In deference to the newcomer species, the race course started in the Sol system and the route toured around the Milky Way galaxy before finishing in Hissthashar space. The finish line was always the same, since the race began in the Hissthashar system as a rite of passage for their pilots. When it started, it wasn’t a contest of speed so much as a cruel crucible testing the pilot’s capabilities with a ship. Each pilot chose a single-occupant ship type and was given a hull and one quarter of the orbital cycle of the Hissthashar home world, Shar. He was able to ask for advice and guidance, but all the work to make the craft space worthy and flight capable had to be done by the pilot himself, and he launched in whatever condition the vehicle was in on race day.
If his craft flew, the pilot was considered competent and eligible to join the Hissthashar Space Corps as a mechanic. If a pilot finished at all he was lauded as a hero and eligible to join the Corps as a pilot. The first five finishers were automatically granted the rank of Captain and given command of a freighter. After several cycles as freighter captain they would be granted a promotion to command a squad of escort fighters defending long haul freighters on the fringes of Hissthashar space. If a pilot survived and kept their squad and freighters intact for several more cycles, he would be granted the opportunity to command a warship in the ongoing wars with the Tezzoz or the Linked, expanding the Hissthashar Empire.
But before a Hissthashar pilot could finish the race on the original course, he had to weave through the asteroid belt between Shar and the outer planets in the system, bank around the far side of the gas giant Nathash, return through the asteroid belt and cross the starward face of the innermost planet Shawa, before returning to Shar. Usually if I pilot didn’t have anything better than a reaction drive for thrust, he would admit defeat and concede after orbiting Shar three times. Because of the distances involved, the course would take up to 19 cycles with a reaction drive, a propulsion system which produces thrust by exhausting some kind of propellant, best suited to short distances and low-speed maneuvering. With a Suclean pin-point jump drive, it was theoretically possible to complete the course in as little as 1500 seconds. No Hissthashar pilot has completed this feat. All who have attempted have never been seen again with one exception.
The Pin Point Drive operates on the principle of folding space-time to a precise degree, allowing the ship to pass instantaneously from one point in space to any other. The Suclean are reticent to share this technology and efforts by the Hissthashar to take it by force have yielded only the drives themselves. The Suclean engineers and scientists captured always commit suicide before they can be questioned. Reverse engineering the drives has been more successful and the Hissthashar have been able to build their own version, but with less precise targeting. The only pilot who was seen after activating his Pin Point Drive was Jaxon Narash when his ship appeared near the first checkpoint on the outbound leg through the asteroid field. The fore of his ship appeared on the surface of an asteroid and later excavation revealed the aft had displaced some of the asteroid it was embedded in, but the asteroid had displaced most of the gasses as well as some vital components, including life support. The ship began venting atmosphere almost immediately and Jaxon’s body was recovered by rescue crews at the check point.
Most pilots in the early days preferred the compromise system in the Slefsa Warp Drive. The Slefsa was similar to the Suclean Pin Point in that it folded space-time, but to a much lighter degree. The effect was most easily visualized as a divot in the fabric of space-time around the drive. By deforming space in this way, the ship was able to use conventional reaction mass to cross much greater distance for the same thrust, moving the divot with the ship. In addition to being easier to produce and conceptualize, the Slefsa proved safer with significantly less power draw than the Pin Point Drive. The record for Slefsa Drive ships a mere 15 rotations of Shar, less than a twentieth of a cycle. This feat was accomplished by veteran pilot Galfen Sherro. During Galfen’s historic run, the Shawa checkpoint was on the far side of Shar’s twin stars, Hiss and Thass. Nathash was nearly 45 degrees spinward on launch day, and Galfen was able to thread through the asteroid belt and dig into the gas giant’s gravity well to give himself a bit of extra speed as he headed sunward. Many pilots would have opted to take the longer, anti-spinward route around Hiss and Thass from Shawa, adding another seven rotations in ideal conditions, but his course from Nathash took him too close to Zatosh, a planet twice the size of Shar with half a dozen moons. Galfen tried to cut between Zatosh and its inner most moon Eyah, but the proximity of so many gravity wells of such varying strengths overloaded his Selfsa’s Distortion Matrix and he ended up in orbit of Zatosh for almost six rotations, dropping from the lead position to 6th of 15 pilots. He needed to make up the time after the Shawa checkpoint, and opted to fly between Thass and Hiss in what would come to be known as the Sher’nd Maneuver. With only the two deep gravity wells, his jerry rigged Selfsa held, though his thermal regulators overloaded, taking the rest of the life support system with them, and his radiation shields nearly failed. He had anticipated this failure and retreated to the airlock during the transit. He rerouted the water filtration and reclamation systems to dump the contents into the airlock, where he floated in his vacsuit. The water shielded him from most of the radiation that made it through the magnetic shields, and the vacsuit kept him warm and supplied with oxygen until he made planetfall on Shar, nine rotations ahead of the next pilot.
The race came a long way since Galfen’s time. The Space Corps stopped using the crucible as a mandatory recruitment drive more than 100 cycles ago and now let pilots of any gender complete the crucible in lieu of a combined written and oral placement exam. Veterans of the Pilot’s Crucible formed their own race course between the systems in the Hissthashar Empire.
As the empire grew, and the new tactic of “diplomacy” proved useful, other species joined the races and their technologies began to focus more on propulsion than weapons. The contest rules expanded to allow ships with enough space for multiple crew members, eventually setting on an upper limit of five crew per ship. Weapons systems were never banned explicitly, but most pilots eschewed a weapons system in favor of better propulsion or shields.
Humanity’s greatest strength was its sensor technology. In the early twenty-first century, fear spread through the populous as amateur and professional astronomers noticed and tracked an increasing number of trans-solar objects. Speculation rose every time a near-Earth object crossed the Earth’s orbital plane within a few million kilometers. One such asteroid happened to pass within the moon’s orbit during an election cycle in the United States and most citizens were consumed with fears of an object appearing in the sky bigger than the moon and threatening all life on the planet. Scientists and astronomy experts agreed that the asteroid would pass harmlessly, and not be visible by the naked eye in the night’s sky. Nevertheless, politicians campaigned on an anti-asteroid platform and, once elected, were held accountable for increasing the National Aeronautics & Space Administration’s budget, as well as creating new agencies to watch the skies and formulate plans to avert disaster if a planet-killer asteroid was found on an impact trajectory.
Most of the staff of the newly minted Space Observation Agency were actually interested in the work and took it seriously, though more than a handful of staffers found themselves in cushy government jobs and took the time to lean on their shovels until their department leads noticed. SOA’s primary agenda was the Early Detection and Ranging Network. EDRAN comprised satellites, probes, and ground-based observatories throughout the Sol system. With help from NASA, SOA was able to add data from the still functioning Voyager I and Voyager II probes for some limited extra-solar telemetry.
Most of the satellites in EDRAN floating near Neptune’s orbit providing a comprehensive view of the edge of the SOL system.
The work of erecting EDRAN would have taken decades if the Bridge Company hadn’t made their Step Gate technology available. The gates created a stable wormhole bridge between two points, providing instantaneous, two-way travel as long as the Step Gates on both sides of the bridge remained open and fully powered. One-way travel was possible with precise targeting, but not always safe or advisable. SOA was able to use a one-way gate pulse to send a second gate, along with four technicians in Tech-Mo hardened mech suits to Neptune.
They materialized a kilometer above the surface and managed to land safely with the gate intact. Once the receiving station was set up within a contained atmosphere SOA sent dozens of sensor probes which were launched into an initial orbit and then to Lagrange points in Neptune’s orbital path.
Other gates were set up on Earth’s moon and Mars allowing humanity to accelerate their colonization of the Sol system. Space craft launched from the moon focused primarily on travel to and from the asteroid belt on mining expeditions. Mining ships, operated by Rogerson Geo-Dynamics, would dock with a space elevator on the far side of the moon, connected to a station at the Moon-Earth L2 point, owned and operated by the Bridge Co. Raw materials and personnel would travel down the elevator and through a Step Gate for refining on Earth, and fresh supplies and personnel would ascend to undock the miner and take it out again.
Eventually Bridge Co. realized they were losing revenue with the mining ship’s travel time, and set up a larger version of the Step Gate designed to operate in open space to allow ships to travel between the moon and the asteroid belt almost instantly. These Ship Gates maintained a constant datastream between them, transmitting positional changes in real time over a point to point laser link, ensuring their wormhole targeting systems always had accurate coordinates.
The Ship Gates proved so successful Bridge Co set up another pair of them between the Earth-Sun L2 point and the Sun-Jupiter L1 point, eventually adding another gate at the Sun-Saturn L1 point and finally the Sun-Neptune L1 point.
When EDRAN finally found a planet-killer, Earth-crossing asteroid in 2215 beyond Neptune, half a dozen mining ships descended on it through the Neptune gate and cut it up before it crossed Jupiter’s orbit.
Humanity may have stayed content in the Sol system for another century of two if a technician watching the EDRAN feeds one night hadn’t noticed a series of blips in the Voyager II telemetry. Twelve unusually fast moving gravity wells perturbed the probe’s trajectory then vanished. A ship was built with an experimental Step drive. The theory was the drive would turn the ship itself into one end of a Step Gate system, allowing personnel to Step directly to the ship, but more importantly allowing the ship itself to Step through an existing gate or into an area without a gate. The ship was dubbed Entregar and set sail to investigate the Voyager II anomalies.
Entregar’s Step drive worked perfectly within the Ship Gate system, even allowing Step Gate travel to and from Entregar’s embarkation room. With a skeleton crew aboard, Entregar activated its Step drive in orbit around Mars and emerged from the Jupiter Ship Gate two minutes later, proving the concept sound. Additional crew boarded and Entregar Stepped to the coordinates indicated by Voyager II’s observations and found only empty space. Weeks of careful study showed only faint traces that anything had been in the area, akin to a speedboat’s wake long after the boat passed. Entregar followed the wake under conventional propulsion and eventually found a checkpoint of the Galactic Race, and the Airoutan race official stationed there, still waiting for one more racer, a Hissthashar ship with engine trouble, determined to finish under its own power rather than surrendering to the repair vehicle.
Entregar was not equipped for war, and neither was the Airoutan. By nature, the Airoutans are a peaceful people. They stand slightly over a meter and a half tall with spindly limbs and a stout body supporting their round head. As an Airoutan ages, its arms and body tend to shrink and its head grows larger. Elder Airoutans can be found hovering around their world in a support chair that provides for their biological functions and does most of the work of supporting their heads as their necks degenerate. The most fortunate aspect of the Airoutans, for first contact situations at least, is their psychic abilities. Within minutes the race official was able to learn enough human languages from the Entregar’s crew to communicate with them. Entregar’s captain bargained some information about the Sol system for entry into the next race.
To even out Humanity’s relative disadvantage and the other species advantage, a new course was created. This season’s race started in orbit above Mars, the fourth planet in the Sol system. The first checkpoint would be at the Sun-Neptune L3 point, on the opposite side of the star from the planet, where Humanity had no Ship Gates. To reach the second checkpoint, ships would have to leave the Sol system for its nearest neighbor, Proxima Centauri. From there racers would make their way to the third checkpoint on the border of Tezzoz-controlled space then to the fourth checkpoint near the Airoutan homeworld and finally the finish line in the Hissthashar system, in the shadow of Nathash.
The On’mya, beings of pure energy, devoted themselves to recording race statistics and taking bets on the winners of each race. The Suclean were the favorites to win this race because of the distances involved. Their Pin Point Drives should make the crossings quickly, but would require time to recharge before they could jump again. The Hissthashar were given even odds, owing to their proclivity to disable the competition mid-flight, a strategy which sometimes backfires if the ship they fire on had a similar strategy in mind and cripple the Hissthashar in the fire fight. Humanity was given long shot odds due to their unknown capabilities. The Step Drive had not been designed to cross interstellar space in a single step. Even if it had, targeting the destination would be a problem. Without detailed maps or a Step Beacon, Entregar may find itself in deep space far off the race course.
