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Leaning back from her screen and stretching expansively, Zabraga flicked her gaze to the classic digital clock — one of a very small number of mementos from Earth — sitting on the workstation surface to her left. It’s late, she thought — though that was a poor phrase to describe the fact that it was nearly breakfast time and that she’d worked through the night again. It’s not as if there’s really “day” or “night” in space anyway, she rationalised, avoiding the fact that she couldn’t even recall the last time she’d taken a break to eat.
The scope of the task that she’d been given — to assist in deciphering the ship’s alien codebase — was both daunting and enthralling in equal measure. Jorund, the whippet-slim Nordic introduced by Kol as the overseer of the translation effort, had shown her their progress so far: a scattering of translated symbols which, he admitted, they had deciphered largely by trial and error whilst working to get the ship’s most basic systems operational.
She and Jorund had discussed the inherent thorniness of the problem for a while. They needed to translate enough of the codebase to at least restart the ship’s engines and ensure navigation systems were fully functional, but the short timeframe — Kol had intimated that they had two Federation Standard weeks at most — added another layer of difficulty to the process. Having some of the symbols helped but it wasn’t enough training data for a translative algorithm, so Zabraga had offered to develop one which could be fed other known languages and search for corresponding patterns in the alien code.
Nearly there now, she yawned and tugged open one of the workstation drawers, grabbing one of the nutrient-rich ration bars she had unloaded from the Shorekaa, tearing open the packaging and munching on the dense, cake-like contents as she attempted to relax her mind and quieten the constant chatter of her thoughts — at least for a few moments.
I wonder when Kol is going to divulge the rest of their plan? That thought had been lurking in the back of her mind since he’d first introduced her to Jorund. She hadn’t expected all of the intimate details to be laid bare right away, but several days had passed and the only thing that she knew for sure was that this ancient hulk of a ship they were working on was somehow integral to its success.
“Glad to see you finally eating something,” someone said from behind her, making her jump. “I was beginning to think you were one of those strange breatharians I’ve heard of.”
She glared over her shoulder at Jorund. “Don’t sneak up on me like that — especially when I’m eating,” she grumbled.
Jorund held up his hands apologetically. “Not my intention, I assure you.”
“You’re light on your feet for a Nordic.”
“Am I?” he replied. “Known a lot of my people, have you?”
Zabraga opened her mouth to respond, then sighed. “Admittedly not.”
“Well….” his face crinkled up and he gave her a mischievous grin. “You’re actually right. My brethren aren’t a people of subtlety — even when they walk. One of our traditional mottos even translates roughly to ‘The footsteps of a warrior should wake the gods’.”
She snorted. “So you’re basically a walking contradiction of the Nordic stereotype.”
“I am indeed,” he smiled, “And gladly so. Otherwise I wouldn’t be here verbally sparring with you.”
Zabraga huffed theatrically. “If I had known I’d be the target of an incessant flirt, I’d have told Kol no.”
Jorund laughed. “I doubt that! Nobody says no to Kol, not after hearing his truth.” The smile eased from his face. “On that note, are you engaged in anything critical right now? Aside from gnawing on that space ration, of course.”
She glanced at the half-eaten bar and shrugged. “It’s tasty enough — and I don’t have to leave my workstation either. What do you need?”
He smirked. “For you to leave your workstation,” she gave him a deadpan stare and he quickly continued, “Seriously. Kol would like to see you.”
Eyes widening slightly, she turned her chair around to face Jorund directly. “When?”
“Now,” he replied, “If you’re able, that is.”
Carefully re-wrapping the remainder of the ration, Zabraga placed it on her desk and stood up. “Sure,” she said, self-consciously teasing at her hair with her fingers, then cupping a hand over her mouth and nose, and exhaling to check the state of her breath.
Jorund chuckled. “You look — and smell — perfectly fine. Come on, you’re the last I came to get.” He motioned for her to follow.
“The last? You mean there are others?” she asked as they exited the workroom and made their way towards the ship’s central corridor.
“Several, yes.” Jorund affirmed. “You’re all in the same boat; you need to know what our plans are.” He gave her a sidelong glance, “Did you think you’d be invited for a cosy little one-to-one with Kol?” he teased.
“Well,” she felt somewhat abashed, “His choice of words when we first met led me to believe it would be more private.”
“Private in terms of where, and who is present,” Jorund corrected. “We’re under no illusions that there are individuals here who would sell us out, given enough information and the right opportunity. So,” he made a churning motion with his hands, “We watch for a while, and we winnow out those who are… an odd fit.”
