Chapter 1: Politics
The door wisps closed behind Colonel Jack Hammond and the 11 councilors stand in the large room just staring at the door. Some are seated, some are standing, but all eyes remain fixed on the door. The true weight of it has only just hit them. The first to speak is Pak the Argonian councilor. Argonians are slender Aliens with green scaled skin, their features quite handsome and voices deep. “I’m not sure he grasps the gravity of it.”
“You can’t be certain of that.” Chinrey the Duvian councilor says stepping away from the window. Her skin is blue with green hair owing to her Cadrey father. “Perhaps it’s confidence.”
“Confidence?” the Cadrey councillor chortles his tentacled face shrivelling in annoyance, “The boy’s a human soldier. It’s arrogance.”
“Not as though you have anything against humans though, eh Balack?” Charles Winston, the human councillor asks with a tone of incredulity.
“Enough you two,” Chinrey scolds them both. “The colonel is the head of the council’s military arm, who would we assign this to if not him?”
I think Pak and Balack’s concern is less with the colonel, Kobar the Kuvak councillor’s voice echoes in everyone’s head, and with his choice of mission commander?
“The girl is well known throughout the Sol system and much beloved.” Yuk-Tai the Balor councillor chimes in quickly, his 4 eyes blinking quickly. “Her status is something of a celebrity, could be she attracts people back to the Ajax.”
Charles scoffs getting up from his chair and grabbing a coffee from one of the side tables, “Not everything is about money Yuk-Tai.”
“I’m not saying everything is, but-”
“Well this can’t be.” The human’s voice raises and brings everyone to stare at him. Humans are the only known race to grow facial hair and many alien races find it intimidating. Charles knew this well. When he was initially vetted for the position there was much discussion of his beard. To hear some tell it, the well sculpted and thick facial hair nearly cost him the position. The beard will be the least of the things I’ll end up doing to intimidate them, he told his advisers as he refused to see barber. “We promised our various governments real change. Real results. We promised them we would find these terrorists and put a stop to the attacks. Her mission needs to be focused on the problem, not on opening boutiques.”
“I’m sure my colleague did not mean to imply her primary focus should be on returning prosperity to the Ajax,” Vikron the Fuki councillor says shifting uncomfortably in his seat, his normally green skin constantly changing colors to match his uncomfortable mood, “but if she inadvertently caused vendors to regain confidence in the station, that would be a kind of victory would it not?”
Charles considers this while staring into his coffee. “What do you think chancellor Urden?”
All eyes shift to chancellor Urden, another Argonian. The chancellor was elected by the Councillors to serve as both the public face and voice of the council, but also as a tie breaker if the councilors could not come to consensus. He folds his hands looking around the room. “Your concerns and confidence are both well founded. The girl is young and brash, but she’s also brave and iron willed. I believe that the human girl is well suited for what we need: Both a symbol and a soldier. And make no mistake, she will need to be both.
“While our respective governments might agree to this arrangement, not everyone under our governments’ charge will. The Alliance has been shaky at best since it’s inception and we need to win back the galaxy’s trust in us. Only 10 of the 23 known alien races agreed to the alliance. Less than half have confidence in our vision of a unified Sol system. The girl is a hero and we need her to both keep the galaxy safe, and show people that this can work. That is what I think, but what I would like to know is… What does Jaka think of our next ACT commander?”
Jaka who had been standing against the wall of the councilors’ chamber looks up. His appearance fluctuates for a moment before settling on a human appearance, one the shape shifter commonly chooses. A slender but strong face. He smiles briefly before turning to leave, “I think I need to notify my emperor that there’s a… how do you say? New sheriff in town?” The door to the councilor’s private office wisps closed behind him.
General Tunka enters his office hanging his armour and weapon on the racks just in the door. The Kucharian cracks his neck both ways and give a violent shake as a result. Looking at Kuchar, many other races see them as clumsy with large arms that often hang just above the ground and hard shell plates covering most of their body, but nearly all Kuchar are exceptionally graceful and the General is no exception. He effortlessly grabs various tablets, implements and papers with his 4 arms before having a seat behind his desk.
Normally a very ‘to-business’ commander, in the morning he has often enjoyed reading the news and has entrusted his assistant in selecting articles for him to browse for the last 84 years.
“General.” Colonel Yok offers with a bow as he enters the tent.
“Good morning Yok, report?”
“Already in your hands.” The Colonel nods to one of the tablets.