With a seven crew minimum, Entregar was too large for the race. Bridge Co and Athletic Innovations collaborated on building a new ship designed specifically for the race, with an updated sensor suite and an improved Step Calculator providing more accurate targeting calculations. While they built the Cartographer, a separate team from Bridge Co searched for the five crew members who could pilot it to victory.
Lewis Selmeyer was literally born into the asteroid mining trade. His parents met aboard the RGD Silver Eagle on their first run to the belt. To hear them tell it, it was love at first sight. They worked on opposite watch rotations, but made time for each other at meal times. After the return leg of their contract, Lewis’s father, Abe, found a berth on another miner, the RGD Rigel, and kept in contact with Laurinda as often as he could.
Four months after Abe and Laurinda shared some of their leave from their ships, she sent him a message sharing the happy news that they would soon be parents. She gave birth in the belt, while Abe was outbound from Luna Processing, and Lewis grew up aboard ships. Abe and Laurinda were able to lease a fleet ship from Rogerson Geo-Dynamics Mining and with a crew of friends eventually earned enough to buy the ship outright. Lewis learned enough by the time he was fifteen to fill in for any crew position on the ship, but he took to astrogation and piloting like a duck to water.
He remembered those halcyon days fondly whenever the day to day drudgery of mining started to get to him. He’d been working for Rogerson for three years, piloting company-owned Wolf class ore haulers and Badger class asteroid miners. His current berth, aboard the Searcher Cascade hauler, afforded hours of downtime now that they were stationed in the belt. Badgers approached, unloaded their ore into the Cascade’s hold, and left to get more rock and the cycle repeated. Every twelve hours Lewis or his commanding officer, Nathan Lyons, checked the Cascade’s position and performed routine station keeping to make sure they hadn’t drifted too much.
There were only three people on the Cascade in total, and Faye kept herself occupied in the engine room, tinkering, when other systems didn’t need repairing. Lewis chose to use his free time to read up on the theory and technical specifications of remote piloting drone craft, with the eventual plan to run a handful of mining drones while the Cascade waited for her hold to fill. There were no drones on board, so he could only content himself to read about it and run simulations on the ship’s computer.
“Bored?” Faye floated through the open door of Lewis’s cabin.
“God yes. You?” He keyed the button to put his ShipTab to sleep and tucked it into its pouch at his waist.
“A little, but mostly I could use an extra pair of hands.” Faye tucked her body into a ball and rotated to land feet first against the wall of his room. She held on to a hand hold to steady herself and stop the rebound.
“Anything’s better than reading the same manual for the fifth time… Whatcha need?” He slipped his feet out of the restraints under the desk and pushed off, floating slowly toward her.
“I need someone to monitor the read out while I poke at the power system, and –“
Lewis interrupted. “And Nate’s on watch and simply can’t turn away from the screen or we could all die. I know. He really takes this job too seriously sometimes.” He grabbed a handhold in the ceiling to check his momentum before he hit Faye.
“Exactly. So you got a minute?”
“For you? I’ve got ten.” Lewis checked his wrist watch. “Or more accurately I have a little over three hours before my watch.”
Faye pushed off the wall and floated toward the hallway. “I don’t know why you use that thing when you have a perfectly functional tablet.”
Lewis chased after her. “It was my grandfather’s watch, and his grandfather’s before him.” They turned down the corridor toward the aft section of the Cascade. “This watch has been passed down in my family since the twentieth century when Francis Selmeyer received it when he retired.”
“But your tablet can do so much more! And it’s not as if you never use it … I mean, you were reading on ShipNet when I found you just now…”
“Ah, this wristwatch may only tell time, but it does that one task exceptionally well. The craftsmen that engineered this watch didn’t have to figure out how to have it broadcast and receive messages, print files, or stream music in addition to telling time. They could focus on making the best time keeping device they could. You wouldn’t want the engine to make coffee would you?”
“Actually, I would. It would save me a trip to the galley every few hours …”
“Okay, bad example. But do you understand my point?”
“Yeah, I can see where you’re coming from … I’m just not sure I could wear something like that on my wrist all the time …” Faye floated through the door to the engine room. Standard procedure was for that door to remain locked at all times to prevent unauthorized access to the drive system. Three days into the flight, when Faye realized exactly the type of people she was traveling with, she opted for the convenience and increased airflow of leaving the door open.
“And I can check the time with a quick glance rather than pulling out my shiptab and turning it on just to put it to sleep and tuck it away again.”
“Alright already! I guess we’ll just agree to disagree on this.” She stopped herself in front of a monitor and keyed in the sequence to display the data she wanted to monitor. “Tell me if this line goes above 300 megarads or the output drops below seventeen gigawatts.”
“Okay, but, couldn’t you have had the computer monitor those and alert you? Not that I’m not thankful for a break in the monotony …” Lewis absentmindedly stopped himself next to Faye while studying the display screen.
“Normally, yes, but I took the ship’s voice routines offline last night.” Faye pushed off and sailed through the air to the engine panel.
“You did what? Why would you – No. You know what? Never mind. I don’t want to know why.” Lewis furrowed his brow, staring at the screen with a look of intense concentration on his face. Faye let the issue drop and began her work. The whine of the engine increased, and Lewis watched the reaction radiation output line climb higher but staying below 300 megarad. Power output stayed well above thirty gigawatts, peaking as high as 165 gigawatts for half a second, but the graph line only showed a high value of 95 gigawatts. The engine spun down and the quiet crept back into the room.
“The whole ship? Or just engineering?”
“What?” Faye looked up and wiped sweat from her forehead.
“Did you disable the ship’s voice everywhere? Or just here in the engine room?”
“Oh, just here. I’m not sure I would have heard it anyway over that racket… Few things make as much noise as a Tesien 415 at full revs… how’d the output look?”
“Pretty steady over all, though the electricity seemed … spikey.”
“What?” Faye drifted over to the display console. She focused more on the readouts than on her trajectory and crashed into Lewis. He grabbed her arm on reflex and dug his foot into a strap, cancelling their combined inertia after a moment. “Sorry about that … “
“It’s okay. No problem …” Lewis blushed and let go of her arm.
“What do you mean Spikey? The graph shows a smooth curve …”
“Yeah, it’s weird. Over here where it’s displaying the raw data as it comes in,” he pointed to some numbers on the right side of the screen, “the reading went as high as one six five, I thought. It’s not in the graph, so maybe I just, I dunno … imagined it.”
“Maybe, but I don’t think so. The graph is only capturing every few seconds, not real time … Let me adjust how frequently the graph grabs the data and try again.” She keyed the interface and brought up the command and configure screens, manipulating the graphing function directly. “There. It’ll run slower, and use more of the CPU, but we should have more accurate graphs for this next run.”
Lewis could only stand back and watch her work and she effortlessly sailed back to the engine console. He kept one eye on the readout and one on her as she tapped instructions on the screen, then opened a panel and reached inside the running engine compartment. “Faye!”
“What?” They shouted over the sound of the engine as it spun up again. She withdrew her arm and looked into his eyes.
“You’re reaching into the engine compartment?! Is that wise?”
“I gotta for this adjustment. Gotta get a feel for her. You just watch the readouts.”
“Aye aye!” Lewis tried to remember his scant medical training as he focused on the graphs. The power output line was definitely spikier this time, and the radiation graph remained the same as the last trial. The engine spun down and Faye closed the access panel.
“How’d that look?”
“About the same, but that graph still looks weird. What’s this tinkering for, anyway?”
“Just trying to squeeze another erg of efficiency out of these drives … Rogerson will give me a bonus if I can manage a five percent increase in efficiency on this trip.” She took a handkerchief from her pocket and mopped her brow, then wiped down her hands before stuffing the hanky back in its pocket and floating back to the diagnostic display. This time she made no effort to stop herself and Lewis wrapped his arms around her waist to catch her. “That power output does look weird though …”
Lewis held her for a few moments longer than strictly necessary until she tapped his clasped hands. “Sorry … I uh…” he stammered.
“It’s okay. Maybe later. Work now.” She traced the power output line with a finger. “Why are you doing that, Cassie? What are you trying to tell me?”
Lewis paused, trying to parse the meaning of “maybe later.” Maybe what? Did she want to share his bunk? That’s not an uncommon practice, especially out here, but what about Nathan? Should they tell him? Would he care? Was he reading too much into those two words and did later mean sometime after this run was completed? Eventually Lewis’s mind settled on one question that seemed more important than the others: “Cassie?”
“Yeah. Cassie. Cascade. Searcher Cascade. You know, the ship we’re on now?” She rolled her eyes at him, then called up a diagnostic routine.
“Right. Cassie. Of course. I don’t know why –“
Faye turned toward him. “I’ve got a long night of analysis ahead of me, and this diagnostic routine will take a while to run, so you’re free to go back to your manual if you’d like …”
“Oh.” Lewis was momentarily taken aback. “Okay. I … I’ll be in my bunk if you need me then.”
“Mmm” Faye nodded slightly, tapping the screen with one hand while pulling out her shiptab with the other.
Lewis floated slowly up the corridor, back to his room. He checked his wristwatch. Still two hours until his watch rotation. He sighed. “Back to the drone manual, I guess…”
Five hours later, Lewis sat on the Searcher Cascade’s bridge, staring into the inky blackness of space, and sipping his coffee bulb. The ship was quiet. Faye and Nathan were in their bunks, sound asleep. It was easy for Lewis to believe he was the only person awake in the solar system at times like this.
The communications station woke up with a burst of static. “Badger Seven Five India Three requesting docking for cargo transfer.”
“Roger Badger Seven Five India Three. Port side dock two is waiting for you.” Lewis responded automatically, checking the RADAR display to verify the incoming ship was on his port side. “How ya been, Mac?”
“Oh, good days and bad. You know how it goes kid.” Mac Sizmer was twenty years older than him, and though they were good friends, Lewis was always “kid” in their informal conversations.
“What’d you bring me today? Good stuff I hope.” Lewis floated to the port windows to watch Mac approach.
“You know it. Iron, selenium, even some tin and gold. Found a beauty of a rock out there. Faster I can unload, the faster I can get back to my claim.”
“Roger that. We’ll have you unloaded in no time and you can be on your merry, receipt in hand.”
The ore loading was largely an automated process for the Cascade. The hauler was designed as a bridge section in front, and engine section in the rear, connected by a thinner spine containing crew quarters and attachment points for cargo canisters. When a miner approached, an empty can was jettisoned and the mining ship would attach its full can to the vacant slot before retrieving and attaching to the empty can. The cargo can would report its contents to the freighter and the miner’s ore account would be credited appropriately. Miners were paid by the kilogram at market rates for the raw ores, then Rogerson Geo-Dynamics would refine the ores and sell the metal at a profit. Haulers were paid a flat rate for time and mass hauled regardless of the type of ores they carried.
“Hey Mac, can I ask you a question?” Mac was one of the life time miners Lewis grew up with, looking out for and protecting Lewis after Abe and Laurinda passed on.
“Always, kid. What’s on your mind?”
“You ever get involved with someone on your ship?”
Mac chuckled. “Kid, for the last five years, it’s been just me out here. Nobody on my ship except me, and let me tell you, as lonely as it gets, life is always simple. There was someone, years ago … Back in my corporate days, when I was hauling freight like you. We had bigger crews back then. More redundancy, fewer automated systems.”
“What happened, Mac?”
“Same thing that always happens. It ended, badly. My advice is to stay away. Leave that stuff for your time on leave and keep your head focused on the job out here.”
“I guess you’re right …”
“Never forget, kid. Outside that wall is death herself. Temperatures close to 2 Kelvin and zero atmospheric pressure. And she wants to meet you. Every mistake gets you closer to her, and eventually she’ll find you. Happens to all of us sooner or later. All you can do is delay it until you’re ready.” The cargo display blinked, acknowledging the full canister of ores and automatically sending the inventory to Mac’s ship and Rogerson HQ by way of the Luna relay. “Me? I’m glad to be along out here most of the time. No distractions, so I can see Death coming and get out of her way.”
