Chapter One

~ March 10th, 2285 ~

"Open up, damn you," Doctor Vlashsku screamed with all the force of his being, but his verbal attack proved as ineffective as the physical assaults that had preceded it. He had been talking, yelling, and then screaming, at the enormous door for several hours in a bid to gain entry, but all efforts to enter the facility had been for naught. Lasers and plasma cutters hadn't even marred the surface, much less cut into it, and the harsh light from portable Chembrite Light panels reflecting off the surface seemed to be the only energy the door didn't soak up like a sponge.

"It's no use, Edward," the Nordakian scientist finally admitted as he hung his head and leaned gently forward until his forehead made contact with the door. To a casual observer he might seem to be in prayer, entreating God for divine intervention, or at least inspiration, but it was only weariness from prolonged maximum effort. Control over his chromatophoric cellular distensions began to return as his mood calmed. His skin, until now fluctuating between a bright orange and a deep red, began to assume its normal, medium-aqua coloration.

Doctor Edward Peterson, leader of the expedition at Loudescott, sighed quietly and approached Vlashsku from behind. Although tallest of the Terrans in the camp, Peterson was still a foot shorter than the Nordakian, owing to the natural height of the species. As he reached up and placed a gnarled hand on Vlashsku's shoulder, he said, "You've tried your best, Dakshiku. Tomorrow's another day. You'll feel better after a meal and a good night's sleep."

"I've already tried everything," the Nordakian said in despair. "Amer, Nordakian— even ancient Dakistian. It's hopeless, Edward. There's nothing left to try tomorrow— or any other day."

Doctors Anthony Ramilo, Barbara Huften, Bruce Priestley, and Glawth Djetch had slowly moved closer from their observation positions as the men talked.

"If only we knew what you said all those years ago to get the door open at the other facility," Peterson said. "A pity it was predawn when you screamed at it out of weariness and frustration without realizing that the door would open to a vocal command."

"This door must be of the same manufacture as that other," Vlashsku said. "It's certainly proven to be just as impervious to our cutting tools."

"Yes. And like that door, it must operate by vocal command since there's no obvious opening mechanism."

"Perhaps it's time to call Space Command, Edward," Dr. Huften offered.

Peterson took a deep breath and then released it slowly before saying, "Not yet, Barbara. It would end our chances of acquiring any useful knowledge. We would no doubt be barred from the facility, as before."

"That was only because the lab contained cloning equipment. The laws of the Galactic Alliance required Space Command to confiscate and remove it so it couldn't be used. We're lucky they didn't confiscate the clones we made."

"The cloning process was initiated by accident," Doctor Djetch said, "and Space Command realized we never intended to manufacture clones in violation of Galactic Alliance law. I am gratified they finally recognized our brethren as citizens, and accorded them the full rights of all sentient beings without reservation."

"That's how it started," Peterson said. "But once they learned about the impregnability of the material used in the lab's construction, the restriction included the whole facility as well. The cloning equipment is long gone, and yet we're still not allowed near that facility. If we can get inside this one, we can download the contents of its main computer before they learn of the discovery. Who knows what wonderful information we might discover about the ancient people of Dakistee if it isn't first filtered by Space Command censors."

"But as with the other facility, we're locked outside without a key," Doctor Anthony Ramilo said. "We've already spent a week trying to open it."

"I have confidence that after a good night's rest, Dakshiku will manage to open it."

"Then you're far more confident than I," Vlashsku said.

"If that Carver women could solve the riddles of the other facility, we can solve this one."

"Azula Carver is brilliant," Vlashsku said. "I would not presume to compare my meager abilities with hers. If she were here, I have no doubt we would already be inside."

"Brilliant? It took her weeks to figure out how to shut down the cloning equipment," Peterson countered.

"She proceeded slowly and methodically, just as any good scientist should. Of prime concern was that she not cause the death of any embryos or fetuses during the deactivation. In order to be assured of that, she had to fully understand the entire process first."

"Since we've already exhausted every means at our disposal, how do you suggest we proceed, Edward?" Ramilo asked.

"We should start over with the vocal sessions. Beginning tomorrow morning, we'll each spend two hours talking to the door."