“Anything of note?”
“I’m demoting Nunka back down to Captain.”
“Barracks incident?” The general asks looking up from his news. The Colonel offers a nod as he takes a drink from the mug that has been prepared for him. “Good.”
“How’s Kidra?” Yok asks his commanding officer and closest friend of his wife.
“Sorry I am late.” Another Kuchar interrupts entering into the office while still in battle gear.
“I’m beginning to think you do not poses a time piece major Tuka.” The General offers not looking up from his news paper.
The major stands with his head lowered just inside the door, clearly embarrassed by the sudden demotion from lieutenant colonel. He catches a reassuring glance from colonel Yok but does not raise his head. “Anything for us General?” the colonel asks.
“We have a coded message from high command,” the general hands the now seated colonel one of the tablets, “marked priority Zulu-1”
The colonel’s eyes flash for a moment before he begins reading through the bulletin. “We’re to expect an inspection soon. Are we ready Major?” the colonel asks seeing an opening for his subordinate.
“Sir, yes sir.”
“A soldier who can’t tell time thinks we’re ready for an inspection? We shall see about that won’t we major?” The general glowers at the still bowed head of major Tuka.
“By the seven…” Yok’s invocation of the founders causes all eyes to be upon him. Yok is known for many things, excitability not among them.
“Yok?” The general puts down his paper and looks at his closest friend and executive officer who looks back with a look of annoyance before handing the tablet over. The general eyes the colonel once more receiving back a look that simply says ‘read it’. “With full confidence of the high command councillor Ukar has committed the glorious Kuchar people to a military alliance with… GUDRAKA!” the Kuchar curse is punctuated by the general throwing the contents of his desk against the wall in one swoop, the renown of his strength paling in comparison to the real thing. “We are Kuchar, we do not bow to others! This coward Ukar dares put me and my command under the authority of anyone beyond the supreme leader? Let alone some human!?” He grabs his desk and also hurls that against the wall, it lands in a crumpled heap atop of everything else he has thrown.
While all of this has happened, neither the colonel or the major have flinched. To show fear before such a great display of Kuchar strength would see that strength displayed upon them. The colonel is the first to speak. “General the orders come directly from the high command, they must be followed.” The statement comes close to sounding like a question toward the end.
“We shall see about that.”
“Major Tuka prepare the men and East Barracks F-4 for inspection in five!”
“Sir, yes sir!” Tuka backs out of the room his head still bowed and sprints for the East Barracks.
The colonel says nothing until he can visibly see the pace of the general’s breathing slow. “What would you have me do Tunka?”
“What I tell you to,” The General replies grabbing his armour and rifle, “what I tell you to.”
AJAX: The Office of the Chancellor
Chancellor Urden’s office is ornate by any race’s standards. Historical pieces from a variety of alien races adorn the walls and various glass cases along with photographs of key moments in Sol’s history. First contact between the Duvians and the Argonians, the victory of the Kuchari over the Punka, and President John F. Kennedy giving a speech that would inexorably lead the world of men out into the universe. Urden has always considered himself a student of history, always finding time to indulge his passion. But now he stands leaning on the front of his desk with his thoughts not on what has come before, but rather what lies ahead.
The door chimes and the chancellor looks up, “come in.”
Charles enters just inside the doorway. “A moment of your time chancellor?”
The Argonian offers a smile, “of course.”
The human councilor has been in this office several times, but still always takes time and lingers at the displays of history. “Forgive a blunt question chancellor, but are all Argonians as taken with history as you?”
“I’m sure there are a few of us, but not as a rule no. Generally, as your people are mostly concerned with the future, my people are more concerned with the moment. Argonians who look back or ahead are a rarity to be certain. Why do you ask?”
“Your display here has always interested me. Firstly because these are actual photographs.” He holds up the picture of Sol’s first known first contact event. A sickly looking – by today’s standards at any rate – Duvian and an argonian astronaut shaking hands in front of the wreckage of the Argonian’s ship.
“Something against digital?” The argonian teases. Of all the races he’s met he likes the humans the most, and almost entirely due to his interactions with their fierce and outspoken councillor.
“Digital is fine for information, for reports, schematics, and teaching school kids arithmetic… But photographs? Photographs are real. They have texture, they have flaws, this one here of JFK? This was taken back when photography was an art form you had to master to produce anything worthy. No automatic focus or lighting. You had to have a feel for what was going on in order to get a great shot. And those shots almost always had flaws. Photos can’t be changed on a whim. They’re… in every sense deliberate.”
