Chapter 1: The Ambassador
I paused before the cabin door; expected, but still hesitant to enter. The ambassador made me uncomfortable. I knew she didn’t intend to, but there was no denying it. There was also no avoiding it, so I straightened my uniform and knocked. There was no answer, but the lock clicked and the door slid open. A palpable wave of humidity wrapped itself around me. In a few short minutes, my hair would droop and my uniform become unstarched. I sighed and entered.
The stateroom was different from the usual VIP quarters. There was no bed. In fact, there was little furniture except for a couch, a table and a couple of chairs, including a hoverchair for her ladyship’s mobility. What the chamber did have that most do not was a heated pool.
The ambassador was at the bottom of that pool, reading. She surfaced, laid the tablet at the edge and smiled up at me. I expected her to be naked, but her unclothed body still gave me a bit of a start. The Syrenka have always had difficulty understanding Terran mores about covering up. It didn’t help that she was beautiful, by both Terran and Syrenkan standards. Her light blonde, silky hair was long and straight; her large eyes a bright lavender-blue; her heart-shaped face a natural home for her smile. From her hips upwards, she was delightfully feminine. From there downwards, thoroughly aquatic, as it was with all native to her world. In place of legs, she had a tail that was covered with bright golden scales and tapered to a delicate-seeming, swallow-tail shaped caudal fin. She also had translucent pelvic fins that helped her to steer under water. Finally, hidden between her ribs were gill-slits which allowed her to remain immersed indefinitely.
“Good morning Lieutenant!” she said warmly. She pronounced my rank with an ‘f’ in the Terran Old World fashion.
“Good morning Madame Ambassador,” I replied, trying not to betray any distraction. “The captain bids me tell you that we will be coming out of warp at 0900.”
“Drat! I suppose that means I must get out of my pool and into that thing again.” She waved dismissively at the hoverchair.
“I’m afraid so. But only for a few minutes.”
“True, but there are things I must do afterwards that will keep me out in the dry air. “ She pulled herself up from the water and sat on the edge of the pool. “Would you mind?” She stretched her arms toward me. I picked her up (she was quite light) and placed her gently in the chair. Though mammalian and warm-blooded, her skin was cool to the touch. “Thank you, Lieutenant. I can handle myself from here; but do stick around, please.”
“As you wish, Madame.”
“And stop being so formal, call me Ari. I’ll call you…” She looked up at me.
“Morgan!” She giggled and flicked droplets of water from her tail fin. “Sounds positively piratical!”
“It’s Welsh.” I couldn’t help but smile, just like when I first heard her speak.
“Wales, I was there once – my father had business there. A green and hilly place. I like hills. One would think that I’d hate them, but I don’t. Would you like for me to call you Rhod or Dri? “
I hadn’t really given it any thought. “Whatever you wish, Madame Ari.”
“Just Ari is fine. I think I prefer Dri. Are you sure that’s alright with you?”
“Just fine, Ma…Ari.”
I locked her chair into a bulkhead bracket and then took hold of a strap for myself. The exit from warp-space was uneventful and probably served to confirm her skepticism about the necessity of leaving her pool. She quietly read through the whole process, which took about five minutes.
“Would you like to go back into the water?” The chair bounced slightly as I released it from the bulkhead.
“No time,” she sighed wistfully. “I need to see the captain and read my final instructions.”
I was about to knock on the door to the Captain’s quarters when Ari raised her hand. “Just a moment,” she whispered. She shifted in her chair and adjusted her modest top. “How do I look?” She asked as casually as one would a brother or husband. The familiarity complemented and appalled me at the same time. We had only met the day before.
“You look devastating.”
“Ooo, that’s different, I think I like it!”
As junior lieutenant on the bridge of the Agamemnon, it was customary that I be in charge of seeing to the comfort of V.I.P.s aboard ship. This usually required knowing something about them. I already knew that the Syrenka were not the product of evolution, but gene manipulation of humans two and a half millennia ago, before such things were forbidden. Also, I found that their world, also named Syrenka, is an ocean that covers ninety-eight percent of the planet’s surface. The other two percent is made of fragmented and sterile rock islands. The climate of both water and air is mild, which is probably why the ancients chose not to bypass it. Instead, they made it into a prison, a sort of Botany Bay or Siberia, where political prisoners were altered in form and left in exile. When the old Technic civilization collapsed, the former prison thrived and built its own society. When the new Terran Empire rediscovered the Syrenca, they rejoined the human race.
