Strip # 0
Strip # 288
The Path of Fate
A United Allegiance Tale
T'Chorel L'Julkib had not come to the back-water colony of K'Vinter to become involved, indeed he'd been hoping to just pass a few quiet years reflecting on his long life and all the events that had passed him by during his centuries-long solitude. But, perhaps inevitably, someone had recognized him and one thing led to another. Which, he thought glumly, was how he'd found himself sitting in a town council meeting half-listening to a status report on the construction of the new bridge over the Red River. More reports followed, and the meeting went on into the early evening. T'Chorel nodded and voted and carried out the duties that he'd allowed himself to be elected to do, but his heart wasn't in it. He kept finding himself being a politician, though that was never what he set out to do. He knew the colonists would keep electing him if he let them, so as the meeting began to wind down, he wrote himself a note to propose a motion for term limits at next month's meeting.
T'Chorel slipped out of the meeting a few moments before it officially ended, as he'd been doing for several months now. They always ended the same way. B'Luki would argue that since K'Vinter was a T'Mian colony that they should conclude with the pledges to both the T'Mian and UA Flags. N'Tar would counter that the Vertin Handbook of Colonial Government Procedures clearly indicated that the Pledge to the United Allegiance Flag was to said alone and that planetism was even more inappropriate in the aftermath of the Makinat Wars than before. P'Ku would then ask them all to join him in a prayer which would renew the never-ending debate over religious freedom. T'Chorel couldn't care less. There was a glorious sunset coloring the sky over the Red River and it didn't matter to him whether it was created by P'Ku's goddess or was just a happy accident of physical laws, he intended to sit on the banks of the river and enjoy it.
Long after the sunset had faded to a star-studded black, T'Chorel was still sitting there. He was staring at the planes of the galactic wondering how many of the planets circling those stars he had been to and how many more he would some day see. Many of them were still awaiting re-colonization, virtually emptied by the Makinat's forced relocation program and genocide. And all the while I was in seclusion, he thought, I should have been out here fighting. T'Chorel knew a great deal about fighting for freedom. He had escaped slavery and started the fighting for his people's future over six hundred years ago, but it always remined close in his thoughts.
"Thinking about all those worlds our there," F'Ve asked from behind him. She was becoming very good at reading his moods."So many of them as empty as our little corner of the universe." She walked over and sat on the bank beside him.
"The universe is spherical. No corners," T'Chorel responded, smiling.
F'Ve ignored his comment, "They found another group of Hiders. Nearly two thousand in a cave system on Sentra/3. They didn't even know that the Makinat War had ended, much less everthing since." She paused and leaned back. "I sometimes think that we really did the UA a disservice by insisting on starting a new colony when so many worlds need to be reclaimed, so many peoples who would have welcomed our help in rebuilding."
"You're still young," T'Chorel said, glancing at her, "You could still go somewhere else. As you said, nearly any world would welcome another pair of hands."
"Yes," she replied, and then met his eyes, "but there are reasons for staying here too." Her fingers brushed his.
"I'm a lot older than--" he started.
"T'Chorel," F'Ve interrupted, "you're a Kodone. You're immortal, or very nearly so. You're lots older than everyone, even the other Kodones. I'm attracted to you and your age, real or apparent, doesn't matter to me."
"I do enjoy our chats," T'Chorel conceded and turned his eyes back to the stars, "and our arguements." F'Ve laughed and returned to stargazing. He'd never given up that arguement so easily before, she thought and smiled. The smile faded, one of the stars was moving.
"T'Chorel, we aren't expecting a ship tonight, are we?"
"No. Why do you--" he spotted the moving point of light and stopped. "Get the Council. Now, please."
The town hall was normally all but empty during Council meetings. It wasn't that the colonists didn't care to listen to the debates of their leaders. It was just that the day-to-day matters of living on a mostly-unexplored world took up most of their time and energy. But this was no ordinary Council meeting and the hall was packed to capacity, and probably beyond, thought T'Chorel as he entered the hall. And everyone was shouting.
"They promised to leave us alone!"
"...and the next shipment isn't due for weeks!"
"The shuttles are armed, aren't they? Use them!"
"What the g'tu are you going to do about this?"
T'Chorel pushed his way through the crowd until he reached F'Ve. "Cover your ears," he said when she saw him.
"What," she asked over the shouts.
"Cover your ears!" T'Chorel placed a long wooden instrument in his mouth and covered his ears. F'Ve looked at him, confused for just a moment longer, then covered hers as well. He blew sharply into the instrument. The sound that emerged was more like a shriek than a note. The crowd grew quiet as the high-pitched sound caused more and more of the crowd to turn towards T'Chorel. When the shriek faded away, silence had filled the hall.
