Chapter 5 – Ventrello
“I’ve learned so many things over the past year I can’t believe were possible,” I said. “So many tricks I wouldn’t have imagined.”
Linna looked off into the strangely vast horizon of sand, shrugged her shoulders and sighed.
“They’re not tricks, Grady. They’re weapons. It’s not just cool what you’re able to do, it’s really important to our mission. 303 is going to give you an assignment very, very soon.”
I know, I told her. “Then why do you seem so upset?”
She turned to me and nuzzled her head below my chin. Then she planted a soft kiss onto my lips, the fourth one we’d ever shared. “Because aside from you being gone away from me, the truth is that wherever he sends you, you’ll be in danger. Especially since it looks like he’s going to lose the election for Prime Dactilon, now there’s an urgency to getting things done faster. I don’t want to lose you. And definitely not because of operational sloppiness.”
I felt a yellow dot approaching our sand dune slowly. 303 had never been terribly pleasant but lately he gave off a very troubling aroma. He was contending with a younger, more powerful Elder for the title of Prime and his efforts were very nearly over. Whatever leverage for the revolution he’d been hoping for would almost surely not come to pass.
He walked adaggio. Meanderingly. He wore his finest parliamentary yellow. Before he’d said his first word, I knew what was coming. I always thought I’d be elated but now I was torn.
“It’s time for your first mission,” he said. He didn’t look half as downtrodden as I’d expected him to look. As a matter of fact, he looked quite chipper. I’d learned to appreciate my new home and family - they actually had emotions. I now had mushy equals in my life, who were not simply cold automatons. Over the past year, I laughed and cried far more than I ever had in all my previous years combined.
“What’s the mission?” He simply smiled in return. Linna and I looked at each other. I was getting jealous that although he seemed to be flippant, he wasn’t getting reprimanded by her. She could sense the small patch of heat on my face that was growing and so could he. It passed quickly as I saw something else that caught my attention.
In the distance, a wall of sand began to rise nearly as high as the sky itself. Volumes and volumes of particles flew into the air as I began to witness the largest sandstorm I’d ever seen. Sure, storms happened, but I didn’t know they could get that big. In one of my lyceum classes on planetary science, I’d learned that on smaller rocky planets with ample desert terrain, enormous sandstorms were very common. But because of the sheer size of Dactil, the largest a rocky planet could get without breaking apart, it was more difficult to get one going. The turbulence that drove winds in all different directions actually stifled tornado growth, rendering most of them annoying but impotent. We Dactilons were hardy enough creatures not to mind too much.
Just as quickly as the sand wall rose, it dashed back down to the ground, causing a thinner layer of powder to kick up into the sky and stay for a while.
303 smiled wider.
“You did that?” Linna and I exclaimed at the same time.
He nodded. “I got a few of the old Spoofer Revolution weapons to work. We’re almost ready to draw up war plans. I’d say we’re a good two months away. From the plans – not the war. That would take time to build.”
He took me by the crook of one arm and Linna by the other. We walked like that for several meters before he spoke again. It reminded me of being a child in Orong City and spending some leisure time with my parents. It had been a while since I’d thought of them, especially in anything resembling a positive light, but I was kidding nobody. I missed them very much.
Some of my fondest memories included being with them on the feast day of Ramstaad. Last year it passed by without them. I’d spent it with my new family, one that openly weeps, smiles, and thinks. One whose heart still burns with fire.
“I want you to go on a strictly reconnaissance mission. There are only two places on this entire planet suitable for tourism: Rangor, known for its debauchery and Ventrello in the north pole, known for its pleasant tropical weather. The people who vacation there tend to be part of the upper military and parliamentary elite of Rhea. Generals, Senators and others at that level. You are tasked with discovery of two basic things: one, whether there are imperial plans to attack any other planets in the near future. There are rumors out there that something may be imminent. And two, where exactly is Rangor’s pre-war Hall of Records?”
I stopped walking, causing the chain to break. I didn’t see the relevance that this mission had to our cause, nor was I sure how exactly 303 wanted me to get the information that he wanted. I’d learned to trust him very much; he was a man of great intellect, but I didn’t always know where he was going in his thought process.
He clicked his tongue and gave an exasperated expression that was probably universal; eyes slightly rolled, neck bent over half-shrugging shoulders.
