A story set on the Ertan moon of Nokara in 6773CE. Sort of a prelude to Kali.
The western view from the fifty-eighth floor of the Frandis Hotel stretched from the outskirts of the spire city of Meldensen to the red sandy badlands beyond. Towering buttes and ragged hoodoos dominated the northwest vistas. To the southwest, lost in a pink afternoon haze, the rim of the rugged Jarheen Canyon was barely visible; the steam and dust of its famous rip tide was a swirling white cloud marking the rush of water from the distant Nandem Sea. A huge crescent Erta, streaks of blue, white and olive, hung over the western horizon, the planet’s gravity distorting the very shape of Nokara, raising earth-tides as the moon swung closer to its more hospitable parent.
The stunning view was lost on Chrys Berk-Ovis. She was still struggling with her name tag. The little plastic rectangle displayed:
Academian Chrysanthemum Berk-Ovis
Imperial History Department
Exeter Public University
But Chrys never shared her parent’s interest in flowers and her given name did more to cause people to stumble over their words than her carefully sculpted appearance. She stomped her left foot in frustration. Flesh jiggled. She might have been short, barely 1.55 meters even after a few centimeters of height enhancement, but she’d spent most her nearly eighty years and much of her excess funds meticulously developing her face and body toward her view of perfection. “Why won’t you display my first name as ‘Chrys’?” she demanded, growling in irritation at the plastic card.
<Sorry, the parameters of established identification are not user editable,> the card replied back, its electronic signals transmitted to her implant guide cybernetics.
“But that’s not how people know me,” she growled through clenched teeth.
<Identification information is not user editable. This prevents attendees from impersonating others or embellishing credentials.>
“I just want to impersonate myself, you mindless piece of nanocrap,” she grumbled. In her opinion, the entire idea of name tags was archaic. At least on Erta, everyone could exchange personal information through guide identifiers, making this primitive external display, well, primitive – and unnecessary. And annoying. Here on Nokara, nearly half the conference attendees were from Erta or its moon, and most of the rest came from important worlds that were just as advanced. But, accepting the futility of arguing with a poorly programmed piece of plastic, she went back to concentrating on perfecting her appearance.
Mirroring the window, she examined herself in detail. Her gold and platinum streaked hair was pulled back in a complex braided tail. Her eyes shone with an enhanced violet radiance. Her face, clear of any superficial makeup, had a healthy rose finish, no blemishes or lines disturbing its nanomed-maintained smoothness. It would be at least a couple of standard centuries before her internal mix of biological and mechanical nanomeds would allow enough aging for her to consider a full body regeneration. She smiled, flashing perfect teeth.
Her black and gold mobius dress was a little extreme for a professor specializing in the relics of a two thousand year dead civilization, but she wore it well, its broad oblique bands covering, forming and exposing her shape with a careful mix of modesty and promise. With her legs exposed below mid-thigh and with her ten centimeter heels, needle thin spindles ending in transparent motile pads - she could sprint in those shoes, if so inclined - enhancing her calves and increasing her height, she knew her looks would turn more heads and cause more stammer than her tongue-tangling given name.
Satisfied, she ordered her purse to follow her, strode confidently from her miniature suite, and headed down to the convention room floor. Obscured behind the mirrored window, an afternoon windstorm took shape over the badlands of equatorial Nokara.
Chrys Berk-Ovis rode the elevator down alone and arrived into a crowded foyer, her purse hovering behind her at a respectful distance. Her post-graduate assistant, Helene Bartun, immediately worked her way through the crowd to join her. Chrys eyed the younger woman who was taller than her mentor by at least twenty centimeters, but flat shoes halved the difference. Helene wore her brown hair in a short conservative style and covered what Chrys thought was a worthy natural figure in a loose yellow dress suit. Helene had continually disregarded her mentor’s advice on matters of appearance, and still insisted she would develop a more serious and respectable reputation based on her accomplishments alone. The naiveté of youth.
Chrys noticed Helene’s puzzled stare toward the nametag planted squarely over her half-exposed left breast.
“Couldn’t convince the damn thing to use my short name,” she explained. Eyeing Helene’s lavender badge, she asked, “And how did you get yours off that putrid eggshell tint?”
“There’s a color menu for it,” Helene explained. “Would you like me to fix your name for you?”