"Have I mentioned recently," T'Chorel began, "that I came here because I liked the quiet." A few of those gathered in the hall laughed. "While you were all on your way here, I took the liberty of having Kareneter warm up a shuttle and bring the sensors to bear. I got a closer look at our visitor. Whoever they are, their ship isn't on file in the Registry, nor is there any ship class that matches their configuration."
Several people started talking at the same time. T'Chorel held up a hand until he had everyone's attention again.
"The exhaust from the ship's engines had a very distinctive purplish color. The only, known, drive that produces that color is a Rarnian Narpa Drive."
"Spirits of S'Donika," whispered P'Ku.
"But who would be using a Narpa Drive. There are a dozen more efficient, less expensive drives," B'Esor said.
"And why use a Narpa rod in anything besides a Jump Drive," added B'Luki.
"Because they don't know about the Jump Drive," Karenter said as he ducked thru the doorway. Kareneter was a Rekados, shorter than many races, but still tall by T'Stumpian standards. His orange skin stood out in sharp contrast against his faded blue UA Naval uniform shirt. He wore it open, like a jacket, but the insignia were still as shiny as when he'd left the service years before.
T'Chorel again had to hold up a hand to be heard. "The Narpa Drive as well as the design of the ship indicate that it was built before," he repeated this to let those who hadn't already done so absorb it, "before Nup and I discovered the Jump Drive." The room again was filled with voices. Rather than fight it this time, he gestured for F'Ve to follow him and moved thru the crowd to his chair. F'Ve settled for a seat on a step beside him.
"What do we do now," she shouted.
"We wait for the rest of the council to get the idea."
Eventually they did. Once the council had all taken their seats, the room became somewhat more orderly. N'Tar pulled a polished black stone out of a pouch on his belt and banged it on the table until the last of the voices died away. He never left the gavel-stone in the Council Hall. It was a gift to the colony from T'Chorel, who had used it when he was Speaker of the UA House of Representatives.
"This emergency session of the K'Vinter Colonial Council is called to order," began N'Tar. "It is 2 L'Sutu, year 2, local; 15 Faba 572 VT, standard. Let the record show that all five members of the council are present. Before we open up the floor to questions, I'd like T'Chorel to summarize what we know so far."
"Thank you, N'Tar. Approximately 42 minutes ago," T'Chorel started, still idlely fingering his Jurmuran Gat Whistle, "F'Ve spoted an unidentified spacecraft very near to K'Vinter. Kareneter and I have scanned the ship and have deduced several things. The ship's course, construction, and propulsion system all support the theory that this ship dates from the earliest days of the United Allegiance." A cacauphony of voices drownd out T'Chorel again. He waited while N'Tar tried to restore order.
"We also have reason to believe," he resumed, "that the ship is a derelict or operating on automatic--"
"Then we can just ignore it until it goes away," asked one of the colonists.
"No, I'm afraid we can't. The ship's course will take it too close to K'Vinter's Star. It'll be destroyed in less than a week unless we act."
"Let it," shouted a voice. A chorus of like-minded voices joined in. Arguements raged until N'Tar banged the gavel-stone on the table so hard that he left impressions in the wood.
"Quiet," he shouted, "We came to K'Vinter to be left alone to live our lives in peace, but that does not relieve us of our civic responcibilities. Even without a distress call, we know that the ship is in danger of being destroyed. We have no choice but to investigate. The real question is how to carry out that investigation."
"If I may," T'Chorel gestured with his whistle.
"Go right ahead."
"The ship is, in all liklihood, a derelict. Once we determine that our suspicions are correct, we could simply allow it to continue on it's course." Several of the people gathered nodded. "However, there's also no reason why we couldn't simply salvage it. The technology on the ship may be nearly six centuries old, but just the scrap metal we could gain from dismantling it would be well worth the effort.
"Therefore, I propose that we launch one of the shuttles no later than tomorrow dawn to intercept the ship. Further I suggest that N'Tar and I go as represntatives of the Council, pilot Kareneter, Nepo and T'Lin as security, R'Zuti for her engineering skills if we decide to attempt a salvage effort, and F'Ve since she was the one who discovered the ship."
The discussion continued for over an hour. A third security officer, L'Toddo, who was also a medic, and Councilman P'Ku were added to the crew. In the end, the plan was approved by the Council four-to-one, with B'Luki opposing, much to the pleasure of the colonists who favored seperatism. Knowing she would be overruled on the mission going forward, B'Luki was the one who insisted that a third member of the council go along. This assured that while she disapproved of going at all, any decisions that were made along the way would rest solely on the heads of the Councilmembers who went without requiring any additional input from her.
T'Chorel sat on the dock while Kareneter loaded R'Zuti's equipment onboard the shuttle. F'Ve sat next to him, dozing lightly. A little dose of adventure, he thought, would be good for her. Sometimes that's all it took for one to decide that they were content with their 'less exciting' lives. Others found they had a taste for it. Either way, he would be happy for her as long as she was happy. He really was falling in love with her, which both excited and frightened him. It had been seven centuries since he'd felt like this. He wasn't sure how he should pursue his feelings or even if he should.
