Chapter 09:The Mystery Ship
Galactic Year 12821, Planet Camelopardali
The Master Pilot
When Athos arrived at the spacefield, it was Minor Noon and Major Dawn. The dimmer of the two suns in the sky of Camelopardalis had reached zenith, and the brighter one was just above the horizon. The spacefield was small as spacefields go. It was a platform ten acres in extent, perched on the crown of four super-skyscrapers, held half a mile high, which was high enough to stay above the eternal dust-storms of the soot-coated and waterless planet Camelopardalis.
Hangars, cargo sheds, machine shops and other clung to three sides of the airy platform. The space traffic control tower, bristling with comm antennae, and crowned with an immense sensor-array dish, occupied the remaining side.
Athos walked past the empty security checkpoint. Where the holding cells, gunner's tower, and whipping post of the customs office once stood were now a row of snack shops and peddler's stalls selling souvenirs. A pedestal once holding a statue of the Emperor now held a statue of Athos' father.
The metal image of Raphean Lone, head high, had one foot on a toppled tyrant, whose royal crown and scourge and chains were broken and scattered on the pedestal beneath him. The motionless ripples of an oversized Jolly Roger flag flowed from the banner in one hand. In the other, he flourished his famous lance pistol, as if urging an unseen privateer crew forth into combat.
Athos scowled at the sculpted metal image of the long-barreled weapon. Its mate was holstered. The details were hauntingly accurate. These was the selfsame pistols Athos had just lost: The matched pair of lance pistols, his own, and his brother's.
At the foot of the statue, peering up quizzically, was a shaggy, tawny-furred bipedal creature taller than a grizzly bear, wearing a leather smock and a tool harness laden with gear. Fangs like those of a saber-toothed tiger jutted down from an apelike muzzle. Slung over one shoulder was tractor-presser grappling bazooka which doubled as a rocket launcher. Normally, this was a tripod-mounted weapon, but the hairy monster merely toted it like a rifle.
Athos was a tall man, but his head barely reached the yard-wide shoulders of the alien. "Ko-Manu," he said. "Thanks for coming."
The great, hairy form turned. A pair of half-moon spectacles, connected to an upper pocket button by a silk thread, were perched on his flat nose. He tilted back his head to squint down through them. "Young master Athos, sir! I was just noting the poor workmanship of the monument here. I am sure your father never wore that expression. Except when he stepped barefoot on a hot brass cartridge. And it does not smell like young master Raphean at all."
Athos always felt that he was once again a small child whenever he was around Ko-Manu. And when Athos was small, he had been a little mouthy. "Poor workmanship…? And what do they have on your planet? Cave paintings?"
For Ko-Manu was from Polaris, a Neolithic-level world locked in an Ice Age. The globe was remote, rarely visited, never fully explored. Few people even knew it existed.
"Hrrr? Last time I was back home," mused Ko-Manu, removing his eyeglasses and wiping them delicately in his massive, brutal paws with a slip of tissue, "the paints were mixed to preserve the scent of the prey animal depicted, to help the young ones recognize silhouettes." He replaced his eyeglasses into a case, which he stowed in one of his countless belt pouches. "They may have progressed to newer art forms since. I have not been back in two hundred years."
The Polarians were longer lived than humans, which was why the father of Athos was still "the young master" to Ko-Manu.
"Ready to depart, then, are we?" said the titanic beast-faced creature, baring his great fangs in an alarming smile. "Let me get that for you!" And he hoisted the entire mass of luggage Athos had been hauling on an antigrav trolley up over one massive shoulder, and slung he oversized bundle across his huge hairy brown back.
"Thank you, Ko-Manu," said Athos, perhaps a little stiffly. "But I can manage to handle my own gear."
"Nonsense, young master! How would you know where in the ship to stow everything properly? I have my own system. Up we go! Whee!" And before Athos could protest, he was plucked up physically, and also slung across the huge shoulders, one leg on either side of the muscular neck.
Athos, clutching the monster's ears for balance, said with frigid dignity, "Ko-Manu, please set me down. I can walk to the ship myself."