Before our first meeting, I was warned that Ambassador Ariadne of Clan Spindrift was beyond charming and that I should stay as aloof as courtesy would allow. I was also warned that she had a reputation. In truth, she had several: sly courtier, hard bargaining diplomat and notorious heart-breaker. Her wake was dotted with disappointed suitors (men and women). It was even rumored that the emperor himself sought to bed her, much to the chagrin of Her Majesty. Despite the warning and the rumors, I found myself immediately attracted to her; so quickly in fact that I was left wondering about the truth of the old legends about sirens.
At our first meeting; during the formal dinner held in her honor in the Wardroom, I was very awkward. She laughed at me; however, there was something in her look that told me that no malice was intended. Now here I was with a pet name, giving opinions on her appearance. The Old Man won’t be pleased, if he notices. An officer in His Majesty’s Navy should have more reserve.
Captain Matthew Winslow, commander of the heavy cruiser IMS Agamemnon looked the part: tall, distinguished and with just enough gray hair and scarring to prove he wasn’t a desk officer or Court favorite. His quarters were quite plain, Spartan even, with the same ordinary, blue-gray, Navy-issue furniture that could also be found in the lowest rating’s living space. He acknowledged my salute and then kissed the proffered hand of the Ambassador.
“Thank you, Lieutenant. You are dismissed.”
“Aye, sir.” I bowed and started to make my exit.
“Wait Captain, I would like for Dri to remain.”
I felt the blood rise to my face. Oh God, here it comes!
The captain looked confused, “Dri?”
“The lieutenant here, I’m taking him with me.”
The Old Man chuckled and shook his head. “Ari, you magnificent, scaly-assed bitch! What are you up to this time?”
His language startled me.
Her laugh was like tinkling glass. “Why nothing, Matthew, I just want to borrow him for a few days.”
“I remember what happened last time you ‘borrowed’ one of my watch officers.”
“Now, now, it wasn’t bad for his career…or yours.”
“It damn near killed him.” He looked directly at me. “Keep that in mind, Mister Morgan, before you volunteer.”
“What do you say, Dri?” She smiled slyly.
“I’m here to serve His Majesty.”
“Of course,” said Captain Winslow.
“But I would like to know what’s going on.”
“So would we all. Ari?”
“I know a little, the rest depends on my orders.”
“Indeed.” The Captain sat at his desk and placed his palm on the door of the small safe imbedded in the bulkhead behind it. With a click, it opened. He then took out a brown envelope and handed it to the Ambassador. She opened it, scanned the contents, and then set them down. She looked up, her face grim.
“This is nastier than I thought. How long will it take us to get to Rii?”
“Rii? Hmm…not long,” said the Captain. “A short hop, and then four hours from the jump point to orbit. About six hours altogether.”
Ari nodded, “That will do nicely. I’ll finish reading this,” she tapped the dispatch, “and get back with you in about two hours, if that’s alright.”
Winslow smiled. “No problem.”
“Dri,” she turned to me. “Pack your dress formals and a discrete side-arm. We’re going to a party.”
I was back in Captain Winslow’s office in almost exactly two hours. Ari was already there.
The Old Man looked up. “Please pull up a seat, Lieutenant.”
Ari smiled at me, and then returned to what she was doing. “We will require an escort; a squad of Marines should suffice. They must be in full kit,” she said.
“Full kit? You mean power armor and heavy weapons? ” said Winslow.
“Yes, I want them clanking, Matthew. An ounce of prevention…”
I nodded to myself. Intimidation is the oldest form of diplomacy.
“What do you think, Mister Morgan?”
“The Rii have little modern technology. The sight of Imperial troopers in power armor and heavy auto-weapons may cow them,” I said.
“The Rii don’t cow easily,” said Ari, “but it could give them pause.”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what is our mission here?” I decided to just go ahead and come out with it, rather than have the information slowly dripped to me.
Ari giggled, “I thought you’d never ask.” Then she turned serious, “We received an urgent message from a free trader who lives among the Rii, by the name of Justin Chang. He’s of the opinion that something unpleasant is being cooked up here between certain Rii and one of the more powerful of the Pirate Kings.”
“Good,” said Winslow. “It’s nice to know one of my officers actually pays attention at briefings.”
Edgar Van Zant, A.K.A. Edgar the First, is the only law on twelve systems. Blood-thirsty, ambitious and restless are only three of a large number of adjectives that would fit this unusual character.
“So Van Zant wants Rii,” I stated. “Why? It’s a dust ball. There’s barely enough water for humans to live there. The Rii themselves are scarcely beyond the Iron Age.”
Ari smiled. “There’s an old saying that applies to strategic studies as well as real estate: ‘Value comes of three things, location, location, location.’” She turned to the Captain, “Show him the chart, Matthew. The one with the warp-jump routes.”
A hologram appeared over the desk where they sat. Red lines connected the star-systems, Rii flashed blue.
“Rii represents a bottle-neck,” said Winslow, “leading to these five systems here. All the routes to and from them run within a parsec of Rii.” He made a circling motion with his finger. “A handful of heavies based out of here would cut all those systems off from us. Van Zant would increase his empire by fifty per cent with hardly a shot fired. Taking these worlds back could mean years, cost dozens of ships and millions of lives.”
I leaned back and shook my head. “That’s assuming we’d even bother. The Senate could decide that the Empire doesn’t need these five systems. We’re trying to govern more than ten thousand worlds after all.”
“And thus five more worlds slip into the darkness,” said Ari. “The Pirates, especially Van Zant himself, will be emboldened to reach for more, until war becomes the only choice and more millions or even billions pay the price.”
“You understand what’s at stake here, Mister Morgan?” said Winslow, grimly.
I sighed, “Absolutely.”
I was on the observation deck of the shuttle bay, supervising the loading of supplies and luggage into our shuttle. Captain Winslow stepped onto the deck, acknowledged my salute and leaned over the railing to look at the shuttle on the flight deck below. He motioned me over to him.
“You may have noticed, she’s taken quite a fancy to you,” he said in a low voice. “That’s not so common an occurrence as her reputation would suggest.”
I nodded, “What should I do, Sir?”
“Do?” He straightened while looking across the bay at nothing in particular. “It’s too late to worry now. The ball’s in your hands.” He grinned and slapped my shoulder. “Run with it, my boy. Run with it. Do what she tells you and stay alive. It’s bound to be good for your career.”
Later, on the flight deck of the shuttle bay, I was making a final inspection of our marine escort. Sergeant Windridge was running a diagnostic of each trooper’s armor. Specifically, he was testing the camouflage. Chameleon-like, each suit blended into the walls and deck of the bay.
“Alright! Switch ‘em off!” barked the sergeant. Almost instantly the armor changed to polished purple with the golden Imperial monogram on each man’s chest.
“Very pretty!” I turned to see Ari approaching in her chair. She wore a long white dress, cut very modestly, but with a red sash cinched in just the right place to accentuate her curves.
“But very deadly, Ma’am,” said Windridge.
“That’s exactly what I want, Sergeant,” she replied.
Each of the ten-man squad, including Windridge, was equipped with one of these powered suits, capable of resisting anything but a direct, point-blank hit from a high-velocity bullet. Eight men carried automatic rifles; one had a heavier version of that rifle, the last a rocket-grenade launcher.
The shuttle pilot appeared briefly at the loading hatch, nodded to me and then saluted. A few moments later, the shuttle’s fusion turbines began to rev.
“Get the men aboard, Sergeant!” I shouted above the mounting noise. “It’s time to go!”
I accompanied Ari up the ramp after the marines, and then closed the hatch.
“All my things are on board?” she asked as she buckled herself in.
“Saw to it myself Ma’am,” I replied.
“Great! Then let’s be off!”