CHAPTER 1: THE STAKES GET HIGHER
Sevan’s marbles were still sore when he was awoken by the ship’s alarm. He dragged himself out of his bunk and up to the bridge where he could see Sonvaenope large in the observation windows and it was clear someone on the surface was shooting at them.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“We are being shot at,” said Ay-ttho
“No uxlod, Moncur,” said Sevan, referring to the famous detective of the entertainment implant series of the old Republic, who was famous for solving every case. “Have they done much damage?”
“None,” said Tori. “Their weapon isn’t powerful. Ron is transmitting ‘we come in peace’ messages.”
“As long as we don’t come in pieces,” Sevan joked, but nobody laughed.
“This is the same location we left the colony of Angetenarians all that time ago,” Tori observed.
Sevan thought that would save money in set building if they ever made the story of their lives into a series for an entertainment implant.
Ron landed the ship on the outskirts and, even before the engines had shut down, a large crowd had gathered.
“Oh, my Giant Cup!” Ay-ttho exclaimed as she watched the crowd part to let through an individual, clearly of some importance.
“What is it?” asked Sevan.
“Sgniwef of Ao-Jun?” asked Tori. “But surely that’s impossible. We have been in suspended animation for ages. She must be dead by now.”
“The Ao-jun live long lives,” Ay-ttho explained. “That is Sgniwef. I would bet Sevan’s marbles on it.”
“Not the Sgniwef of the Zistreotovean war?” asked Pirate.
“I wonder if she is still with Luap?”
Ay-ttho descended from the ship and approached Sgniwef, whom she considered having not aged considerably.
Sevan thought the entertainment implant series of their lives was looking very viable if they could re-use characters.
“It has been a very long time, Sgniwef. I think the last time I saw you, Matthews was president,” said Ay-ttho
“Who is it that claims to know me from such times past?” Sgniwef asked.
“My name is Ay-ttho San An Wan. This is Tori, Sevan, Pirate and Witt. And this is our ship, the Mastery of the Stars.”
“Sevan? Didn’t he help Matthews kill Kirkland?”
“I didn’t help so much as tagged along.”
“You should also remember Matthews exiled us, and we fought against her.”
“Yes, I recollect something of that sort. What brings you here to Sonvaenope?”
“We detected your signal from Angetenar. You should be careful because if we can detect you, the khalgoin might also and your gun will be no match against them.”
“First, who are these khalgoin of whom you speak? And second, what you experienced were only warning shots. Our true arsenal is much more powerful.”
“Glad to hear it. I’m sorry, I believe you call the khalgoin, zoxans.”
“Oh yes, the zoxans. We have successfully hidden from the zoxans for many FSCs, but we have heard of new dangers of zoxans helping one tribe of old Republicans against another. The Ao-jun are now nomadic, like nearly all non-zoxans who are not enslaved. How do we know you are not in league with the zoxans?”
“I ask to trust us and take my word for it.”
“That is easier said than done. However, the Ao-jun are hospitable. Therefore, I invite you to stay with us at our settlement for as long as you need and trust that you do not bring the zoxan forces with you.”
“We are very grateful for your trust and promise that we will not betray it. There is one thing I don’t understand. Our scanners showed a tiny settlement, but your settlement is large.”
“We have been using radiation masking to hide us. You shouldn’t have been able to detect us at all. We must be vulnerable to the zoxans.”
“I don’t think so. The scanners on the Mastery of the Stars are very good, far advanced than anything the zoxans have, I would imagine.”
“Let’s hope you are right.”
Sgniwef led them into the settlement and into a large hall which looked like they must use it as a meeting place.
“This is Luap, my partner.” said Sgniwef, gesturing to where Luap was sitting.
“So that is Luap,” Witt whispered. “I thought the face that launched a thousand ships would have been nicer.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” whispered Pirate. “I think time has been very kind to her.”
“Luap will throw a party in your honour,” said Sgniwef. “You must forgive me. I have business I must attend to and must leave, but I will return. In the meantime, I will leave you in the capable claws of my partner.”
“Lucky us,” Pirate whispered.
Sgniwef left the hall and left the visitors wondering what to do next.
“You must forgive my partner,” said Luap. “He is always very busy. Please take a seat.”
The visitors took seats and Luap ordered food and drinks to be brought. Pirate stared at Luap and realised that Luap was staring back at him. Luap approached Pirate.
“Where are you from?” he asked. “Who is your family?”
Luap found Pirate beautiful and Pirate realised this instantly.
“My name is Pirate and my origins are of no consequence.”
“May I confess I find myself attracted to you?”
“You may, and may I confess I share the same feelings for you?”
Immediately, Pirate thought about how he might capture Luap and take him away from Sgniwef.
“Would you like to come and see our ship?” Pirate asked.
“I would like that very much,” said Luap. “But first you must eat and drink. There is much to celebrate when we meet fellow refugees.”
They served the visitors food, the likes of which they had not tasted for many FSCs. They also served them drinks which Sevan did not recognise as either fushy or pish but were very agreeable and left him with the same pleasant sensation.