“Read the vacationers the way I taught you. Use all the tools I’ve been instructing you this whole time in order to scan their minds without them knowing. They’ll be either poolside or beachside, with their deflection helmets completely off. If the rumors are true and they’re preparing for a military engagement, then the Imperator’s attention will be elsewhere. It will be easier for us to strike without fear of reinforcements. And as for the Hall, it’s a real place. Elders 1 to 200 know the location but none would reveal it to me. But the Lower House, 201 to 432, are in the dark about it. Unfortunately it doesn’t seem like I’ll be winning Prime Dactilon anytime soon so I won’t find out that secret. The legend says that it houses a great deal of pre-occupation technology. When the occupiers took over, they tried and failed to access the tech, so it was just left to rot. But I believe that we can find something useful there.”
I smiled. It was a good start for us. It finally felt like we were moving, rather than just waiting to move, like someone locked into a coma. 303 gave me further instructions and provided me with a modified dory and tungsten armor. I was also given several relay poles, a mind-enhancing helmet and something I wanted ever since I was a child: a hover-flash!
Linna and the gang had been putting one together for months, bringing our total to two. It was two orders of magnitude faster than a pedestrian hover-way. They both looked similar, each being a levitating platform attached to a grip, but it was far bigger with many more internal components. And it was often self contained.
It was built to withstand particularly rough patches of turbulence in our “isolated tundra” regions. The Isolated Tundra is the name for two bands of latitude, each one near to either pole. The Tundra formed a very windy corridor that lead to many storms above rocky terrain. Once one got past the line of latitude, they would reach a much calmer and more temperate pole. The North Pole had the best weather that was possible on Dactilon.
Every item I brought with me was built to be stealthy or camouflaged. Each thing was the exact hue of the sand found at the North Pole, dotted with the appropriate graininess. All electronic and protonic components had built-in dampeners that made detection or jamming nearly impossible.
I left for the north immediately, but not before sharing my fifth kiss with Linna. She was “the one” before I even considered there was anyone at all for me.
Off I went, ramming telepathic relay poles deep into the ground every two hundred miles of the journey. The relays were so I could send back encrypted mind-messages to 303 and the rest of the team regarding my progress. Arrival in Ventrello was expected within two hours and twenty-one minutes. With a hover-way, the trip would have been days. I made sure to mind my surroundings, taking routes where I saw the least “dots” on my mind-map.
I was making excellent time, weaving in and out of the best statistical routes to avoid detection. Should anybody find the relays, they might have thought them old relics of the ancient Dactilons, the same ones that wrote stories and sailed long-dry oceans. It was smooth riding until I reached the Tundra, when east-to-west winds bombarded my craft steadily at speeds in excess of a hundred miles per hour. Varying chunks of ice and rock zipped through the air and pelted the well-protected hover-flash.
After a half hour of bombardment and turbulence, I exited out into an oasis, slowing down the craft considerably so as not to arouse suspicion. I had never seen any vegetation at all in either Rangor or Orong, and only briefly learned about such things as plants in lyceum. I became giddy looking at wild grasses, open flowers and tremendous wide-leafed trees. The stems, blossoms and trunks of most of the plant life were a very deep purple. It took me some minutes to tame my awe. I pulled over to a tangle of bushes underneath a great tree. This was far enough, since I could sense I was near enough to the perimeter of the Ventrello resort. Guards were posted half a kilometer ahead of me in all directions and I could not risk being seen. There was no patrol in the vicinity, leading me to believe that the overall security profile of the resort was relatively low. It made sense that this would be the case, since the tundra was so difficult to cross and precisely zero non-Elder Dactilons possessed hover-flashes.
Still, one false move on my part could derail the entire mission. I took out my equipment, namely the mind-enhancing helmet. It was about the size of my fist and colored a pale white. I put it on the head of a medium-sized white kalachi lizard that I’d also brought with me. I had forged a connection with the animal before leaving the cave. Now I could use that connection to remotely control its movements and see what it sees, as if it were a drone. The helmet would amplify my ability and extend my reach to where I needed.
I placed the animal on the ground and sent it towards the perimeter of the resort. The walls were about sixty feet high but lacked any other deterrent such as barbed or electrified wire. 303 told me that he’d been to Ventrello once before, as a squire to the current Prime Elder many years ago. The kalachi ran on four long legs splayed out under its body and scuttled unnoticed past a seated guard reading something on a tablet. With its sticky feet it climbed up the sheer surface of the wall and over it.
The kalachi settled in the shade of some decorative blue leaves. It stopped, being a perfect nearly equal distance from all the vacationers. Its eyes, ears, and brain were mine. I took an inventory of how many Rheans there were on premises by assessing how many red dots I could perceive. In all there were about 220, including the ones still in their rooms. Sixty gray dots were also present, waiting on the red dots hand and foot as servants.
