It’s Monday, which normally means ‘myth day,’ but you’ll notice this isn’t a myth. At least, not directly. We’re going to be giving the myths a bit of a break.
Understand, we’re not angry at the myths. The myths are a lovely thing. However, right now the word-count for the myths exceeds the word-count for both of the other major works we’ve done here since the relaunch by almost a factor of two, and that’s not what we were looking for. So, for right now, we’re going to pull back a touch — reload myth fodder with some additional call for myths, and otherwise let them go fallow for a brief while.
While they’re gone, we’re going to start a new serial — Corbett-877. This is a story I’ve wanted to tell for longer than there’s been a Banter Latte (even counting the original version). It’s science fiction. Well, in once sense. I suppose it could also be seen as fantasy, or even horror. Depending on definition. It explores a few questions… well, that some folks have been answering at least dating back to September 8, 1966.
As you can guess from that date, this started life as a pastiche. Where it ends life….
…well, that is the question.
I hope you like Corbett-877.
*** *** *** ***
A.F.S. Vigilant (CCE-17)
Fourth Octant, Sector 18 – Deep Space/Unknown
Interfleet Standard Timestamp: 056.315-611.204
Master Chief Petty Officer Mann was good at his trade. He knew the different systems that made up the A.F.S. Vigilant better than most mechanics knew the engine compartment on a personal vehicle. He’d rebuilt half those systems under fire, or so it felt like to his Captain. He normally had a slightly cocky demeanor as a result — a slight attitude. He was better than good. He was great.
Watching Mann pull components, craned halfway into the outer housing of the Vigilant’s shunt drive, taking minute scans with a specialized hand trackulizer, Captain Corbett could tell they were in real trouble. All that cockiness had been replaced by a mixture of annoyance and real concern. “Hand me a type four probe,” he muttered. Down below, Sublieutenant Johnson grabbed a type four out of the toolkit and handed it up.
“He’s been happier,” Lieutenant Commander Oliver murmured. Oliver was Corbett’s first officer. She was a scientist by training, but too good a line officer to stick to the Vigilant’s labs. Corbett had come to rely on the woman, and the situation was serious enough that he wanted her opinions.
“He’s waist deep in the shunt drive. How happy do you expect him to be?” Corbett murmured back.
“Knowing Chief Mann? Very.”
Swearing, Mann dropped back down to the deck, a rod in his hand. Corbett knew at a glance the ‘rod’ wasn’t supposed to be — it was one of the primary linkages the shunt drive needed to operate, only the ‘links’ had been fused into solid metal, and the insulation had burned off. It looked like some kind of sculpture. “Well, that’s done it. That shot from the Jliebians caused a cascade fuse. We need to synthesize and install all new primary and secondary linkages to the shunt drive, or we’re on the slow road at best.”
Corbett looked to the side, hands clenching in frustration. “Meaning we’re decades away from the Alliance instead of weeks.”
“But… we have the secondary shunt,” Sublieutenant Johnson said. “Can’t we use that to get back home?”
“The Alliance is significantly outside the secondary shunt’s safe operating range,” Oliver said. Her demeanor was cool. “There’s little chance it would survive the full trip back.”
“Not to mention it’s rated at Dean one point six at best,” Mann said. “Even if it held out — which isn’t likely — it’d be three years before we could make safe harbor. Anyone want to lay odds the Jliebians will give us three years to limp home?”
“We were lucky to force their withdrawal in the first place, before dropping back to realspace.” Corbett considered. “All right. So we need all new linkages. How long to synthesize and install.”
“Right now?” Mann asked. “Forever. The linkages need a neoplatinum core in their coils to initiate the shunt, and that means we’re going to need close to eleven kilos of platinum as a core component. We just don’t have it, and there’s nothing we can use as a substitute.”
“Can’t we synthesize platinum out of some other material?” Johnson asked.
Oliver shook her head. “Neoplatinum needs actual platinum as its precursor. Synthesized platinum lacks the proper factors. That’s what makes it a core component.”
