Pilot X waited in the outer chamber of the Secretary’s temporary Alendan reception room. It wasn’t the Secretary’s real office. Pilot X wasn’t high enough in stature to know that. Only the Guardians and certain Ambassadors in the Secretary’s employ knew where that was. Pilot X could travel in time but he wasn’t an officially recognized time traveler. He could only go where others directed him. Well that wasn’t strictly true. He could conceivably go wherever he wanted but if he did without permission, he would be dismissed and stripped of rank.
Which was why he fidgeted. The Secretary would only want to see him if he had done something wrong. He had only been piloting the Verity for a few years subjectively. A normal career path would take him towards rising positions in the Alendan Fleet and eventual entry into the ranks of Supervisors or Instructors. Only at that point would he expect to be called to the Secretary’s office-- unless something very bad had happened.
A door opened. From behind its deep brown wooden frame stepped the Secretary.
“Pilot X, so good of you to come. Right this way please.”
No one was that nice if they weren’t about to drop a hammer on you, no one of the Secretary’s rank anyway. Pilot X braced himself.
The room was bare. Rich wooden shelves lined the walls but nothing filled them. This wasn’t the Secretary’s own room of course. Just a place for him to work while on Alenda in this time and place. Still, Pilot X found it odd that they had gone to the trouble of building in shelves without filling them with anything.
The Secretary motioned for Pilot X to sit in a warm red velvet chair. The Secretary took a stuffed brown leather chair for himself. There were only chairs in the room, no desk. Pilot X supposed the Secretary worked with his own data machine in his lap or something. There was a fireplace however, and it was lighted and pleasant.
“Your Commander has been telling me good things, X.”
There it was again. Pilot X remembered his training run when the Secretary had called him ‘Citizen.’ Now he dropped the first name altogether, something rarely even done by family. Most said the Secretary acted eccentric because he moved through time so much. In fact Pilot X kept in mind that he might be meeting the Secretary BEFORE the Secretary had accompanied him on his qualification flight. After all, the Secretary would not let on to anyone-- could not let on to anyone-- what order events were taking place for him.
“Thank you Secretary,” Pilot X responded.
The Secretary grinned as if they’d shared a joke.
“Good. I have an assignment for you, Pilot-- X.” The Secretary added an unnecessary pause to the middle of his name. “It’s a little beyond the normal portfolio of a Pilot.” He stopped and eyed Pilot X. “But I know you’re the one for the job.”
The Secretary dropped an odd collection of papers on Pilot X’s lap. He had no idea where it had come from. Pilot X hadn’t noticed the Secretary holding anything and then the papers were suddenly there on Pilot X’s legs. A folded piece of stiff paper held a collection of other papers inside it. He picked it up gingerly.
“I expect you’ve never seen a folder before. Ancient stuff. Just brought it back from the Steel Times. It’s all they use for record keeping there. So I played along. Sorry about that. You can scan the orders and read them normally or pretend to be an ancient and consume them as is. It’s up to you. But all orders and details are contained in there in any case. There are a few of those papers essential to the mission you’ll need to keep though so don’t get rid of the whole folder. You’ll take the Verity out tomorrow. Then come back a few minutes from now if you would. Do be careful on your way back not to run into yourself. Might be best to leave soon and give a wide berth to yourself. I’ll meet you for a debriefing here in say 20 minutes?”
Without thinking Pilot X’s training kicked in and he checked his doublechron and punched in the return time.
“Got it. I’ll see you in 20 minutes,” he smirked. He could share jokes too. Except he imagined they both got this one.
The Secretary laughed. “Your Commander wasn’t wrong. See you shortly, Pilot X.”
The Secretary did not get up, so Pilot X showed himself out. He looked around carefully for a moment half expecting to see himself, then headed out the back way from the administrative building.
In the Verity, he took a moment to look over the papers. Verity had wanted to scan and incinerate the orders immediately. It was the safest procedure of course. These were literally State Papers. But he wanted the feel of the ancients for the moment. So he leaned back in his Pilot’s chair and shuffled through them as he suspected an ancient aeroplane pilot might have looked through a flight plan.
There wasn’t much to go on. He was to proceed to a planet called Mersenne at a medium point in its development, hence the folder with paper. He had instructions to land away from settlement and camouflage the Verity, then get some papers signed regarding an agreement with Alenda.