Kareneter waved to him. "Come on," T'Chorel said, touching F'Ve lightly on the arm, "It's time to go." He took her hand as they walked towards the shuttle. He paused at the top of the ramp and looked at the small crowd that had come to see them off. He knew that they were making the right decision by undertaking this mission, but he also knew that it was not a popular decision. Perhaps, he thought hopefully, I won't even need term limits to get out of office. He turned and steped into the shuttle.
The shuttle hovered slowly until it had reached the level of the treetops, then it shot into the sky as if gravity had reversed itself. The early morning faded quickly back to night as the shuttle left the atmosphere. Soon the ship was visible in front of them, it's distinctive purple glow differentiating it from the field of red, yellow, and blue stars. Kareneter activated the shuttle's Velig-Jentot Drive and the shuttle made the shift to the first shelf, travelling at exactly the speed of Igem particles. The stars took on a pale translucency but the ship gained clarity and solidity. Kareneter pulled the shuttle alongside the ship, matching its speed and course. He activated a viewscreen in the passenger cabin and they got their first good look at the ship.
There was little doubt as to the age of the ship. Six centuries of micro-meteor impacts pockmarked the entire surface of the ship, and interstellar dust had accumulated in a fine layer. The engine suddenly shut off.
"What happened," N'Tar asked noone in particular.
"It makes sense," R'Zuti explained, "The engine would only need to run for a few hours every few months to maintain velocity and course, and to recharge the internal systems. If F'Ve hadn't been stargazing last night, we would have never even known this ship existed. It would have fallen into the sun and that would have been that."
"Zaretio," T'Chorel read the nearly-obscured name of the ship. "Fate," he translated. "Makes sense that it's a Zarpi design. Their shields were never very effective against interstellar debris." He noticed R'Zuti's quizical look. "The shipyards at Zep have come a very long way over the centuries. They weren't always considered the best in the U.A." He looked towards the open door of the cockpit, "Kareneter, anything new?"
"I agree that it's a Zarpi ship. They've always insisted on putting tailfins on all their vessels, even the ones that were never designed to enter the atmosphere. The hull's intact. I'm still reading an Ero/Darf atmosphere. Temperature's real low, but we wouldn't have to suit up completely; the thermal suits will be enough. At least some of the systems inside are still online. Power levels are low but they're still there. And one other thing..." he trailed off. He typed several instructions into the computer. "There's indeterminant life readings. Probably just a really hardy strain of mold. You might want to consider suiting up after all."
"Kareneter, can you dock with the ship," inquired P'Ku.
"Are you sure we need to do that," L'Toddo added.
"It is why we're here," F'Ve said, excited, her eyes never leaving the ship.
There was a long pause before Kareneter responded. "I can do it. I'll have to use the cargo hatch. The ship's pre-Standardization; no docking clamps that we can match up to."
T'Chorel and N'Tar exchanged looks and nods. "Do it," N'Tar ordered. They were silent as he piloted the ship into position. "This might be a tad rough," he said just before the ship jerked, throwing them back against their seats. The shuttle groaned as it shifted, finally settling into place against the hull of the ship. "Get comfortable back there. It's going to be a little while before I'm sure the seal's holding.
"I still think you two should have vaccuum suits on," N'Tar frowned at T'Chorel and F'Ve as they stood at the cargo hatch in their thermal suits.
"And I still think you should let us go in first and secure the ship," T'Lin, also frowning, stated.
"Nonsense," T'Chorel said gruffly.
"I second that," F'Ve added as though she has the authority to do so, "Let's get in there and see what we've got."
Kareneter decided to cut off the discussion by hitting the hatch release and then heading back to the airlock between the cargo bay and the rest of the shuttle. There was a popping sound as atmosphere blew into the void between the hatches. The oversized, reinforced door, which also doubled as a ramp, settled to the floor of the cargo hold. T'Lin, head of K'Vinter's tiny police force, and Nepo, another ex-Naval Rekados, stood, weapons ready, to either side of the ship's hatch as R'Zuti attached a descrambler box to unlock the hatch. She pressed several buttons, watched the indicator lights, pressed another button, and then stood to the side as the hatch slid in and out of sight.
T'Chorel, much to the obvious frustration of T'Lin and his men, strode purposefully into the ship. The others followed as Kareneter returned to the cockpit to monitor their communications. Their boots stirred up tiny clouds of dust as they entered the airlock. T'Chorel briefly examined the control panel then hit a button. The inner door groaned, started to open, hesitated, and then slid into the bulkhead. Lights sprang to life in the hallway, but many of them immediately started to flicker and die, leaving the hallway half-lit.
"J'Daruti, watch over us," P'Ku prayed softly as they entered the hallway.
