Episode 204: Dead Drop
by Mr. Hook
T'Phal was ready for them this time. While the others stumbled out of their billets gawking about in confusion as the saxons blared, T'Phal was already dressed and out the door with a ready-cam in one claw and a loaded constrictor pistol in the other. As his fellow T'Phetti cadets milled about in the corridors debating what the sirens meant, T'Phal already knew precisely what was going on. At this very moment a cadet was being abducted, almost certainly from the Psych-Ops ward.
T'Phal almost knocked over a T'Phetti Games & Theory recruit as she pointed toward where the disturbance in her mind was coming from. It was the Psych-Ops ward alright. T'Phal headed for the nearest exit instead.
He made it outside the cadet barracks just in time to hear the sound of jet engines firing up. He pinpointed the source of the sound with his camera and clicked on the range finder. Just as T'Phal had suspected, it was a drop ship - a Human drop ship! This time he was able to zoom the camera lens on the the faded SICON emblem stenciled on the side of the ship along with the registration number before the the troop transport sailed out of range.
The base patrols arrived too late, as usual. The antiquated drop ship was long gone by the time the patrol units had their anti-aircraft weapons loaded. T'Phal hadn't even squeezed off a single shot with his constrictor gun. No matter! This time he had PROOF! Now the council would have no choice but to take notice of the Human threat to T'Phetti security! T'Phal had been trying to warn them about the looming Terran insurgence for months.
T'Phal's sense of triumph was short-lived, however. Later that night he was informed that the T'Phetti student who had been abducted was his own sister, M'Rette! His anger burned all the brighter and seared an even deeper hole into his heart. Now he had to face the very real possibility that he would never see his sister alive again.
Still, hope remained. Perhaps this incident would finally shake his father's stubborn faith in the Humans' benevolence. There was no way Councilor T'Phai would be able to avert his eyes from the obvious threat the Terrans posed. Not this time. Not when his own daughter's life was at stake. And if his father still lacked the means (or the will) to find out what had happened to M'Rette, T'Phal could now easily sway the council otherwise. Perhaps the day of his planet's true liberation was even closer than he had dared to dream.
T'Phal cursed the day Humans had first set foot on T'Phet. It was not the first or the last time that particular curse would escape through his teeth.
THREE WEEKS LATER:
Gossard's sharp whistle pierced the air. "That is the sweetest ship I have ever seen!" he exclaimed. His fellow Roughnecks looked out the view-port to see the angular shape of the shuttle which had just docked along side the Tom Davis. Sensing the bored expressions on their faces, he could tell they weren't impressed.
"Aw, come on guys, look at the size of that cockpit! That's gotta be the new XLR-10." Still blank stares. "Hello! It's the latest prototype for SICON's neural-pilot interface! You plug this cyber-link thingy directly into your spinal column and you can control the ship as if it were an extension of your own body!" Still nothing. "Hmph. I got dibs on meeting the pilot."
"Where to you come up with this stuff Goss?" said Higgins, "I've read tabloids with more persuasive headlines than that."
"Yeah, Goss, you're loosin' your edge," Dizzy teased.
"Corporal Gossard is correct," said Admiral Ibanez, startling the Roughnecks to attention. "At ease. I wasn't able to arrange a T'Phetti transport, but I pulled a few strings to hitch you a ride. You'll probably notice the accommodations are a step above what you're accustomed to. We had to charter a private yacht. It's called the Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn, which in T'Phetti means 'Absolute Control.' It is a prototype ship, but I think you'll find the pilot to be very capable. I expect you all back here at 1100 hours tomorrow. Godspeed, Roughnecks."
Rico's Roughnecks already had their Power Suits on and were good to go. Just to make sure, Rico said, "Roughnecks!" and received the expected "Ho!" in unison.
The airlock doors snapped open without anyone pressing the door lever. Rico gestured to the nearest Roughneck (which happened to be Max) to enter the lock and the rest of the squad followed suit. Rico was the last man inside the lock, and again, the outer door snapped shut before he had a chance to touch the latch.
"Relax. The pilot's just messin' with us," Gossard theorized, "His neural link must extend to the docking controls,"
"What makes you think it's a he?" Diz challenged.
Max Brutto suddenly leaned back against the wall of the airlock as the pressurization cycle began. "This had better not be who I think it is..."
