Land of Shadows (pt. 2) (2008)

And there were, of course, codes he had not been taught yet, the master added silently. So this could be a coded message for a full member of the Arcanum, for a master in general, or for a specific master. There was only one way to determine which.

“Let me see the new data stream, in numeric display. Privacy mode.” The last would confound visual recording devices as it gave electronic devices a screen of static. Only the best equipment for Arcanum masters.

After a few seconds, he confirmed, “This is not an Arcanum code, although that does not rule out private codes from our colleagues. Myrlun, run it through what decoding software we have.” There was only so much that their portable computing power could do, but it was a start. The Archive’s mainframe would be better. They could probably slip through without comment as a routine check. The potential information could be . . . well, he would not trust the adept-technicians in this case, it was too subtle and important.

A moment later, Myrlun looked up from his screen, “Up to three days, master. If the code can be identified.”

Durias nodded and allowed his sorcerous countermeasures to fade. As they vanished, he started in mid-lesson, as if they had been instructing and learning the whole time.

He dismissed both apprentices an hour later, just before Kailis came down the short corridor.

The Goblin looked in to state, “We’re on course. At present speed, we should reach the Imperial border tomorrow. We’ll rest an hour or so then before crossing. With any luck, we should be through their territory in four days, since we’re crossing a narrow part. Then, probably a day or two to target. Food’s in the galley and you know where the rest of the facilities’re.”

Durias merely nodded, refraining from giving out unnecessary information.

“So . . . are you going to tell me what this’s all about? Or ‘m I gonna hafta guess?”

“Kailis,” the Elf chose to use his sometime friend’s name to underscore his seriousness, “believe me when I say you would not believe what this is about if I told you. And that it is likely best if you do not entirely know.”

With a disapproving huff, the smuggler shot back, “That’s it? The best you can do’s ‘it’s best if you don’t know?’”

“Alright,” replied the master after a moment’s deliberation, “I can say one thing. The information that I am acting on came from Burkeport, although it did not originate there.” The informant’s later report, which he had received just before launch, said it was believed to come from the Commonwealth. Still, the minimal information, he felt, was enough for Kailis to mull over and come to his own conclusions.

Which seemed to be the case as the smuggler drifted off toward the bridge.

The passengers slipped into a shipboard routine rapidly.

They crossed the Imperial border during morning lessons, unaware of whatever Kailis did to evade Imperial patrols. After a break for food, Myrlun and Edillae retreated t their own cabin to study their art and prepare as best they could for the end of the trip. Durias alternated between pursuing his won studies and sitting with Kailis in the galley reliving old trips and adventures. During those moments, both were careful to avoid what they had done between shared exploits and the master did his best to avoid information about this trip. When he wasn’t in the galley, the Goblin sat in the bridge checking systems or moving about eth ship performing maintenance. In the ship time evening, Myrlun returned to Durias’ cabin to discuss what he and his fellow apprentice had done and to continue his own advanced training. Once both apprentices turned in, their master focused on his planar senses while the ship, save for its proto-AI, slept.

On the third day across the Empire, alarms woke the quartet.

Both apprentices rushed to the bridge, only to be shoved aside by the smuggler as he scrambled into the room. “We should still be in jump for another hour,” he muttered as he disengaged the alarms. After glancing at his console displays, he added, “Odd. There’s no reason for the drop. No objects in the path, no . . . computer, run diagnostics and bring scan to the main screen . . . alright, no worries.” He looked back, “Only an Imp patrol frigate on the edge of range, and heading away. They haven’t seen us.”

Edillae nodded first, more familiar with ships. “What brought us out?”

“Working on that,” Kailis said, hunched over a console. “In the meantime, clear my bridge. We’ll put a little distance in.” As he spoke, the Breath’s thrusters kicked in, pushing the ship along at decent STL speeds. “The frigate’s leaving, and shouldn’t be a problem . . . which leaves the drive,” he started muttering to himself as the apprentices left for the galley.

A few minutes later, the Elf came into the bridge and slid into an empty seat. He observed quietly before asking, “Is there anything I can do, Kailis? I am not much of a technosorcerer, but perhaps?”

