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August 12, 2298 C.E.
“Fires continue to burn on the Ke-chai Peninsula tonight,” the beige-starred, dark-skinned news anchor reported from the monitor in the shuttle’s main hold. Like many news broadcasts back among the Terrans, images of the reporter sat to one side of the screen while broadcasts of actual footage from the location in question played on the other half. “There are reports of Salik invaders still lurking in that area, but the Imperial Army has been evacuating families and businesses, and tales of brave colonists fighting to defend their lives and their land have been reaching our news center.
“You can check our news matrix for more details on individual heroes and lists of evacuated residencies. Meanwhile, the last of the enemy forces on board the Sun’s Glory have been captured, though all compartments are being double-checked for holdouts…”
“Try the k’teli noodles,” Nakko suggested next, tapping the carton in question before picking up one filled with some sort of fruit and meat sautéed together. “Those are the turquoise colored ones. I liked those a lot.”
Distracted from the news, Jackie looked at the dish in question. It looked like spinach noodles to her.
“I don’t know,” A’sha said, eyeing the dish dubiously. “They tasted a bit bland to me.”
Jackie poked her complimentary umma into the box and scraped a little bit into her bowl. A tentative taste-test reminded her of coconuts with a hint of pepper. “They are mild, but they’re not truly bland to me, and they’re not bad even though they’re mild. Have you tried the one with the purple nuts?”
“Ah…” A’sha-rayn checked her printout sheafs, finding the dish on the restaurant’s pictorial menu and squinting at the fine print under the label attached to the nuts in question. “They call those…plink-pa. Apparently, it’s a sound the nuts make as they fall from the vine when ripe and bounce on the ground.”
“I’m just glad I can eat them,” Jackie said. She offered that carton to the other woman. “If we hadn’t come up with a version of the jungen we could modify and infuse, I’d be afraid to eat anything foreign.”
“Just remember, fatigue should be checked out medically, and fevers are to be taken very seriously,” Li’eth cautioned her. “Thankfully, everyone here on V’Ton-Bei has had over three hundred and fifty years to figure out what’s safe to eat, and how best to cook it.”
“Personally, I really like this food,” Nakko agreed, tucking another sporkful of the fruit-and-meat dish into his mouth. He jumped a little—they all did—when something beeped loudly from the cockpit. Pulling out the umma, he dumped it into his bowl even as he scrambled to his feet. “I’ll check that. It sounds like the proximity alert.”
“Hey, don’t talk with your mouth full! We’re officers, not Fifth Tiers,” A’sha called after him. “It’s one thing to be casual about names, but how we behave…well, the Terrans aren’t the only ones to be affected by cultural expectations. Or do you even know what I’m talking about, Ja’ki?”
“Classism still exists back home,” Jackie admitted freely. “Those who have a lot of wealth versus those who have not. Those who are educated versus those who are not. Religions still breed intolerance toward non-believers, though there are strict laws these days about how you can express that intolerance. Or rather, cannot express it. The core thing to remember, however, is that everyone you meet, everyone, is a fellow Human—up until we start getting true alien visitors. But even then, everyone has potential to be great, to be awful, to be silly, to be serious…”
She broke off as the video screen displaying the local news abruptly shut off. Nakko hurried back, leaning through the open door of the transport hold. “Hey, pay attention! The Terrans have arrived. Well, their uniforms are a little weird, full body suit things, but they don’t have any marks I can see, so they have to be the Terrans, right?”
Quickly wiping her mouth clean with a paper-like napkin, Jackie cleared her throat with a sip of electrolyte water from yet another packet. She was still drained, but no longer feeling debilitated as she had back when needing help to drain that very first one. “…Would you mind letting them in?”
“Sure. There’s enough food left to share,” he joked. “But you should come with me, so they know they’ve got the right shuttle.”
“Of course,” she murmured, and pushed to her feet, wiping her fingers on the napkin thing.
“This is the only space-faring military shuttle in the entire landing zone, so you’d think they got it right,” A’sha retorted dryly.
“We still don’t know military designs from civilian ones at a glance,” Jackie countered. “To be fair, you wouldn’t be able to tell ours apart, either.”