"You bet your scrawny butt it is!" a gruff male voice bellowed over the intercom. It was the distinctive drawl of Francis Brutto, Max's father and former Top Kick of Razak's Roughnecks. Rico's squad voiced collective gasps, sighs, and syllables of disbelief, depending on how fondly each one remembered their former sergeant.
Brutto Jr. held his head in his hands and started gently rocking back and forth. "This is not happening...this is not happening..."
The outer airlock door chimed and opened, unassisted. "Come on in, wipe your shoes off and sit a while," said Brutto Sr. in his best 'come hither' voice, "And keep it quiet back there! Trust me, you don't wanna break my concentration while I'm trying to dive into the atmosphere."
"OK," said Rico, "I'm officially creeped out. Uhh...ladies first?"
"I take it back, someone else can have dibs," said Gossard.
"He probably shut the comms off," said Brutto Jr. "He's probably too preoccupied with piloting the ship to monitor what we're saying."
The rest of the Roughnecks didn't look very reassured. They sat in plush seats aboard the luxurious lounge deck of the Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn, but they didn't look very comfortable either. First of all, the atmosphere generator inside the cabin was "T'Phetti friendly," so they were still wearing their power armor. Second, they had to wrap their heads around the idea that, at least from Francis Brutto's neurologically enhanced point of view, they were sitting somewhere inside what he perceived to be an extension of his own physical presence. Most of them glanced about nervously.
"So how long has he had this?" asked Doc.
"A few years ago he wrote me and said he was going to try some experimental surgery to regain some motor control below the waist," said Max, "A few weeks later he wrote back and said the surgery had been unsuccessful. He made it sound like and they'd have to replace his real legs with artificial ones in order for the neural nodes to take effect. He did mention something about the neural implants having "fringe benefits," but that was Too Much Information for me."
"Me too," said Zim.
"Me three," said Dizzy.
"I knew he'd joined the SICON Diplomatic Corp," said Rico, "but I didn't realize he was stationed on Tophet."
"He was transferred here two years ago," said Max, "at Councilor T'Phai's personal request. Now my dad's official title is 'T'Phetti Cultural Liaison.' He must be enjoying himself, hasn't written much about it."
"That figures," Higgins said wryly, "T'Phetti Cultural Liaison. Isn't Brutto the man who coined the term 'Skinnies' that first day we landed on Tophet?"
"I heard that!" Brutto Sr. said over the intercom, almost causing everyone to jump out of their seats. "Get ready for some chop back there apes!"
"Will someone just please shoot me?" Max pleaded.
The other passengers aboard the Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn endured the rest of the shuttle's decent in complete silence.
A hapless pair of Skinnie guards greeted Rico's squad on the landing platform. The guards' shock staffs were drawn and held ready.
"Halt!" said the taller one, in heavily accented English. "State your business here! All Terran trespassers will be deported!"
Just then Francis Brutto's hover-chair was deposited from the underside of the Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn's cockpit. It almost looked like he was wearing power armor that was somehow molded onto to the chair. The headrest even sported a sealed environment hood to counter the harsh methane atmosphere of Tophet.
"Relax sunshine!" Brutto scolded the guard who had spoken, "This M.I. Squad is here at Councilor T'Phai's personal request. If that's not enough, I can vouch for them, so they're entitled to the same diplomatic immunities I am. Stand down soldier!"
The two Skinnie guards stood at ease. "Sorry, Minister Brutto," said the shorter one, "We weren't expecting visitors at this hour. I'm afraid we'll have to escort you directly to your booth in the Capitol Building. The Senate is still in session."
"Very well. Escort to your hearts' content," said Brutto as he shifted his chair into gear. "Follow me apes! And don't touch nothin'! You break it, you buy it."
"Same old Brutto," Zim muttered to Rico.
"Oh contraire!" said Brutto, "This is the new and improved model! But enough about me! There's a Triple-R-D going down in the Senate right now, and if we don't double-time it we're going to miss all the D-slinging action!"
Brutto Sr. led the Roughnecks down several winding passageways until they reached a brightly lit clearing. Most of the Roughnecks adjusted the polarity of their face plates to compensate for the intense sunlight. Their tribally costumed escorts took the searing light and heat in stride, but they walked with a distinct weariness in their gait. For them it was late evening, though the Suns never set on the "Day" side of the planet Tophet.