"The air probably smells pretty bad, but I'm not reading any harmful organisms," L'Toddo said, his eyes flickering from the scanner attached to his rifle to the hallway ahead and behind them.
"It's stale, but not to bad," F'Ve said.
"I am still getting indeterminant life readings," L'Toddo added.
"What exactly does 'indeterminant life readings' mean," N'Tar asked.
"The readings are too weak or intermittant to be identified or, less likely since we know the ship's of U.A. origin, it's a form of life that's not in the database," L'Toddo explained.
"And there's a number of design features that could be interfering with the readings: the metals used in the hull plating, prin't radiation from the Narpa Drive, ... I could go on," R'Zuti said.
"Please don't," N'Tar said as they reached an intersecting corridor.
"Which way," P'Ku looked down each corridor as far as the shadows allowed.
"This way," T'Chorel indicated and started off, "These early ships almost always have the bridge on the top deck, starboard bow." They continued forward through several more bulkhead. Upon opening one hatch, they found the floor, and several tiny skeletons, covered in a fine red powder.
"That's likely the source of the life readings," L'Toddo stated, "Mold. It's amazing how it'll thrive in an environment with virtually no nutients, no water, no light."
Nepo asked, "And the skeletons?"
"Sardinio Thuks," T'Chorel said as he nudged one of them with his boot, "your basic Zarpi vermin. It's a three-legged lizard. It eats anything it can bite off and breeds incredibly fast."
"There's another ladder up to the top deck back here," T'Lin's displeasure with the way this expedition was being run was clear. "No reason to contaminate our suits any more than neccessary."
The remainder of their trek to the bridge passed uneventfully. Once there, R'Zuti attached several work-lights to the walls to make up for the centuries-old lights that were failing more with each passing minute. T'Chorel and F'Ve helped her with portable vaccuums to clear the worst of the dust from the consoles before she attempted to settle herself into a chair that was not designed for a T'Stump.
One by one the control consoles came to life as R'Zuti manipulated buttons and switches, carefully checking her engineering scanner after each change. Occassionally she frowned, but mostly she seemed completely absorbed in her work. She had come to K'Vinter, in part, to escape her mother's far from subtle hints about the grandchildren that R'Zuti had yet to supply. But R'Zuti had always been more comfortable with macines than other people. Machines made sense. They did what you told them to do. And when they didn't, you gave them a good kick, and then, if that hadn't fixed them, you brought out your tools. People didn't make sense. And most of them objected to being kicked when they disagreed with you.
When she was finally finished, she turned to the others, seeming to T'Chorel to be coming out of a trance. "Given what you've said about the early days of the Zep Shipyards," she directed this at T'Chorel, "this ship is in incredibly good shape. Life support's running at 90%, mostly due to it not being used. Engine's at 62%. Many of the other systems running in the green," she laughed, "or would be if the green indicators hadn't burned out centuries ago. A few systems are shut down. The airlock we came in is probably the only functional one. And when we go below-decks, we'll have to manually open the hatches. No water; the tanks, plumbing, and humidifiers probably corroded before the ship left the First Galactic. The batteries that power the artificial gravity will only work for about a day now that the engines are shut down. The other batteries are in about the same shape. The emergency lighting batteries are completely shot.
"There also evidence of modifications to the power grid. And there's something operating in the main cargo hold. I'm not sure what it is because it wasn't part of the original ship design. The computer, such as it is, isn't designed to tell me what it is, just that it's running. And there are multiple backups to make sure it keeps running. I think the first priority should be to see what's down there."
"I'd prefer to alter the ship's course first," N'Tar said, "I'll feel better when we're not on course to fall into our star."
"We have at least three days before we're in any danger," T'Chorel countered.
"R'Zuti, you can change course from here," asked N'Tar.
"Certainly. It might not be a textbook course-correction and it'll take at least an hour, but I can do it."
"We have a quorum," T'Chorel nodded in P'Ku's direction.
"Fine," N'Tar agreed, displeased, "I propose that we immediately alter the ship's course. All in favor," he raised his hand. "Opposed," T'Chorel and P'Ku raised their hands. "Fine," he spat the word and strod purposefully off of the bridge.
"That's why you voted in favor of P'Ku being here," F'Ve said quietly, her fingers intertwining with T'Chorel's, "You knew you'd be at odds with N'Tar."
"We almost always are at odds when I have an opinion that I feel is worth speaking. And I knew I could count on B'Luki to propose that a third member of council come along to assure that executive decision couldn't be made up here where it might never be practical to reverse them, and where she couldn't be blamed for them. So," he said louder, though his eyes remained locked on F'Ve's, "shall we go below?"
