Authors: PP Corcoran
"Travis. Captain Zubek. It looks like your prisoner’s friends are massing just inside the airlock."
"Hold on, sir, I'm going to put you on speaker." With a touch of his suit controls Travis activated his external speaker. "Go on, sir."
“I’m expecting some sort of breakout imminently. If they come out shooting, it won’t end well for them. I have a company plus on the crater lip. Tell Ambassador Jelav if he's going to do something then now’s the time."
"Understood, sir." Travis cut the link.
Inside the chamber, Weloo looked distraught. "Let me speak to them. They probably think, as I did, that you are the same people who attacked us before and are back to finish what you started.”
Jelav looked at Travis, who shrugged. "It’s your call, Ambassador. All the way here, Weloo was allowed to use his suit radio to speak to his base so they know our rough numbers. They probably don't know our dispositions but if they come out the airlock firing Captain Zubek, will cut them to shreds."
Seeing he really didn’t have a choice, Jelav turned back to Weloo. "Weloo, please tell your people to wait. Tell them we will defend ourselves if they fire upon us but we will make no attempt to enter the crater. I’d very much like to speak to this Felan. If he’s willing, I’ll meet with him at a time and place of his choosing."
Weloo was already speaking animatedly into his suit’s pick-up. His head took on the now familiar cocking movement as he listened to the reply.
Through the corner of his eye, Jelav saw the comms tech give him a thumbs-up, so he was prepared for Weloo's next statement.
"Felan has ordered all personnel to hold their positions. He asks you meet him by the airlock and orders me to remain here as your... guest until your safe return."
Jelav waved a hand dismissively. "I don't believe that’s required, Weloo. I’d prefer for you to accompany me to this meeting." Turning to Philippa and Travis he said, "Would you be so kind as to make yourselves available as escorts, Lieutenant? We leave as soon as I suit up." Jelav headed for the suit room.
The walk back to the crater holding the airlock door for the sub-surface base took the small group of Travis, Philippa, Ambassador Jelav, his assistant Clare Honeywell, and Weloo less time than it had taken to reach the First Contact team’s shuttle. Understandably, Weloo was anxious to get back to his own people and Philippa was forced to place a restraining arm on his shoulder a number of times so that the diminutive Garundan ambassador could keep up. When they finally arrived at the crater’s lip, it appeared to be covered in a solid wall of marines. Each one had their weapons trained on the still-open airlock door that Philippa had disabled with her plasma torch.
The sight of the amassed marines caused Weloo to stop in his tracks. His head scanned left and right as he took in the firepower on display. The voice of Jelav broke into his study of the marine lines. "Would you like to tell Felan we are approaching the airlock now?"
Weloo dragged his attention back to the ambassador. "Of course. One moment please, while I change channels."
Behind his mirrored faceplate, the ambassador let his eyes cross over to where Honeywell was standing directly behind Weloo. Her position was no accident. Part of her job was to monitor the Edasich communications. It wasn’t that the ambassador didn’t trust Weloo, but in his experience it always paid to have a little insider knowledge in any negotiations. Honeywell's thumbs-up signal coincided with Weloo coming back onto the inter-suit channel.
"Felan is making his way to the airlock now and requests we join him there."
"Please lead on, Weloo."
The Edasich stepped over the crater’s lip and headed down its steep walls, closely followed by the Commonwealth delegation.
The double beep of an incoming signal sounded in Philippa's ear and a quick check of her HUD showed it was Travis. "Go for Papadomas."
"If this all goes to hell, Corporal, you grab Honeywell and I'll take the ambassador. Try to get clear of the line of fire and let the covering force do their jobs. Understood?"
The party approached the open airlock and came to a halt. Unnoticed by either of the diplomats, Travis and Philippa had taken up flanking positions within easy arm’s reach of each of their chosen charges.
A figure stepped from the airlock, dressed in a similarly beaten and bedraggled spacesuit as Weloo. Crossing the small distance between them, Weloo stopped in front of what, presumably, was the figure of Felan. With more flourish than he had shown to Philippa, Weloo crossed his arms, gloved hands to shoulder blades, and bowed deeply, holding the position until Felan stepped forward and touched his right hand to Weloo's left shoulder. Weloo straightened and Felan leaned his helmeted head forward until it was touching Weloo’s helmet.
thought Philippa. With their helmets touching, both Edasich could hold a conversation without having to use their suits’ radios, as their voices could be heard through the touching helmets. They'd need to shout but it effectively prevented anyone from listening in. Philippa had to give him her grudging admiration.
