With the capture of the Calixes system one enemy Capitol system remained. The planet Durga in the Fritaris system. It was not going to be an easy target. The Fritaris system was up a blind alley of the web-way system. Before you got to that star system you had to go through an absurdly tough strong point. It was a water planet, with a massive floating fortress on the surface which was able to launch plasma blasts all the way to the web-way terminus point just above the surface of the planet. We were going to need a really clever plan to deal with this particular nut. Until then there were plenty of enemy targets to chew up. And something still had to be done to redress the enemies overwhelming advantage in ground combat.
Before all that was going to happen I found myself waiting impatiently for the next convoy coming from Earth. James Harding was coming to visit and I couldn’t wait to find out what was so important for him to come all the way out here to talk to me in person.
Harding came on the a new German cruiser. The Rhineland, a very impressive looking ship that looked like the German designers had been given a simple task in putting it together.
“See this Orion class cruiser the ECF has? Make us a better one!”
In a bit of aerobatic showing off the Rhineland came down on top of the marble castle. Lowering a stairway that allowed Harding to walk right down onto the ramparts of the castle. As it quietly floated away I observed to him.
“Yep, all the latest technology that the planet Earth can muster. I am a national hero in Germany once again after showing their engineers how to create new fusion reactors. They have eight more of those beauties and five new battleships under construction. The whole planet is humming away.”
As we walked to my office we talked.
“So, you are mr popular in Germany now? I imagine that you wouldn’t have come all the way out here if you didn’t have something important to tell me. But first, how is my company?”
“Seems to be doing well. I have been mostly working with Drakous, the Singers and the Germans though. Drakous set up a faculty separate from the IEC headquarters to continue his work on the mind.”
“Linda set him up somewhere near mount Shasta in Northern California.”
“Yeesh, that’s pretty separate.”
“Yeah, he insisted that he had to get away from the rest of the company. He had to create an environment where he could quote. Allow people to work out their issues without distraction, unquote.”
As I settled into my chair at my desk I tented my fingers and observed.
“Hmm, I can see why he would insist on that. That stuff he is fucking around with doesn’t have the most predictable side effects. Still, did he have to go all the way to California? There isn’t enough wilderness in Montana for his purposes?”
“What can I say, he wanted to go there. He is still working for the IEC though. On that subject I would like to present you with his and my latest research.”
He opened up his briefcase. Inside were a variety of documents that looked like they were written in Yonth in Harding’s handwriting.
“When Ryan was told the tale of the rise of the Yonth civilization it appears that he was fed a line of bullshit. For one thing this river he was told about that fostered the rise of their civilization? The River of Complexity? It probably didn’t exist. Or if it did it was probably nothing more than a strategically important waterway. It was a ruse by the Venusian Core to distract us from the true source of the Yonth’s technical prowess. We have spent the past 20 years poking around in the Venusian Archive so focused on their technology that we haven’t spent any time looking at who the Yonth were as people. As soon as I did that I found some very curious things.”
He took out a drawing of a beautifully complex flower surrounded by Yonth script.
“I believe this flower was what caused them to go from knuckle dragging half Neanderthals who barely had the ability to create a boat to a spacefaring civilization in a thousand years.”
Naturally I asked. “Okay, so what’s so special about this plant? Does it make you smarter?”
“Well, sort of. I believe that it was a powerful neurostimulant and a strong hallucinogenic. When the Yonth found this plant and began consuming it they became smarter. However the evidence I have collected from the Venusian Archive suggests that they ate too much and Wiped out the species not long after discovery. By that time the Yonth had advanced roughly to the point of an early Industrial Age. Their technology wasn’t the same but loosely equivalent to 1760s Britan. When they ran out of this plant they went on a furious search all over the globe for a replacement. They were unable to find a true substitute, but they did find this.”
He placed another, similarly drawn image on the desk of a rather familiar creature.
“Martian toad?” I asked.
