Author Topic: Xhali/Jazta Interlude  (Read 1044 times)

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Xhali/Jazta Interlude
« on: January 15, 2022, 11:44:30 AM »
It was a cool spring morning at the Ducal Mansion, located near the center of the capital city of Bastion on Xhali Prime. Duke Xhali Cussel was sitting outside on a patio chair, viewing a bed of flowers as their pedals slowly opened in response to the rising sun. His wife planted those flowers, native to Fendala, as seeds nearly five decades earlier. With great care and a pair of resolute green thumbs the resulting product was a tangible reminder of their old home, with the hopes of one day returning to it. If not him, then his children or grandchildren.

Cussel’s four antennae twitched as he heard a familiar pattern of footfalls. Tilting his head to one side, he saw that it was Prince Hercul, his eldest son. He motioned to Hercul to pull up a chair and sit next to him. “Son, now that you presented your official report to the Council of Ministers you can tell me what you didn’t tell them. How is the actual morale in the Glacis system?”

“It’s high, Father,” Hercul replied, “in part to your proclamation to reduce the tour of service in Glacis from 24 months to 18. The base crews guarding the Sauna warp point performed their surprise drills in an admirable manner, including the drills before the announcement of my arrival was made general knowledge. I also inspected the site for the impending third lunar colony in Glacis. When its mineral resources are exploited, we’ll be that much closer in making the warp point defenses self-sufficient.”

Cussel looked at a purple-hewed flower like he was appraising a diamond. “You kept to the custom and had a scout attempt entry of the Sauna warp point while you were there?”

“No change, Father. It’s like the warp point is covered in a plastic film that deflects all attempts at entry. They’ll still conduct the yearly test in two months.” Hercul also looked at the flowers as they unfolded. “I’ve been informed that you’re scaling back the surveying schedule in order to build up more infrastructure, supporting colonies and the fleet in the frontier sectors. It’s been 48 years since the refugee fleet exited the Sauna system. You think the pretender Pulurtans and Lugan the Usurper are that much closer to finding a warp link to our space?”

Cussel sighed. “Son, as long as we exist in the mind of that damnable Lugan his claim to the throne will be threatened. But he must act as we did, expanding his population to increase production for the fleet he needs. I’d say we’re a little better off since we count the Dalthu as our allies instead of enslaving or exterminating them. Over 60% of the fleet has Dalthu crews and well as nearly 50% of all warp point defenses. Honestly, I thought we would’ve been found much sooner, but imponderable events such as internal politics, a change in leadership and priorities, or even embroiled in a war with a newly discovered race had to come into play.”

Hercul’s antennae piqued in thought. “What of the Gyst faction?”

“Gyst?” The word came from Cussel’s mouth as if he read it from an old manuscript being translated. “Oh, I personally haven’t thought about them in years. If they survived the wilderness and established their own enclave, then they would be as wary of us as well as Lugan.”

Having avoided asking a particular question for years, Hercul took the time to ask it now. “Father, if the opportunity presents itself, would you consider reconciliation with the Gyst?”

An old, barely perceptible ember in Cussel’s heart glowed more intensely as if a careful breath blew on it. “Not if that damnable word-breaking Archduke Wonset is still alive, and as far as his royal highness Kysjyt is concerned he’s still a prince in my eyes. If by some torturous path of destiny we retake Fendala and seize the Diamond Throne before Kysjyt does then our claim will be insurmountable.”

Hercul nodded. Cussel didn’t have to concern himself about the Gyst faction for he had councils, admirals and generals to do that for him. The Prince decided to change the subject. “But it’s best not to ponder on the imponderable before breakfast, Father. I’m sure Mother would like to hear about my trip over lettuce and fruit.”

“So right, my Son.”

********

Colonel Russ, Universal Space Army, was among the younger staffers for Bureau Chief Amty, leader of the Jazta Union. Russ commanded an infantry division before being tapped to replace a retiring staffer. Providing one did a good job, a position in the Bureau of Government was given as promotion. Some considered it better than being promoted to general. That being said, it doesn’t pay being a suck-up to a boss like Amty, a fact that Russ kept in mind as he announced his presence and entered Amty’s office.

