For this months short story release we’re going to begin a look deeper into the Aristeia universe. Years before the events of Aristeia: Revolutionary Right, the Terran/Braz Alliance fought a long war with the Dotran Confederacy for control of the worlds in the colonial sectors, including those in the Kreogh Sector.
This is the first in a series of stories that reveal the tale of that war. “The Price” tells the story of Lionell Mandrake and Valinther, two of the delegates to the Kreogh Sector Congress. While both characters have very minor bits in Book 2, and aren’t even named in Book 1, they play a much greater role in “Tree of Liberty”. Get to know them and a bit about the Colonial War…
23 Galactic Standard Years before the events of Aristeia: Revolutionary Right
The voice rang down the narrow corridor, stopping Lionell Mandrake. The tall Terran turned, watching as the bulky and furred Kowwok rushed down the corridor to catch up to him. Short for a Kowwok, Valinther stood only slightly taller than Lionell. But he had more bulk than most. Lionell could not help but make the comparison to a lumbering grizzly bear from his native Terra.
“Mr. Valinther, what can I do for you?” Lionell asked, politely.
“Please, you can call me Val. You have earned that right by what you are doing here.” Valinther said with a wide smile.
Lionell braced himself, expecting the Kowwok to pull him into a firm embrace. That Kowwok practice of showing respect and friendship had been difficult to accept. Fortunately, most of his passengers had finally realized Terrans were not comfortable with such intimate contact.
Instead of a hug, Valinther extended an awkward hand towards him. Pleasantly surprised, Lionell took the hand and shook, eliciting another smile from the Kowwok, “I wanted to again offer me and my people’s thanks to you and your crew. You risk much by helping us.”
As much as he thought that the Kowwok’s had a pretty bad situation living under Dotran rule, he hadn’t agreed to smuggle Valinther and his companions off Dotra out of morale conviction. Zercark Mining Corp had sponsored the extraction. Kol was not a very hospitable environment, and refugees made for cheap labor.
He felt a little guilty accepting Valinther’s praise. He wasn’t really sure he was doing the Kowwok a favor. They were trading life on a civilized world that treated them as second class citizens, for a world where they would, instead, be viewed as cheap exploitable workers. But at least they would be treated the same as everyone else.
Lionell shrugged uncomfortably, “It’s not a big deal.”
“You say that, but I do not believe you really understand what this means to us.” Valinther persisted, “On Dotra, and even our own homeworld of Kowwa, we are forbidden to pick our vocation, travel off world, or participate in government. I know Kol will not be an easy life, but it will be a free life.”
Nodding grimly, Lionell said, “That I can sympathize with. Speaking of Kol, I was on my way to the bridge, we’re about to exit hyperspace. You can join me if you’d like to get a look at your new home.”
Valinther let out another wide smile, “I would very much like that.”
With an inclination of his head, Lionell resumed his short march towards the bridge. His freighter, the Dawn of Night, was not a large ship outside of the cargo area. Reaching the cramp bridge, Lionell nodded to his first mate, Drusell Comara. Her reddish-pink screfa marked her as part of the Mara clan and she was the only Braz amongst his crew. Their homeport ofAilleroc had a mostly Terran population.
“Exiting hyperspace in one minute, Captain.” Drusell said.
Lionell nodded, making no move to take Drusell’s command station. While Dawn of Night was his ship, he knew just enough about flying the freighter to know he should leave most things in the capable hands of others. Managing the finances and arranging their business deals were his forte. So he left day to day operations to Drusell.
With Valinther squeezing in behind him, there was very little space left on the cramped bridge. While his presence wasn’t necessary on the bridge, it did afford him a better view than the porthole in his quarters. The twisted colors of hyperspace flashed outside the expansive forward window and Lionell squeezed his eyes shut as he felt momentarily nauseous.
Pushing down the nausea, something Drusell teased him about mercilessly, he opened his eyes to see the dark brown sphere of Kol floating in space before them. Despite the fact that most of the planet’s population lived in the expansive desert region, a harsh and unpleasant environment, Lionell loved his trips to Kol. His deliveries took them to the headquarters of Zercark, located on one of the planet’s numerous tropical islands.
“So that is our new home.” Valinther said, the tone in his voice full of wonder, “Thank the Great One for this blessing.”
Lionell nodded, unsure of how to respond as the Kowwok bowed his head and started reciting a brief prayer. They remained staring out the window as the brown ball grew larger. After a few minutes, Drusell started directing pointed glances towards him. She hated passengers gawking while she tried to work.
“It will be another half an hour or so before we set down. We should get out of the crews way.” Lionell said, gesturing Valinther back towards the door.
Still transfixed by the sight of the planet, Valinther slowly allowed himself to be guided towards the door. Before they could leave, Reynolds at the operation station let out a curse, “Captain, we’re being scanned by a Confederate frigate.”
Despite Lionell’s presence, the report was clearly directed toward Drusell, who said, “That’s not unusual. Kol is a non-aligned world.Allianceand Confederate patrols are here all the time. It’s just routine to make sure we’re not a pirate.”