“Thanks, Mac. That sounds like good advice.”
“Any time, kid. When are you headed back?”
“Scheduled departure in six days, depending on when you folks bring us cans.”
“Roger that. I’ll try to make it back before you head out. Badger Seven Five India Three, out.”
“Good hunting, Badger Seven Fine India Three. We’ll keep a light on for ya.” Lewis watched Mac’s RADAR signal move off and fade away.
“Are you sure this will work, Doug?”
“Absolutely! Probably. I’m pretty sure. It’s just a simulation anyway, right?” The lanky engineer prodded his control screen. “How’s it look?”
“Coordinates look good. Gate’s powering up. Locked on Neptune Four.”
“Excellent. Keep it steady, Callie. If we can –“
“Wormhole opening. Bridge looks stable.”
“And you said it wouldn’t work. That we couldn’t get a stable bridge from the Beta gate out to Neptune.” Doug Lyons was beside himself with joy. Normally a ship traveling to Neptune would have to stop at least twice, once at one of the Belt gates, and again at Jupiter or Saturn. He’d just created a stable gate link between an earthbound site, and a gate in space near Neptune. True, it was only a simulation, but he’d proven his calculations for a longer range link were accurate. He turned from the screen to fetch the champagne from the refrigerator.
“I guess I owe you a drink after all.” Callie kept a weather eye on the readouts as the simulation ran. She wasn’t ready to admit defeat, but the data seemed to disagree.
“Tomorrow night the drinks are on you. Tonight we’ll crack this bottle. Professor Chapman gave it to me after his last lecture. He said I’d know when it was time.” Doug twisted the cage off the bottle’s top, and wrapped the cork in a towel to prevent it from flying off.
“I wouldn’t celebrate just yet …” a mischievous grin spread across her face. “Looks like this might not be so stable after all?”
Doug set the bottle on the counter and rushed back to his display. “What?! No! It should be working? Where’s the instability?”
“Here. The Keo fluctuations are oscillating too high to compensate.”
“Keo!” Doug raised a clenched fist toward the ceiling before muttering, “Thinks his theories are better than mine just because he’s been published. I’d be right too if MY name was a unit of gravitic distortion within wormholes. Lousy no good -- Wait!” Callie rolled her eyes. Muttering and cursing while solving problems was one of Doug’s more annoying idiosyncrasies. “What’s this constant matter transmission? Everything is going from Earth to Neptune. I didn’t set up any transfer tests, did you?”
“Nope. No fictitious cargo transfers from me. I don’t see any burst traffic that would typically indicate a passenger in the stream…”
“It’s not bursty, it’s constant. And very small. There’s something I’m missing… Let me see the targeting data again?”
“It should be on your screen now.” Doug traced his finger across the scrolling lines of text, then closed his eyes and leaned back. His hands worked in the air before him, moving discrete packets of information in his imagination as he resolved the target coordinates in his head. Callie was always a little impressed and vaguely unnerved when he did that. She hadn’t seen anyone else able to decode the targeting system, but then no one else studied the system as much as he had.
“17.35? No! That’s all wrong! That’s not Neptune’s surface, in the shelter. That’s space. That’s atmosphere being pulled through by the unforgiving vacuum! We have to shut it down now!”
“Or else the simulated people might also get pulled through?”
“Err… I … I got carried away. Either way! I’m impressed at your simulation. That’s solid physics, to simulate the atmosphere like that.” Doug’s mind was going a mile a minute and his mouth struggled to keep up with his thoughts. “I mean, of course you’d expect those kinds of Keo waves if one end of your bridge was vacuum and the other was pressurized. Let’s run it again with the Luna L2 gate as the origin. Should be close enough for government work. Or company work anyway. Same difference. Old saying.” He shut down the running simulation and entered the new start up parameters. “Do you ever wonder about the origins of old sayings like that? I mean, what really IS the same difference? Does that mean anything?”
Callie slapped him, hard. “You’re babbling again.”
“Right. Sorry. Thanks.” He gripped the edge of his desk, steadying himself as he took a deep breath. “Maybe a break for lunch is in order.”
“You’re buying.” She crossed to the champagne bottle and twisted the cage back in place before returning the bottle to the fridge.
“Fair enough. Where to? There’s always the cafeteria…” He threw on his jacket and followed her out the door.
“Bleh. No. Anywhere but there. I heard about this new Italian place a few blocks away…” They stepped out of the air conditioned office building and into the desert heat, putting on sunglasses in nearly the same motion.
“Sounds good. Lead on, Macduff.”
She rolled her eyes again. “Lay on.”
“The line. It’s ‘Lay on, Macduff.’ Not ‘Lead on.’ Sometimes you surprise me by knowing outdated memes and phrases, but then you miss one of the true classics and surprise me again …”
“Yes? Do you have an appointment?” Amanda Winnen stopped mid step as the well-muscled man in a tailored suit entered her office. She paced to clear her mind between patients or when she just needed to think, but rather than pacing back and forth in straight lines, she walked in circles and spirals, orbiting the furniture and keeping her focus toward a fixed point near the center of the room. She stood with one foot on the ground, the other raised slightly, frozen mid-stride
“Not exactly. You’re a medical doctor, aren’t you?” He picked up a picture frame from the bookshelf by the door: Amanda and her sister when they were children, all smiles for the camera as they took a break from the swings at the park.
“Yes, I’ve kept my license current, but mostly I’m a psychotherapist these days.” She brought her foot down slowly, methodically, planting it to turn her body toward the stranger.
“So the file says.” He put the frame back where he got it and stepped farther into the room. “How much do you know about the ship Entregar?”
“Just what’s been in the news. Wasn’t that the experimental scout that went to chase down the old Voyager probes or some such?” As he moved so did she, keeping a chair, or table, between them. Something about this guy made her uneasy.
“Yeah. Something like that. How about the Cartographer? Heard of that one?”
“Like a map maker? Is this some new band? I’m afraid I don’t follow the popular music trends these days.
“No, not a band …” He turns his back toward her, examining the medical school diploma in its frame above her desk. “Have you ever been off planet, Doctor?”
Where was he going with these questions? “Just to Mars on holiday. Picnic on the side of Olympus, that sort of thing.”
The stranger nodded, then turned to face her. “Went through the gate? Or did you take one of the cruise liners between planets?”
“Just the gate … seemed faster and cheaper … “
“Are you afraid of flying in the black, Doctor?” He leaned on the back of her chair, looming toward her. His frame seemed to fill the picture window behind him.
“What is it you want, mister ..?”
“You may call me Cascao, if you like. And my employers have asked me to bring you an offer.” He reached into his suit coat’s inner pocket. Amanda tensed, crouching slightly and ready to roll to her left. He slowed his movements and withdrew an envelope, making sure she could see it clearly, before he laid it on her desk. “Think it over. We’ll be waiting for your call.”
Amanda circled around her desk as Cascao left. She slumped in her chair when the door closed. “And people said I had poor bedside manor …” She reached for the intercom button to speak to her receptionist. “Howard? Did a large man in a suit just leave?”
“I haven’t seen anyone like that, Doctor Winnen. Is everything alright?”
“Yes. I think so. I must have been day dreaming …” her fingers lightly tapped the envelope.
I apologize for Cascao’s brusque demeanor. He’s a better bodyguard than courier, but there is no one else I could trust to deliver this missive to you. It is my desire to assemble a crew for a long duration space flight, and in this matter the utmost discretion is required.
You have doubtless heard the rumors of Entregar making contact with an alien species following its investigation into the Voyager II anomalies. As a woman of science, you have likely ignored these rumors, and with good reason. But I am writing today to confirm the veracity of at least some of them. Entregar did indeed contact an extra-solar species, and somehow invited humanity into an interstellar race.
We do not know much about this contest, but we have been led to believe it is a sort of rite of passage and if we do well enough in the race Humanity, or at least its representatives, will join a council of other species in matters of galactic import.
To that end, I am assembling a crew for a ship we will enter into this contest. A crew is only as good as its doctor, and you come highly recommended. Should the worst happen, you may rest assured your sister and her family will be well cared for. While you are aboard the ship, we will continue to pay double your current salary into a trust in your sister’s name.
You are, of course, under no obligation to accept this contract. If you decline, you may return to your practice and no harm will come to your family. We are not in the business of blackmail.
Would you rather keep your current practice, or participate in our next step toward the stars?
Yours in service,
“Harold, can you see if Mr. Close would be willing to reschedule his appointment this afternoon. Something’s come up that I need to give my full attention for a while …”
“Yes, boss.” Harold usually only called her boss when he was annoyed or hopelessly distracted. Amanda left the letter on her desk as she paced again. She focused on her breathing, keeping it as even as her footsteps. She wound tight circles around the coffee table, then a wide arc around the perimeter of her office.
What exactly was going on here? Was this letter actually from Brent Deneau? Amanda thought he was more myth than real, made up whole cloth by some PR firm trying to improve public perception of Bridge Co after the initial StepGate accidents. Hadn’t Mr. Deneau been CEO for over thirty years?
Amanda wanted answers. Was there a better way to get them than accepting this offer? Would she regret it for the rest of her life if she didn’t sign up? Ship’s Surgeon had a good ring to it. And Jenny would be taken care of. Surely there was a downside she wasn’t seeing, beyond the implied “experimental race ship that may not come back to the solar system” anyway.
Some questions could be answered easily, like how much notice Mr. Deneau would need, and how much time Amanda would have to get her affairs in order, to say goodbye to her sister and nephews. She resolved to call Jenny after dinner and get her opinion, then message Deneau, or the mysterious Cascao tomorrow.
Saruthan the Merciless was orbiting Shar when his subordinate hailed him. He spoke slowly as he stretched languidly in the ship’s cabin. “This had better be important, Merong. You know how seriously I take my relaxation periods between races.”
“Oh, I know, sir. But I think you’ll want to hear this sooner rather than later.” Merong’s nasally voice was not helped by the tinny ship’s speakers.
“Spit it out, then.” Saruthan yawned and scratched his scaled abdomen as he drifted away from the communications console. He liked to turn off the artificial gravity and just float, his ship on minimal power, just him and the darkness. He would never admit it in front of a camera or reporter, but he credited his time in orbit like this for his previous race wins.
“There is to be a new species in this season’s race.”
“WHAT?!” Fully alert, he swam back to the console and climbed into the chair before bringing up the engineering display and returning systems to full power.
“A previously unknown species called … “ Saruthan could hear Merong flipping through pages of data on his tablet. For reasons Saruthan couldn’t understand, the lackey still enjoyed the sound of flipping paper. “ … Human.”
The word hung in the air for a moment before either of them spoke again.
“Human…” Saruthan rolled the word in his mouth, then spat it out. “They sound weak. What do we know of them?”
“Precious little, sir.”
“Then find out.” He keyed the reentry sequence into the helm console. “I’ll be back on Shar in two hours. You better have something for me by then.”
“Yes sir, I –“ Merong’s words cut off as Saruthan cut the transmission.
Merong made quick calls to his contacts in the university and astronomy administrations, caching in some old favors to find someone, anyone, who had heard of Humans and studying them in any way. His efforts bore fruit in the shape of a female Hissthashar named Laethimorod. She worked in the astronomy administration, monitoring radio broadcasts. From outside their star system. She and her colleagues had received and decoded dozens of transmissions from Humanity’s home star. After viewing, they realized Humanity was not broadcasting in an effort to find other civilizations, but were instead simply blasting their noise into the cosmos with no regard for who might be listening and watching. Most Hissthashar who knew about it dismissed Humanity as nothing more than noisy barbarians, too primitive and far away to be either a threat or interesting prey.
But Laethimorod found something captivating in the broadcasts and kept up the practice of decoding and archiving everything they received. She watched hundreds of hours of their tele-vision and in academic circles was considered an expert in a subject that was of no consequence. She was shocked when Merong called her.
