The last few seconds of the hyperspace jump were accompanied by an increase in the pitch of the engine noise. The higher pitched whine signalled that shut down was imminent, the jump ring was nearing its destination mooring point. Then the watery streaks of the hyperspace tunnel burst in a brief flash of colour. Interdimensional dust that had accumulated on the surface of the ship’s shields as it bore through hyperspace dissipated into nothingness, the sound of the cooling hyperspace engines doing the same, leaving behind a serenely beautiful view.
Through the Chase Elysium’s forward viewport, a small terrestrial moon with green land masses criss-crossed with azure rivers was drifting along the face of a giant gas giant with bands of green and grey clouds that swirled violently at occasional storm points. Out of view were the twin stars at the centre of the Ruuvi system, casting an icy blue-white glare across the scene.
Ruuvi IV, the gargantuan jovian planet, was both the largest planet in the system and the host of the only habitable world. Even when it was hundreds of thousands of kilometers in the distance, it occupied half of the view from the Chase Elysium’s small bridge, and only a small part of the planet’s curvature was visible. It absolutely dwarfed the small habitable moon directly between it and the starship.
The Chase Elysium’s pilot undocked the small freighter from the Hyperspace Jump Ring and engaged the ship’s own sublight engines, leaving the four-engine jump ring behind with the unmanned orbital mooring point that it was slaved to. Whilst the freighter pointed its nose towards the habitable river world, the crew bar the pilot began to prepare their cargo for landing.
“How come we’re way out here in the middle of nowhere?” Cass moaned, descending the handful of steps into the cargo bay. “I’ve never even heard of Ruuvo, or Kathy, or wherever we are.”
Following behind her, the ship’s captain said, “It’s Katherine, a moon around Ruuvi IV, in the Ruuvi system. Try to pay attention next time I give you a briefing.”
“Sure, Katherine. Still, it’s a bit out of the way, isn’t it? Taken us two days to get here from the last port. It’s going to be an absolute dive. Hope it pays good, eh?”
“Pay’s good enough.” Captain Di Resta moved past his crew member and started conducting the last-minute checks on the six large crates and their securing straps. Cass gave up moaning about the long-distance work and joined him in making sure the cargo was secure for atmospheric entry and landing procedures. Di Resta and the Elysium would not be popular if they arrived at the far-out planet with ruined goods.
Cass was right though; Katherine was a long way from the rest of civilisation. As far as Di Resta was aware there was nothing on the planet except for one small settlement, no more than a few thousand people. It was recently established, only a generation or two ago, and still not self-sufficient by any means, thus it required periodic supply shipments from freighters such as the Chase Elysium.
The journey to Ruuvi from the last port, Ken-Zara, had been just over two standard days. Commercial jump rings may not have been as rapid as military grade engines, but even so, two days between mooring points was substantial and uncommon. If there had been any other work available when Di Resta had been looking, he would have taken whatever else there was, but with no other options he settled for the minimum four-day trip to Ruuvi and back.
Satisfied the cargo was secure, Di Resta and Cass scanned through labels, manifests, and other associated documentation to ensure everything was in order. Di Resta’s data tablet made this task more taxing than it needed to be, with its cracked screen and taped up battery slot barely holding together. He was long overdue a new one, but there were so many other parts of the Chase that needed repairs or outright replacement before he could even consider a new pad. As such he had to make do with the aged, scratched, cracked, taped up device he had.
“Blasted thing, kusao’n work!” he swore at the pad and battered it a couple of times to unfreeze the screen and continued checking the manifest. Even though he had conducted the same check before they left berth several days ago, it was good practice to double check before arriving at a destination. He had spotted mistakes in manifests after repeat inspections several times before, and it was a long journey to go back and correct things from Ruuvi.
Setting the datapad in its wall slot and closing the latch, Di Resta gave a thumbs up to Cass, received one in return. Everything was by the book and ready for delivery. The pair exited the cargo bay as the ship began to rattle and buffet, suggesting it had started to penetrate Katherine’s atmosphere. They made their way up into the small bridge and took their seats, Di Resta alongside the pilot, and Cass behind and between them. They strapped in, though they were both well accustomed to traversing the inside of a ship during atmospheric re-entry by now.
“It’s a nice planet this,” the pilot, Sang’hei, commented, “it’s a bit of a trek to get here but almost seems worth it when you see that.”
The alien pilot, a rotund anthropomorphic rodent of the Cava Porcelli race, wasn’t alone in gawping at the landscape coming up towards them. Breaking through the cloud cover, the buffeting dropping to minimal now, a grand vista of small continents broken up by wide river systems revealed itself. Most of the continents had hilly or mountainous ranges upon them and were almost invariably lush with greenery. To the north was the standout feature that drew the eyes, a massive mountain with a central peak far higher than anything else in view, and gentle sloping sides down to subsidiary mountain ridges that eventually cascaded into valleys and hills broken up by river deltas. Plateaus of varied sizes pocked the mountain at various heights. After a while of flying towards the mountain, Sang’hei pointed at one particularly expansive plateau between two ridges halfway up.