The other scientists groaned aloud.

"Well we can't just give up," Peterson said.

"Why not?" Huften. "I admit I have nothing more to say to that door. What I have said, has already been repeated several times. We're getting nowhere. If there's no cloning equipment inside this facility, Space Command wouldn't dare lock us out again."

"Don't be so sure. I've learned to never underestimate the arbitrary nature of military types."

"If we contact Space Command, it will probably take weeks for them to get a ship here. That will give us lots of time to go hoarse from shouting at the door."

Peterson fumed for a few minutes, and then said, "Oh, alright. I'll make a call— but not to Space Command. I'll call Commander Carver."

"She's an Admiral now, Edward."

"An admiral? Already?"

"Edward, it's been sixteen years since she was last here. You still don't listen to the news do you?"

"Why should I? It's always depressing, and rarely reported accurately. Either the newsies are so eager to file their stories that they don't take time to get the facts straight, or the editors and publishers alter the reports to favor management's points of view because they're only interested in promoting their own agendas. The only thing I trust, somewhat, is the obituaries page. There are few ways you can distort the report of a death."

Huften rolled her eyes before saying, "Okay, Edward, believe what you will— but make the call.

* * *

"Our contact on Dakistee has filed an urgent report," Councilman Ahil Fazid announced as he rose to stand in front of his chair at the Raider Lower Council table. The powerful group was in regular session and all members were present in the meeting chamber. "You'll remember that just a few days ago I spoke of our attack on Mawcett, now known as Dakistee, following the discovery of the cloning equipment there. Well, our head man on the planet reports that the same group of scientists who discovered the almost impregnable facility at that time, has found a similar facility in the same region. According to the report, the new facility appears to be clad with Dakinium, so the archeologists have thus far been unable to gain entry. Most importantly, for us—," Fazid paused a second for effect and looked at the other council members, "they have not yet reported their find to either Space Command or their own headquarters."

"You want to launch another attack on the planet, Ahil?" Councilman Bentley Blosworth.

"No, Bentley; at least not yet. It would certainly be pointless to attack the site before they manage to open the facility. What I'm suggesting to the Council is that we position a force of sufficient size that can charge in and confiscate whatever the facility contains once the scientists manage to open it. Our attack would be nothing so crude as the last one, where we were forced to rely on Tsgardi mercenaries."

"How many people do you have on Dakistee?" Councilwoman Erika Overgaard asked.

"We have at least one individual at every one of the large excavation sites. At major sites, we have two or more. We've closely monitored all dig activities for some time to ensure that we are immediately aware of momentous discoveries. The technology of the former inhabitants was far superior to what we, and everyone else, originally believed existed at the time, and we don't want to risk losing out again. The last treasure trove of technology and information elevated Space Command to a position of undisputed powerhouse in this part of space. Another such significant find can push them even further ahead, with us falling further behind. I don't think we can ignore this new discovery."

"So what are you asking of the Council, Ahil?" Chairman Arthur Strauss asked.

"I'm seeking agreement on a plan of action where we move as many people as possible into place. They will be ready to rush in and grab whatever is found in the new facility before Space Command can get their hands on it."

"How many people, and what other support, are you proposing that we dedicate to this operation?"

"When the cloning equipment was found, there were only a few dozen small dig sites on the planet. That number has grown to more than a thousand. And with the influx of archeologists and laborers, towns have sprung up to support the expanding population. We already have a presence in each town for offering leisure time activities, and for the distribution of narcotics, but few if those people are trained for warfare. Nor are they capable of executing a takeover. We also have a problem with weapons availability and personnel transportation. For the most part, our hidden weapons caches are limited to hand-held lattice pistols. We do have some of our people in ground transportation positions, with a select few possessing small shuttles, or at least having access to them. But we need larger weapons, explosives, and a means of quickly moving hundreds of people to the dig site at Loudescott when they're needed, and then evacuating them just as quickly."

"Shoulder mounted weapons and explosives shouldn't be a problem," Chairman Strauss said, "but the transportation will. Perhaps you should start repositioning people as soon as possible using the available surface transportation."

