the thin pole as it retracted. Keying his comm back to microwave transmission, he carefully backed his Xenon heavy starboat clear of the siphon tube and began his ascent.
The immense planet Chednaan did not forgive Adrian for his intrusion this time. The storm's rage strained to reach him, and though his Xenon starboat spewed fire in defiance, each wisp of cavorting gas strengthened its hold. The contrastingly still air of his cockpit rang, and Adrian turned his attention to the comm light blinking on his console - Yed must be trying to push a microwave burst through the storm.
"Computer, begin recording," Adrian said. His console pinged and a red light illuminated.
"Yed! I'm fine." Adrian failed to mask the urgency in his voice. "Computer, end recording and send until confirmation." The red light vanished and another ping sounded. The computer would keep trying to push the message through until Yed's computer confirmed receipt.
Adrian had dueled with hundreds of Chednaan's tantrums over the past six years. Some he saw as childish playmates, offering him a moment's thrill for a small detour in his mission. This one towered before him as judge and executioner, daring him to make the slightest error.
Though his body cried for equilibrium, Adrian trusted only his eyes. His instruments guided him into the oncoming winds. Gusts of ammonia and methane toyed with his ship, colored deep crimson by ferrous sediment Chednaan had devoured from orbit.
Adrian did not hear the chime. His eyes did not stray as his mind focused precious seconds on the comm. "Warning: microwave transmission unsuccessful after 50 attempts. Continue?"
"Yes!" Adrian fumed. Unbidden, his left hand abandoned the throttle and caressed the comm console gently. "C'mon, baby"
"Transmission sent and confirmed," the computer said.
Surprise drew his head to look toward the comm. "Finally! Good girl." His left hand snapped back into its place on the throttle.
Something felt wrong. The sky outside his cockpit had darkened from its characteristic yellow-red to near black. No more than a moment passed after Adrian returned his eyes to the Xenon's instruments than they reached a frigid hand into his gut and tugged. Moments earlier, his altitude readout displayed -823 meters. Now it read -1917. How could Chednaan have swallowed him so quickly? The heat and pressure of the deep atmosphere suffocated him.
His mind leafed through volumes of possibilities; his eyes flitted about, searching for an answer. The glare of Adrian's instruments seemed painfully bright against the black sky. Settling on his coordinate readout, his mind found the volume it sought. A lateral vortex had shunted him 352 meters to port, where the vacuous eye sucked him deeper into the atmosphere.
With understanding, the heat of his panic cooled to a snowy resolve. Adrian nosed his Xenon down and plummeted into the eye. At -3500 meters his ship blared heat and pressure warnings at him. He jerked the stick back, forcing his moaning starboat to level out and use its acquired momentum to push out of the eye and back into the swirling winds around it.
Contrary to his training Adrian turned with the wind, using it to bolster his speed even as it coaxed him deeper into the crushing gasses. Chednaan's compacting grip bled past the borders of his Xenon starboat and cinched his flight suit tighter, making the scalding air more difficult to breathe. With the wind's gift of speed, he jerked back on his flight stick and leapt several hundred meters before the wind regained its grasp on him.
Sweat soaked the insulated fabric of Adrian's flight suit as numbing minutes clawed at his concentration. Again, he repeated the process: fly with the wind and allow it to bless him with speed, then leap. He waged war with the lateral vortices that sought to drag him back into the vacuous eye. Long after he had lost count of his leaps, the black gasses gave way to a comforting rust color, then broke over the cockpit of his Xenon heavy starboat. The stars to winked at his success.
"Adrian! Adrian, come in! Blessed Saluthena, is that really you?" Yed asked.
"Yeah, it's me. Sorry I'm a little late."
"A little late?" Yed stammered. "A LITTLE late? It's been almost two hours since you sent me that 'I'm fine' nonsense. What happened down there?"
Adrian explained his experience in the vortex, surprised he'd been there that long.
"So you were actually in that monstrosity?" Yed let out a low whistle. "That's the biggest storm I've recorded on my watch. I was about to give you up for dead - you know we've lost pilots to lesser storms."
Adrian chuckled weakly. "I know. Thanks for sticking with me, Yed."
Adrian limped his battered Xenon back to Pinnacle station, with Yed following a little too closely in his shuttle. The sleek, spearhead shape of the Xenon was scarred and dented from the larger particles Chednaan cast against it, and its pearlescent green was blackened and scalded. Two engines mounted behind the cockpit sputtered and coughed as Adrian lurched toward the boxy mass of Pinnacle station.
Back on Pinnacle station, Adrian went through the perfunctory medical check. Standard procedure dictated space pilots who encountered "unusual conditions" go through quarantine to insure they weren't bringing home any pathogens.
