In the Bretin colony Pormidora on the Planet Nanzema in the Jestura Star System, Inyin Soono, Ahkatun of the Supreme Council, was deeply worried about what was happening on the starship Mankuriun―nothing. He sat slumped at his desk with a grave crisis on his hands. His office was on the top floor of the government tower, facing south with a stunning view of the Bay of Ayvren, but he ignored it. He hadn’t been able to sleep. He had missed nakta, the first meal of the day; he had no appetite. When the steward brought upinah, the other meal of the day, he ignored it as well.
When Evek Nargris, head of the Mankuriun Task Force, appeared at his door with a grim and ashen look on his face to deliver another message from their homebound starship, Soono was filled with foreboding. He took the short message, handled it gingerly, and leaned forward, reading it carefully. When he had finished, he sat back in his chair and regarded Nargris, posing the unspoken question, “What will we do now?” Neither one spoke for what seemed like an eternity.
It was unbelievable: his communications staff had received yet another dire message, this one from a junior officer who was near death on board the Mankuriun. The ship was gliding silently through deep space in Sector 3309 on its long voyage home. There was neither sound nor movement to suggest any living thing might be found inside.
If the Shun god Sabool had noticed the ship as it sped mindlessly through the great void, he would have probably paid it no mind, considering it small and insignificant, not worth his attention. But if he had bothered to peer inside the small vessel, he would have found it dark and empty with the lifeless bodies of its crew scattered about. No doubt, he would have briefly furrowed his great brow, puzzled as to the nature of the cruel disaster suffered by the ship’s crew, and then continued on his way with grander concerns to occupy his time.
The first half of the second mission to Karyntis had gone without a hitch and was hailed as an unqualified success. The ship had gathered a bounty of valuable information about the advanced and war-obsessed race that inhabited the planet. It had even located the Senoobian survivors and solved the mystery of what had happened to their ship. Soono was still astonished that the Mankuriun had found three survivors from the Syzilian, marooned on the planet after 800 years!
As soon as preparations were begun for the return trip home, however, everything fell apart and the situation on the Mankuriun went from bad to worse. First, Captain Markovin and Lt. Panzer were murdered and Bayn Kener, one of the survivors from the Syzilian, was wounded by human assassins. Then a Peyrian starship appeared at the worst possible time and was destroyed in a tense standoff, bringing unwanted attention and the risk of a war with the Peyrians. And when the ship finally got under way, the crew became critically ill.
Soono mulled over the situation, considering what he would have done differently if he were in Stoveris’ place.Stoveris was simply under extreme duress and made a bad decision. Like so many things, it was a matter of timing. Or luck. If the CO had not decided to go to the surface when he did, he and his pilot would not have been murdered. If the Peyrian ship had not appeared when it did, it would not have detected the Mankuriun and the confrontation would not have happened.
A few days after the ship had departed Karyntis, it transmitted an alarming report that several members of the crew, including the ship’s doctor, were dead and Cdr. Stoveris was gravely ill. “Syzilian . . . Virus,” were the last words he had uttered. The connection between the Syzilian virus and the sickness of the crew was clear. The crew had contracted a virus from Kener, the injured Senoobian, when he was treated by the ship’s doctor.
The ship had departed Karyntis seven years earlier; it had taken that long for radio messages to reach Nanzema where they were received by the Communications Officer on duty. When Nargris solemnly approached Soono’s desk to deliver the next message, for fear of upsetting his ahkatun, he almost whispered, “Sire, I’m afraid there’s more bad news. We have received a message from Ensign Nayta Agoyin advising that the Mankuriun is on autopilot racing toward Nanzema at full speed. Most of the crew appears to be dead. He doesn’t know how many survivors there are. The Senoobian, Amara Hanahban, and the two human murderers are in sleep pods. The bodies of the Captain and Lt. Panzer are also in sleep pods. The XO’s status is unknown.”
