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by

Vincent Berg


They make glorious shipwreck

who are lost in seeking worlds.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing

Lost with Nothing to Lose

Copyright © 2018 Vincent Berg, All right reserved.

Smashwords Edition

ISBN: 978-1- 941498-36-1

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

Product names, brands, and other trademarks referred to within this book are the property of their respective trademark holders. Unless otherwise specified, no association between the author and any trademark holder is expressed or implied. Nor does it express any endorsement by them, or of them. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, registered trademark, or service mark.

As always, I’d like to thank all of those who’ve put up with me during the highs and lows of this story’s creation. It’s hard supporting temperamental authors, and the rewards aren’t always as clear cut as more time and attention.

I’ve got a long line of people who’ve helped with the story, but I’d like to thank:

  • Editors: Gary Bywater, Harry Stephen Wood, Jim Whiteshield, Steve Mintz and Larry Reimer.

  • Cover image “spaceship and futuristic city” by innovari at Fotolia.

  • Chapter header and section break graphics, “set of text separator line” by Narong Jongsirikul from Fotolia.

  • Section break graphics:

I: "Mad ugly monster. Halloween." from yuriyzhuravov.

II: "View of Futuristic City. This image elements furnished by NASA" by Vadimsadovski.

III: "Battle Cruiser in Low Orbit - 1" by Algol.

IV: The illustration "Space Ships Meeting in Outer Space - science fiction illustration" by Algol.

V: "Space Battle Fleet Deployment" by Algol.

VI: "Science fiction illustration of an interplanetary spaceship flying away from a purple nebula in deep space, 3d digitally rendered illustration" by Algol.

Not-Quite Human

A group of misfits discover they have more in common than they do with their families and the rest of humanity. They set out to learn more about where they came from, and end up searching for their ancestral home, or at least somewhere they can call their own.

1) The Cuckoo’s Progeny
2) Lost with Nothing to Lose
3) Building a New Nest

A House in Disarray

A detective investigates her boss, the NYPD Police Commissioner, even as her own private life is thrown into disarray by the arrival of her sister-in-law and niece. A character driven study of when things fall apart.

Demonic Issues

When Phil Walker starts seeing the demons within, the world of those afflicted with mental illnesses radically changes, dragging Phil, the medical establishment and everyone else along with him as he combats demons, dragons and fairies.

1) The Demons Within
2) Speaking With Your Demons

The Zombie Leza

A woman shows up, a decade after the zombie apocalypse began, who lives, communicates and controls thousands of the undead. Whether she’s mankind’s last, best hope or the source of their ultimate demise is anyone’s guess.

The Nature of the Game

The athletes at Windsor High are aiming for careers in professional sports. They don’t like making waves. However, when Taylor meets the flamboyant Jacob in the drama department, there’s a distinct clash of cultures. Casual meetings under the bleachers risk not just public embarrassment, but the loss of millions in future earnings.

Singularity

An experimental interstellar space voyage goes horribly wrong and the unlucky test pilot ends up, unhurt, back home. He then struggles through internal, personal and Congressional investigations as he struggles to perceive exactly what he’s become.

Unwelcome Visitors

Unexpected visitors always upset a household, no matter everyone's intentions. But when the visitors are another species from a distant galaxy, all bets are off. This is a series of related stories describing the clash within humanity as they deal with the unknown, and how they either rise to the challenge or are destroyed by it.

1) Stranded in a Foreign Land
2) The Lad Who Poked the Devil in the Eye

The Great Death

A post-apocalypse series which takes a fresh look at an established genre. Instead of the survivors waking to find everyone gone only to fight among themselves, this series examines what it’s like to suffer through a mass-extinction, and how the people react to having experienced it afterwards.

1) Love and Hope During the Great Death
2) Grappling with Survival
3) Seeding Hope Among the Ashes

The Catalyst

The story of a young man who finds himself cast into the role of a leader of a religious movement through no actions of his own. Finding some people drawn to him, and others repelled, he and his sister struggle for explanations.

1) An Unknown Attraction
2) Trying To Be Normal
3) Normalcy Is Harder Than It Looks
4) Racing the Clock
5) Touring Under Pressure
6) Building a Legacy

Books and new stories can be found at:

www.vincentberg.com

Title Page

Reviews

Copyright

Acknowledgements

Other Books by the Author

Preface

01: Homeport Issues

I: Home, Unwelcoming Home

02: Immigration Control

03: Under Guard and Under Suspicion

04: Al’s Bluff Pans Out

II: Arrival At Tandor

05: Exploring an Alien World

06: Testing Their Limits

07: Preparing For War

08: Shipping Out

III: Heading to the Front

09: Scheming and Plotting

10: Unexpected Allies

11: More Machinations

12: Setting a Conspiracy in Motion

IV: Engaging the Enemy

13: Contact With the Enemy

14: Sneaking Out to Meet a Paramour

15: Crushing the Enemy

V: Delicate Negotiations

16: Returning Victors

17: Retribution

18: Repairing a Broken Truce

VI: Visiting Tandora

19: Hiding an Army

20: Showdown With an Emperor

21: And the Cycle Begins Again

Note From the Author

Character List

Bibliography

About the Author

The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper,

and re-imagines the world.

Malcolm Gladwell

A brief word, before the story begins, about some of the conventions used.

Telepathic messages, the dialogue shared between one character’s mind and the next, is denoted with a combination of single quotes and italics, as the following sample demonstrates.

Zita, I need a little assistance here!

You’ll also notice that many of the telepathic communications begin with a comment about their communicating via Zita’s links—since Zita is the telepathic communications expert, and the only one with the required quantum links the others don’t have. This was a holdover from the first book, “The Cuckoo’s Progeny”, which originally handled these communications in plain text dialogues (with only the text-based acknowledgments).

There are also frequent mentions of both “homeworld” and “home worlds”. A culture’s original home world is their “homeworld”, while each individual species has their own “home world”, where their people originated on.

Finally, the epigraphs (the literary quotes at the start of each chapter) need some explanation. Instead of having to jump to the end of the book and search for each quote, I figured few readers would really care whether most quotes were properly validated. But, if you want to use one of the epigraphs yourself, if you see one you like, just click on the name and it will automatically take you to the proper source, and then, when you’ve gotten the information, just click on the epigraph reference and it will take you back to the chapter you were at initially.