“Very astute, and the second?” The argonian asks amused by his coworker.
“It’s not just your history, but ours. All of ours… Why?”
The argonian motions for Charles to sit as he sweeps around to the other side of his desk. “Is that not the question? The question? Why? Why are we here? Both in a philosophical sense and a very real one; why are we here? There was a very famous cadrey scientist who arose to some prominence as first contact became a more frequent occurrence. More and more species were getting further out into the stars discovering strange new planets and strange new people. He’s known for two major contributions to science. The first of which revolves around motivations and predictability. His mathematical models are used to this day when determining if it is wise or appropriate to engage with another alien race.”
“The Buko principle?”
“Precisely. Based on a few pieces of data which could very simply be retrieved on a stealth mission, or ascertained through observation we could determine whether or not it was safe to interact with another alien species.”
“What was he looking for?”
“Mostly behavioral patterns, though the exact science of it eludes me. By looking at the history of a species we could determine if they would come in peace or come with malice… But there was a flaw, which was most fortuitous for your people. The equation was all but useless on an individual basis, only good at tracking the whole. During their stealth operation your grandfather’s actions impressed the Kuvak general tasked with observing your people and he disregarded protocol, de-cloaking his vessel.”
“Grandpa always liked that our first contact came out of two disobeyed direct orders.” Charles smiles remembering the story his Grandfather used to tell him. “You never did answer my question.”
“Ah yes. Well truth be told I really have quite a lot of money and I enjoy buying priceless artifacts.” This elicits a chuckle from Charles. “But I doubt very much that you came to see me about my taste in historical artifacts.”
Charles smiles. “How about cinema? You look at that much?”
“Interesting that you should ask. Human cinema is most peculiar in that it seems to be a strange harbinger of your future.”
“Anything with John Wayne yet?”
“Let me know when you do.”
“Now, dear Charles…”
The human takes a deep breath, “We had to make a lot of deals and cash in a lot of chits to-”
“uhhh like favors owed.”
“We had to cash in a lot to make this thing work… But even with that curried favor it feels to me like we’re still fighting a losing battle. You heard them out there, they’re condemning this thing before it even starts.”
Urden leans back in his chair and considers the human for a moment. “One of the advantages of being so interested in history is having a broader view of things. While humanity’s history is rife with the marginalization of minorities and entire groups of people, it’s not like our history. Nearly every other alien race and government that exists today exists because their tribe however many centuries ago slaughtered all the other tribes. Alliances to the rest of us are a very foreign concept. Not that we don’t align ourselves with people from time to time, but we do so temporarily, in convenience of the moment with an almost absolute guarantee that the partnership dissolves once the mission is accomplished. Sometimes it’s dissolved before the mission is accomplished.
“What we’ve created here is a bold and entirely foreign concept. A lasting truce. An alliance in perpetuity working toward the betterment of the whole, not just the individual. That we have come this far is – what you humans might call – a miracle.”
“And if we don’t pull this together, if we don’t figure this out, it’ll all be for nothing Urden. We’ve already got Vikron and Yuk-Tai fawning over the idea of reopening the commerce wing.”
“Oh? And would that be so bad?”
“They have no interest in this! We need dedication if we’re going to make this work.”
“Charles… What do you know of JFK?”
“He’s mythologized in human history, there’s not a school boy educated by earthlings that doesn’t know about John F Kennedy.” Charles says with a tone of a tried patience, though he stops himself from being impolite. The Argonians love their parables, and there’s always a lesson to be had.
“Most presidents that came before and even many who came after sought after ‘peace’ but seemingly always with a sword, but not your JFK. By all accounts he hated war, but still chose to further peace through other means, most notably commerce. You’re a soldier, even I have something of a military background. You have a saying on earth… To a hammer…”
Charles chuckles, “everything looks like-”
“-a nail.” they finish together. “Do not count Yuk-Tai and Vikron out, they want your galactic unity, just by another means.”
Charles nods and considers the Argonian’s words. “I want this to succeed Urden. I want to see armies dismantled. I want children not to be conscripted from school age into a life of military service. I want that tradition to end for all of us in my life time.”
Urden smiles, he was known for his dreams too, he thinks to himself. “Well then, let’s you and I get to work. But first I must meet with councillor Pak, we’re to contact our most exalted as soon as possible, or our illustrious commander may not find the warm welcome she hopes to receive.”