The assignment seemed too trivial for the Secretary to have taken time out of his busy schedule to deliver it personally. But it wasn’t the kind of thing a time pilot usually did, that was for sure. Two bundles of a dozen papers, each held together with a small metal object were to be delivered to Mersenne’s nominal leader who went by the name Overseer Gaemmae. The Overseer was to review the copies and sign them both then give one copy to Pilot X. Both copies were signed by the Secretary already.
The papers were confidential but Pilot X had clearance, so he looked them over. They were for something called a technology binding. The Guardians of Alenda took responsibility for the development of dangerous technologies, especially time travel, throughout the universe. A technology binding was put into force when a civilization had developed or acquired something that could harm others beyond their own planet.
Mersenne seemed an unlikely candidate for this kind of arrangement. It was an agrarian society that hardly had any electronics. From what Pilot X could tell from the briefing, they hadn’t developed anything that could destroy their own planet, much less harm anybody else’s.
The binding documents themselves only identified “previous agreed upon items.” Pilot X supposed a separate document listed those items, but it was a document he didn’t have. What he did know was that Overseer Gaemmae had agreed to the binding in principle but requested time to consult with his deputies before signing. The Secretary had agreed. Waiting periods were never a problem for time travelers. But rather than jump to the end of the waiting period himself, the Secretary had given the assignment to Pilot X. It was odd.
Even if the Secretary didn’t feel Mersenne was worth his time, there were several Ambassadors that could have and should have taken the job. At the same time, Pilot X was excited. Although the Secretary often seemed mildly annoyed by Pilot X, he was never overtly hostile. Maybe Pilot X was destined for greatness. The Secretary likely knew large parts of Pilot X’s history. Maybe he was only annoyed because he was impatient for this young Pilot X to become great.
Pilot X laughed at the thought. Ridiculous. How big of an ego did he need? This assignment was simple. Mersenne was a backwater. That was obvious. The Overseer was a time waster. The Secretary didn’t want to spend any of his or his Ambassadors’ valuable resources delivering papers to be signed. Pilot X was simply an errand boy. He finally allowed the Verity to scan the papers and prepare for departure.
Mersenne was beautiful. A lush green planet half water with golden seas in its north and south caused by some kind of ocean-dwelling microbe. Here and there some factory towns spewed smoke but the planet had not progressed far enough to pollute itself. It was glorious.
Pilot X set Verity down outside the Capital city of Prime. He enjoyed walking into town. Prime was about 500,000 people but even so it had a definitive end to the town, meaning he could set down in unfarmed countryside and walk towards a definitive settlement as if it was a town of 20. Once he passed into the buildings, the city spread out in a series of green plots where people lived, punctuated by small collections of businesses he learned were called Villagelets. Prime tried to preserve the village way of life while gaining the advantages of the scale of a big city.
After a long walk he reached the capital center and found the Overseer’s offices. They weren’t terribly impressive. A two-story brick building with a statue of something that looked like a winged horse outside. There were no guards and very little ceremony. Signs pointed to the Overseer’s office up a grand staircase, inside on the second floor. This was not a very hierarchical society, Pilot X guessed.
He finally reached his first familiar sign of bureaucracy seated outside the office of the Overseer in the form of an elderly woman wearing assistive devices on her three eyes. The people of Mersenne were like Alendans in most respects except for the number of eyes. Their ears were not as flat to the head either, but otherwise bidpeal symmetry reigned.
All three eyes of the woman went wide as he approached. He imagined his face must look mutilated or particularly empty without the middle eye.
“You’re not the Secretary, but you’re Alendan!” she gasped. “Aren’t you?”
“Yes. My name is Pilot X. The Secretary sent me to have the Technology Binding papers signed. I’ve just arrived and came straight here. How do I go about making an appointment to see the Overseer?” Pilot X asked.
The woman laughed, dropping her entire shocked look at once. “Oh you Alendans, so unnecessarily formal. Well, he’s only with two people after all!” She waved her hands at him in an odd gesture that Pilot X assumed was Mersenne for don’t worry. “Go on in!” She waved over her shoulder and sat down getting back to work.
Pilot X was not prepared at all for how informal Mersenne was. Only with two people? He felt like he was being tricked into making a protocol mistake but he went toward the door. He could hear voices on the other side. Should he really open it? He turned to look at the lady but she had forgotten all about him.