"Senior Spaceman Raam," the medtech said. "My tests read that you're clean, but you are to remain here until Commander Weldon personally clears you."
"Did he say why?" Adrian asked.
"No, sir" the medtech replied. "But he was emphatic that you are not to be released until he has spoken to you."
"Well, can I get dressed at least?"
The medtech grinned. "I'm sure that's fine, sir."
Over an hour of pacing, fidgeting, and rereading the same out-of-date magazine passed. Adrian vacillated between anxiety over the whistling in his ears and boredom at waiting on bureaucracy. He lifted himself to his full height – almost two meters – and gazed at himself in the room's small mirror, noting that his sandy hair was still matted to his skull with sweat and the bruises that had first shown around his wide-set, blue-gray eyes were spreading down his razor-edged nose toward his angular jaw. Stretching, he considered exercising, but concluded there was little reason because of his limbs. He longed to escape the medical bay, clean up, eat a hot meal, and rest. Mercifully, the door to Adrian's examination room opened and Commander Weldon strode in, his grim face looking unusually severe. He was a husky man, a few centimeters shorter than Adrian, whose mere presence made the air stand at attention. Weldon's cropped, black hair was tipped with gray and wrinkles crowded his penetrating, brown eyes.
"Sir!" Adrian stood and snapped a salute. Though Bix Mining was a civilian corporation, the pilot corps followed military protocol.
"As you were," Weldon said. He sounded angry, but Adrian had worked with him long enough to recognize when he was concerned.
"I suppose you're wondering why you had to stay here," Weldon said. "You performed a small miracle by coming out of that storm alive, so naturally we wanted to see how you did it." Weldon locked eyes with Adrian. "I saw something in those logs that concerns me, Spaceman."
"You flew deeper into Chednaan's atmosphere than anyone in history. The heat at that depth should have cooked you and the pressures should have crushed your ship. You survived because of another one of your famous electrical anomalies: your ship's systems powered up beyond specifications. The cooling systems kept you out of the oven and the delta shield kept you from being flattened. You're clean of pathogens, but I've ordered a full shakedown of you and your Xenon. We have to know what, if anything, those conditions did to you and how you survived."
Prime Minister Vrut Losset was a man serious of mind yet amiable of face. That mix of gifts had won him many offices over a long political career, and it was now his privilege to oversee the historic activation of Astatine's first Tachyon HyperGate. He had high hopes that the trade relationship between Astatine and Namath would explode, as shipments that now took years would be reduced to minutes.
The Space Elevator rumbled to a halt within Pinnacle station's containment field. Led by bodyguards, the Prime Minister's entourage escorted him out. A rigid man stood at perpetual attention waiting to greet him. Beside him stood a younger man riding a cushion of confident excitement.
"Prime Minister," the rigid man said, extending his hand. "It's a pleasure to see you again, sir. You may not remember, but I am..."
"Commander Justus Weldon, of course." Prime Minister Losset clasped Weldon's hand in both of his and offered a toothy smile with his handshake. "And this gentleman with you?" Losset indicated the younger man.
"Lieutenant Jorn Sernaan, Prime Minister. Lieutenant Sernaan is the pilot we have selected to fly the test voyage through the Tachyon HyperGate."
Lt. Sernaan offered his hand, and it was enfolded in the same warm handshake that had greeted Commander Weldon. "An honor, sir," Lt. Sernaan said.
"This way, sir." Weldon gestured stiffly at the door. "It will be our pleasure to give you a tour of the station and escort you to the command deck for the ceremony." The words drummed against Losset's ear, clearly spoken by a man more used to barking orders than diplomacy.
"Thank you, Commander," Losset responded. "The people of Astatine so rely on the services Pinnacle station provides, I am thrilled to be visiting it at last."
"People of Namath! People of Astatine! We stand at the threshold of a new era for our two worlds..." Premier Selk Qualtoth of Namath gave the address at the Tachyon HyperGate ceremony, a trade for Astatine's Jorn Sernaan doing the flying. The event was broadcast to both planets via tachcomm, and Qualtoth's long face, framed by the darkest of hair and eyes, looked out from the tachcomm screen into every public venue on both worlds. Communication was the first practical application found for the faster-than-light tachyon particle. Today would mark another. Astatine took advantage of the brief tachcomm delay to overdub Qualtoth's words into Astatinian.
Adrian watched from a hospital bed on Pinnacle Station as Lieutenant Sernaan piloted his Xenon heavy starboat toward the gate. As he approached within 1000 meters, the ring's perimeter lit and a violent spasm of energy rent space. The "open" gate resembled a cat's eye, the iris of metal split by a pupil of raw energy. Lt. Sernaan piloted straight toward the seething pupil. As his starboat intersected the gate, it halted, timeless, on the brink. With another flash, it was gone. People across Astatine and Namath leaned toward their tachcomms and held their breath. Seconds ticked by in silence.