The gods, too, are fond of a joke.

Aristotle

Gary entered the common room and threw his data packet on the table. “I’m telling you, for as exciting as I expected space travel to be, it’s boring as hell! All I do, every day, is study. I mean, I take frequent breaks to work out, trying to break the monotony, but the food is tasteless, there’s no damn entertainment, and the workload is a killer!”

“I know what you mean,” Delilah said. “The gym is nice, but the equipment clearly wasn’t designed for humans.”

“Speak for yourself,” Eli replied, smiling. “The educational opportunities are amazing. I’m learning things undreamt of back on Earth. I’m already miles ahead of the best minds back home, and yet, there’s always more to learn. We’re talking almost a thousand years of education just waiting for us to get to it all.”

“Yeah,” Gary groused. “Your brain was modified to learn new skills and analyze data easily, but for those like Delilah and I, used to frequent physical exertion, it’s frustrating. Hours of studying: languages, physics, chemistry, biology, history. I need regular exercise to keep my head on straight. Without working out, my mind gets overwhelmed and I can’t retain the information. I’m unable to absorb anything unless I clear my mind with exercise again. Months spent doing nothing but studying is wearing.”

“You should try a spacewalk,” Lamar teased. “Not only is it astonishingly beautiful, but you feel your place among the universe. With no nearby sunlight obscuring everything, the cosmos opens up like never before. To quote the movie 2001, ‘there are stars everywhere’.”

“It’s remarkable,” Be observed, “just a short time ago, you had a terrible lisp, making you hard to understand, and now it’s completely gone.”

“It’s not so remarkable,” Xi said, grinning. “We worked together to correct it.”

“But aren’t lisps more psychological than physical?” Theo asked.

“They are, but still, handling both at the same time speeds things up. Once I got his aids working on it, his confidence shot up and his lisp disappeared.”

“At least you could before we entered the Tandori system,” Mui replied. “While the views are still spectacular, we’re witnessing things unimaginable on Earth. This is the first foreign solar system, complete with inhabited planets, any human has ever witnessed.”

“Just be glad it isn’t more exciting,” Al quipped, entering the common room midway into the discussion, as he often did. “Unlike the rest of you, for me this trip was harrowing, faced with the potential for cataclysmic disaster on an hourly basis. If I made a single mistake, none of you would even realize it. Since the ship travels at near the speed of light, it’s impossible to travel and remain aware of what’s ahead of us. With our increased mass, hitting even a miniscule object would obliterate us! We’re traveling so fast, I barely have enough warning to determine whether we were plunging into disaster, with only minutes to change our forward momentum. I’m relieved to be out of open space.

“I’ll tell you, despite my assigned role in this, I’m not cut out for it. I was in college, studying a few hours each day and relaxing the rest of the time with few responsibilities. Now, I’m facing life or death decisions every moment. What’s more, while you’ve been preparing for the transition, I’ve barely had time to learn basic Tandori. Once we reach Tandor, I’m out of it. Since you won’t require me to anticipate anything, I’m crashing. The rest of you can deal with the bureaucracy on your own, but I’m only doing what’s absolutely required. Hopefully, they'll understand what being an Intuit is like and not ask too much of me as we get settled in.”

The crew—what there was of it on the huge Tandorian ship—was composed of a ragtag group with little in common besides their non-human origin. Because of the tampering by the original crew, each felt a kinship with each other, but felt separated from the rest of humanity. Their foreheads and wrists were tagged with their Tandorian rank, but they knew nothing of their history until finally discovering the ship now taking them to an unimaginable land. Aside from knowing they were somehow different, they first realized their potential background when they developed new abilities, which only further isolated them from everyone else. Those talents derived from advanced nanotechnology injected into their blood as infants. It also promoted devotion to their partners—their ‘pair-bonded’ mates—and fealty to their captain, Al. Though, as everyone knew, he was worthy of the devotion through his actions, leadership and devotion.

He’d led them through their search for their own kind, aided by his sister Betty, or ‘Be’, who was able to detect and trace the others. But Al was the one who consistently anticipated dangerous situations, often narrowly escaping physical injury himself. When a rogue CIA agent, fixated on their apparent otherworldly abilities, took notice of them, the dangers they faced increased significantly. Al had risked his life, giving everyone else the chance to escape, only to be shot multiple times for his efforts.

“Why don’t you grab something to eat, baby,” Xi, one of his two partners suggested. “You look famished. You’ve lost so much weight, there’s hardly anything to hold on to anymore.”

Xi, the last addition to their crew, a physician able to detect distant objects, was the one who’d saved him after his shooting, using a strange Tandorian orb with amazing healing qualities. She’d joined Al and Betty when they realized she was the only one of them not pair-bonded. Sensing the loneliness it implied, given how close Al and Betty had come to breaking up, they’d invited her to join their relationship. She’d clung to them ever since, gaining the acceptance she’d never experienced before.

“Yeah,” he answered, rubbing his eyes, “that’s a sensible idea. What’d I ever do without the two of you watching out for me?”

The others remained silent as he stumbled out and into the dining area, but as soon as he was gone, Betty and Xi turned on them, pitching their voices low so he wouldn’t overhear.

“You don’t realize how easy you have it!” Betty confronted them with her hands on her hips and her eyes staring daggers. “Endless time to study, read, relax, exercise and make love. You don’t comprehend the strain he’s been under this entire trip!”

“She’s right,” Xi said, doing as they often did, alternating thoughts between each other, which would have been confusing if they didn’t all do it. “Al can’t spend more than a few hours sleeping. The only way he can is if we cut our speed to a fraction of light speed, which adds decades of additional flight time. As it is, all he can afford are brief cat naps, and each time we approach something, he leaps out of a deep sleep, panic written across his face.”

“Have you seen how thin he is?” Betty demanded. “I’ve never seen him this emaciated. While you whine about the inability to exercise, he can’t venture far from his post for fear he can’t respond in time to save us all.”