Now came the difficult part: extending my consciousness throughout the resort to poll each one’s database of knowledge. I had to do it subtly, so as not to raise an alarm. It would have been difficult to pore through all that information in a short time to find the exact answers I was looking for. So I sought out easier information to obtain, namely rank and title of each person. As I began to poll the Rheans’ minds, I found several young captains sleeping off a night of wine and debauchery, several currently engaged in mating, others drinking and a few playing a version of checkers with their friends. Most of the red dots however, were poolside.
This was where my mind was drawn, because I could sense that the greatest concentration of Rhean insider information and power just happened to be taking in the rays of Hano and Rano. If anyone within the walls of this place had the sort of facts I was after, it was one of the twenty-three people in or near the grand overlapping circle shaped pool. I needed to concentrate my efforts and find the highest ranking of the bunch.
After several minutes I narrowed it down to two people, both on opposite sides of the water. The first was the Rhean governor of Dactil, named Diman Rovis. He was splayed out on a reclining deck chair, lying on a towel, and he was naked. As a matter of fact, everyone present was completely nude. This lack of shame brought to bear upon me the stark differences between our species: where we have dignity, they have none. I should not have been surprised. Yes I was being judgmental but I didn’t mind being just as bad as they were in that respect.
The other knowledgeable Rhean was a nude woman named Gola, Chief of Staff of the Imperatrix herself. She would certainly know whether the empire had any war plans ahead. It had been a very long time since they occupied any new planet, which made me think they were probably due. However, I wondered at the fact that a person so deep in the know, who would have a direct part in the planning was instead tanning herself in the buff on a remote oasis. In a backwater place like this, no less.
I could not probe deeper into nested layers of their minds for fear that the pair, particularly Gola, would be able to feel my intrusion. The higher a person is on the military hierarchy, the better trained they’d be and the likelier that they would notice something amiss. I selected a weak minded person to approach Gola, and separate one to approach Diman. One thing I was able to gather simply by sniffing, was that both masters of fate were vain. So I would play up to their vanity.
“Hello,” the sunset-haired female said, pulling up a recliner next to Gola. “I was watching you from across the pool. My husband is upstairs taking a nap. He’s a Commander in the Imperatrix’s space fleet, Captain Riso. Do you know him?”
Gola looked the woman up and down and then one side of her face twinged slightly upward.
“Know him? I’ve banged his brains out many, many times. What can I do for you? Bear in mind I’m interested, you are very cute, but I’m not in the mood right now. I will have to get your identification code later, but at the moment I just want to relax.”
Captain Riso’s wife leaned in closer and put her hand on Gola’s arm. “I bet it’s stressful doing what you do, what with all the war planning.”
Gola turned and gave a quizzical look to her newfound admirer. “What do you know about what’s coming?”
The woman shrugged over-dramatically. “Not much at all. I’m just guessing because he’s been working so much with you. Don’t get me wrong, I ask him what’s up. I’m very curious by nature. But he never tells me, says it’s a secret and that I shouldn’t be asking questions anyway.”
The Chief of Staff lit a warm smile. “He’s a good soldier.” She ruminated on her own statement a bit, squinting her eyes. Then she looked around her for interlopers. There was only one, a white kalachi lizard in the thick blue leaves far to her right.
“Well, you know we’re starting to run thin on supplies, burning through resources like crazy. You would not believe how much waste our society produces on a daily basis. We have our sights set on Lila, a great little planet a few galaxies away, still in the Virgo cluster. We’re going to attack right after these disgusting trolls have their feast of Ram, Raam…Ramstaad, I think that’s what it’s called - which requires us doubling our security forces on-planet.”
“Wow,” the woman answered. “That’s coming up pretty soon! I’m curious though, why Lila of all places?
“They have water, lumber, minerals, rare elements, anything you can think of. Name it, they got it. If it’s ours then we control the supply chain. So we can keep consuming. Better, bigger, stronger. Isn’t that the name of the game? Partying til we want to stop. Or til we drop dead. Mm. I think I’m in the mood now. War talk gets me hot. Come on, let’s go upstairs and find the good Captain.”