As the group headed belowdecks, the ships' age truely began to show. The artificial gravity had kept working well enough and for long enough to drain the missing water to the lower decks where it had rusted and corroded virtually every surface. They were walking by lamplight now. If any of the lights down here had survived, they had burnt out since being reactivated. Hatches that wouldn't budge and rust-weakened deck plates forced the group to backtrack several times. As they turned into the hallway that ended at the main cargo hold, R'Zuti stopped suddenly.
"What the g'te," she said quietly staring at the hatchway ahead of them.
"What is it," T'Lin asked, his eyes scanning the corridor.
"The hatch ... the bulkhead ..." she trailed off for a moment. "What could be in that hold that warrented protecting it with exterior hull plating and replacing the hatch with an airlock?" She turned to the others.
T'Chorel walked past her and examined the wall and the hatch. "You're right. Very interesting."
"Can you open it," F'Ve asked R'Zuti.
"Do we want to," P'Ku interjected, "after all they modified the ship's structure and power systems to protect whatever's in there."
"You wanted to know what was down here," snapped N'Tar, "we might as well find out."
R'Zuti attached the descrambler box to the airlock door. She made several adjustments, frowning a little more each time the indicator lights failed to turn green.
T'Lin leaned close to her, "What's wrong?"
"The lock mechanism isn't responding," she turned and examined the walls. "There it is," she said more to herself than anyone else. She walked over to the wall, pulled a tool from her belt, and with a quick twist popped a panel open. Inside was a small Zarpi keyboard. Without turning away from it, she asked, "What did you say the name of the ship was?"
"Fate," T'Chorel responded.
R'Zuti detached her pocketputer from her belt, typed 'FATE,' translated it, and then switched the display to the Zarpi character set. "Z, A, R, E, T, I, O," she said beneath her breath as she typed.
There was a low groan, as the door protested being called back to life after such a long time.
"I love it when people pick stupid passcodes," R'Zuti said smiling.
T'Lin and Nepo stepped between her, T'Chorel and the door. "We're going in first this time," T'Lin's tone made it clear that there was to be no arguement this time. He and Nepo entered the airlock while L'Todo covered the corridor. Taking up positions to either side of the inner hatch, they motioned for the others to enter. "Stay low and close to the walls."
Behind them the outer door groaned shut. There was a long uncomfortable pause as they stood in the half-light of their lanterns. The inner door started to visibly shake, the vibration running through the floorplates. The shaking and rattling intensified until the group started to exchange nervous glances. F'Ve held T'Chorel's hand tighter. There was a loud metallic snap and then the inner door groaned a response to its counterpart and noisily slid open, revealing the broken remnants of one of the six latching hooks.
T'Lin and Nepo stepped quickly into the cavernous chamber beyond, their lights and weapons sweeping in every direction. As T'Lin was signalling the others in, the lights came on throughout the chamber. More of the bulbs here had survived and fewer died after being unused for so long. The security officers swept the room with their weapons again before again signalling the others to proceed. They stepped into the chamber, dwarfed by the equipment around them. Several huge generators, giant fuel cells, rack upon rack of large emergency battery packs. But even these were overwhelmed by the scaffolding that supported and surrounded the bulk of the equipment in the room. Hundreds of cylinders lain end-to-end and stacked upon one another in massive racks that stretched to the far end of the chamber and up to the ceiling far overhead.
"There must be thousands of them," F'Ve said with undisguised wonder.
"Two thousand and forty-eight," R'Zuti supplied after a glance around and a quick mental calculation. "Correction, two thousand and forty-nine. There's an extra one over there by what I suspect is the master control for this whole chamber."
"Two thousand and forty-nine whats is the question," P'Ku asked, looking up and spinning slowly around.
"They are what I think they are, aren't they, T'Chorel," N'Tar added.
"It certainly looks that way," T'Chorel sighed. Those that hadn't already guessed looked questioningly at him. "The 'indeterminant life readings'." They began to look back at the cylinders as they came to understand. "Over two thousand suspended animation tubes."
"We should not even be having an arguement. There's only one decision. We adjust their course just enough to avoid falling into our sun and let them be on their way," N'Tar pressed his fingertips to the center of his forehead in frustration. "R'Zuti said that there was nothing, other than age, wrong with their navigation program. They are going wherever it was they wanted to go."
"How can we be so sure," countered P'Ku, "Five and a half centuries have passed. They were clearly trying to leave U.A. space, but to do what? To drift forever into the void? I can't believe that. If we just adjust their course, how long will it be before they'll enter another star system?"
"Assuming the inevitable failure of the engines doesn't alter their course, it will be 5,000 years before they even enter another Galactic," R'Zuti supplied without even looking up from the chamber's master control console.
"They won't last 5,000 years," P'Ku nearly screamed, "We'd be saving their lives merely to condemn them to a slower death."
"A death of their own choosing. If they'd intended to fall into a star they would have done so long before now," N'Tar said, matching P'Ku's volume.