“As he said, you’re not aware of the time we’re traveling faster than light—multiple times faster, I might add,” Xi stressed. “But for Al, those times are harrowing. He’s terrified if he eases up and relaxes, we’ll either all die, or will never reach our destination.”

“Sorry,” Gary said, glancing glumly at Delilah. “We’re supposed to be watching out for him, but there’s really no way to protect him from himself.”

Delilah dropped her voice. “He’s like a man possessed. It wouldn’t kill him to get a decent night’s sleep once in a while.”

“You handle this,” Xi said, walking out. “I’m going to check on our man.”

Betty watched her leave, her thoughts returning to Al’s condition, before turning back on the others. “You may think so, but every hour he sleeps is dozens of light years. Why do you think no Tandorian ship has ever reached Earth before? Because it’s too damn far to make it in a single lifetime! Yet Al’s determined to get us there before you all lose your focus!”

“We’re really sorry,” Zita, one of their engineers, said. “We’re only … venting out of frustration. While Al’s continuously busy, the rest of us have little to do but gripe. We really didn’t mean anything by it.”

“When he finally makes it to bed,” Betty continued, “he can barely hug us before he nods off, and he never sleeps for more than an hour or two before he bolts out of bed again. When we do talk, he complains about his exhaustion. We rarely get more attention than a mere hug, because he doesn’t have the strength for anything more. Al’s put in his time getting us this far. Now that we’re almost home, the rest of you need to step up your game. As he suggested, you need to take the lead and let him coast as he recovers—whatever we may face once we arrive. As it is, he’s been sleeping almost constantly since we reached the outskirts of the Tandori solar system and could drop out of faster-than-light speed.”

“He’s sound asleep,” Xi told everyone, reentering the room. “I left him unconscious at a table, afraid to nudge him and accidentally wake him again.”

“What do you think everyone back on Earth is up to?” Mui asked, trying to change the subject back to something innocuous.

“It’s not worth considering,” Theo, their resident physicist, answered. “Since we expand space ahead of us while contracting it behind, allowing us to travel multiple times the speed of light, our months in space translate to decades at normal speeds. Even if we turned around midway, everyone we ever knew would’ve been dead for hundreds of years by the time we reached Earth again. For all practical purposes, Earth is history. We’re approaching our new home, and we need to learn everything we can in the little remaining time it takes to reach Tandor so we won’t be completely lost.”

“I can’t wait to meet our first Tandorians,” Etta, the resident biologist, exclaimed. “There’s so much more to absorb, and there’s only so much I can acquire studying dry textbooks, no matter how amazing the technology.”

“That’s just it,” Delilah said, echoing her spouse’s complaints. “We spend so much time unlearning everything, we hardly have time to acquire all the new details. I mean, learning to think in an alien language is one thing, but needing to pick up every associated language is overwhelming.”

“Do you need me to treat your stress again?” Xi offered, waving her ever-present red ball. It allowed her to activate and direct the various nanobots inside each, treating specific ailments.

“No thanks. It helps, but our problems are more fundamental than stress. While everyone else’s abilities were boosted to handle these new skills, we aren’t as well equipped. Our enhancements are our physical skills, which are more constrained within a confined intergalactic spaceship.”

“You’re not alone,” Betty complained. “I’m as lost as you are. If it weren’t for Xi, who has more time to study than the rest of us, I’d never cope. At least you have your spouses, but Al’s been so preoccupied, he’s been no help adjusting.”

“Thanks a lot,” Xi complained. “Don’t forget, I’m still a co-spouse.”

“Believe me, if it weren’t for you, I’d have jumped ship a long time ago,” Betty assured her.

“Ha! Good luck with that,” Kaci said, stretching her arms. “Traveling at nearly the speed of light through empty space, you wouldn’t last long. Your oxygen wouldn’t last, and there aren’t many habitable planets to refill along the way!”

“What do you think Tandor is like?” Zita asked before the bitching session degraded further.

“The ship reports scores of active star ships,” Theo said, his eyes sparkling at the wonders before them. As academics, Etta and his training and enhanced skills made learning everything easier than the others. “Considering everything we’re seeing, we’re dealing with amazing phenomena. Once we land, everything we experience will be brand new. You won’t have time to be bored again for years. Enjoy it while it lasts. Once we reach Tandor, everything changes forever!”

An alarm blared, causing everyone to jump and spin around.

“Incoming message,” the One, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence, announced.

“How can that be if we’re traveling near the speed of light?” Delilah asked.

“We’re not,” Al answered, stumbling into the room, glancing around. “We had to slow substantially to navigate the stellar debris.”

“The Tandorians employ multiple faster-than-light communication relays,” the One explained, speaking in standard Tandori. “That’s what the authorities are using.”

“Transmit the broadcast,” Al commanded, used to issuing instructions for the group over the past months.


“Foreign vessel Chi-lee-34785-9478, halt your approach. Remain where you are until you can be escorted in.”

The command, as harsh as it sounded, was striking. The accent was nothing like the training guides, and several of the Tandori words were almost unrecognizable.

“Is there an issue?” Al asked. “Our ship should be recognized and our IDs are valid.”


“Your IDs were valid, but haven’t been used in the last six-hundred and fifty-seven years. Who are we speaking with?”

“This is Al Collins, born on a foreign planet. Our ship was lost and adapted a new crew from the local population, which is why it took so long to return.”


“This is highly irregular. Many things have changed over the centuries since your ship departed,” the voice said. “We’re at war with an extremely vicious alien empire and can no longer trust outdated access codes. If you continue approaching, you’ll be destroyed. Halt now and await a military intercept!”

Al issued the necessary orders, which the One applied, while everyone else stared at each other.

“Not quite the welcome we were hoping for,” Betty surmised.

“I guess we should have expected things might change over so much time,” Eli suggested.

“Except, no ONE bothered to point out how long it had been,” Al said, invoking the name of their host.

“You never asked,” he responded, having adjusted to the odd human speaking traits and phrases. “I assumed you could handle the basic math.”

“We were negligent to overlook it,” Etta reminded him.

“I know, I’m just upset it never occurred to me. You’re right, it should have been the first thing we checked when we learned what we were facing. Instead, I assumed we’d been gone for over a hundred years, never taking into account the relativity-factored time difference.”