"Nonsense, young master!" the great beast made a noise halfway between a guffaw and a roar. "How would you know where I want you to strap in? I have my own system."
"I have flown starships before, you know." Athos said crossly as the hairy giant started loping across the metal deckplates of the landing field toward the hangars. The footfalls boomed.
"Hrr? Of course you have, young master!" said Ko-Manu soothingly, "But I have built, repaired, improved, test-piloted and also flown starships before, including in pitched battles and dogfights before you were born. Besides, young master Napoleon told me particularly that you were not to be allowed to scratch the paint!"
That vain, strutting popinjay! Athos grimaced. Aloud, he said, "Nap will never make any use of this ship. Who cares if he is my elder? I should have inherited the Sly Fox!"
"Legally speaking, since your father, young master Raphean, is still alive, no one is heir of anything, yet. We are stewards of finer things whose true value we know not, all of us! In any case, young master Napoleon sends his compliments and requests you ansible him once we are spacebourn." Ansible was a slang term for faster than light radio.
"He is in the Core Stars. We would need to fly to the transmission hub planet Celbalrai to find a beam powerful enough to reach so far…"
"Hrr! Fortunately, I have a gimcrack I cobbled together in my spare time aboard the Sly Fox which can do the trick. It is an inter-subspatial form of anisotropic bi-nonlocational entanglement transmitter with greater simultaneity than a normal set. I call it an interociter. It runs off a normal trans-atomic pile, and I can use the deflector array as an antennae. Amazing how far a hyperspatial tube can reach, if you only make it one electron in diameter!"
"But you can put me down! I just got promoted! What if someone sees me? I look like some toddler being given a piggyback ride at the pony fair!"
"O young master! But think of how much worse it is for me! Here I am carrying a high born and well-bred scion of a noble family on my back like a lowly beast of burden! The shame will break my heart!"
Athos sensed that somehow the great furry manservant once again was having the better of him. So, in resignation, he folded his arms atop the furry crown of Ko-Manu's head and rested his cheek on his elbow. "I don't think you take us humans very seriously." He muttered.
"Hrr…?! Should I?"
The Phantom Corvette
The Sly Fox was a corvette, a hundred feet from stem to stern, winged for atmospheric movement, streamlined and aerodynamic. There were no flat hull surfaces or sharp edges to reflect a sharp sensor ray signal. The ship sported a long, thin tail assembly trailing aft, housing half a dozen sternchaser weapon nacelles. Two narrow windows for the pilot and copilot were below the twin triangles of the antenna array, looking like squinting eyes beneath perked-up ears. This gave the sharp-nosed prow a distinctly fox-faced silhouette.
Coating the hull was a layer of tiny crystalline chameleon scales. These gave the hull an odd shimmer under the bright glowtubes dangling from the stark metal rafters of the hangar. Faint afterimages of rainbows slid along the ship's curved wings and elongated tail assembly in a way that was confusing to the eye. Even with the chameleon field turned off, it was dizzying to stare at the ship for too long.
Athos said, "Are you sure this is not black tech? It looks like Deathtrooper armor."
"Oh, I am sure this comes from some older source than that, young sir," answered Ko-Manu. "The Ancients had many secrets. Not all of them are forbidden. Only most."
An extendible gangplank led to a belly hatch. Ko-Manu ducked his head to avoid braining Athos against the ventral hull, and hoisted him lightly up to deposit the young man directly into the central companionway.
Fore was the cockpit. Hatches port and starboard, ventral and dorsal, opened up into the various cabins, observation blisters, storage compartments. Aft was the powerhouse and engine room. Underfoot was a hatch leading not into gun turrets or missile chambers, but into a large avionics chamber, where the mysterious chameleon field generator hummed and throbbed. Overhead, opposite the avionics chamber, was the radio shack. Artificial gravity allowed anyone to walk up or down or sideways into chambers set at right angles to the ship's axis without any ladders or gangways.
A warship this size normally was crewed by a compliment of twenty. Bunks and workstations and gunnery platforms and the associate life support had all been torn out to make room for much smaller automated systems.