“A very rare core component,” Corbett said, frowning. “That’s why we don’t exactly store large amounts of it on the ship.”
“Perhaps we could salvage the neoplatinum from the secondary shunt drive,” Oliver said.
“If we do that and the synthesis fails, we won’t even have a secondary shunt any more,” Mann said. “Plus it would take weeks to do that kind of salvage, desynthesis and resynthesis.”
Corbett frowned. He lifted his wristcomm up and tapped the receptor. “Corbett to bridge. Any luck getting a message to Alliance space?”
“No sir,” Petty Officer Campos said. “There’s a Jleibian jamming net spread out — they don’t want us calling for help.”
“Of course not. Attacking a Alliance ship is an act of war, and they only want that on their own terms. Thank you — Corbett out.” He killed the connection. “So much for a rescue. Could we use the secondary shunt to run for the border? Get on the other side of that jamming net and scream for help?”
“Even if we successfully reached the other side of the net and could raise a Alliance ship or base on subether,” Oliver said, “the secondary shunt would almost certainly burn out when we returned to normal space to send the message. The Jleibians would detect the message, and almost certainly be closer than any friendly ship.”
“So we’re back to square one,” Corbett said. “We can’t run or call for help without eleven kilos of platinum to repair the primary shunt. In our current condition, picking a fight would be a bad idea at best. The Jleibians have us over a barrel and they know it.”
“Succinctly put,” Oliver said.
“So where does that leave us?” Mann asked.
“Looking for platinum,” Corbett said. “There are three star systems within fifteen light years of our current position. Even with just a secondary shunt we should be able to reach one of those before the Jleibians can regroup and intercept us. One of those systems must have platinum we can get our hands on in time to make our repairs.”
“It would take time to asteroid mine,” Oliver said. “Not to mention our need to fabricate the proper gear for mining, smelting and refining.”
“Factor that into your search, but start fabricating immediately, just in case. Within five hours I want to have a course laid in. What’s our repair status, Mann?”
“We’re patched together. I have teams working on swapping out the patches with proper repairs. Defensive systems are nominal, life support’s creaking by. We should have matter transmission back within six hours — not that we’ll have anywhere to transmit to before then.”
“Don’t let up. If we can get our platinum without taking the time to mine, so much the better. Can you get me some hard specs on what we need and our timeframes based on being able to secure refined platinum, platinum ore, or a full on mining operation? Assume asteroids for the last.”
“Sure thing. Johnson — you’re on that.”
“Right, chief.” Technically, Johnson outranked Mann, but Mann led the engineering department which made the officer his subordinate — just another way the Alliance Navy worked differently in the real world than on paper.
“All right. Oliver and Johnson? Meet me in the conference room at five hundred with options. By five-fifty, I want the Vigilant en route to someplace we can get platinum. Mann–”
“Keep patching the hull and foaming the cables. Yeah yeah.” Mann grinned. “Sir.”
“Something like that. Get to it.” Corbett headed for the lift. Oliver shadowed him, while Johnson headed for the Engineer’s office to get his assignment underway.
“You should get some sleep.”
“With the ship limping? I think you know better, Faye.”
“You went on duty beta watch yesterday, at two fifty two. It’s almost beta watch again. During this full day, you’ve been on duty the entire time, thanks to the Jleibian attack. You’ll need rest.”
“Technically, I’m about to go back on duty.”
“Technically, you need about three and a half decis sleep if you’re going to keep operating at your peak condition.”
“When we’re underway, I’ll get some sleep. Promise.”
“That’s three decis from now, minimum.”
“And you’re going to be busy for all of them, so someone needs to be in charge.” Corbett clapped Oliver on the shoulder.
“That someone doesn’t need to be you.”
“Faye — the ship was attacked yesterday. We repulsed that attack. I’m not going to spend the next eight hours asleep, no matter what you say. When we’re underway….”
“When we’re underway, you’ll fret. You don’t get enough sleep. You never have.”
