Zack Jackson & The Cult of Athos Excerpt

In this excerpt from Zack Jackson & The Cult of Athos, Zack meets his Junior Ranger squad before departing for Bestic, 260 light years from Earth.

Cabin 576 consisted of four seats not unlike those on board the Pan-Galactic Gamma Ray. They looked comfortable with familiar three-point seatbelts. There was a door marked “Lavatory” and a couple of cabinets. The chairs were arranged with two side by side facing the other two. There was just enough space in between them that they could recline fully, becoming small beds.

Zack’s eyes almost bugged out of his head when he saw with whom he would be sharing the cabin. A girl with almond-shaped eyes and tan skin stared at him. Her dark hair was arranged in braids and tucked into her shoulder belts to keep from floating.

Across from the girl, gnawing on what looked like a meaty leg was a stocky, furry creature. His muzzle was topped with a dark twitching nose, and two green eyes regarded Zack with suspicion. Long braids floated around his head like a nest of hair frozen in a windstorm. He grunted, ripping a piece of meat from the bone. Flecks of skin and fat floated in the air around him. From pictures he’d seen, Zack knew he was an Ersidian.

Next to the Ersidian was an eight-legged creature that resembled a cross between a grasshopper and a praying mantis. It was currently using its first four legs as arms. Its brown carapace had dark stripes encircling it, and it clicked as it tried to fasten itself in the seat. Zack recognized it as a Valtraxian from stories he heard from his father. It looked over as Zack started to enter the cabin.

“Greetings! Human spawn, I am Ixilchitil. Many of your kind call me ‘Ix’.” The Valtraxian’s mouthparts clicked together not-quite-in-time to the voice coming out of its translator. It held one of its arms out to him. “In the custom of your species, I offer you my arm in greetings.”

Fortunately, the clicks were barely audible under the voice coming from Ix’s translator. Zack reached out and fist-bumped the Valtraxian. Its carapace was cool and hard. Ix nodded in acceptance and resumed its attempt to fasten its straps. Zack pushed himself over to the empty seat, bumping into the girl.

“Watch it!” She shoved him away. The way she pronounced “it” as “eat” was unfamiliar to him. Zack put his hand out to keep his head from hitting the cabinet.

“Sorry, I’m still getting the hang of this.”

The girl shook her head. He heard her mutter under her breath, “Earther.”

Zack managed to strap himself in and looked over his cabin mates. They all wore variations of the Junior Ranger uniform. The Ersidian’s looked like some form of leather or leather-substitute and had packed all of his many pockets to the point of bulging. He had a patch indicating he was a Scout, the next rank above Zack. The girl, also a Scout, appeared uncomfortable in her uniform and kept fidgeting with it. The Valtraxian wore only a simple harness, covered in merit badges, which currently it was adjusting to keep it from getting entangled with seat belts. It was a Guide, the next rank above Scout. Apparently, it was the leader and most experienced of the bunch, though it appeared to be having a great deal of trouble strapping itself in.

“I’m Zack Jackson, from Wyoming.” He smiled and tried to adopt a friendly expression. “On Earth.” He added, in case they didn’t know where Wyoming was.

“We know where Wyoming is.” The girl sounded annoyed that Zack spoke.

“I do not know Wyoming. I know Earth.” Ix tilted its head and looked at Zack. Zack was already hearing past the clicks of Ix’s mouthparts as it spoke.

“Ix already introduced itself. I’m Mungaborrarius Tonnarvassas, son of Goreborrarius Tonnarvassas, First Warrior of Clan…”

The girl cut him off. “He doesn’t need your family history.”

“Can it, Jen-Jen. Don’t interrupt my name.” The Ersidian tossed the remnant of the animal leg he was eating at her. She caught it and stuffed it down the refuse chute.

“Don’t call me zat.”

“Miss Sunshine over there is Jen-Jen. She’s mad that ‘Daddy’ couldn’t get her a cabin all to herself.”

Zack looked over at Jen-Jen. She stared at the wall as she shook her head. “Am not. I just don’t like you.”

“So, you’re Mungaboringness…” Zack struggled to say his name properly.

“Ugh, no. If you can’t say it, just call me ‘Mungus’.”

“Short names are easier.” Ix’s carapace clattered as it shuffled in his seat attempting to find a comfortable position.