"Yes, Arthur, my staff has already developed plans for using the available planetary transit system, but it's woefully limited."

"I have no problem with the plan, in general, but we'll have to look into the transportation issue."

"In a related issue," Councilman Neil Soroman said, "Assuming you are successful in acquiring the technology, how will you get it off the planet and safely away?"

"Obviously, we'll need a ship."

"Yes, but how big a ship?"

"Many of our people will, hopefully, be able to resume their former roles, but the leaders, once they drop their cover, will have to be taken off the planet with whatever it is we acquire."

"So at the very least, you'll need a small transport as your disposal."

"Yes, preferably one that can land on a planet or moon somewhere and hide until the pressure is off. A small warship would be best, because it can participate in the attack, and would have the speed to escape afterwards."

"Let's have a show of hands," Chairman Strauss said. "Everyone who feels that we should commit the assets and put this operation into effect, raise your hand."

* * *

"Lt. Commander Christa Carver reporting to the Admiral as ordered," Christa said after being admitted to Jenetta's magnificent office on Quesann and coming to attention. Jenetta's cats raised their heads and looked at Christa, but didn't rise from their prone positions against the walls on either side of the room.

"At ease, sis," Jenetta said smiling. "Have a seat, unless you'd rather make yourself a mug of coffee first."

"I could use a cup," Christa said, moving towards the beverage dispenser. "I received your message as soon as I woke up. I figured it must be important or you would have waited until we have dinner tomorrow night, so I came down before I even grabbed any chow. "

"By tomorrow night, you'll be light-years away from here."

Christa's mind began to race as she ordered a mug of Colombian, but she didn't say anything to Jenetta until she had taken a sip and was walking towards the desk. "The Hephaestus is going out? I thought we were supposed to remain in port for another three weeks."

"Not the Hephaestus— just you."

"Me?" Christa said in surprise as she settled into an 'oh gee' chair that faced Jenetta's desk. "Where am I going without my ship?"

"I received an importunate message from Dr. Edward Peterson this morning."

"The archeologist?"

"The very same. He's still on Dakistee, at the Loudescott dig site."

"Why did he contact you?"

"His message is very brief. He only said that my presence is urgently required. But since we know how he feels about Space Command, there can only be one reason why he would entreat me to come."

"They've found something they can't handle and need you to pull their chestnuts from the fire?"

"That's what I assume. If it's another cloning lab, I do hope they didn't engage the equipment this time. That issue has finally dropped off the activist radar screens."

"What else could it be?"

"I don't know. And I won't know until you get there and send me an encrypted report. If they have found something of critical importance— something so important that they acknowledge it should wait for me to travel back to Region One, then I don't want to treat it lightly by sending a routine request through Space Command for any ship in the deca-sector to investigate."

"But why me? I'm just getting comfortable in my role as third watch commander aboard my battleship."

"Obviously, Dr. Peterson feels that we're uniquely qualified to handle this problem, whatever it is. I can't be gone for six months, and Eliza is out on patrol, so that leaves only you for this special assignment, Commander."

Christa understood from the use of her rank that it wasn't a request. And sister or not, you don't argue with an Admiral when you're given an assignment. "Okay, sis. When do I leave?"

"The Quartermaster vessel Roberts is scheduled to depart in a few hours. They're expecting you to be aboard. I've ordered their route altered so they'll pass Dakistee. They'll drop you off at the planet so you won't have to make other connections. As it is, you'll be underway at Light-9790 for almost fifty days."

"Aye, Admiral. Uh, I trust that I'll not lose my position aboard the Hephaestus while I'm on this temporary duty?"

"I understand your concern. Each time I was assigned temporary duty off the Prometheus, I feared that I would never return to the job I really wanted. I promise you that if you complete this assignment within six months, your post will be waiting. You remain part of my command, so if something unexpected happens to delay your return, I'll find you another ship as soon as you're available for a posting. I've notified Admiral Holt that you'll be on special assignment in his sectors and asked him to provide whatever assistance is within his ability to provide."

