Even though the artificial gravity was turned on in the shuttle bay, I felt as if I was floating. The small craft that nestled there was a marvel of efficiency over art. Not a square centimeter occupied its trim frame. Her name, enameled upon the hull forward of the main hatch, was CK-M945B. True, there was little euphony in the designation, but it held music for my ears.
When Parsons had informed me I was to command a small cutter for a mission heretofore to be revealed, I cajoled him for every detail—none of which was forthcoming, of course. All I could do was read up on the statistics of all the scout crafts currently in use in the Imperial Space Navy. That amounted to some sixty designs. It had seemed like a high data mountain to scale, until I realized I knew at least that many standard personal spacecraft used by my peers among the nobility. Under the Imperium’s policy, we nobles were all given generous allowances. I had bought myself an asteroid-bouncer or two with a few months’ proceeds, and modified them as far as my pocketbook would allow for efficiency as well as beauty. There were fewer upgrades or changes among the naval craft, none of them for aesthetics, which made them easier to learn.
I was delighted to see that before me stood a Nexus Mark XV. The model had been brought on line only eighteen months before, making it absolute cutting edge for the navy. The Mark XV had been made to move and maneuver with the least amount of thrust. Its blue-white hull had a vertical oval cross-section, fanning out to a wide oval on the horizontal at the stern. Its nose looked rather human, slanting down from the top more swiftly than up from the bottom, making room for sensors and a superior repulsor net array. The hull was sealed with matt enamel over fourteen centimeters thick over a core of titanium-ceramic that could repel heat weapons as well as missiles up to fifteen-hundred megatons per square centimeter, should anything penetrate its repulsor shield, an upgraded system that had received the highest safety scores. Its ultra-drive, the three emitters emerging from the stern, kicked into maximum acceleration six seconds quicker than the next speediest scout craft, giving one a head start from orbit against an enemy craft. Those seconds could save lives. In the same vein, its life-support systems were so tightly sealed that it could run on an emergency battery for eight weeks or more, a necessity I hoped fervently I would not have to test.
“She’s beautiful, Parsons,” I breathed.
“Of course, sir,” he said, calmly. “Shall we prepare to depart? The crew is waiting.”
“By Forn, yes, the crew!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t understand his lack of excitement. This was a brand new ship at the top of the line. We were going to be the first to fly her on a mission. But Parsons was inscrutable. I had never understood him, not since I was a child, but now was not the time to begin probing the depths of his mystery. Instead, I turned to my new command.
The scout held a maximum crew of fifteen, but could be run by two. I had assumed that previous evening when I left the admiral’s presence that those two would be Parsons and myself. To my delight, when I read my assignment off my personal information device, I found that I was being assigned a further crew of four, their names and designations supplied. I had read their dossiers with deep interest. Not only that, I had been given the names of the militia members I was scheduled to review. I perused those as well. A good commander, my great-uncle Perleas often remarked, knew his own soldiers as well as he knew himself. These were mine only as proxy, but I wished to represent Admiral Podesta in a manner that would make him proud—and would keep him from sending an angry note to my mother.
I was so excited about my upcoming assignment that only once did I think about the realization that I had been released from punishment detail, and that I was free to go and socialize with my rank peers. A moment’s rue for the excellent tri-tennis court, and I delved back into the various files at my disposal. It would still be there upon my return. I wanted to be absolutely prepared. Little sleep visited my cabin during the so-called dark shift.
The crewbeings assigned to this mission stood by the hatch, arms behind their backs, eyes staring out straight ahead. Two humans, a Wichu and an Uctu, all in full military dress as Parsons and I were. To my great annoyance, the white stripe had been removed from the side of all the trousers in my wardrobe and replaced it with the medium gray-blue of an ensign’s rank. The stitching was flawless, so I suspected that one of the robotailors on board had been put to work when I left the cabin for one of my allowed purposes. Still, at my side was a formal naval officer’s sword that had belonged to my father and his father before him, dating back in the family over four thousand years. To that I was most certainly entitled. I rested my palm upon the ornate gold hilt and imagined it singing the rolls of my ancestry.