“I’m not having this discussion with you, Faye. Not again. The Vigilant is my responsibility. When she’s safe, I’ll sleep.” He stepped into the lift. “Give me a place to bring the ship, so we can get our hands on eleven kilos of platinum, and then I’ll relax.”
“No. Then you’ll fret until the linkages are synthesized and the ship is in shunt for the border. And then you’ll fret until we’re over the border. And then you’ll fret until we’re in drydock. And then–”
“That’s command, Faye. That’s the life I signed up for. I’ll be on the bridge.” He stepped back, the doors closing. “Find me some platinum.”
Faye looked at the closed lift doors for a long moment, before she pushed the call button herself.
“We can eliminate one star system right off the bat,” Oliver said, sitting at the conference table. “It’s a very young star system, highly energetic, with bodies still in the formation stage. Platinum exists, almost certainly, but finding and collecting it would be significant work. This leads us to two different possibilities.” She tapped a few buttons on the system control in front of her, and the display showed two systems. “The first is uninhabited, with a significant asteroid belt in the habitable zone. It is very likely the asteroids will contain platinum in significant quantities.” She looked at Johnson.
“Assuming no problems in transit, we would probably be looking at at least six weeks in-system. Initially, we would need to launch probes, so we could scan the belt and find asteroids with significant platinum deposits. Once located, we would want to try and use drones to mine the asteroids. Assuming that goes well, refining the platinum and removing impurities would take relatively little time.
“But the total time would be–”
“Roughly six weeks, sir. Yes.”
Corbett nodded. “Six weeks for the Jleibians to try and finish the job, when we have nowhere to run.”
Oliver nodded. “Four point two deks, yes sir.”
“All right. Tell me about the third option.”
Oliver nodded, pushing another control. A blue green world resolved into view. “The natives call it Pandia,” Oliver said. “It’s the fourth planet of Star System G188.03-72-45. Mid-industrial world, capable of interplanetary travel though as of last contact they didn’t even employ artificial satellites.”
“The A.F.S. Palomar made contact nine point eight kilds ago, and actually helped push a Jleibian garrison off their planet. As we do not detect even passive subetheric activity in the system, we must assume the Jlebians have not yet returned.”
“The problem is, they’re not particularly friendly,” Johnson said. “They were almost xenophobic even before the Jleibians showed up and gave them reason to be afraid.”
“But you’re saying the Alliance helped them,” Corbett said, leaning back in his office chair. “Wouldn’t they be grateful?”
“The Pandar felt that letting the crew of the Palomar leave unharmed discharged any gratitude or debt they might have incurred,” Oliver said. “The captain of the Palomar was quite specific about that.”
Corbett frowned. “And this is our best chance? Do we know they have platinum?”
“The Palomar’s survey was cut short, but they did manage to analyze their industrial and technological base, and platinum is in use as an industrial material in great enough quantities to imply both standard availability and active mining. The Pandar can almost certainly provide us refined platinum in the quantities we require.”
“Which also means that Chief Mann could synthesize the parts he needs to repair the primary shunt drive well before any Jleibian war party arrived. We wouldn’t need to find the platinum, mine the ore, smelt it into a usable form–”
“I get it, Johnson.” Corbett considered. A hostile indigenous population was a sticklish situation. The Fleet Uniform Code had very specific regulations about dealing with non-member worlds. They couldn’t just demand or steal the platinum. Still, Corbett could be a diplomat when the situation called for it. “All right. Set course for Pandia — best speed. Secondary shunt drive use is hereby authorized.”
“Understood, sir. Johnson, please relay the order to the bridge. Dismissed.”
“Yes, ma’am. Sir.” Johnson withdrew quickly.
“Something you wanted to follow up on, Faye?” Corbett said, rising from his office chair.
“I’m… concerned, Lee. The Pandar aren’t rational. It will be difficult to adhere to both Fleet regulations and the laws of their culture. According to the captain of the Palomar, the Pandar were given to violence, and punished even minor infractions of their social code almost brutally.” She frowned slightly. “Even if the offender was ignorant of the offense in question.”
“How complete is our record of the Pandar’s laws?”
“Not terribly. And of course, it has been nearly ten kilds.”
Lee closed his eyes and rubbed the bridge of his nose. “A Hell of a lot could happen in twenty eight years,” he murmured.
Oliver cocked her head to the side, slightly. It was a familiar gesture, made when she was working out some new problem or considering something ‘unreasonable.’ Corbett was often, to her way of thinking, unreasonable. “As I’ve told you before, Captain, the Interfleet Standard Calendar is far more precise and easier to reconcile than any local or parochial calendar. You should really adapt.”
“There’s a lot of things I should do, Faye. All right — well, we’re going to need to do at least a preliminary orbital survey — we’ll need to know where we can find sufficient platinum quickly. We’ll have to get as much information on their cultural mores and laws while we’re there. How long will the trip take?”
“At least four days.” Days, at least, were the same thing in both calendars.
“Four days,” Corbett answered. “To go less than six light years?”
“Assuming the secondary shunt works as well as expected.”
“Amazing. Our primary shunt has spoiled me. All right. Use the next four days. Go over everything the Palomar learned about Pandia — where its industrial centers are, what governments are in play — try to find some hook. Something we can provide to them in exchange for the platinum, while staying within Fleet regulations.”
Oliver arched an eyebrow. “I always stay within Fleet regulations, sir.”
“Of course you do. Let’s go.”
A.F.S. Vigilant (CCE-17)
Fourth Octant, Sector 17 – Star System G188.03-72-45 (Pandia)
Oliver met Corbett in the corridor outside his quarters. Like Corbett, she had put on one of the tan excursion jackets used by shore parties. It was long, extending down to mid-thigh though it had a split in the front below the waist, to allow for freedom of leg movement. Its interior was filled with a special gel — at normal temperatures, it simply regulated the interior to normal body temperature. At temperature extremes, it either heated up to protect the wearer from the cold, or it liquified and circulated at a cooling temperature, to keep the user cool. A hood could be exposed from the collar, and it could connect to the wearer’s uniform pants to extend its features to the legs if needed. It also had a number of pockets with different useful tools.
A surprisingly large percentage of Alliance Fleet commanders chose not to wear them. They said they were too bulky, or ‘sent the wrong impression.’ Corbett felt that ‘sending the wrong impression’ was fine if it meant surviving the mission.
Besides the excursion coat, Oliver wore a disjunctor pistol clipped to her jacket’s belt. Unlike Corbett, she had a full scientific traculizer on the opposite side — Corbett had one of the simpler tactical traculizers. Add their wrist comlinks and they were both ready for whatever came next.
Or so went the theory.
“Captain,” Oliver said in greeting. She fell into step beside him.
“Lieutenant Commander,” he answered. “Ready for what’s to come?”
“I have prepared for the mission within standard parameters.”
Corbett chuckled. “I’m not sure that answered my question, Faye.”
“It did,” Oliver answered. “However, like usual, you have misunderstood what question you have actually asked.” Despite herself, the Eseninite smiled a touch. It was an old argument — well worn, and comfortable. Oliver had been a scientist aboard the Jansen, where Corbett had been first officer. When he was given command of the Vigilant, he’d brought Oliver along as his new Head of the Science Department. It had caused some friction among the other scientists briefly, but after two years (three quarters of a kild, Oliver would have said) her competence and talent had made the Vigilant’s science department the envy of the fleet. Her subordinates had long since grown to depend on her — and long since become proud to serve with her. Everyone was happy with a winner.
The two walked down the corridor, towards the lift. “Captain,” Oliver said, almost tentatively. “I don’t mean to… call one of your decisions into question…”
Corbett chuckled. “You call eleven of my decisions into question a day,” he said. “And apologize for it every time.”
“It is within my duties to suggest alternatives and express concerns,” Oliver said, almost defensively.
“So which decision are you calling into question today?”
“Sublieutenant Johnson.” Oliver pushed the lift call button. “He doesn’t have significant diplomatic team experience, and while he’s a trained officer he’s also not a combat specialist. Wouldn’t either some of the ship’s marine detachment or a diplomat be a better choice for the team’s third?”
“Possibly.” Corbett tapped the receptor plate. “Deck nine forward landing.” The lift began to move. “But he’s familiar with what we need to collect down there. We should have an expert on hand.”
“What we need to collect? Lee, I may not be an engineering officer, but I think I can identify eleven kilograms of platinum. It’s white, shiny, and registers as platinum on the traculizer.”
Lee laughed. “All right. But still. He did a good job on the prep-work, and he deserves to be a part of the team today. If there’s an emergency, we’ll have a marine contingent on ready-transmit.”
“He’s inexperienced, and the Pandar aren’t known for being forgiving.”
“He won’t become experienced if he never leaves the ship.” Corbett looked at his science officer. “I have a good feeling about him, Faye. I think he could be something in the fleet. He needs a chance to grow.”
“He can ‘grow’ when the mission isn’t the difference between life and death for the crew. Besides, he would be well rewarded by having the chance to plan our asteroid prospecting should this diplomatic mission fail.”
“It’s always life or death, Faye.” The doors opened. “Come on.”
Matter transmission was one of the flurry of technologies that heralded humanity’s move into the galaxy, three hundred and nineteen years before this mission. While the shunt drive was the obvious precursor to humanity’s galactic age, and the synthesizer resolved the practical issues of resupply and support for that age, the matter transmitter had fundamentally changed how humanity saw both travel and each other. Suddenly, planetary distances were reduced to the travel time to and from transmission stations. New York to London now took minutes or maybe an hour at rush hour. Mankind had gotten used to communicating on a global scale before this, but with matter transmission distance had stopped being any kind of impediment. In the case of an exploratory vessel like the Vigilant, matter transmission meant not having to waste time taking a shuttle to and from the surface. Instead, they had managed to make contact down below, and arranged for a place to transmit.
Today, that would make a huge difference to the negotiations. They had contacted the Pandar upon getting into range. While the Pandar weren’t happy to see them, they were willing to at least meet Corbett’s shore party. Once they’d sent the ship coordinates, the Vigilant had planned the trip carefully. “Two minutes to the transmission window’s open,” the transmission chief said as Oliver and Corbett walked in. “Bridge reports our transmission window is open and clear. Clean signal path to the designated coordinates. No atmospheric disturbances.”
Corbett nodded. “Security’s sending a marine detachment down. I want them on ready transmit status — if we need help we’re going to need it fast.”
“Aye, sir,” the chief reported.
“The transmission window is only two hundred seventy six millids in length,” Oliver said. “We shouldn’t plan to exceed that if we can help it.”
“Two hundred sev…” Sublieutenant Johnson looked a touch lost. He had been waiting alongside the chief, also wearing the full excursion gear.
“six hours, thirty-seven minutes,” Corbett said with a slight smile. “Our science officer… likes the Interfleet Standard system.”
“And you should be familiar enough with it to recognize what two point seven six decis means, Sublieutenant.” Oliver’s voice was sharp — her displeasure at bringing a green officer along coloring her mood, clearly.
“Yes, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am.”
“It gives us a hard deadline,” Corbett said. “We need to try and negotiate with the Pandar and hopefully secure the platinum before the Vigilant passes over the horizon and can’t easily transmit us back. Let’s try to minimize screwups — Chief, unless you hear otherwise from me you are to lock onto our locator beacons and recall us in six and a half hours after touchdown. Do you understand?”
“Aye sir. I’m setting automatic recall for three hundred and ninety minutes. Syncing the time onto your wristcomms.” He tapped the touchscreen. “Ready when you are.”
“We have a marine contingent right behind us. Have them on the pad ready for transmission immediately after we touch down.” Corbett climbed up onto the transmission stage. Johnson and Oliver climbed up on either side, angled slightly so they could take in as much of the scene as possible upon arrival.
“Aye sir.” The chief checked his settings. “Everything is green, sir. Coordinates check out, and window is open.”
“Once more into the breech, eh Oliver?” Corbett murmured. “Chief? Transmit!”
“Aye sir!” The chief tapped the touchscreen once more, causing the transmission stage to light up, the coils in the array making a whistling sound as the energy built to a threshold, which burst–
The pain! Corbett couldn’t remember more than a momentary twinge of pain when the transmitter first converted their bodies into transmission media. This time, though, it was agonizing, like he could feel every cell exploding. He had never felt anything like it. As his body resolved into solidity once more he dropped to his knees, crying out. “Wha… what the Hell– Oliver! Johnson! Report!”
He blinked, when there was no answer. “Oliver? Johnson?” He looked down at the ground — there was… pavement. Tarmac, it looked like, weirdly dry though there was mist. It was dark — nighttime, though with some light. Looking up, he saw he was in some kind of lot between buildings, with a street ahead of him. There was a heavy fog obscuring things beyond a few feet, though he could see the gleam of lights beyond.
Fog? The weather report had indicated the landing area was clear.
“Oliver! Johnson!” Corbett forced himself to stand, checking his gear — he still had his trackulizer and his disjunctor pistol, so if something redirected his transmission, they hadn’t disarmed him. He slapped at his wristcomm. “Vigilant, this is Corbett! Respond!” There was a pulse sound, indicating no connection. He hit it again. “Vigilant?” Another pulse. He triggered it again. “Oliver, this is Corbett! Do you hear me?” This time, there was a double pulse, meaning the wristcomm detected Oliver’s wristcomm, but was having some trouble negotiating the connection.
“She probably won’t be able to talk to you until you get on the City’s repeater system, Captain.”
Corbett pulled his disjunctor pistol and pointed it in the direction of the new voice, crouching something. “Who’s there! Identify yourself!”
A man was approaching in the fog — coming from the direction of the street. He hand his hands up and to his sides, clearly showing Corbett he was unarmed. As he got closer, Corbett realized he was dressed in a uniform. No — not just any uniform… he was dressed as an Alliance Fleet midshipman — specifically, the uniform as it was worn back when Corbett had been a middie. His voice sounded young, too, though with authority.
“Who are you?” Corbett asked. “Identify yourself! Where am I?”
“In good time, Captain. But understand — I’m not a threat and you’re not a prisoner. I just want to talk.” He walked closer.
“Talk? What do you mean? Where am I, middie? And what are you doing here?”
“I’ve been here for a long time, Captain. And you’re going to be here for a long time.” He walked closer, still keeping his hands where Corbett could see them, but clearly not intimidated by Corbett. “We have a lot to discuss.”
Corbett saw the man approach. Dark hair, dark skin. Short. Handsome features. Uniform well kept, with some kind of non-standard badge. Gold and circular. Otherwise, he had first year’s insignia. And something about him — he looked familiar.
Corbett blinked. He looked too familiar. Corbett hadn’t seen the face in some time — not directly — but he had seen it every day once upon a time, and even now he saw one a lot like it when he looked in a mirror. It was his own face — his own face as a nineteen year old first year cadet. And that badge — he saw that along the bottom it actually read ‘Midshipman 4th Class.’ In the middle was what looked like a lower case alpha symbol. And above it?
Above it was ‘Liam Corbett’ etched into the metal.
“What is this?” Corbett demanded.
“It’s exactly what it looks like,” the boy — no, man. His eyes were those of a man — said. “I’m Liam Corbett.”
“That can’t be. I’m Liam Corbett.”
“Yes, Captain. But you’re not the first. I am.”
“Not… what do you mean, Midshipman?”
“I’m not a midshipman any more, Lee. And you’re not a Captain any more.” The other Corbett looked serious. “I’m sorry. You’re dead.”