“There’s our home for the night,” he said with a grin, all-black eyes wide, “I’ve stayed in worse places. Would you look at that…”
His words drifted off as he took the ship in towards the plateau, a small settlement becoming visible as they neared. It was indeed small, several hundred buildings interspersed with trees, none more than three of four levels high, none with particularly large footprints. The settlement looked neat and organised and well nestled into the plateau that was enclosed on three sides. At the far end, walled off by the rise of the mountain, two waterfalls spouted from the steep face, spilling into one pool that became a narrow river meandering through the middle of the settlement and towards another waterfall at the open end of the plateau.
Di Resta could hardly think of sufficient adjectives to describe what he was seeing. It was one of the most beautiful places he had ever come across, an unspoilt alpine paradise alone on a rich verdant world in the middle of nowhere. There could be no better place to get away from civilisation.
There was a small landing pad towards the back of the settlement along the bank of the river, large enough for maybe two ships the size of the Chase. Sang’hei took the ship in and landed to one side of the pad deftly, waiting for some gauges to blink green before he thumped the engine switch and began flipping switches on his wrap around console that he only just fit his round body within.
“Good work, Sang,” Di Resta unbuckled, stood, and nudged the Cava Porcelli on the shoulder with his fist. He waited for Cass to unbuckle and jump out of her seat, then followed her out of the small bridge, ducking under a low hanging broken bulkhead as they did so. Sang’hei would follow them out after completing full shut down of the ship. Already the corridors were hissing as the ship adjusted internal pressure to match the outside world.
By the time Di Resta and Cass had made it through the ship’s main corridor, the light above the cargo bay hatch was already green, indicating the ship’s internal pressure matched outside. Cass opened the hatch and skipped down the steps into the cargo bay, daylight already flooding into the space through the open cargo ramp on the far side. Sang’hei was always ahead of the game with landing and disembarking procedures.
Di Resta took the lead from Cass and headed out of the cargo bay, picking his datapad up as he went past, down the ramp and into the sunshine. It was not particularly warm, and the air seemed a little thin, though it was to be expected given the altitude. It was fresh though, and clean, probably the cleanest air he had ever breathed in. He took a moment at the bottom of the ramp to take in a lungful or two of the air, letting the slight breeze ruffle his jacket and short greying beard. He removed his cap and ran a hand through his hair, savouring being out of the artificial recycled atmosphere of the Elysium. He loved his ship, but it was always good to taste real air.
“Okay, I take it back,” Cass took a few steps ahead of him, clearly enjoying the fresh air as much as him, “this isn’t a dive. I almost don’t care if the pay isn’t all that.”
“Like I said, pay’s good enough. This is just a bonus.” Di Resta put his cap back on, straightened his jacket out, and returned to business. A pair of locals were crossing the landing pad from a small traffic control tower, barely justifying the term. One figure was robed, hood down over his shoulders, the other in casual overalls.
As the two men came up to the Chase, Di Resta took a few steps forward to greet them with a smile. “Captain Gatt Di Resta of the Chase Elysium. I come with some cargo for Chumon Uss-Natta.”
“That would be me,” the robed man said, his lowered hood revealing long greying brown hair tied back in a tail and a neat beard, “welcome to Katherine, Captain Di Resta. I hope your journey wasn’t too arduous?”
“It was a bit of a trek, but it was comfortable enough, thank you. Here’s your manifest,” he handed the datapad over to the man, “It’s a nice planet you have here, mister Uss-Natta…”
“Call me Chumon, please. My compatriot here is Moheya, or Mo as he prefers.” Chumon motioned with an open palm to the overall-clad man at his side. Di Resta and Moheya nodded to one another in brief greeting. Chumon handed Di Resta’s datapad to the man in overalls to inspect, then spoke again. “Moheya will assist you in unloading if you will permit it once he has checked the paperwork. Though I trust everything is in order.”
“Sure,” Di Resta shrugged, “many hands, light work, and so on. Where do you want the containers?”
Moheya glanced up from the datapad and pointed towards a wide, wheeled flatbed truck. Passing the datapad back to Di Resta he said, “I’ll go grab the truck, we can load straight onto there while Chumon sorts out your paperwork.”