The Mankuriun―like the Syzilian―had apparently experienced a run of bad luck. Soono had appointed a task force of three, headed by Evek Nargris, to monitor the Mankuriun situation and report to him. That task force would include Libele Harmon, a young computer expert, and Purtneek Murmidah, a communications wizard. If there was no other message from the Mankuriun within twelve hours, they would fear the worst.
“Why, by Purtreyt Okis, did we have the misfortune to be struck twice by such a beastly microbe. One would have hoped that the genetic differences between Senoobian and Bretin might have offered some resistance to the virus,” Nargris grumbled as he mulled over the situation.
“Besides that, in two or three more days most of the crew would have entered their pods and probably survived if the virus hadn’t struck so quickly,” added Soono.
As hours and then days dragged by with no further messages, their hopes for the survival of at least some of the crew were dashed. The ship would continue on autopilot until it reached Nanzema. Without a crew to slow the ship and navigate it into a stable orbit, it would slam into the surface traveling at more than 100,000 mph. The ship would be the equivalent of a huge asteroid and the impact on the surface would be catastrophic. Even if it somehow achieved a stable orbit, there was no way to bring a new flight crew aboard without someone on the bridge to manage docking procedures for the lander.
At the next task force meeting, Nargris explained, “First, we have to figure out how to get the ship safely into orbit with all of the crew dead. Then we’ll have to use extreme caution: put the ship into quarantine, remove the deceased crew’s remains and thoroughly sanitize it before a new crew can be cleared to take over. The last thing we want is to risk infecting Pormidora with a virus that could kill all of us,” Libele reminded.
“Quite right,” Murmidah said. “And don’t forget the three passengers: the Senoobian female and the two humans.”
“Oh, yes, the humans. Murderers!” Nargris muttered. “Another complication but the least of our concerns.”
Harmon frowned, “Yes, of course. But the Senoobian—I can’t imagine how she came to be in a pod unless she was ill.”
Harmon said, “The humans were in close contact with the Senoobians, but we don’t know whether or not they got sick. They may be immune, but who knows? I’m sure it’s the same virus the Syzilian’s crew picked up on Karyntis, although it may have mutated into another form since then.”
Nargris said, “If the Senoobian is alive, she may be useful to us in acquiring a stable orbit and preparing the ship for boarding. Maybe we could even train her to manage the ship functions that we can’t handle remotely. The ship needs a pilot to receive the docking vehicle after it enters orbit. It would be helpful to have someone on the ship who can communicate the situation to us.”
“Well, the humans are of no use to us. They don’t speak Kuterin,” Nargris added dismissively. “They’re murderers anyway. I wouldn’t want to have to rely on them.”
“Yes, you’re right, so the Senoobian, Amara, is our only hope, but how can we find out what happened to her? Is she even alive? What other options do we have?” Harmon asked.
Murmidah said, “I’ve got an idea. Do you remember the report Captain Markovin filed about the meeting he had with the Senoobians when they first came aboard the Mankuriun? They said the three of them had gone into the pods on the Syzilian to avoid being killed by a virus they contracted on the surface. Suppose Amara figured out a virus was infecting the crew. Why else would she be in a pod?”
Harmon nodded, “Hmmm, I don’t know.” He scratched his head, deep in thought. “Okay, we could remotely open the pods well before the ship reaches Nanzema. If she is alive, we could transmit audio and video to the ship that she could use to learn how to pilot the ship and control its various functions.”
Nargris frowned at the thought. “It’s impossible for only one person with no prior training to manage to navigate a starship by herself. I don’t believe there’s any hope in that, even if she does speak Kuterin.”
Murmidah scratched his chin. “Besides that, there’s another problem: if we open the pods at the same time, Amara will have to deal with the two murderers who will likely try to kill her. We can’t let that happen.”