“So what do we do now?” Betty asked.

“We sit and wait and comply with whatever they demand. Our fate rests entirely in their hands. It’s not like we can return home, hoping no one will notice our disappearance. We’d be as unwelcome on Earth as we are here. At least we still have a claim to Tandorian citizenship. However, as we all know from our own history, these things tend to change during times of war. Previous lenient attitudes harden towards new immigrants. It might be some time before they accept us.”

“So what happens if they don’t?” Xi asked. “We’ve already been rejected by every home we’ve ever known. This is our last chance at acceptance. After this, our only option is wandering the stars, waiting for our reserves to run dry.”

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. This is a much older, more experienced culture than Earth. They have a long and rich history of working with other species from foreign star systems. Surely this isn’t the first time this happened. If they were as likely to fall under the xenophobic pandering as our human counterparts, they’d never have advanced as far as they have.”

“Still, it reoccurs on Earth virtually every time a new war erupts, the economy sours, or people start losing jobs to changing technologies,” Eli said. “We’ve no reason to believe we’re dealing with saints here. After all, even they have their limits.”

“You don’t need to remind me,” Al said. “I’m trying to help morale, not depress everyone.” He turned, returning to the dining room. “I’ll let the rest of you worry about what we’re facing. I’m hoping to get as much rest as I can before we’re confronted. Since we’re at a complete stop, it’ll take some time for them to reach us. Hopefully I’ll be able to form coherent sentences by them.”

“Should we rehearse our stories?” Xi asked, glancing at the others after watching to ensure he made it to the other room safely. “This is my first time before an alien military tribunal.”

“No, we’ve broken no laws,” Gary advised, “at least knowingly. They simply want to ensure we’re not a physical threat. Surely, once they’ve examined our logs, they’ll realize the truth of our stories. We’ve no history of contact with any other alien races.”

“Should we erase anything from our logs?” Xi continued. “Say anything which may embarrass or make us appear less desirable?”

“Not knowing much of Tandorian culture, especially as it currently stands, we wouldn’t know what to change,” Delilah said. “I agree with Gary. What’s more, if we start erasing data, it’ll be viewed as a clear sign of guilt. Our best bet is to act innocently.”

“The famous last words of everyone ever railroaded,” Ivan pointed out.

“Incoming message,” the One announced. Everyone in the common room jerked to attention. They’d been waiting a long time, with nothing to do but worry about their future.

“Oh shit, they’re here!” Betty gasped.

“Calm down,” Al suggested, looking a little better although he was still emaciated. “It won’t help if we’re all panicked. Everyone take a deep, calming breath.” He employed the technique himself.

“Are you sure you’re ready for this?” Gary asked. “We’re prepared to step in and cover for you. After all, you’ve been carrying us for too long already.”

“No,” Al sighed, running his hand through his hair, looking as weary as ever. “This is important. They’ll expect me to speak for the entire ship. If I don’t, it won’t look good for any of us. I’ve had time to recover. The mantle of leadership doesn’t come easy, and I never asked for it, but it’s not something one can simply shrug off, either.” Standing erect, taking another deep breath, he faced forward. “Open communications.”

A floating 3D-image of an alien appeared before them. He was dressed in a uniform, oddly shaped buttons over his chest, similar marks on his forehead to those their crew bore. However, his looks were so shocking everyone in the ship recoiled before catching themselves. This Tandorian was bald; or rather possessed no hair, feathers or coloration of any kind. Its skin was more similar to ancient dinosaurs or modern rhinos, with thick protective shells marking their most distinctive features. Its series of protruding gray ridges made for a fierce expression. Its ears extended from the sides of its head like conical shells, complete with cartilage spikes. They didn’t look anything like the crew imagined Tandorians would. He didn’t appear pleased.


“This is the Tandorian Authorities. Drop your shields, lay down any available arms and open your locks.”

“We’ve already done all three. We’re awaiting your arrival.” The image of the Tandorian official disappeared without another word.

“Outer lock number twenty-three accessed,” the One said. “Air evacuation ordered.”

“Outer door opened, five Tandorians entering airlock,” it stated a few moments later.

“Are they armed?” Betty asked.

“Of course,” the One answered. “It’s a boarding party.”

“You know, I prefer Earth’s artificial intelligence. Siri was much more pleasant,” she reflected. “I’m not sure I like the improvements that several thousand years brought. Let’s hope it’s improved over the intervening six hundred.”

“I’m guessing it’ll be a while before anyone’s terribly polite to us again,” Theo guessed.

“I suggest we make our way to the lock and wait,” Al suggested.

The group seemed dispirited as they stood, but they advanced, surrounding the main airlock and imitating Al’s stance: legs spread with hands held by his sides, about an inch from his thighs, clear they weren’t concealing anything.

“Inner-lock opening.”

As the door opened, five frightening alien creatures, waving unimaginable weapons, entered. The crew stood stock still, barely daring to breathe.

“Everyone is unarmed?” the lead figure they’d spoken to before demanded.

“We are,” Al answered. “This is the entire crew. You’re free to search the ship. We have nothing to hide.”

“Don’t worry, we will,” he assured him, motioning his men, who moved in different directions, apparently familiar with the layout of the vessel. The commander and one other remained, evaluating Al’s people.

The entire alien boarding party looked similar, with hard shell-like skin, four arms and long pointed fingers. As if their advanced weapons weren’t threatening enough, Al was sure they could easily pierce the humans’ thin skin with their fingers alone. They appeared sharper than daggers.

“Where are you from?”

“A small planet you’ve never heard of by the name of Earth,” Al said.

“It’s located 237 light-years distance,” the One answered without prompting, apparently more familiar with Tandorian protocol than the crew. “I’m transmitting the location now.”

“How did you end up in such a remote destination?” the commander asked. Al and his team had learned enough to recognize their uniforms. The marks on his forehead and wrists, like theirs, designated social structures which didn’t change over time. These were the first warriors they’d met. Al wasn’t sure whether the commander’s appearance was specific to his role, much as their own repair officers were, designed for the tasks they performed. Mui and Lamar’s physiques were customized to aid their work maintaining the ship outside its airlocks.