“You say you need my help?”
“That’s right, miss Laeth. My employer has developed a sudden interest in these humans and would like to know anything you can tell us.”
“What sort of employer? What does he want with the humans?”
“Why don’t we discuss this over a cup of something hot at Café Gurgwel in an hour?”
“Alright. But I don’t promise anything yet.”
“Of course. See you soon, Miss Laeth.”
Merong ended the call and made arrangements at Gurgwel for a private table, then relayed the information to Saruthan. The pilot agreed to meet them at the café to convince the expert to share her knowledge.
“I don’t appreciate all this secrecy.”
Merong took her coat and hung it on the rack nearby, then motioned for her to sit. “Regrettably, it is necessary in this instance. If you will sign this non-disclosure and exclusivity agreement, all will be made clear.” As he sat, he slid the electronic paper across the table to her.
Laethimorod read the contract carefully, her curiosity growing with each clause, until she signed with her thumbprint and dated the contract. “Very well. Now what’s this all about?”
As she spoke, Saruthan slid in to the chair next to Merong. “It’s about winning, Miss Laeth.”
“Oh my! Praise be Vautul, hallowed are his tails! You’re him, aren’t you? Saruthan the M—“ she caught herself before saying his unofficial eponym. “The Champion. I didn’t think you deigned to visit a little café like this one…”
“Only on important business. The owners are old friends and know how to keep a secret. You recognize me, so you must have some idea why I have asked you here.”
Laethimorod shifted uncomfortably in her chair. Suddenly she was having difficulties finding a comfortable position for her tail. She nodded slowly, piecing together rumors she heard with what she knew. “I’ve heard Humanity might be invited to join the next race. Other Hissthashar teams are likely to dismiss them as posing no threat, but you’d like a second opinion.”
Saruthan nodded. “That’s right. What can you tell me?”
“Not a lot, I’m afraid. Their broadcasts seem to have stopped altogether almost one hundred fifty of their revolutions after they began. Only eighty or so of our orbits. We haven’t heard anything from them for almost two hundred orbits until now. So what I know is going to be out dated. If I could see them in action, or even talk to them, I could extrapolate what I know into something more useful, but as it stands I’m afraid I won’t be much use to you.”
Saruthan sipped his drink thoughtfully, never taking his eyes off Laethimorod. “I think you do yourself disservice. You know much that others do not. And that is valuable. Tell me, have you ever been in a racer?”
Her eyes widened. “Is that … I mean, you always race alone, staying true to the ritual of the Crucible. I wouldn’t want to …”
He raised a hand to silence her, then turned to Merong. “How long would it take to fit a second chair onto Minturgi?”
The assistant pulled out his data pad and tapped furiously though he already knew the answer. He and Saruthan worked this out before the meeting, and his performance now was purely for the benefit of Laethimorod. “Only a day or two, though the extra mass may throw off your drive calculations. We’ll have to re-do those. Say a week, 7 days, tops.”
“Then it’s settled. You’ll join me for this race, and we’ll make history. Humanity will lose its first race, and we’ll win my fourth, the first ever with a female co-pilot.”
“I never dreamed … I mean, when I was just a hatchling we watched your Crucible run, and I dreamed of becoming a pilot, of taking your classes at the academy, but of course that was impossible …” In Hissthashar society, only males could be pilots; females were relegated to science and engineering and occasional cargo handling. “Yes. Of course. I’d be honored to be your co-pilot. When do we start?”
The whole crew was awake now. Lewis had the helm since it was his watch, but Nathan Lyons was technically the senior officer in command and stood on the bridge to make sure Lewis followed the regulations for departing the belt. Faye McGillis sat in the third chair on the bridge, engineering and maintenance displays on her console as they made final checks. The Searcher Cascade hadn’t filled her cargo cans, but their contract was up, so it was time to go home.
“Final checks complete. Ready for maneuvering thrusters. Reorientation vectors locked in, sir.” Lewis hated the regulations, the formality of the speech, as if everything would fail if he didn’t speak the right words in the right order. It struck him sometimes how superstitious space ship crews were.
“You may proceed when ready, Mister Selmeyer,” Captain Lyons said from the command chair.
“Firing maneuvering jets in three … two … hold! Incoming transmission.” The communications console chirped.
“Let’s hear it.”
Mac Sizmer’s voice crackled over the bridge speakers. The forward view screen displayed a real time image of his ship as well as a diagnostic overlay. “Badger Seven Five India Three to Searcher Cascade, requesting docking for cargo transfer.”
Lewis turned toward Nate, muting the communications mic, “Shouldn’t take more than a couple minutes, captain. We’re light as it is. Won’t hurt to carry a bit more.”
The captain nodded and Lewis keyed the communications system. “Roger Badger Seven Five India Three. Starboard Seven is clear for you.”
“Thanks, Kid. Glad I made it in time. If it’s not too much trouble, you think I could get a lift back to Luna?” The Cascade had a dorsal docking couple to allow other ships to attach and transfer crew and supplies to the main cabin during flight.
Lewis turned to the captain again. “It’ll make maneuvering a little trickier, but shouldn’t be an issue. A badger with an empty can still leaves us under our max mass rating.”
The captain nodded again. “It’s a little unusual, but not unheard of. No harm in it.”
“Roger, Badger Seven Five India Three. Once you’ve got the empty, you’re cleared for docking on the dorsal ring. I’ll switch on the lights. Do us a favor though, Mac, and wait ‘till we’re turned around before you dock?”
Mac chuckled. “Roger that. My can’s locked to you now. I’ll pick up the empty while you get situated. Just don’t leave without me, ya hear?”
“Wouldn’t dream of it. See ya in five, Mac. Searcher Cascade out.”
Once the smaller mining vessel was clear, Lewis fired the maneuvering jets to get the Searcher Cascade oriented toward the nearest Ship Gate. He waited until Mac docked, then throttled up the main engines.
“We’re underway, Mister Selmeyer, why is the artificial gravity not on?”
“I thought it’d be nice if we waited until Mac was aboard first, since his other option would be an eight foot drop, if that’s alright with you Captain.”
“Very well. See that our guest is aboard then switch it on. I’m beginning to forget what having weight is like.” Captain Lyons drifted to the helm station as Lewis left the bridge.
“Will do, sir.” He floated down the spine to the docking hatch. Lewis checked the hatch control display to be sure they had formed a good seal, then opened the inner hatch. Mac was waiting for him on the other side with a small duffel bag.
Mac Sizmer drifted through the docking port, closing the badger’s hatch behind him, then the Cascade’s hatch. He left his duffel drift on its own as he embraced Lewis in a bear hug. “It’s good to see you again, Kid. Technically I have another few hours on my contract, but I knew if I caught you I could get home faster. It takes an age to get to the gate in that little thing” he gestured with his head toward the docked badger.
“Brace yourself, Mac. I’m gonna turn the A.G. on for the captain, then we’ll get you settled.” Mac secured his duffel and pushed himself against the floor plating as Lewis brought out his ship tab, his feet touching the floor gently. Hey keyed the internal comms first “Artificial Gravity returning on my mark. Three … two … one … mark!” with the last word, he finished the instructions to turn on the gravity plating. Gradually he felt his weight returning until the display read 0.75g, three quarters of Earth normal gravity. He put his tablet to sleep and tucked it back in its place at his belt. “Guest quarters are this way…”
“Lead on, Kid. I hope your beds are soft…”
Lewis shrugged. “Soft as usual, I suppose. It’s been a while since I actually slept on it. Free floating, you know…”
“Yeah … “ Mac shifted his duffel to his other shoulder. “So Kid, about what you said the other night … somebody on this boat catch your eye?”
“Something like that … I think. It’s hard to say. I mean, she’s cute and all, but I don’t know if it’s just the lack of options, or if something’s actually going on, or even if there could be anything.”
"Are you sure?!" Jenny was incredulous. Amanda Winnen decided it was better to talk to her sister in person, and after calling ahead, brought over a bottle of wine and some Chinese take out for dinner. Over drinks they talked through the encounter with Cascao and the offer from Brent Deneau. “Space is a big step, isn’t it? I mean, do you even know anyone who’s been out past Mars?”
“Yeah … It will definitely be a big change. But what if I refuse this? What if it really is the chance of a life time?” She set her glass of wine on the coffee table. She curled her feet under her body on the couch, pulling herself into a ball as she faced her sister.
“What if it’s not, thought?” Jenny sat with a more relaxed posture. She leaned her back into the arm of the couch, facing her sister, but kept one foot on the floor and her hands in her lap. “What if it’s an elaborate setup? He says there’s a ship going to go into this race. Fine, he can probably get your name on the crew list that gets publicized, but how do you know he won’t just kidnap you and maybe these other people and force you into some kind of … I don’t know … torture dungeon for his sick amusement?” She shook the look of disgust from her face and reached for her wine glass.
“You always see the worst of any situation, don’t you?” Amanda uncurled and finished her own glass. “It’s more likely that he’s actually building a ship and needs a crew.”
“Just don’t make any rash decisions.” Jenny poured what was left of the bottle into their glasses. “Connor will miss his auntie.”
Amanda cooed. Her nephew looked like an adorable angel when they put him down to sleep after dinner. “And I’ll miss him too. I won’t decide tonight, at any rate.” She stifled a yawn after taking a generous sip from her glass.
“And maybe not tomorrow either, if this wine goes to your head.”
“True enough. Good thing I only brought one bottle.” The sisters chuckled, then clinked their glasses together in a toast. “To uncertain futures.”
“To families.” They drank the remainder of the wine and set their glasses on the coffee table again. Jenny spoke first. “This was a good evening. We should do this more often.”
“Definitely.” Amanda stood on uncertain feet as the blood rushed out of her head and into her legs. She steadied herself with a hand on the back of the sofa as Jenny leaned forward to steady her sister. “Woo… maybe I should call a cab.” She took her personal comp out of her purse and called up the available taxi and ride-share vehicles in the area.
“Stay the night. Owen won’t be home for hours yet.”
Amanda tapped on a vehicle icon on her screen. It would be at Jenny’s house in seven minutes. “It’s alright. I have a patient early in the morning. I’ll be fine” They stood in Jenny’s living room now. Amanda hugged her sister tightly then turned to collect her coat and scarf before leaving.
“Stay safe, Amanda. I’m not sure what I’d do without my big sister to look out for me.” Jenny crossed her arms, hugging her self, warding away the horrible visions and bad thoughts creeping in as she watched her sister leave.
“Don’t worry. I’m not going anywhere.” Amanda hugged her sister again, then slipped out the door into the night to catch her ride.
She sobered up a lot on the drive back home, and asked the driver to let her out a few blocks away from her apartment. Amanda especially enjoyed cool evenings like this, and the walk would her quiet her mind. She paid the driver and watched him drive off, in search of another fare.
“This could really be the opportunity of a lifetime,” she thought. “Not the first person to leave the solar system, nor even probably the first woman, but to be among the first to participate in this intergalactic race, competing against who knew how many alien species. To see sights no human had seen much less dreamed of. Maybe I’ll even get to study some alien biology … pioneer a new field of xenobiology!”
She barely walked a block when her reverie was interrupted by a cry for help that split the night. “Stop! Thief!”
Amanda looked around quickly. A man dressed in dark clothing ran past her, shoving her roughly to the side. She caught her balance on instinct and let him flow past her. Another man followed, stumbling as he turned the corner onto her street. One hand clutched his stomach as he leaned against the building for support. She ran to the injured man.
“I’m a doctor. I can help. What happened?” She helped him slump down to the pavement. They were alone now. The street hadn’t been busy before, but everyone seemed to shrink away when the shouting started.
“Stabbed … over a hunnert bucks…” he coughed. Amanda pulled out her PersCom again, and dialed emergency services. She hit the icons for Hands Free speaker phone mode, then set the device on the ground. She gently pried his hand away from the wound to inspect the damage in the dim light.
“What’s your emergency?”