"Night" and "Day" were the SICON designated terms for the opposite poles of the planet since Tophet's north pole was always pointed directly at the Suns. Tophet's sister-world, Erebus, had been colonized in part to make up for the loss of Tophet's southern hemisphere which was simply too cold and too dark to support life. The T'Phetti referred to the permanently baked and frozen sides of their homeworld as Light and Dark, since eternal "Day" was the only life circumstance most native-born T'Phetti had ever known.
In T'Phetti popular slang, the word "bright" was usually used as a slur that meant "backwards" or "provincial," referring to someone who had never left the Day side of the planet. The word "dim," on the other hand, was usually meant as a compliment indicative that any self-respecting T'Phetti should be able to boast of having spent at least one cycle of Night off-world. Hence Tophet was probably the only planet in the galaxy where being "dim-witted" was considered a good thing.
Across the clearing stood the T'Phetti Capitol Building. It was a strange mixture of T'Phetti and Terran architecture. One got the impression that the intricately carved T'Phetti components had been added to spruce up an otherwise spartan office complex. The easily recognized central metallic dome gleamed in the sun, a shining bastion of T'Phetti democratic rule. Their transition from what had essentially been a collective of tribal kingdoms into a modern democratic state hadn't been entirely free of trials and tribulations.
Terran historians likened the T'Phetti experiment in democracy to the precedent set by South Korea in a previous century. There was no direct correlation between T'Phetti and Terran political theories or parties, but the Korean comparison was not without its merits. Both South Korea and the Tophetti Nation had declared martial law during the aftermath of an invasion. Both countries had attempted to convert to a post-war democratic system of government in a relatively short period of time. Both nations had experienced an economic boom shortly after foreign trade relations were normalized. Additionally, both parliaments were known for their boisterous behavior and physical altercations on the floor of the T'Phetti Senate were not unheard of.
The Roughecks walked up the Capitol steps with a sense of awe. They were the first M.I. squad to have contacted the Skinnies during the Bug Wars and could now appreciate how far their former enemies' lot in life had progressed since the Arachnid Occupation.
Rico's Roughnecks lost their orientation quickly as they were escorted through a small maze of hallways and staircases. They came to a halt in front of an airlock door which looked as though someone had retro-fitted a SICON emergency hatch into an otherwise immaculately crafted sandstone wall (which was, in fact, precisely what had been done).
"You bright young lads can wait out here," Brutto Sr. told the T'Phetti escorts, "while the rest of us step inside for a breather."
Before the guards could object, Brutto pressed a button on his armrest to open the hatch and Rico's squad piled inside the airlock.
Five minutes later, the Roughnecks had their helmets off and Brutto was comfortably situated in a less cumbersome hover-chair. The lock opened into a small anteroom which contained a pressurized oxygen atmosphere. The far wall consisted of a large plate glass window that overlooked the T'Phetti Senate Chamber. The chamber vaguely resembled the SICON senate floor in Geneva, but had much larger furniture better suited to T'Phetti body proportions. The vaulted ceiling was also built considerably higher than its Terran counterpart.
On the "flat" side of the semi-circular hall (across from the anteroom) there was a dias in the middle that was propped up in front of a ceiling-to-floor SICON banner. There was a small contingent of venerated T'Phetti seated atop the dias who made up the T'Phetti High Council. Higgins counted seven members seated there and noted that one was wearing a blue sash, two were clad in brown sashes, and the other four were wearing yellow sashes. It was hard to tell from this distance, but Higgins was pretty sure the T'Phetti seated near the edge of the dias (wearing yellow) was Councilor T'Phai.
The T'Phetti High Council functioned similarly to the British House of Lords and the Senate behaved more like a parliament than a republic, but SICON had asked for a Senate, so they got one, more or less. Senate seats fanned out in consecutive half-circles from the dias. There were three small platforms towering above the senate seats which were evenly spaced across the room. Each platform had a podium and a holo-cam grid embedded in the center. The two platforms to the right were empty, the third one on the left was occupied by a T'Phetti senator wearing a brown sash. It was his image that was being projected upon the large screens to either side of the giant SICON tapestry. The senator's words were being piped through the speakers in the Roughnecks' anteroom, but they were being spoken in T'Phetti and went untranslated for the moment.