"We could just ask them what they intended," T'Chorel said in a whisper that grabbed his louder colleagues' attention.
"What are you suggesting," N'Tar asked.
"The person in this tube," T'Chorel gestured to the single tube sitting next to the control console, "is likely the Captain of the ship or the leader of these people. I'm suggesting we wake-- male or female?"
"Male. He's a Piik," R'Zuti supplied.
"I'm suggesting we wake him up and ask him what their intentions were."
"Oh for gods' sake," exclaimed N'Tar.
"Do not invoke those who you claim not to believe in," P'Ku, still angry, said, then added, "And I second the motion."
N'Tar crossed his arms and glared at them.
"There's a motion before the Council, N'Tar, call for the vote," P'Ku said.
"Sorry to interrupt," R'Zuti interrupted, "but I think your motion's irrelevant."
R'Zuti just stared at the console and at her own instruments. F'Ve, standing by the suspended animation tube, broke the silence, "Because he's already waking up."
"What," P'Ku and N'Tar exclaimed, for the briefest of moments in agreement.
"Probably an automatic response to our being here," T'Chorel answered.
"I think you should all step away from the tube," T'Lin said calmly leveling his gun at the tube as the machinery within it began to hum.
"Relax, T'Lin," T'Chorel said, placing himself in the line of fire, "After five and a half centuries, he'll be lucky if he can stand, much less pose a threat to us."
"It's opening," F'Ve said, drawing all eyes back to the tube.
The top of the tube lifted up on it's hinges. As air rushed in and met the still evaporating chemical bath, a cloud of condensation surrounded the tube. The top came to rest against the floor and the front panel moved out then slid slowly down and beneath the tube. Through the mist, the body began to stir. Suddenly, he coughed violently and rolled out of the tube, landing hard, face down, on the floor.
"Vaaboo rii," he coughed again.
"What did he say," asked R'Zuti.
"Nothing polite," T'Chorel said with a laugh.
The Piik's green triangular head snapped up and his large eyes locked on T'Chorel's.
"T'Chorel," he snarled, making the name sound like an insult. He struggled to raise himself to a seated position, leaning against the tube.
"'Vaaboo rii' indeed," T'Chorel said with genuine surprise.
N'Tar sidestepped, flanking T'Chorel as close on his right as F'Ve was on his left. "T'Chorel," he said softly, "do you know this man?"
"This is Vaatuu Dool," T'Chorel answered, "the first United Allegiance Representative from Tii."
Dool switched to Allegiance Standard, "And here I thought I was done with you," he said, his voice shaking with a combination of rage and the effects of his long sleep.
"We should both have been so lucky," T'Chorel replied.
"What," N'Tar started, stopped, started again, "What the g'te is going on?"
"T'Chorel's doing what he's best at--" Dool was interrupted by a fit of coughing, "interfering," he shifted his glare back to T'Chorel. "You couldn't leave well enough alone, could you? No. You had to come chasing after me."
"Dool," T'Chorel laughed, though there was little humor in it, "for once, you're giving me too much credit. Your ship is on course to fall into our star. I just happened to be on the mission to investigate."
Dool grabbed the side of his suspended animation tube and, with great effort, hauled himself to his feet where he stood shakily. "How could you not know it was my ship?"
"Your ship has been out here for five centuries, Dool," T'Chorel said.
Dool half-fell, half-sat. "Five," he suddenly rolled to his side and vomited a greasy mix of stomach acid and suspension fluid. He lay there gasping, eyes barely open.
"Answers," N'Tar demanded, "Now."
"What do you know about the First Maag War," T'Chorel asked.
N'Tar searched his mind, "There was a dispute between the UA and the Maag Empire, over extridition, I believe. The UA launched a massive military force and the Maag folded with almost no shots fired."
"History books always make things seem so much cleaner and more romantic than they really were," T'Chorel sighed. "It wasn't a 'force,' or even a fleet. It was a mob. It was hardly massive, though at the time it did represent a significant portion of all UA ships. And it wasn't military, it was nearly all civilian. It was chaos," T'Chorel trailed off.
"No one really knows," he continued after a moment lost in thought, "exactly how many ships were involved. Some were lost to the Maag. Some were lost to pirates. Some switched their mission to exploration when the conflict ended. An accurate accounting was further complicated by people claiming to have been part of the fleet or denying their participation, in either case often contradicting what evidence there was available. As I recall, there was a list of around a dozen ships that remained unaccounted for even several years later."
"And you're saying," N'Tar concluded, "that the Zaretio was one of them."
"I can't say for sure," T'Chorel said, "but I do know that Dool was on the 'Missing-Presumed Dead' list in the aftermath.
"So what is he doing out here," F'Ve asked.
Dool sat back up with an effort and wiped his mouth on his sleeve, "Searching out the religious freedom that the United Allegiance of Planets has rendered impossible."
