Here’s a little bit more of my up-coming story. I’m not planning on posting it all. I’m not even sure how long it is going to be or what form it will take, although it’s looking at this point like a two-part book series in the size-range of the Final Fall of Man books, maybe smaller. I also updated the first part here, with some minor changes and some alterations to the chapter naming. I want to have the crew additions very clearly marked. You’ll see what I mean.
It looks like there’s going to be an intro-story (book one, part one), where the team is assembled and the adventure begins. Then a series of short stories (book one, parts two and three, then book two, parts one, two and three) detailing the actual circumnavigation of the galaxy.
I want to add drawings, or at least sketches, to each chapter. It may help me cut down on descriptions of what the Molranoids (for example) look like. Or is that lazy corner-cutting? I want this to be accessible to people who haven’t read the full series (although it provides more background if you have), and being self-published I can confidently say there isn’t likely to be a paperback or e-version of this without the pictures if I add them, but what if there is? There may be audiobooks one day and you can’t have pictures there. Maybe I can add little character bios or something, and just explain in broad terms what a Molranoid looks like?
I also find it challenging not to slip into these long internalising waffle-sessions with politics and stuff, that younger readers (and not a few older readers) might find boring. But it’s always been the most fascinating part of sci-fi world-building for me (see Star Trek, Dune, The Expanse), so it’s hard to avoid. Maybe if it’s boring, I can cut some bits?
A Wayward Student
The first difficulty she faced was with her mentor, Parakta Tar.
“When I told you not to do anything embarrassing, I should have made it clear this included jeopardising the stability of Six Species civilisation,” the elderly Molran woman said wearily. They were sitting in her quarters on the Worldship Porticon, enjoying cups of spicy hoco soup. In reality, Parakta had offered soup, and the cups were now standing forgotten on the table between them while the old scholar ranted at her wayward student.
Galana spoke up when Parakta stopped to take a breath. “Smacking a Fleet nitwit hard enough for his head to drop out of his arse for twelve seconds hardly counts as jeopardising Six Species civilisation,” she said, “especially since he doesn’t actually believe in the Six Species in the first place. And it was only twelve seconds.”
“That was apparently eleven seconds more than you needed to get yourself in trouble,” Parakta retorted. “Flying around the galaxy … no Fleet vessels will be available to you. Not any Fleet-connected AstroCorps vessels either, or Fleet-connected officers ‑ ”
“That’s the exact point of this, Parakta.”
“You’re talking about ignoring ninety-nine percent of the Six Species’ most experienced and talented spacefaring minds. And their ships.”
“And that,” Galana said, “is precisely the sort of misconception I mean to correct.”
Parakta shook her head. “Galana Fen, you are the second-most impossible student I have taught in my three thousand, nine hundred and sixty-three years as a mentor.”
“And the most impossible has been in prison for thirty-five years,” Galana said with a smile. This was familiar ground.
“You’re not really angry. You’ve wanted to smack Kotan for years already.”
“A law-abiding Molran of the Fleet does not smack other Molren,” Parakta said. Galana could tell she was trying to maintain sternness, and on the brink of failing. “Apparently AstroCorps Molren are a different breed.”
“I happen to believe this is an easy win for the Six Species,” Galana told her seriously. “The mission is simple enough. Longer than a normal tour, but not long. And we get more out of Kotan and his followers on the Fleet Council of Captains than we would get in a lifetime of speeches and political dealings.”
“An easy win?” Parakta exclaimed. “Not long? You didn’t explain yet, how were you planning on getting around the galaxy without a ship? You going to swim?” Galana must have looked blank, because her mentor sighed. “I have taught you nothing.”
“I admit it’s going to be difficult to convince AstroCorps High Command to sign off on the mission,” she said, “but I’ve got plenty of friends in high places on Aquilar.”
“Your friends on the humans’ capital world would happily sign off on you flying into Hell and tweaking the Devil’s nose if it made the Fleet look silly,” Parakta said, “but they don’t have any ships you can do it with.”
“They have dozens of ships,” Galana frowned.
Parakta shook her head. “They – I’m sorry, you – rely on the Fleet. You’ve built a lot of almost-ships, but you’re still trying to figure out what your own fleet is going to look like, after thousands of years of anything-goes in the Wild Empire. Will you have Worldships, enforcers, transports like the Five Species Fleet that came before? You’re still finding your feet. Your friends on Aquilar have no ships to spare for you. They’re all assigned to different trial tours and diplomatic missions. They’d be signing away a resource they can’t afford to lose, with slim chance of ever seeing it again, for a reward they won’t understand,” she sighed. “No. I’ll talk to the Ambassador, clear this up. You were carried away with your enthusiasm ‑ ”
Parakta sighed again. “Look. The galaxy is huge. The section of it that we’ve marked out as Six Species space is big enough, and it’s the only part we’re even slightly familiar with. And it’s still almost completely unknown after four thousand years of exploration.”