The anteroom was wedged between two large balconies that stretched out and curved on both sides until they met up with the far wall of the chamber. These publicly accessible galleries were crammed with throngs T'Phetti Citizens.
"Are the balconies always this full?" asked Higgins.
"Nope," said Brutto, "this is the first time I've seen it this packed. The Senate has been in session for over three days straight. They're debating the same Secession Bill the home-landers introduce ever other year, but this time the vote is going to be close! Grab a seat and stay a while, apes, you're watching T'Phetti history in the making! These Senate proceedings have been the highest rated UNN show in T'Phetti broadcasting history."
"How's the vote going?" Rico pressed.
"Hang on, le' me check," Brutto nonchalantly pulled on a computer cord attached to his headrest and plugged the neural feed into his neck socket. "Okay, I'm in..." he said, "Looks like the Brown Party representatives are wrapping up their closing arguments. T'Phal is still slated to speak though."
"The Brown Party? What's that?" Rico asked.
"Don't you apes know anything about T'Phetti politics?" Brutto rolled his eyes. "Shut up and pay attention, 'cause I'm only gonna say this once!
"See all those seats on the left side with all those little brown banners draped in front of their desks? That's the Brown Party delegation, otherwise known as the Homeland Party. They're the separatists. Not a day goes by when they don't propose limiting SICON's access to the planet surface in some way. They're the ones pushing the Secession Bill. T'Phal is their hero of the day, a high ranking military brat who supports secession. He's not an elected official but he was called upon to testify as an eye-witness to the recent attacks on the T'Phetti academy.
"To your right you'll see mostly yellow banners up and down the isles. That's the Yellow Party delegation, they call themselves the Progress Party. T'Phai is the Yellow Party chairman and generally supports the terms of the Terran-Tophet Treaty of 2080. All that means is that they support Terran commercial activity on Tophet and usually oppose tariffs and transport taxes.
"All of the T'Phetti companies with strong ties to interstellar trade tend to support the Yellow Party. The T'Phetti Bureau of Tourism, for instance, is one of their biggest financial backers. Local constituencies like the Agronomy Guild and the T'Phetti Textiles Union tend to support the Brown Party and would rather place restrictions on interstellar commerce."
"What about those smaller color groups in the middle?" asked Higgins.
"I was getting to those," snapped Brutto, "Those are the radicals. There's about a dozen or so extremist parties who are constantly pushing very narrow agendas. The Green Party over there, for instance, wants to hand planetary security over to Terran control and basically wants SICON to take over all administrative duties for the entire planet. The Purple Party, on the other hand, not only wants to secede from the Alliance, but wants to purge all Terran cultural influences from Tophetan society."
"What about the aqua colored flags?" Higgins pointed to the smallest color group clustered on the floor of the chamber.
"Uhh...they're fairly new," Brutto's eyes glazed over, probably consulting his neural link, "...that's the Turquoise Party...they're apparently pushing to have a song called 'MmmBop' to be adopted as the national anthem. But let's not go there..."
Brutto's attention snapped back to the main hall. "The Purple Party is the largest radical faction. They almost always side with the Brown Party's proposals, but even so, the Yellow Party is so much larger than all the other political factions combined that the will of the Progressives usually wins out in the end. But not this time. T'Phal's testimony has been pretty devastating. The majority of Yellow Party members have been voting in favor of Brown Party proposals today. That's a new one on me! They just passed a bill restricting all off-world traffic until the abduction crisis is resolved, or, at the very least, until the culprits are officially identified."
"What about the Thomas Davis?" Rico wondered aloud, "Will we be allowed to leave?"
Brutto's chair terminal hummed as he consulted his neural link again. "Not without a military escort," he answered. Then Brutto's usually stern face broke out into a big silly grin. "How much do you wanna bet Ibanez doesn't give a hoot? As the only SICON flagship in orbit she could probably argue that she's her own escort."
"Don't go giving her any bright ideas," Rico chided, "She has plenty of those already."
"What's that guy saying?" Doc was pointing to the blue-clad T'Phetti Councilor now speaking into a little microphone situated on the dais.
"I can't believe I'm surrounded by such culturally illiterate jabber-monkeys..." Brutto mumbled as he expanded his neural sphere of influence to include the anteroom environmental controls. "...guess Goss's talk-box tech won't go to waste after all..."