“We struck a space anomaly,” the One reported, a tale no one in Al’s crew ever thought to ask. They were also struck by how it didn’t wait for Al’s authorization before volunteering information. It occurred to them it was as nervous as they were. “We were unexpectedly thrown one eighty-seven light years off course, the ship heavily damaged. We located the nearest stable solar system, coincidentally containing both a habitable planet and a sufficiently advanced life form. Unfortunately, we lost too many of our crew to continue. It took decades to repair the ship, and longer to bio-engineer suitable replacements, at least ones who could keep from getting killed before they matured.”

“What was the rating of the lifeform?”

“The humans are K37a,” the One informed him. None of Al’s people had heard of the designation before, the letters being purely Tandori, rather than the English translation they heard.

“Enter the airlock,” they were ordered.

“Excuse me, but do you mind introducing yourself? We come asking for safe harbor, we present no threat. My name is Al Collins.”

“I don’t care, but my name is Commander XiTrechzl.”

“Can we take a few possessions?” Betty asked.

“Absolutely not! You are to leave everything behind. We’ll evaluate everything and return any we feel you may be entitled to keep.” He waved everyone forward with the muzzle of his weapon. They all turned to Al, uncertain how to respond.

“Come on, it’s not like we have a choice.”

“I’m sorry,” Xi declared, stepping forward and clutching her red ball. “But I’m not leaving my sphere behind. We have a long history together, and I’d feel lost without it.”

XiTrechzl sneered, especially frightening given the constraints of his hard outer shell, unconstrained by feathers, fur, scales or even skin. “It’s horribly outdated. Our newer models are smaller, meaning you could easily store substantial explosives in the available space.”

“I don’t care,” Xi insisted, unintimidated by the security team’s greater size and weapons. The rest of the Earth crew glanced at Al, but he and Betty moved forward, backing Xi’s demands, so the others did too, though they didn’t advance far. “It’s a personal relationship. I had it when I had nothing, and it kept us going all these years. Without it, we’d never have made it this far.”

The fearsome commander considered it, plucking it from Xi’s unresisting grasp to study it.

“We’ll need to examine it for contraband,” he warned. “The usual approach is to detonate it, destroying it. As I said, there’s little value in such antiquated technology.”

“When I get a replacement, I’ll consider it. Until then, I insist you at least keep it intact. I can understand your need to inspect it, but I won’t allow it to be destroyed.”

“I support her in this,” Al insisted.

XiTrechzl opened a satchel, dropping the sphere into it. “As irregular as this is, I’ll allow it. However, the ultimate decision isn’t mine. If my superiors insist, it’s beyond my control.”

“I understand,” Xi said, demurring and lowering her head slightly, still maintaining eye contact. “If it’s unavoidable, I can understand. Yet, I’d never forgive myself if it was destroyed unnecessarily.”

“With that taken care of, into the airlock. If you’re holding anything else, your lives are forfeit,” he instructed.

Nearing the airlock, Al turned to XiTrechzl. “What about space suits or IDs? Is there anything we’ll need when we arrive?”

“Your airlock is sealed. Security awaits your arrival. You have no authorization to be here, so you have no valid identification to present. Now move, before we forcibly remove you ourselves.”

“So much for our hearty welcome,” Betty whispered, trailing Al into the airlock and beyond. “I’m guessing they aren’t any more welcoming than our own parents were.”

“No talking! Keep your hands where we can see them and move slowly,” another Tandorian soldier ordered from the far side.

Keep your eyes on the stars,

but remember to keep your feet on the ground.

Theodore Roosevelt

Flags are bits of colored cloth that governments

use first to shrink-wrap people’s minds

and then as ceremonial shrouds to bury the dead.

Arundhati Roy

“Move it along,” the next security officer ordered. The sounds of their ship being torn apart echoed through the short airlock and into the connecting port of the security vessel. Assuming the lead role, Al led the others as they were directed through the airlock and into the ship.

“What do you think we’ll—” Xi whispered in English from behind.

“Please, speak Tandori,” Al insisted, speaking in a normal tone. “We’re here now, we’re not going back, and we don’t want them to think we’re hiding anything. All our cards are on the table, so let’s be honest in our approach.”

Once through the airlock, Al stopped to help the others through, to the consternation of their guards, but he insisted. Once everyone was safely across, they continued again. Since the nearest guard was waiting down the hall, Xi tried again.

“What should we expect?”

“You know as much as I do, but anticipate suspicion, skepticism and doubt. It’s up to us to convince them we’re legit. Our future depends on it.”

Since the walls were black with largely meaningless designations—indecipherable, despite their ability to read Tandori—Al doubted they could manage it back on their own. The surfaces curved, with varying grades, rather than the smooth galleys and corridors they were familiar with on their own ship.

Motioning them towards a small room, another guard waved a hand by each of them, his ring glowing in different colors. From the way he responded, Al was sure he was being briefed on much more about them than was apparent.

His ring is transferring data from our nanobots, which he’s passing on,’ Zita informed him, ‘though it’s apparently having trouble deciphering the feedback from our older devices.’ As their communications officer, Zita’s augmented talent was telepathy. They hadn’t tested the extent of her range, but she was able to communicate with Lamar and Mui when they worked on the exterior of the ship during their voyage.

You can hear the exchange?

No. Xi recognized the responses. Eli’s providing the likely details. There are some telltale indicators, even across such disparate species.’

We’re not sure they’re different species yet, though I’m growing doubtful we’re even partially Tandorian.’

Once sure they were searched, the guard led them into a large room containing three tables staffed by unarmed administrators—two females and one male. They were the same species as the security officers, looking equally as fierce.

“Who’s the Alpha?” the woman at the first table demanded.

“I am,” Al said, stepping forward. “My name is Al. I’m the ship’s commander. I speak for everyone here.”

She glanced at him oddly, his speech as bizarre to her as hers was to them. “You’re an Intuit?”

“I am, and I was the one who directed us here.”

“Go to the furthest table,” she instructed, pointing with one of her dagger-like fingers on one of her four arms. “You’ll be handled separately. It will take time to process the others.”