“What do you do with the ones you think might betray you?” she asked.
“They’re allowed to stay, they just aren’t made privy to all of the details of what we’re doing.” He raised a hand in a warding gesture. “It is very rare, of course.”
Zabraga nodded, knowing full well that she had been carefully vetted before being provided with an invite containing the ship’s interstellar coordinates. A thought occurred to her, and she stopped dead in her tracks “So was your flirtatiousness part of some sort of test?” she demanded.
Jorund stopped and turned to her. “What? No,” he laughed, “I just like you is all.” He made an impatient gesture. “Come on, I already told you you’re the last. We don’t need to make him wait unnecessarily.” He headed for the intersection with the main corridor and turned left towards the bridge, Zabraga in tow.
Meeting of Minds
Once on the bridge they crossed to an adjoining chamber which presumably had been some sort of conference room, given the enormous table flanked to either side by a complement of half a dozen equally oversized chairs, with another more impressive one at the table’s head.They were far too large for practical use, and the fact that they had been built into the chamber’s floor meant removing them would be a time-consuming endeavour.
Instead another table and chairs had been brought in and placed at the front, at which sat Kol and two others, one a fellow Reptiloid and the other a Grey. There was what appeared to be a holo-projector in the centre of the table, though it was currently switched off. Jorund and Kol nodded to one another, and the Nordic clapped Zabraga cordially on the shoulder and turned to leave, the door sliding shut behind him.
“At last.” Kol intoned, “Jorund managed to drag you away from your screen, then.” a smile passed briefly across the Reptiloid’s face.
“Sorry if I’ve kept you waiting.” Zabraga replied, inclining her head deferentially.
Kol made a dismissive gesture. “It’s of no consequence; Rellor and Kadaj,” he indicated the Grey and then the Reptiloid as he spoke their names, “have been updating me on their progress.” He gestured at the empty chairs, “Please, take a seat.” Zabraga walked over and slipped into a chair next to Rellor, who glanced at her and nodded amiably.
“So,” Kol said once she’d made herself comfortable, “You’ve all been here for a little while now, working hard on facets of a cause you know very little about.” He spread his hands, “I am going to change that.” Picking up a small datapad, he turned on the holo-projector.
“You already know the core reason why we’ve built this cause: the completion of shapeshifting research — for our mutual benefit.” Inputting several commands he brought up a 3D image of the ship that they were on. “No doubt you’ve been wondering why we’re out here beyond Federation space on this gargantuan scrapheap of a vessel.”
Using his fingers he zoomed into the bowels of the ship, where the various mechanical systems were located. One of these areas — a bulbous piece of machinery caged inside multiple layers of mesh — he highlighted a bright red colour. “This part here is why. The intermediary who informed me about the ship noted what he believed to be cloaking technology on his scans of it. Upon further investigation this assertion proved to be correct.”
Kol glanced at the three of them in turn. “The three of you have been working on different aspects related to getting this cloaking system operational. Rellor and Kadaj have been repairing the machinery itself, and are nearing completion.” He turned his attention to Zabraga.
“Zabraga, your efforts in deciphering the codebase are critical to operating the cloaking device — as well as getting this ship moving. How are things coming along?”
“I’ve almost completed an algorithm that should speed up translation considerably,” she hesitated, “Assuming the language used bears at least some similarity to elements from the database of known languages that I’m using as a reference.”
Kol nodded. “Assuming it does, how long will it take?”
Zabraga thought for a moment. “Another day, minimum. No more than two.”
“Good enough. No doubt you’ve all guessed we’re going to use the cloaking technology to enter Federation space undetected?” The three of them nodded and Kol went on, “Now we come to the reason why.” He used the datapad to bring up a digital flyer that read:
‘The Federation is proud to announce that Custodial Elections for all six habitable planets are now live! Become a Planetary Citizen and vote for your preferred Candidates today!’
“It would seem the Federation is keenly pursuing the devolution of Custodial powers to the citizens of the planets — including a budget of trilium that Custodians can utilise. Our plan is to appropriate that trilium for our own needs.”
“Theft of the budget?” asked Rellor.
“Yes — but not directly,” Kol replied, “We’re going to need a significant amount of trilium to finance the laboratory necessary to complete the shapeshifting research. So instead we’re-”
“Going to steal the election.” Zabraga cut him off quietly, then coloured when she realised she’d spoken out loud, “Sorry.”
