Chapter 2 – The Challenge

"Good morning Sir": the uniformed young man at the enlistment desk greeting him in a very upper class voice. He was young, Vykk saw, barely older than him and with the rank pips of a 1st year cadet at the Imperial Space Academy. The white cadet's uniform was spotless, the golden pips gleamed. "What can I do for you today Sir" he asked politely.

"I'd like to sign up for the new term at the Academy" Vykk requested.

The cadet's voice showed a lot more enthusiasm now, "Certainly, we always need new Cadets. I'm a member of the Academy myself", he pointed at his pips proudly, "It's a great life, you're going to love it! Anyway, first I need to perform a simple background check, just to check for a criminal record among other things. It ought to be just a formality"

Vykk passed the Cadet supervisor his ID card, which was fed into a slot on the desk. Vykk picked up an enlistment leaflet from the desk and started to flick through it idly whilst he waited. It included some basic tourist information on Manhattan Prime – interested, Vykk read on:

Manhattan Prime

Nicknames – Manhattan, New Earth

Population – 50 million (2370 AD Census)

Founded – 2269 AD

The 1st planet outside the Milky Way galaxy to be settled by Human colonists, the lush, fertile planet of Manhattan Prime was settled by colony ships from the United States in 2269 AD. In the course of 100 years, it grew from a tiny colony, to a bustling, cosmopolitan planet of 50 million people.

Manhattan Prime is the capital planet of the America System and is the seat of the newly established HIA government, making it the capital planet for the entirety of Human Space.

Stats:

Very similar to Earth.

3.5 billion years old (earth is 4.5, not as much evolution here. 3 billion?)

M class, uninhabited until settled by Human Colonists. Native species include plants, insects, birds and fish, but no mammals or sentient creatures.

Important Places:

Galactic Senate Building, Rosendale Plaza

Kennedy International Spaceport

Embassy Square – Elgarzin Embassy.

Imperial Arena

Galactic News Service Headquarters

Imperial Starfleet HQ, Discovery Square

Imperial Space Academy

Manhattan Prime Fleetyards (in orbit)

Spacestation Alpha (Starbase in orbit run by the Imperial Starfleet) Vykk remembered seeing the vast starbase as he approached the planet.

University of Manhattan Prime (7th best)

Memorial to valiant Colonists at the site colony ship landed in 2269.

Cadet Supervisor Denning-Smith checked the details on the potential recruit's ID, proclaiming him as one Vykk Dreygo, aged 21 from New Leeds on the outer rim. Brainless farmboy he though immediately, What is the Academy coming to? Have standards sunk so low around here that we're accepting scruffy riff-raff to represent us now? We don't need his sort here.

I can't just reject him though, technically he's fit for service. But I can give him a hard time, he needs an ID pass from me. No uneducated common filth will represent humanity if I can help it.

Vykk hated long silences, "Is there something wrong?" he asked.

"No, no Mister Dreygo" the Cadet sneered, and Vykk thought he heard an "unfortunately" in the man's voice. What's going on here? Referring to the leaflet Vykk inquired, "This says that Cadets need official Imperial qualifications in Galactic History, Maths, Piloting, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Xenology. How are you defining 'official'?"

The Cadet explained gleefully that official qualifications were only gained at a College, and if he couldn't prove that he had sufficient ability in these areas, then he had "no choice" but to turn down Vykk application, and it would be impossible to enter the Academy without an ID pass from the Cadet Supervisor, him. He seemed overjoyed to be able to frustrate Vykk this way, saying that he wasn't worthy to wear the uniform anyway.

Vykk had never heard that the Space Academy was so elitist, so he could only guess that this over-privileged 'gentleman' of a Cadet was unusual at being so hung-up over Vykk's past. Could he help how or where he was born? Vykk knew he needed to persuade this guy to give him a pass, but he also knew he had the skills and the injustice of the supervisor's discrimination stung and burned into him like a white-hot star. Getting angry will solve nothing Vykk thought I've got to keep my cool. It wouldn't be easy, but Vykk Dreygo wasn't used to life being easy, (unlike some); he did at least expect it to be fair. We can't all be born with a small mountain of credits in the bank.

"I have learned these skills, I'm good at them"

"Really? You can't prove that"

"Well let me try, give me a test or something and I'll prove it"

Vykk had been thinking of a written paper, but Denning-Smith had other ideas:

"Ok then, I'll give you a pass, if you bring me back a kilo of Vitromine in a week"

Dreygo would need a ship, and a fast one at that to return in that amount of time, and there was little chance of someone like him to be able to afford one. My father runs half the production factories back home, and I can't even afford a ship like that. If he managed to raise the money through some means (probably by begging or stealing it the snooty Cadet thought) it was a dangerous and long journey past a major pirate route, and very few people would be able to supply the illicit drug, and they wouldn't sell cheap. And if he manages to make it back in time, Denning-Smith thought triumphantly to himself, all I have to do is tip off the police and get him caught with the drug! What a wonderful plan; it's foolproof and it makes him think I'm being fair!

Vykk paled, "That's illegal" he complained.