The volume thus freed up was filled with spy rays and sensor antennae, electronic countermeasures, jamming devices, and other implements of espionage and deception, as well as extra fuel cells, secondary thrusters and overthrusters, emergency accelerators and compensators, for rapid escapes should the deception gear prove less deceptive than needed.
Ultra-sophisticated avionics were packed tightly along the bulkheads, plugged into dozens of computer boxes. All showed signs of where Ko-Manu had dismantled and redesigned and rebuilt them.
He sighed. "Father could make a fortune if he turned this over to the Patrol, to build a whole flotilla of mystery ships!"
"A splendid idea, young sir! Do you know how the chameleon field works?"
"It bends light around the ship."
"Um. It uses an artificial gravity polarization … something about event horizons … photonic energy … and then it puts the ship's mass into a warp volume …. it is like a negative volume … something to do with imaginary numbers … and then … ahem … " Athos, seeing the fang-filled grin of Ko-Many, sighed in frustration. "It has something to do with hyperspace effects."
"Everything aboard a starship has something to do with hyperspace effects, young master. Except the searchlights. They work by electromagnetism."
"No, I don't know how the chameleon field works," Athos said crossly, "But you do!"
"Hrrr! I am flattered, sir. I know how it works, but not what it is. So are many things in life."
"Love! Marriage! No one understands the mating game, but everyone seems to find a mate!" He favored Athos with a condescending, sidelong look, "Almost everyone …"
There was something about this shaggy, monstrous, long-fanged inventor Athos found exasperating. "I do not need your services as a matchmaker, Ko-Manu."
"Hrrr? You hide your success beneath the appearance of abject failure most convincingly, sir."
"I have my own system." He entered the cockpit, and halted, staring. "You've removed the pilot's seat. Where do I sit?"
"This ship was built for Vulpino. The pilot's seat was too small for me. After I dropped you off at your suicide mission on Zavijava, I had the free time to rip out and rework the seats. Matter is not the best structural material! Now either seat is made of a cushion of invisible forcefields emitted from a Morris frame that unfolds from the deck, which you turn on like so. Use this control to make adjustments for your neck and back. In case the collision alarm goes off, this circuit will fold and reinforce the forcefield around you, so that, instead of dying from impact, you will smother. But your body will be nicely preserved for an open casket burial."
"Sometimes, I do not understand your sense of humor at all, Ko-Manu."
"I have my own system."
The Black Sheep of the Family
Galactic Year 12821, Mia Sector
An acre in the center of the field was paved with antigravity plates running at partial power. This created a vertical tube of wind blowing forever upward as the heavier air surrounding rushed in to replace the half-weightless air directly above the spacefield. Any ship entering the tube of partial gravity need only expend minimal power to achieve orbit.
The Sly Fox taxied on ground-effect levitators into the wind-gust, and was carried upward. As the air grew thin, Ko-Manu eased on the maneuvering thrusters.
A geyser of air was continually pouring into the vacuum of low orbit, and condensing to fall back into the stratosphere. The Sly Fox emerged with this fountain, but did not fall back.
Ko-Manu switched from thrusters to tachyon drive, and was carried at lightspeed away from the tawny globe and up out of the gravity well of the inner system. An hour and a quarter later, the sun of Camelopardalis had shrunk from a disk a coin held at arm's length would not cover, to one a pinhead would. The innermost of the ringed gas giants of the outer system was behind them.
Ko-Manu activated the hyperdrive, formed a tube reaching to a point beyond the heliopause and departed the frame of reference of the continuum. The starlight impinging on the ship blurred into what seemed a hollow column of shimmering frost down whose axis the small, swift ship darted.
Hours passes as Athos stared into the ever-shifting, mesmeric play of light.
The ship emerged back into realspace. As the hyperspace tube collapsed, the blurred streaks that seemed to be rushing past the observation ports of the vessel Doppler-shifted and shrank back into the hard, sharp points of starlight.
The galaxy, from this region of space, was a dim and narrow band of glowing milk-white, running from one side of the dark heavens to the other. The stars surrounding this band were scattered, few and rare. Each was faint as a firefly lost in a black and endless sea. The core itself was hidden behind black clouds of interstellar gas. Athos had been born in the core, and he never got used to the desolation of the skies here in the frontiers.
