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April 24, 2287 Terran Common Era (C.E.)
Dember 17, 9507 V’Dan Standard (V.D.S.)
TUPSF Embassy 1, V’Dan System
Getting changed in zero gravity was not easy. Clothing did not “fall naturally into place,” but had to be tugged this way and that. Hemlines remained rumpled unless pulled straight and tucked into waistbands and so forth. And a skirt? Forget it. Forget all skirt-like objects in the weightlessness of insystem space. Jacaranda MacKenzie might wish to dress in a formal outfit to properly represent the people of the Terran United Planets, and she had brought skirts for when they were in a gravitied environment, but she was not doing so in a skirt in zero G.
That meant donning her military uniform. No longer a mere Major, equal in rank to their pilot, Commander Robert Graves, she had been promoted to the rank of Colonel. It was an awkward promotion, but the new, revised regulations on how an embassy should be conducted included the fact that all military operations within that embassy’s jurisdiction had to have civilian oversight.
Just as the highest ranked officers of the Space Force reported to the Secondaire and the Premiere of the Terran United Planets Council, all of the military personnel headed to V’Dan space had to report to the Ambassador. Which meant she had to outrank all of the personnel who were already assigned, and who possibly could be assigned, to her jurisdiction. By preference, she would defer as quickly as possible to Secondaire Pong and Premiere Callan…but should circumstances isolate the embassy, they had to have a clear-cut leader.
Jackie didn’t feel like she was qualified, but Rosa McCrary had confined to her in private that she, too, had never felt like she was qualified to lead the military during her tenure as Premiere. Still, Jackie only had to don her shirt with its silver eagles on the collar points and shoulder boards. She wasn’t the Commander-in-Chief, and she never would be at the rate things were going, and that was just fine by her.
They did have an illusion of microgravity on board the Embassy 1, but only because the ship was gradually slowing down in its approach to the planet V’Dan. That meant anyone or anything unsecured had a habit of “drifting” forward into bulkheads and doors. Jackie was somewhat used to zero gravity maneuvers and could sort of brace herself telekinetically, but that did nothing for hemlines. Or fellow travelers.
“Ah, sorry!” Ayinda muttered for the third time as she swayed and bumped into Jackie’s back. “Sorry, Jackie… At least we won’t have to deal with this for much longer. Right?”
“They did promise us quarantine facilities with full artificial gravity,” Jackie replied, adjusting her pant cuffs. Today’s outfit was a white shirt, black slacks with gray and blue stripes down the outer sides, black socks, and black shoes. Lace-ups, which meant having to fuss with the ties.
“Si,” Maria de la Santoya agreed, speaking in Spanish. “But from what I learned from our guests, the facilities are military-grade at best. No paintings, no cushions, no artworks, no colors…”
Jackie gave up after only a half-hearted try sent her twisting awkwardly and focused her thoughts while Maria spoke, lacing them telekinetically. Still, the doctor’s words had to be addressed. Sort of.
“Speak in V’Dan, Maria,” she reminded the doctor. “We all have to speak it from now on, unless we’re talking to the folks back home.”
Everyone on this expedition spoke V’Dan, the language of their forthcoming hosts. She and a handful of other telepathic polyglots had spent hours and days transferring the language over and over just to ensure everyone who came along would be able to speak, read, and write in their host nation’s tongue. Perhaps not with complete fluency, which would only come with practice, but Jackie was good at psychic language transference.
They also all spoke Terranglo, obviously, but Jackie had wisely suggested a third language. Maria would have preferred Spanish—Terranglo was predominantly English with some Spanish mixed in—but for security reasons, Mandarin had been selected. Mandarin was not in the least bit related to the European languages underlying Terranglo. The phoenetically-written form of Mandarin had been transferred in its full to each embassy member, but so had a good chunk of classic ideographic Mandarin as well. That would give them a shorthand way to pass messages with a minimum of writing.
“Sorry,” Maria apologized. “I think first in Spanish, not in Terranglo, let alone V’Dan. I’ll be very bored in quarantine when I am not working, if the quarters are as dull as we were warned. Unless they exaggerated.”
“From what I gathered, they are indeed that dull. We will have the equally dubious joys of learning V’Dan etiquette while stuck in cramped quarters,” Jackie added, sorting through her bags of jewelry. “But I’ve conferred with Rosa on some ways to keep us constructively occupied. Games and such that’ll engage bodies and minds, and our new vocabularies…”
Adding a necklace was also not a good idea in zero-G, but Jackie did have a pin formed from the ideogram for Double Happiness crafted from silver and a rich blue cloissonné. Deciding it would suit the neckline of her blouse, Jackie started to pin it on. An inbound blob of brown and black warned her in time to quickly angle the pin in her hand out of reach even as she flung up her arm to physically cushion the woman drifting her way.