“No, not Martian. This is the Sonoran Desert Toad, Bufo Alvarius. I had a DNA analysis done on the Martian Toad and the Sonoran Desert Toad. Their genomes are very similar, however it appears that Martian Toads were genetically engineered to not only survive, but thrive on Mars. And produce roughly 22% more venom than their Sonoran cousins. I don’t think 5meo has the same neuostimulant qualities as the extinct plant, but, well. You have seen firsthand what kind of a punch it packs. The histories I have found along with the fact of bioengineering and transplantation of the toad suggests that the Yonth highly valued it.”
“With the 5meoDMT molecule and a few other mind altering substances I have yet to identify just yet, the Yonth were able to progress the rest of the way to being a spacefaring civilization. They probably synthesized the 5meo molecule like we have. It seems that they took considerable pains to create a plentiful natural sources of it on Mars. And I think they would have done the same on Venus and any other planets they would have colonized if they hadn’t been wiped out.”
“So what does this mean for us in the here and now?”
“It means that through a series of unlikely coincidences our company has unleashed similar circumstances to what created the first human spacefaring civilization. 5meo use is spreading across Earth and Mars like wildfire. So is the use of other hallucinogens, synthesized chemicals. Mushrooms, weird combinations of plants. There is all manner of odd substances pouring out of every research lab, chemist, anthropological research project and drug dealer on Earth and Eutopos. There is some kind of chemical that a lunatic in south Germany synthesized from ergot or some other kind of wheat fungi that he has used to brainwash people into a cult!”
“Drakous’s experiments have already had consequences, serious ones. I think that in time the consequences will spread out into the wider galaxy in ways impossible to quantify. The irony here is that Drakous’s assessment, that the Martian militaries experimentation with this stuff would have laid the basis for the extinction of their state appears to be accurate. Governments all over Earth are losing power at an even faster rate than they were before the war started. The Eutopian’s must be doing backflips over this. All their work and struggle to free the minds of their Earthling cousins and all they had to do was start selling us industrial quantities of 5meo and related chemicals.”
“Interesting, very interesting. At least this means that we aren’t going to run out of Angel Suit operators.”
“I wouldn’t be so glib about this Katy. Cultures all over Earth and Mars had laws and taboos regulating the use of hallucinogens for millennia. I think the reason for this is partly because of shared cultural memories of the Yonth energy disaster and the fall of their civilization. I have even found genetic evidence of the Yonth disaster. It seems the human race went through a genetic bottleneck some thousands of years ago. I want to make this point as clear as possible. I think the willy nilly use of these substances is incredibly dangerous! On both a personal and grander scale. The Yonth fucking around with their minds, then the very fabric of space time is what has us in this colossal mess in the first place!”
“I understand your point, but without their ‘messing around’ who knows where we would be as a civilization? Heck we might have wound up doing the exact same thing, just over a longer timeline. These are just tools Jonathan, what matters is the person using them. Besides we have their example to work from. I don’t know of anyone who has any plans to muck about with the fabric of the spacetime continuum and I seriously doubt that such a project could be kept hidden.”
He nodded and put away the drawings. While reaching for something else in his briefcase.
“You have a point, still we have to neutralize the lingering effects of the Yonth’s experiments before we do anything else. To that end…”
He had another case with him. It was the size of a small cookie tin. Inside was a rock, looked like it was made of alabaster. About the size of a grapefruit, shaped like an egg with a flat bottom. James put the rock on a pedestal that looked a little like a radio. James fiddled with a couple of knobs and the rock started to glow.
It felt like I had just been hit between the eyes with a padded shovel. I flew ass over teacups backward out of my chair. The world exploded into an infinity of fractals. I was on the floor, singing. James was above me, I couldn’t hear what he was saying over the resonance of what was all around me. So I read his lips, he was asking if I was okay.
“Yeah, I’m okay, what the heck is that thing?”
As he spoke I could hear him better and better as the world slowly went back to normal.
“This is a little something that Drakous, the Singers and I came up with to counteract the toxic web-way energy. It’s an attenuated subatomic energy neutralizer. It should counteract the toxicity in this area of space. What did it do to you?”
