Chapter 17: Rendezvous on Samarkand
The remainder of the Jump was less eventful. Justin continued to mend. Jen was up and about before she really ought to have been, bringing the child to sickbay to show her off to her mother’s mentor. “Her name is Princess Mara Elizabeth of Compass Rose.” The Elizabeth was to honor Justin’s late mother. Compass Rose followed the Rii custom of adding place-of-birth to a royal female’s name. The Marines fought boredom with military discipline and video games. Ari and I tried to enjoy as much domestic bliss as we reasonably could, for we knew it would be a long time before we’d enjoy peace together again.
“I delivered a baby! I must admit, I’m rather impressed with myself.” It was the last night of the jump. We were in the captain’s cabin. Ari sat with her tail curled around the foot of the bed, brushing her hair. I was simply enjoying watching her and listening to her talk. “I think it’s quite an accomplishment, next to actually having one of my own, that is.”
“Do you think you’d like that, having one of your own, after what you’ve just seen?”
She stopped brushing and looked thoughtful. “Yes, I do believe I would, someday.” She resumed working on her hair. “I’ll insist on being in water the whole time, though. I’ve seen enough to know that gravity is a pregnant woman’s worst enemy. I must be free of gravity first! I don’t want to even imagine dragging my pregnant body around on land. It would look…well…disgusting.” She made a face.
“I don’t think you could look disgusting if you tried.” I smiled, but the conversation was starting to make me feel sad. Could I stand being separated from her for so long? But how could I ask her to be so uncomfortable and so immobile for so great a time? I wanted to change the subject. “How did Jen react to having a girl?”
“She took it in stride. It had no effect on her at all.”
“Not so strange! She’s a mother now.” She tossed the brush onto the dresser. “You may call me unreasonable or even vindictive, if you wish,” said Ari, “but I intend to see to it that someday the men of Rii bow the knee to Mara Elizabeth and recognize her as their new Keeper.” She pulled herself over to me and laid her head on my chest.
“I would call you neither of those things, just overly optimistic.”
She raised her head and looked me directly in the eye. “You will find me a very stubborn mermaid.”
“That’s why I won’t dare stand in your way.”
She smiled. “A wise man, you will make a good husband for me.”
“Oh? You think I’m tame enough?”
“No, just too smart to try to ride out a gale with all sails set.” Ari lowered her head again and sighed, “What are we going to do, you and I?”
“Our duty, of course. I will report back to the Agamemnon, assuming she survived and is present. You will give your report to and receive your new orders from the Prefect or Magister Navium or whatever other representative of the Emperor is in charge there. Afterwards…”
“What about afterwards? Where will we live? You don’t have gills and I don’t have legs. We were just speaking of children. What will they be?”
I had to laugh. “I’ll settle for healthy! We’ll figure something out. You’re worrying too much. It’s not like you.”
“You’re right I suppose. I’m spoiling the last night of our pre-honeymoon.” She was silent for a while then raised her head, eyes sparkling. “Would you like for me to sing to you again?”
“You know I would!”
“Hmm…Let me think. What would be good? I know! This fits my mood tonight. It’s by a Spanish saint and nearly four thousand years old.” She cleared her throat, began to hum a tune, and then sang.
In the dark of night
Inflamed with love and desire, I arose
And went as no one knows,
When all my house lay long in deep repose
All in the dark secure
Down hidden steps, disguised in other’s clothes
In dark where no one knows
When all my house lay long in deep repose
And in that happy night
In secret places in no one’s sight
I went without my sight
With no guiding light
Except my heart that lit me from inside
It guided me and shone
More surely than the noonday sun
And led me to the one
Whom only I could see
Deep in a place where only we could be
O night that is my guide!
O night more kindly than the dawn!