"And that struggle continues to this day," P'Ku added.
"Oh, shut up, you fur-faced heretic," Dool spat at him. "Don't even pollute the air with talk of your pantheon of make-believe 'gods'."
Dool and P'ku glared at each other, each knowing that the other was hopelessly wrong in thier beliefs.
"So you just blindly launched yourself into space," F'Ve asked, incredulous.
"Not blindly, you Kraavaak," Dool cursed, "I prayed for guidance and The One True Goddess spoke to me and told me the course to set."
"So your goddess wanted you to drift in a crewless ship for five centuries and then fall into a star? Obviously not a very benevolent deity," P'Ku queried.
"There's no crew because we paid those heretics very well to abandon ship and then forget all about us. We were on course, not drifting. And if this is where Her course has led us, it must be that She sees no place for true believers in this wretched existence."
"Are you trying to convince us, or yourself," T'Chorel asked.
"Vaaboo raant, T'Chorel," Dool accompanied the curse with a hand gesture that even after five centureies was still considered obscene.
"Listen," N'Tar interrupted, "since we're on the subject of the ship's course, I'll feel a lot better when we're not heading towards certain destruction. You can all continue arguing after we change course."
"No," Dool screamed. He tried to stand again and failed, "You will not change course!"
"We have to change course," N'Tar screamed back at Dool. "R'Zuti, go back to the bridge and do so right now."
"You will do no such thing," Dool's anger as much as his arms lifting him back to his feet. "This is my ship. I am in charge here. We stay on course."
"I'll be the first to admit," R'Zuti interjected, "that this ship is in better shape than it has any right to be. But enough systems have failed, or at least, failed enough, that the ship has almost certainly drifted off it's original heading."
"And if so," Dool said, "it has done so according to Her will."
F've shook her head in disbelief, "You can't really think that your goddess means for you all to die?"
"I accept that Her wisdom is infinitely greater than my own," Dool said, his voice becomeing more calm with each word.
"I cannot allow you to condemn over two thousand people to death," N'Tar said.
"The choice is not yours to make," Dool replied.
"Nor," N'Tar took a step closer to the Piik, reaching up to poke him in the chest, "is it yours. It is theirs," he gestured at the stacks of tubes around them.
"They will do as I say."
"Perhaps. But I need to hear it from them. Each and every one of them. And we'll have to change course at least long enough to wake them all up and ask them."
"We will do no such thing," Dool spat, his anger flooding back.
"I have to agree with Dool," T'Chorel said quietly.
"T'Chorel," exclaimed P'Ku, N'Tar, and F'Ve in unison.
"We can't just let them all die," F'Ve exclaimed.
"We have no, legal, choice," T'Chorel explained, stressing the word 'legal'. "We came here because the ship's course was effectively a distress call. We've investigated and the ship's captain has refused our help. Legally, there's nothing we can do."
"But...," Dool prompted.
"But nothing," T'Chorel said. "You want to die. There's nothing, legally, to be done about it."
A thought occurred to N'Tar, "The law also often requires the government to protect people from their own stupidity. I believe we have a resposibility here. I move that, due to his extraordinarily long time in suspended animation, Dool is not fit for command, at this time, and that he therefore be removed from command, and that the ship be set on a safer course, at least temporarily."
"You can't do this," Dool shreiked, glaring his hatred at T'Chorel.
"I'll second the motion," T'Chorel said.
"All in favor," N'Tar said, raising his hand. P'Ku and T'Chorel merely stood.
N'Tar looked at P'Ku, "P'Ku?"
"T'Chorel," pleaded F'Ve.
"I only see one vote in favor, N'Tar," T'Chorel said.
"Damn you," he paused, "very well. All opposed," P'Ku and T'Chorel raised their hands.
Dool turned to the control panel on his suspended animation tube and began working the controls. "Now," he said without turning back to them, "get off my ship."
"I can't believe that we're just going to fly home and let two thousand and forty-nine people die," F'Ve said to no one in particular. They had arrived back at the shuttle several moments earlier and F'Ve had sat staring out the port at the Zaretio.
"One thousand, nine hundred and fifty-eight," R'Zuti said as she stepped into the crew compartment of the shuttle. She and T'Lin had returned to the bridge to collect R'Zuti's tools before rejoining the rest of the party. "Despite all the failsafes, ninety-one of the tubes have either broken down entirely or have had malfunctions bad enough that it was likely lethal to the occupant."
"You're not helping," F'Ve responded, her eyes never leaving the ship.
"Are we ready to leave," Kareneter asked from the cockpit.
"Yes--" N'Tar started.
"Yes," T'Chorel interrupted, "but please swing us around to the starboard engines and hold position there."
"What? Do you intend to stick around to watch your old enemy die," N'Tar said bitterly.