“I’m at the corner of 5th and Rosemont. A man has been stabbed in the abdomen. I’m a doctor, but I don’t have any supplies with me. Please send an ambulance.”
“Alright, ma’am,” the operator kept her composure as she repeated the information back. “A man has been stabbed at 5th and Rosemont. I have dispatched an ambulance. What else can you tell me about the situation?”
“Abdominal laceration, approximately six inches in length. Until a minute before I called, he was upright and walking. I have him lying on the sidewalk now.”
“Okay. Are you able to stay with him until the ambulance arrives?”
“Yes. I’m doing what I can to staunch the bleeding. Please hurry.”
“ETA is 95 seconds.” Amanda brought her attention to her surroundings again and hear the siren approaching. She had been focused on the injured man to the exclusion of all else. “Is he still awake?”
“Yeah…” the injured man groaned. “Or maybe I’m dreaming of pretty angels…” he reached toward Amanda’s face as she knelt next to him, her hands pressing his shirt to the wound, keeping pressure on it.
“Yes. He’s awake, but possibly delirious. He’s going to go into shock soon.” Flashing lights washed over the street corner as the ambulance drove closer. It parked less than a meter from Amanda and the EMTs leaped into action.
“The ambulance is here now. Thank you.”
“Thank you for calling Emergency Services Conglomerated. We know you have a choice in your emergency response companies--” Amanda hung up when the operator went into her corporate mandated speech.
The EMTs moved the injured man onto a stretcher and carried him to the back of the ambulance. “Thanks for your call, Ma’am. We’ll take it from here.” One of them stayed in the ambulance, applying a bandage to the injured area and connecting an intravenous line to siphon blood from a pouch to replace some of the patient’s lost fluid. The other shook Amanda’s hand, then climbed into the driver’s seat and sped off.
It was all over before she knew what had really happened. Amanda stood on the corner, blinking at the whirlwind of activity as she reviewed the movements and conversations again. It had seemed to be on the up and up, hadn’t it? Everything by the book? She shook her head and continued her walk home.
She slept fitfully, and was grateful when her alarm went off, granting her respite from the repeated scenes every time she closed her eyes. She saw Cascao, holding the picture of her family in her office. Heard Deneau’s voice, talking about races in space. Saw her hands covered in a stranger’s blood. She touched her cheek where he had, felt the dried blood flaking off. Had she really gone to sleep without even washing her face? She was so focused on helping him, and then the EMTs came. The adrenaline left her system soon after she locked her door and she must have barely made it to her bed before collapsing.
She went over the scene again and again in the shower. Had he been trying to tell her something? Give her a message? She never got his name. How could she follow up and make sure he was okay?
She toweled off and dressed for the day. Did she even want to know who he was and whether he was still in the hospital?
She drove to her office on autopilot, still refusing to leave the injured man on the sidewalk. She resolved to call the company when she got to the office, find out who he was and how bad his injuries were.
“Good morning, Howard.” She greeted her receptionist as she breezed into her office.
“Good morning, Doc. Arthur, your eight o’clock, called to say he’ll be a bit late. Probably no more than twenty minutes.” Howard read from his screen as he followed Amanda into her office. “And you have a message from someone called B D. They didn’t leave any other name.”
“What sort of message?” Amanda was curious. Did B D stand for Brent Deneau?
“Just this envelope. Feels like a thick packet of paperwork.” He pulled the envelope from beneath his PersCom tablet.
“Thank you. Leave it on my desk, please.” She hung her coat and scarf on the coat rack next to her desk. “When you have a moment, would you be a dear and check on something for me?”
“Of course. What do you need? Your wish is my command.” Howard bowed deeply, a wide grin on his face.
“A man was stabbed a few blocks from my apartment last night.”
“Oh no! Is he okay?”
“That’s what I’d like you to find out. I called E.S.C. and stayed with him until the ambulance arrived, but I didn’t get a name. I think they took him to Mary Howe Memorial. At least, that’s what the side of the ambulance said.” She sat down and picked up the packet from B.D. Howard was right, this felt like a hefty stack of paperwork.
“I’ll look into it. Anything else I can get you before Arthur shows up?”
“Coffee, please. It was a long night …”
“I’ll be back in a jiffy.” Howard quietly closed the door to Amanda’s office as she lay her head on the desk. She allowed herself the luxury of a few moments of quiet and calm before preparing for Arthur. He wasn’t a difficult client, but he could be emotionally draining on a good day, and so far today was not looking to be a good day. The packet of papers from B.D. could wait. Arthur first.
She sat up straight and closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing. Usually she could center herself almost instantly when she closed her eyes, but this morning the task was proving more difficult. Amanda saw her mindscape as a tumult of storm clouds, and she was being buffeted from all sides as she sought the rounded mountain peak representing her center. She could calm the storm from there, but not while being tossed about like a rag doll.
The door to her office burst open and Amanda snapped her eyes open. She stood forcefully, her chair rolling across the floor behind her until it bumped into the book case. The man in her doorway wore a dark shirt and dark pants. A black balaclava obscured his face. He stalked toward her, drawing a knife from behind his back.
“Stay back!” Amanda opened the top drawer of her desk, frantically looking for the pepper spray an ex-boyfriend gave her. She felt ridiculous carrying it in her purse and tossed it in her desk drawer a week before they broke up.
“No good deed goes unpunished, doctor.” He crossed to the desk and lunged at her.
Amanda gave up on finding the pepper spray. Her left arm came up on instinct, pushing her attacker’s arm farther to her right. In the same motion she shifted her weight to her left foot and pivoted, rolling out of the way of the lunge.
His right arm automatically came back in a sweeping arc, slashing the air where Amanda had been. She circled around her desk, facing him as he turned toward her. “Howard!” She called for her assistant. He could call the E.S.C. or distract the man with the knife, or something.
“I’m afraid he’s still getting coffee. It’s just you and me, doc.” He feinted with the knife, trying to provoke her into opening her guard.
“What do you want?” She tried to move closer to the door, but he kept pace with her. If she ran he would strike before she could get to the door. It would certainly be over before Howard got back with coffee. She had to hold out until then.
“Told you. I’m here to punish you for your good deed.” She edged closer to the door, and he took a broad step, getting between her and the door again.
“What good deed? I’d imagine people say I do a lot of good deeds…” She moved around him again, placing her in front of her desk. He stayed between her and the door.
“Last night, doc. You stopped a man from bleeding to death on the sidewalk. He was supposed to bleed out then and there.” He kicked an end table over rather than step around it, kicking it toward her to see how she’d react. She flinched to her right.
“Why does that matter? Why did he have to die?” She backed up against the desk and felt behind her back for the letter opener. It wasn’t much of a knife, but it would do better than her bare hands.
“Message to the neighborhood.” He grinned behind his mask. “Or a message to his family. Or maybe he had some debts he wasn’t paying. I didn’t ask.” The killer placed a boot on the couch, then gave it a rough shove. The couch scraped across the floor a short distance before hitting the wall.
“So why me?” She brandished the letter opener as he chuckled.
“Because my job woulda been done if you hadn’t come along. You got in my way.” He made a feint to her left, then a quick slash on her right. Amanda leaned to her right, and deflected the knife with her letter opener. The blade still caught her arm, but not as badly as it could have.
Amanda let out a little shriek as she was cut, then glanced at the wound. She didn’t believe she was seriously injured, but the split second she took her eyes off her opponent was an opening he had been waiting for.
He lunched, stabbing toward her stomach with his full force. She swatted his arm to her left then drove her right palm into his nose. She closed the distance and brought her knee to his crotch. He let out a grunt of pain as he doubled over. She planted her feet and brought her other knee up into his forehead.
Amanda stepped back as her attacker slumped to the floor. He groaned something she couldn’t quite understand. She kicked his knife away, then knelt down next to him to ask “What did you say?”
“Said I won’t be the last. You saved Osborn. Hit’s on you now too.”
Amanda reached for her desk phone and called Emergency Services Conglomerated for the second time in twenty four hours.
“What’s your emergency?” Could the same operator still be on duty, or were they all trained to have the same bored tone?
“I’ve been attacked by a masked man with a knife. He’s subdued for now. I’d like a squad car to come take him away, please.”
“So you’ve been attacked and subdued your attacker. Is that right? We have traced your call and a squad car is en route to your location now. Estimated arrive in twelve minutes.”
“Twelve minutes?!” Amanda checked her temper, taking a calm, deep breath before speaking again. “I understand. Thank you.”
“Thank you, ma’am. We know you have a choice in emergency service prov—“ Amanda hung up on the script again.
“So what am I going to do with you until they get here?” He only groaned in response, moving a hand slowly to his head.
“They were out of the pumpkin spice syrup, so I had to settle for a vanilla instead. Here’s your -- Oh my God!” Howard dropped the coffee as he saw the state of his boss’s office. “Amanda! What happened?! Are you okay?” he rushed over to her, wrapping his arms around her.
“I’m fine, mostly.”
“You’re bleeding!” Howard lifted her arm, getting a closer look at the cut.
“It’s fine. Just a scratch, really. Apparently because I stopped a murder last night I’m a marked woman, or something.” She waved toward the still conscious form of her attacker.
“If I get you some rope, can you tie him up while I call ESC?” Howard was already moving toward the door, back to his desk.
“I already called them.” Amanda checked her watch. “They should be here in about 10 minutes.” Howard rummaged in his desk for a moment. “Did you say you had rope?”
He walked in carrying a roll of twenty feet of what looked like a medium thickness, soft, nylon rope. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I have in my desk.”
“Should I even ask?”
“Probably better off not knowing …” Howard knelt by the attacker and quickly bound his hands and feet.
“You’re probably right.”
“Is… this a bad time?”
“Arthur!” Amanda stood and walked quickly toward him. “I’m terribly sorry, but something has come up. Would you mind if we rescheduled for some time later in the week?”
“Oh … I … guess that’s alright.” She ushered him back into the waiting room. He shifted his weight nervously as he waited.
Amanda slid behind Howard’s desk and keyed his computer system. “Great. How’s Thursday morning?”
“I … I don’t …” He swallowed hard and stood straight. “Thursday morning will be fine.” He spoke with more confidence.
“Excellent. I’ll put you on the schedule and we’ll see you then.”
“Thank you, Doctor Winnen. I’ll see you then.”
Amanda slumped in Howard’s chair after Arthur left, a brief respite before she helped Howard move the bound attacker out to the waiting room. After the ESC patrolmen came and took their statements, Amanda found herself back in her chair, at her desk, still trying to center herself.
The thunderstorm was now a full on hurricane, whipping her mental self through the recesses of her mind. She heard a name in the winds, repeated: Deneau. She heard herself speaking as the storm cleared and she landed on the smooth rock. “Mister Deneau? When would I leave?”
Jhad and Albhal sat in silence on the transport ship back to Airoutan space. They were typical members of the Airoutan peoples. They were both nearly two meters tall when they stood at full height. Their purple skin shimmered in the ship’s light. The Airoutans were, by and large, an athletic race, making full use of them four limbs when possible, but mostly walking upright on two legs when that was the conventional norm, as in the company of mixed species.
Transport ships like the King Milo, built to order by the Tezzoz and crewed by the more industrious among the Sucleans, were made to accommodate the widest variety of species, and so the ships fittings were built to the lowest denominator that would still fit each species. The ceilings were three meters tall, almost twice what the insect like Tezzoz would need, but a comfortable height for the Navidians and Suclean. The Hissthashar would have to stoop, but not too much.
All around the Arioutans, different sentients conversed with each other, usually finding conversational partners within their species, but cross species chatter was not uncommon. The passengers of King Milo were all staff from the recently completed Galactic Race. They finished cleaning up the course and taking down the checkpoints and were now on their way to their home systems to rest and prepare for the next race.
Jhad and Albhal kept their conversation silent, speaking to each other across a direct psychic link. The first species to encounter the Airoutan home world, Airouda, marveled at how the inhabitants had built great cities in complete silence. Kenotaga, the Navidian explorer, assumed the entire population could neither hear nor speak, until finally Pareh, First of Airouda, spoke aloud to her on her third day of observation, rasping “You think too much.”