“True. And yes, there’s enough food left to share. Unless there’s like a dozen of them.”
“No, just two,” Nakko said, tipping his head at the side airlock door..
“Wait a moment—just two?” A’sha called after them, misunderstanding the conversation. “Your ships are crewed by just two people?”
“Six, actually. Two pilots, two navigators, two other crew members,” Jackie admitted. At the other woman’s gaping look, she shrugged and spread her hands. “They’re not very big ships.”
“You must have a tiny Army…” A’sha muttered, staring in disbelief.
“It’s only our interstellar capability that’s currently tiny in proportion to the rest.” She left the hold, following Nakko to the airlock. He opened the door, extended the ramp, then stepped back so Jackie could step into view and lift her hand in greeting. She switched to Terranglo, addressing them. “Captain Mamani, yes? And…Lieutenant Commander Paroquet?”
“That’s me, the Flying Auk,” the short, stocky man responded, poking his thumb at his chest. He mock-flapped his elbows and grinned, his teeth a white line in the circle of his tanned face, visible in the fading light of local sunset. “Glad to see you alive and safe, Ambassador.”
“If you’ll come with us to our ship, Ambassador,” Captain Mamani added to Jackie, gesturing behind her at the familiar yet foreign OTL ship that had landed a short distance away with a deep brown hand, “we’ll get you broadcasting right away.”
“We can’t take off immediately, though,” the lieutenant commander warned her, holding up his hand. “We still need time to process fuel. Maneuvers to avoid all that fighting ate up a chunk of our reserves.”
“I’m still eating supper,” Jackie demurred. She switched back to V’Dan. “Why don’t the two of you come aboard and have a bite to eat while I finish my meal?”
Mamani eyed her with a touch of skepticism in those dark brown eyes, though she moved toward the shuttle readily enough. “I thought you were in a hurry to get back online, and to get yourself back to V’Dan.”
“I am,” Jackie replied in kind, guessing the woman was still speaking Terranglo out of discretion’s sake. “But my partner and I are on the verge of KI-shock. Food and water are more important at the moment. And please speak V’Dan to be polite. I know Aixa transferred it to both of you.”
“Ah. That makes sense. Hello,” the captain added in V’Dan, nodding to Nakko as she reached the top of the boarding steps. “I am Captain Sharon Mamani. You are the captain of this vessel?”
“The pilot, since it’s just a shuttle. Leftenant Nakko Shi’uln,” he introduced himself.
Mamani glanced at Jackie. “He’s related to that green-spotted woman that tried to…?”
Jackie quickly shook her head. “That was Shi’ol Nanu’oc. This is Nakko Shi’uln.”
“Ah, my apologies for the confusion,” Mamani offered. “The names are similar.”
“That’s okay. I wouldn’t want to be mistaken for her, either. You also say ‘ah’ a lot,” Nakko offered, smiling. “You’ll get along fine with my superior. Leftenant Superior A’sha-rayn Ka’atieth. And…Thass-mi, Tha Fly-yeeng’ock, was it?” he added to the man following her.
The Terran male gaped for a moment, then laughed, teeth gleaming white in his tanned face. “My name is Julio Paroquet. My family name, Paroquet, means ‘auk,’ which is a type of sea bird. My nickname is the Flying Auk because I am a pilot,” he explained. “So, I literally said, translated, ‘That’s me, the Flying Auk.’ It’s a pun, since I’m a pilot and my name…eh, nevermind,” the lieutenant dismissed. “I’m a Lieutenant First Grade, the equivalent of one of your Leftenant Superiors. Don’t mind the joke.”
“No, I get it. I’m sure it’s even funnier in the original language,” Nakko allowed. “Thank you for explaining. Welcome aboard Shuttle 205-671, nicknamed the Leaping Kitten. It’s a lot funnier in our language when you know the parent ship was named for the roar a wild g’at makes when it attacks.”
Paroquet smiled warmly. “It’s nice to know awkwardness is a species trait—that’s a joke as well. It’s only funnier in a psychological language, of course.”
“I thought it was funnier in a metaphorical language, but that’s just my opinion,” Nakko retorted. Both men grinned. He gestured at the others, leading the way into the main cabin. “Come on inside. Meioas, these are Captain Ma’mani and Leftenant Par’o-kay.”