Kol smirked. “Quite alright. Yes, we’re going to steal the election — on all six planets.”
“Tahaluun have mercy,” whispered Rellor, invoking the deity observed by the spiritual Greys, “What of the communities on the planets? Won’t this cause chaos?”
“I don’t expect anyone to even notice.” Kol stated matter-of-factly. “The Custodial budget is a small fraction of the released trilium, and how the planetary Custodians choose to utilise it is up to them.”
“How do you plan on getting the other Custodians to cooperate?” Asked Zabraga with a frown.
“What do you mean?” Kol retorted.
“You’re going to ensure your own people gain a Custodial position on each planet, yes?” At Kol’s nod she went on, “But what about the other Custodians? There are five per planet and you need a majority consensus to release and allocate the Custodial budget.”
“Ahhhh,” Kol nodded in understanding, “You’re thinking too small, Zabraga. We’re going to steal all of the Custodial positions, not just one on each planet.”
Zabraga’s eyes widened. “That’s… ambitious.”
“Did you honestly expect anything less?” Kol gestured expansively, “Ambitious describes all that we are attempting to do here.”
“True enough,” she admitted, “But how are you going to ensure your candidates win the electoral race?”
“You’re the digital infiltration expert,” Kol replied, “You tell me.”
“Wedrhewun,” Kadaj said suddenly with an exasperated hiss, “Just tell us plain.”
Kol turned his gaze to the other Reptiloid, his eyes hard. “Don’t call me that again.”
Kadaj puffed himself up as if to argue, ripples of colour and physical distortion radiating over his face, then his shoulders slumped and he averted his gaze. “Forgive me.”
“You are forgiven.” said Kol, his expression softening but his gaze remaining flinty.
“What did he just say? Wedri…what?” Zabraga asked.
“Wedrhewun,” Kol supplied, “The closest approximation in Federation Standard language is ‘frozen one’. It’s a pejorative term for Reptiloids unable to shapeshift.”
Zabraga frowned across the table at Kadaj. “That’s unkind,” she said to him. He ignored her words and continued to stare off towards the door, though a brief spasm of colour suffused his face.
“Pay his outburst no heed,” Kol said, “Kadaj has a genetic condition that causes him to sire offspring incapable of shapeshifting.” He gestured at his own deformed face, “I am a reminder of that.”
“That’s no excuse,” Zabraga muttered.
“No, merely an explanation,” he replied. “Now, you were about to answer my question: how are we going to steal the election?”
She thought about it for a moment, absently toying with a lock of hair. “I’d probably insert a virus at each planetary headquarters designed to divert votes to the planted candidates,” she said at last, “Though that’s a risky bet given you’d need someone on the Explorer Station in a position to counteract any of the overarching warning systems that may be triggered.”
“Very good,” Kol gave her an appreciative nod, “We have developed such a virus, and once we get this ship into Federation space we have agents ready to shuttle down to the planets and deploy it.”
“The election will have begun by then,” Rellor interjected, “Won’t security be tightened?”
“Absolutely,” Kol replied, “But at the same time the headquarters of every planet will be open to both candidates and citizens for networking, debates and all manner of campaign-related events.”
“Plus,” Zabraga put in thoughtfully, “There would be a full sweep of the systems performed just prior to the election going live. Anything planted before then would be bound to be discovered.”
“Why are these agents not already on the planets with the virus in-hand?” asked Kadaj, finally relenting and turning his attention back to Kol.
Kol shrugged. “We can easily contain knowledge of it here. The longer it’s out in the open prior to deployment, the greater the risk of discovery.”
“A sensible precaution.” Kadaj conceded. “How will this virus work?”
“I am not versed in the specifics, but the gist is that it will create phantom citizens and have them vote for our candidates,” Kol replied, “Whilst our agents on the Explorer Station will ensure everything looks normal to the Federation overseers.”
“I have a contact on the Explorer Stations,” Zabraga said, “A trustworthy one, if you need a back-up option.”
Kol shook his head. “No need; our agents there have been in place for some time. They have cultivated a presence that allows access ‘behind the scenes’, so to speak.” his eyes took on a sly gleam, but he did not elaborate further.
Moment of Clarity
“So once this virus is planted and our Candidates have become Custodians, what then?” she asked.