“Sorry!” Lieutenant Jasmine Buraq apologized, quickly twisting and grabbing at the nearest handles. “My toes slipped out of the grips when the ship altered speed.”
“No harm done, but everyone hold on just in case, while I pin this thing on my shirt,” Jackie said. “I don’t need to go into this first meeting bleeding.
Jasmine twisted around, orienting herself upside-down to the other woman. “Let me get that for you, since we don’t have a mirror in here. Centered, right? Got it… It goes a little weird with the silver eagles,” she added as her fingers worked deftly. “But not too badly. There, centered. At least, upside-down.”
“I have to remind the grunts somehow that I’m still a civilian as well as their superior officer,” Jackie joked mildly. Her own toes were firmly lodged under a set of hand grips. The ship braked again, though this time to the side, making everything first sway, then feel briefly heavier as their bodies pressed againt the ship. She quickly pushed against the bulkhead, then clung to a handgrip when they shifted direction yet again.
Commander Robert Graves’ voice came over the speakers in the crew cabin. “Sorry for the rough maneuvers, folks. We’re getting some last minute changes in our approach vectors from our hosts. ETA to buckle-up time, ten minutes.”
“Lock and Web, ladies,” Jasmine reminded the others in the crew. There were five guards on this ship, not including herself, three of them women. All of the females floating in the cabin, Jackie included, started packing away everything that was floating and bumping against the cabin walls. It wasn’t as if there was anyone else available to do it; while they were a fairly large expedition compared to the usual skeletal scoutship crews, everyone had to be their own janitor as well as whatever other role they were meant to fill.
For safety’s sake, the embassy staff, guard contingent, and their V’Dan guests had been broken up across several ships. Rosa McCrary, former Premiere and Jackie’s backup for the post of Ambassador, was on a different ship specifically in case one of their vessels emerged from hyperspace and smacked into an as-yet untracked asteroid or something. It was a very, very small possibility given the vastness of space and the fact that they had done some previous astronomical surveys along the route, but nobody wanted to take chances by placing all their important people on one ship.
The last time that had happened…it had been on the Councilor One. Thanks to the efforts of a criminal with a serious grudge and too much technical knowledge, Jackie’s own grandfather had died, along with a lot of other Councilors, and even some Advisors. Several safety laws had been enacted since then, some of them common sense, and some of them perhaps a bit redundant and old-fashioned, but ones which had saved lives since them.
The only exception to that rule was placing Imperial Prince Kah’raman Li’eth V’Daania on the same ship as the premiere Terran ambassador, Jacaranda MacKenzie. That was a necessity, because Li’eth and Jackie were in the earliest confirmed stages of forming a Gestalt bond, a sort of psychic quantum entanglement of their minds and mental powers.
Separating a Gestalt pair brought on mental, emotional, and even physical distress, something which the Terrans had learned over nearly two centuries of scientific study of verifiable psi phenomena. It could be done for short distances and for short durations, but that was it. Putting the thirdborn child of the Empress of V’Dan through unnecessary torment was not considered diplomatically appropriate, and so onto the Embassy 1 he went.
He, of course, was changing in one of the other long, rectangular cabins, bumping elbows with some of the men. Just as she turned to pull herself out of the crew quarters, Jackie heard with both her ears and her mind his exclamation of pain.
“…Ai!” (Saints take you!)
(…?) Jackie queried. She got an impression of someone’s foot having shoved—accidentally—against his face. At least he knew it was an accident; the soldier’s quick, almost babbled apology was sincere.
(I will be deeply grateful for the day when your people install artifical gravity on all your Saints-be-damned ships,) Li’eth groused. (No offense meant; I know you lack our tech, just as we lack yours.)
Jackie, mindful of the others waiting for her to move, pulled herself through the doorway and hovered in the middle passage out of the way while Ayinda and the rest scattered to find their assigned docking seats. She had to wait for Li’eth, since she had the aisle seat for their place in the cockpit. Waiting patiently, she could sense him putting away a few last items and latching the cupboards. (None taken, don’t worry. Even I could wish for artificial gravity—whup!)
The ship swayed again, and she had to clutch at the handgrips, steadying herself with her mind. The others yelped, and there was at least one thump of flesh into bulkheads that she could hear. Luckily, no one seemed hurt.