“I suggest we continue to use first names, since this is hardly the Winter Palace. Or the Summer. Or even a pleasure yacht. That’s Nakko, this is A’sha, you already know Jackie, and of course myself as Li’eth.”
“Ah. Sharon, then,” Mamani said, flicking her hand at herself, then at her fellow officer. “And he’s Jack.”
“Any relation?” A’sha asked, digging through the delivery bags for a few more umma. “Jackie, Jack?”
“None that we’re aware of,” Paroquet stated, holding up his hands.
“Nobody’s related to anybody closely, in the expedition forces,” Jackie added, gesturing for the others to settle picnic-style on the deckplates, since there was no table. Her fellow Terrans shifted into sitting positions on the floor where indicated without a qualm, allowing her to join them and pick up her spork to continue poking at the much-needed and rather tasty food.
“Why aren’t there any relatives?” Nakko asked, curious. “Are you forbidden from having relatives serve at the same time in your military, as the Imperial Tier is?”
“We do have siblings who serve, but they’re rarely posted in the same region,” Jackie replied. “That minimizes a loss to a bloodline.”
“It’s similar to the Imperial Tier’s ruling of only one prince or princess serving in the military at a time, but in their case, it’s mostly because they have very small family sizes,” Li’eth added. “Earth, the Motherworld, is very crowded. They’ve been limiting their population sizes for…uhh…a hundred years?”
“About a hundred and thirty-seven, actually, but we had a two-generation easement, about thirty-six years, to replenish the numbers decimated by the AI War,” Jackie stated.
“Artificial Intelligences that got out of hand,” Captain Mamani explained at their blank looks. “Between excellent healthcare, longevity treatments that keep us functioning well into our eighties and nineties, constantly improving safety features in various jobs, and a lack of serious wars, we’ve been forced to stick strictly to a two-child system, with only an occasional lottery drawing for a third whenever premature deaths have reduced the population pressures.”
Both A’sha and Nakko wrinkled their noses. A’sha put her spork back in her bowl, her appetite clearly affected. “…That’s awful.”
“I’ll bet your people are eager to sign up for a chance to fight for colony space,” Nakko added.
“To a point.” Sharon glanced at Jackie, who nodded, giving her permission to be honest. She accepted the spork A’sha handed over with a nod of thanks, and carefully added, “We’re not as keen to live under the rules of your Empire as we are to live under the rules of our own. It’s what we’re used to, after all, and we’ll react with instincts attuned to the rhythm of our own culture before any others.”
“It’s what we know and like best, and for us, it works,” Jackie added, making a mental reminder to put a note of praise on the captain’s file for her diplomatic phrasing. “Try the dish with the blue lumps. They’re a tasty local vine-nut of some sort.”
The other two Terrans tried some of the local food. A’sha helped them figure out what everything was by referencing the diagrammed printouts once again, and the conversations revolved around food, exports, imports, colony life, flavors, who got the last scrapings of the last few dishes, and other cheerful topics.
About fifteen minutes later—V’Dan or Terran, it didn’t matter—Jackie nodded slowly in a pause between conversations. “…That should do it. I think I can keep going another hour or two, before I’ll need sleep. You?” she asked Li’eth.
“If I don’t fall asleep from the food,” he agreed, “then yes, I should be good for a few hours as well.”
“This meal was good, but we should get you back to our ship, check in and let everyone know you’re okay,” Mamani agreed.
“I’m surprised you were so close to our hail,” A’sha offered, glancing at the Terran woman.
“We’d gone to one of the Chinsoiy systems to deliver a hyperrelay and were already on our way back to Earth for more via the Gatsugi route, when the recall went out with the closing of the embassy. If that happened, we had orders to return to V’Dan to help pack up and pick up everyone still on your capital world,” Mamani stated in explanation. “You’re just blindly lucky we hadn’t left this system yet.
“Captain Charboli and I were both in orbit for our mandatory rest breaks between jumps when the relays came back online and told us the embassy had been reopened. He was on the far side of the planet from the fighting, though, so he was free to go farther out when the fighting started happening. We were debating what to do when we picked up the Ambassador’s call, since we have no current orders to stay and fight. Just standing orders to cut and run if things go bad,” she added.