“Parakta ‑ ”
“The passage from Margan’s Leap to Declivitorion-On-The-Rim was mapped by the Fleet on our way to Earth,” Parakta went on relentlessly. “Nothing much else. We just drew a box around this volume and whacked ‘here there be dragons’ on the rest.”
“That doesn’t mean ‑ ”
Parakta wasn’t one to be stopped in the middle of an argument bombardment. “If you go out past the edge of Six Species space, you’re at risk from the Cancer in the Core,” she warned.
“We’re not going into the Core,” Galana objected. “We’re not going anywhere near the Core. We’re going around the outside.”
“That’s even worse. Nobody knows what’s out there.”
“We’ll be in soft-space, at relative speed,” Galana added. “Moving faster than light. Not even in reality for most of the journey.”
“Most of it. Not all. Doing this like a Fleet perimeter patrol means stopping, collecting information, making contact with dumblers. Otherwise you might as well just fly around Declivitorion-On-The-Rim at relative speed for fifty years and tell everyone you went around the galaxy. And even if you don’t drop out of soft-space in front of something that swats you like a fly, you’ll be skinswitched the second you get back.”
“Only if I fail ‑ ”
“Even if you don’t,” Parakta snapped. “Leaving Six Species space puts our entire civilisation at risk. It breaks a founding rule of the Fleet.”
“AstroCorps isn’t the Fleet.”
Parakta raised her ears. “So you think violating Six Species space borders is okay for AstroCorps?”
“I think if the Six Species charter has that much importance to the mass assortment of little Molran and human and Blaran kingdoms that make it up, I’ll welcome any punishment that comes from defying it,” Galana said. “And if it doesn’t, then what am I worried about?”
Parakta knew Galana well enough to accept when her bombardment was only hardening her student’s shields. “Alright,” she said, “then I assume you’ll be talking to Chilly first,” she saw the look in Galana’s eyes, and slumped in her seat. “You’re not going to go to her first,” she growled. “You’re going to go to her last.”
“If I go to Chillybin first, everything we achieve will be because the aki’Drednanth wanted to do it,” Galana said. “She has to be one of the six, but she can’t be signed up before we even have a ship.”
Parakta straightened, picked up her long-abandoned cup of hoco soup, and sipped. “Discounting the ninety-nine percent of experienced spacefarers connected to the Molran Fleet, then,” she said, “you’re looking at the ragged collection of Wild Empire freebooters who signed the charter in the hopes it would earn them something.”
“And cynical social commentary aside … ?” Galana twirled her lower left hand.
“I can only think of one person crazy enough to join you,” Parakta replied. “Basil Hartigan. Captain Basil Hartigan,” she added warningly. “Don’t think for a second that you’ll be permitted to actually command this mad mission of yours.”
“I don’t care who gets to sit in the chair with the buttons, as long as they’re Academy qualified,” Galana said. “I assume this Captain has a ship?”
Parakta looked sour, but nodded.
“He has a ship,” she said.
Basil Hartigan (Crewmember #2)
Hartigan lived on the planet Grand Boënnia, which was handy because it was the planet around which the Porticon was currently orbiting. And with a little under two years to get all the way to the outer edge of Six Species space and their starting point, Galana really didn’t have time for many detours.
She descended into Dominion Central spaceport on a crowded AstroCorps shuttle, which felt like a nice way to start her quest. Although when you flew into the Grand Boënne Dominion on AstroCorps business you pretty much had to do it in an AstroCorps shuttle so it didn’t mean much. She nevertheless felt a certain satisfaction as she sat among her fellow Corpsfolk and looked out of the window into the gloom. Satisfaction and excitement. They were descending into the night-side of the planet, through a solid rainstorm, and the entire landmass that was the heart of the Grand Boënne Dominion seemed to be covered in fog, but it was still exciting.
Galana Fen had been born and raised on the Porticon. Most of her species was spaceborne, living on the great Worldships of the Fleet. Few of them settled on planets. Didn’t see the point of them. She’d done some of her Academy training in various parts of Grand Boënnia, but there weren’t many things a planet could throw at you that couldn’t be done artificially, and controllably, on a Worldship. Even fog and rain if you were into that sort of thing, and the Grand Boënne clearly were.
But she had to admit, there was a certain feeling to being on a planet.
Grand Boënnia was a funny place. It was hard not to think of its oddity as a human thing, because it was mostly humans that lived there. The island nation capital of the Grand Boënne Dominion was a typical example. It wasn’t the most sensible or convenient spot for the centre of a planetary government, it was just the place the first human ship had landed. Dominion Central spaceport was in fact built on the very spot, according to the tourist brochures. All in all it was a very grand, over-inflated set of names to give to such a soggy little place.