“Good afternoon, crew!” I exclaimed. They erupted in crisp salutes. I returned them. “At ease.” As one, they put their hands behind them and stepped out sideways with their right feet. I walked down the row. As it was a very brief trip, I reversed and made the return journey, just so I could feel that I had really done a review. They looked just as I had seen them imaged in their files: Navigator and Helm Officer Indiri Oskelev, Wichu; Fire Control Officer Amuk Rous, Uctu, midshipman; executive officer Lieutenant Carissa Plet, and Engineer Ensign Omicron Bailly, whose wide blue eyes revealed the same unbridled enthusiasm for the ship as I felt. I suddenly experienced a wave of affection for them—my crew.
This was far too good an opportunity to miss. From my trouser pocket, I removed my finest camera, the Optique Callusion. It had been made by Harfourn, was the best optical capture device currently available anywhere in the Imperium. I felt that it was a better model than the Fren Omulsion 9.1, that came from the Trade Union and was marketed to the same upscale, discerning customers as the Callusion, but lacked a few of what I considered key features, such as individual color enhancement, and I suspected contained a bug or two which would permit images to be transmitted against the photographer’s attention straight to listening or looking devices in Trade Union satellites. As a loyal subject of the Imperium, I eschewed Trade Union goods unless there was no homegrown alternative. Besides, the Optique’s lenses were superior. Also, its storage was on a platinum-hair matrix that would be able to retain an enormous quantity videos and single images that would last the length of my mission.
I tossed the small orb into the air and ran to set myself in the middle of my crew.
“Parsons!” I cried, beckoning to him. “Parsons, come and get in the picture.”
“Thank you, my lord, but I will decline,” Parsons said austerely. “Our launch window is in sixteen minutes. There is no time for hobbies.”
“There is always time for recording an occasion,” I chided him. He stood just out of range of a 360° shot, and no doubt the clever man knew it. No matter. I flung my arms around the necks of the two nearest crewmembers. “Smile!”
The platinum orb emitted a near-blinding flash of light. The Gecko’s pupils contracted to pinpoints and he made a face, but the others managed a game smile. I signaled the camera to take a second exposure, but a dark-looming shadow with Parsons’s outline appeared before me, blocking the best of the light.
“It is time to go, sir,” he said. He turned me with a firm hand toward the hatch. However, he failed to secure my camera, which I had trained to avoid capture by anyone but me, and it trailed along after us, taking video and still pictures for my scrapbook and Infogrid file. I felt my heart swell with pride. My first assignment! What a success it would be! I would make my mother glad that she had produced such a son.
As the ensign-captain of the CK-M945B, I sat in the command couch in the center rear of the control room, but the navigation and helm duties were taken by Oskelev. She looked back over her shoulder at me. I sat back against the padding, so new it still had that fresh-from-the-factory chemical aroma, wanting to relish the moment, when a sharp “Ahem!” from Parsons stole all the wind from my sails. I swiveled my chair upright.
“Please take us out, Helm,” I instructed.
* * *
I was accustomed by then to the vast emptiness of space. The Imperium occupied thousands of stars of the Milk Galaxy, an ancient spiral with many smaller sub-spirals that had given humanity and our fellow species birth. The home planet of humanity, Earth, had been outgrown millennia ago, and its exact location lost in the annals of history as we fled outward, scarcely looking back over our shoulder. The astronomy press published vidlets and articles from time to time claiming that they had found the true Earth, but I, like most of my generation, took these claims with an ocean’s worth of salt. At first, when we discovered the first non-humanoid race, the location of our home planet was kept secret as a security measure.
Then, over time, it got lost in the shuffle. I know it sounds ridiculous to think an entire system could be mislaid like an earring, but when one considers the enormous quantity of type-E systems with a combination of rocky and gaseous planets circling a dwarf yellow star, it would take some impressive proof to combat the cynicism. Adding to the confusion, not a few hoax planets had been dummied up to look like Earth, with imported native animals and multilayered ruined buildings. A couple of them had been so impressively realistic that they had spawned Return to Earth cults.
