Book 1 of The HEL Jumper

Book 2 of The HEL Jumper

—–

Previous | First | Patreon

Thanks to Big_Papa_Dakky, Darth_Android, bloblob, AMERICUH, The_Real_Jumper, Ironwing, Mr_Polygon, Krystalin, Mamish, Vikairious, Sam_Berry, RedHawkdude, KillTech, LilLaussa, Daddy_Talon, Gruecifer, Gaelan_Darkwater, Konrahd_Verdammt, red-shirt, DaPorkchop, Benjamin Durbin, Siddabear, and everyone supporting me on patreon.

—–

A/N: With your permission, my dear readers, I will be taking the next couple of weeks to rest. It’s been a crazy year both for HEL Jumper and the rest of the world, and I plan to take that time to spend with my family, relax, and recharge before the new year. I hope you all are able to do the same. What you can expect from me over the next couple weeks will be a second HEL Jumper Christmas Special, which will be available to all. I will also use that post to share my July Patreon one shot with the public. I will pick up writing again in the new year, and you should expect a chapter to release on the 11th of January, keeping with the 3x/month schedule established this year.

Second, and more importantly, I would like to take a moment to thank each and every one of you who have supported me and my work financially this year, be it via book purchases or Patreon. I am sincerely grateful to you all who have offered such generosity in trying times. Thank you, and I hope you will continue to enjoy my work in 2021.

Finally, I have a commission from Akella to share with you all, paid for by those same generous Patreon bux: Io, a Work in Progress

—–

“What shall I say, Antoth? That humanity is a species that delights in the snatching of alien babes from their mothers’ breast? Surrogate mother would perhaps be more applicable to the situation but my point stands,” Natori stated, glancing at Alice. “I’m sorry, Alice. I know this was something you put a lot of consideration into.”

“Be that as it may, I do not appreciate hyperbole,” Antoth interrupted, commanding Natori’s attention. The Admiral paused a moment before leaning forward in his chair.

“Then let us be specific, Antoth. You wish for two of my crew to raise that cute, young girl. What do those under my command know about raising a Cauthan? Next to nothing. I suspect even Alice here would run into trouble quickly, through no fault of her own. The vast majority of those aboard the Event Horizon are either single or without children by the very nature of the dangers we faced to get here. The few aboard who are parents are older, and would very likely pass on before that girl reaches the age of thirty. That may not seem like a problem to you, depending on your people’s life expectancy, but I can assure you that for the average human, thirty is the beginning of true adulthood these days. Most of us put off childrearing until then, strange as it may sound. For an alien out of place and time I assure you that her need for guidance and care would extend beyond that age, even if only to have someone there she can rely upon to navigate certain new aspects of life that inevitably crop up now and again.”

“There are plenty of young humans among your crew who would not pass away under such circumstances,” Antoth pointed out as Thantis continued scribbling as fast as his old joints would allow. Xan was listening with rapt attention as Natori posed a counter question.

“Do you force parenthood upon the youth under your command? Directly, I mean. I understand your society and culture are structured around child rearing but I’m talking about specific men and women under your care. Would you force pairings? Would Gentia?”

Antoth breathed out audibly through his nose in a sign of frustration. “There is precedent for it, but no. I would not force a male and female to mate with one another. Such a thing would be an affront to the Mother.”

“I agree,” Natori said pleasantly. “And the fact remains that even if neither of us possessed such compunctions around the notion of enforced parenthood personally, such a thing is outside of my authority, Antoth. The little one would be something between a pet and a military experiment, with the HEL as her only constant authority figure. I cannot in good conscience consent to such an arrangement. That is… not the life Gentia wishes for that child. And I say that with as full an understanding as possible of how difficult life will surely be for her here.”

“Yes yes, you’ve made your point adequately,” Antoth admitted, drumming his fingers on the well used desk in front of him. “That does not change the words exchanged between you and Gentia.”

“Perhaps there is some other way we can reach an acceptable resolution?” Natori asked.