I coughed, and grabbed for a wastebasket that I purged into. Once I ran out of stomach contents I replied. “It looks like the device is effective. These are the same symptoms I had when I came back to Earth following my first tour of duty. So what the effective range of this wonderful thing?”
“Range is about a kilometer on full power, it is only at ten percent at the moment.”
“I’m impressed, this is going to solve a lot of problems.”
“All the ships of the German fleet will be equipped with these within a few weeks. With your permission I would like to issue these to every IEC, AF and USAAC ship. This is only a stopgap measure though. We need to eliminate the energy at its source. Once we do that we will be able to do the real work.”
“The real work?”
“Of spreading civilization among the stars instead of chaos.”
“Sounds good, so, do you have a plan to deal with the source?”
“It is my great pleasure to say, yes, I do. I have spent the past year going over intelligence from enemy sources. I believe that when the web-way was established there were two roots. One root was on Earth, obviously. The other root was in a solar system with an unusual star that provided the power to punch through the higher dimensions that contain the web-way. The Venusian Archive only has limited information on the web-way project. I think the planners believed that it was beyond the scope of what was needed for the terraforming project.”
“However, since the web-way project was the most important project taken on by the Yonth before their extinction there was some information there. From what I have been able to find it seems that the web-way experimenters made a serious mistake. They underestimated the power of what they were tapping into and as a result they were dispersed all across a variety of terminus points, near inhabitable planets across the web-way system that they had partly assembled. But they had not completed the web-way as we know it today. That was done later by survivors of the disaster working from the other root of this network.”
“I don’t know where this other root is. However I do know that wherever it is would require a solar system with at least one habitable planet and vast infrastructure. I think it would also have to orbit a star with some unique or at the very least. Some rather odd features that generated energies that could be put to use by the survivors of the disaster. In order to find this place I am going to need something that has been forgotten by all but a handful of very old, high ranking officers and government officials in the empire that you have kidnapped over the past few months. A map.”
My ears perked up, now we were starting to speak a language I recognized. I asked.
“Okay, so you need this map to take us to the source of this toxic phenomena. Do you know where to find this map?”
“The map is located on a planet called Orizocio. About 220 light years from here. It is being kept in a, well a museum for a lack of a better word. Really it is more of a repository of various bits of knowledge that have been deemed important to the Empire. This map was last used to get a rough idea of Earths location after the Venusian beacon was activated.”
“How do you know it is still there?”
“According to interrogations of captured political and military leaders this device is considered too valuable and dangerous to move. It provides information to termini beyond the local web way network. The leadership of the empire considered it too dangerous to expand beyond the local network until recently. This map could allow a rebellious ship captain to fly beyond the reach of his command structure. Or lead to other civilizations that might be too much for the empire to deal with. Like the Horde, or us for that matter.”
“Okay, so you want to pull a heist? Sounds like fun! Let’s get in the Montana, blow in, shoot some guards and be back here in time for…”
“Up, bup bup. Not so fast. Orizocio is a hard point, an industrial planet. It would require more than the Montana to pull of stealing the map.”
“Very well, tell me what you need.”
“I need at least one battleship to provide cover against enemy Capitol ships. Along with some other ships to deal with any atmospheric fighters or helicopters that the empire will have there. Beyond that, well, there is no easy way to say this, but I need this guy.”
He reached into his briefcase again and pulled out a wanted poster. There was an unmistakable face on it. John Dillinger, probably the last famous American bank robber.
Dillinger had been part of a gang of bandits that purchased Eutopian weapons shortly after their arrival on Earth. Dillinger’s crew had robbed a series of banks and parlayed that fortune into enough money to buy a ticket off of Earth for him and his gang. In time he became one of the first space pirates from Earth. Before the deep space rebellion, he had been suspected in the disappearance of four ships.
After the battle of Enceladus he had vanished into the ether. With the chaos brought on by the opening of space and people using Eutopian style financial protocol, traditional banks had faded from significance. This had many positive effects. Two of which were destroying the power of the money masters who had defined so much of Earths history. Along with making bank robbery mostly pointless. Because criminals simply cannot be allowed to run around wreaking havoc, even if their primary source of income is obsolete. Eight Eutopian insurance companies and several Earth governments had chipped in for a bounty on his head equivalent to a half a million dollars.