O night that can unite
The lover and beloved one
Lover into beloved one transformed
And on my flowering breasts
Which I had kept for him and him alone
He slept as I caressed
And loved him for my own,
Breathing air from tall cedars blown
I tarried to forget
As on my lover’s breast, I lay
All spent I let
My fears all fall away
Forgotten in the lilies of the day
We made the rest of the evening a good memory for the keeping.
We came out of warp into the largest concentration of warships I had ever seen. We counted two carriers, five heavy cruisers, four lights and, providing the back bone, three dreadnoughts. A perimeter of perhaps a dozen destroyers was set up as a guard against surprise. There were also five light ships of a type I didn’t recognize.
I began decelerating and signaled the picket ships, fully aware that the Compass Rose was coming in fast and wearing the enemy’s livery. A destroyer from the picket nosed in our direction as though to give us a curious sniff.
“Compass Rose,” came a ship to ship communication, “You do not appear on our registry.”
“We are a prize,” I responded, “captured on Rii from the Free Worlds fleet.” There was a long pause. We were aggressively scanned, but the destroyer’s weapons did not lock-on nor did her guns swing to bear on us. In any case, we were too small to be much of a threat to anything larger than a light cruiser, even if we rammed.
“Compass Rose, please proceed to landing berth C, Samarkand Prime. Do not deviate. You say you come from Rii? Is the Lady Ambassador Ariadne present?”
“She is,” said Ari.
“An escort will meet you on landing, Milady, to take you to see the Prefect.”
We were nearly an hour from landing and spent that time satisfying our curiosity. As a matter of courtesy, we used only passive sensors, but I could identify many of the vessels present. Thankfully, one of the heavies was indeed the Agamemnon. All the rest of the units parked around New Samarkand, except for that strange squadron of small vessels, were also part of the Rimward Fleet. This wasn’t surprising; it would take months to bring in every unit they were planning to concentrate here. Fleet maneuvers on the Imperium’s scale could only be a slow, ponderous dance.
“When did they send out the order to concentrate?” I asked Ari.
She shrugged. “Certainly before I left Darwin, but evidently not long before, perhaps two weeks altogether. I rather hoped there would be more here.”
“More Rimward ships should arrive at any time, along with closer elements of the Home Fleet.”
“Because of the World Heart, we no longer have the luxury to wait.”
More calls came in as we approached, including one from Captain Winslow of the Agamemnon. We congratulated each other on our respective escapes from the Rii system. Even with the loss of Kelly, he was relieved to hear from us.
After we landed, I carried Ari down the ramp. We had found on board a large collection of very fine women’s clothing in various sizes. Evidently, King Edgar liked to travel well prepared, at least when not accompanied by his consort. Ari chose one of the more tasteful gowns in a peach color that matched her upper body complexion and didn’t clash with her tail. It was a little harder finding something for me. The Rose’s former captain was not far from my size, but I thought it unwise to show myself in the uniform of an enemy power. I settled for a dinner jacket in a color that at least resembled Imperial Navy blue.
The escort that waited was professional and, despite the short notice, prepared enough to have a hover chair ready. I placed Ari carefully in the chair and saluted the senior officer present, a woman wearing the green uniform of a Marine Major.
“Thank you Lieutenant. I’ll see you to your skimmer now, your ladyship.” She gave Ari a bow and started to turn.
“Thank you Madame, but Mister Morgan shall accompany me.”
“Uh, he’s to be debriefed aboard the Agamemnon.” The Major looked uncertain.
“Matthew can wait. I’m sure the Prefect will be interested in what the lieutenant has to report as well.”
It was evident that Ari was held in high enough regard to keep a mere major from thwarting her wishes. I soon found myself bundled into the back of the limo with her.
That’s a lot of effort just to keep me with you for a little while longer.
You have no idea of the lengths I’ll go through to keep you. She smirked. Really though, I do believe the Prefect will want to hear from you directly; especially after I tell him about the World Heart.
I would feel a lot better if I met him while wearing the proper uniform. My old one was, of course, a total loss. We ended up tossing its remnants down a disposal chute.