“I’ll go start up the forks,” Cass headed back up the ramp and Moheya made his way across the landing pad to the truck. Alone with the bearded monk, whom Di Resta had no doubt was of the magical Katan order, he glanced around the site at the ridges jutting up towards the sky either side of the low-rise buildings, and open sky at the far end. Trees poked up into the sunlight between buildings and exotic alpine birds glided high on air currents.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” Chumon smiled warmly, moved to stand next to Di Resta as the freighter captain continued to drink in the view. Ever a man of few words, Di Resta merely nodded slowly, happy to just use his eyes. Nevertheless, Chumon said, “we established the monastery here sixty years ago by standard reckoning, and the settlement has grown around it, mostly from former monastery support staff. We’ll never be fully self-sufficient with to our low population but relying on good people like you comes with the benefit of keeping us connected the rest of civilisation ever so slightly.”
“Must be nice,” Di Resta said, his voice like gravel compared to Chumon’s rich tones, “being all but cut off from the riot of civilisation, existing in your own paradise.”
“I won’t lie, it is like a paradise here, and we have found peace. The monks came here not through choice originally, but they have made it work. We all have.”
“You are correct. We have some Ankata disciples here, but we are predominantly Katan. Thankfully, I don’t have to keep that secret these days. Not as much, at least.” Chumon smiled, but the warmth had faded somewhat as he alluded to the ‘witch trials’ of years gone by. The monks, or witches to some, of Katan and numerous other orders had been violently ostracised from many societies due to their seemingly magical links to the alternate Katagari dimension, or the Emerald Dimension by common tongue. Those days were largely over, but the damage had been done, with most of the wielders of other-worldly power having abandoned society and gone into seclusion.
They had almost become mythical, and no doubt would do eventually if the seclusion continued, and the monks were never welcomed back into society. Even Di Resta and his crew, seasoned veterans of travelling the stars, had come across very few Katan settlements, most of which were in far poorer condition than Katherine.
“Never much understood the violence against your kind.” Di Resta added, somehow feeling the need to clarify his stance on historic events. “Hell, I could do with a mystic on my boat, would make finding decent work easier I bet.”
The comment made Chumon chuckle, a broad smile on his face. “It doesn’t really work like that I’m afraid, Captain. We’re not fortune tellers; we cannot see into the future.”
“You can read minds though, right?”
“Not in the sense you’re probably thinking of. Abilities are not uniform or balanced through our population, but there are those who can sense life forces, some more attuned to sensing emotions, so to speak.”
“Very astute,” Chumon regarded Di Resta with a nod of appreciation.
“The few brain cells I have knock together from time to time. Don’t let that fool you though, beyond moving cargo from A to B, I’m not all that switched on. I just make sure I’m a little smarter than my crew, and that’ll do me.” His vague attempt at humour drew another flash of amusement on Chumon's face before a silence came between the men.
Di Resta glanced around to see where Cass and Moheya were at with their vehicles. He’d exhausted his small talk stock and was ready to get on with his work and then put his head down in the local lodge. He could hear the forklift truck droning to life inside the Chase Elysium, and to the other side of the landing strip Moheya was just starting to drive back to the ship. It was almost time to get working. Already Di Resta was thinking beyond the work, and ahead to the idea of sleeping in a bed that wasn’t a rickety freighter bunk. Even if it was only for one night, it would be wonderful.
“The lodge you and your crew have been booked into is a few streets from here.” Chumon spoke as if he had indeed read Di Resta’s mind, prompting a curious gaze from the starship captain. Ignoring it, Chumon continued, “When your work is finished, I will show you where it is. In the meantime, I…”
Chumon trailed off distractedly, his cheerful expression turning to curiosity and quickly to fear as far as Di Resta could tell. Abandoning his dialogue with Di Resta, Chumon turned sharply to look to the sky above the open side of the plateau. Di Resta followed his gaze but saw nothing in the azure sky.
Chumon gave no response immediately, closing his eyes and concentrating momentarily. After those few moments he opened his eyes and politely bowed to Di Resta and said, “Please excuse me, Captain, I will return shortly.”
The monk turned and strode rapidly towards the control tower, somehow still serene despite the urgency of his movement. Whatever had caught his attention, it didn’t seem to be good news to Di Resta. He watched Chumon depart but did not get much chance to dwell on what had happened before Cass beeped the forklift’s horn behind him, making him jump.
“The hell, Cass?” He scowled at her, having not heard her drive the wheeled truck down the ramp behind him. She couldn’t help but laugh at him, shaking her head and nodding her head towards the ship.
“Sang’hei’s gone to find the local lav, said he’s had enough of squeezing into our tiny cubicle.” They both rolled their eyes, accustomed to Sang’hei’s complaints about the size of the Chase’s restroom.
Moheya arrived with the flatbed truck and disembarked ready to help the Chase crew. Di Resta gave the man a nod then started up the ramp. He said, “We’ll start loading. How many do you reckon you can get on your wagon, Mo? Two?”
“I’ve managed to get four in before now.”
“Let’s give it a go then. Cass, get the forks under number one. Mo, give me a hand removing the straps.”
With that they made their way up the ramp, Cass driving the small truck ahead of them.