Located in the Military Governance Bureau Complex, Amty’s office was large and well-furnished, though it lacked windows. Bookcases filled with tomes, many first edition and centuries old, were accompanied by paintings of battles, leaders, and landscapes. The desk had a polished stone base with an ornate wooden top, and three old-fashion chairs were in front of it. As for accessories the only items on that desk were a desk panel with keyboard and a bowl of apples. A single large flatpanel display was on the wall opposite the desk. Amty himself was in a chair that was utterly plain, but it earned the nickname ‘the throne’ due to it being used by all previous Bureau Chiefs.

“Sir,” Russ said as he stood in front of the desk, “I have the final report on the shuttle crash from the Bureau of Investigation.” With folder in his right back hand, Russ offered it to Amty.

“Ah, I’ve been expecting this,” said Amty as he accepted the folder. He opened it, and with his back left hand he thumbed the pages. As it was an official report that required Amty’s signature it had to be made of paper. “140 pages, but all small print. At least they’re finally saving paper.” With his back right hand he retrieved a pair of reading glasses from a drawer. He donned them, peering at the front page like a schoolteacher about to grade an elementary school book report. “This will take some time, Russ. Stay in the building. I will summon you when I’m done.”

Russ came to attention smartly. “As you instruct, Bureau Chief.” He left the office, leaving Amty to his thoughts as he went through the report and the events leading up to the shuttle crash.

After the Challenge Battle with the Xhali three years ago the Union made R&D for the strikefighter a top priority. In eighteen months both the fighters and the first squadron of escort and light carriers were produced. Next came fleet exercises to iron out problems and decide upon operational doctrine for the new weapon and ships. Heading this task was Admiral Spear, commander of the 2nd Union Fleet. Like Amty, Spear was a student of history and practically devoured everything he could find on the use of pre-space aerospace fighters and how to adapt the tactics used.

While each problem was solved with subtilty or hammered like a square peg into a round hole, Spear got results. In the most recent fleet exercise, the aggressor (carrier) force won eight of the ten battles. Of the two remaining battles one was an outright loss and the other a draw, being a simulated warp assault that had the carriers go in first. Spear was summoned back to Jazta for a conference that hashed the results, one outcome was the acknowledged need for a dedicated warp point assault carrier.

Amty made a dismissive grumph as he thought. While Spear’s talent was acknowledged and considered an asset, he was also a confirmed bastard. When he was in the mood, he would be snarky towards his subordinates and wasn’t above calling out their flaws in public when expectations and goals weren’t met. His private home was a study in indulgence for he didn’t deny anything for his equally onerous wife. It was if the corrupt communist generals from centuries past had made a reappearance. Spear had the money, for he was willed considerable fortunes from two of his uncles. He even had a customized staff car that he brought with him everywhere, even for the conference on Jazta. It was a wonder how Spear restrained himself from putting diamonds on the wheelhubs.

Stopping for a moment, Amty reached for the bowl, grabbed an apple and took a good-sized bite out of it. He wanted to chew on something for he reached the eyewitness portion of the report. When it came time for Spear and his accompanying officers to leave Jazta they all arrived at the spaceport drunk, even his wife and those of three other officers. Along with the officers they celebrated the successful outcome of the conference the night before, and it was only due to aides not attached to Spear’s group that they were in clean uniforms and dresses. As for the wives they had arrived on Jazta separately, and against regulations traveled in pinnaces reserved for priority Navy cargos. While on Jazta the quartet indulged in a shopping spree along with the officers. Now it came time to load the shuttle. Among the items was furniture, clothing, jewelry, canned goods, sausages, parts for several boats, toys for children and grandchildren and six huge casks filled with preserved apples. Even Spear’s staff car was somehow shoehorned in, along with a 500kg roll of carpeting and a 200kg roll of wallpaper.

Spear’s shuttle pilot, along with the cargo master, tried to bring order in the loading process. Spear’s wife would have none of it, telling them that they would be demoted, retired on the spot, and denied their pensions if the loading process wasn’t sped up. With a gaggle of drunk and belligerent officers threatening to include themselves in the conversation the pilot acquiesced, assisting the cargo master as best he could before take-off.