A disjointed robotic voice began to translate the stream of T'Phetti words pouring through the anteroom sound system.
"...the Council once again recognizes...Naval Academy Instructor T'Phal...speaking on behalf of the Brown Party...Captain T'Phal, you have the floor."
The Brown Party member who's image had graced the large Senate screens moments earlier was now replaced by the visage of a tall, proud T'Phetti youth decked out in his academy dress uniform.
"My fellow countrymen, as this debate finally draws to a close, please allow me to make clear the dire consequences of refusing to secede from our so called Alliance with the Humans."
The talk-box translation didn't do justice to T'Phals deep, resonant voice or the emotional fervor punctuated by his gesticulating arm movements. Unfortunately, Brutto Sr. was the only person in the room who could fully appreciate the young T'Phetti's oratory skills. To the Roughnecks' untrained ears, T'Phal's diatribe sounded like a drunken sailor speaking Finnish backwards.
"Without the Humans..." T'Phal continued, "...this series of attacks on T'Phetti sovereignty would never have occurred in the first place! Without the Humans' constant cultural interference, the education of the T'Phetti armed forces would no longer be corrupted by their misguided attempts at telepathy research! Without the Humans, T'Phetti telepaths would no longer be the targets of kidnapping and extortion!
"Certain members of the Yellow Party will accuse me of exaggeration and distortion. They will say I am a radical and a traitor to the Alliance. I say it is they who have betrayed our people! I say it is they who long ago sold out the Tophetti Nation to the power-hungry Humans!
"You think I exaggerate? You think I obfuscate? Perhaps the leader of the Yellow Party would care to explain how, without the Humans, his own daughter would still be safe and sound in her own home! Perhaps without the Humans, she could be here herself to plead with you to secede from this sham of an Alliance!"
The sound of a thousand door-bells filled the air, as did a clattering thunder of protest.
"What's that noise?" Rico asked the question on everyone's mind.
"That's the sound of hand-held chimes," said Brutto, "They're applauding T'Phal's speech."
"Yeah, but what's that rumbling, clanging sound?"
"That's the sound of dissidents on the other side of the room clapping their name-plates against their desks. Frankly, I was hoping the rumble would be a little louder than this."
Before any of the Roughnecks could comment, their attention was snagged by the sight of Councilor T'Phai as he leapt off the end of the dias and sprinted toward the steps leading up to the elevated platform directly opposite from the one T'Phal was standing on. In less than a minute T'Phai's familiar face filled the senate screens. The T'Phetti Council member in the blue sash tried to give T'Phai official permission to speak but T'Phai reached the platform microphone before the elder statesman could finish his sentence.
"Listen to the sound of the words whistling through your own teeth!" T'Phai shouted. The last time Rico's Roughnecks had seen T'Phai this emotionally charged was way back on Tesca Nemerosa as he mowed down a swarm of Control Bugs with a flamethrower.
"The phrase that seems stuck in your limited vocabulary today refers repeatedly to what our world would be like 'without the Humans.' Very well! Let us consider what indeed such a world might be like...
"Without the Humans, our world would still be completely occupied by the Arachids! Without the Humans, every single T'Phetti alive would kneel before the Bug Queen out of blind obedience! Without the Humans, the Control Bug infestation would still be working our population to death as slaves in the Xylon mines!
"Furthermore, without the Humans, our world would be a backwater...nothing more than an Arachnid refueling station! We would still be oblivious to the worlds beyond the stars, still clinging to the provincial hemisphere we call home as though it were the only world in the galaxy! Without the Humans we would be wallowing in our own poverty, with no hope, no future, no life!
"And as I'm sure the venerable Naval Instructor who just spoke is well aware, without the Humans, he would be lying dead at the bottom of a mine-shaft next to his own mother!"
T'Phai suddenly switched off the senate screens by remote control. And then the "D" hit the fan. Angry shouts rippled throughout the groups of T'Phetti crowding the balconies. Several civilian onlookers started throwing crumpled protest banners at the senators down below. Most of the senators on the floor were too busy hurling their name plates at each other's heads to notice. Even the normally neutral and passive Blue Party members were getting into the fray. One of the yellow-clad members of the High Council stood up and banged a stone gavel right in front of the little mike on the dias.