He turned the ancient knob and entered. What he saw made him reach for a weapon that he didn’t have. His next thought was that it had been a mistake not to bring a weapon with him. A Progon Drone and a Sensaurian SporePod were in the room with a three-eyed elderly man who must have been the Overseer.
“Well, well, so the Secretary couldn’t make it after all. I thought you were time travelers! Ha ha, come in, come in. I’m Overseer Gaemmae. This is Progon Representative 1367 and High Sensaurian Outreach Coordinator Thraw.”
“Outrage!” droned the drone.
“We knew this would happen,” gurgled the Sensaurian.
“I was not told they would be here,” managed Pilot X. “What is the meaning of this?”
The Progon drone was a head taller than Pilot X. It was a thin metal shaft with four articulated limbs, two on each side and treads for locomotion. Sensor pods ringed the top of the shaft in two rows and blinked occasionally.
Pilot X could hardly look at the Sensaurian. It was a green slug of a creature about half Pilot X’s height contained in a yellow translucent life support cylinder that made it look like the remains of something that had died. It smelled almost as bad.
“Now, now, this shouldn’t come as a shock. If I’m about to sign an agreement to forego the offerings of these two civilizations you can’t expect they won’t try to talk me out of it can you?” answered the Overseer. “Do you have the agreement?”
It took Pilot X a moment to realize the Overseer meant him. He tore his eyes away from the mortal enemies of the Alendans. He had never seen either species-- if species was the right word for Progons-- in real life.
He stuttered to life. “Y-Yes Overseer. Here.” He handed the copies to the Overseer who flipped through them then placed them down on the desk beside him.
“Now. I have heard all your arguments, and I understand. But the Alendans have proven themselves trustworthy and willing to benefit my people. I am sorry I can’t give you what you want honored representatives of the Progons and Sensaurians. I must sign.”
“Outrage!” intoned the Progon again. Pilot X thought it odd for a machine to yell such an emotional response but then the Progons were not machines at heart, only in body. He wondered if this was an actual Progon then, not just a mechanized drone. The thought of the incorporeal essence animating the machine gave him chills.
The drone continued. “I will return to my masters. We blame the Alendans not you, Overseer. If you come to a realization you know how to contact us. Do so quickly. We will take action and we cannot guarantee this system’s safety!”
So not an actual Progon. Just a drone. Before he could think more about what it had said the Sensaurian responded.
“The Sensaurian Mind is One as always. We must defend your system from the fraud of the Alendans and also,” the bulk of the slug-like beast shifted as if to indicate the Progon, “defend against Progon aggression which the representative has made clear will not take your safety into account! We know you will do the right thing Overseer and you will see that we will as well. Take care.”
The Sensaurian rolled out of the room, crushing Pilot X’s toe in the process. The Progon made no pretense to hide its technology and disappeared. It looked like he transported himself out of the room, but Pilot X knew it was more likely just high speed maneuvering, faster than Meresenne or Alendan eyes could see.
“My apologies uh--” the Overseer stammered.
“Pilot? Interesting. My apologies Pilot X.” The Overseer signed the copies and handed one back. He held his hand up towards Pilot X’s forehead. The briefing had prepared him for this. Pilot X held his hand toward the Overseer’s forehead and they lightly rested their hands on each other’s heads for a brief moment. Pilot X noticed the Overseer had two thumbs.
“It has been our duty and our privilege to serve you with such distinction,” the Overseer then said holding out the copy gripped formally at each top corner between his thumbs.
Pilot X puled the proper response he had read in the briefing. Barely. “Your distinction is great but the privilege and duty have been ours, pleasantly.” Pilot X took the signed copy.
“Yeoman Alphaea will show you out Pilot X. Thank you,” the Overseer sat down and Pilot X turned to find a young man, probably about Pilot X’s age standing in the doorway.
“This way,” the man smiled. Everyone on Mersenne was so cheery.
“It’s not necessary, Yeoman,” Pilot X said as they left the reception area. “I found my own way in, I can find my own way back I suppose.”
“Not a problem. The Overseer was a little more concerned than he let on about your safety. I’ll only accompany you to the city limits. I won’t try to peek at your spaceship,” he winked.
Pilot X liked the Yeoman.
As they walked, Pilot X asked the Yeoman about life on Mersenne. Was it as ideal as it looked?