The communications were tricky. Though each of the humans spoke Tandori, their understanding of its nuances was rudimentary. Most of their knowledge came from their nanobots, which triggered specific regions in the brain associated with English words, forming rough translations within their minds. They actually heard both languages simultaneously, though it didn’t help decipher phrases which didn’t correlate. Especially since the language had changed so much over the intervening centuries. Concepts such as distances, time and facial cues operated the same way, triggering responsive cells in their own brains, making it seem as if they were their own thoughts. If they thought about the techniques too much, they’d develop headaches so bad they couldn’t hope to fathom what was being said. However, hearing both languages at the same time aided the learning process, so the longer they conversed, the better their understanding of the language became.

Al glanced back. Betty and Xi were looking pleadingly at him and the others looked worried as well, but he motioned for them to remain calm before he set off for the far table. Ivan and Kaci, Lamar and Mui, and Delilah and Gary were directed to the second table, while the rest remained at the first.

When the officer behind the desk glanced up at him, Al noticed he didn’t defer to him the way those in his crew did. He doubted his rank affected anyone else as it had them. He guessed it was strictly group rather than status based. Or at least, it didn’t affect security officers.

“Describe where you’re from.”

“We’re from a small planet called Earth, almost two-hundred and forty light years distant. Our ship and its original crew—”

“I’m not interested in your personal histories. I’m evaluating your value, knowledge and skills so we can categorize you. Where’s the rest of your crew?”

“This is our entire team,” Al stated.

The official stared at Al as if he was lying. “The few of you flew a ship that size across that distance, with no one else helping? I find that difficult to accept.”

“Believe it. The original crew who crashed on our planet eventually died out. They relied on local inhabitants they … recruited for the effort. Unfortunately, without revealing what we were destined for, everyone kept getting killed before making it to the ship. We were the first intact crew to survive.”

“Yeah, it’s a common trait with Intuits. They’re always quick to take unnecessary risks, thinking they can beat the odds, which is why you’re in such high demand despite your many obvious disqualifications. While space flight is difficult enough, we’ve lost most of ours in combat, even though they anticipate attacks.” He paused, considering Al. “What about shifts? How’d you alternate crew?”

“We didn’t. I was on duty the entire journey. We spent the majority of our time learning Tandori, the Tandorian culture and all the science we’d never been exposed to.”

The administrator continued staring at him, unable to process the information. “You flew all that distance without rest? That’s impossible.”

“It’s entirely possible, and we’re the evidence it is.”

“How long did it take you to complete this supposed journey?”

“A little over five months. Which is why I’m so exhausted and thin. I had to address each crisis as it arose.”

“Wait, you traversed that distance in only that much time? Clearly you’re lying. Where did you actually come from, who do you represent, and where did they go once they dropped you off?”

“No one intervened. We’re who we say we are. If we accomplished what no one else has, it was due solely to our being too ignorant to realize it was impossible. Since I realized the time limitations, I pushed everyone so it wouldn’t take any longer than necessary. Our crew works well together, and we’re used to working around each other. As for me, when my Spidey sense tingles, everything else stops: distractions, sleep, exhaustion or love making. Whatever it took, we all kept going.”

“I have no clue as to what you just said.”

Al sighed. “When I get a premonition, it refocuses all my attention. No matter how exhausted I am, I’m one hundred percent focused on avoiding disaster. That way, I could doze in my chair, traveling faster than light nearly continuously, and still react to any emergency we faced.”

The officer grunted, obviously not buying it. “Whatever! You’re each being evaluated separately. Any rejected as being unfit,” he glanced up, sweeping a skeptical glance over the other crew members, “will be summarily denied entry. Those remaining will be assigned other tasks.”

“I’m sorry, I—” Mid-sentence, the intake officer tried to stab him with his dagger-sharp claws, but Al simply stepped aside without pausing in his recitation. “—can’t accept that. We need to remain together. We’re not only all pair-bonded, but we’ve depended on each other, risking our lives together. I can’t abandon them.”

“Nice reflexes, but the choice isn’t up to you. There are millions of previously pair-bonded individuals fighting on the front lines, and others still bonded serving in support duties here on the home planet. Such notions of pair-bondings lasting the rest of your life are antiquated. You’ll go where you’re assigned, or you’ll be eliminated.”

“I understand,” Al said, as a massive electrical discharge shot past his head as he casually stepped aside, “but I want to register an objection and request a reappraisal. If nothing else, since we’re used to working together, we should be assigned the same ship.”

“You’ll go where you’re needed. I’m guessing you aren’t up on the latest skills, and your basic understanding of our culture is minimal. As such, I doubt we’ll have much use of your crew’s services.”

“Pardon me for a moment,” Al said, holding a single finger up as he swiftly stepped away.

As he approached, Etta was leaning over the first table, filling in something on a data tablet and never even glanced up. Al, took her arm, pulling her aside.

“Excuse,” he said, as a heavy metal dart shot out of the ceiling at an angle. If she hadn’t shifted, it would have crushed her skull. What’s more, given its trajectory, it might have injured the others if Al hadn’t moved them aside in his rush to reach Etta. “That’s all I wanted. You can go back to your task now,” he said, turning and sauntering off, leaving her gasping like a fish out of water. Betty, however, flashed him a knowing smile, lightly elbowing Xi in the side.

Al realized this was all a test, not only of him, but of his team’s ability to adapt, not only to dangerous situations, but also to discouragement and bad news. The key, he recognized, was maintaining an even keel without losing his temper or getting excited. He hoped his attitude conveyed the lesson to the others, but he didn’t want to risk warning them—which might send the message that his crew wasn’t prepared for what they might encounter.

“Sorry about that, where was I … oh, yes, I was describing the planet we came from.”

“I’m unconcerned with whatever backwater hell you crawled out of.”

“Although it’s fairly backwards technologically, there’s a multitude of trade goods, agricultural products, artworks and novelties you might be interested in.”

The man glared at him. “We’re fighting for the very survival of the Empire. We can’t afford to run scurrying after every remote rock outcropping. We’ll make a note of it, and if anyone is ever in the region, we may investigate from a distance, but we’re unlikely to invest much effort.

“Now, moving on, can you describe how you’d initiate the formation of a temporal black hole?”