“As I was saying, I am Mungaborrarius Tonnarvassas, son of Gore…”

The cabin intercom cut Mungus off. “Attention Junior Rangers. We will be departing Goddard Habitat in approximately thirty minutes. The last of you are boarding now. Please do not use the ‘Attendant Call Button’ except in the case of emergency. Those who do will be given extra KP.”

“KP” was old Earth army slang for “kitchen patrol.” Basically, it was punishment consisting of cleaning dishes at the campsite, something most of the kids hated. Mungus slammed his fist into the speaker.

“Stop! Interrupting! Me!”

Mungus nursed his sore hand while Ix clicked at him. “It is unlikely you possess sufficient strength to damage a military-grade intercom speaker.”

“Umm…” Zack watched Mungus suck on his injured hand for a moment. “Where are you from, Jen-Jen?”

“I said don’t call me zat.”

“Sorry. What should I call you?”

“Je m’appelle–I mean, my name is Jennifer Genevieve DuBois. My parent thought it was clever to give me two names that mean the same thing.” Her face twisted into a scowl. Apparently, she thought it was anything but clever.

“So, Jennifer, then?”

“Or Jenny.” She pointed at Mungus. “But not, Jen-Jen, you overstuffed teddy bear.”

Mungus growled at her, gleaming white canine teeth flashing in the light from the cabin. Ix clicked at both of them, clearly agitated, but its translator remained silent. Zack decided to try to change the subject.

“So where are you from, Jenny? You talk funny, so I’m guessing you’re not from Wyoming, or even San Angeles.”

She affixed her glare on Zack. He felt an overwhelming desire to hide in the lavatory. “Perhaps it is you who speaks funny! I am from Messier Habitat, Earther. We speak the purist human language: French.”

Messier Habitat was a small, but well known habitat sharing Mars’s orbit. It housed about half the people Goddard Station did, but they were all very proud of their independence.

“You’re Martian?”

Jenny huffed and looked away. “I am not Martian. I am from Messier. Martians are not fit to drink our water.”

Though Zack didn’t know why, a lot of people held low opinions of Martians. He thought it would be cool to live on Mars. It was like the Ancient West of North American mythology; a rugged frontier.

“Wow, I guess I’m the only one here from Earth, huh?” Zack felt very alone in that moment.

“Looks that way, Twinkie.”

He looked up at Mungus. The Ersidian grinned at him, picking his teeth with a clawed finger.

“Why did you call me that?”

Mungus shrugged. “Gotta call you something. You humans are soft and spongy.”

Now it was Zack’s turn to glare at Mungus. Well, if this is the way the whole trip is going to be, this is going to suck. He crossed his arms and stared at the floor. The four shared and uncomfortable silence, broken only by occasional untranslated clicks from Ix. Eventually, the intercom spoke again, announcing their imminent departure from Goddard Station.

“All systems online. Crosschecks complete. Docking clamps secured. Gangways retracted.”

“Hey, open the window. I wanna watch.” Zack looked around for something might open a window. Mungus laughed at him.

“There’s no window, Twinkie. Once we get going, there won’t be anything to see anyway. That whole wall functions as a video screen, but that’s it.”

“Well, can’t we turn it on to see where we’re going? Or where we’ve been?”

“No.”

Zack sighed. Jenny started murmuring beside him. Her eyes were unfocused. She looked like she was talking to herself. She saw him staring at her and turned to face the wall. Reaching into his pocket, he grabbed his C7. Skip reminded him he had a vid message waiting. Only people obsessed with the archaic wrote letters; most people sent video recordings of themselves: vids. He activated it, and a small hologram of his parents appeared. He double-checked his settings; the audio would go only to his earpieces.

“Hi honey!” Miniature holographic Mom and Dad waved at him. “We know you’re probably just getting underway, but we received a message for you when we got home and had to pass on the good news: you’ve been accepted at Cytherian Academy! You start in the fall! Oh, we’re so proud of you, honey. We love you!” They were positively beaming. He felt a broad grin spread across his face. Cytherian Academy was one of the premier schools in the EAC. It was an aerostat, or floating city, high in the clouds of Venus, in the small zone where the temperatures and pressures were comfortable for humans.

Ix clicked and cocked its head, looking at Zack. “News from your breeders?”

Zack looked up as he closed the message. “My what?”

“Parents. Humans call them parents, Ix.” Mungus rapped his knuckled on Ix’s carapace.

“Apologies. News from your parents?”

“Yeah, I just got accepted to Cytherian Academy.”