Reynolds nodded, his face showing he was not any more comforted than Lionell felt. This was not the first time they had smuggled Kowwoks to Kol. But it was the first time they had done so at the same time that a Confederate warship was in orbit.
“Full system scan, Mr. Reynolds. Are there anyAlliancewarships out there as well?” Drusell ordered.
“Aye, Ma’am. One frigate also in orbit.” Reynold answered, relief evident in his voice.
“See, nothing to worry about.” Drusell said.
Almost as if in response, a comm. signal came in from the Confederate frigate, “Unidentified freighter, halt your engines and stand by for inspection.”
Lionell’s heart sank. The presence of anAlliancewarship should have meant they were safe from harassment by the Confederates. Apparently, the captain of this one did not see it that way.
The entire bridge crew turned their eyes to look at Lionell. While Drusell was nominally in charge of ship operations, important final decisions rested with him. He had always made that clear, not wanting to give anyone, even Drusell, more authority than him aboard his own ship. Now he felt a small twinge of regret at that decision.
Beside him, Valinther’s eyes bore into him. The demand that the freighter stop for inspection held only minor consequences for Lionell and his crew. Inspecting them, while technically outside the authority of the Confederate ship, was not unheard of. They would come aboard, inspect the cargo, and take anything they deemed as contraband. No physical harm would come to them without the Confederacy risking war with theAlliance, something they weren’t stupid enough to do.
But for Valinther and his people it was a different story. Their presence would be deemed as contraband and they would be imprisoned. In the end, they may still end up on Kol, but in a prison work camp rather than as paid workers in a privately owned mine. Zercart wasn’t the best company to work for, but they did ensure none of their workers died. Confederate prisons were not as concerned with fatalities.
The seconds dragged on as the consequences of his next decision weighted down on Lionell. Allowing the inspection would probably be the safest thing for his crew, though it would mean they wouldn’t get paid for this run. But financial losses aside, Valinther’s life would be on the line. Plus, he didn’t like the idea of submitting to the order. He didn’t like being bullied around.
“Captain…” Drusell said, urgency in her voice, “The Confederate ship is continuing to order us to cut our engines.”
With a glance over to Valinther, Lionell swallowed to clear his throat, “Yes, Dru, I heard. Maintain course for Kol. Open a channel to theAlliancefrigate requesting their assistance.”
Beside him, Valinther visibly restrained himself from hugging Lionell, a gesture which he appreciated. Instead, the Kowwok bowed his head again and said, “May the Great One protect you and your crew, Captain.”
“Let’s hope so.” Lionell responded, though to himself he dismissed the notion. The Kowwok’s Great One had done nothing to protect the Kowwok’s from the Dotran, or the Kravic before them. It wasn’t likely to decide to intervene now.
Several tense moments went by. At their stations, Lionell’s crew sat, fidgeting nervously. Lionell tried to keep a calm demeanor but felt sure he failed. In contrast, Drusell kept an air of calm confidence; but Lionell chalked that to Braz’s naturally muted emotional state.
The planet of Kol continued to grow larger in the window. Soon it completely dominated the view and Lionell started to make out recognizable geographic features. Their current trajectory placed them on an orbit that would bring them completely around the planet to their destination on the night side.
Suddenly, Lionell fell forward, only keeping himself from hitting the ground by grabbing onto Drusell’s chair. Not as lucky, Valinther crashed into the back of the helmsman. Around them, the sound of straining metal echoed through the bridge. A steady vibration rode up Lionell’s feet from the deck plating.
“What the hell? Did we hit something?” He demanded, struggling to pull himself back to his feet without pushing on Drusell, who struggled to keep her seat.
“Tractor beam.” Drusell said succinctly, “The Confeds must have locked a tractor beam onto us.”
“Confirmed.” Reynolds said a moment later, “They’ve got us firmly locked. Our velocity is now relative zero to them.”
“Shut down the engines.” Drusell ordered.
Lionell frowned down at his first mate. He didn’t like countermanding her in front of the rest of the crew, but shutting down their engines sounded foolish to him. Before he could say anything she said quietly, “The engines fighting the tractor beam is causing a lot of hull stress. We don’t have enough power to break free, we’ll just end up cause a hull fracture.”
Grimly, Lionell nodded in response, “Is there any other way to break free?”
“Not for us. Warships have methods, but the Navy doesn’t advertise those techniques.” Drusell said through gritted teeth. Turned towards the front of the bridge she snapped, “Any response from theAlliancefrigate?”
“Bringing them up now.” Reynolds said.
The monitor in front of Drusell came to life, revealing aged Braz male just shy of being called elderly. Lionell was not an expert on the Navy, but did know enough to recognize rank emblems. The male wore the symbol of a major, a rank he thought was far to low given the man’s age.
In a bored, almost reluctant tone, the officer spoke, “Dawn of Night, this is the Alliance frigate Honor. We read your situation. I suggest you submit to the inspection. We will send over a boarding party as well to ensure that the Dotran cause no further harm to your ship or crew.”
“I must concur.” Valinther said, picking himself up from the deck, “None of my people have any wish for harm to come to your crew. We will turn ourselves over.”