Turbolift on the AJAX, mid-ship
Jack was leaning on the railing of the turbolift staring off at the ground in front of him when the familiar voice of his secretary comes over the P.A. “That’s never good.”
“I’m sorry Colonel, it’s from the UNEC. Vice Admiral Hammond. He says it’s urgent.”
Jack walks towards the small video screen in the middle of the lift removing his cap, “Patch it through Alease.”
“Yes sir. There’s a 4 second delay.”
The colonel doesn’t have long to be confused by the delay, as when the video comes up Vice Admiral Jack Hammond is in one of the UN offices with a dozen other UN officials. “Vice Admiral, your call is unexpected sir, I have-”
“Don’t bother Jack we don’t have time for this delay garbage. There’s a lot of unhappy people down here son.” Jack can’t help but shift his weight at hearing ‘son’. It seemed the only time his father admitted any parentage was when he was reaming him out for something. Joining the UNEC Military didn’t exactly improve that situation. “You were told to defer the command selection to us that we may properly vet a candidate of our-”
“Sir -” Jack interrupts
“choosing. You were-”
“Sir -” Jack attempts to interrupt again, waiting for the delay to catch up. When he’s certain that he’s cut in he clears his throat. “With all respect to yourself Vice Admiral and to the men and women of the UNEC behind you, but I am not answerable to any of you.” Jack waits for his transmission to go through, taking some satisfaction in the very shocked looks on the UNEC and the brief narrowing of the eyes from the Vice Admiral. “I am a Colonel with the Alliance Military unit tasked with overseeing the security and safety of both the AJAX and now the Alliance’s interests abroad. You had no right to suggest I defer the command decision to you, let alone to order it. I made-”
“Colonel.” Now the UNEC Secretary General’s turn to interrupt. After a moment he continues, “We are aware of your post and it’s duties Colonel, after all I personally authorized your transfer. But you are still a human are you not?”
The Colonel maintains composure, “Yes sir, of course.”
“Are you not still loyal to, if not your father, than the human race as a collective?” Jacks composure breaks, having no answer for the very cunning Secretary General. “We were not asking you to defer the decision to us so as to undermine you or force you to be in dereliction of your duties. But surely you can see what an important decision this is, not just for the Alliance, but humanity’s interests on a galactic scale. This woman you’ve chosen, this Major. While she may be beloved, someone so wilful and reckless would not have been our first choice. Though the ship’s XO does show some promise, it would have been better if the command has been given to someone more… open to taking humanity’s interests into consideration.”
The colonel’s composure has now turned to seething, “Yes Mr. Secretary General, of course sir. Will there be anything else?”
After what feels like an exceptionally long pause. “No Colonel.”
“Good day Mr. Secretary.” Jack presses the button on the screen, not giving the Secretary a chance to reply. He stands staring at the blank monitor for a long moment, his hand over where the button had been.
“Sir?” Alease’s voice comes over the P.A. of the turbolift – which she had stopped remotely so as to avoid unwanted passengers. “Orders sir?”
“Get this thing moving, and get me everything on operation ‘sparrow’. I need a preliminary report on my desk ASAP.”
“Sir I don’t have-”
“ARDEN?” Jack asks aloud to the AJAX AI.
“Colonel Hammond?” the over synthesized voice of ARDEN replies.
“Give Alease Avenko full access to all files pertaining to code name ‘sparrow’ authorization codes to follow.”
“Sir, I’m not sure it’s necessary to-”
“You’re not an ornament to my office Alease, you’re one of the smartest people I know by a mile. I need your eyes on this.”
“Good, now get to work.” The lift resumes it’s descent.
Jack Hammond looks over the top sheet of the 40 page report. Less than 3 hours after she was given access she had read through the 200 page Top Secret file. Then she went through all of the AJAX logs cross referencing information from the file and following a couple of her own hunches along the way. Jack doesn’t need to look at her breakdown, he wasn’t kidding about her being one of the smartest people he knows. The research is top-notch. Her conclusions are solid. The end result is exactly what he thought it would be.
“Colonel…” she says solemnly breaking the silence as her boss reads through the summary for a fourth time.
“I know I don’t have to ask but,” he looks up and sees Alease’s eyes drop to the floor. “Yeah…”
“Colonel we have to warn-”
“Stop. ARDEN lock the door and disable communications in our offices.”