“Again my apologies, folks,” their pilot called out over the intercom. “Apparently, they’re having to calibrate the automated defenses to accept us as ‘friendlies’ on their Friend-or-Foe targetting programs. That means a lot of quick responses to course changes, to prove we’re willing to go wherever they tell us.”
(I could wish your people weren’t at war, so such things wouldn’t be necessary,)Jackie sighed.
(You wish it?) he challenged dryly. Pulling himself through the hatchway, he reached out a hand to her. She touched it in brief physical reassurance, then caught his lightly shod foot and helped him angle his way into the cockpit. “Swimming” after him, she pulled herself into the foremost cabin, waited for him to strap himself into his seat, then followed suit.
The intercom activated again after three more minutes and two more course changes.“Lieutenant Buraq to Commander Graves; all cabins are secure. I repeat, all cabins are secure. I am the last thing Locked and Webbed.”
“Understood, Lieutenant. ETA to docking…roughly fifteen minutes at this rate,” Robert stated, checking his instrument overlays on the main viewscreen. “But better slow than sorry.”
“Better secured than sorry,” Jasmine returned. “Buraq out.”
Li’eth, peering through the viewports beyond the transparent piloting screens, pointed. He leaned in close to Jackie, gripping their shared console so that he didn’t twist the wrong way in his seat. “There it is! V’Dan, Motherworld of the Empire…if no longer the Motherworld of our race,” he allowed. “That’s the night side, and…from the outlines of all the city glow…that’s Ashuul, the main continent of what we call the eastern hemisphere.
“The Autumn and Winter Temples are located there. The Winter Palace, too, which is where we’ll be headed after quarantine. Winter came early this year, so you’ll miss out on the autumn holy days, but by the time we get out of quarantine, it should be in time to see the winter festivals getting started.”
Ayinda, strapped into the navigator’s seat, pointed slightly to the right of dead-ahead. “There it is, people. Dusk Army Station. Our home away from…embassy, I guess, since we’re already away from home.”
“It’s big,” Brad murmured, peering out the front window. “Very big.”
The only reason Brad Colvers was with them was that he had finally agreed to a telepathic language transfer. The co-pilot could speak V’Dan was thanks to one of her fellow telepathic translators, Lieutenant First Class Darian Johnston, stepping up to do it for Jackie. Neither she nor the co-pilot had wanted to merge minds for two to five hours. To his credit, Brad had only taken three and a half hours to make the transfer, half an hour longer than average, and far less than the strenuously resisting five that the V’Dan woman Shi’ol had taken.
“Unfortunately, the actual quarantine quarters are going to be cramped,” Jackie reminded the others. She settled her headset over her ear and turned it on to the channel Robert was monitoring. She had already announced their presence in the system two hours ago, when they had been about fifteen light-minutes out from the planet, and had confirmed among themselves the safe arrival of all fifteen Embassyclass ships. Nothing but traffic lane course corrections reached her ears.
The Terran version of quarantine had only needed to deal with just over a dozen people at most: five V’Dan guests, six original Terran crewmembers, and three additional guests, being two pathologists and a psi trainer. Then again, they had primitive wheel-spun space stations that were rather small compared to the bulk of the station that lay almost directly ahead. The V’Dan had more than four hundred years of space exploration and colonization, plus artificial gravity.
Dusk Army looked like a hamburger to Jackie. A giant metal hamburger, nothing more than a cylinder ridged and ringed along the sides with sensors and shuttered observation ports in place of the bumps and ridges of meat patties and vegetables, with domes at either end representing the buns. Tiny oblongs of light were windows; even tinier pinpricks were sources of light. “Anyone know where we’ll be parking?”
Her quip was taken seriously. Robert lifted his chin at their destination. “I had a bit of a chat with Docking Control while half of you were still waking up from your pre-jump nap and getting a meal. They’re not used to so many small ships needing to go into quarantine all at once. They have enough space for this ship and two more of our more normal-sized ships in the quarantine section’s hangar bay, but the rest will have to stack and rack on three docking gantries.”
(Stack and rack?) Li’eth asked, glancing at Jackie for enlightenment. (I didn’t even think to ask where all these ships will park, but what does he mean by that.)
(These ships have dorsal and ventral airlocks—the ones on the topside and the underbelly normally aren’t used save in an emergency, or for stack and rack parking,) she explained, dredging the details out of her memory. It was from her training days shortly before the Aloha 9 had encountered the Salik warship holding Li’eth and his crew. (In the event of an emergency, a line of ships can be linked up airlock to airlock., each one parking at a right-angle to the one below it, belly to back. You can stack them left-right-left-right, or in a left-hand or right-hand spiral, or even nose-to-toes, alternating the opposite way. The tailfin just clears the wings.)