“I am not sure what you could do to positively affect the trajectory of her life directly if you refuse to care for her, but I can think of several ways that our village as a whole could stand to benefit from your people.”

“As you said earlier, I’m listening,” the Admiral replied, readying himself to receive Antoth’s demands. He had to admit he was curious.

“The armor that Winters wears. I want the town guard outfitted with it.”

“No,” Natori answered again, causing both Xan and Alice to sit straight as rods as they watched Antoth’s face. The Cauthan was not pleased.

“Why not?”

Natori turned his palms upward as though requesting leniency. “Even defensive weaponry is weaponry, Antoth. If we turn your guard force into unkillable fighters, even if they continue to use only bows and spears, it would stand as a gross violation of the treaties we are already a party to with the Ghaelen. Your intentions are surely noble, but that does not mean your successor’s will be. That armor would last a lot longer than you or even him.”

“You are quite adept at offering platitudes, evasions, and trinkets,” Antoth snapped. “You will forgive me when I say I do not care for meaningless treaties to which my people are not party to. I care for their lives.”

“Every bit as much as I care for the lives of my crew, I am sure,” Natori responded strongly. “We have offered your people the gift of sight, Antoth. We have provided your people with portable, strong, sustainable illumination. We are in the process of learning to cultivate your crops and will share whatever we learn with you, as well as excess harvest.”

“And what has it cost you to do so?” Antoth interrupted. “I am not ungrateful for what you and your people have done.”

“I did not think so myself,” Natori agreed, bringing his hands together and pressing his index finger to his upper lip. “But I would like to understand the source of this sudden mistrust, if you will?”

“I would say you misrepresent me, but I am a warrior, not a diplomat. It is close enough,” the sun priest replied. “One day your people will leave this place. I am worried about what comes after.”

Natori nodded in understanding. “That is of course a valid concern, Antoth. I sincerely doubt that we will be the last humans to visit the system, however. Assuming we can manage a favorable resolution to the situation at the Forge, I would suspect that at a minimum there will be ships that stop in to ‘say hello’, if you will. We will remain bound by law to not disturb your planet and the other peoples on it, but also bound to deal with your village in good faith.”

“What does the Forge have to do with you leaving or staying?” Xan suddenly asked, leaning forward on his cane with both hands.

“My apprentice, today we are here to observe and document-”

“It is a fine question, Thantis,” Antoth cut him off respectfully before turning to Natori. “Admiral, I would appreciate an answer to Xan’s question. You may consider my asking it, if that changes anything.”

“It does not, Antoth, and I will be happy to tell you what I do and do not know. I will start by saying that I only understand the ‘what’ of the situation, if you will. I do not understand why or how. I hope that will be sufficient. My crew and Io have been hard at work since we arrived here trying to understand why your star system is unique. I may misunderstand your religion slightly, but in terms hopefully familiar to you I would phrase it as trying to answer why this particular region of Kel’s domain is so dangerous. It claimed one human ship when Lieutenant Winters arrived here, and it attempted to do the same to us. Sheer luck and divine providence saw us survive the attempt, and I submit that to the official records of my own people as Admiral of Beta Division. There is no better or worse explanation for why we survived and the Lancer did not.”

Antoth looked seriously at Thantis. “Not even spirit Io fully understands the situation?”

“Correct,” Natori said, deepening the frown on the chieftain’s face. “She was instrumental in our learning of what is happening here, but we still do not know how it is possible or why it is occurring.”

“And what exactly is ‘it’?” Antoth requested.

“It is the Forge,” Natori stated simply. “We have reason to believe that the installation, along with others like it scattered among the moons and planets of your solar system that we have not yet located, are creating gravitational instabilities that tear and tug at the warp point around your star, making travel by warp drive almost certainly deadly.”

“They, they what?!” Alice yelped. The Admiral looked at her with a difficult expression.

