Read me the story
For every effect is itself a cause, just as every cause proceeds from prior causes. So was the Divine Warrior doomed to fight battle after battle, each battle the effect of the previous and the cause of the next. Not until He saw the tyranny of the temporal imperative was it given Him to cleave Time and open the Gates of Eternity.”
Immutable Truths, v. 7-8
The Book of the Third Avatar
New Standard Revision
The only possible justification for conquering Veran, Senior Lieutenant Rynart Joklan reflected, was that the alternatives, in their limited array, were all so much worse. He shook his head, trying to clear it of the thought. Mordant humor was common these days but it had never been his style. He broke the tab on his ration pak and waited for the red line to appear. He didn’t think much of Fleet catering, although you couldn’t deny that they were dealing with the overload pretty well.
“Hey, Ryn.” The voice came from behind him, and he turned his head, looking up enquiringly.
“Hey, Mat! Grab a ratpak and park the fundament.”
He was peeling the seal back from his own pak when his friend returned. “Haven’t seen you since…” Joklan stopped himself. No one referred to the past if they could help it, these days. “Well, congrats on the promotion, anyways. First in our class to make Kenterum, no less.”
Donley shrugged. “Just means you get chewed out by Colonels and Hartmans instead of Hartmans and Majors. I saw your name on the manifest but I’ve been on deadwatch all the way, so far. And they’ve got this crate so crammed full of bodies you’d never find your legs if they weren’t attached to your ass.”
Joklan glanced around. The mess compartment was pretty quiet compared to the usual mob scene, but then he was usually sleeping by this time. “It’s not bad, at that. Maybe I should put in for a duty transfer. Gotta be better than wetnursing a bunch of civilian eggheads.”
“Yeah, I heard you were moving in exalted circles. Practically the inner-inner, heh? So maybe you can answer the question everybody and his squadmen are asking.”
Joklan took a spoonful of reddish-brown stuff, lifted it to his mouth, chewed meditatively for a moment, and swallowed. “Chili, I think.” He eyed Donley. “Ask, O Seeker. The Oracle hears.”
Donley snorted. “Oracle. Two years in an Intel battalion and he’s an Oracle now. So riddle me this, oh well-informed one: Why in the name of the Holy Warrior and all His Avatars are we taking this much ordnance to dance with a bunch of sword-wielding savages? And for that matter, why in the name of the Warrior’s Blessed Bride are we dancing with savages at all? Whose brilliant brainstorm was that? Faithful Seekers want to know.” He spooned up some greenish-brown glop from his own ration pak and shoveled it in. His nose wrinkled. “Moogoo Gaipan. Bleah.”
Joklan assumed a consciously superior smile, and shook his head pityingly. “Such assumptions, my son. It’s easy to see that someone, despite his exalted rank, hasn’t been listening with attention to his Mission Updates.”
“Awww, haven’t you heard? Flitter jockeys are exempt from everything but flight briefings.”
“Oh, that’s right. Can’t risk overloading the limited cognitive abilities required for pilot training,” Joklan grinned, then lost the grin abruptly. “Actually, your questions come very apropos, in spite of the unreasonable assumptions.”
“Unreasonable how? Are you going to tell me that they’re not sword-wielding savages? And yes, I know about the whattayacallems, the Guardians, with their flash pistols and their concussion blasters and their sonic artillery and beam cascaders and feckall. But there’s only three thousand of them, right? There’s twenty-eight thousand of us. And our ordnance has a considerable edge over beam cascaders.”
“We think there’s three thousand of them. Crap, Mat, do you have any idea how little we actually know about these jonzos, not to mention the planet they’re on?”
Donley shrugged. “What’s to know? They’re Anachronists, right? Bunch of back-to-primitive-purity types, playing noble savage beyond the perimeter of inhabited space. Nutjob infidels with some kind of fetish about nature. Why them? We couldn’t find anyplace a little more, uh, civilized, to go for?”
“No,” Joklan said baldly. He was scraping his spoon around the main compartment of the ratpak, now, getting every last chunk. “We couldn’t. There isn’t a feckin’ thing within reach that will both get us off the Galactibank scanners, and provide a safe haven and the resources we need to rebuild the colony. Oh, great, cherry cobbler,” he gazed down into the supplementary compartment and made a face. Everyone hated the ratpak version of cherry cobbler, which tasted like cardboard soaked in cherry antifreeze.
“Lucky you. I got… mmmmm, chocolate profiteroles,” Donley spooned up a chunk of soggy, brown-streaked wrapping paper. I don’t get that thing about the Galactibanks. Did they really mean that, about all of us being subject to the Default Clauses?”