“I don’t want to jump again until this is fixed,” the smuggler explained, “No telling what a frecked drive might do at FTL speeds. Cutout too close to a star, never shut down . . . but the diagnostics aren’t making sense. Comp says everything checks out. So the only thing that could cut the drive is a command from up here or a power interrupt. The console was locked down and there’s no record of the command.”

“Thus, it must be a power problem.”

“Except I checked that system yesterday during jump. Eyeballed it. Everything was as good as it gets. ‘Specially this long off the line.”

Durias rose and held his hands, fingers splayed, over the flat console. The act kept Kailis from hitting it again in his frustration. Already shaping a pattern in his head, the sorcerer asked, “May I?”

The Goblin leaned back, hands raised in surrender, “Have fun. Just don’t break anything else, alright?”

With an absent nod, Durias released the pattern he had been holding. In his mind’s eye, the pattern flowed down to his hands and out before sinking into the command console. The spell took effect almost instantly. Although the systems were not old per se, they were certainly not state of the art. No holo displays, for instance.

He closed his eyes to better focus. Ultimately electricity was required by every system on the ship. And electricity was a natural force, or element in some views. Therefore, Durias reasoned, he ought to be able to trace the ship’s electrical pathways and possibly detect things that the smuggler’s eyes and instruments might otherwise miss. The problem became one of sorting out important threads from a series of tangled skeins. Easier to start at a known terminal point, such as the control console.

No, nothing there.

Move down the line toward the power plant. Then from the fusion reactor, trace the line most likely to lead to the jump drive.

Keep tracing.

And . . . eventually . . . yes, miniscule, but maybe enough. And it would not be visible to the naked eye. Untripped, a diagnostic might miss it.

He came back to viewing the bridge, his eyes opening to find an expectant Kailis. To check his theory, ever the researcher, the Elf asked, “How much of a variation in power would turn off the drive?”

“In a jump drive? A hundred, hundred fifty milliwatts flux. Other systems, a few hundred watts tolerance, prob’ly.”

“Ah. I have isolated the problem, then,” Durias said as he left the bridge and headed toward the drive room. On the way, a hand trailed along the wall, felling for the point he had seen. The Goblin trailed in his wake. “Something indeed interrupted power to the drive. Probably only two or three hundred milliwatts, maybe for a second or three. Then it stopped. Enough to shut down the drive, evade diagnostics, and either lose time here trying to track it or get us picked up by Imperial patrols.”

“And I couldn’t see it . . .”

Durias smiled, “First, it was placed closer to the reactor than to the drive. Second, forgive me, scale is difficult to tell with that spell, but I believe it is nanotechnology.”

The smuggler seemed to accept that. Could be anyone, but the best nanotech came from the Republic and could really evade his sensors. “Removal?”

“Here,” the master stopped, “And an alternative. I believe I can keep the device from causing this problem again, but report to its masters, if there are any and it can indeed do so, that it is still functioning perfectly.”

“I’d rather have the freckin’ thing removed. Nice and simple. Complicated, cute, tricks have a nasty habit of comin’ apart at the worst times.” Kailis raised a hand to stop the inevitable objection. “My ship, my rules. Just go back to your quarters and I’ll handle it from here. Now that I know what it is, I can dispose of it.”

Durias left, realizing that his arguments would be useless. He almost stayed, disappointed by the loss of a theoretical challenge, but he knew Kailis too well. When it came to his ship, the smuggler was quite protective. Besides which, the Goblin had given him something else to ponder, inadvertently. Perhaps they had been overestimating the smuggler’s cleverness in evading Imperial patrols. It could be that Kailis’ methods were more straightforward and simple than he and Myrlun had previously suspected. An interesting mental exercise.

He posed the question to his apprentices as an exercise in logic, problem solving, and creativity during their morning lesson. The exercise kept them occupied until they felt the ship jump again. At that point, he moved the lesson back into the finer points of sorcerous theory. Both Durias and Myrlun sought to aid the more recent apprentice in shaping energy based on her mental perception and visualization of said energy. The master allowed his senior apprentice to lead the instruction, reasoning that it was a good practice in teaching and that the young man was closer to the stage of learning that Edillae was in. he probably recalled his own struggle with the concepts and techniques more vividly than his master did.