“Uh … I’m sorry, but we’ve never been close enough to one to study them in sufficient detail. We’re still fairly ignorant on that basis.”

“Fine, can you define a Bzeck’s equation?”

“Without knowing who that is, or what he was researching, I wouldn’t know where to start. That’s even assuming I was exposed to it in the first place.”

The examiner marked several items on his data tablet. Al frowned, imagining the others weren’t fairing any better on these technical skill tests.

“How many interstellar battles have you been in, and have you ever engaged the Zssizliq?”

“Sorry, but our combined interstellar voyaging consists of this one trip here. We’ve never encountered anyone else, nor ever met with any other space-faring species.”

Again, the interviewer glanced up at him, his horn-like façade rising in curiosity. “And you still reached here without mishaps, despite having no discernable skills or knowledge? For such an ignorant group, you were incredibly lucky, but then, that’s the lot of you Intuits.”

“There’s a difference between blind luck and skill. While some Intuits may get by on luck, the rest of us survive by recognizing and evaluating dangerous situations.”

Al was exaggerating, as he’d experienced several near-misses which almost got him killed, including the time the police shot him on a public street—invoking a near riot. However, he hoped to impress the agent, convincing him he—and his crew—were worth taking a risk on. After all, if not, they didn’t have many options.

“Don’t worry; we’ll evaluate your skills. Here, take this data card and fill in all the information you can make sense of. I’m not expecting much, but I’m hopeful we’ll get at least one janitorial staff out of this pointless trip to intercept you. Fuel ain’t cheap, especially with full crews.”

“You could always try flying with fewer, better-qualified crews,” Al suggested, twisting the proverbial knife, not knowing which of them he was actually hurting.

As Al stood—there weren’t any seats, not that anything they had fit human physiques—he took a moment to study the progress the others were making.

“Okay, Finder, locate a Tzokein,” Betty’s intake officer demanded.

She tilted her head slightly, a sign she was stricken by the nature of the question, never considering her ability of being any use beyond finding the members of the crew. However, she recovered quickly, something Al was proud of her for.

“I’d try, but I haven’t the slightest clue what a Tsoakestein is.”

The female officer glanced up, more annoyed than chastised. “Good, that makes it a better test.”

That clearly rattled Betty. She’d never found objects before, and the only people she’d ever tracked were those she had a deep connection to, like her crew mates. However, she bit her lip and concentrated. Suddenly, her face lit up and she pointed overhead and to the side—again, the ship wasn’t composed of logical, square levels, but the corriders meandered seemingly erratically. “There.”

“I need something I can use. Give me partents.”

She looked befuddled, then brightened. “It’s 37.3 partents,” she again pointed, not knowing how to give directions in the oddly asymmetrical ship, “over there.”

“What level is it on?”

Al could see her seriously concentrating. It took her a few moments, but her answer was ready. “Level Ak-Sui-23.”

The intake officer shrugged. “Maybe you aren’t as worthless as I assumed.”

Instead of taking offense, or being deterred by her skepticism, Betty was elated to discover there were new and useful dimensions to her ability she’d never encountered.

“Find Gylveng.”

“He’s, uh, moving at the moment, leaving one passage and entering another.”

“I need specifics.”

“Fine. That direction, between 58 and 62 partents, moving away from us.”

She made a note on her log. “That shifts you from utterly useless, to mildly useful.”

The questions, when Al finally concentrated on them, were thoroughly disconcerting, as everyone had trouble answering them. Whether their knowledge was that lacking, the inquiries were intended to discourage them, or Tandorian science had increased that much, he didn’t know. Even Etta and Theo, who were trained in Physics, or Eli, who’s abilities allowed him to learn more quickly, seemed ill adapted for the questions.

As their resident physicist, Theo was better at deducing information. While much of his understanding of the universe had proven wrong, he and Etta were better equipped to absorb the alien lessons, though already outdated by almost a half millennium.

Xi, however, was having an especially difficult time.

“What do you mean you can’t locate the quchim?” her intake officer demanded.

“I’m sorry, but I’ve never heard of one before. I’m unsure whether humans possess one.”

Part of the problem was that, despite their best attempts to brush up on the native inhabitants, it was difficult searching for specifics on Tandorians as the culture was composed of so many different intelligent species. Thus the humans had no clue how to relate one type against their own knowledge. References to DNA were meaningless, since no other alien species had anything similar to human DNA or RNA. Apparently each planet derived their own alternative to a genetic blueprint which was uniquely theirs—and which prevented one planet’s species from interbreeding with another’s. However, the fact the humans couldn’t identify the various organs made Xi job as a physician untenable, at best.

“Locate and give the distance in parsecs to Al-qimrc?”

Xi hesitated, caught off guard on the switch from medicine to locating distant objects. Unlike Betty, who was adept at finding individuals at relatively close distances, Xi came to medical care indirectly through her possession of her healing sphere. She’d developed a career of helping others, not even knowing what her true inclination was. Thus she found herself unprepared on multiple fronts.

“Uh, 183 parsecs in … uh, that direction?”

“Ha! You’re worthless. Your aids aren’t even functional.”

“They are, it’s just your newer readers are incapable of communicating with them. I have no problem using them to administer care to my crew.”

“That doesn’t help us, though, now does it?”

She seemed about ready to cry. Al resisted rushing to her assistance, considering it a sign of weakness at this point. They each had to sink or swim on their own. Feeling frustrated, Al risked a clear violation of protocol, praying it wouldn’t be discovered.

Buck up, Xi. They’re trying to undermine your confidence,’ he said via Zita’s telepathy. ‘Show them you’re stronger than their mere words can affect.’

Al was shocked when their testers didn’t respond, but it seemed to help, not only Xi, but the others as well. All in all, it was not a pleasant introduction to Tandorian culture.

When they finally finished, everyone seemingly failing the majority of their qualification tests, they were shown to a cell on a separate floor. Once they entered, the air seemed to shift, as if warmer air was rising between them and the open space beyond the invisible gate. Gary started to reach out to determine what it was.

I wouldn’t recommend touching it,’ Theo warned via Zita’s telepathy. ‘It’s some sort of force field. Considering the nature of the security personnel, I’m sure it won’t be pleasant.’