“There are some things the rest of the crew should not know, Miss Winters, not because it is classified, but because hopelessness is a powerful negative emotion. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I do, Natori,” she replied quietly. “Sorry for the interruption.”

“Not at all, Alice,” Antoth reassured her with a gentler tone than the one he’d reserved for Kaczynski. “Admiral, I would appreciate it if you could repeat your explanation in terms we might better understand.”

“I will do my best, Antoth. Let me see,” Natori mused, trying to reduce the incredible complexity of FTL travel into something the Cauthan could comprehend. The result was to reinforce his belief in the ‘god of the gaps’ theory of religion. Kel made for an excellent foil. “Kel’s realm is almost infinitely vast. It encompasses my home world, your home world, and every other world we know of. To travel from one point to another would take thousands of lifetimes for creatures like us. But there are shortcuts, gates, if you will, formed by stars. Your star, your sun god, Seil, his gate is… corrupted. With the right technology, a ship may usually safely navigate from star to star, using these gates to speed passage through Kel’s lands, travelling faster than even light itself.”

“What do you mean faster than light?” Xan piped up again before mumbling to himself. “Light is… what?”

“The curious mind is a blessing,” Kaczynski declared warmly. “Unfortunately, young Xan, the nature of light is something beyond the scope of today’s discussion I fear. That being said, I would be happy to teach you some other time. I might not be the best instructor though! Getting back to the subject at hand, however, we believe that the Forge is one of several structures responsible for corrupting the gate in this system. A very long time ago, someone or something wanted to ensure no one could enter or leave this star system. I will not lie to you, my primary objective is to deactivate, destroy, or otherwise disable this corruption so that we can return home. Learning why it exists would be the life’s work and dream of many humans, I’m sure, but I must ensure my crew are able to return home first and foremost. I hope that was a bit clearer, Antoth.”

“It was, yes, but that doesn’t mean I like it. Thantis, what are your thoughts on the matter?” Antoth demanded grimly.

“Kel’s Forge is one of our oldest oral traditions, for the edification of our guests who are not aware. Of course we keep scrolls of its telling, but those are just that, a story. It is where Kel forged the spear he wielded when he defeated Felen in combat, restoring balance to Mara and ushering in the first winter. But that is all it is, a story. I find it hard to imagine that such a place would rest on the surface of Mara, open and accessible to any who come across it, but I do not claim to understand the inner workings of Kel’s balance. All I can do is observe.”

“I believe now would be a suitable time to hear from the Lance Corporal. Alice, would you send for your brother as well? This matter will certainly concern him,” Natori suggested. When there were no objections, the man stood and headed for the door, lowering his head to avoid hitting it on the top of the frame and motioning for Mendes to re-enter the barracks. The Brazilian Jumper acknowledged him with a silent nod, marking his place by leaving his pencil in between the pages of his sketchbook and rejoining the little conference. He was offered a chair but politely declined, choosing to stand at ease next to Kaczynski’s seat as they waited for Russell. The Jumper arrived a few minutes later, taking a moment to review the state of the room while he saluted Natori and received one in turn both from the Admiral and Mendes.

“I brought Io along too,” he said, pointing to his left gauntlet, the sole piece of armor he sported at that moment. “Thantis, care to fill us in? You seem to be the third party here.”

“We were just preparing to hear about the various developments from Kel’s Forge as part of an ongoing discussion about the relationship between humanity and our village,” the elder explained. One look at Natori’s serious expression and Antoth’s stiff posture told Russell all he needed to know in terms of what he didn’t know, but he didn’t see any reason to not allow things to proceed as planned.

“Then I won’t interrupt. Lance Corporal, I assume you’re here to make the report?”

“Yes sir. Nice to see you again, Lieutenant. I heard… several stories about Rex’s hunt. You’ll have to give him some advice sometime, if you don’t mind my asking.”

Winters’ face made it clear he’d not expected that particular line. “I think you’ll have to be more specific, Mendes. I gave him everything I’ve got in terms of hunting assists.”