I disengaged from the Captain’s wife and she didn’t seem to be surprised at the interaction. She thought she was controlling her own actions, as they were not out of the ordinary. The two of them got up, interlocked fingers and walked on ahead together, heading to a wide atrium filled with elevators. In their wake, an elderly Dactilon cleaned up the recliners and table they left behind and picked up the females’ towels. To serve such high ranking persons was not a privilege, nor was it a curse. This particular staffer was ambivalent about it. Serving as a custodial assistant to the who’s-who of Rhea, to quote an expression from my people, “is a living.”
I switched over to the male that I’d sent to Governor Rovis. Rovis was not a sexual person, and from the little I was able to smell off of him, it felt to me that he was a progressive administrator. He was young and held certain ideals, but he was wholly unaware of the wrongness of the occupation, which did not surprise me. He considered himself a just man, and in comparison to the other occupiers of the office of Governor, that might have been true.
A thought seeped into my mind even though I tried to keep it at bay. Why couldn’t I just take the hover-flash’s battery and build a makeshift proton bomb? It would destroy all of Ventrello, including all of the high ranking officials of the Rhean empire. I could telepathically communicate with all the natives beforehand and arrange for their safe passage right before the event. And yet, it would be a tremendously irresponsible act, not to mention cowardly. Any benefit would be temporary and last only until reinforcements rain down full throated murder on every single native community on this planet. If any of us were to survive at all, the Rheans wouldn’t let their guard down for another thousand years.
“Governor Rovis,” the man said, sitting down next to him.
“Yes, hello. You are… General Moira’s husband, correct?” They shook by the forearm.
“Yes, Sir. I wanted to tell you how much I admire your administration of the Dactilon province. You are perhaps the best governor that these people have ever had. I’m sure they appreciate it as well.”
Rovis nodded and took off his short red cape. He had on his casual military outfit, which consisted of leather chain mail, a codpiece and boots. He then excused himself to jump into the water. He swam through all the petals of the flower that the pool was shaped in. The governor seemed to be on a mission to take the short swim. He came back out and dried himself with a towel, then returned to his recliner.
“Sorry about that, I just needed to go a few laps. Yes, what you said about the natives is probably true. They’re mindless drones, except for the Elders who are pretty interesting. But in my opinion they deserve the dignity we attribute to any other brute or beast. They have a level of intelligence that is...appreciable. It’s not bad. I have two dogs at home, I pamper them to death. Just like the dogs, the natives get fed, clothed, taken care of. And who really knows how they feel? They don’t say anything. But I assume they enjoy the vast freedom we allow them.”
Rovis clapped the palm of his hand to his right ear, then his left.
Moira’s husband picked up the conversation where they’d left off. Rovis was a vain person, so the flattery was made to continue.
“I know, I agree with you. But I’m just so fascinated by the whole planet, to be honest. I like these creatures; I think there’s a depth to them we don’t usually notice. And I often wonder about their past, their culture, what it might have been like. Do you know?”
The governor shook his head and put his pinky finger into his ear.
“No, no I don’t. There’s not a lot of history still standing. I know that there’s some kind of record storage facility underneath the Rangor Stadium somewhere, but it’s completely abandoned. That’s probably the only place on-planet with any information about the cretins. The cret-- Hold on. Something’s wrong.”
“Go behind me and get me my helmet. I’m not sure but I think we’re being spied on. I can feel a weird tingle in my brain and a hum in my ears.”
Rovis was very in tune with his mind. I had to think fast to avoid raising suspicion. Unfortunately what I came up with was a sacrifice I had to be willing to make. I made the kalachi dig as quickly and deeply as possible, and then bury the telepathy-enhancing helmet under the blue kale in which it was hiding. Then I made the animal jump out, snarling out through its sharp fangs and drooling near the water. Its forked tongue began licking its own face, giving off a very frightening appearance. It was very toothy. I had it charge quickly towards the good governor.
Then I took control of a Dactilon servant’s mind, who stepped in front of Rovis and raised his hand up high, while touching his temple with the other hand. After this motion, the kalachi ran back over the wall and out into the wilderness, deftly avoiding several shots fired by guard’s dories. Without anything to amplify my mind’s reach, I had to concentrate even harder. I wanted to make sure Rovis’ suspicions were gone.
“I don’t, I don’t hear that hum any longer and I don’t feel that tingle. Hm, must have been the lizard.” He looked at General Moira’s husband, who looked back but not before leading the governor’s gaze to the Dactilon who had jumped in between them and the snarling lizard. The servant went back to sweeping the floor as if it didn’t even happen.
“That cretin saved us,” Moira’s husband said. Rovis neither agreed nor disagreed, but suddenly found himself no longer in the mood for the pool. He got up and walked back to his room on the ground floor.