But I digress.
Space only looked empty. Matter existed everywhere, even if in microscopic quantities, and energy, including black holes, took up more of the map than humankind had ever thought before it ventured out among the stars. Those flaming balls of gas were mere pinpoints when one left atmosphere. Some twinkled, the result of planets or other solids passing between them and the viewer, but most simply shone their cool, muted light. The rest was darkness. Quite a lot less of matter was shiny or luminescent than humans were accustomed to. It was not necessary to see out of modern spacecraft, and the sensors didn’t require light to navigate or avoid obstacles. Still, we beings with eyes like to look out of the window, so the viewers were set to collect and enhance what visible images there were. The computer navigator did most of the boring work. We went down the Sullenburger Preflight Safety Protocol, checking it against the internal alarm screen. All green. Ensign Oskelev skimmed the craft neatly out of the bay and into the enveloping darkness.
Lt. Plet nodded to me from the communications console. “Log recording began as of departure. Wedjet wishes us a good journey. Updates to be posted to the mothership every hour.”
“Thank you, XO,” I said. I promised myself I would have nothing untoward to report. My mission would be as clean and uncomplicated as Podesta expected it to be.
“I reviewed the alerts circulating about sighting of enemy craft in the area, potential star-spots, ion storms and dust clouds. Ion storm will be one and one half light years off our route but moving towards us. It may be an issue upon our return to the Wedjet. A cruiser stolen from Vijay Nine is believed to be a prank by university students on midyear break. It was reported outbound toward galactic north twenty-four days ago. As it is an armed vessel, the navy would like any sightings reported immediately. Suspected pirate craft with configurations matching these that I am loading to your personal device have been spotted in our destination area. Thirty Trade Union vessels or other suspect ships have been noted in the sector. All TU vessels have registered legal flight plans, and none are scheduled to be near us.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Plet. Well done.” I opened the file she sent me and made note of the ships being sought. I chuckled to myself over the cruiser. It was a joke worthy of me and my cousins in our school days. I wish we’d dared be as bold as to make off with a Navy ship. It would have been a great tale to tell the great-grandchildren one day. In fact, since Vijay was one of the core worlds, the pranksters might be some of my distant relatives. They would get off with a heavy fine and a scolding, so as not to embarrass the Emperor by throwing his cousins in prison. The second ship gave me pause. Pirates rarely traveled alone, preferring to overpower a victim by sheer force of numbers when it came out of ultra-drive at the edge of a system, but the occasional rogue vessel did operate from time to time. The report indicated that this was the only craft of the putative fleet that had been identified. No more had been seen. I put both indicators onto my alert file at the top of my mission chart, immediately under my primary orders. “By the way, I observe from your file that you are a shadow-handball player. Care to have a game once we’re on our way? I do realize that you outrank me militarily and invitations should technically come from you to me, but I am being bold.”
Plet took a sidelong glance at Parsons, which irritated me slightly, since I was the CO on this vessel, but I made a note to myself that his naval rank was higher than any of ours. We were an odd mix of ranks—I occupied a middle rung of the ladder—and I meant to ask Parsons why these particular officers had been assigned to me when we had a private moment later on.
“Why, thank you, Ensign-Captain Kinago,” Plet said, gravely. “I’d enjoy it.”
My happiness threatened to fountain upward, but I kept the joy within. Remaining captainlike, I turned to the rest of my crew. “The challenge is extended to the rest of you as well,” I said. “We have two days until we reach our destination. It’ll be more fun than standard PE. And I will trounce you all thoroughly.”
“You’re on!” Bailly said cheerfully. I spun to face his station, which stood almost exactly behind mine.
“I, too!” exclaimed Rous. “Such a challenge will be most enjoyable.” Oskelev only smiled and shook her head. I had known she didn’t play shadow-handball, but there would be time for board games later, amusements that I did know she enjoyed.
Taking my ease with my hands behind my head, I grinned up at Parsons, who had taken a couch adjacent to my chief engineer. I planned to enjoy every moment of my assignment. It was going to be a good time.