"Well if you can't do it…"

Trapped in a corner, Vykk cursed the Cadet under his breath. Although he was a bit rough around the edges and roguish, Vykk's heart was in the right place and he'd always tried to stay the right side of the law in the past. This could bring him everything he'd ever dreamed of…or get him locked up for a very long time. Mentally asking for forgiveness, Vykk swallowed his morals and sighed deeply, "I'll do it"

The Cadet smiled nastily, "I'll see you in one week Dreygo!"

Outside the Academy, Vykk struggled to justify the betrayal of his morals, and to digest everything that had just happened to him.

The beauty of the city, with its sparkling streets and shiny, artistic glass buildings emphasised by the glorious sunshine reflecting off them, were all closed to him. He walked unseeing in a random direction, thinking. There was no way around it, what he had agreed to do was wrong. Both Vykk and his parents were strongly against drugs, and Vykk knew that this particular one was especially nasty – it was highly addictive and was known to cause blindness, clinical depression and even heart failure. Ironic, considering the peaceful good feeling that Vitromine users felt whilst under the influence of the drug. Vykk wouldn't dream of trying such things even if he felt tempted by them.

Whilst doing freelance missions for various patrons, he'd often had to hunt down drug smugglers and Vykk thought of it as poetic justice, especially since his younger brother has died after fooling around with drugs. Yes, his parents had good reason for hating the damn things and the filth that spread their curse, tearing families apart. The police had discovered that the drug had been tampered with, the dosage had been almost tripled, and the happy, smiling Emil that Vykk had known had fallen quickly to the addictive disease. He had been only 17 when he died. Was murdered, Vykk corrected himself. He got a sudden mental picture of a sneering face, laughing at him, taunting him. Now you're one of us it seemed to taunt and Vykk shuddered at the vividness of the smuggler's face.

"I'm nothing like you!" Vykk yelled, attracting some strange looks as he seemed to be talking to himself. He feared he was wrong though, he was effectively a drug smuggler, he had become his enemy. Vykk hoped whole-heartedly that no-one was hurt by what he had been forced into doing – Maybe I can burn the stuff or something he thought desperately, Buy it back from that damned Cadet Supervisor, and then destroy it. He realised that there was little chance of that happened, but it made him feel a little better, at least he wouldn't kill anyone if nobody got to touch the frightful stuff.

Well, he still desperately wanted to fulfil his dreams, and Vykk knew that his parents were behind him in that all the way – they would understand, wouldn't they? He needed that pass which had been refused to him, dangled in front of him to make him do things that were against his very being.

Well he was on a strict time limit; so the earlier he got started the better. Vykk knew that in one way, this was a good way to prove his ability; he would need all his skills to complete this mission. His astro-geography classes would prevent him getting lost on the immense journey between the stars, he'd need every bit of knowledge of the various aliens in the sector, he would need to fly with both great skill and pace to avoid the deadly asteroid belts, numerous pirate bases and to meet his deadline. Even his talent for diplomacy and fast-talking might get him out of a tight spot.

He also needed someone's help on this one, someone who knew where the galaxy's scum lurked and how to find them. There was really only one logical choice…

"Heard the latest?" Christophe asked. He yelled to a portly bartender and ordered another drink in the grubby cantina in the seediest part of town. Vykk ignored him – the short man always annoyed him and managed to wind him up, even if he did have his uses. Christophe Stevenson had a lot of useful contacts in the underground, and tended to know everything that occurred on his home turf. A slimy customer if ever there was one. Vykk looked around the small, dingy place, if he'd been on a mission he would have called for backup before entering a place like this.

To call the lighting less than adequate would be a very generous observation and the windows were grimy, and a sickly green colour, allowing in almost no light at all.

The smell of sweat and a dozen or so 'exotic' beverages was almost overbearing. A thick layer of dust on the bar top gave Vykk an urge to sneeze, and a giant cobweb flapped in one corner as the brisk wind from outside buffeted it. The cool fresh breeze was about the only thing that made the cantina bearable. Why do I always wind up in places like this?

Christophe prodded Vykk in the arm, "Hey Dreygo, I'm talkin' to you!"

Vykk faked a smile, "So, you manage to find someone who sells that stuff?"

Christophe smirked, "You're learning Dreygo. I was wondering how long you'd stay so damn innocent; being a goody-goody gets you nowhere. It's a harsh galaxy out there kid, hate to be blunt but not everything is as saintly pure as you'd like.."

Christophe was prone to ramble, and to really rant if you got him onto a subject that he had strong opinions on. Vykk was used to this, and cut through the bluster swiftly. He's entitled to his delusions, but at least people respect a good person.

"You got no patience Dreygo, you do know that don't ya? Ok, ok, you're contact's a guy named Wade. He runs the underground on Birmingham, and he's in the Vitromine business. I'll bet ya anything that he could sell you some of the stuff, might not be cheap though…"

"You just let me worry about that"

Vykk walked slowly back to the hanger bay where his ship was docked. He noticed dully that it was still as light as ever outside – Manhattan Prime enjoyed 26-hour days.

Vykk knew of Birmingham, it was the only moon of New Leeds, his home. It wasn't settled by Imperial colonists, but by thieves and gangsters, and so had a very bad reputation. It wasn't a place he was looking forward to visiting. Thinking deeply to himself, Vykk set the 'Thunder's course back to the European Sector, and laid himself down for an uneasy night's sleep