While sharing a psychic link, thoughts and emotions drift between Arioutan participants, often giving an impression of an individual’s opinions before they can fully articulate their thoughts.
“Newcomers?” Albhal, confirming his suspicion that Jhad spoke with the humans who arrived at the checkpoint during the race.
“Briefly. Language.” Jhad, indicating that he had indeed spoken with the humans, but he only probed their minds enough to learn their language.
“Nothing more? Culture? History? Intentions?” Albhal probed his friend, wondering if Jhad learned anything at all of the humans’ culture, or history, or even what they were doing at the checkpoint.
“Very brief. Language. Greetings. Barter.” Jhad reiterated that he had only brief contact with the humans. He sent along an image of Kenotaga, with the implicit memory that Pareh and the rest of the village spent three days with the Navidian before speaking. Jhad sensed enough from the humans to know that their language was sound based and a mental projection would cause more agitation. He did learn that regardless of why the humans came to the race, now that they were there, they wanted to trade. The humans offered information, most of which Jhad plucked from their surface thoughts, in exchange for entry into the next race.
“Trust?” Albhal wanted to know if the humans could be trusted, or if there was any reason to think the ship was merely an advanced scout leading the way for a large armada of military ships. He sent an image of the Hissthashar fleet approaching Airouda a hundred revolutions ago.
“Enough. Wager.” Jhad felt the humans were not trying to repeat the Hissthashar tactic, and truly were exploring, following their curiosity. Humanity intended to wager the sum of their species knowledge on the outcome of the race.
“… Wager?” Albhal didn’t understand the term Jhad used.
“Conditional payment or forfeit. Traded some history for entry in race. Trade more history after victory.”
“Influence?!” Rage flowed from Albhal at the thought of race officials affecting the outcome of a race. The Arioutans were respected because deceit was not in their nature. If one Airoutan intended to cheat another out of an agreement, that information would spread throughout the psychic network and the deceiver would be shunned and exiled from the community. Such a thing had not happened in Airoutan society for more than a thousand revolutions.
“Observance. Patience.” Jhad projected calm, serenity. He believed humanity would eventually win a race on its own, without the Airoutans’ influence. Perhaps not their first race, but eventually it would happen.
Albhal relaxed. “Benefit?” He sent images of the members of the Galactic Council, as well as generic representations of each race, wondering who would gain this knowledge when Humanity final won.
Jhad projected uncertainty. He didn’t know how long it would be before Humanity won, so he couldn’t be certain which species might benefit from it. Of one thing he was certain, however; when Humanity won, all species would share in the knowledge.
The King Milo shuddered as it docked at a station in Linked space. Jhad watched with interest as the group from The Linked collective departed. The cyborgs were almost as big a mystery as the Humans. No one knew where their home world was, nor even what they looked like under their exoskeletons. If the Hissthashar hadn’t wounded on in hand to hand combat, the other species might have assumed the Linked were sentient machines. Even the Airoutans couldn’t get a read on the Linked’s minds.
There was some debate among the Suclean philosophers regarding whether the Linked had a home planet at all. The popular theory was that the Linked cannibalized whatever planet they used to call home, using the raw materials to build not only themselves, but also their massive space stations. No sentient has seen a natural Linked, without any cybernetics. Most Linked stand at one hundred seventy five centimeters, but smaller Linked have been seen on long distance, multi-species transports like the King Milo. Some sentients choose to believe the less popular theory that all Linked are under 1 meter tall, and their height only changes as the upgrade their bodies over time.
During the race, one member of the Linked was posted at each check point as well as the starting and finishing lines. When a ship passed the check point, the Linked would contact the ship’s computer and gather information about the current status of the ship and crew, collect flight logs, and record the time. All this data was then sent back through the Linked’s network to the race announcers at the finish line to be condensed and repeated to the fans. One Linked for each ship was dedicated to parsing the flight logs to ensure racers were sticking to the course and not sabotaging other ships.
Pilots who flew a clean race, staying on course without interfering with other racers, were eligible for a separate trophy after the race. Pilots were not otherwise discouraged from using any means necessary to reach the finish line ahead of their competition, though they were penalized for killing another pilot, paying reparations to the pilot’s family. The only course requirement was that the ships must pass within 10 kilometers of the check points.
King Milo shuddered again, shaking Jhad from his reverie. As he watched the Linked he closed his mind to Albhal, and how his friend’s thoughts flooded into his mind.
“Safe? Weapons?” Are you certain it’s safe to allow these Humans into the race? Did you get a feel for their weapon capabilities?
Jhad wearily sent an affirmative wave, followed by an uncertain waved mixed with a tinge of negativity. The latter was quickly followed by images of a small flight of five Hissthashar ships descending on the Airoutan colony on Kurtho, the third planet the Airoutans ever colonized, and at the time of the attack, the frontier of Airoutan space. Jhad’s implication was that the Humans were certainly weaker than the Hissthashar, and if it came to war, the Council would have the upstarts beat handily.
Albhal flushed with approval, followed by quiescence and a wave of fatigue. Jhad responded in kind. They were both tired and the time for talk was over. Several hours would pass before King Milo reached Airoutan space and they should rest for the next leg of their journey home.
Doug Lyons stretched and yawned, waiting for the automated door to scan his security badge and open, allowing him access to his lab. He and Callie hadn’t made much progress on stabilizing a long range wormhole in his simulation. Even when both gates were in vacuum, the Keo fluctuations were too high. She bade him good night, imploring him to leave the lab and start fresh in the morning, but he continued to run simulations late into the night.
He finally left the lab when he realized he was talking to an empty room and his most recent simulation had failed because the destination coordinate was “chocolate.” He slept fitfully, tossing and turning as he dreamed he was back in the lab, running simulations, until a stable bridge was created. Doug woke with a start, quickly writing down the configuration he used in his dream in the notebook he kept on his bedside table.
He lay in the darkness for a moment longer, staring at the ceiling and going over the calculations in his head. The more he thought about it, the more he realized his dream-self was right. Those settings should work, but of course so should the other settings he’d tried. Sleep was lost until he ran the actual simulation, so he rolled out of bed and into the shower.
The door finally opened, greeting him with a stilted, but still vaguely friendly “Hello. Doctor. Lyons.”
“Mmm… Mornin’ Doris.” The door system had no official name, but Doug figured he ought to know the name of anything that knew his name, and returning the greeting was just the polite thing to do. He shuffled through the door and stopped when he saw a well-muscled man in a sharply tailored suit perched on a stool and perusing Doug’s notes. “Can I help you, or should I call security?”
“That would be unwise, Doctor Lyons.” Cascao put the notes down and stood, adjusting his suit jacket and buttoning the middle button. “You have a fascinating theory here. My employer would be very interested in it … if it worked.”
Doug picked up his lab coat from its hanger by the door and put it on with a flourish. He didn’t need a lab coat, strictly speaking, but he felt it gave him more credence. Rationally he knew it was a placebo, but when Callie asked him after a few drinks, he let slip that the coat made him feel smarter and “more sciencey.” He bit back an insult before speaking. “I’m sure your employer would. But, as you say, it doesn’t work.”
“Yet.” Cascao put his hands in his pockets and strolled around the desk. “We’ve been following your work, and remain confident that you’ll solve the problem soon. That’s why you’re here so early on a weekend, isn’t it? Some insight you want to test while it’s fresh in your mind?”
“Maybe.” Doug took a measure of the man. The stranger was clearly stronger than him, but maybe Doug could out think him, if he knew what the stranger’s game was. Or even what his name was. “Maybe I’ve got the solution now, or maybe it’ll be another four years. Is your employer willing to wait that long, mister..?”
“Cascao.” He chuckled. “You’d think with all the Doctors I’ve met this week, I’d have learned to introduce myself properly. And as for my employer’s patience … who can say?” He walked around to inspect the degrees and accolades hanging on Doug’s wall. “Don’t mind me, Doctor Lyons. I’m just here to check on your progress and offer my assistance today, should it prove necessary.”
Doug warily approached his stool, the stool Cascao was sitting on when he entered the room. He picked up the folder of notes and saw a handwritten letter at the front of the packet. He didn’t recognize the script.
It has come to my attention that you are working on long range gate travel. I’m sure you are familiar with the Entregar and can see a use for outfitting her with a long range Gate Drive. I have another, related purpose in mind, however. Should you wish to contribute, you will be more than adequately compensated. You shall not want for funding in your future research endeavors, and I shall not dictate the areas of that research. I ask only that you sell me a five year exclusivity patent on your long range drive when it is proven viable.
If Mr. Cascao is still there, I am sure you can find a use for his talents. If you are reading this and he is not still in the room, you may call message him at this address should you require assistance.
Yours in service,
Doug put the letter down, the looked at Cascao. “Is this for real?”
“Indeed it is. My employer has lent me to you until such time as your project is complete. Within reason, anything you need I can procure. You need only ask.” Doug noticed Cascao pointedly didn’t mention his employer’s name, even after he’d read the letter. Did that mean Cascao was worried about listening devices in the lab?
“Anything I need?”
“Let’s get started then.” Doug cracked his knuckles and took his notebook out of his pocket. He plugged the dream configuration into the simulation. “Do you know what mister … ah … your employer wants with this project?”
“I cannot say, sir.” Cascao’s accent changed the more they talked. At first he sounded more like a British thug, a street tough, but now he sounded more like a butler. Or perhaps the accent hadn’t changed, but Doug’s perception of the man shifted as new information became available.
“Is there a way I can contact your employer with questions?”
“You may relay them through me, sir. Write your questions down as you think of them and I will ask him in the evenings.”
Doug finished typing and started the simulation. While it ran, he wrote questions down on a blank page: “Room bugged? New ship? Need engineer for maiden voyage?” He passed the paper to Cascao who read it quickly, then tucked it into his breast pocket.
Cascao picked up a pen and a notebook of his own, then wrote a quick note back: “Unsure if room bugged. Haven’t swept yet. Take no chances.”
Doug nodded as he read it. “Cascao, I skipped breakfast this morning. Would you run out and get us something?” As he spoke, he wrote another note, then held it up for Cascao to read: “Get what you need to sweep/clean the room.”
“Certainly, sir.” Cascao nodded and left quietly.
Doug turned back toward the simulation. The first run was finished.
“Well, Mac, here we are.” Lewis talked to his old friend as the Searcher Cascade approached Luna Station. After the three day flight Mac moved his gear back to his small mining vessel, call sign Badger Seven Five India Three. Lewis was alone on the bridge. Faye was in the engine room, making sure things were set for docking inspection. Nathan, the nominal captain of the freighter, was performing last minute checks on their cargo, making sure everything was ship shape for docking.
“Indeed, Kid. See ya port side.” Mac’s voice floated out of the communications station.
Lewis was about to hit the docking release, then caught himself. “For the logs, Mac?”
“Right. The damned logs…” Mac heaved a weary sigh. “Badger Seven Five India Three to Searcher Cascade requesting permission to disengage.”
“Permission to disengage granted, Badger Seven Five India Three.” Lewis flipped the switch to include internal comms so Nathan wouldn’t be caught off guard. “Docking clamps released. Badger Seven Five India Three you are clear to depart. Safe travels, Captain. Searcher Cascade out.”
“Roger Searcher Cascade.” A slight tremor went through the hull as the mining vessel fired her maneuvering thrusters and pushed off. “Badger Seven Five India Three, undocking completed. Thanks for the lift, Searcher Cascade. Badger Out.”
Mac opened a private channel to Lewis. “Was that official enough for ya, Kid?”
Lewis laughed, keying his mic mid-chortle. “Good enough, Mac. Dinner at Angelique’s around 1400 station time?” Lewis checked the chronometer as it synchronized with the station. Dinner would be in three hours, which should give both men plenty of time to dock their ships, disembark, and stow their gear. Contract flights like theirs were common enough to almost be the norm these days. The ship was owned by a corporation, and the crew were contracted to fly the ship for an amount of time or until a job was done. For the mining ships, the pilots were mostly renting by the day, so by catching a ride with the Searcher Cascade, Mac was able to save a week of flight time in his profits.