That can be arranged. Ari leaned forward and whispered something in the Marine major’s ear. She nodded and picked up a communicator.
“You’ll have to dress on the run, dear,” said Ari. “I’m sure his Lordship won’t want to be kept waiting.”
Samarkand Prime was a small city, laid comfortably in a valley on the slopes of the largest mountain range on the second largest continent of its world. It took only a few minutes to arrive at the hotel where the Prefect had set up his headquarters. Samprime was known for its skiing and the hotel looked the part, resembling one of the grand lodges that are usually found in Terra’s Alps or the Rockies.
Upon entering, I was immediately steered into an anteroom just off the lobby. There I found a uniform laid out for me. How they knew my size so exactly and how it got there so quickly is a mystery to me. I was still tucking my shirt in when Ari and the major came in and pulled me after them.
The two of us were then ushered into a meeting room that had been converted into a large office. An antique desk dominated one side, on the other was a well-stuffed couch and a few matching chairs. There was also an impressive fire-place containing a crackling pile of burning wood. It was just cool enough outside to make the fire inviting. The Prefect did not keep us waiting, entering almost immediately after us.
Sir Arthur Edward Lagos, Duke of Attika, Prefect of the Rimward Worlds and the Emperor’s maternal uncle was a short, heavy-set man, about sixty years of age, with a wild wreath of gray hair and whiskers that gave him a leonine appearance. He was wearing an admiral’s uniform as a sign that his role as military commander now superseded that of civilian administrator of this segment of the Empire. He acknowledged my salute with a hand shake, as though not quite settled into the military side of his office. He then stooped to kiss Ari’s hand.
“So! I hear you’ve captured yourself a prize, young man! And I’m not talking about the packet!” He grinned and winked. Ari beamed and I turned red. Word had travelled quickly.
He offered us brandy and cigars. I accepted both, Ari only the former. It had been weeks since I’d had a cigar and knew I may never have the chance at another as good as this one. I kept an eye on Ari, however, hoping she wouldn’t mind the smoke.
Soon we were sitting in front of the fire. The Prefect and I were on chairs, Ari stretched out on the couch. At the Prefect’s prompting, she began her report. He followed with relaxed interest until she came to the part about the World Heart. His smoke became neglected and soon went out. When Ari finished, he drained his snifter of brandy and rang for more.
“Can you confirm that this facility is powered by antimatter?” He looked from Ari to me and back.
She shook her head and looked down. “I’m afraid not, your grace.”
“It was too large and complex for either of us to confirm it,” I said. “I inferred it from its size and antiquity.”
“And the fact that a whole new order of chimaera were created to watch over it,” added Ari.
“I’m inclined to believe you,” the Duke said, “though I may have difficulty convincing my governing council.” Then he grinned mischievously. “Fortunately, now that a state of war has been declared, I can choose, if I must, to bypass those calcined fossils.
“To tell the truth, I don’t dare disbelieve you. There’s too much at stake. An antimatter reactor! Dear God! On Rii of all places!” He raised his glass toward Ari. “You’re familiar I’m sure with the story of Helen of Troy; the face that launched a thousand ships? Well here’s to Ariadne of Syrenka, whose word alone will send forth at least thirty starships!”
He questioned us closely for at least an hour longer then had us dine privately with him. After that he had a room made up for us and bade us good night. “I’ll be seeing you before the council in the morning, I dare say. I can override, but I can’t ignore them completely, so be prepared to be persuasive. Sleep well!”
Another servant led us to our lodging, which was more of a suite, with a bathroom, bedroom and dining room. We soaked in a hot tub while Ari considered hunting-up a pool for a nice vigorous swim; something she’d been without for a week. Eventually, she decided that the swim would feel all the better after a nice long nap. We turned in sometime after midnight.