Minutes before, Lionell had legitimately been considering conceding to the Confederate’s demand. He had decided against it for Valinther’s sake. But after the Dotran had attacked them with a tractor beam he felt no desire to give in to them.
“Major, this is Captain Mandrake. I will not submit my ship to the authority of the Dotran Confederacy. No Dotran will set foot aboard my ship without a fight. As anAlliancecitizen I implore you to do your duty and protect us.”
On the screen, the Braz man frowned, clearly agitated at Lionell’s tone. Drusell would probably chastise him for reacting emotionally to the situation, rather than rationally. Her fellow Braz undoubtedly felt the same way.
But to Lionell’s surprise, he caught a glimmer of something other than disapproval. A flash of excitement crossed the old major’s face. It was gone in a second but instead of another order to stand down, he nodded.
“Understood, Captain Mandrake. We acknowledge your request for assistance and formal refusal to submit to illegitimate Confederate demands for inspection. Stand by.”
The transmission ended abruptly. Lionell shared a confused look with Drusell. The sudden change in the officer’s attitude made no sense to either of them.
A moment later, Reynolds picked up an open transmission coming from theAlliancefrigate, “Attention Confederate warship. You have illegally detained anAlliancemerchant ship and are in violation of intergalactic treaty. Release your tractor beam and stand down or we will be forced to fire upon you.”
A cheer went up from the among the bridge crew. Lionell felt a wave of satisfaction wash through him. The Dotran might have tried to bully him around but they weren’t going to be successful.
The wave of euphoria continued for a moment until he heard the Dotran’s response, “Alliancewarship, any attempt to fire upon us will be construed as an act of war. This ship is suspected of illegally carrying Confederate citizens. Under Confederate law, we have full authority to search and retrieve such illegals. Disengage now.”
Their current situation dawned on Lionell as several more warnings passed between the two warships. His ship sat directly between two armed, and now belligerent, warships. The Honor coming to help had seemed like their salvation. But it was looking like it might lead to their being the first victims in a shooting war.
“The Confederates are firing!” Reynolds cried out.
Lionell tensed, bracing himself against Drusell’s seat. He didn’t think it would make much of a difference, especially if the bridge window was blown out, but he felt the need to do something. When nothing happened, he slowly opened his eyes.
“The Honor’s been hit! They’re returning fire!” Reynolds continued to shout out, his voice echoing in the small room.
Out the window, Lionell still could not see theAlliancewarship in the distance. But he could spot tiny red specks of light flash towards them across the emptiness. They were now caught in the middle of a cross fire.
Even though everything was silent, Lionell felt like he could hear the sounds of weapons fire and explosions going off around them. There had been a lot of war epics released in recent years that had been filled with unrealistic space battles. As another shudder resounded through the ship and Lionell was sure they had been hit.
Much to his relief, Reynolds cried out, “We’re free of the tractor beam!”
“Engage engines, full burn!” Drusell shouted, “Evasive maneuvers!”
Outside, the view of Kol started to shift as the helmsman started randomly changing their vector. Tension held Lionell’s shoulders taunt as he watched, transfixed and unable to look away, despite the nausea the view inspired. He felt helpless and vulnerable but couldn’t think of anything he could do.
It wasn’t until Reynolds announced that they had left the field of fire that Lionell realized he had Drusell’s hand in a vice grip. She squeezed his back just as firmly. Trying to regain some of his composure, Lionell smiled down at the woman, trying to look confident.
“Dru, get us planet side as quickly as you can.” Lionell said.
“You don’t have to tell me twice.” The helmsman said in response.
Turning away from Drusell, Lionell went over to Valinther, who stood alone against one wall. The Kowwok again bowed his head, “Thank you, Captain. I did not wish any harm to come to anyone over us, but I do thank you for not turning us over to the Dotran.”
“Don’t mention it. We don’t get paid when our passengers don’t make it to their destination.” Lionell said, trying to sound dismissive.
“That is true enough. I believe I have had enough excitement for one day. I will return to the cargo hold and let the rest of my people know what has transpired.” Valinther said, though his smile suggested he hadn’t bought Lionel’s line. With one final nod the Kowwok exited the bridge.
After watching the Kowwok leave, Lionell let out a heavy sigh, “That is a sentiment I can agree with. That has been enough excitement for one day. Once we’re planet side, everyone get’s an extra three days of leave. I think we’ve all earned it.”
The response from the crew was far more muted than their usual when granted extra time to spend among Kol’s lush beaches. But unlike Lionell, they all still had work to do now. They had something to focus on rather than feeling the sudden withdrawal of adrenaline.
Before leaving the bridge himself, Lionell asked, “What’s the status of the Honor? I hope they’ve managed to break off without to much damage now that we’re clear.”
The response from Reynolds took several minutes. Lionell was about to ask again when the man said hesitantly, “It looks like she’s moving to join another collection ofAlliancewarships.”
“Good, glad they made it out safely.” Lionell said relieved.
“Umm, Captain, the fleet they’re moving to has just engaged another fleet of Confederate ships. Both fleets have launched fighters and are actively exchanging fire.”
Lionell felt his heart tighten as he cast a look down at Drusell. They had made it out alive. But at what cost?