All told, the Elf calculated, they had only lost a few hours from start to finish. The time could not be made up, but at least the loss had not been worse. Perhaps their competitors did not realize they were dealing with sorcery, or did not know how to account for it.

Due either to luck or Kailis’ precautions, their last day and a half in Imperial space went by without incident. During their morning lessons, Edillae confided her theory that the Empire was more concerned about the Commonwealth and Republic borders. Those were more of a threat to the Empire than a border that led nowhere. After all, according to conventional wisdom, nothing civilized lay to galactic south of the known galaxy and the Five Nations. Therefore, most of their ships would b elsewhere. Privately, the Elf was not entirely convinced. For all they knew, their target for investigation was a secret Imperial facility. Durias did not find that option too convincing either. The Dwarves’ sorcerers were too limited in their talents and too focused on practicality to discover planar sorcery and the theoretical knowledge behind it. And their scientists . . . might not realize what they stumbled across. If it was indeed an Imperial facility. Which did not explain the shield, unidentifiable by the Arcanum’s records. Although he was realistic enough to admit that the records were not as complete as the order pretended, this was not ephemeral knowledge. The notion of an Imperial facility beyond its borders was also less credible due to the Empire’s disinterest in exploration. They were happy to take others’ territory, but did little exploring of their own. Coupled with the government’s desire for control . . . no, the chances were better that this station belonged to an unknown player in galactic politics.

The next day, Kailis interrupted their morning session to announce that they would arrive that evening. He called up a system map holo, inaccurate as it likely was, and pointed out a target point. Durias glanced at Edillae, who nodded to indicate that the position should be safe from detection. The smuggler wrapped up with, “We’ll so six jumps, pausing for long range scans after each. For safety.” And, the master privately thought, to acquire information that could be sold to others. Possibly even to the Arcanum. Admittedly, it would be safe to short jump, look ahead, and short jump again, given that the region was uncharted as far as they were concerned.

Perhaps because they were so relatively close to their destination, the six jumps took an age to complete. Even the collected Durias was pacing his quarters as the time to their last jump counted down.

The instant that they came back to STL speeds, Kailis announced, “ECM active, we should be invisible to any electronics in the galaxy.”

In response, the Elf nodded to his apprentices, who left to set up their own precautions. Durias remained on the bridge and looked over the displays. After a moment, he asked, “Can we tell who else might be out there?”

“Expecting someone?”

Durias shrugged.

“As it happens, sensors picked up a ship about twenty thousand K to starboard,” the Goblin said, “Waiting on more detail. On passive. I can active scan for any hiders, but we’d show up like a strobe beacon to them.”

“Passive is adequate for now,” the master decided, “Please relay any information on the station and other visitors. Can the visual on the station be magnified? I suspect that even an active scan will be fruitless.”

“Can do . . . our friend’s a freighter . . . EL-7000 series, I think. Minimal ECM. Light armaments and no speed to speak of, factory standard,” Kailis said, “Handle like an overloaded turtle too, with the factory thrusters. Not runnin’ silent, but not advertisin’ either.”

Durias closed his eyes for a few dozen heartbeats. Then he made his decision, “Please keep an eye on them and send the visuals to the galley station. I would like to concentrate on the station for the time being.” He left to join his apprentices in the galley.

As the Elf entered, Myrlun stood by the console and informed him, “I placed the camouflaging and redirection spells on the ship. They should repel living viewers.”

Edillae added, “I managed to boost the ECM with a couple spells, master. What he’s got are already Republic milspec, but they’re enhanced about ten percent or so now.”

Their master covered his surprise well. Upon their return, he would have to see about getting his newest apprentice more qualified technosorcery instruction. The spells she had accomplished were beyond his meager understanding of that study. However, that was something for the future. For now, he turned on the computer terminal. After tapping a few touch screen keys, he brought up the ship’s video feed of the station. A couple more taps telescoped into the station so they appeared to be only a few K away.

Almost instantly, Edillae pointed out a handful of ships moving along the station. “Maintenance. See, they’re all staying close to the station, looks like a few dozen meters away, max.” She pointed to another further off. “And that one . . .”

“”Looks like a transport,” Myrlun broke in, before their master ordered the computer to overlay their schematic, such as it was.