“Thanks, I think I’ll wait for now. I’d rather not demonstrate what roasted human smells like. No telling whether it appeals to them or not.”

“Please, let’s refrain from the insulting jibes,” Al cautioned. “We’re already presenting a terrible image as it is.”

The room was barren, at best. There were seats, which they assumed also served as cots, along the walls. The only sign of a toilet was a single spot on the floor. When Lamar waved his foot over it, it opened to reveal a hole. Since they were desperate, he volunteered to test it. Lowering his pants, he let loose a sample stream of urine, limiting its volume. It accepted it, though they had no idea what became of it, as they couldn’t hear it striking anything. For all they knew, it was transported outside the ship to float indefinitely in space. No one really wanted to further their reputation of imbeciles by asking. Once he finished peeing, he vacated the spot for the women while the men turned away to allow them a moment’s privacy.

Al hugged Betty and Xi. “Don’t worry. We’ll get through this. However bad it looks now, it’s likely to improve once we get though these initial awkward encounters.”

The others took his encouraging words for what they were, though they doubted this was the worst they’d face.

People seem not to see that their opinion

of the world is also a confession of character.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

A guard approached early the next morning. “You, you and you,” he said, motioning Al, Betty and Eli forward. They got up, glancing at the others, but didn’t think questioning their future made much sense. With their acceptance in their only potential home within hundreds of light years at stake, they weren’t about to risk arguing. As they approached the entrance, the wavering air turned placid. Apparently it was attuned to each of them and could differentiate between them, only allowing those authorized to exit.

As he led them away, the others gathered near the invisible gate, giving it a healthy buffer, and watched them disappear. Down a short corridor, the guard pushed Al towards one door, “in there! You, in that room, you’re in the other one,” he said, indicating where he expected Betty and Eli to go.

As Al entered the first room, a heavy metallic door slammed shut behind him. He glanced back to ensure the sound didn’t represent a potential threat. Like the rest of the ship, the walls were black, the door consisted of a metal he’d never seen before, or at least the finish was. He had little doubt it was blaster resistant, even without understanding the types of weapons the Tandorians used. Turning back, he noticed another security guard sitting behind the desk. The tattoos on the man’s forehead sent a shiver up Al’s spine, his knees twitching before he recognized them from his training aboard their ship. He was an Inquisitor, someone specialized in both psychology and torture. Al racked his brain trying to recall what enhanced skills they possessed, but he’d never paid much attention after hearing they were exceedingly rare. Imagining the worst, he risked passing a message to the others.

Be, Eli, we’re facing Inquisitors. I suspect they’re mind readers, but have no clue the limits or extent of their abilities. I’m hoping it’s similar to Zita’s telepathy, meaning it only affects surface thoughts. Keep your attention on the questions and his responses. Don’t allow your thoughts to wander, especially in response to their actions.’

The Inquisitor never noticed Al sending the message, didn’t pick up on any visual clues, and definitely hadn’t attempted to read his mind—otherwise he’d have caught it immediately.

The imposing, intimidating official looked like the other security personnel, though he was older. His hard, bony face was brittle, with cracked surfaces and large pores which looked like osteoporosis. His eyes, even with as little experience as Al had in judging alien expressions, seemed weary. As if he’d grown tired of the treachery and deception of those he investigated.

Most striking, though, was the fact Al couldn’t get a reading on him. His precognition spoke of no dangers, heralding no warnings. Al had no illusions about what he faced. His genetic fear of this man—clearly implanted by his own aids—spoke volumes about their propensity for violence and inflicting terror. Yet despite the Inquisitors’ reputation for sheer brutality, he seemed bored, unconcerned with events or even Al himself. But Al didn’t let his guard down. He assumed that, like his paranoia about their peering into his thoughts, they seemed to have a natural defense against Intuits’ precognition.

Following his own advice, Al wiped his surface thoughts clean by studying his investigator, observing his every move, his every pore. Luckily, rather than noticing his mental distractions, the Inquisitor surveyed his hands.

“What kind of odd creature are you? I’ve never seen such an awkward, ill-suited species before.” Taking a non-confrontational approach, he motioned Al to a seat with his lower left arm while drinking with his upper right, rubbing his leg with his lower right.

“We’re a … primitive race, just beginning to explore space, not nearly prepared to leave our solar system. We … hoped you were … similar to us. That we were more Tandorian than Human.”

Al, our investigators aren’t Inquisitors. They’re normal security forces. They’ve assigned you their specialist. They’re only inquiring about our knowledge, skills and capabilities.’

Ignoring Be’s interruption, Al concentrated on what the Inquisitor found interesting, regardless how minor. He couldn’t afford to concentrate on outside distractions, no matter how important they might be. Even if he presented no direct threat, the implied threat Al felt in his bones warned him of what any stray thoughts might reveal. Such fleeting images might damn their future, condemning them all. He couldn’t afford to be distracted.

“Those are the aids. That’s typical when we first bring new civilizations into our sphere of influence. The aids match suitable talents with each individual, leaving you feeling estranged from others.” He paused, studying Al from different angles. “Did your skills of precognition exist before the aids?”

“I received them when I was too young to remember, but I doubt it. No one in our culture has these abilities, though there are constant rumors about people with the skills. We’ve never been able to confirm it, though.”

“Again, not unusual. Well, it’s strange you have no natural inclinations, no experience with space, and little knowledge of the universe. Yet you come here, expecting us to hand you the advances of thousands of years of evolution, research and technology.”

As Al didn’t respond—not questioning his inferiority but continuing to focus on minute details—he felt something skim across his mind, brushing his consciousness. His consciousness fluttered in response, stray thoughts popping to the surface, but he fought them down, not allowing them to burst free.

As if realizing his scan was detected, the Inquisitor changed topics. “My name is Quichoq. What’s yours?”

“My name was assigned by those our ship trained in earlier attempts to build a crew. We were named based on our ranking. I’m Al, short for Albert, but Al is also short for Alpha, the first letter of our alphabet.”

“I asked your name, not the minutia of your immaterial existence. Is your species unable to follow a logical discussion, concentrate on the topic presented, or focus on life and death decisions?”


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