"ORDER!...Order!...This session will come to order!" the Councilor shouted hoarsely until the commotion in the chamber began to calm down. "The High Council moves that this session of the Senate be suspended until tomorrow morning! Senators will be given 12 additional hours to consider their votes on the Secession Bill until then. Hopefully by tomorrow your tempers will have subsided and we will be able to convene in a more civilized fashion! This session is adjourned!"
The gavel banged and the shouting crowds pretty much picked up where they left off, but the galleries did seem to be emptying gradually.
Brutto Sr. switched off the sound system in the anteroom. "Better get a move on, apes. Traffic on the way home is gonna be a killer."
Just as Brutto opened the outer hatch to the anteroom, Councilor T'Phai rushed up to meet Rico's squad.
"Roughnecks! It is wonderful to see you all again!" said T'Phai, who seemed much more relaxed and calm than he had just a few minutes ago. He was breathing a little heavier than normal (from all the running), but otherwise closely resembled the rock-steady, slow-to-anger T'Phai they all knew and loved.
"I wish I could have summoned you here under more pleasant circumstances," T'Phai lamented, "I assume you witnessed my performance back there? Good. I think I managed to rally my political base, but I probably just alienated all the swing-voters in the Senate.
"No matter. You are here now. I wish we could share a meal and reminisce, but there will be plenty of time for that later. Right now I recommend that you relocate to Minister Brutto's quarters until things calm down a bit. Major Rico, Private Flores, come with me please."
Just as quickly as he had arrived, T'Phai strode off in the direction from which he had come. He didn't even look back to see if Rico and Dizzy were following. Rico shrugged at Dizzy and motioned for her to follow T'Phai. They both had to jog to catch up with T'Phai's lengthy strides. Despite the quickened pace, making headway was difficult. Now the corridors of the Capitol Building were clogged with T'Phetti Citizens trying to depart and win various arguments at the same time. Rico had to raise his voice to be heard above the din.
"Hey, T'Phai," said Rico, "Where are we headed?"
"The artifact is in my quarters," said T'Phai over his shoulder, as if that explained everything.
"What artifact?" said Dizzy, "What are you talking about?"
"All will be explained in due time," T'Phai answered as he wove a path through the crowd.
Eventually the crowd thinned as they reached the "rear" of the Capitol Building. Stairs led down from the ornate colonnade to a row of apartment complexes. This was the residential district reserved for senators during their stay at the capitol. Most of the senators where still squabbling on the Senate floor, so the street traffic in the residential district was light.
T'Phai led Rico and Dizzy through the labyrinth of narrow walkways between buildings until they arrived at a relatively small and humble abode that looked like it was left over from the Pre-Occupation era.
"I'm sorry that you will not be able to remove your helmets," T'Phai said as he unlocked the front door to his house, "Please excuse the mess..."
Dizzy noticed that T'Phai's old Power Suit from the Bug Wars was displayed in an alcove next to the front door as she walked in. There were piles of books and papers stacked along the walls of the circular den. The right side of the den was open to a hallway which led to a dining area and guest rooms beyond. To Dizzy's left, the den branched off into an office space where she could see a SICON veemail terminal crammed next to a computer desk. Info disks were strewn about the desk, most had T'Phettan symbols scrawled on their shiny surfaces. Behind the den was a walk-in kitchen which looked clean and unused.
In the middle of den was a twelve-foot tall statue which resembled a stylized T'Phetti mother holding a child in her arms. The arms drooped to the floor since the figure was only represented from the waist up. At first it appeared to Dizzy that the head was too large and top heavy, but as you neared the base of the object and stood where the arms crossed, the proportions of the figure seemed more reasonable.
"Is this supposed to be a likeness of your wife?" Dizzy asked T'Phai.
"Yes, it was M'Rette's first attempt at funerary sculpture. Do you like it?"
"Uhh, yeah...it's so...big."
"Yes," T'Phai affirmed, "I believe such sculptures are meant to be difficult to remove from their intended surroundings."
"Of course." Dizzy wondered if most other T'Phetti homes has sculptures like this one in the middle of their dens. Considering how many T'Phetti had lost their lives in the Bug Wars, it wasn't inconceivable.
"Please, be seated," T'Phai pointed to the dining room table, "I will be with you shortly." T'Phai headed toward one of the guest rooms and stared rummaging around inside. Dizzy and Rico almost had to hop up onto their stools since the chairs were designed to service people who were over seven feet tall.