Nathan Lyons actually owned the Searcher Cascade, so Lewis and Faye had their contracts with him. Nathan stayed aboard ship when it was docked, living out of the Captain’s Quarters, but for Faye and Lewis, their contracts ended as soon as the cargo canisters were unloaded. They would have to either find another ship or make arrangements aboard station for lodging or storage. Mac would probably throw his duffle in a locker and find another Badger to fly while Seven Five India Three underwent routine maintenance and cleaning.
“Got your next berth lined up?” Faye crept onto the bridge while Lewis finalized his docking request to Luna Station.
“No, not yet. I keep thinking there will be something more interesting than freighter or mining ship … One second.” Lewis turned back to his console and finished filling out the customs forms and cargo manifest to send to Luna Station.
“I know what you mean … I thought working in space would be more … I don’t know.”
“Exciting?” Lewis offered. He tapped his screen and pulled up the list of crew requests from Luna Station. “I just pulled a fresh copy from the station, all outgoing freight. Except this one for a passenger liner …”
“What’s so bad about a passenger liner?”
“Spoken like a spacer who’s never worked one.” She punched him gently in the shoulder. “For an engineer it might not be so bad, other than the tours of the engine room … but the command crew are bombarded by passenger requests all day. It’s an easy job, and it would be great except for one thing.”
“The passengers. Right. I suppose that’s true of most public-facing jobs though.” Lewis acknowledged the message from the station. Their request to dock was granted and the adjusted course to the indicated docking port.
“What’s this one here?” Faye scrolled through the list while Lewis worked. She opened a crew request and read the message heading. “Crew wanted: Long hours, low pay, glory and camaraderie.”
“That doesn’t sound good…” Lewis checked it anyway, to satisfy his curiosity before it got the better of him. “This can’t be legitimate. The start date is tomorrow, and the end date is blank. There’s no destination, only an origin on Mars Orbital.” He called up the metadata on the entry. “Huh … it says Mac posted it. I’ll have to ask him about it at dinner.”
“Do you mind if I tag along? I’m curious about it too. You have to admit, it doesn’t sound like your boring freighter trips.” Faye kept reading the entry. “He says he’s looking for four crew for a new ship, comprising a pilot, mechanic/engineer, doctor, and engineer specialist.”
“I’ll ping him, but I think it’ll probably be okay if you joined us.”
Luna Station was a city, floating above the surface of the moon at the Earth-Moon L2 point, the far side from the planet. Luna Station was the industrial counterpart to Moon Orbital, situated in the Earth-Moon L1 point between the moon and Earth. One side of Moon Orbital always faced the home planet and offered breathtaking views and luxury accommodations for the wealthy to enjoy before disembarking on a three month cruise to Saturn and back. The other side of Moon Orbital held the Lunar Space Elevator, a carbon filament cable tethering the station to the lunar surface and offering an elevator for tourists to re-enact the Apollo landings. Groups of up to four could select from a choice of the five successful landings and see the original astronauts’ descent view projected onto the bottom of the elevator while recordings of the astronaut’s dialog played. Once they reached the surface tour guides helped the tourists into space suits, ensuring they were airtight before allowing the tourists to exit the pressurized cabin and even pilot facsimiles of the NASA Lunar Rovers on a controlled course.
Luna Station offered none of these attractions. One deck of Luna Station was entirely given over to storing and moving cargo canisters. The Cargo deck had a dedicated Gate of its own to send the canisters to ore processing facilities, or to other stations if the can was full of supplies other than ore. Three massive airlocks operated in rotation. While one was open to space, small tug ships would move empty cans from the bay to waiting freighters, filling the bay with full cans. The second airlock would slowly pressurize or depressurize as required. The third would be open to the station while zero-g stevedores performed the same task as the tug ships, transferring full cans out of the airlock and into the stacks of cans on deck while putting the empty cans back in the airlock.
A slice of the far side of Luna Station was given over to astronomical observation, shielded by the moon from Earth’s radio and light transmissions, and shielded by the bulk of the station from the moon’s glow. Astronomers booked time on an array of telescopes situated on this part of Luna Station, scanning the universe, continuing work started decades in the past.
The Administration deck of Luna Station managed the running of the cargo deck, including traffic control of inbound and output freighters and the flight paths of the tugs as they moved canisters around. Admin Deck also managed the crew request board, where captains and companies could submit a Request for Crew, detailing the ship type and mission profile. Admin Deck only edited the requests for offensive or derogatory phrases. Spacers would then read the requests and apply through the board. Admin Deck would again filter out obvious offensive messages but would otherwise pass the message to the captain that posted the request. If either a captain or a spacer had problems with how a crew request was resolved, they could petition Admin Deck. An A.D. Adjudicator would review the communications and relevant ship logs. If either party were determined to be in default of the contract presented in the request, the defaulting party would be penalized including a monetary fine or having their license revoked.
Luna Station’s habitation deck boasted a range of accommodations from Capsule Hotels, where an occupant would rent a coffin sized room with a mattress, access to communal bathroom / shower facilities, and a small storage locker, suitable for safely securing small personal possessions, up to high-end Luxury Rooms at the station’s only four-star tourist-style hotel, with in-suite artificial gravity, spacious private sleeping quarters boasting a king size bed, adjoining entertaining room with wall screens capable of playing any media requested, and spacious private bathroom with full size bathtub. In addition to the hotels, the habitation deck boasted a variety of restaurants.
As the widest ring of the station, the habitation deck spun slowly, enough that the outer hull simulated one-half Earth gravity. An elevator ran through the core of the station, connecting all decks. Most decks maintained the convention that Admin Deck was “above” Cargo Deck, the latter being nearer the moon’s surface. The convention changed on the habitation deck. It was the only deck that spun and so had its own gravity. On the habitation deck “up” was toward the hub, and “down” was toward the hull. A set of elevators connected hub to hull like a series of spokes on a wheel, dividing the deck into eight sections.
Sections One and Five held the apartments for station personnel who lived on the station full time. Larger and more expensive apartments could be found rim ward, with the exception of a few large apartments very near the hub. These boasted artificial gravity plates which could be oriented in any direction the occupant wished and could simulate up to 1.5 gravities. These apartments were occupied by the station command personnel.
Sections Two and Six contained the shopping districts where most of the amenities of earth could be found and purchased, including clothing, art objects, and personal electronics.
Sections Three and Seven contained the restaurant and grocery districts where almost anything edible was sold and consumed.
Sections Four and Eight were more industrial. Some of the raw materials that flowed through Luna Station made their way to these sections and were processed into other goods before being exported or sold aboard station.
Lewis rented a bunk at a capsule hotel and stowed his gear in the storage locker. He took a quick shower to wash the travel fatigue from his bones then jogged to the restaurant. He tapped a message to Faye and she met him outside Angelique’s.
“You’re looking almost human, Lewis. Are you starting to feel human again too?” she asked playfully.
“Getting there. It’s good to be on station again. I got a capsule at Kyoshi’s. You?”
“Decided to spring for a little room at the Kimberly.” Faye booked a room at a moderately priced hotel, about two thirds the distance from hub to hull, close enough to feel some of the spin gravity. “Figured we’ll get a nice payday from the cargo, and maybe even a nice bonus. Plus, you only live once, right?
“True enough.” Lewis saw her logic, but couldn’t bring himself to spend more than he had to for a place to sleep. He needed to save up for the drone certification and maybe a ship of his own someday. “Let’s go say hi to Mac and enjoy a meal that didn’t come out of the hold.”
“You said it! Lead the way.” Faye followed him into the restaurant, and waved when she saw Mac. They took their seats, but before they could ask Mac about the crew request, the waiter came over.
“Can I get you guys started with some drinks?”
Mac ordered for the table. “Four Disharmony lagers.”
“Coming right up. Do you want to wait for your friend before I take your orders?”
“Yes, please. Just the drinks for now.”
“Alright. I’ll be back in a jiffy.”
Lewis spoke first after the waiter left. “That man is far too cheerful for how I feel right now … do I look like someone who wants that much energy in my waiter right now?”
“You look like death warmed over, Kid.”
“Be nice, Lewis.” Faye gave him a light, friendly slap on the forearm. “I’ve been in his shoes. Sometimes being that cheerful is the only way you can make it through a shift.”
The two men contemplated her words for a moment until the waiter came back with their drinks. The nice thing about Angelique’s was that it was on the rim and had enough spin gravity that drinks were served in open vessels.
“To journey’s end.” Mac raised his glass in a toast.
“To continued friendships.” Lewis raised his and tapped it against Mac’s glass.
“And new friends!” Faye tapped hers against both of theirs.
“New friends,” Mac agreed, then drank a mouthful of the amber brew. Faye likewise took a sensible draught before returning her glass to the table.
Lewis drank deeply from his glass and finally set it down, half empty.
“That was just what I needed. Thanks Mac.”
Mac just laughed. “I guess so. Rough flight?”
“There were … some good parts,” Lewis glanced at Faye, then quickly looked elsewhere. “Over all good, but Lyons is a stickler for protocol…”
“He’s not so bad. And at least protocol gives you something to focus on sometimes …” Faye thought back to the months aboard the Searcher Cascade. “No, you’re right. I mean, I can see where he’s coming from, but with just the three of us … I could have done without the all-call broadcasts for every watch change.” She took another drink from her glass. “After the fifth day, I think I had the watch rotation down.”
“You guys got your next berth lined up?”
“I’m glad you brought that up, actually. Just before docking, Faye and I were checking the request queue and saw you put in a request?”
“I was hoping you saw that, Kid.”
“It sounds both mysterious and...“ Faye grasped for a word.
“Exciting?” Mac offered.
“I was trying to think of a more delicate way to say boring, actually.”
“That explains why I haven’t had any crew submissions … So much the better though. I think you two would be perfect.”
“What’s it for though? There was no ship or route listed.”
“And with good reason. But I wanted to wait for our fourth to get here first.” Mac looked around the dining room, then spotted someone and waved.
A broad-shouldered man in a tailored black suit approached their table. He carried a black bowler hat in his hand. Angelique’s wasn’t the sort of restaurant that had a coat check, so he set the hat in an empty part of the table then sat down.
Mac introduced everyone. “Mister Cangalko, this is my good friend and ace pilot Lewis Selmeyer, and his friend and genius mechanic Faye McGillis. Kids, this is mister Cangalko, my current benefactor and the reason I have a ship that needs a crew.”
“To be fair,” Cangalko spoke with a British accent and a somewhat nasally voice, “I merely represent my employer in this endeavor and am not your direct benefactor.”
“Bah, mincing words.” Mac raised his glass again. “To the challenges that lie ahead.”
Lewis couldn’t think of anything to say, so he raised his glass silently.
“Sláinte.” Faye tapped her glass against the others.
“Challenges.” Cangalko took a long drink, then removed a small electronic device from his pocket. He set it on the table and it came alive with blinking lights and soft whistles and beeps. “Counter surveillance. Can’t be too careful these days. He swept the device under his hat. “Even so, I daren’t say too much here. I will say what I can, and after dinner we can retire to my rooms at the Zurpon.”
“Swanky! Sure beats the hell out of a coffin.” Lewis finished his drink.
“Indeed, sir. How familiar are you with the Entregar?”
They ate dinner quickly, tantalized by the glimpse at the job Cangalko gave them, then retired to the Zurpon for more privacy. Cangalko activated his device again, then swept around the room with another device. “I hope you will understand the need for secrecy, and the necessity to have you both sign these non-disclosure agreements. Captain Sizmer has already signed his.” Cangalko sat at the table in the living room of the suite, and motioned the others to sit as well. He opened an attaché case and removed two thin stacks of paper, two ink pens, and his PersCom tablet. “I’m sending you digital copies of these agreements, but my employer would rather you sign the physical copies, witnessed by myself and Captain Sizmer.”