(Why do I get the feeling there’s a story behind that design?) Li’eth asked her.
(Because you’re getting better at reading subthoughts?) Jackie offered. Her eyes were on the station they were approaching, but her inner thoughts were on her training lectures. (There was a bad case of carbon dioxide scrubbers on three of the earliest Aloha models. One of them went to the rescue of the other…and then their atmo-scrubber broke down, which required calling in a third ship. There was a lot of awkward maneuvering, of coupling and decoupling. None of the hulls were damaged, but all three sets of pilots and co-pilots complained so much to the design teams that they wrapped up production on the Aloha models and immediately modified the next generation to include stackable airlocks.
(Don’t worry,) she added in reassurance, catching his own subthoughts. (All of those scrubber models were replaced and all of the replacement parts as well, with the new ones triple-checked before being installed. The last of the Aloha Class came into use round about the time I was recalled to active duty; the rest have been coming off the production line.)
(And your people put together fifteen new ships in just a couple of months?) Li’eth asked her, impressed.
(It didn’t take that much to redesign the hulls,) she countered. (The airlocks were already a long-proven design leftover from modular supply depot construction. The exact same type of depots we stopped at for resupply on the way here, in fact. Even the 1, here, was already under construction when the hatchways were added for modification. The body’s thicker, the wings a little broader, but it’s still modular construction. The hardest part was rerouting the conduits, and that wasn’t all that difficult.)
(Duly noted. I suppose I should remind myself that your ships are a fraction of the size of ours. Ours can take anywhere from half a year to two years to build,) Li’eth admitted. (But then again, they’re a lot bigger, and they don’t make you feel sick each time they travel from star system to star system.)
(Plus you get an actual private cabin, rather than a shared one,) she agreed. That in turn conjured up a strong subthought of his, of how cramped the quarters were no doubt going to be.
(195 people is a lot of people to put into quarantine, even if some of them are going to be manning some of those docked ships,) he pointed out. Even he knew that much, that the Terrans were going to keep some of their ships fully crewed and prepared for departure at a moment’s notice during the quarantine period. As soon as they were cleared to depart quarantine and had ferried their personnel to the surface, several of those ships were going to deliver precious telecommunications gifts to other worlds in the known galaxy, while the embassy staff set up and got ready for a formal introduction to the Alliance.
(At least we convinced them to put all the psis into their own shared quarters,)Jackie said. Then wrinkled her nose. (At least, I think we got it through to them.)
Jackie had brought four other polyglot telepaths with her on this expedition. That had taken away almost half of her people’s most powerful psychic translators. It was deemed necessary, though. With their new potential allies embroiled in an interstellar war, the faster both sides could communicate with each other, the better it would be for everyone involved.
Two of them were even xenopaths. Unlike Darian Johnston, whose military commission—like Jackie’s—had been reinstated for this mission, Aixa Winkler had never actually touched a fully sentient alien mind before. Johnston had served for ten years, and had faced down the Greys five times. Winkler didn’t have that kind of experience; isntead, she had served for decades as an animal rights advocate, communing with a wide variety of sub-sentient minds.
Min Wang-Kurakara was a newly minted junior grade officer. She had expectd to be sent on patrol ships to pay for her secondary career in engineering, being a technosentient psi as well as a polyglot telepath. Clees—Heracles Panaklion—had included in the Embassy not only because he was a polyglot psi, but a Psi League instructor. His official job would be to assess and offer training to any V’Dan psis, being certified for basic instruction in all known branches with two decades of practice at training and teaching.
He had also declared he would be the embassy’s chronicler, hauling along a variety of camera equipment, “…to capture the behind-the-scenes history in the making!” Jackie had a hard time imagining where the fifty-two-year-old got all his energy and enthusiasm. He hadn’t been one of her instructors—a case of her living all around the Pacific Ocean, while he had lived and taught around the Mediterranean Sea on the opposite side of the planet—but she had read the recommendations from many of his students, appended to his personnel file.
The lowest ranked telepaths were Johnston and Winkler, but low was comparative. At Rank 9 each, they were sensitive enough to pick up thoughts at a mere touch. Bunking with non-psis could lead to tensions and troubles whenever roommates might bump into each other, as they invariably would. Fellow psis could shield their own thoughts, true, but even if the mental walls weren’t up, they would be far more understanding and forgiving of any accidental touches leading to accidental eavesdropping.
