Authors: David Welch
What exactly is the Free Terran Commonwealth? Well, the dictionary definition is simple: it’s the largest nation of Explored Space. It controls 464 systems containing 123 living worlds, including Earth. It is a representative republic that originally formed as a loose alliance of the United States and westernized nations with similar-styled governments. The original partners were English-speaking nations and Japan, though later this enlarged to most democratic nations with market economies. To this day many nations on Earth refuse to join.
But to actually define the Commonwealth is a difficult thing. Initially it was thought to be the apotheosis of human civilization. In centuries past, people had a vision of a human future where all of the species were united in one powerful super-state. They assumed that we would need to be so to deal with the numerous “alien” species we would encounter. To us the thought of a non-human intelligence, or life not derived from Earth, seems ludicrous. But at the time, they had no idea of the emptiness of the galaxy and seriously expected to find other sentient species out there. And remember, before the Exodus the only human nation exploring space was the Free Nations Commonwealth, its name at the time. So the thought of one dominant human state ruling the stars wasn’t all that outrageous. But once cheap knock-offs of jump drives and terraforming nanobots became available, history began to repeat itself. People not wanting to be Terrans set up their own nations and promptly began fighting, trading, scheming…all the great stuff humans do. The Commonwealth, heavily based on the old American Constitution, began to play the role America or Britain had once played on Old Earth. It was the superpower, surrounded by nations that feared it, distrusted it, and inevitably misunderstood it…
-Lecture given to students at New Michigan Institute of Technology by Professor Alejandro Ross, NMIT Recorded Lecture Series—Volume XXVIII, 2498
“Who is ‘Big Vena’ anyway?” Rex Vahl asked. He stared at his beer bottle. A buxom woman with blond hair, clad in a sheer red robe that
revealed her fun parts, graced the label. She had two mugs, filled to overflowing, in her hands. Big Vena.
“You kidding me?” said the bartender.
Rex raised his eyebrows in a plaintive look. The bartender was a youngish-looking fellow, with trendy stubble and greased-back hair.
, goddess of love?” the man prompted.
“Makes sense,” Rex replied in that relaxed tone that a good buzz brings. “Thank you.”
He spun from the bar, walking down the beach. It was an odd beach, he thought for a moment, until he remembered that it wasn’t a beach at all. It was a lawn with chaise lounge chairs on it, ending in a sea cliff some fourteen hundred feet high. A railing had been built to keep drunken tourists from going over the edge to the very beachless sea below.
A memory flitted through his head. The beach had been inside, around the giant lagoon-like wave-pool with the water slides and the screaming kids. He smiled at that, remembering the little boy who’d proudly proclaimed that he would go down the waterslide
and then did just that. He’d been there yesterday, in the little section they set aside for adults. There had been a bar there too, a little one where every drink had an umbrella and the bartender had worn a bikini. That bar-keep hadn’t been stubbly or male.
He had had a beer, ogled the bartender more than he should have, and then picked up the young mother sitting next to him. In truth she had done all the picking up, aggressively so. He remembered her going on about how her husband, who had
to take them away some place nice, had stayed behind on Earth to work a case for some law firm in Stockholm. Had he been in a better place in his life, Rex probably would have had some qualms about picking up a married woman, but naughtiness and resignation had prevailed. They’d enjoyed a romp in her room while her kid scampered around with the day-care group.
Was that the same kid who’d gone down the water-slide
? No. He was pretty sure she’d mentioned a daughter.
He wondered if he should try to contact her. As he found a chaise close to the edge, he thought better. People like that wanted a wild memory, something that made them feel like a rebel inside while living an otherwise ordinary life. Wild memories were best done quickly, with a clear-cut beginning-middle-and-end. Much more than that and you got angry husbands knocking on your door and lawyers subpoenaing you to testify in divorce proceedings. Well, that’s what Lieutenant Sampers at Annapolis had always told him.
Rex’s own tenure as a lieutenant hadn’t involved as much colorful advice as old Lieutenant Sampers’ had. Whereas Sampers had told them, just before first liberty, that “a condom now saves you child-support later,” Rex had usually just told his men to keep their stations clean and not look at porn on the networks while on duty. Ensign Jin hadn’t listened to that last part and now was on some forgotten station in a dead system, spending his days checking radiation levels and staring mindlessly at the great void. Given the tediousness and solitude of such assignments, Ensign Jin was probably looking at more internet porn
than ever before.
That might be preferable to what awaits you…
“Enjoying the view, Vahl?” an irritatingly familiar voice asked.