“Every double-decayed word of it, my friend. As soon as the Klaros colony is officially in default, we can expect every mercenary outfit this side of the Hub to descend on us, confiscate every confiscable asset—including all of us trained sojers, don’cha know—write up debt-bond contracts for everyone, and start the auction, selling everything—again, including us—to the highest bidder. Thus dispersing the Creator’s Chosen throughout the decadent heretical worlds of the Hub. So, in their infinite and Divinely-inspired wisdom, our revered Oligarchs decided that the only viable (and doubtless, Divinely-ordained) course of action is to sneak off the scanners, find ourselves a planet that will support life with the pittance of resources we have on hand, and breed ourselves back up to a respectable threat to interstellar peace and security, in a few centuries or so. That’s the strategic summary, you understand.”
“Timps, whatta feckup.” Donley crumpled his ratpak, spoon, and napkin, narrowed his eyes at the cloaca inlet on the bulkhead opposite the table, and lofted the wad neatly to oblivion without touching the sides. “I think I’ve earned me a coffee.”
For all the offenses of Fleet catering, the coffee aboard the Time Ripper atoned nobly. Unfortunately, like everything else, it was on ration. There was a brisk trade in coffee ration chips among wardroom poker players. Donley fished a handful from his pocket, and glanced at his friend. “I’m feeling generous, O Oracle. Wanna cup?”
“Thy sins are forgiven thee, my son. Plus I owe you one.” Joklan was a lousy poker player. Chess was his game.
Donley shoved two chips across the table. “You can do the fetching, then.”
Joklan disposed of his own debris and returned with two cups of steaming, heavenly-smelling, lifesaving fluid. “Here. I evaluated them both. This one’s better, so you can have it.”
“You dickhead.” Donley eyed the cup, which was not quite full. “You drank out of it!”
“Hey. Evaluation is my job. Don’t thank me,” Joklan grinned benevolently.
They sipped in silence for a few moments. Around them, personnel drifted in, in ones and twos, to draw their midwatch ration paks. There was a low hum of conversation, but no one was sitting nearby.
When Donley spoke, it was in a different tone of voice. “You aren’t too happy about this Veran thing.”
Joklan shrugged. “I’m just a lowly analyst. The Lord Commander doesn’t share his strategic and tactical planning sessions with me, neither does Old Steeleye.” He used the nickname for General-Hartman Ursek, the Intel Chief—a reference to the mythical Eagle who spied out the ground for the battles of the Divine Warrior.
“Well, the Lord Commander has an unbroken string of victories, my friend. Against opponents far more formidable than a bunch of Anachronist sword-swingers.”
“Maybe. I mean, yes, his victories are impressive… Timps, we would have mopped up Hecht and handed it to the First Legion on a gold plate if we’d had a couple more weeks, and Hecht was a tough rock to shatter. But as Old Steeleye says, what we don’t know can really hurt us. And we don’t know so much about Veran it makes me hurt just to think about it.”
“What’s to know? You think Caslon’s out of date? Inaccurate?” He referred to Caslon’s All the Colonized Planets, the standard almanac of the Hub, maintained and regularly updated by the University League, and published by a Galactibank publishing consortium.
“It’s not that. Well, it’s a little out of date—they don’t update on fringey systems like Veran more than once a decade or so—but that’s not a lot of information. And we don’t have a whole lot else. Articles in various publications, U-League archives, an Independent Fleet trade facilitation package and some intercepts between I-Fleet traders and various military hardware suppliers… and that’s it, brother. That’s all.”
Donley was startled. “You’re right, that’s not much,” he said slowly. “Why so little?”
Joklan shrugged again, a little uncomfortably. “It’s never been on any of our regular watch programs—for Bridesake, who’d ever have imagined we’d give a ping about it? And after the mess-up, the last thing we’d want to do is draw attention to our, ah, interest. So we had to go with what was on file. And that’s pretty much feckall.”
Chimes sounded on the ship’s intercom, five tones. They finished their coffee, and stood.
“Well, I know you don’t have much confidence in luck, Ryn. But you can’t play poker for crap. Me, if I’m going to bet on anyone’s luck, it’ll be the Lord Commander’s.”
“It’s not the Lord Commander’s luck that worries me,” Joklan said drily. “Let’s face it, Mat. Klaros Colony’s luck is one long string of cloaca flushes, for a long time now.”
Donley grimaced acknowledgment as he headed out the hatchway that led to the flight decks.