The shuttle was a 30-year-old model. In practical terms it meant the artificial gravity system couldn’t be used until the drive field came up. For this the shuttle had to be at least two 2 kilometers in altitude. The flight path beyond the runway was clear of structures and people for at least 30 kilometers, so the pilot knew a slow, steady ascent was key. Fate played him false, for as soon as the nose lifted two meters up the cargo shifted. It was the staff car, itself packed to the brim, that broke loose from its fastenings. Along with the rolls of carpeting and wallpaper the center of gravity changed. The nose of the shuttle pitched up which in turn caused a loss of lift, bringing the craft back down hard on its belly, fracturing the fuselage and causing a catastrophic fire.

Fire and rescue teams rushed to the crash site. Burning debris and bodies were everywhere, along with noxious smoke that brought on gag reflexes to whoever happened not be wearing breathing masks. The most surreal sight, caught on numerous helmet cams, was that of thousands of burning apples, rolling down the runaway as if they were newborn tadpoles escaping their mother’s belly. Amty took another bite of the apple.

Investigators ruled out assassination and suicide. The second in command of the 2nd Union Fleet was also on the shuttle, and all other suspected officers had airtight alibis. Being an insufferable snot, Spear only allowed the shuttle crew to perform maintenance, and it was him that signed off on the reports. As for the pilot he had reported that Spear and other officers had used the shuttle on ‘supply runs’, often resulting in overloaded flights. Yet those reports weren’t acted upon. Moreover, the pilot had put in his papers to retire in a year’s time and have even begun to have an addition put on his house so that his son and family could move in. Clearly a man bent on suicide would not have done such a thing.

Amty sighed, and typed a summons on his keypad for Russ to return. The officer arrived and stood at attention in front of the desk. He watched as Amty signed the report. “I’ve accepted the official ruling,” he said. “The cause of the crash was the result of rushed, improper loading of cargo from undue influence and pressure of senior officers. Because of that we lost the commander of a fleet, his second-in-command, his staff, an Army general and his two aides, four civilian ‘guests’, and the shuttle crew. In all, 26 people died in an avoidable accident. That is what their inevitable memorial will say, but everyone will eventually know that they died due to groceries.”

“Hopefully some good will come from this, Bureau Chief.” Russ reached out and took the folder from Amty’s left front hand. Then he heard Amty inhale from his nostrils.

“Come closer,” Amty said. The perplexed Russ stepped forward and was rewarded with the sound of another deep nostril inhale from the Bureau Chief.

Amty crooked the fingers of both right hands, indicating he wanted Russ to lean forward. What the Colonel saw was the face of a school principal about to deliver a speech on truancy to an unfortunate student. “Have you been smoking?”

Russ suppressed the urge to gulp. Amty didn’t become Bureau Chief by being nice. He was a bastard too, but in a different manner to that of Spear. He broke lesser officers and made himself indispensable to higher ones, earning favors and pledges along the way to become Bureau Chief. Above all, he kept his word, no matter who it was made out to, even if it was done maliciously. Anyone who wanted to have Amty’s help or favor had to keep that in mind, and really think if their goal was worth the effort.

But then something happened. Rumor had it that Amty was playing host to his second daughter and her family. Among them was a four-year-old granddaughter, one that Amty hadn’t seen since birth. Upon greeting them the girl looked distressed and asked why she said that ‘grandad smell bad.’ Indeed, Amty still had in his back right hand a lit cigar. Right there something broke that most people thought he didn’t have – his heart. Amty destroyed his considerable stock of cigars and even removed and burned the humidor he had at his home. He took to eating fresh fruit to rid himself of the need to smoke. He looked better as a result, but only his wife and children could tell him that without earning a rueful glare.

“No, Sir,” Russ said.

“Have you been in a place where people have been smoking?”

“Yes, Sir, I have.”

“Avoid it from now on.” Amty shooed him away like an errant fly while finishing the apple in a prodigious bite. Russ was happy that his wasn’t his hide, for Jazta also like to consume raw meat on occasion. As for Amty he consulted his schedule on his desk monitor. The representatives of the Industrial Bureau were due in an hour with the proposed colonial industrial upgrade schedule and budget. He looked at the apple bowl and saw that there were enough apples for everyone.