By the way, the Edasich's helmets bobbed up and down, they were having a very animated conversation, which went on for a number of minutes until they finally separated and Weloo stepped to one side. For the first time, Felan addressed the Commonwealth group directly.
"If I am to believe First Technician Weloo, you have the top of the crater lined with soldiers. Correct?"
"Base Commander Felan," began Jelav, "My name is Ambassador Jelav, representing the Commonwealth Union of Planets. What Weloo has told you is correct. There is a large number of soldiers and warships are in orbit above us, but they are there as a precaution only."
"A precaution, Ambassador? A precaution against what? Was it not your soldiers who attempted to enter our home? Was it not your soldiers who kidnapped one of our own? Have we made any aggressive moves toward you? I demand you withdraw your soldiers and send your warships away at once! This is our home and you are not welcome here."
Jelav paused before answering in his most conciliatory tone. "If you so desire, Base Commander, we will withdraw from this place and leave you in peace. We have no wish to force ourselves upon you. But... if I may?"
Even though he was dressed in a spacesuit, it was easy to see the reluctance in Felan's jerky arm movement, which Jelav took as permission to continue.
"First Technician Weloo has indicated to us you are the last survivors of the Edasich and life is hard for you here. As a sign of our peaceful intent, may I offer some food stuffs from our stores to bolster your hydroponics?"
Everyone could hear the skepticism in Felan's voice even through the computer-aided interpretation. "And you would do such a thing why? You know nothing about us and I have already told you to leave."
Jelav raised his arm and pointed at the dead planet low above the horizon. "Because, Base Commander, not too long ago these humans who stand beside me gave my people succor when we were in need. They did not do so because they had to, they did it because it was the right thing to do. It is a lesson that my people have taken to heart. You are in need and I can help, so I choose to."
For a long moment, the six individuals from three different races fixed their eyes on a dead planet hovering millions of kilometers away in complete silence.
"What of the soldiers and your warships?" Felan asked in a less argumentative tone.
"Please tell Captain Zubek to contact the cruisers and order them to withdraw to the edge of the system. Once he has done so, he is to embark all his marines and return to the fleet. Only my shuttle is to remain on the surface. And when I say all his marines are to return to the fleet, I mean you and the corporal too."
Travis could not believe what he was hearing but like a good marine, he followed his orders. No sooner had Zubek acknowledged the order than the small group made out the shadowy figures of marines leaving their firing positions and heading for their shuttles on the double. Less than five minutes later, all but one of the marine shuttles were loaded and their straining engines lifted them clear of the moon’s surface. They angled away on course for the waiting fleet.
Beep. Beep. "Go for Travis."
"Heads up, Lieutenant. I'm holding the last shuttle for you so hustle up, it’s a long walk home," said Zubek over the link.
"Understood, sir, we're on our way. Travis clear." With a quick tap, he changed channels and opened a link to Philippa. "Our ride’s waiting, Corporal, let’s bounce."
"Aye-aye sir," Philippa turned, prepared to double time it to the waiting shuttle, but something stopped her. Turning to face Felan, she replicated Weloo's earlier respectful bow. Holding it for a few seconds before standing back upright she spun in place and set off after Travis who was already bounding up the crater walls on his power-assisted legs. A call on the open radio channel stopped both of them in their headlong dash.
"Wait!" Called the unmistakable sound of Felan.
Both Travis and Philippa came to an instant halt.
"Perhaps I was too hasty in my earlier statements, Ambassador Jelav. You’ve withdrawn all your soldiers and warships, as you said you would. Even these last two, leaving yourself unprotected and defenseless in front of me. How do you know I won’t now take you hostage and demand your people supply the things I need, rather than wait on your charity?"
Over the open mike, the slight Garundan’s distinctive chuckle was heard. "Trust is a thing to be earned, Base Commander, and I choose to use myself and my colleague as collateral."
The radio channel hissed quietly and all caught Felan's glance at his dead world before he again looked at the Garundan. "Would you like a tour of the base, Ambassador, you and your escort? And may I formally request whatever assistance you and your people are able to supply?"
Travis activated his link to the waiting marine shuttle. "Looks like we're staying a little longer, sir. See you back at the fleet."