“Proposals will be created and executed distributing the Custodial trilium budget to a number of specially created dummy enterprises, for a variety of mundane purposes that wouldn’t appear out of the ordinary to anyone reviewing the public logs.” He spread his hands, “From there it will be funnelled through secure intermediaries and ultimately deposited in The Liberator’s holding vault.”
“How long do you expect this subterfuge to last?”
“Long enough,” Kol replied, “The virus is designed to gradually depreciate the vote power accrued by our people, eventually reducing our Custodial complement to four per planet, then three — still enough to execute proposals as we wish — two, one, and ultimately none.”
“Why not maintain full control as long as possible and then perform a mass resignation?” Rellor said, frowning. “You could gain a lot more trilium that way — wealth enough for us all.”
“The trilium is a means to an end, nothing more,” Kol reminded him, “This method also serves to allay suspicions. Thirty Custodians simultaneously resigning their Custodianship would raise a large enough red flag that the Federation itself would no doubt mobilise to intervene.” He shook his head, “The risk would be too great.”
“Agreed,” Zabraga interjected with a sharp nod, “Theft is a delicate art, and the most important part is a successful getaway — without anyone hot on your heels.”
“Fair enough,” Rellor conceded, “What then?”
“Once our agents have returned to the Liberator we will leave Federation space.” Kol gestured around him, “The trilium will be used to finance further repair of the ship, and to set up a laboratory in one of the aft sections whose main purpose will be completion of the shapeshifting research.”
“What of our pay?” the Grey asked bluntly.
“You will have a choice,” Kol raised one hand palm up as he spoke, “be granted the ability to shapeshift,” he raised the other hand palm up, “or compensated in another way that we will discuss at a more appropriate time.”
Rellor rocked back in his chair, eyebrows raised. “You mean to say the research would allow any race the ability to shapeshift?” there was a disbelieving tone to his voice.
Kol nodded. “That is the intent, yes.”
“Why?” snapped Kadaj, looking angry again, “Our ability is sacred. To allow foreigners to shift…. it is blasphemous!”
“No more blasphemous than your desire to sire shapeshifting offspring,” Kol replied mildly, “After all, is your… deficiency… not willed by the universe?”
The other Reptiloid opened his mouth to reply, then snapped it audibly shut again.
“Besides,” Kol went on, “Perhaps allowing anyone the ability to shapeshift will gradually put an end to the stigma levelled at us Reptiloids.”
“That… would be a positive change.” Kadaj said, slightly mollified by the notion. “The constant suspicion of other races is… problematic.” His face displayed a mixture of unhappiness and resignation.
“So, what do you all think?” Kol asked, spreading his hands.
“It could work,” said Rellor, “Risky though.”
Zabraga nodded her agreement. “There are a lot of moving parts to this plan,” she said, frowning, “What is the contingency should our intent be discovered?”
“I expect a great deal of anger from the citizenry,” he replied, “So the primary concern will be getting our people out and to safety.”
Kol’s fingers skittered over the datapad, and the holo-projection morphed into a system map detailing the six planets and various other notable celestial bodies. He shifted the mapview and zoomed it in on the nearest asteroid belt to the system’s sun, with one particular location pinpointed.
“All of our field agents have been provided with a small sealed holo-imprint of these coordinates. The seal is keyed to their DNA, so should anyone else try to break it, the data will be erased.” He touched the datapad and the holo-image faded. “Should any of them be compromised they have instructions to send a coded message and if possible, rendezvous at those coordinates.” He made a staying motion with one hand, “Regardless, we will stick to the plan unless someone in a critical position is compromised. We can afford to lose some agents without anyone suspecting there’s a greater plan in action.”
“How do you plan on freeing anyone who gets caught?” she asked.
Kol regarded her for a moment, then raised his shoulders in a slow shrug. “We would not attempt to free them.” He made a dismissive gesture. “They know what they must do.”
Zabraga pursed her lips, but said no more. She knew precisely what Kol meant, and no doubt the other two did as well. Such is the hazard of involving oneself with clandestine organisations, she thought grimly.
“Do you have any further questions?” Kol gazed at the three of them in turn and they all shook their heads. “Good, in that case I would ask that you return to the tasks you have been so diligently performing.”
He stood, and at his prompt so did they. “Time, my friends, is of the essence.”
The story, all names, characters, and incidents portrayed in this this article are fictitious, do not represent actual events, and are meant to provide a fun and engaging experience for explorers only. For more information on the Syndicate activation and associated rewards please read here. To dive deeper into the lore of Alien Worlds please visit our Fandom.
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