The ship was in deep space, far from the radio noise or gravity well of any sun.
Athos drifted into the radio shack, put his feet against the ventral bulkhead and switched on the lights and the gravity. Ko-Manu had torn out and reinstalled the gravity plate to make room for his new gizmo, so the plate was affixed to the deck at a right angle to where it had been, changing the local "down" direction in the cabin by some ninety degrees. Athos had a surprised look on his face when the deck rose up and struck it. He climbed to his feet, rubbing his nose, muttering a salty curse or two.
The throbbing of the ship's dynamo changed pitch, and lights dimmed throughout the ship, as massive power surged to the deflector fields, jury rigged to act as an antenna dish half a lightyear wide. A short while later, Ko-Manu, from the engineering room below decks, called up that the link was ready.
Athos switched off the lights and switched on the holo. This banished the view of the deck and bulkheads around him, and summoned a three-dimensional image, ghostly and flickering, of his older brother Napoleon Lone.
Napoleon was lounging with his legs on his deck, crossed at the ankles. The soles of his boots were near the pick-up, filled the view, and hid his face. Napoleon had also thoughtlessly left the size adjustment on the default setting, so he seemed a giant. His desk looked as large as a vacant lot in some abandoned city, with empty whisky bottles tall as lampposts and scattered playing cards wide as crashed airsleds.
Athos looked over his shoulder. In the holo view, behind him, big as a watertower, was the formal black top-hat Napoleon had resting, brim up, on the corner of his desk. He had been flicking playing cards into it.
There was no sign of anything actually related to work, like a dictation screen or a document, anywhere on the desk.
Napoleon tilted his feet apart, and peered at Athos through the V-shaped angle between his boot-toes. He was taller and thinner than his brother, pleasanter of face and form, and by habit wore a more mild expression. At the moment, he was dressed in a coat of formal cut, with a lacy cravat at his throat.
"You have a new scar," Naps observed.
Athos fingered the red line marring his jaw. "A present from a pirate chief named Liska. You have a new cravat."
The puff of lace adorning Napoleon's neck was a rosebud of intricate loops. Naps carefully smoothed down a stray ribbon. "The latest style here in the capital! So glad those stiff and spartan uniforms of the Empire are gone! So drab! By the stars, it took my valet an hour to tie all the knots just so, and daub it with the right cologne. How I suffer for my work!"
"Is there anything you actually do, brother?"
"I go to meetings. I cast votes. I sign documents."
"Just last week, there was a senatorial resolution expressing support for an interagency consensus to have a meeting to discuss decreasing the number of meetings so we can have fewer resolutions to vote on. My staff tells me this document was enormous! A man could strain his eyes reading all those long sentences and legal phrases! I am lucky I have a good staff to do all that reading, and a good party boss to tell me how to vote. It simplifies the whole senatorial process. More time freed up for the truly backbreaking labor: being seen at parties, galas, fetes, and receptions …" Naps fanned himself with the semicircle of playing cards in his hand. "So exhausting!"
Athos wondered darkly why, out of everyone in a galaxy of a trillion stars, Napoleon was the only person who could make someone nostalgic for the way the Empire ran the government. He said wearily, "Brother, is there anything you do that a robot could not do?"
"Hmm … Now that is an interesting thought. What has Ko-Manu been saying?"
Athos was surprised by this odd turn of talk. "Ko-Manu? Saying about what?"
At that moment, Ko-Manu thrust his hairy head and shaggy shoulders halfway through the deck-hatch, which, thanks to the orientation of the artificial gravity, made it look like he was sticking his head out from a hole in the wall. He gave a friendly tiger-roar of greeting to the oversized image of Napoleon. Ko-Manu's wide grin displayed an impressive line of dagger-sharp tusks and fangs. "ROWR! Young master! You look so crisp and clear!"
Naps toyed with his cravat. "Why, thank you! I do try."
"The interociter is working perfectly," said Ko-Manu. "But I don't like the ratio of the energy curve. I am getting an exponential dissipation of signal."