"Success!" Premier Qualtoth's voice boomed over the tachcomm, and the whole star system erupted in cheers.
"Lt. Sernaan of Astatine has arrived in Namath space! He confirms that he is unharmed and his ship is functioning normally. The trip took 17 seconds. Lt. Sernaan has covered 630 million kilometres in 17 seconds! People of Namath, we have cracked space wide with our tachyon gates, and the future..."
Cheers, hugs, and triumphant dances gave way to murmuring throughout Astatine. In one of Pinnacle station's many lounges, the people who had leapt to their feet in triumph now gaped at the tachcomm in silence. Yed Hadraw looked around, as if someone nearby could tell him what he knew he heard hadn't been said.
Stunned, Yed gave voice to their collected thoughts. "He's talking like they did it all themselves - Like Astatine had no part in it. The THGs are shared technology! They're ours!"
Before Qualthoth's address was over, comm lines to Prime Minister Losset's office were jammed with bewildered inquiries and angry rants.
Prime Minister Losset, himself confused by Qualtoth's comments, broadcast a statement to all Astatine within the hour. "Many of you are confused and outraged by Premier Qualthoth's statements in the address at the opening ceremonies of our shared Tachyon HyperGates, as am I. Be assured, though, that we are looking into it. I'm sure it is a simple misunderstanding, and I have requested an immediate audience with Premier Qualthoth to clarify his statements. No one can deny Astatine's irreplaceable role in the development of this shared technology."
Qualtoth relished the warm satisfaction spreading through him. He knew the reason behind Vrut Losset's urgent call. If Losset was wise, the entire star system would be under Qualthoth's personal control before the night was out, and his ancestral destiny would be filled.
He stopped gloating for a mental glance at reality. It was unlikely that Losset would concede. Doubtless, the man was too blind to recognize that his childish idea of justice and his weak people would be helpless against Namath. Above all, Qualtoth had to use this conversation to deflate Losset's foolishness, and then a few months of trade embargo should bring him into line. Qualtoth relished the thought of Losset groveling, but he had no illusions that would happen.
Qualtoth's comm chimed, and a smug smile washed across his lips.
"Prime Minister Vrut Losset of Astatine is calling, sir."
"Patch him through," Qualtoth said. Losset's face flickered to life on the display.
"Thank you for agreeing to this meeting on such short notice," Losset said in perfect Namthese. "I'm not sure you're aware, but your comments at the ceremony today have created quite a stir here on Astatine. It sounds to my people as if you are claiming the THGs as exclusive Namath technology. I understand, of course, that this is a simple misunderstanding, but a public retraction from your office would be very helpful in calming my people."
Qualtoth cleared his throat. "On the contrary, Mr. Losset, I believe your people have understood me quite accurately. My engineers have already reset the codes on the gates so they are under sole Namath control." He leaned toward the tachcomm, a condescending grin playing across his thin lips. "It's time we end this decades' long charade. Astatine would be helpless without Namath's resources, so it stands to reason your little moon should be under our jurisdiction. Once you are a part of Namath, naturally you will have access to our gates."
Qualtoth watched mixed emotions paint Losset's face. When the man was finally able to speak, it was in a shocked stutter. "You… you can't..."
"I already have." Qualtoth's sick grin widened. "Shall we begin the procedures to unify our two worlds?"
"How dare you," Losset hissed. Static played across Qualtoth's screen as Losset sprang to his feet, bumping his camera and roaring, "How dare you! Those gates are our technology! Our discovery made it possible. Our science is behind their very existence! If you do not release those codes to us at once, I may be forced to rescind the treaty between our worlds!"
Premier Qualtoth released a dramatic sigh. "I feared you would adopt this impossible position. Without our resources and our engineering, your discovery would be meaningless. Besides, I have no doubt that our science would have made the same discovery within a very short time. Very well, our trade agreement is suspended until Astatine submits to the rightful authority in this star system. Rot in space, if you must, Mr. Losset." He cut the connection.
Losset sank into his chair, whitened knuckles contrasting with the red pulsing in his cheeks. His mind raced among possibilities: espionage? open war? Or must he enact steps to return Astatine to self-sufficiency? 30 years of access to Namath's considerable resources had given his people a taste for luxuries unknown before the Discovery. Could they give those up without violence?
"Sir?" Otaan, Losset's press liason, said.
"What is it?" Losset's head snapped around to fix Otaan with a burning glare.
"Shall I prepare a press release, sir?"
Losset forgot his mad desire to crush the arms of his chair and watched the world slowly return to focus. "No," he answered. "No, not yet. Gather my board of advisors."
Copyright 2004, J. M. F. Stokes. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this work is prohibited without written consent from the author.