“The issue is what’s hunting him,” Rodrigo laughed, earning a miffed glance from Antoth as he checked to ensure his translation program was running correctly. “Sounds like the hunter’s daughter took a bit of a shine to him.”

“I’ll take subjects I’ll not be touching with a ten foot pole for five hundred,” Russell declared immediately as Io made a gagging sound in his ear, one of her favorite pastimes. What he didn’t expect was for Antoth’s ears to perk up at the news that one of the village’s females had found herself, at least for a brief moment, infatuated with humans. “Another time, Corporal. Let’s hear what you have on the Forge.”

“Yes, sir. Admiral, with your permission?”

“You may include anything you feel necessary to give those assembled here a full picture, Corporal,” Natori explained. The soldier nodded and began his report.

“Following the secure retrieval of the nuclear core from the metallic skeleton hypothesized to be related to the ursae-”

“I’m sorry, what?!” Antoth exclaimed, standing abruptly from his seat. “Did you say metal ursae?”

“A long dead one, and we aren’t sure, sir,” Mendes replied, uncertain as to how he should be addressing the village’s leader. “There is no evidence that anything like it survives today. It’s millions of years old.”

The pantherine Cauthan slumped back in his chair, trying to process the concept of a million years. “My apologies for the interruption, please continue.”

“It’s no problem,” Rodrigo said politely before returning to his train of thought. “The core was transported to the Event Horizon without incident where it remains in containment.”

‘Hehe,’ Io chuckled for Russell’s enjoyment alone. He did his best to roll his eyes inconspicuously and not think too hard about the fact that he trusted the AI with the ancient nuclear reactor. Mendes was explaining subsequent efforts to study the installation.

“Several waypoints have been established between the control room of the facility as identified by the Lieutenant and the entrance. Outside of that room there is no evidence of activity anywhere in the facility. We’re unable to open any of the blast doors along the main corridor using non-explosive means and we currently deem that option to be too risky.”

“Yes, I recall that report in particular. I’m sure Privates Rex and Lipper got over it?” Natori asked humorously.

“They did, sir. Specifically we’ve made several expeditions, I suppose you could call them, to the control room. It remains as the Lieutenant detailed in his first report. There is a large, glowing cavern that seems to be lit by magma or some other natural process, but it’s too deep to make anything out other than, of course, the giant structure pointed at the warp point. On our second trip we brought a tripod camera. The time lapse video obtained confirms the gyroscopic nature of the weapon, which Private Rex has taken to calling the Doom Laser. I admit that several of us have picked up on it, since calling it ‘the structure’ doesn’t seem to do it justice.”

“You didn’t have any visitors when you were taking the footage?” Russell spoke up. “No Cauthan robots paying you a visit?”

“I almost forgot,” Antoth groaned, placing his fingers against his temple. “Though I suppose if there are metal Cauthan then why not metal ursae? By the gods, Uthos preserve us.”

“We did see your friend, Lieutenant, but on our third visit,” Mendes clarified. “I would bet a year’s salary it scanned us when it looked us over, but whatever it’s thinking we don’t seem to factor in. The robot just tidied up the place and left. Private Orlova had half a mind to follow it, but given the state of the other doors in the installation I forbade it. No telling if we ever would have gotten back out. We will be escorting a group of researchers tomorrow. It’s my personal evaluation that the control room is safe enough for civilians under guard, sir.”

“You will go too, Thantis,” Antoth insisted quietly the moment Mendes finished. “You have seen Kel’s domain, traversed it safely, and now you must see this Forge as well. If there is a curse or corruption, we must know of it. Winters, I know your mate is recently with child but-”

“We’ll be there, no question,” Russell confirmed, shooting a glance at Natori and Mendes to see if either would challenge him. Given his pre-existing relationship with the Cauthan and the current state of ‘negotiations’ between Natori and Antoth, the Admiral saw no need to intervene.

