Book 2 – 91: Disarmed

Third Quadrant.

VGV Executive Order


Daccord tapped the screen with the tip of his thumb and scanned the summary on the datapad to make sure he had everything in order. He had made a short list of key events for quick reference. The Chairman’s plan had to be implemented in the correct sequence to guarantee success.

As expected of the Chairman, he was able to combine these elements in his head, switching them around until he arranged them in the precise progression that would yield the desired outcome. Even with the blueprint for success in front of him, Daccord found it hard to see the natural leaps in logic that would force the Central Authority and the Enayan government to authorise the VendX fleet to enter the restricted area where the Tethari asteroid was located.

He had to let his mind idle and allow the rational part of his brain to withdraw. He had to think like a customer. He had to let himself want to believe. Then it became obvious. It was the only path they would take. Take willingly.

And the Chairman could see it all without technological assistance and with the additional and voluntary handicap of being blind. He refused to have his sight fixed until the person responsible for causing his injury was caught and suitably punished.

That task now fell to Daccord, and if he failed to accomplish it, the person suffering Ubik U Ubik’s rightful penance would be him.

“The Central Authority have hailed us, Mr Secretary,” said the Captain.

Daccord looked up at the man in the command seat. He looked a little pale, a little clammy around the face, but otherwise in reasonably good shape. His right arm was in a sling, bound to his torso by metal cables that prevented any kind of movement.

“Yes,” said Daccord. “As expected, they are using standard protocol.”

You could count on the Central Authority to act as expected in any given situation, no matter how strained. They followed guidelines and took matters one step at a time. They acted calm and restrained at all times, which made them very open to external management procedures.

“How many other ships are on the perimeter?”

“One hundred and forty-seven,” said one of the ensigns. “Eighty from rival corporations, Twenty-six content providers, twelve independent salvage teams, three observation platforms and the rest are private contractors with crews of three or less.”

It sounded about right for an unprecedented event like this. Opportunists and observers for other parties. No one knew what to expect — most likely nothing — but they wanted to make sure they didn’t miss out on something big. An Antecessor site left unguarded could provide a bauble or two for someone passing by who ‘unknowingly’ stumbled across an invisible perimeter.

The only problem was the Central Authority and their ships. They followed rules and were slow to act, but when they did, it was usually without mercy or remorse.

“The Priority Fleet?” said Daccord, checking his datapad one more time. This had to be done right.

“Ready to join us.”

“Captain? Are you ready?”

“I…” He didn’t look ready for anything other than a return to the M-Aid machine. They’d had to pull him out a little early, but most of the work on his arm had been completed. He was in the recuperation phase and his contractually agreed period of leave from active duty due to traumatic loss of blood, tissue or bone had elapsed. “I am ready.”

The man looked green and unsteady, but he was sitting in a fully supportive sustain-harness with all systems set to cognisance delta-3, the lowest level of brain activity that still enabled speech. They needed him to be able to hold a conversation. He had to do it personally. The Chairman’s plan didn’t allow for anyone to take his place. The ship would keep him conscious and alert, even if his organs failed and his central nervous system collapsed. The hypodermic needles inserted into his back fed him drugs to soothe and stimulate him in automated sequence.

“Captain, please,” said Daccord, giving him a sympathetic nod to continue. “You may begin with stage one of the action.”

The captain gave a slight nod back, careful not to lose control of his recently un-braced neck, and turned his chair with a tap of his finger on the armrest. The chair swivelled to face the large screen at the front of the bridge.

“This is Captain Maharash of the VendX Galactic Vessel Executive Order. Responding to a distress call from the Enayan General Assembly.”

The screen flickered from the centre in seven different colours, a pebble dropped in a pond, radiating outwards; the call sign of the Central Authority. No Guardians — that helped. They didn’t bother with visual identification when Guardians weren’t available — they were faceless computers — but they did require anyone they hailed to show their faces. And if you told them your ship was suffering some sort of technical malfunction preventing you from doing so, they would gladly send a drone to punch its way through your hull with a camera.