“That’s a Republic angle,” Edillae exclaimed, “Maybe an hour ahead of us.”

“The red section . . . must be docks.”

Durias shook his head and pointed, “Not necessarily. At least, not the only ones. Looks.” More specks were approaching the blue, grey, and green parts of their map. As they watched, several vanished on contact with the station. “Perhaps they are special docks. See, red is a much smaller area than the others.”

“So what do we do, master,” Myrlun’s eyes never left the display, “It seems others know about this station too. And they haven’t told anyone about it.”

The Elf considered for a time.

“Edillae, how many people would you estimate for a station this size?”

She shrugged, “Depends. If it’s old, maybe 100,000 or less. If it’s fairly new, assuming Imperial or Republic, maybe up to half a million. Depends on the life support technology and power source.”

“And ship traffic for . . . about 300,000 on a station this size?”

“At least three times what we’re seeing. Daily. Assuming an Imperial or Republic technology.”

Durias negated that idea. “I think we can assume a new technology that we have never seen before. The dome is clearly energy, based on Kailis’ readings, but it is opaque. The Arcanum database shows nothing of the sort, even under development among the Five Nations. Too bad we would have to be much closer to see how it reacts to sorcery. So. Return to your quarters and think on this and your lessons. Myrlun, I will test you for adept standing in two days. We will focus on your Artifice, as it is stronger, I think. Your performance on this mission meets the Arcanum’s non-sorcerous requirements for rank increase.”

The apprentices bowed, both giving their ritualized thanks.

He sat alone in his cabin watching the ships and station while taking notes on Kailis’ scans. Or what passed for the smuggler’s scans. Durias was well aware that the Goblin could be sending false data.

When no new insights appeared, the Elf drew a simple protective circle on the floor. The chalk could be wiped away easily later. They were still outside the range of the barriers to dimensional travelers that he had been informed of. Even so, it was worth trying. And perhaps a different entity would be in order. He had worked with Klivrn quite a bit, but a more powerful entity . . .Durias stated, clearly and with force, “Sivaat!”

And the obligatory wait, longer due to the stronger entity.

And this one had a sense of the dramatic, the Elf commented to himself as a cloud of smoke appeared in the circle. He had recently speculated that Sivaat was a fellow sorcerer or an actor who had discovered a means of moving objects between planes. Probably the former, he decided as a shape took form in the smoke. Some of his colleagues had a similar method of dealing with the public. After a few moments, the shadowy, featureless figure seemed solid enough.

“Why have you called me?”

“Great and mysterious Sivaat,” best to use flattery with this one, while he could be companionable with others. “I find that I must perform a task that is much too great for my meager talents, one that has stymied the lesser beings upon which I have learned to call. Therefore, I beseech thee to grant my humble request, though it surely be beneath your awesome majesty.”

Durias privately swore the being preened before replying.

“What is this task? Perhaps I will stoop to grant it, Durias.”

“I wish to know about that place,” he gestured toward the display of the station, “Lesser, weak, beings have only been able to say that it has protections and is in flux, oh Great Sivaat. But surely such things are as nothing before your supreme power.” The Elf winced internally, he had almost used great again, which might be a few times too many.

The shadow figure turned in the direction of the actual station, not the display. It stood silently for so long that Durias began to think something had gone wrong. Perhaps it had detected a subtle flaw in his containment circle. Or the wards could be affecting it even at this great distance. He was reasonably certain that this could not be the case, but one could be mistaken about such things.

He was on the verge of saying something to divert the being’s attention when it finally spoke.

“The flux is indeed great, a source of power as well,” Sivaat confirmed, “The protections are not weak. But not enough to repel the Great Sivaat. You were right to call upon me, mortal. And should not have wasted your time with inferior creatures. Sivaat will grant this request, in return for two hours of absolute freedom in your realm.”

Durias granted the deal immediately and dismissed the planar traveler on his errand.

He released a simple spell that created a bubble of silence. The spell had helped remove distractions. Like the insistent pounding on his cabin door. He waved a finger to dispel the sorcerous lock, causing Kailis and Myrlun to tumble into the room. He saw Edillae over their shoulders.

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