The Grand Boënne thought of themselves as the custodians of an ancient and planet-spanning civilisation. A lot of the humans from other cultures found this attitude a bit grating. Galana, who had friends older than the Grand Boënne Dominion, thought it was adorable.
The shuttle made a shaky landing at the spaceport and Galana, hefting a rounded beige carrying case in each lower hand, trotted through the driving rain to a smaller land skimmer that had been arranged for her. Its driver, looking extremely uncomfortable in a dark skimmer patrolman’s uniform several sizes too small for him, was none other than Captain Basil Hartigan himself.
“Welcome to Grand Boënnia, Commander,” he proclaimed as she loaded her cases into the back of the vehicle and climbed in alongside them. “I am Buck Spunko. My friends call me Nuts, don’t y’know. Where would I taking you this fine evening?”
It took Galana a moment to catch up. It seemed, for some reason, Hartigan was pretending to be somebody else and was unaware that she had received his full details while she was still up in orbit. Including a picture of him: a confident and cheerful-looking male with a perhaps over-decorative crest of thick black fur on his head. No, not fur. Hair, the humans called it. He had more … hair … between his nose and his mouth, black and styled in a similar fashion to the stuff on the top of his skull.
It was all very exotic and alien to Galana, who was as hairless as all Molren. She wondered what Hartigan was attempting to do. Humans, she’d learned at the Academy, often had trouble telling Molren apart, so it was possible he was assuming she would have the same difficulty with humans and was playing a little joke on her. Humans liked jokes.
“AstroCorps mission control and launch pads, thank you Nuts. May I call you Nuts?” Hartigan smirked behind his lip-fur – his moustache, she corrected herself – and nodded. Still smiling he touched the controls, gripped the steering rods and sent the skimmer speeding across the wet paving. “I am actually a Captain, platinum class,” she informed him, “but am filling the position of second officer for this mission so am using my Commander credentials. I understand the man you are taking me to meet is a gold-stripe Captain? Martigan, Blartigan?”
“Hartigan,” Hartigan said quickly, then added, “I, uh, I believe. And he’s full gold class. Last I heard.”
“My information must be out of date,” she said mildly.
Basil Hartigan was thirty-three years old. As far as Galana was concerned, he was an infant. When Galana had been thirty, she’d wanted to sneak down into the Porticon’s hold and get into a sleeper pod and sleep until the Fleet found the gates of space. But you had to make allowances for the fact that he was a human. They lived such a short time.
In human terms, Hartigan was the equivalent of an eight- or nine-hundred-year-old Molran. By no means a revered elder, but at least a solidly accepted adult. Thirty-three was still impressively young to be a full gold class Captain. He may have cut some corners by owning his own ship, but AstroCorps didn’t cut any important corners. They didn’t let any old pirate earn stripes.
“I understand you’re down here with a perfectly daft plan to fly around the galaxy,” Hartigan said.
“It is a perfectly simple and well-formulated plan to fly around the galaxy actually, but yes,” she replied. “I’m hoping it will help to solidify AstroCorps as a valid and respected part of the Six Species ‑ ”
“AstroCorps has already been a thing for fifty years,” Hartigan said. “We don’t actually need Kotan and the Fleet nobs to sign off on it.”
“That is technically true,” Galana replied, “but the reality is that we do need the Fleet’s approval before we can hope to expand beyond Aquilar and the central star systems like the Grand Boënne Dominion. And that means getting the support of … Fleet nobs … like Stana Kotan,” she paused. “Interesting that you have heard of him, Nuts. Being a skimmer patrolman must give you plenty of opportunities to listen to rumours and news from the officers you drive around.”
“Oh goodness me, yes,” Hartigan said with evident relief, “lots of rumours, oh my. For example, I heard that this whole thing started with a bet. You bet the Ambassador that an AstroCorps crew could do this. And he fell for it. Do you really think he’ll honour his side of the bargain?”
“Enough people heard him that he won’t really have a choice,” Galana said.
Hartigan laughed, and reached up to play the fingers of one hand along his moustache, smoothing it unnecessarily. “Not very Molranny behaviour, what? Making bets, laying wagers, gallivanting off around the galaxy?”
“I wasn’t planning on gallivanting,” Galana said, “but that depends on Captain Hartigan, I suppose. Can you tell me about him? Any rumours you might have heard? Is he a known gallivanter?”
Hartigan grinned over his shoulder at her as he swung the skimmer into a lane of fast-moving traffic headed to the big ship pads. “Plenty of rumours,” he said. “It’s sorting out the truth from the tall tales that’s the challenge.”
“I’ve heard he’s quite the tactician,” she said idly, “for a human of less than a hundred years.”
By now Hartigan was having obvious difficulty remembering he was meant to be ‘Nuts’ Spunko. “He has his moments,” he said with a big smile. “For a monkey.”