"Then I guess I'd better get going," Christa said as she took a large gulp from the mug and returned it to the beverage center for automatic cleansing. "I don't want to cause a delay in the Roberts's departure."

Jenetta stood and came around the desk to walk Christa to the door. "Christa, be careful. If this is another cloning lab, I'm sure the Raiders know about it already. The war out here has displaced many of the ships that were on patrol in Region One, so help may not be close as you'd like when you need it. Report to me as soon as you know what the situation is and I'll do everything I can to provide the support you need."

Christa smiled. "Okay, sis. Ya know, I'm already warming to the idea of returning to Dakistee. It's been a long time since we were there. I bet things have changed a lot."

"I'm sure you're right. When our books were published, Dakistee became the place to be for every archeologist in the GA. I understand that the expedition headquarters staff on Anthius was inundated with applications for a while. They were said to be approving requests and assigning two new dig locations every day. I wonder what the original planetary occupants would say if they could see how the scientists fawn over stuff they probably considered garbage, just because it's old."

"I think the low point came when a publication ran a picture of a twenty-thousand-year-old disposable diaper, complete with fossilized fecal matter."

Jenetta chuckled. "Yes, I remember that. But who are we to say that it doesn't have some archeological value."

"At least it was long past the odorous stage."

"Yes. Too bad. That could have made for an interesting adjunct to the museum display. Imagine the display's audio introduction just before they activated the scent generator." After the two women shared a chuckle, Jenetta continued with, "But I'm sure they never seriously contemplated putting the find on display. Its usefulness is probably limited to providing dietary information from the period."

"Perhaps, but I always get a laugh out of imagining the excitement of the archeologists who made the discovery."

"Just think, in two months you'll be able to observe them up close," Jenetta said, giving her a slight push towards the door.

"Okay, I'm going," Christa said with a grin, then turned and hugged her sister for a couple of seconds.

"See you when you return, sis," Jenetta said.

* * *

There was a transport waiting outside, and a special shuttle waiting at the palace's landing pad. Upon reaching the Hephaestus, Christa hastily packed her spacechest and then reported to the Captain. He was in his ready room on the bridge and the door opened as she approached.

"Come in, Christa," Captain Powers said as she entered. "The Admiral has notified me that you've received a special assignment and that you'll be leaving immediately. She said that you won't be back for at least four months, but offered nothing else. Can you talk about it?"

"I don't know very much yet, sir. An archeologist on Dakistee sent an urgent request that beseeched the Admiral come as quickly as possible. She's asked me to go in her place since she can't get away."

"Dakistee, huh? Probably another cloning lab. Still, that's a long way to go when you don't know why you're going. You were born there, were you?"

"Yes, sir. I'm one of only seventy-nine citizens of the planet. I hope to make the trip and return quickly so I can resume my duties here."

"Now that the war has ended, things are calming down. If your return should be delayed, I'll do everything in my power to keep your post open for you. You're a valuable member of this crew and I'd hate to lose you."

"Thank you, sir. I would much rather be here than going to Dakistee."

Captain Powers smiled. "You're just like your sister. You want to be aboard a ship, but you'll go where sent and do your best. You're an excellent officer, Commander, and I'll miss your services until you return."

"Thank you, sir. I'll be back just as soon as possible."

* * *

Upon reporting aboard the Roberts, Christa was escorted to guest quarters in officer country. As she settled in, the enormous Quartermaster ship left orbit at Quesann. Its next stop was Dakistee. A special shuttle, delivered to the Roberts for Christa's use while she was on Dakistee, was parked in one of the Roberts' flight bays.

* * *

"Welcome to my humble retreat, Excellency," Sebaqd Gxidescu said to Nordakian high priest Kledoujk Vejrezzol as he opened the front door of his vacation lodge to the visitor.

"It is my honor to be welcomed here," Vejrezzol replied in customary fashion as he stepped quickly inside and pushed the door closed. While approaching the building he had ascertained that, as ordered, all windows were shuttered, so he felt comfortable in pulling back the hood that shielded his identity from anyone who might be watching from the woods, or via satellite.

"The others are already here, Excellency."

"Good," Vejrezzol said as he removed the heavy cloak and draped it over his arm. "Show me the way."