I picked up the wanted poster and observed, “my, don’t we have a flair for the dramatic. Couldn’t have just given me his picture. No you have to hand me his wanted poster. Do you even know where he is?”
“He is among the commanders of the auxiliary war fleet. He has changed his name and appearance several times. But I am certain that he is going by the pseudonym James Lawrence, captain of the corvette Wanderer.”
“Okay, see if you can cut him a deal. Though I want to make it clear that this guy is not to be trusted.”
Harding stood up and loudly asked no one in particular.
“Does anyone here trust anyone in the Auxiliary Fleet? Anyone, anyone at all?”
An attack plan was drawn up and I summoned every ship that could be spared for an immediate voyage to the planet Orizocio. All I had at hand was half the auxiliary fleet, Mitchell’s cruisers, and the Turkish “warship” Sword of the Prophet. I decided that Mitchell’s force would provide a diversion. Launching an orbital bombardment on the main industrial center of the planet. The museum where the map was being held was twenty thousand miles away from that location. The Turks were spoiling for a fight, and something like this seemed like a good way for them to earn their spurs. Mitchell was always up for a battle. So as we barreled headlong into battle I had some minor details to iron out. Specifically Dillinger and the Auxiliary Fleet.
Over a year of dealing with the AF had taught me one thing about them. I didn’t like dealing with the AF. They invariably had someone capable of some diplomacy at the head of the table. But those who made up the fleet remained the nastiest bunch of fuck ups, thugs, want wits, maniacs, zoot suitors and crooks imaginable. I had put a bit of effort into establishing a separate supply system for IEC interests and warships. The Eutopian’s had their cargo fleets under the corporate banners of Eutopos Heavy Lift and Skipjack Unlimited. But the rest of the combatants relied heavily on AF cargo hauling. As a result the AF expanded their operations. Recruiting more and more non-pirates. Building their own ships. Each more heavily armed and refined then the last. They were getting to the point that they were a force to be reckoned with. Still no match for a battleship but they had proven to have the ability to take down imperial light cruisers with swarm attacks. However impressive and brave these attacks were, their behavior on planetary raids was widely considered to be a black mark on the allied fleet.
Admiral Haddad had died in battle a few months ago. Since then the AF had a parade of increasingly villainous figures as fleet admiral. Most of these lunatics had been arrested for atrocities, embezzlement and so on. Their current commander was a mysterious figure. Sasha Rockwell. An anomaly among a fleet of abnormal ships and people. Most people supposed that this was an attempt by the AF to soften their image a bit. She was the only female fleet commander in the fleet besides me. All that could be said outside of rumor about her was that she had been in charge of the AF for two whole weeks. Her personal history was very vague. Her biographical information, gleaned from various rumors suggested that she was from an otherwise unremarkable family from Washington State. In battle she had proven to be an excellent tactical thinker and leader. I had never even met the woman, though we had communicated via radio once. She had avoided fleet conferences with remarkable skill. But there was no way that she was going to avoid this meeting.
I nearly did though. There was an electrical fire in the life support systems right as the various parties were boarding the Montana for the pre battle briefing. I had to deal with that before anything else. Kind of hard to plan a battle when you can’t breathe after all.
After getting that under control I ran up to the conference room. Still stinking from fumes and fear sweat. As I walked into the room I was met by captain Ali of the Sultans navy. He was a surprisingly young, handsome fellow for an officer in the Turkish military. He greeted me in a very casual manner with a handshake. I appreciated the informality. I couldn’t help but feel that this was an attempt to score a few brownie points by acting as American as he could.
I sat down and started apologizing for my absence. As I started explaining the fire I looked across the table and saw two unfamiliar faces. One was the handsome visage of the elusive John Dillinger. Well, kind of, the guy had a fondness for plastic surgery so I wasn’t completely sure it was him at first. Sitting next to him was a being that took my breath away.