Rex grunted an affirmative. It was a nice view. The sea cliffs formed a Y-shaped fjord. Well, not a true fjord. Venus has never seen a glacier, even after humanity had remade its surface into something tropical and fun and filled with elephants. He supposed there might be some ice in the higher mountains, but he didn’t really know. He’d been here for two months and only knew what the welcoming hologram blurb had told him.
The planet went from tropical to temperate. There were no ice caps. The planet’s rotation had been sped up to create a twenty-five hour day. You couldn’t live within six hundred miles from the equator due to extreme heat. The sun rose in the west. Mount Maxwell was the tallest peak and one of the few places that saw snow. Aurora borealis happened pretty much every night. Most people in the tropical regions went nude to beat the heat. Well that last part hadn’t been in the brochure, it had just been whispered to him mischievously by about a dozen hotel workers.
the fjord was properly called, the resort town of Hartell stood at the end of a promontory, where the two prongs of the ‘Y’ merged into one. The cliffs shrank below a thousand feet of height as the fjord stretched west, declining until they disappeared some six hundred miles away, where the Hartell Fjord reached the ocean. All of it looked brighter than normal, too. Venus was only sixty-some million miles from its star. No other world had been terraformed that close. The sun loomed overhead: large, inescapable, and fantastic for tanning. An albino would be bronze here...or very sun-burned, he wasn’t sure how exactly that would work.
“Don’t worry,” the newcomer finally continued, sitting in a chaise a few feet to his left. “You won’t have to suffer this exile for much longer.”
“Don’t rush on my account, Mr. Jones,” Vahl replied, finishing off the beer and dropping the bottle on the grass. He wondered for the hundredth time what the name of the guy next to him actually was.
account—funny, we seem to be the ones paying for it,” Jones said with a laugh.
“Did they cut the super-secret undercover spy budget again? I don’t follow politics much.”
“They found a ship for you, lieutenant,” Jones said, handing over a piece of electronic paper. Vahl held the transparent, semi-rigid sheet of plastic in his hand. A small projection device the length of a cigarette and a fifth as thick sat at the top of the page. It projected figures onto the sheet. Sure enough the image of a spacecraft sat there, a piece of crap spacecraft.
“Is this a Dariel Model 17?” Vahl asked incredulously.
“No, it’s a 17-
,” Jones chuckled.
“So you want me to cross the Chaos Quarter, infiltrate a region of space that nobody has ever returned from, and do it in an obsolete piece of crap that most people wouldn’t accept
as a gift?!
Look, if the commodore wants to kill me there are easier ways,” Vahl spoke.
Jones smiled and said, “It’s being rebuilt for your assignment.”
Vahl scowled and examined his new home. It didn’t look like much; cargo ships rarely did. Its main hull was three box forms welded to one another, studded with hard-edged rectangular structures that obscured its basic shape. The rear-most of the “boxes” was the largest, forming a respectable cargo bay. A set of pylons near the middle sat ready for weapons. A larger set near the back, extending from the port and starboard sides, held two massive, multi-directional engines. The dimensions were marked clearly on the electronic paper: 210 feet long, 70 feet wide through the body, extending to 130 feet of width with the engines taken into account, and 80 feet high. It was larger than a fighter, larger than most corvettes, but not even a third the length of a Commonwealth frigate. And they were the lightest ships in the fleet!
He scrolled down, new figures filling the page. His eyebrows perked up. Thirty millimeter Juno cannons. Light pulse cannon. Rakehell “Rake” light anti-ship missiles. A trio of auto-tracking defensive turrets. Tanager close-in defense missiles. Decent jump drive. Standard steel armor impregnated with military-grade non-Newtonian liquids. All in all, his piece of crap ship had quite a respectable load-out.
“What about funds? Traders need to buy goods to trade, and I’ll need a crew.”
“You get a quarter million a year for expenses plus a lieutenant’s salary. Get to hire your own crew,” Jones informed him.
?! How long are you expecting me to be out there?” the lieutenant asked.
“Hard to say. The Non-Aligned Quarter is a big place to cross,” Jones said as he got up from the chaise. “Could take a while.”
“Seriously, if the commodore wants me dead—”
“He does, unofficially of course,” Jones replied. “But killing somebody would lead to a trial and then he’d probably lose his pension, his office, all the perks. Loaning you out to us is much cleaner.”
“You actually think I’ll last a year in the Chaos Quarter?” Vahl asked.
Jones shrugged, a bemused grin on his face, “Stranger things have—”
“All right!” Vahl snapped. He glowered for a moment. “When does it arrive?”
“Next Tuesday,” Jones said. “Scalas Station, Dock 117.”