“It’s alright, Kid. Just standard boiler plate. What you learn in this room doesn’t leave the room until you’re aboard the ship.”
“Makes sense.” Faye opened her PersCom and read the document quickly, then reviewed key sections.
Lewis skimmed through the paper copy, toying with the pen. “If you say so, Mac. Mostly I’m just curious as hell right now.” He signed on the last page and passed the paper and pen back to Cangalko.
“I just have one question before I sign. Just to make sure I understand. It looks like if I break this contract, tell someone in the media what’s going on here and who your employer is, the financial penalties would basically make me forever in debt to you.” She stared into Cangalko’s calm eyes.
He blinked first. “Unfortunately, most of the people my employer deals with would find such sums a pittance. It is, however, large enough to cause a buzz in the media and associate their name with the phrase ‘breach of contract’ which is the more damaging aspect.”
“Okay, sure, by why does the contract only name you? Why doesn’t it name your employer?”
“Because there is nothing preventing you from reading the contract, not signing, and telling others what you read. I am, myself, under a similar contract to remit any financial gains I gain through these contracts to my employer. It is a sadly standard practice these days, I’m afraid.”
“Fair enough.” Faye signed the papers and handed them back. “What’s this all about? Like Lewis said, I’m curious.”
Cangalko picked up the papers, verified the signatures, and tucked the contracts back into his case. Mac sat down to listen. “Ten months ago, the Entregar encountered an alien species. Humanity had, for the first time, incontrovertible proof that we were not alone in the galaxy. Not only were there other space-faring civilizations, but they had organized a race around the galaxy.
“The gravitic anomalies Entregar was chasing were caused by the ships of some of these racers, and Entregar found itself at one of the race checkpoints. The alien that greeted the ship called itself Jhad of Airouda, apparently a representative from a race of psychic beings. Entregar’s captain was able to barter some information to Jhad for entry into the next race, with a promise of more information should we win.” Mac was grinning from ear to ear, watching as Lewis’s mouth hung open and he dropped his cup of coffee. Faye seemed to be taking it in stride, waiting for the story to finish before passing judgment.
“My employer, Brent Deneau, intends to win this race.”
Lewis spoke before Cangalko could continue. “Surely Entregar is ideal for the race. She’s the fastest ship ever built, and has gone further than any other vessel.”
“Those are both good reasons for Entregar to race, however there is one reason Entregar cannot. Jhad explained the rules of the race. In addition to the expectation of combat from something called a Hissthashar, the maximum crew size for any race vessel is five sentients. Entregar’s minimum crew is seven. We’ve run the numbers and there’s no way she can operate on fewer crew if we expect the crew to last more than two weeks.”
“So that’s where we come in?” Faye
“Precisely, miss McGillis. You will be crewed, along with Captain Sizmer, to a new ship being built at Mars Orbital as we speak, the BCS Cartographer.”
Faye silently mouthed the ship name, getting a feel for it. “Hmm... Cartographer. Carty. Graphy? Grapher? I’m not sure I’m in love with the name, but I’ll find something.”
“Is three going to be enough?” Lewis. “I mean, Mac’s request said he was looking for four slots, including two engineers.”
Cangalko gave Mac a sideways glance. Mac shrugged. “What can I say, I got excited and wanted to get the crew request out quickly.”
“The other positions have been filled. The Cartographer was designed and built to be crewed by a minimum of one pilot if necessary, but a maximum of five crew covering a wide array of necessary skills. A specialist engineer has been found to work on the experimental Gate Drive, but a strong secondary engineer is required to keep the rest of the ship functioning, including its ion drive and magnetic shielding.”
“And that would be me, I take it?” Lewis watched Faye closely. He thought he’d gotten to know her fairly well aboard the Searcher Cascade, but he hadn’t seen her like this before. She seemed outwardly calm, but there was a quiet rage emanating from her slightly hunched shoulders. Her hands seem to want to flex into tight fists, but she forced them to lie flat on the table top.
“Mister Deneau has seen no mechanics as highly skilled in his search, Miss McGillis. You are no mere secondary or backup engineer. As brilliant as Doctor Lyons is, his knowledge and expertise are tightly focused on the Gate network and stellar coordinate systems.”
Faye relaxed slightly. Lewis tried to change the subject. “You mentioned something called a Hissthashar, and implied armed conflict?”
“Jhad mentioned that some species plan their race strategy around disabling faster opponents rather than building faster ships. We don’t have time to design and implement full weapons systems, but we did design a magnetic shield that should repel some attacks. Mostly the Cartographer was designed to be fast and maneuverable. Jhad was light on details, apparently until we complete the race, so we’re designing general solutions to unknown obstacles.”
“You and me, Kid. We can take what this race can dish out. No one knows the course much ahead of time, so Cangalko assures me Cartographer will have the latest sensor suite installed. Her name’s not a coincidence either. Part of our mission will be to map the areas of space we pass through in order to expand the Ship Gate network and facilitate trade. I just spent the last four months staring at rocks and sensor readings.” Mac clapped Lewis on the back. “And I’ve never had a smoother ride back to Luna than on your ship. I know that’s not exactly high praise, but you should see some of the other rock jockeys they have at the helm of those freighters. You’d think half of ‘em thought space was two dimensional and the only way to avoid a collision was by applying delta-v to adjust speed.”
“Fresh outta the academy, probably.” Lewis imagined flying a nimble ship through a fire fight, then compared it to piloting a behemoth like the Cascade. She was an alright ship, but a fully loaded freighter has so much mass that any maneuver can quickly get out of hand if you’re not paying attention. Try to change course too quickly and you’ll either over-steer or snap the ship’s spine. “Sounds like fun. I’m in.”
“Sign me up too, I guess.”
“Excellent.” Cangalko sent another document to their PersComs, an electronic copy of a crew contract. “Just sign those and we’ll be all set. Glad to have you aboard. During the race, Entregar will be your support vehicle. If things get too bad, escape back to her. This won’t be a safe mission by any stretch, but Bridge Co would rather have you alive than lost in space.” Cangalko packed his PersCom away and stood. “Gentlemen, and lady, if there are no further questions …”
No one had anything else, so with their business concluded, the three spacers left Cangalko’s upscale hotel room. “Have a good night, Kids. We’re heading to Mars Orbital at 0625 tomorrow. Send those crew contracts to Cangalko and meet at the StepGate if you want to join up.” Mac left them alone in the hallway as he walked off to his own room, elsewhere on the station.
“Can I … That is, would you like some company back to your room?” Lewis stammered.
“I would enjoy that. Thank you.” Faye took his arm and they began to walk to the Kimberly. “I have to agree with Mac though.”
“Ship-board romances. They rarely work out…”
“I didn’t mean to assume … I mean I don’t, not that you’re not, I mean”
Faye interrupted his stammering by bumping into him, still holding his arm. “I didn’t say you were. I just said I agree with Mac.”
Lewis’ memory finally caught up with the conversation. “Wait, we talked about that when everyone else was asleep. How did you..?”
“You weren’t on a private channel. I woke up and went to get some water when I heard your voice. Sound carries from the bridge pretty well, though I couldn’t hear Mac very well. I listened in on the galley display.”
“So you were spying on me!” They left the hotel and turned toward the elevator, three minutes’ walk spin ward.
“Maybe … I was going to turn it off if you got too personal.” Faye playfully bumped him again
“I think that was pretty personal!” Lewis bumped her back, smiling.
“Yeah, but it was about me too, so I let my curiosity get the better of me.”
“I guess that’s fair…”
“And for the record, I think it could be fun…” She let go of his arm and ran a few paces ahead with a wink.
Lewis strode after her. “Wait! What could be fun?” She turned toward him, walking backward for a few paces.
“We’re not on a ship now, are we? Not part of a crew…” Faye smiled at him. She nodded her head toward the elevator, toward the Kimberly Hotel, then turned and ran at an easy pace.
Lewis followed on instinct. He hadn’t slept since his last watch on the Cascade began almost twenty eight hours ago. He smiled and chased the pretty woman as his sleep-deprived brain slowly put the pieces together. Ship-board romances are a bad idea. But we’re not on a ship. Was she flirting with him? Or was that just the Disharmony Lager? How many had she had at dinner? Just the one? She’s not running fast, not fast enough to actually get away at any rate. It finally clicked for him that she was in fact inviting him back to her hotel room, with the implied suggestion of something more than a chaste goodnight kiss. Lewis stumbled, caught himself in the low gravity, and chased after her.
Faye held the elevator door for him, to the general irritation of the other spacers just trying to take the elevator to their beds, then held his hand while the car traveled to the inner ring where the Kimberly was located. She giggled and ran ahead of him again, not letting go of his hand, dragging him through the reduced gravity.
They finally reached her hotel room, and Faye swiped her ident card on the reader, unlocking the door. No sooner had the door closed behind them than she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and touched her lips to his. Lewis was surprised, and let her momentum carry them back against the door. He lost himself in the moment, savoring her taste and the feel of her lips.
She reached between them and unzipped her ship suit before pushing away from him. She stepped backward, half floating in the reduced gravity, and wriggled her arms free of the suit sleeves as she made her way to the bed.
Lewis was suddenly thankful he’d had the presence of mind to shower before dinner, then realized with Faye that probably wasn’t a concern. They had spent months aboard the Cascade together, in varying lengths of time between baths. He unzipped his flight suit and pulls his arms free as he followed her.
Afterward, they lay in bed, the sheet supplying enough resistance to keep them from falling out of bed with each incautious movement. Lewis lay behind Faye, one arm draped over her abdomen, his legs bent slightly following the curve of her legs as she curled slightly.
She broke the silence first. “I can’t tell you how badly I needed that.”
“I think I could guess… Sometimes three months doesn’t seem like it’ll be a long time, but then you get out there…”
“Mmm hmm” She pressed back against him.
Lewis kissed the back of her head softly, burying his nose in her hair and inhaling deeply. “Now’s probably not the best time, but it’ll come up sooner or later…”
“Can we just enjoy tonight?” She placed her hand over his and drew it close to her heart.
“As you wish.”
They slept well that night, whether more from the exhaustion or the companionship neither could say. Faye’s alarm went off at 0400. The Kimberly was fancy enough to have artificial gravity in the suites, but not upscale enough to include it in the room as a complimentary feature. They decided to share the AG and showered together at three quarters gravity. After she checked out of the Kimberly, Faye walked with him to Kyoshi’s Capsule Hotel where Lewis collected his bag and left. Guests paid for their stay up front at Kyoshi’s and Lewis only paid for the one night. His locker would automatically open in four hours whether he had claimed his belongings or not.
With an hour to kill before meeting Mac, they had breakfast at the Dancer’s Diner, two minutes anti-spinward from the StepGate.
“So about last night …” Faye began
“About tomorrow …” Lewis began at the same time while they waited for their breakfast.
“Sorry, you go first.” Faye.
“I think we might be talking about the same thing…”
“Probably. Still, you go first.”
“Okay. I had a great time last night. And it seemed like you did too.” Faye nodded. “So what do we do now?” Lewis pulled out his PersCom and brought up the crew contract. He hadn’t signed yet, but needed only to press his thumb to the screen. “We’re joining the same crew. I think that much is a given, right?”
“Definitely. I wouldn’t miss this trip.” Faye retrieved her own PersCom.
“So do we ask if there’s a double bed? Or shared quarters? Or do we leave last night in the past?”
“I think…” Faye chose her words carefully, “no matter what we do, this trip could be awkward. With only five of us aboard, we’ll be unlikely to avoid each other. We’re both professionals, right?”
“I always thought so before.”
“So let’s see where it goes. If we can’t share quarters, maybe we can alternate which net we sleep in.” A mischievous grin spread across her face and she tried to hide it by staring at her PersCom.
Lewis grinned openly, watching her. “Sounds good to me. We may be too busy for it to matter anyway."