“Oh?” Nakko asked between bites. “You make that sound like you have to be given specific orders to fight.”
“We still have a limited number of ships. The 14—our ship—decided to stay in close proximity to live-broadcast the battle to the Terran version of your info-matrices, so if nothing else, everyone would have the latest battle intel even if we weren’t actively in the war. I’ll admit your broadcast caught us off our guard, Jackie,” she said, twisting to follow Jackie, who had stood to fetch her black uniform jacket.
“That’s an understatement,” her junior officer told them, swallowing a mouthful of something like cooked greens, only they were purple in hue. “The embassy’s closed…the embassy’s open…the Salik are attacking, and the Ambassador’s in the system, when moments ago, she was sixteen lightyears away. Bad news followed by good news followed by awful news followed by weird news,” Paroquet listed, flicking his spork with each point being made. “It’s been a very strange past few days.”
“Imagine it from my end of things,” Jackie replied. “I can only imagine how this is going to tangle up everything even more, before we can get it all straightened out.”
“We can easily get you back to V’Dan if you order it, Ambassador,” the captain offered. She twisted the other way to eye Li’eth. “And you, Your Highness…unless there’s a reason why you’re out here? Ah. Wait, you are going back to V’Dan, right? Both of you? Or since you’re still in their military, are you actually under orders to go elsewhere, Your Highness?”
Li’eth shook his head. “Those orders are… It’s complicated. But I am going back to V’Dan, yes. I need to hand myself over to the Tier Advocates.”
“The who what, now?” Paroquet asked, looking up from scraping out the last scraps of food from one of the delivery boxes.
Jackie twisted to look at Li’eth, buttoning up her jacket. She knew what they were, since they were very much a part of the Empire’s government system, but she didn’t know why he mentioned them now. “Why are you handing yourself to the Tier Advocates?”
“It was the only way to get out from under Vi’alla’s orders regarding me,” he explained. They hadn’t had time or energy to discuss these things until now, food being a priority. “Even then, it barely worked.”
“Your m…the Empress rescinded those orders,” Jackie told him, correcting herself. The V’Dan people—including Li’eth himself—tended to refer to Empress Hana’ka formally most of the time. Even when he was talking about her as his own mother.. “She revoked and rescinded all orders made by Imperial Princess Regent Vi’alla which affected my people. As you are my Gestalt partner, and deliberate separation of Gestalt partners is against Terran law as well as Terran custom, those orders are also revoked. Both our governments agree to it, before I vanished.”
“Well, that’s good to know now,” he retorted sarcastically, flicking a hand skyward. “But I made that decision hours ago, to keep from being sedated and hauled even farther away, to Saints’ know where! That decision cannot be revoked by any outside authority, not even Her Eternity. The Tier Advocates alone must agree to release me from their jurisdiction…and they may choose not to do that. It’s a small possibility, but a very real one.”
“Why wouldn’t they do that?” Paroquet asked him.
“Politics,” Mamani replied sagely, even though she wasn’t V’Dan. “Keeping an Imperial Prince under their jurisdiction would give them clout with the Empress.” She shook her head, her black braid sliding over her shoulders. “No matter how far we roam, no matter the star systems we visit, it all boils down to death, taxes, and politics—no offense, Ambassador.”
“None taken,” Jackie murmured.
A’sha nodded sagely, if mock-sadly. “Ah. We have a similar saying.”
Jackie crossed to Li’eth and offered her hands to help him up. “I’m well aware that sometimes a government official has to do something that isn’t generous and free. Actions have value as well as consequences, and that value can be a tool for creating leverage in negotiations. A bargaining chip, as we say.”
“Then I hope you’ll flex some of those political bargaining tools on my behalf, Grand High Ambassador,” he replied, accepting her help in rising. He started to say more, then blinked and eyed the shuttle around them a moment. Frowning, he turned his gaze to the two V’Dan. “What’s the news from the J’ung Shan G’at?”