“I reviewed your proposition, Lance Corporal. I see no reason we couldn’t bring one more civilian along, especially if that civilian is accompanied by another Jumper and his artificial intelligence.”

‘May the Artificial Intelligence have a word with the Lance Corporal?’ Io requested, causing a slight smile on Natori’s face at her choice of words.

“Of course, Io. The floor is yours. What is it you wanted to discuss?”

‘I wanted to know if Corporal Mendes has ever felt… dread, within the facility. I am sorry I don’t have a better term for it. When the Lieutenant and I engaged the ursae in our battle to the death, just before we were attacked, I felt an overwhelming sensation that I was about to cease to exist. By that time I had the contextual clues and data to arrive at such a conclusion thanks to our long ‘relationship’ with the beast. I do not have that luxury with this Forge.’

“That’s certainly one way of putting it,” Russell chuckled, nodding to Antoth to assure him that Io was going somewhere important with her tangent. The Cauthan leader returned the gesture silently as she carried on.

‘Near as I can tell, what I experienced was my programming’s best attempt at approximating humanity’s mythical sixth sense, or what the Cauthan refer to as danger sense. Veera experienced an almost visceral reaction to the Forge, and I am wondering if you’ve ever felt something similar, Corporal.’

Mendes’ features broadcasted that he was quite surprised by the question, but the Lance Corporal and freshly minted squad leader took his time to consider it seriously. He pursed his lips thoughtfully and glanced at the far corner of the room as he gathered his thoughts. “No, I would say not. A few stressful moments and cases of the shivers because you’re alone in a dark, ancient, alien installation? Sure, we had those times, but nothing where I or any of my squad felt as though an attack was imminent, much less a lethal one. Why do you ask?”

‘Because I accept my limitations and find myself at times reliant on you organics in the pursuit of knowledge. There there, Lieutenant. You are not an organic to me. You are my favorite organic, except for maybe Veera.’

“I’ll take comfort in that during the robot uprising,” Russell gibed. “But seriously, what are you thinking about?”

‘The nature of the Forge, of course,’ Io replied haughtily, as though that much should have been obvious. ‘Specifically, why such an impactful defensive weapon was left practically undefended itself. We know the facility still operates well enough to serve what we assume is its primary function, so where are the autocannons, lasers, or other fortifications? They haven’t even rolled a boulder at us!’

“For which I’m personally very grateful,” Mendes opined. “It is a curious situation though. Your assessment?”

‘If I had my body I’d roll my eyes at you, Lance Corporal, but very well. I shall attempt to presuppose the thought process of either a hyper advanced alien species that appears to no longer be with us or the Cauthan gods themselves. If the facility truly has defenses that amount to nothing more than thick walls and doors, then it stands to reason that whoever constructed it viewed the warp point of the system as the relevant defensive choke. Antoth, Thantis, Xan, when I say warp point I am referring to the gate to this portion of Kel’s realm.’

“I am following well enough, spirit Io, but I may ask for you to return afterward,” Antoth responded.

‘Happily. To conclude, Admiral and various important guests, it seems that once this array of defenses was activated the creators were not particularly concerned with anyone or anything within the system. I am very curious whether something will happen if one of the native denizens of the planet, our esteemed death priest, perhaps, visits the site.’

“That is certainly one theory,” Kaczynski agreed, sitting back and resting one ankle on the opposite knee while he mulled over Io’s hypotheses. “But it discounts what we presume to be battle damage on the inside of the installation, does it not?”

Io posed a question in defense of her theory. ‘If you were defending a castle, would you fortify your cannons or your front gates?’

“Fair enough, Io. But clearly someone got past the front gates, so to speak,” Natori countered.

‘Before or after they were shut for good?’

“That… I am not sure we will ever know. But we will not arrive at an answer here and now, even with the combined brainpower of the rather esteemed individuals in this room. Lance Corporal, if you and the lead elements of the research teams are in agreement that the environment is stable enough for civilian expeditions I will authorize it and, as discussed, suggest that Lieutenant Winters and Thantis participate in at least one such excursion. I do hope that your wife is a bit more amenable to this,” Natori concluded humorously, sharing a smile with Thantis.