Ix responded with a fast series of clicks, bobbing its head up and down. Even Mungus seemed impressed, though he was quick to mask it. Jenny looked at him, her mask of dispassion slipping.

“You’re going to Cytherian Academy? When?”

Zack nodded, almost bouncing in his seat. “I start next semester.”

“I go to Cytherian Academy, too. I live in Anahita dormitory. Perhaps we will see each other.” Zack thought he recognized the name as one of the seven dormitories, all named for the mythical goddesses of love. He wasn’t sure why the staff decided to use those names, instead of cool ones like Ares or Zeus.

“Well, aren’t you two Twinkies a pair.”

Zack was starting not to like Mungus much. He opened his mouth to say something, but the intercom interrupted him.

“Good afternoon, Junior Rangers!” It was their troop leader. “We have departed Goddard Stationand are preparing to accelerate. For those of you for whom this is a first trip, you’ll notice some pressure. Just stay in your seats, and stay strapped in. Your cabins will automatically orient themselves so that the floor will be perpendicular to the direction of acceleration. In other words, you’ll be able to walk around soon. We’ll let you know when. The Captain informs me that we have about eight hours until the Translation Point, so sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.”

Ships like the Baden-Powell technically could not exceed the speed of light. Nothing could. Technically. However, about fifteen hundred years ago, scientists figured out a way to cross the vast interstellar distances nearly instantly. If a ship traveled far enough away from a star’s gravity well, you reached what they called the “Translation Point.”

The way Zack’s dad explained it to him was this: if you took a really tight sheet and placed a heavy ball in the center, it would sink. That’s sort of what space did around stars and planets; it bent around them because of gravity. The hole in which a star or planet sat was called a gravity well. If you got far enough away from the center of a gravity well and you applied the right kind of energy, you could fold space and cross huge distances in what seemed like no time at all if you were on the ship.

It was like taking two points on opposite ends of a piece of paper. If you drew a line between them, it was very long. But if you folded the paper, you could make the two points touch, which is like what the hyperdrive engines on modern starships did, sort of. The science behind it was way beyond Zack’s ability to either explain or comprehend, but he understood that it basically let ships cross huge interstellar distances in a short enough amount of time that interstellar travel became practical.

Jenny clucked her tongue and sighed. “We’re going to be losing the Hypernet soon.”

“How do you know?” Zack looked over and didn’t see her using a compad.

She tapped her head. “I can see the signal.”

“You have implants? You have to be sixteen for those. You’re not sixteen!” She didn’t look sixteen to Zack. “Are you?”

“Sixteen for you Earthers. We are not afraid of using technology on Messier Habitat. I got my implants before we left. They still hurt.” As if to illustrate her point, she rubbed her temples. Zack heard implants could be uncomfortable at first. He wondered what kind of implants she had. Jenny pointed at his C7.

“Hand-held units are so forty-second century. Only babies use them.”

Zack scowled at her. Mungus laughed. “I think you have the right idea, Twinkie. Implants are for people too weak to use what their bodies grow.” He thumped his chest. “No implants here. Never gonna have them, either.”

“What about you, Ix? Have any implants?” Zack looked over at the Valtraxian who seemed to be following the conversation with interest.

“Of course. We have enhancements performed almost from the day we are hatched.”

Over the next several hours, Ix told Zack about its culture. Valtraxians were divided into four genders: male, female, drone, and incubator. Ix was one of nearly a hundred children hatched to the current Queen of Valtra: a drone. As a drone, it had no official status, no duties, was neither male nor female, and was given a choice: serve the hive or seek its own fortune in the galaxy. Ix chose to go into the galactic civilization and make its own way. Before it left the hive, it acquired several implants: ocular implants to enhance its vision, allowing it to see the ultraviolet, visual, and infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum; auditory implants for improved hearing; an integrated personal digital assistant including a back-up drive; a translator module; and an enhanced digestive system making it able to extract nutrients from most organic matter.

One of the hazards of interstellar travel was not finding the types of foods to which one was accustomed. Without digestive implants, a Valtraxian would die if it ate most foods from Earth, Devorus, or even Ersid; its bio-chemistry wasn’t compatible. With the implant, unless it suffered an allergic reaction, the worst outcome from eating something unfamiliar would be indigestion.

Zack thought trying foods from other civilizations without having to worry about possible adverse reactions sounded pretty cool and added digestive implants to his mental wish list. Maybe this trip won’t be so bad after all.

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