“It won’t let you edit the given name,” Chrys grumbled, turning to flash a smile and some leg toward a group of men from Lordabaelis.
Helene sighed and said, “Here, pass me root control, and I’ll fix you up.” Within seconds, the first line of the name tag switched to ‘Academian Chrys Berk-Ovis’ and the background took on a lavender hue identical to Helen’s tag.
“How did you do that?” Chrys demanded.
“I just told it to display nickname instead of given name,” the younger woman answered, grinning.
“Piece of low-grade nanocrap didn’t tell me I could do that,” Chrys complained, pretending to straighten the tag and then smoothing nonexistent wrinkles from her dress. She gestured for them to exit the foyer and head toward the main hall.
Communicating subvocally between their implanted guides, Chrys continued, <Do you have all the data with you for the exchange? Hard copy?>
<Of course,> Helene signaled backed, offended that Chrys needed to ask. She passed her mentor a small data block.
Chrys paused to greet a couple of dark-clad Garissan Academians, full professors from the prestigious Moi Institute of Knowledge, extending her chest to ensure that they got a good look at her... nametag. While flashing a smile and engaging in autonomous small-talk, she signaled back to Helene, <I just wanted to make sure you have all the coordinate details you extracted from that shriveled-up old mountain man. I want this to go as smoothly as possible.>
<It’s all there. Do you still think this is a fair trade?> Helen asked while outwardly greeting one of the Garrisans, an ebony skinned man well over two meters tall.
<We’ve discussed this,> Chrys retorted, still flirting with the older and shorter of the two Garrisans, gracefully working her way past them to continue toward the cavernous open hall. <Why would we want to dig up an eighty meter long hollowed-out skull of some foreign trophy animal? It’s not even historical. It’s barely archeological, just a giant morbid trinket.>
The convention’s exhibit hall was for show, mostly to cater to the public and to provide a forum for mixing and showing off flashy presentations. The serious work of the conference took place in smaller lecture halls scattered through the Frandis Hotel’s convention complex. But it was a fabulous show. Holographic displays soared towards the high vaulted ceiling. A reconstruction of the atrium of the original Imperial Spring Palace – circa 4000CE – dominated one quadrant, its intricately embellished pillars continually changing to display the glories of the Jenan Age.
Chrys and Helene threaded their way through the crowd, rarely pausing to acknowledge the display booths; they would have plenty of time to wander the hall over the next four days of the convention and Chrys was so anxious to complete this business without delay.
Near the far wall, Helene fell behind, captivated by a simple flat screen projection and a small display cabinet exhibiting sleek silvery miniature spacecraft. It was a presentation of an event every Nokaran knew by heart, and one most Ertans had at least learned in passing.
The video projection was salvaged data four centuries old: faded two-dimensional color images of a chemical rocket launch, a flared silver rocket leaving the Nokaran plain, trailing a pillar of fire and smoke. The woman’s voiceover commentary sounded distorted, “Commander Brekman’s expedition left Karduk Spaceport aboard the Vigilance a Mark II Antos shuttle, docking with Hope Station after an eight hour journey…”
The scene cut to the chemical rocket, its tanks nearly depleted, rendezvousing with a primitive space station, a motley collection of cylinders, antennae and solar panels. Chrys tugged at Helene’s sleeve. “I’m sure you know how the story turns out. Come on, you can watch the show some other time.”
Helene hesitated for few more seconds. The picture cut to a jerky video from inside the station as the crew transferred to their pioneering interplanetary craft. “But to think they made it all the way out to Katumba Station and back on just chemical rockets and a balky fission reactor. It’s incredible.”
“Well, some of them made it back, anyway. Not exactly a glowing success, if you pardon the pun, but their setbacks, disasters and pitfalls are what makes it such an epic story. I’m sure the movie loops and you can watch it later. Let’s go,” Chrys insisted, leading her reluctant assistant toward the hall’s far exit. She couldn't really grasp Helene's fascination Brekman's Expedition. It was completely outside the scope of her thesis and current studies; wandering off into a subject just because it was interesting would never get her a full-time position.
Passing a display of relics from the Second Federation War, they strolled under a high arched gate and into a busy hallway. The evening’s lecture sessions were almost ready to get underway.