Nargris turned to Libele. “Find out if there is any way we can open only certain pods. I’ll need you to activate the MGI Remote Protocol so we can get a readout on all the ship’s systems. The readouts from the sleep pod monitors will give us their vital signs and tell us if Amara and the humans are alive—and also which pod she’s in.”
Harmon nodded. “I’ll meet with our ASPCON programmers and get the MGI Protocol commands set up so we can run some diagnostics.”
Nargris said, “Excellent. How much time will you need?”
“Three or four days,” Harmon replied. “Let’s hope all the ship’s systems are functioning properly.”
At the follow-up meeting of the Mankuriun task force, Libele delivered his report. “Our programmers are ready to run diagnostics. We will be able to determine which pods are occupied and whether or not the occupants are still alive.” He paused with a frown. “Unfortunately we can’t control the pods individually; they aren’t designed that way. If we open one of the activated pods, we have to open all of them.”
Nargris grimaced, “Another complication. Well, we have no choice. Prepare operating instructions for Zeym Hanahban. As soon as they have been transmitted, activate the MGI Protocol to open the pods.”
Evek Nargris stood at the window of his office on the top floor of the government tower facing the yellow plains to the north toward Nagrahsup; he was stressed. He hadn’t been able to find a solution to the Mankuriun crisis, and he was feeling the pressure from Ahkatun Soono.
He couldn’t get caught up on his paperwork and events seemed to be spinning out of control despite his best efforts. There was political turmoil among the Shun. And their meteorologists were predicting another crippling drought for the Korn Region in the coming year.
Besides that, work on the Bahreeshon, their next generation of starships, was suspended; work in the mines at Prohn had to be halted due to attacks on the miners by Shun militias. Even their power station at Punasay where geothermal vents generated most of their power had been shut down. “Damn it!” he swore. Without the ore from Prohn and the power from Punasay, the alloys they needed to construct the hull and thousands of other components were not available.
He thought of the Mankuriun. By Inikeez! He would be relieved when the ship returned. It had departed Nanzema for Karyntis well over 30 years ago when he was a young bureaucrat. He had not agreed with the plan for a second mission to Karyntis—He hadn’t been comfortable with the ship being gone for so long when there were so many challenges at home—but he had to admit it had solved the riddle of the Syzilian after all.
One reason the Mankuriun had been released for a second mission to Karyntis was that it was a time of relative peace. Since the Mankuriun was always in orbit high above Nanzema, the Shun never saw it and had no idea that such a powerful weapon system even existed. Or that its missiles could rain down destruction on unsuspecting Shun cities.
Evek Nargris knocked three times and cracked open the door. “I have some news from the Mankuriun,” he announced.
“Good news, I hope,” Soono said, “Let’s hear it.”
“We’ve received replies to our MGI Protocol inquiries. We isolated the sleep pods and requested feedback from the active pods. Listen to this: readouts from the pods confirm that the bodies of the CO and Lt. Panzer are in 27 and 29 and the humans are in 23 and 25. But 21 and 19 are also occupied and both of the occupants are alive!”
“Both of them are alive!” Soono exclaimed.
“Yes, both of them. We can’t tell who they are, but the vital signs indicate they’re both alive. Apparently the whole crew didn’t die.”
“The message from Agoyin said he put the Senoobian female into 21 . . . there’s no way to identify the other occupant?”
“None. The vital signs are barely above flatline—there’s no way to distinguish between the vital signs of one occupant and any other.”
“So one member of the crew managed to survive by getting into a pod . . . It must be Agoyin in 19,” Soono said.
“We’ve got to open the pods—that is, the pods with live occupants. The pods that hold the bodies of the CO and Panzer have different settings than those used for hyper-sleep so we can identify and open only the hyper-sleep pods. We need someone on board who can help pilot the ship into orbit and assist the lander. Let’s hope the survivor from the crew can do that. Although she speaks Kuterin, I don’t believe the Senoobian can do it. The learning curve is too steep. And there’s the problem of the two humans . . .”