“It is my hope that by the time we finish this mission, my kind will no longer think of the Sixth Species as a pack of wild primates we have to put up with,” Galana said. “Perhaps humans will even stop referring to themselves that way.”
“But humans are primates,” Hartigan said cheerfully.
“What else can you tell me about Captain Hartigan?” she asked. “I’ve heard he is as eccentric as he is brilliant.”
“I rather think that must depend on how brilliant you think he is,” Hartigan said, stroking his moustache again. Galana wondered if he was going to do so on a regular basis for the duration of their mission.
“I heard he got one of his earliest crews killed,” she said, wondering how far she could push the man. “There is no official record, but the rumour is that he was trying to fly into the galactic Core.”
“Not into the Core, just through it,” Hartigan said, his voice hardening. “And that wasn’t what got them killed. According to the rumours I heard.”
“I’m relieved to hear it,” Galana said. “I’m sure he will do his best to keep his crew alive this time. As will I,” she paused again, letting Hartigan drive stiff-backed into the landing compound. “I have heard a very strange story about what Captain Hartigan seeks,” she said eventually, “what he is searching for, out in space. A creature.”
“Mm,” Hartigan said, still sounding offended. “The Last Alicorn.”
“Yes,” Galana said. “That was it. Can you explain this to me, Nuts? I’m afraid it was something I completely missed during my time at the Academy.”
This was not entirely true – all the classic Fleet myths, back to the First Feast when the Fleet had made contact with humanity, were reasonably well-known to her. And she had read the additional notes on her way down to the surface. But Hartigan immediately brightened up and immersed himself back in the role of Buck ‘Nuts’ Spunko, skimmer patrolman.
“Oh, of course. It’s really more of a story the old space-dogs tell each other, don’t y’know. Not sure how much truth there is to it, but Hartigan definitely believes it. Oodles of proof, but nobody will listen to him. An alicorn, you see, is a mythical being. Like an Elf or a Pinian or a Vahoon. But, like all of them, the story has a bit of truth behind it, what?”
“An alicorn, to my understanding, is an animal similar to a horse,” Galana said. “It has a single horn on its head, but it also has wings, distinguishing it from the mythical unicorn.”
“Quite right,” Hartigan said, sounding surprised. “You know your fabulous beasts of legend and folklore. The whole thing is the most appalling claptrap, of course … ”
“Biology and history more than mythology, and hardly claptrap,” Galana disagreed. “The alicorn, whatever else it may have been, was an item of registered Fleet cargo leaving Earth. Whether it was a real creature, and whether there is anything left of it after thousands of years, is quite another matter.”
“You don’t believe it,” Hartigan said, slowing the skimmer and turning to stare at her.
“Please watch the road, patrolman Spunko,” she said firmly. “As to believing it … no, I don’t believe it. I don’t not believe it, either. There is not enough information for that. Perhaps Captain Hartigan and I will find more information on this mission.”
“According to what I have read, Captain Hartigan still means to find the Last Alicorn,” Galana said. “The story is that it ended up on the far side of the galaxy. The story is that he was trying to get there by the shortest route, and that was why he was planning on flying through the Core. That didn’t work, but my mission might offer him another chance.”
“The long way ’round,” Hartigan said with a chuckle.
“Very long, for a human,” Galana agreed. She’d calculated that it was likely to take them a minimum of fifty years to circumnavigate the galaxy. And that was with barely any stops. Which was no good at all, since a proper tour required stopovers and exploration. It was bad for humans’ and Fergunak’s health to spend too long at relative speed anyway.
Fifty years was more than half a Fergunakil’s life. And while it was only about a third of a human’s life, it would arguably be the best third of Hartigan’s. He would leave Grand Boënnia at the peak of his strength and health, and would be lucky to return as an old man.
The greatest challenge Kotan had set her, she reflected, was getting the shorter-lived aliens around the galaxy and home within their lifetimes.
“Worth it, though,” Hartigan said, as though reading her thoughts. He glanced back at Galana again as the skimmer turned in and began speeding along between landing berths. The AstroCorps ships of Grand Boënnia, all shapes and sizes but most of them huge in comparison to the little ground vehicle, loomed above them on either side. “So. Where’s your uniform, Commander?”
“Where’s yours, Captain?” Galana shot back.
Hartigan stared at her in silence for a moment, then he laughed. “When did you figure it out?” he asked, then laughed again. “You knew the whole time.”
“Yes, Captain Hartigan,” she replied. “Or may I still call you Nuts?”
“Wow. So even when you were asking about my crew, you knew then? That was brutal,” he chuckled, sounding appreciative rather than angry. “And how did you manage to say ‘patrolman Spunko’ with a straight face?”
“I’m a Molran,” Galana replied calmly. “Saying things with a straight face is my superpower.”
The skimmer pulled up in front of the ACS Conch.