“The woods were much bigger when I was young,” the Yeaoman said. “I know how important industry is for the betterment of all of us but—it makes me sad. I wish it didn’t encroach on the beauty of nature. When we were young we used to play in the forest. We’d pretend we were explorers on the Pineapple planet.”
“There are no pineapples there,” Pilot X said without thinking.
The Yeoman laughed. “Ha ha! Exactly. I’m glad you know the legend too. Those were such good times. But, I can’t take my boys there. It’s been cut down for lumber and developed into housing. Mind you I’m just sentimental. There are plenty of other woods. But when I was a boy that’s where we went to learn. Not some children’s center.”
“Children’s center?” Pilot X asked.
“Oh yeah. That’s the new consolidated schooling. It does work wonders. My boys are three times as smart as I’ll ever be, already. But I miss the old ways. Doesn’t seem as fun. They seem to like it though. Ah. Here we are. It was lovely making your acquaintance Pilot X.”
The Yeoman somewhat tentatively held his arm out toward Pilot X’s forehead. Pilot X didn’t hesitate but heartily thrust his arm out and grasped Yeoman Alphaea’s head gently but firmly. This brought a smile to the Yeoman’s face.
“Like a native,” he smiled. “Take care, Pilot X. Don’t let them,” he looked up, “get you down. We’re on your side.”
Pilot X smiled at this and felt a bit better. He gave an Alendan salute as a last bit of punctuation, turned and began the long walk back to the Verity.
On the way he wondered how dangerous it was to leave the planet. You couldn’t time jump too close to a gravity well’s center point. He should be able to time jump as soon as he was out of the atmosphere but that would be the trick. He understood the Secretary’s motivations now. Having an unimportant Pilot show up meant Alenda’s enemies would not act as aggressive. It meant less of a loss to Alenda, should something go wrong, and a Pilot in a timeship had a better chance of getting away clean.
At least he hoped so. The Verity was camouflaged but he was a trained professional and found the place in the thin woods where he left her. Now that he was looking he didn’t think the camouflage was very good. From his point of view Verity looked like a big cylinder painted with leaves. She only blended in as good as a painted mural of autumn leaves would with real trees.
Verity sensed him coming and slid the entryway open. He walked in and it closed behind him as if he’d never been there.
“I have launched a dozen signal replication probes in advance of our departure,” Verity said. “Sensaurian ships are taking a defensive perimeter and ignoring them but the Progons are actively chasing. Shall I launch another round?”
“You did what?” Was Verity provoking them?
“I monitored your conversation and several open ship channels from the Sensaurian and Progon fleets. The Sensaurians plan to try to intercept you as you leave. The Progons intend to shoot you down. I thought it wise to begin evasive maneuvers,” she responded.
“Oh,” Pilot X said. He’d been in combat on big Alendan ships with massive crews. The Alendans almost always outnumbered their opposition. He’d never contemplated being in battle alone; assigned scouting missions with a fleet sure, but entirely alone?
“Should we call for help?” he asked plaintively.
“I have sent an emergency alert to Alendan Central. However response times may be as much as two Mersenne days. Under such conditions protocol allows for latitude to preserve the assignment and personnel. The assignment is to return safely so the preservation conditions are easily merged.”
Preservation conditions. Verity was trying to save his life.
“Launch the second round of signal replicators,” Pilot X finally said. “Is there a launch vector that--”
“The Sensaurians have left all starward paths open. It is likely they do not anticipate much preparation from you. The Progons have left only three viable departure vectors. Shall I choose the one with the lowest percentage chance of detection?”
“Yes,” Pilot X said, trying to sound as if it had been a weighty decision. But then, whom was he trying to impress? Verity? His ship? Yes. He guessed he was.
“How many replicators have been launched and how many in operation?” he asked, showing a little initiative. Verity could report on how he handled this to any officer, he supposed.
“I have launched 24. 10 remain. Our departure vector options have dropped to two. One has a 54% chance of success. The other 12%. Shall we delay departure?”
“No!” he said. “But don’t choose a departure vector.” He had an idea.
“Go straight up but launch another 12 signal replicators this time replicating Progon, Mersenne Sensaurian and Alendan ships in equal measure.”
“The chance of this strategum succeeding is--”
“Just do it. And blast our signals in rotation,” he cut her off. He didn’t want to know.
“Verity on record protesting that 43% chance departure vector was better plan. Verity conf-- Departure vector options down to one at 12%. Verity on record supporting Pilot X decision for confrontational stratagem.”