“I cannot say she will be pleased outright, but I suspect it will be an easier sell than voyaging into Kel’s realm itself,” Thantis replied.

“I would like to be kept in the loop as well,” Antoth spoke up, having remained silent for the majority of the mostly academic discussion. Natori spread his hands wide in agreement.

“Of course, Antoth. I would not simply snatch your priest away from you! Are there any other items related to the Forge that you would like to discuss?”

Antoth shook his head, a gesture he’d long since picked up from interactions with Russell. “Not at this time, no. Winters, thank you for your time and for agreeing to watch over Thantis. Thank you as well…” the way the Cauthan trailed off made it clear he had forgotten or was unsure in his pronunciation of Mendes’ name.

“Rodrigo Mendes, sir. It was a pleasure. Admiral?”

“You are dismissed, Lance Corporal. I will come find you when it is time for us to leave. Why don’t you enjoy a bit of natural sunlight?” Kaczynski suggested. Mendes saluted before turning for the door.

“I think I’ll do just that, sir. Thank you. Lieutenant.”

“Lance Corporal,” Russell kept decorum, stepping aside to allow the Beta Jumper to pass. “So what else is on the agenda?”

“Farming, among other things,” Antoth replied in a welcoming tone. “It does not concern you directly, Winters, but you are welcome to stay if you wish.”

Russell looked around for a moment before meeting his sister’s gaze. He couldn’t quite place what she was thinking, but she looked nervous and uneasy. It was like she was asking him to leave in the sort of non-verbal communication honed by years of growing up together. He signaled that he understood with the slightest tilt of his head before replying to Antoth.

“Then I think I’ll head home, Antoth. Veera insists on maintaining her duties and schedule, and Fenrir’s been a bit more active of late. You know how to find us.”

“I do. Selah to you then, Winters,” the village chieftain offered. “Now to the subject of our crops. What news do you have on that front? It was a small gift, but seeds are seeds.”

“Good news indeed! Let us check in with Anita,” Natori replied, fiddling around with his personal device until a pleasant ringing emanated from it. He stood and walked over to Antoth’s desk. “If I may?”

“Please,” the Cauthan allowed, prompting Natori to join him on his side and lay the screen before them as the call was answered. Anita’s shy expression greeted them from one of the grow rooms. Antoth hoped that his salutation would be understood, as he still hadn’t the faintest idea how all of the humans seemed capable of translating his words using all manner of inscrutable metal and glass objects. “Good day to you, Anita.”

“H-hello,” she replied, understandably nervous at being scrutinized by both the leader of her own vessel and that of their ‘allied tribe’, even at a distance. Upon hearing her voice, Xan stood from his seat, grunting in annoyance as his leg proved stiff and unwilling. Even so he made his way around along with Thantis so as to get a decent look at what was going on.

“Hey Anita!” he called, seeing plenty of recognizable green shoots behind her thanks to the camera angle. “Those are looking pretty good!”

“Xan? Hi there. H-how are you?” she wondered. Natori glanced Antoth’s way and smiled like a teenager about to set off a bottle rocket. Antoth, understandably, looked rather concerned. Even so, he couldn’t help but be intrigued.

“Engineer Prakash, I would be happy to leave the line open for you and the young priest here when we are concluded with our business, but for now we would appreciate a report on your progress. You can always hop on a shuttle too.”

“You’re a bit of a jerk, sir,” Alice opined with excessive politeness. Natori bowed her way, taking the comment in stride as it was intended.

“I am a father, Alice. It comes with the territory. I apologize Anita. If you please?” he asked again. The young lady composed herself and began.

“Yes sir. As you can see behind me each variety of seed that I received from Xan’s family and the granary has sprouted, including the dato. My biggest concern at the moment is ensuring that the microbiological diversity of the soil remains acceptable. The one thing we cannot introduce naturally into the ecosystem are the x-nucleotides needed by plants and animals alike on Mara. As on Earth, however, fungi and microorganisms remain the best factories one could hope for. I uh, may have gone a little bit overboard.”