Robert spoke, though not to her. Still, it drew Jackie’s attention back to the actual docking as he chatted with the station’s traffic managers. Dead ahead, the Dusk Army now filled most of the view through the forward windows. Not just the station, but a large, rounded rectangular set of doors that were sliding slowly open, revealing a well-lit interior.
Terran and V’Dan docking technology were not yet compatible, so Commander Graves was having to dock and land manually. Jackie suspected that the “course corrections” on approach were not only for the sake of the insystem defense grid, but to reassure the station’s traffic control center that he would heed verbal directions swiftly and accurately.
Her comm station pinged. As the chief pilot, Robert was in constant communication at this point with Dusk Army Traffic Control. That meant this was something else. Jackie noted that it was a video link, and opened the channel. The man who appeared on the screen had both mint and forest green stripes along each cheek and a stripe down the center of his scalp, tinting his brown hair. He wore a dark shade of green for his jacket with grass green lapels, cut vaguely along the lines of Li’eth’s Imperial Army uniform and decorated with gleaming silver buttons molded in a pattern of some sort of beast, but it was not an actual uniform.
She offered him a smile. “Greetings. You’ve reached the communications officer for the Embassy 1. How may we help you?”
Hazel eyes narrowing, he frowned at her. “…Aren’t you the ambassador, meioa? You look like her.”
“That is correct, but until I have disembarked from this particular ship, I am also its comm officer. How may I help you?” she repeated. On her left, Li’eth shifted a little closer, peering at the screen.
He gave her a look somewhere between puzzled and dubious. “…May I speak with your protocol officer?”
“That would be me as well. How may I help you, meioa…?” she asked, using the Alliance term for addressing someone politely. Without a suffix, it was gender neutral and thus considered very polite.
“That, Ambassador, is Imperial First Lord Mi-en Ksa’an,” Li’eth stated, leaning in even closer to Jackie. (I know him by sight,) he added quickly, telepathically, (but we rarely moved in the same social circles, for all that he’s a First Tier relative by four generations, if I remember correctly.) Out loud, he added, “Greetings, Ksa’an. Are you still working for the Protocol Ministry?”
“Yes…Your Highness. It is good to see that you are well. We will need to speak with these Terrans about the proper protocols for welcoming them into the Dusk Army’scontainment quarters,” the green-striped man stated.
Jackie eyed him. “I am confused as to the need for protocol, Imperial First Lord.”
He gave her a skeptical look in turn. “How so, Ambassador?
A sudden shift of the nose of their ship made everything sway forward and down. Robert cursed under his breath and corrected, compensating for the transfer from weightlessness to artificial gravity. It felt like Mars, lighter than it should be. Jackie swayed and clutched at her console, then breathed deep to adjust to the sudden need for supporting her own weight after fourteen days in space.
“Please remember that I am not V’Dan and do not understand nor grasp your customs…but I would think at this point we are medical patients. Where we come from, all patients are treated equally, save that their needs are based on a triage of whose is in the need of the most immediate attention. Since we are all healthy as we enter quarantine confinement, the only protocol that should then be followed is a security matter.”
“…Security?” the V’Dan on the other end of the linked screens asked.
“Yes. My head of security wishes for one of our doctors and some of his troops to tour and assess the quarantine facilities before I disembark,” Jackie told him. “This was outlined in the notes we sent through the hyperrelay node at your system’s edge—speaking of which, we have a satellite node ready to deploy. Your people have not yet indicated where you want it.”
“That is not my department, meioa,” the protocol lord demurred.
“Well, it will give me something to discuss with someone else while we wait for the team to make its assessment sweep. You can arrange that, yes?” she asked him.
“…Yes.” He didn’t look entirely pleased about that.
Jackie chose to address that skepticism with a dose of pragmatism. “My people have a saying. ‘Trust is earned, respected is given, and loyalty is demonstrated. Betrayal of any one of those is to lose all three.’ I believe the speaker was a fellow named Abdelnour from around three hundred years ago… This is the ‘trust is earned’ stage, meioa,” she clarified, using the Alliance’s preferred form of address, since she was still a bit unclear on what an Imperial First this or that Lord meant. “My people would like to trust yours, that your facilities are adequate for containing pathogens, and safe for us to live in for the duration of our quarantine stay. However, as this is an incredibly important meeting, my people need direct reassurance that everything is indeed safe.
“We would have extended the same courtesy to our guests, save that there were so few of them that it was simply easier to view and demonstrate everything in person, with no security chiefs demanding that their checklists of procedures and requirements be met,” she finished lightly. “There are 195 of us, and Captain al-Fulan takes his responsibility as our chief guardian seriously.”