“Officially, we were detached to go with you,” Nakko countered. “I don’t think it’s healthy for us to go against those orders, so don’t expect us to want to go back. If you’re looking at what to do about this shuttle, which is technically still the G’at’s property, they can send a spare pilot to come pick it up. Otherwise, wherever you go, we go, since we were attached to your command.”
“He’s right,” his superior said. A’sha shrugged and gestured at the mostly empty containers on the floor, continuing in a light, dry tone. “You made the mistake of feeding us. Now you have to bring us home.”
That made Jackie, Paroquet, and Mamani all laugh in amusement. The Ambassador grinned at her, speaking. “That’s another saying we have in common, then. I’m constantly amazed at the things we still have in common despite ten millenia of difference.”
“Even the Chinsoiy have a similar attitude,” Nakko told her. “It seems to be a common habit of most sentientkind to have pets, and to feel a responsibility for strays.” He started gathering up the containers. “Let’s take a few moments to secure the shuttle here, then we’ll come along. If that’s alright? Otherwise, we’ll be stuck sitting around doing nothing while you’re gone.”
“I’ll need to have the Ambassador’s permission to use one of her vessels,” Li’eth pointed out. “I was supposed to go with a local Advocate representative on a V’Dan ship.”
“I’ll grant you permission, without a doubt,” Jackie confirmed. “Where you go, I go, and the other way around. And I’ll not leave behind your soldiers if I can help it. There should be room for them.”
“If it’s just these two, there will be,” Mamani confirmed, poking her thumb at the V’Dan.
Jackie nodded. “But let’s check in with the Tier Advocates directly, via hyperrelay, as well as with my people, the V’Dan military, the Empress, and I don’t know who else at this point. We can use Captain Charboli’s ship to relay, since he’s still up in orbit, yes?”
“Ready and waiting, Ambassador,” the captain confirmed.
“Then that’s good news. Let’s tidy up so we can get going,” A’sha agreed, moving to help Nakko with the rubbish of their meal. She paused after a moment, though, craning her neck to look up at Jackie. “You know…you’re handling all of this rather calmly, Meioa Ambassador. A sudden translocation of lightyears within an instant would probably find me feeling more than a bit hysterical. Add on top of that all of us nearly dying multiple times on our way down here…you are remarkably calm, given all of that.”
“I’m not too surprised. Terran soldiers are trained to think through and past our emotions,” Paroquet told her, gathering up his share of the empty containers and stacking them together.
“So are V’Dan soldiers,” A’sha replied dryly, arching her brow. “Do you doubt it? But even the best of training can be forgotten in the face of an unbelievable shock.”
“We do believe your people have the same training. But for one, I already knew such a thing was possible, if not necessarily over that distance. For another, I’m also exhausted, too tired to react strongly to anything, right now,” Jackie confessed wryly. “If I stop to think about it, yes, I start to feel extremely weird about it. But as there is literally nothing I can do to change the situation, nothing anyone can do to put things back as they were…and several reasons to let things stay as they now are…
“Well, the best thing I can do is breathe deeply, let go my unnerved feelings, and just accept that this is my current reality. It is unnerving, yes, but I am here and I have to deal with what is, not what I want to be.” She looked at Li’eth. “On the bright side…I’m no longer feeling like half of my whole universe was ripped from my side.”
“That’s…actually a little bit romantic,” Paroquet offered, tipping his head.
“It’s actually a pain in the spine, not nearly so romantic,” Li’eth replied tartly. He handed over his eating utensils to be tucked into the shuttle’s self-cleaning storage compartment.
“Okay, that is un-romantic. What do you see in this v’kon-shin?” Nakko asked Jackie.
“Uhh…I’m not familiar with that word,” she hedged. Tired as she was, Jackie could not dredge it up out of her vocabulary
“It’s a slang for…ah, the closest Terranglo epithet would be ‘bastard,’ even though it technically means something entirely different,” her Gestalt partner explained. “And we both acknowledged long ago that our Gestalt is more problematical than helpful, given our respective political positions.”
“Suffers to be you, then,” Nakko muttered. “No offense intended, just sympathy.”
“None taken,” Li’eth replied. “Let’s finish getting this shuttle prepped for lockdown, so we can take you with us.”