It was still dark when we were awakened by a brisk knock. “Now who can that be?” said a bleary-sounding Ari. What I said, especially concerning the ancestry and likely hobbies of the knocker, doesn’t bear repeating. I pulled on a robe and carefully reigned in my temper as I approached the door. I was a lieutenant in a hotel full of admirals and captains after all.
I caught myself before saying ‘Who?’ and remembered hearing somewhere that the Duke’s chief-of-staff was one Captain Ferrell. I opened the door. The man on the other side was slightly shorter than me with close-cropped, graying hair and a rather care-worn face. A pair of black-rimmed glasses were perched just above his receding hairline. He bustled in, carrying an armload of papers, a leather brief-case and a tablet, depositing his burden on the dining table. As he turned to face me, he shifted the glasses to his nose and looked over them.
“Yes.” I nodded.
So his vocabulary does include more than surnames. “She’s…”
“Here.” Ari glided into the room on her chair.
He grunted and nodded; as oblivious of her nudity as she was. “You’ve managed to spur his Grace into a very rash act.”
“We have?” she said.
“He’s ordered the fleet mobilized for a combat jump within seventy-two hours!”
“I would have suggested forty-eight.” She returned.
“He’s also ordered me to draw up a plan of attack. Less than half the fleet is assembled and we don’t even know how large the pirate force is! This just won’t do at all!” He huffed. “Elementary naval strategy calls for…”
“…maximum advantage. I know, Captain, even Syrenkan schoolgirls can access and read Murimoto’s Command of Sea and Space!”
I half expected her to glide up and tail-slap him. I raised my hands in a peaceful gesture. “What do you want of us, Sir?”
“I want you to help me to convince him to hold off and wait, at least ‘til the main body of the Home Fleet arrives.” He sighed and sat down. “I know that you believe, and now he believes that you may have found an antimatter power source. This is just not enough to justify the risk. We’re squandering our numerical advantage!”
I sat down at the table next to him. “You know as well as I, as well as Ari, or His grace, or anyone; that the major elements of the Home Fleet are probably in orbit around Luna, the Earth’s Moon, at this very moment. It will take about four weeks for the courier from Darwin to arrive there. Even if His Majesty confirms the order immediately, which he almost certainly will, it will take six weeks for those warships to arrive here at New Samarkand. That’s ten weeks, seventy standard days!”
“That’s seventy days that Edgar’s men can stumble upon the World Heart, kill the Sisters of Arachne and then loot it of all its archeotech. We can’t allow that to happen!” pleaded Ari.
“That also gives Edgar time to persuade other pirate leaders to join him and increase his force. Something he’ll have little trouble doing if he can offer a share of the World Heart.” I added.
Ferrell leaned back and covered his face with both hands. “Everyone is crazy except me! I’ll do as I’m ordered to the best of my ability, but I’ll be doing less than my duty if I don’t try to persuade His Grace that he is making a mistake.”
“You must do what you feel is right,” agreed Ari. “As must we.”
“We’re of one mind on that point at least,” I said as I helped the captain gather his papers. I closed the door behind him and Ari turned to me.
“I’m too agitated to go back to bed. I’m going to find a pool. I need to swim. Want to come with me?”
“Nope,” I yawned. “I’ll keep the bed warm for you. Hurry back.” I kissed the top of her head as she passed. “Oh! You’re not going out there like that are you?”
“What?” She looked at me quizzically, and then down at herself. “Oh.” She went back into the bedroom long enough to grab something to cover her breasts. “I’ll be back in a bit.” She left.
I smiled, shook my head and then collapsed into bed and a deep sleep.
The sun was rising when she finally returned and snuggled up to me.
The door buzzed. This time Ari answered it. She returned a few moments later followed by a servant carrying two parcels.
“Complements of His Grace; I’ll be waiting outside.” The woman smiled cheerfully, bowed and left.
“Ooo, I like surprises!” Ari tore into the package with her name on it. It was a very long, white, lacey gown with yellow ribbons. “I love it! What do you think Dri?” She draped it in front of her.