"We all get dissipated, at times," said Naps, hiding a yawn. "Don't sweat it. Or, if you do, don't let them see you."
Ko-Manu gave Naps an absent-minded nod, and ducked his head away, muttering something about interference in the signal source. Athos heard him moving back down toward engineering.
Athos said impatiently. "You asked me to call you. May I ask why?"
"After Ko-Manu returned without you, leaving you on the heaven-forsaken planet Zippy-Jippy or whatever it is called in the Northeast-of-Nowhere Sector of the galaxy, I just wanted to see your frowny face and make sure you were alive."
"Planet Zavijava. Tarandus Sector. Southern Quadrant. I'm alive. Ko-Manu returned without me at my orders, since I had duties to carry out, and you said you needed the Sly Fox back. Why in the stars father gave you the galaxy's fastest, sneakiest, stealthiest spy-vessel, I will never know. Why do you need her?"
"Oh …" Napoleon made a vague gesture in the air with his handful of cards, rolling his eyes toward the ceiling. "This and that, you know. This and that."
"Sneaking away from the Senate House so that you can go flirt with some highborn floosy, or go risk the family patrimony gaming on some casino moon? I am not sure I approve of this, and I surely don't approve of that."
Abruptly, Napoleon threw his whole handful of cards at his top hat, which knocked it from the desk. Playing cards whirled like autumn leaves. "Casinos only gamble with money! You are gambling your life! Your lucky streak cannot last forever! You won't always have a lovely guardian angel with a longbow to watch over you. So be careful, little brother…" his voice grew soft and earnest. "Be careful."
And, with that, the boot toe of Napoleon loomed large and wide, and tapped the pick up to turn it off. The holographic image vanished.
But just before the picture of Napoleon's desk blinked away, Athos saw something on the desk. It had been lit up, and so when the dark hat fell aside, it had flashed in the eyes of Athos, and lingered as an afterimage.
On the desk, no longer behind the hat, was a holo cube.
Ozymandias was in the center of the cube, wearing his midshipman's uniform, which had been brand new half a decade ago when this image was taken. A young-looking Napoleon was to his left, bored, waving his fingers in a goofy salute. To the right was a younger-looking Athos, stern and stiff as he always looked when posing for a picture.
Seated in a formal dress of silk was his older sister Mirdath, looking serene and stately. She had swan-white wings folded over her bare shoulders. Her wing tips covered her ankles. Her hair was piled atop her head and pinned in place with combs. Her tawny tresses caught the light and shined more fair and bright than gold.
Next to her was his younger sister Mevrian in her schoolgirl uniform, her eyes twinkling gaily. She was not old enough, at that time, to wear her hair up. A bow seeming as large as a boxkite was behind her head, holding her hair in a shining black plait falling down her back.
Above and behind them, occupying the rear of the cube, was Ko-Manu like a hairy cloud, fanged face grinning.
The faces of his family, living and dead, hovered in Athos' view for a moment in the darkened cabin.
Athos asked himself why his brother, who never seemed sentimental, or even very fond of the family, kept that old picture in such a prominent place on his desk.
A moment later he asked himself a more startling question. What had that remark about a guardian angel meant? How had Napoleon known about the Temple Maiden?
A moment after that, he asked himself a more startling question yet. The holo call was over. The switch on his control board was in the off position. But the circuit was still humming. There was still power in the communicator. He switched the power on again and off again. The unit did not react to the control. What was going on?
He heard a soft voice suddenly speak in his ear.
A small dot swam before his eyes, a swelled in size, into the faint and flickering image of an ancient but noble countenance of a white-furred lion-man. The fangs, though yellow with age, were fierce as daggers. The wide jowls and dark-rimmed eyes were netted with wrinkles and warts of old age. From beneath the shadows of an unruly, snow-bright mane of hair, two eyes, hard and yellow as gold pennies, shined in the shadows, catching his eyes in a gaze that did not blink.
Athos stared in shock.
It was his great-grandfather, Artaxes the Ar-Arislan, Patriarch of Clan Arislan.