Sasha Rockwell was not what I was expecting. I was under the impression she was much older than she was. Her hair was fiery red, a bit shorter than I would have liked. Her skin was quite pale, which was not unusual for AF crews who had spent years inside ships, habitats and space stations. Her uniform however was an immaculate white tunic with a few ribbons and a subdued rank insignia. Usually when you saw uniforms in the pirate fleet they were a melee of clashing colors, oversized made up medals and cruddy stitching. Her eyes radiated confidence with a slight hint of arrogance. What I could see of her body looked flawless. No scars, no moles, and very muscular. A body maintained in an excellent state of fitness against the hazards of space. This was clearly not the usual Viking/Pirate/Space-barbarian that you usually saw in the Auxiliary Fleet.
I stammered a bit as I realized that I was directing all of my available brainpower to sizing up this strange figure. So I shut up and invited Harding to begin his presentation.
As he spoke I did not pay attention. I gave the allusion of paying attention. I really couldn’t help myself. I spent most of that meeting examining ms Rockwell. When the briefing drew to an end Dillinger asked. “Okay, so you need me to pull a heist. I can help you with that but I need to know what’s in it for me and my crew.”
I snapped out of my trance and stated. “Uh, well, I can’t promise much. But I can, ugh, lobby the U.S. government to have your record expunged and do the same with the Eutopians. That will wrap up your obligation of service in the AF and you and your crew will be free men ahead of schedule.”
He snorted, “well, that’s reassuring that your asking some favors on my behalf is regarded with such disgust.”
I locked eyes with him. I felt a snarl curl across my lips to punctuate my point.
“It is more about the lobbying than you. I hate talking to government officials. Kissing up to them, making it sound like they are wise and just. Not the den of vipers that they are.”
“Okay, I can dig that, what else.”
“You also get to keep everything else you and your crew can carry out of the museum.”
“How do you know there is anything else of value there?”
“It’s a stash of ancient treasures and technologies. There is bound to be something there you will like.”
“Mm, I still don’t know…”
Suddenly Rockwell spoke. In a harsh, slightly high pitched voice she growled. “Enough, John, will you do your fucking job or do I have to have you and your little pack of thugs kicked out of the fleet!?”
Dillinger harrumphed and nodded. So Harding asked if there were any further details. Captain Ali asked to clarify a couple of minor points. After the meeting broke up and everyone else went back to their respective ships except Commodore Rockwell. She was waiting for me outside the meeting room. She grabbed me for a moment and quietly whispered in my ear.
“I can’t help but get the feeling that you want to talk some more. I don’t have to be back to my ship for a few more hours, if you don’t have any more fires to put out.”
I stammered a bit, this woman was getting in my head. But I had to know more about her. “I can talk, shall we go to my stateroom Admiral Rockwell.”
“It’s commodore, Commodore Rockwell. The AF doesn’t use the title admiral anymore after that maniac Mătăsăreanu got arrested for embezzlement and war crimes. The “real” navy commands of most countries frown on us using the title of admiral. As long as we are using formal titles, Admiral Hammond.”
That was the first time someone had called me admiral and I didn’t want to slap them.
I sat in my big comfy leather chair while she locked the door. I nervously fiddled with the hammer of my revolver. She was moving in an odd way, downright seductively. She sat down on my bed and stated.
“Well, I know who you are. The daughter of two of the saviors of Earths sovereignty. But you don’t know anything about me. So ask away.”
“First of all, Boudicca is not my mother. Her name was Diane, she died during the Martian invasion.”
“Oh dear, sorry, I misremembered.”
“Just cut the crap ‘commodore.’ What are you really up to? I know you don’t want to talk about yourself or you would have given interviews to journalists. Parlaying your doubtless tragic backstory to gain more donations for your ragtag fleets desperate battle against marauding rapacious aliens.”
“You do get right to it, I like that. Alright, my motives are simple. I am the commander of a force of ruthless thugs who congealed together into an effective fighting force more by dumb luck than anything else. As a result of dumb luck, odd circumstances and some skill I found myself in charge of this group. I don’t want to be in charge of them forever. I want to do better things. I don’t want to spend the rest of what will probably be a very short life as a commander of a fleet manned by crews who are fleeing everything from murder convictions to child support payments! I think that having a friendly relationship with the CEO of the IEC might be a means to that end.”