Gxidescu turned and walked towards the rear of the house with Vejrezzol close behind. Although Gxidescu called it a vacation lodge, the house was massive, and seldom used if the sheets covering the furniture were any indication. It was just one of the innumerous perks typically afforded to those who, although not a member of the nobility, were important business leaders with close ties to the church. The land was part of the estate belonging to the family Ukaloctqul, but had long ago been 'assigned in perpetuity' to the church for their use.

Their route took them almost to the kitchen at the rear of the house, and then down a flight of stairs to the basement. Gxidescu shoved open a huge door, and then pushed it closed after he and Vejrezzol had entered the large room. Ten men, seated around a table in the center of the room jumped to their feet as Vejrezzol entered.

"It's safe to talk openly in here, Excellency," Gxidescu said. "The room has been swept for bugs and no sound can pass through the door or walls."

Vejrezzol took time to scan the faces of the men at the table, as if searching for any sign of nervousness. Finding none, he said, "Be seated, gentlemen."

Vejrezzol took his place at the head of the table, while Gxidescu took a seat at the opposite end. The men at the table constituted an inner circle of religious dissidents. "Report," was all Vejrezzol said, as he looked at the first man on his left.

"The freighter is in orbit and ready to begin loading. The captain has been well paid and is prepared to take on twenty of our followers as crew."

Vejrezzol nodded and looked at the next man, who immediately began his report.

"The containers that will hold our five-year food supply have been delivered and loaded. That includes the emergency rations. As planned, fresh food will be loaded last, in refrigerated containers, just before we're ready to leave."

Vejrezzol nodded again and shifted his gaze to the next man.

"The delivered medical equipment and supplies have been loaded into containers and are ready for transport. The supplies with expiration dates will be delivered just before we're ready to leave to insure they are as fresh as possible. All suppliers have been compensated for the supplies we've ordered and are only awaiting notification of our ship date. All will be ready."

"The farm equipment and seeds packs have been procured and loaded into containers," the next man said in turn. "We're ready to send the loads up."

The last man on that side of the table spoke up as Vejrezzol looked towards him.

"The home furnishings and personal possessions of our followers are ready for transshipment, except for what they will bring as carry-on luggage."

Vejrezzol shifted his eyes to the other side of the table and the reports continued.

"The complete knowledge base of our people has been downloaded from the Royal Library and is securely stored in several containers."

"I assume that it doesn't contain any copies of the new Almuth?" Vejrezzol asked.

"Of course not, Excellency."

"Very good."

Vejrezzol continued around the table, receiving reports on building materials, power generation and water purification equipment, livestock, communications equipment, clothing, and necessities such as paper and pens, cookware, sewing supplies, etc. The last man to report said, "The people who traveled off planet in anticipation for this day have been collected from their locations and are all aboard. To the best of our knowledge, no one outside this group knows just how large the flock is."

"Excellent," Vejrezzol said when all reports were complete. "The day we have planned for and worked towards for so many annuals is almost upon us. We all knew, when Azula Carver delivered the blasphemous document she alleges to be the original Almuth, that our ancestors would never have followed such a vile lifestyle as is espoused in that text. Why the nobility supported it and the leaders of our church accepted it as genuine, we shall probably never know. But we do know that once we are out from the thumb of the royal family and the their puppets in the church, we will be able to live the lives that God intended for us. I shall notify you all very soon of the departure date."

"Has the government given any indication that they intend to stop us, or attempt to stop us?" Gxidescu asked.

"None, nor should they. We are free citizens of Nordakia and the Galactic Alliance exercising our right to travel outside our home solar system. Slabeca has no planetary government, and is not protected by the Galactic Alliance Bureau of Alien Affairs so they cannot require us to secure advance entry permits. My friends, I promise you this— when we reach our destination, the entire galaxy will know of the sacrilege that forced us to abandon our homes on Nordakia and travel to distant shores. They will understand the reasons for the acts we have perpetrated, and support our cause as just, no matter how many die in our struggle. Everything is acceptable when it's done by the hand of the righteous, in the name of God."

End of Chapter 1

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