"N'Tar," T'Chorel said as he stood up, "I fully expect you to ask for my resignation when we get home, and I fully intend to give it to you. But I have two things to do first and I want F'Ve to join me in the cockpit for the first of them.
T'Chorel walked forward into the cockpit without another word. F'Ve looked around at the others confused, then stood up and followed him.
"T'Chorel, what's going on," she asked as they settled into the jump-seats in the cockpit.
"Soon enough," he said and turned to the pilot, "Launch when ready, Kareneter."
The pilot's slender fingers moved over the control board. There was a slight jerk as the shuttle pulled away from the cargo hatch of the larger ship. Kareneter gave more power to the engines and the shuttle began a graceful arc around the Zaretio.
"How long until we're in position," T'Chorel asked.
"Right . . . about . . . now." Kareneter turned to the others with a puzzled look on his diamond-shaped face.
"You can broadcast on frequency 561.23 can't you," T'Chorel asked, though his smile said he already knew the answer.
"Of course," Kareneter replied.
"F'Ve, you're rather fond of prime numbers as I recall," T'Chorel turned to her.
"Yes," she replied, more puzzled than ever.
"Kareneter, I'd like you to broadcast the first hundred prime numbers, on a loop, on frequency 561.23, narrow beam, high power, aimed just in front of that cluster of starboard manuvering thrusters. Can you do that," T'Chorel's smile was infectious.
"Sure," Kareneter smiled back, still confused.
"What are we doing," F'Ve asked.
"T'Chorel," N'Tar called out, "what is going on up there?"
"Wait for it," T'Chorel said loud enough for N'Tar to hear but kept his eyes locked on F'Ve's face.
Suddenly the entire cluster of manuvering thrusters burst to life. At first it seemed to be having no effect. Then, slowly, the ship began to move forward, but not quite on its original course. The thrusters burned for several minutes while those aboard the shuttle looked on mutely. Then, one by one, their fuel expended, they when dark.
F'Ve turned to T'Chorel as the last thruster died, "How did you do that?
"That frequency was originally only used for certain rare automated systems. In the early days of space exploration, mysterious malfunctions plagued nearly every ship. Eventually, a very clever engineer put it all together and realized that frequency 561.23 at the right power level was causing control circuits to overheat which caused all sort of problems, including thrusters turning on by themselves," T'Chorel continued to smile at F'Ve.
"But," N'Tar's exaspertion exploded, "but-- but-- you said-- aaahh!"
"I knew that Dool would never trust me unless he thought he'd won the arguement, so I let him think that we were legally blocked from interfering. The fact that I voted to let him die just served to reassure him that I was giving him what he wanted."
"And he'll never know what you did, because it will look like a malfunction," Kareneter added.
"And he'll consider it divine intervention, in any case," P'Ku said.
"Of course they'll still all die out there in the void," F'Ve frowned.
"But not today," T'Chorel said.
"I'm sorry I doubted you, T'Chorel," F'Ve smiled.
T'Chorel leaned close and kissed her gently.
T'Chorel realease his seatbelt and turned to the passenger cabin. "Now, as my last official act as a memeber of the Council--"
"I won't be asking for you resignation," N'Tar interrupted.
"You're getting it anyhow," T'Chorel said, "But first, I'd like to place a motion before the Council. I move that everything that occurred from the time F'Ve spotted the Zaretio until the time that we touch down on K'Vinter be declared a matter of planetary security, that we all be sworn to secrecy, and that all mention of these events be stricken from the official records."
A month had passed. After much prodding, T'Chorel had agreed to delay his resignation until the next Council meeting which he had just left early despite the change in the post-meeting routine. N'Tar had looked the other way while P'Ku said a prayer to his goddess. N'Tar had even let B'Luki say the pledge to the flag of T'M. T'Chorel still didn't care. He was done with politics, at least for a little while, he said and laughed to himself.
The new bridge over the Red River had been completed and that is where F'Ve found T'Chorel staring at the star-studded night sky.
"So have you decided yet," she asked, stepping up beside him and slipping her hand in his.
"We could move in together," T'Chorel said, "but I have a counter-proposal."
"I'm still, officially, a diplomat for the UA. I spoke to Kareneter. He said he wouldn't object if I used my position to invoke the emergency reactivation clause and make him rejoin the UA Navy as my personal pilot. He'd be in the Diplomatic Corps, good pay, low risk. I thought that you and I and he could go see some of these other worlds out there. That is, if you're still curious."
"Could we stop at Sentra/3 first?"
"Sure. And one more thing . . ."
"Once we are in interstellar space, Kareneter has the authority to conduct marriage ceremonies--" T'Chorel started.
"Are you asking . . ." F'Ve interrupted.
"Yes," T'Chorel said, pulling her into his arms, "I'm asking. F'Ve, will you marry me?"
"Yes," F'Ve kissed him, "yes," she kissed him again, "yes."
This time the kiss lasted much, much longer.
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