“Colonel you’re scaring me.”
Jack sees the genuine terror build up in her eyes. “Alease, you’re practically my wife, you… I’m not that guy.”
She realizes she’s lost herself in the picture the report paints and snaps back to reality. She takes a seat across from the Colonel. “I’m sorry sir I-”
“No, I am.” Jack turns and looks out the window which overlooks the primary docks for the AJAX. Movement has picked up considerably. “I knew. I knew the moment he called me… But I had to know for sure, and I’m sorry but I don’t trust anyone more than I trust you.”
“… Sir, why can’t we warn her?”
“Because if we warn her it will have to go in some sort of log. It will have to go in some sort of log that ACT was compromised before it even got off the ground which will inexorably lead the Alliance down a path we don’t want it to. The first proprietary ship ever produced by the Alliance Military Command will be turned to scrap. Just to be safe they’ll burn anyone and everything associated with the project so as not to take a risk. At some point or another the council will have to notify their home governments of the compromise which will eternally erode trust in the council leading to at least half of the signatories abandoning the project altogether.
“Whoever these terrorists are? Well they’ll continue bombing and killing people all over the galaxy entirely unopposed until eventually a military incident will occur as one species, probably mine, disregards some intergalactic laws to end the threat. This will guarantee the Alliance’s complete collapse and finally lead to war that destroys Sol.” Jack finishes his rant with a long sigh, never taking his eyes of the docks, one hand propping his head up off the table.
“You don’t think that perhaps you’re being a little paranoid?”
Jack considers his secretary for a moment before turning back to the window. “My dad and I never spent much time together. Whatever humanity that’s in me didn’t come from him, it came from mom. Humanity and caring about people generally doesn’t make a good soldier according to my dad… But I make up for that deficiency because of the one thing I did get from my dad; chess.” He pulls out a photograph from his desk. A scrawny young boy stands next to an Admiral in full dress uniform. The only person smiling in the photo is the award presenter. The trophy reads “Terra World Champion”.
“I had no idea sir. You… you’ve never talked about it.”
“Because along with telling you about it I’d have to tell you that my father was a vicious man. And the few times I ever beat him on the board – and I mean very few – would lead to him beating me another way. My dad always, always, has a contingency set up one way or the other. Even if you beat him, he finds a way to make you pay. The Secretary General is behind the Alliance and even ACT only insofar as he can see it directly benefiting Earth. My father sees no benefit in the Alliance or ACT unless it only benefits Earth.”
“So that’s it? We just give up?”
Jack scowls and looks at Alease, “I was holding the trophy wasn’t I? No one is giving up. We just have to be smart about how we do this.” Jack turns and thinks looking over the report while Alease turns her attention to the photograph.
The Admiral is almost the same age as the colonel is now by her estimation. A sorrow overcomes her as she looks at how miserable they both look, and the longer she looks the more she’s certain there’s a look of consternation on the face of the man handing Jack Jr. the trophy. She can imagine the conversation before. ‘This is quite an accomplishment for your boy’ the judge says handing Jack Jr. the trophy with genuine pride from just being in the prodigy’s presence. ‘I suppose.’ his father replies, ‘Your mother has made meatloaf, we best get moving along’. ‘Yes sir.’ The thought upsets her and she tries to push it out.“I never liked chess.” she chimes in.
“No? I’d think you’d be good at it.” Jack replies not looking up from the report, now into the bulk of the research.
“Oh it’s a silly human game, almost as bad as your baseball.”
“Don’t knock my Red Sox.” He smiles.
“The rules feel entirely made up. Some pieces can only move one square except where they can move two squares. And you can kill an enemy queen but then they can get that queen back, and why are horses the only piece that can jump over other pieces? How does that make-” She realizes then that the colonel is staring at her.
“Say that again.”
“The horses jumping over people? It’s silly why-”
“Knights, and the thing before that.”
“They can get the queen back?”
“… by switching out a pawn. It’s called queening… or if you swap it for a rook, bishop, or knight it’s called a promotion.”
“I need all active duty personnel files for the Alliance Military Command and the AJAX civilian personnel immediately. You start in the As I’ll start with the Zs. I need people with no prior military affiliations and we hope for the best.”
“How long do we have?” Alease asks standing up from the desk and moving towards the door.
“Judging by the activity on the dock I’m guessing 20 minutes.”