“Absolutely gorgeous, Love!”
“Isn’t it and so girly! A bit long though. In fact…The thing actually hides my tail and covers my pelvic fins…hmm.” She frowned. “I do believe that this may be the Prefect’s subtle way of telling me he’s not sure what the council will think of a chimaera.” She tossed me the other parcel. “Let’s see what he sent you.”
I broke the string and ripped the brown paper. It was a formal dress-blue uniform, complete with cap and black boots. “Uh oh, this can’t be right. This is a junior commander’s insignia.”
“I think that’s what they call a promotion.” Ari grinned. “Congratulations Commander Morgan.”
“But that’s two steps above my current rank!”
“Somebody must have been impressed.”
“That somebody may have just made me the most hated man in His Majesty’s navy.”
“Don’t you think you deserve it?”
“Yes, by Damn, I think I do! It’s a matter of who else does.”
“I guess you’ll just have to live up to expectations.”
I tried it on, half believing that it wouldn’t fit, being for a different man, but it did. In a few minutes, we were dressed and ready to join the servant who guided us to the meeting room.
Sunlight streamed into the windows, opened to let in the cool, flower-scented Samarkand spring. In front of the windows was a long, wooden table set with nine chairs. In the middle of the room, facing the others was a single, straight-backed chair.
“Please be seated,” said the servant. “The Prefect and the Council will be entering shortly.”
I don’t think they intend to feed us breakfast first. Thought Ari.
Too bad, I was hoping for poached eggs and kippers.
I love eggs, but prefer my herring fresh...
…And wiggling. Am I not right?
She rolled her eyes, but didn’t disagree.
I’m starting to wonder if we may be the ones about to be kippered here. Uh-oh, they’re coming. I stood up; Ari shifted and straightened her gown.
The Prefect and Council were announced by a liveried herald, entered in single file then sat, His Grace taking the middle seat. He gave us a solemn look then winked. That helped.
I understood what he meant by using the word ‘fossils’ when referring to the other members. There were five men and three women, none under the age of sixty, most well over. The Prefect introduced us and invited us to tell our story, which we did. There were a couple of surprised gasps when we told of the Sisters of Arachne and the World Heart, but I got the impression that most of the members had already been briefed on the major points. Then came the questions.
I was rather happy that we were on a war footing and had the Prefect on our side; otherwise things may not have gone well for us. A couple of councilors sounded inclined to think we were operating some kind of scam; one seemed almost to suggest that we were working for the pirates. Another very elderly gentleman was under the impression that he was there to order food and drink. The rest were content to follow, with little enthusiasm, where they were led. After about an hour, the ordeal was over. There was no mention of Captain Ferrell’s anxieties.
We were ushered out to an anteroom while the council continued their deliberations. The same servant, named Rina, asked us if we would like some refreshment. We agreed. She brought a tray of sandwiches and tea and set them down on a small table.
At about the time we finished, the Prefect walked in, looking tired but pleased.
“You may not believe it, but you two made quite a positive impression.” He bowed and kissed Ari’s hand. “Even you my dear, despite your ‘handicap’.”
“Handicap?” She raised an eyebrow.
“I thought it wise not to tell them you were Syrenkan.”
“Oh.” She looked perplexed.
“I’m afraid there’s still a good deal of distrust of chimaera out here. This isn’t Terra.”
“Are you sure that’s a good idea, your Grace? I just spent much of the early morning swimming around a public pool. Someone may have seen me.”
“I didn’t tell them you weren’t.” He grinned mischievously. “I just let them form their own impressions. Besides, most of them will be on their way back to their home provinces by now.”
He turned to me. “Well, commander, I need to add an intelligence officer to my staff. That would be you. Report here to Captain Ferrell at 1300 hours. Meanwhile, have the two of you made plans for lunch yet? I’d like to hear more about this Pirate ‘king’ Edgar.”