SLIVINO VALLEY - NORTHERN ITALY - EARTH - SOL SYSTEM
The stable hand bent back to his work as Seaton Anderson, astride his favorite chestnut stallion, left the stable complex situated behind the main house in the center of the sprawling 170-square kilometer estate that dominated the Slivino valley of northern Italy. Since being placed under house arrest on his estate Seaton had taken to going riding nearly every morning, spending hours weaving his way through the thick pine forests covering the estate.
Many of the staff commented on how their billionaire master seemed un-phased by his indictment for charges ranging from bribery to murder.
Seaton had been removed from his position as chair of one the Commonwealth’s biggest conglomerates, Zurich Lines, and forced to remain on his palatial estate while his army of lawyers fought the government every inch of the way. The media were reporting it could take years, if ever, to bring Seaton to trial. And all the time he lived the life anyone could ever dream of. Waited on hand and foot. His every want tended to. The stable hand shook his head in weary resignation as the horse and rider disappeared from view. Picking up the pitchfork, he shoveled fresh hay into the stall, ready for the stallion on its return.
Seaton Anderson's nonplussed exterior could not have been further from his real state of mind. Seaton was a worried man. For thirty years, he had spent every ounce of his considerable energy building the shipping line left to him by his father into one of the biggest in known space. Go to any port in the Commonwealth and you were guaranteed to find a Zurich Lines flagged ship there. Buy any item manufactured or produced off-planet and there was a very good chance it had been carried aboard a Zurich Lines ship at some point.
Now though, the company he gave two marriages and his entire adult life to build was crumbling around him. It was not the court indictments that bothered him so much. His lawyers assured him he would never see the inside of a courtroom in his lifetime. It was not even the fact some of his bankers had called in the loans he had used to finance his expanding fleet, a requirement to establish and service the new colonies springing up like fresh seeds after a spring rain. The company had enough revenue and reserves to cover the costs. No. It was President Coston's plan to grant independence to Janus that worried him. An integral part of the president’s plan was the restructuring of all of Janus’ debts. Debts which were made up in a significant part by the shipping costs incurred during the establishment of the colony world and the infrastructure required to maintain and expand it as it grew to a point where it was self-sustaining. Zurich Lines was owed billions by the colony and if Coston’s plan was successful, these debts would be restructured over a much longer timeline, cutting the company’s expected revenue by nearly forty-five percent. Combine the revenue loss with the withdrawal of investment and the company was left in a precarious financial position. Seaton made himself a solemn vow: No matter what it took, he would not allow his company to be destroyed!
The difficulty was, Seaton was no longer directly involved in his own company and the question of who he could trust to continue in his stead was undecided. His most trusted confidant, Daya Thomas, had spent the last three years locked up in solitary confinement in a federal maximum security prison on Titan after the former intelligence chief had been caught trying to smuggle Seaton’s personal files containing embarrassing information on various highly placed legal, political, and military figures off the planet during the Others’ attack. Seaton's lawyers’ most arduous efforts were not enough to release her, leaving Seaton with only one choice. In his deliberations, Seaton had remembered a favorite phrase of his father’s: "Keep things in the family."
It presented Seaton with a bit of a quandary. He had no children of his own but had always been close to his sister’s son, Bryer. With his sister and her husband’s unfortunate passing Seaton had kept a watchful eye on the boy’s naval career. Making sure he remained out of harm’s way. Not an easy task in a time of war but with the right word here and there it was not an impossible task either. That was until Bryer fell afoul of the same Admiral Elizabeth Wilson who was leading the investigation into Zurich Lines and its involvement in the Empire of Alona’s scheme to gain access to the gravity drive, a technology which was deemed a state secret.
At the tap of a key, Bryer had been packed off to some back-of-beyond job in the asteroid belt. His carefully orchestrated naval career in tatters. Well, maybe it was time for Bryer to come home.
When the Federal Investigation Bureau swooped on Zurich Lines’ offices and Seaton's own home armed with court warrants, they seized every computer and data storage device they found, but like many raised in the electronic age, their prejudice against anything appearing outdated was a fatal flaw. They never even thought to look for something like paper records. Not that there were any to find in the company’s offices or Seaton's home.
The Seaton estate was only centered on the main house. Scattered throughout the sprawling estate grounds were various other smaller hunting lodges and derelict farmhouses which had once been the homes of families who had worked the rich farmland for generations before the land had been procured by the Anderson family. The majority of those farmhouses had not had a visitor in decades, becoming overgrown and derelict. Why would the FIB bother to search them?
Seaton spent two hours winding his way through the fragrant pine trees and long meadow grass until, apparently by chance, he came upon one of those long abandoned farmhouses, which to any casual observer, looked no different from the others spread around the estate.