I was pondering what the word relationship meant in this context when she drove in the point. “I believed that this was going to go very well since said CEO couldn’t take her eyes off of me during a two hour long meeting.”
She laughed, a very charming, flirtatious laugh. I was completely off balance. All I could stammer out was. “Are you trying to, to, I can’t even say the word!”
“What, seduce you? I am on your bed.”
A hundred thoughts stampeded through my head. The biggest one being that I was thinking utterly wrong thoughts. Never mind that she was a woman, never mind that I had only met her a couple hours ago. She was a freaking pirate! A self proclaimed commodore of a fleet of ruthless maniacs!
I was outraged, but my curiosity was still piqued. So I tried to change the subject. “So, how did you become the commodore? Were you voted in or did you beat the tar out of your predecessor?”
Her expression changed to that of acknowledgment. Acknowledgment that she was going to get no further with the tactic of being the charming seductress. So she told me her backstory.
“I was born in Seattle. Not long before the invasion. My fathers name was Richard Rockwell. My mothers name was Maggie. I was the fifth of five children. My father was not a good man. He was very mean to my older siblings but he doted on me. My brothers and sisters hated this and he grew more and more distant from them and my mother until one day he asked me if I wanted to go with him into space. I was a naive girl of 12 so I agreed.”
“After the Martian invasion my father was obsessed with studying alien technologies. When Eutopian traders came to Seattle he hunted her down and begged them to teach him everything they could. Ultimately he took a merchant up on an offer to travel to Eutopos and I went with him. I don’t know what happened to my mother and the rest of my family.”
“Dad and I wandered the Eutopian realm for the next eight years. He had a romantic relationship with one of the Eutopian traders I mentioned. In time he was able to buy a ship and all three of us were going to join a colonization attempt on a moon of Saturn. The colony was a disaster. He died along with over a hundred humans that had signed on for that insane project. After that the Eutopians pulled out and I drifted into the employ of captain Rusk. One of the first space pirates from Earth.”
“You probably think Rusk was a thug. He could be violent. Sometimes vicious. But he had a good heart. He was a better father than the one I was born with that’s for sure. He was much better at living within the requirements of his environment. An environment that demands death for what would be minor mistakes on Earth. He supported the miners rebelling against the outrageous conditions in the asteroid mines and fought in six major battles. Despite all that and all his planning he got killed when a micro-meteor blew his head off during a spacewalk a month before the Jamaican portal opened. He left his ship, the El Dorado, to me.”
“I also inherited his reputation for fair dealing. That, paired with my skill in combat has allowed me to become commodore. But as you know it is a precarious position. One screw up and someone else gets the job. Like I said, I don’t want to be a pirate! You can’t imagine how hard it is. How unstable it is. It is not a long term job for anyone. So, like I said. I really need a new job!”
She looked sincere, more sincere than I thought a pirate could be. I replied, “okay, I will see what you can do in this next battle. After that, who knows. I have a fleet of shiny new ships being built back home and I might be able to get you a post on one of them.”
She stood up and stated very formally, “thank you for your time, all I want is a fair chance.”
Before she unlocked the door she reached into her pants pocket and pulled out what looked like a business card. But it was golden, with black lettering. “If you ever want to talk, there is my phone number, email, social media accounts and my ships designated radio frequency. One of those should work.”
“Social media eh?”
“Well, the AF doesn’t have the best reputation at the moment. We have been doing our best to clean up our image. Not all that easy a task.”
I was impressed by this absurdly shiny “card” I fished through my desk to find one of my business cards. Hadn’t handed one out in months and the information was a bit outdated. As she walked away I turned off a recording device and looked at a transcript of the conversation. I had enough for a private investigator to do a little checking. If she thought that I was going to accept that story without any verification she had another thing coming. This was a moment for quiet reflection and careful research. The next time we met I would have to take the initiative. If only for the sake of my self respect.
But why was it that I couldn’t stop trembling?