The hall became populated with what Sevan imagined must have been the leading figures in the settlement. They mingled with the visitors and asked them many questions about how they arrived on Sonvaenope and how they had escaped the zoxans.
The visitors had similar questions of their own, and the hall was alive with conversation. Pirate monopolized Luap, asking her many questions about her life and making many boasts about his.
He suspected she was not happy with Sgniwef, but he could not draw her on the topic, nor would she make any comment related to the period surrounding the Zistreotovean war during which they supposedly kidnapped her and took her to Zistreotov. Pirate supposed the entire episode must have been too traumatic for her.
“From where do you come?” Luap asked Pirate.
“I am originally from Future,” he said. “But I spent most of my career on a planet called Chaldene in the Kale system.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“It’s a long way from here, near the edge of the universe. We were experimenting with the possibility of crossing the barrier of Witt into parallel universes. My friend over there is the very Witt who gave the barrier of Witt its name.”
Pirate gesticulated towards Witt, who appeared to be delivering a lecture on the science of white holes to a rapt audience.
“You are far more attractive than he is,” said Luap.
“That’s easy. Look at the shape of his head.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“I know, I’m sorry. I was only joking. We were successful in crossing to a parallel universe, but we were trapped there and Witt had to come and rescue us. I was burned badly. Here you can see some of my scars.”
Luap marveled at Pirate, whom he considered to be fiercely beautiful. He liked him, not just for his looks, but also because he seemed knowledgeable.
“They say the zoxans came from another universe.”
“So I’ve heard.”
Pirate could sense Luap’s feelings for him, but it hardly mattered because Luap soon made matters clear.
“I like you very much Pirate,” he said. “Do you feel the same about me?”
Pirate admitted he did, and the two left the gathering unnoticed.
“You have much that would benefit our own community,” Witt told Sgniwef when she returned to the settlement. “And I dare say that we have much that would benefit you. I suggest we use the Mastery of the Stars to shuttle between the two communities to facilitate a trade between us, assuming that Ay-ttho is agreeable to such a suggestion.”
“At least we would do something useful,” said Ay-ttho.
“I agree,” said Sgniwef. “Such a trade would be beneficial to both communities. Let us discuss your initial requirements and then we can load your ship with whatever we can spare of the things you desire.”
The gathering had soon agreed on a list and Sgniwef ordered that they deliver the required produce to the Mastery of the Stars.
Once they had loaded everything, they prepared to leave.
“I’m sorry that Luap is not here to bid you farewell,” said Sgniwef. “Something very important must have come up to detain him elsewhere because I know he has enjoyed your visit immensely and would certainly want to have said goodbye.”
“Until next time,” said Witt. “I have the list of produce you require and will do my utmost to return with the goods as soon as possible.”
A sizable crowd had gathered to wave goodbye to the freighter as it took off, and Sevan felt that perhaps this new life playing trade between the two settlements might not be so bad after all.
“Should we head to the star and fold?” asked Ay-tho.
“I think it might be better if we use the conventional portals,” said Witt. “I have been inspecting the mechanisms and I think it’s better if we don’t attempt to fold space until I’ve had a chance to perform some maintenance.”
“What if the khalgoin are guarding the portals?” asked Tori.
“Ron?” asked Ay-tho. “Please do a scan and see whether there are any ships at the portal.”
“There are no ships on this side of the portal. However, my scanners cannot see through the portal, so there is a possibility that there might be ships on the other side.”
“We can’t risk it,” said Ay-ttho. “We have to fold space.”
“I can’t guarantee the mechanism will remain stable,” Witt warned. “If the field collapses, the ship will be destroyed. There may be khalgoin on the other side of the portal, but we stand a greater chance of survival with them than we do if the field collapses.”
“Very well,” Ay-ttho sighed. “Ron? Head for the Angetenar portal.”
As they emerged from the portal, the khalgoin were waiting for them. Ay-ttho toyed with the idea of trying to outrun them, but she knew that wherever they ran, the khalgoin would be waiting.
Instead, she asked Ron to cut the engines and waited while the Khalgoin ship drew alongside them.
Pirate, whom they hadn’t seen for most of the journey, arrived on the bridge.
“What’s happening?” he asked.
“Where have you been?” asked Witt. “And… what the uxclod?”
Behind Pirate, he noticed Luap.
“What’s he doing here?”
“He came along for the ride.”
“Have you lost your marbles?” asked Tori. “Have you been living under a rock? Do you not remember what Sgniwef did last time someone ran off with Luap?”
“Have you heard of the Zistreotovean war?”
“Oh that? They annihilated Zistreotov. It had been the most popular gambling venue in the Republic and they reduced it to rubble. What do you think she’s going to do when she discovers you’ve kidnapped Luap?”
“I didn’t kidnap him. He came of his own free will.”
“I don’t think Sgniwef will see it that way. She didn’t last time.”
“What are we going to do?” asked Sevan.
“We have to take him back,” said Tori.
“I think the khalgoin might have different ideas,” said Ay-ttho as the khalgoin ship locked onto the side of the Mastery of the Stars