Patting the stallion’s neck affectionately, Seaton dismounted and tied him to one of the towering pines. The dried pine needles on the forest floor deadened the sound of his footsteps as he approached the front door, which stood at an angle in its warped frame. Reaching into his pocket, Seaton retrieved his cigar cutter. An item anyone, friend or foe, would attest to as a plaything – he had an annoying habit of fiddling with it during virtually every meeting.
With a practiced motion, Seaton depressed and released the cutter. A muted beep came from above the doorframe as the explosive charges set in the floor and walls disarmed and reinforced steel locking bars slid silently into their recesses. Pushing the rickety-looking door open, Seaton stepped inside. Low intensity automatic lighting came on, illuminating the stark interior. Walking to the center of the small living room, Seaton dropped to one knee and pressed a hand onto a burnished metal plate. The biometric lock accepted him and a section of the floor dropped a few centimeters before silently sliding to one side. More low-level lights came on, revealing a set of steep steps. Making his way down carefully, Seaton was forced to duck his head as he took the last few steps to avoid hitting the Permacrete-reinforced roof.
As he reached the bottom step, the false floor above him slid back into place with a nearly inaudible click. With the room now sealed, the ceiling lighting sprang to life to reveal a row of ancient five-drawer filing cabinets lining one wall of the cramped room. A low wooden desk was placed against the opposite wall, upon which sat an archaic adjustable desk lamp and a single chair pushed neatly under the desk. That was the whole of the room’s furniture. There was no computer or electronic communications device to be found anywhere. Nothing for any snooper, be they government or competitor, to piggyback in on.
Seaton's father had first brought him here years before. His father had been a secretive man, some said paranoid, and he had spent a small fortune having the farmhouse above the room painstakingly taken down one brick at a time by hand, only to have it rebuilt exactly as it had been a few weeks later. The laborers carrying out the work were told the farmhouse held sentimental value to the aging Anderson. He had wanted to replace it with an ultramodern hunting lodge but on seeing its demise, reconsidered and decided to retain the original building.
They did not know about the complete underground unit built off-site by a defense contractor who thought he was building a prototype fallout shelter. The unit was collected from the contractor’s factory for trials, which he was subsequently informed were unsuccessful, and the project was shelved. Like so many new ideas, this one was consigned to the scrap heap. In reality, a separate set of contractors installed the entire unit in just three days. They were told it was for a rich family who feared another nuclear war and wanted somewhere to live through it. Each of these contractors had been flown in to the site in the dead of night and remained there until the job was finished.
On completion, every person signed a nondisclosure agreement before being airlifted out of the site with a substantial bag of cash.
When it came to rebuilding the farmhouse, the men carrying out the work had no idea there was now a secret bunker below.
Seaton moved to the desk and switched on the lamp, throwing a bright light onto the well-thumbed ledger book sitting in the center of the wooden desk. Seaton bent over and blew the fine film of dust from the ledger’s cover before opening it and running his index finger down the alphabetical list of names until it came to rest on one in particular. He let out a satisfied "Hmmm." The same finger traced horizontally across the page until it came to the correct cabinet, drawer, and index number. Closing the ledger again, he used his index fingers to ensure it was returned to its exact place. A small idiosyncrasy he had picked up watching his father in this very room.
Turning his back to the desk, he went to the second filing cabinet and pulled open the bottom drawer. The drawer opened with a creak. Seaton made a mental note to bring a small bottle of lubricant with him on his next visit.
Reaching in, he lifted out the correct file, then took a seat at the desk and flipped it open. The file contained about a dozen neatly handwritten sheets of paper. Attached to the top sheet was a color photograph of a young, self-assured navy ensign. Flicking to the second page, Seaton skipped to the last line of the bio. And there in his neat handwriting were the words: "Assistant to the Chief of Naval Personnel."
Seaton allowed himself a wry smile. Perfect! He leaned back and began to memorize the file’s contents, reminding himself of what indiscretion the young ensign had committed all those years ago which had led to his name joining the list in the ledger and, more importantly, what leverage it now gave Seaton to secure Bryer’s release from naval service.
Returning to the ledger, Seaton searched out two other names, removed their files, and set them down on the desk. It wasn’t enough to secure the release of Bryer, he had to ensure his position as head of Zurich Lines was as strong as possible, and the only way to do so was to have friends in high places. Exactly what Seaton had in mind, even if he had to bring down a government to do it.