T'Phai returned to sit across the table from Dizzy and Rico. He gently placed a black cloth pouch on the polished stone surface.
"My daughter, M'Rette, has been missing for about three weeks now. She was sleeping in the student quarters of the Psych-Ops ward at the T'Phetti Naval Academy when she was taken. My initial instinct was to contact Carl Jenkins to investigate M'Rette's abduction. Officer Jenkins did come to my aid, but he arrived the same day T'Phal presented his evidence to the High Council. T'Phal had a video recording of the drop ship which stormed the academy compound. The tape revealed the distinct markings of a SICON emblem on the side of the drop ship. According to the ship's registration number, it was decommissioned over fifteen years ago.
"When Officer Jenkins saw this video evidence, he seemed very upset. He disappeared mysteriously the next day. I suspect he needed to conceal his true whereabouts in order to pursue the culprits of M'Rette's abduction without SICON's official knowledge.
"He did leave this artifact," T'Phai pointed to the lump inside the pouch, "with specific instructions to contact Johnnie and to show it to the both of you. I hope you can discern Carl's intent from this object..."
T'Phai took a small round crystalline object from the pouch and held it out in front of them. Before they could examine it more closely, an eerie blue glow began to emanate from the crystal and it started to levitate out of T'Phai's claw.
"Rico, Dizzy, if you are hearing this, then you did as T'Phai instructed and you are both on the planet Tophet," T'Phai spoke with Carl's unmistakable tone of voice. Dizzy instinctively grabbed Rico's hand to calm her frayed nerves. Compared to the statue in the den, this was a whole new level of creepy.
"I'm sorry I couldn't be there in person," said Carl via T'Phai, "I had to move quickly. I gleaned from the evidence that T'Phai's son presented to the T'Phetti Senate that one of my former instructors at SICON H.Q. may be involved in the recent abductions of several T'Phetti psychics. If I'm right, he's the one who's been abducting Human telepaths as well. A dear friend of mine, Haley Roman, is also missing. She was probably one of the first. I'm trying to figure out where our teacher may have taken her, but the trail is already running cold.
"My instructor's name was Dyson Freeman. He was the highest ranking Psych-Ops instructor at H.Q. If he's gone rouge, then the roots of his betrayal run deep. He'd have to have a fool-proof network of telepathic spies operating from within SICON H.Q. in order to pull something off of this magnitude.
"I'm going to have to keep a low profile for a while. There's no telling which SICON personnel have been compromised. I still trust Carmen. T'Phai's mind was free of telepathic interference until I installed this 'dead drop' that you're seeing now. I left a copy of Freeman's writings and service records with T'Phai. He'll remember everything from this conversation, so he'll be able to help you. The artifact he's holding belonged to Freeman.
"Your top priority it to find M'Rette. She can help you use the artifact to find Freeman's hive, maybe to find a way to meet up with me. Plus, I swore to T'Phai that I'd help him find his daughter. I know you two will get the job done.
"I'm not quite sure what Freeman is up to yet. I hope I have more information for you when we next meet. Keep safe, my friends."
The crystal fell back into T'Phai's palm. The blue gleam in his eyes dimmed and he slumped where he sat. Then he nodded his head to clear it, as if waking up from a trance. Dizzy realized she was still holding Rico's hand and let go.
"Mmmmmm..." T'Phai rubbed his crest, speaking again in his own voice, "That is an experience...I would not care to repeat...did you get all that?"
"Yeah, most of it," said Rico, "Though I'm not sure where we should start looking for M'Rette."
"Twelve more T'Phetti telepaths have been abducted since the attack on the academy," said T'Phai, "Two were abducted just two days ago on Tophet's sister-world, Erebus."
"Then what are we waiting for?" Dizzy stood to leave.
"Let me gather the materials Carl left behind and contact Minister Brutto," said T'Phai, "He can pick us up in the garden."
The "garden" in T'Phai's yard didn't have any vegetation, but it did have rows of rock formations that vaguely resembled vegetation. The flat, round VTOL pad in the middle of the yard took up most of it. The Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn came to rest on the private pad just as two Senatorial Guards came running up the garden path.
The rest of Rico's squad was already aboard as he, Dizzy and T'Phai approached the shuttle's on-ramp. The two guards crossed their shock staffs to bar their way.