“This is Central Authority Vessel Tranquillity,” said a soft, sexless voice. “We have monitored no communications between the planet Enaya and VendX Galactic. This region is currently under lockdown, by order of the Central Authority, Treaty 7, section 3. Full terms and conditions of the treaty are available as an attachment with this communication and also as a downloadable file from the Central Authority hub.”

“We are aware of the lockdown order,” said the Captain. “The distress call was automated and sent encrypted via the VendX internal network.”

“Currently, we are experiencing technical difficulties with the Tethari asteroid and won’t be allowing access to this area for the immediate future. Please remain behind the Ruben-Sadar line to avoid being destroyed by Central Authority artillery, as sanctioned by Treaty 19, Sections 4, 6, 9 and 12. We apologise for the inconvenience.”

The Captain’s eyes flicked to look at Daccord. He knew what was at stake. A lot more than his arm.

“We aren’t here about the asteroid,” said Maharash. “This is a humanitarian emergency regarding the Enayans, not the Ollo Dynasty. Please contact the Enayan government for confirmation.”

“Please wait.”

The screen went dark and Captain Maharash let out a long, jagged breath. The needles in his back pumped up and down like tiny pistons and the lights on the harness lit up as they corrected for the deficiencies in his body, boosting his immune system and secreting synthetic cell tissue repair hormones into him. The cost for his medical maintenance was already far beyond what the man’s health coverage allowed for.

Daccord checked the datapad which was relaying the Captain’s readings in real-time. The important thing was to make sure he survived. For now.

“Continue with stage two when the Tranquillity reconnects.”

“Yes,” said the Captain without turning his chair.

The screen radiated colour again. “Executive Order, this is Tranquillity. We have connected General Assembly Acting Chief Officer Toaku to the call.”

A face appeared, filling the screen with sombre intensity. The face of a military man, that much was obvious from his bearing, his scars and his stiff collar with military markings. He looked haggard and worn out. A man struggling with problems on a global scale, with no time for pointless conference calls. Daccord checked the datapad. It was the man the Chairman had told him to expect. Of course.

“This is Colonel… Chief Office Toaku. We can not accommodate any kind of—”

“Ki…” said the Captain, recognition flooding his weakened voice. “Is that you?”

The eyes of the man on the screen narrowed. “Tareq?”

They knew each other. From long ago, they had met as junior officer and up-and-coming salesman. The Captain of one of VendX’s flagships had to start somewhere, and he had to be pretty good at it to climb the ranks so spectacularly. What was even more spectacular was the Chairman’s awareness of an unremarkable meeting that occurred decades ago.

“Yes, old friend.” Toaku’s feature softened. “It has been a while. How much easier things were then, eh?”

Nostalgia, familiarity, relief — susceptibility was already trending up.

“Please continue with the confirmation-denial decision,” cut in the Central Authority.

The man on the screen, Toaku, grimaced, then pressed on. “We can confirm VendX equipment installed at thirty-six thousand sites across the globe have suffered catastrophic failure. We need those vending machines operational but we can not currently open any landing sites. Unfortunately, we will have to—”

Daccord hit a tab on the datapad screen. The needle just below the Captain’s right shoulder injected an oily liquid and Captain Maharash let out a stifled yell. He arched his back, careful not to slam his back into the seat. Even in great pain, he remembered he was sporting a harness full of sharp points.

“What is it?” said Toaku, leaning into the screen with concern. “What happened to your arm?”

The move back revealed more of the Captain’s injury.

“Nothing, nothing. I am recovering.”

“Get it seen to, man. VendX have the best healthcare equipment in the galaxy, that’s what you always told me, isn’t it?”

“For a price, yes. Sadly, I’ve used up my quota for the month. Don’t be alarmed, I am in no immediate danger.” He hissed air out of his mouth. “What’s important is that I’m here, as I said I would be. You remember how I told you it was called the mythic package for a reason? That’s why I’m here, Ki. With the whole Priority Fleet. We’re going to get those machines up and running, even if we have to airdrop our mechanics from orbit.”