Professor Partraen Jessik, was late. His public comm was set to busy, so they were forced to stand along the ornate wall, scanning the crowd for a man they had never met.
<I feel like a wallflower,> Chrys signaled, pushing herself up on her toes to better scan the crowd.
<He probably figured we’d be fashionably late,> Helene suggested.
Chrys bit her lip in concern. <Do you think we look too eager? I mean, the way I set this up, it was supposed to look like a great deal for him and a just sentimental benefit for me.>
<You mean the sob story about your brother?>
Chrys’s color rose, <It’s not a sob story. It’s true. It just happens to not be the whole story.> She placed her hand up to cover her bare throat. <Birch was on the Hendrikson when it went down in ’33, and his resting place does still matter to me after all these years.>
Helene nodded. <I’m sorry. I understand that. But why are you holding your hand up there?>
Chrys smiled. A chance to show she wasn’t completely ignorant of cybernetics. <Don’t you know that a good eavesdropper can detect the little movements in your throat from a mastoid subvocalization? It’s like reading lips, only you need a lot of processing power and good camera work to get a clear read. I’m just keeping our conversation private. You should be doing the same.>
<Oh,> Helene replied. <That’s OK, I don’t need to. My comm is all subcranial. Direct nerve connections, so there’s nothing to detect unless someone’s scanning my brain, and that’s pretty intrusive. And, um, you could just wear a scarf.>
<Doesn't go with the outfit. And I’m a bit surprised, Helene. I never figured you for a bit head. Isn’t that mostly for gamers and hard core Archivers?>
The younger woman smiled shyly, then looked up at someone who almost looked like their man before answering, <It’s not for gaming, but it does speed up dictation and allow faster access to data – maybe three times as fast as subvocalization – with training. They’re not that expensive anymore, so you might want to consider it if you’re concerned about privacy.>
“Technology,” Chrys muttered audibly. <I got my subvoc set right after the turn of the century when I was a kid. I’m not sure I’m up to changing my habits. Subcranial still not standard issue, though.>
<I had a friend set me up with it,> Helene replied, averting her eyes shyly now.
Chrys grinned. It looked like a special friend, perhaps. Chrys had never heard her assistant mention anything about her personal life. But now wasn’t the time to pry.
<Well, he’s late for sure, now> she griped. The hallway crowd was beginning to thin as people headed to their sessions. A subchannel convention datastream projected a starting notice onto the bottom of their vision. <I’m hoping he doesn’t get cold feet. I mean it’s not like the data transfer is illegal or anything.>
<Well, technically…> Helene began.
Chrys shook her head, <Not particularly. It’s not our fault the EDN accidentally released an unedited nav dump log from the Euros Balan. It’s been forty years and most of it should be open files by now, anyway.>
<But not the raw data.>
<Fine,> she placed her hand firmly over her throat. <But the Euros Balan gets us the last two stops of the Hendrikson. And my brother’s diary mentions finding them trace from the Saratoga. You know the Saratoga wreck is the best chance of finding the coordinates where the Kali was ditched in interstellar space after Dhalman's Folly, and the Kali should still have a full Plague-free data set of Imperial knowledge.>
“A lot of maybes,” Helene said out loud.
“But we’re trading it for a useless skull,” Chrys retorted, through gritted teeth. “Now, where is he?”
<There.> Helene pointed to a thin bald man in a shimmering blue overcoat who was rushing toward them, motioning with the wave of his bony hand.
“Sorry, I’m late,” Partraen Jessik began, smiling. “It’s just that the city of Meldensen has so much more to offer than another convention of my peers.”
“I should be so jaded,” Chrys replied, bringing her hand down from her throat to offer it to the approaching man in greeting. “You should try getting to go to conventions from a public posting. They’re pretty free with travel onworld, but even Nokara needs department head approval. And if I wanted to travel out system, it would take two years – standard – to get the paperwork through the system.”
Jessik vigorously shook Chrys’s hand and replied, “That’s one of the advantages of my position at the Kaini Institute. I’ve been to conferences on Farris, Nachen and I’m scheduled to travel to the big PUMA conference on Morris next year.”
“I’ve never left the system, except one trip to Garissa for a conference a quarter century ago,” Chrys replied, frowning. “And this is my post-grad researcher, Helene Bartum, who’s never been outsystem at all,” she continued.
Helene shook Jessik’s hand firmly. “It’s only my second trip to Nokara,” she admitted.
“Well, hope you’re enjoying it.” Jessik’s perfunctory reply and smile were forced.
“Do you have it?” he asked, turning back to Chrys.
“Actually, Helene found the information and verified it,” Chrys replied. <And I might ask you if you have your information, as well,> she continued subvocally on a channel directed at Jessik.
Academian Jessik scanned the nearly deserted hallway. “I have it,” he replied, biting his lip. <I understand the need for you to try to find your brother’s resting place,> he continued, <but you do understand that we’re talking about something that happens forty years ago, two hundred light-years way. You just said you can’t even get funds to travel out-system.>
Chrys smiled. “I’ve saved up some money over the last half century, and I’m working on some private sponsorship. If nothing else, it will be an adventure. What about you? Digging an eighty meter long skull out of a mountain bog? Hard to justify that to the Projects Committee.”
“The K’targ skull was converted into a flying palace by Baroness Eleya Kannaddel after she received it as a gift from Crown Prince Rogar Kamarov in 4580 when he decided to renovate the Spring Palace. It has great cultural and historical significance,” Jessik insisted.
<You know, Rogar didn’t become Crown Prince until Cleon IV died in 4619,> Helene noted privately to Chrys. <He was still just a Sector Admiral at the time.>
Chrys shot Helen an irritated glance, <So Jessik's a hack. Not our problem>, then put on a hopefully warm-looking smile, “I’m sure you’ll have great success with the excavation, but it’s not a project I’m interested in pursuing, nor one that Exeter Public University is likely to sponsor. I just want to make sure my brother and his shipmates get the closure they deserve.”
Jessik nodded. “Yes, a pity the Director’s attention had shifted to the Zhantlian frontier by that time. Nobody ever did a proper cleanup through Sector 341. I was in the Navy back then myself. Staff analysis work, nothing exciting.” <But, probably why I was accidentally on the distribution list for this data in the first place.>
“We’re going to be late for our lecture,” Helene offered. True, though entirely unimportant, but it would help keep things moving.
Chrys nodded and offered out her hand again, a small storage block in her palm. “Hard copy exchange, as agreed?”
Jessik nodded, pulling out his own data store, but hesitating before the exchange. “I realize the data I have doesn’t have any wider interest, but how do I know you won’t trade your information on the K’targ skull to anyone else?”
Chrys smiled broadly, <Well, if someone else starts digging up a mountain bog, you can always turn us in for receiving improperly released data.>
Jessik nodded uncertainly, then consummated the exchange, his blank look probably a realization that it would be difficult to turn them in without implicating himself.
“And I stake my professional reputation on my word,” Chrys added. Helene’s raised eyebrow prompted her to continue to Helene: <Not a word. At least I still have tenure, something you won’t see for a couple of decades unless this thing leads to what we hope.>
Helene nodded. “It was nice to meet you Academian Jessik,” the younger woman offered in parting, reaching out to grab the older woman’s arm. “But, we’re going to be late.”
Leaving the near empty hallway, their purses trailing behind, they did sit through one lecture, a panel discussion on T’zet influence on Age of Elegance design. The inclusion of two T’zet scholars, fury purple creatures Chrys found strangely cuddly, at least made the repetition of scholars’ rehashed theses seem somewhat novel.
Chrys spent most of the lecture and discussion sitting in the back, sifting though the raw data she had just received. All the navigation data for the last two months of her brother’s final patrol mission were there, even the location of the Hendrikson’s final resting place, shattered into clay hills in an uninhabited corner of a backwater world. But the data from the previous system were more precious. Everything seemed to match the last entries saved from her brother’s old journal transmission and she had long memorized every word of that last message home.
After the session ended, they mingled a bit more, then Chrys left Helene to wander through the exhibition hall, the younger woman still drawn back to the epic saga of Brekman’s Expedition.
When Chrys returned to her room, the long afternoon had ended in dusk, and the storm clouds had passed, depositing fine dust across the spire city. With the planet and sun below the horizon, bright stars and the blurred band of the galaxy peeked though high clouds. She dimmed the lights and sat in silence, weeping for her long dead brother.
All pages and images ©1999 - 2006
by Geir Lanesskog, All Rights Reserved