Natori’s brows rose high towards his close-cropped hairline as Anita flipped the camera on her device and showed them a compost pile that dominated more than half the grow room, even blocking one of the doors. “That is quite a bit of soil,” the Admiral remarked neutrally.

“Ah yes sir, I suppose it is. But I wanted to make sure that we had a suitably large environment for natural evolution, if you will. We’re… well by we I mean the microbiologists aboard, are overwhelmed. Dr. Dupuis is ecstatic, of course, but trying to map out the system of recyclers, producers, decomposers, and everything else is unbelievably daunting. And we’re just looking at one microbiome here,” Antia explained, her voice growing more confident and authoritative as she got down into the weeds of her work. “We need to cultivate the growth of anything that can synthesize x-nucleotides, not just reprocess them from dead material. Since I assume we won’t always have a steady stream of incoming biomass from the surface? The kitchen staff has been very helpful as well.”

“You are right on that count. And I’m glad to hear that you’re getting the assistance you need. How are you preventing cross contamination?”

Anita’s confidence vanished in an instant. “I… get claustrophobic in environmental suits, sir. There was no way to achieve total isolation. They all seem to be getting along though, from what I can tell at least. We’re monitoring the situation closely.”

“Uh, what’s she talking about?” Xan wondered. Antoth was equally confused.

“I was under the impression we would be speaking of plants,” he offered more diplomatically. Kaczynski nodded in sympathy.

“We are, in a sense. Anita was speaking about the quality of the soil and how to ensure that over multiple growing cycles it will not deplete itself. Miss Prakash, perhaps a longer term experiment in crop rotation is in order?”

“I already have several cycles mapped out based on the most successful from human history, sir. I am also examining sunlight and irrigation levels for optimal yields, as well as different setups for the plants that require trellises, hanging or climbing. The electromagnetic output of the local star was easy enough to match with our grow lights. It will require multiple growing cycles, but assuming the soil’s nutrition doesn’t suffer catastrophic nutrient degeneration I should be busy for quite a while I’d say,” Anita replied, a small smile on her face as Natori gave her a look of sincere approval.

“Well there you have it, Antoth. We are doing everything within our power to not only produce food that your people can consume, but to optimize its production,” Natori summarized Anita’s lengthy report. The Cauthan nodded silently, tapping a finger against the hinge of his jaw.

“Xan, learn what you can from her,” came the simple order. Xan raised his crest in confirmation.

“I will, Antoth.”

“Very good. Thank you, Anita,” Antoth said, prompting Natori to wave goodbye and cut the connection. The various participants returned to their seats as the Cauthan chieftain turned his attention to Alice. “I would appreciate it if you would make your proposition now, Alice Winters. You have my full support.”

If Admiral Kaczynski had been planning on tuning out or mentally moving on to his next engagement for the day, Antoth’s statement placed him firmly in the there and then. He turned to Alice with ill-concealed interest. “Then you have mine as well, Miss Winters. The floor is yours.”

Alice worried her hands together, breathing steadily but remaining silent as she found herself suddenly unable to think of a compelling, scientific framework for what she was about to suggest. She wished for a moment that her brother had remained with them, given his tendency to say whatever happened to be on his mind and defend whatever he considered ‘right’ for that reason alone. It wasn’t difficult for Natori to pick up on her nerves.

“Alice, you are not one of my soldiers, despite being under my command. I cannot demote you or throw you out of an airlock.”

“You can’t throw people out of airlocks even if they are military!” she yelped.

“Quite so! So now that we’ve established nothing bad will happen, I’d like to hear whatever it is you and Antoth have been discussing. Act like I’m a boy at school. The worst I can say is no, right?”