It was a bravura performance. You could take the man out of the sales team, but…

“You came here, in that condition, because…” Toaku was choking up. “It was my arm, last time…”

Daccord wasn’t aware of what Toaku was referring to. It wasn’t in the records. But the Chairman knew. As he always did.

“That’s right,” said the Captain. “You pulled me out with only one arm. I can at least do the same for you.”

Shared hardship, mutual obligation, parallel empathy. Susceptibility would be off the charts.

“Current Central Authority directive states that no vessel may—”

“Damn you,” shouted Toaku. “Can’t you see how desperate this situation is? Mass panic, half the planet evacuated, our supply chain with neighbouring planets cut. This is all because of you. You allowed those Seneca…” His lips twitched in an attempt to curtail the vitriol trying to get out. “And then you stopped anyone from coming to our aid. Food and water are already running short. Snacks and reasonably priced beverages could save the lives of millions. Let them through!”

“Please wait. Consultation in progress.” The screen went dark again, Toaku dismissed.

Daccord found himself holding his breath. Everything had gone according to plan, but the Central Authority still had the ability to do as they pleased. They had lots of rules to follow but that also meant there was always another path they could take, justified by another series of treaties. At least they weren’t dealing with a Guardian. Then there would be no way to tell which way the CA would jump.

The screen flickered back to life. “Passage to Enaya has been authorised.”

“Thank you,” said Captain Maharash, a sigh of relief slipping out of him, although it could just as well be a response to the heavy drug intake he was currently experiencing. “We will begin our approach.”

“Sending coordinates,” said Toaku’s voice. “It will be good to see you again, Tareq.”

“And you. Executive Order out.”

“Good work, Captain,” said Daccord. “Continue to stage three. I will inform the Chairman.”

“Wait, I…” The captain’s chair swivelled back around. “What am I supposed to say to Ki… Toaku?”

“It doesn’t matter. We aren’t going to the planet. Keep an eye on the Central Authority ships. They shouldn’t suspect our true purpose here, but if they try to intercept, inform me immediately. And Captain, try to get some rest. The support harness is yours to abuse until this action is over.”

Daccord swiped the screen and sent control of the harness to the captain’s chair. He left the bridge and took the elevator up to the hospitality blister. He once again had to suffer through the security inspections to make sure he wasn’t an assassin, as usual, and then he proceeded to the Chairman’s darkened suite.

There were to be no electronically communicated reports between them. Nothing written down or sent digitally. Everything had to be done face to face. Even when it was carried out in the shadows.

“They granted permission,” said the Chairman’s gruff voice from the darkness.

“Yes, sir. As you said, they could not refuse our act of professional devotion or our contractual obligation.”

“Of course they couldn’t.” There was a smile on the Chairman’s face. Unseen but carried in his voice. “The Central Authority worship the legally binding signature. Their respect for their own laws is their greatest weakness.” The rumble of laughter filled the far end of the room.

“Captain Maharash has been the captain of the Executive Order for three years,” said Daccord. “He turned out to be the ideal person to win their trust. His injury played its part, as I’m sure you knew it would. A stroke of genius. “

“Are you trying to flatter me, Daccord?”

“No, sir. I don’t believe it is necessary. I am, as always, astonished by your foresight. Nearly four million vending machines collecting personal information on Enaya and its inhabitants, but nowhere in our databanks is there a mention of a shared moment of trauma between our captain and the interim leader of the Enaya Grand Assembly.”

“No?” said the Chairman. “How very remiss of someone. You have to know what you’re looking for, Daccord. Then it’s much easier to find.”

“Yes, sir.” A valuable lesson, but a secret data collection method short of being useful.

“The government on Enaya is on the verge of collapse,” said the Chairman. “They won’t pose a problem. But there is still much to do. And much that can be mishandled.” The threat was hard to miss. “Have the Priority Fleet started moving.”

“Yes, sir. They are in formation and ready to move with us.”

“Have the tail-end remain behind the Ruben-Sadar line. Six ships.”

“Our supply ships? Won’t we need them?”

“Not once we blow them up, no.”

A safety measure to take care of the CA ships and the rest of the competition. And all for the low low price of six ships.

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Afterword from Mooderino
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