"What's the meaning of this? Stand aside," Rico demanded.
"You and the female may board, Councilor T'Phai is not permitted to leave the premises," said the guard which happened to be female herself.
"You are interfering with Senate business," said T'Phai, "who authorized this intrusion?"
"Begging your pardon, sir, but you did," said the male guard, "Proposition 34 9A, sub-heading B states that no Senatorial Staff may leave the planet surface while a Senate vote is pending. It's meant to prevent Senators from skipping town on the eve of a vote. You signed the bill into law yourself, sir."
"I have appointed Councilor Wa'Kun to vote in my stead," T'Phai countered, "Now stand down."
"But sir..." the female guard stammered, "Don't you know what they'll do to you? T'Phal will accuse you of treason, the senate will be even more divided..."
"I am on a mission of utmost importance!" T'Phai's patience was beginning to crack, "We must find where the T'Phetti telepaths are being held prisoner! We have a new lead on where they might be..."
"Sorry, sir, but not even the High Council is above the law," the male guard insisted.
"Mmmmmmmm," T'Phai turned to Rico, "Wait here."
"You guys coming or not?" Brutto barked over Rico and Dizzy's comm link, "Time's a wastin'!"
"Hold yer horses, sarge, just got a little red tape to clear up here," Rico responded.
"Let's go planet hopping he says..." Brutto cut the link.
T'Phai walked back to his house and went inside. Ten minutes later he returned to the launch pad wearing his old Power Suit.
"I have held many titles in the course of my political career," T'Phai addressed the guards formally, "I have been called Colonel, I have been called Ambassador, I have been called Minister of Foreign Affairs, I have been called Senator, and these days I am called High Councilor.
"But you seem to forget that I also hold the rank of Private in the Mobile Infantry. I am first and foremost a Roughneck! I have been commanded by a superior officer to accompany him on a mission directly related to Interstellar Security. The last time I checked, the Tophetti Nation was still a member of SICON. Do you still intend to interfere with an ongoing SICON mission, or will you stand aside?"
Both guards slouched in defeat.
"With your permission..." T'Phai nodded to Lt. Rico, but continued to walk up the ramp without hesitation.
"Permission granted, Private" said Rico. Just to rub it in while the guards were still in earshot, he added, "Come on, Diz, let's go find us some real Skinnies," before the ramp closed.
The Wauhn'Ita Hol'Ahn lifted off and speed away into the light of Suns which never set.
Later, aboard the Tom Davis, Rico's Roughnecks lounged in the officer's mess. Admiral Ibanez had hosted a lavish meal to celebrate the return of Private T'Phai, though he wasn't able to partake in the actual dining experience since he was still wearing his T'Phetti Power Suit.
Hey, at least this time the T'Phetti quarters are first rate, Carmen laughed, No more hitting your head against the bulk heads this time.
Mmmm. Yes, that would be an improvement, T'Phai admitted.
Well, I'd love to stay an chat with you jabber-monkeys, said Brutto, But I really need to get back.
You're not coming with us? Max could barely contain his glee.
Nah, somebody's got to try and knock some sense into the T'Phetti Senate before they vote on the Sucession Bill tomorrow. I also need to come up with a good cover story for why T'Phai won't be there, said Brutto as he steered his chair out the door.
Take care of yourself, old man, called Max.
Don't worry about me, kiddo, just find M'Rette before anybody else does. I'm counting on you, kid. Im counting on all of you, Brutto nodded to all of the Roughnecks seated at the admirals table. Roughnecks! he shouted for old times sake.
Ho! they shouted back in unison.
Now that's what I'm talkin' 'bout... the door closed behind Brutto's retreating hover-chair.
Its good to have you back, T'Phai, said Rico, No matter what fancy schmancy title they give you, you'll always be an Ape in my book.
I'll take that as a compliment, T'Phai winked, a human gesture which had taken him several years of practice.
Rico's Roughnecks spent the rest of the night in good humor. They tried to catch up on each other's life stories as best they could since the Bug Wars had ended. Little did they know that this would be their last opportunity to do so with the current roster of Apes present and accounted for. Little did they know that the Bug Wars weren't quite as over as they imagined, or that a new breed of terror awaited them on the planet Erebus.
Next Episode: 205A: The Guide - Part 1