“Oh my god, Natori,” Alice spluttered, trying to keep herself from laughing. “You’re forgetting the part where my brother tries to pick a fight with you too. But alright, here goes. I… I think when we finally break through whatever is screwing with the warp point that we should just take them all with us. We could set them up in that huge hangar at the front of the ship for the journey where the gravity is still strong, and back on Earth there’s probably some space in the Rockies where they could go? I don’t know anywhere that doesn’t have bugs though…”

The Admiral remained silent for several moments, subtly moving his lips and eyebrows as he ruminated on Alice’s bold proposal. The xenobiologist fidgeted in her chair while Antoth waited with a somber expression on his face. Thantis and Xan both seemed equal parts stunned and excited before Natori spoke in a calm voice. “That is certainly a suggestion, Alice. Can I ask why you believe this is a proper course of action?”

“No, not really?” Alice responded, though it was more of a test than a firm statement one way or another. He remained patient, however, as Antoth and Thantis shared a silent glance with one another.

“Very well, and why might that be?”

“I don’t have a proper reason,” Alice admitted quietly, looking mostly at her lap but meeting his eyes briefly every so often as she reminded herself she was in the presence of one of Beta Division’s most powerful individuals, despite the rustic and homey atmosphere of a Cauthan barracks. “It just seems like the right thing to do.”

“You are welcome to be angry with me, Alice, but why would it be right?”

“We could stop a lot of suffering, and they’ve been very kind to us,” she explained. Natori nodded repeatedly.

“I don’t disagree, but what of their way of life?”

“I never said we should decide for them, and I think we can preserve it well enough. Many humans remain devout even in the modern era. Besides, humanity ditched a lot of our own traditions when we advanced technologically. I’ve personally enjoyed not being saddled with children at the age of sixteen now that we no longer need to do so in order to keep our populations afloat. It doesn’t mean I couldn’t have done that. We just have more choice. Uh, sorry Antoth. No offense intended,” Alice squeaked.

“None taken. I don’t fault you for living as your species sees fit,” he said shortly. Thantis was scribbling notes as fast as his wisened body could manage, the gentle scraping of leather one of the few sounds in the room beyond the ambient noise from the street outside.

“It would certainly cause a bit of a stir, wouldn’t it?” Natori mused, more to himself than to Alice. Tabling his internal monologue for the time being, the Admiral rendered his final thoughts for the meeting.

“You have given me a lot to think about, Alice. And you will forgive me for standing in place of your father, I hope, but I am very proud of you.”

Xan smiled at Alice while Antoth watched Natori suspiciously, surprised at the Admiral’s statement once it had been translated for his edification. “I… thank you?” Alice stammered, unsure how to respond to the man’s words.

“It takes a lot of backbone to propose such an immense undertaking to a person like me when your only justification is that what you want is right and good. I can already think of a few treatises I’ll be reviewing this evening if I have the time. Antoth, given that you were aware of Miss Winters’ proposal I assume you are at least open to discussing such an eventuality?”

“Discussing? Yes,” the Cauthan affirmed shortly. “That is all I wished to talk about today, Admiral. Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

“I assure you the pleasure was all mine, Antoth,” Natori said diplomatically, thanking Thantis for his services as well as pinging Pilot Cromwell. “Should you wish to review this meeting at any time I will ensure that Io knows how to find the relevant files. If you would excuse me?”

“By all means,” Antoth allowed, standing and filling the room with the noise of wood scraping against wood as his chair was forced back. The two men shook hands.

“While my primary goal remains finding a way out of this system, I will give you an answer with adequate time to consider and negotiate before our departure. Alice, Xan, a pleasant day to you both. Lance Corporal?”

“Yes sir?” Mendes replied as Natori emerged from the barracks into the midday sunshine.

“Let’s be off. We have an operation at the Forge to plan and I have several books to read.”

—–

Previous | First | Patreon

—–

Own The HEL Jumper: Survive in the format of your choice: Hardcover, Softcover, and epub from Lulu | Amazon Kindle

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *