include_once("common_lab_header.php");
Excerpt for Ship Tracers by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Ship Tracers


A Captain Arlon Stoddard Novel


Copyright 2018 by Sean Monaghan

All rights reserved

Cover Art: © Victor Habbick | Dreamstime.com


Published by Triple V Publishing


Author web page

www.seanmonaghan.com


This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

Smashwords Edition.



Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty One

Chapter Twenty Two

Chapter Twenty Three

Chapter Twenty Four

Chapter Twenty Five

Chapter Twenty Six

Chapter Twenty Seven

Chapter Twenty Eight

Chapter Twenty Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty One

Chapter Thirty Two

Chapter Thirty Three

Chapter Thirty Four

Chapter Thirty Five

Chapter Thirty Six

Chapter Thirty Seven

Chapter Thirty Eight

Chapter Thirty Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty One

Chapter Forty Two

Chapter Forty Three

Chapter Forty Four

Chapter Forty Five

Chapter Forty Six

Chapter Forty Seven

Chapter Forty Eight

Chapter Forty Nine

Chapter Fifty

Chapter Fifty One

Chapter Fifty Two

Chapter Fifty Three

Chapter Fifty Four

Chapter Fifty Five

Chapter Fifty Six

Chapter Fifty Seven

Chapter Fifty Eight

Chapter Fifty Nine

Chapter Sixty

Chapter Sixty One

Chapter Sixty Two

Chapter Sixty Three

Chapter Sixty Four

Chapter Sixty Five

Chapter Sixty Six

Chapter Sixty Seven

Chapter Sixty Eight

Chapter Sixty Nine

Chapter Seventy

Chapter Seventy One

Chapter Seventy Two

Chapter Seventy Three

Chapter Seventy Four

Chapter Seventy Five

Chapter Seventy Six

Chapter Seventy Seven

Chapter Seventy Eight

Chapter Seventy Nine

Chapter Eighty

Chapter Eighty One

Chapter Eighty Two

Chapter Eighty Three

Chapter Eighty Four

Chapter Eighty Five

Chapter Eighty Six

Chapter Eighty Seven

Chapter Eighty Eight

Chapter Eighty Nine

Chapter Ninety

Chapter Ninety One

Chapter Ninety Two

Chapter Ninety Three

Acknowledgement

About the Author

Other Books By Sean Monaghan

Links



Chapter One


Finding killers hiding among the crevices and crags of cold dead asteroids would never be an easy task.

These rocks had myriad hidey-holes, from niches to caves as big as cathedrals. Most natural, a few bored out with high-energy heat vaporizers, and some left from old-time mining outfits. If you looked close at the surface you could sometimes spot the abandoned machinery.

Captain Arlon Stoddard’s three-hundred meter-long vessel, the Bright Edge moved along in a slow orbit above the asteroid Nankong. He peered through the forward viewport of the Bright Edge, watching the bright asteroid’s surface pass below. Beyond the too-close horizon, on of the miniscule moons began to rise.

Just large enough to have a vaguely spherical shape, Nankong sported the usual pitted and cratered surface, gray and brown and uninviting. Thick airless regolith.

Nankong had three moons. Jade, the closest–the one visible through the viewport–should have been in a stable orbit. The other two, larger and farther out, were more eccentric. The middle one, Beneficent, was slowly spiraling away from Nankong. Another thousand years and Beneficent would have escaped Nankong’s light gravity altogether.

The farthest, Glimmer, actually had an old homing base on it. From back in the days when colonization of the Corrin system was just getting started. The asteroid-moon was just fifteen kilometers on its long axis. Arlon wouldn’t mind a look at the station. Just for interest’s sake.

Maybe if they could find these culprits, there might be a day or two in hand for some sightseeing.

Glimmer’s orbit was extremely eccentric, the closest point only a few tens of kilometers, the farthest over ten thousand. Hardly stable at all.

The Bright Edge’s cockpit was cool and dark, as Eva Strong worked her magic attempting to figure out if they’d found their quarry on the asteroid. A dozen bright displays arrayed around her showed every aspect of near space and of the ship’s performance. She tapped at her controls, making slight adjustments to the scanning and to their orbit.

Never an easy thing to orbit an asteroid. With such low gravity, you had to go real slow.

The ship’s cockpit had eight main chairs, with another eight jumpseats. She was bigger than most vessels Arlon had commanded. More comfortable and well-appointed. The captain’s cabin was not pokey, and even had a private bathroom.

Technically the vessel was just a ketch, with a tidy skip drive system that could deliver them just about anywhere in the human-inhabited sphere within a matter of weeks. And a conventional drive that could accelerate them very quickly in real space. With Olivia Kersmann keeping things running, they were in good hands.

Arlon, seated in the comfortable, high-backed captain’s chair, kept quiet as Eva worked at the pilot’s console. The captain’s chair was comfy, with sturdy armrests and smaller console displays. The chair could expand itself, with more displays and controls, if needed. Technically he could run the entire ship from just this spot.

Eva was beginning to come into her own as a pilot. Now thirty-two–the crew had celebrated her birthday just a few weeks back, with candles on a heavy sweet chocolate cake from the food dispenser and ribbons and balloons from the fabricator–she was going places.

It was nice to watch. Sometime soon she would be ready for her own command. Arlon would be sad to see her go.

The Corrin system boasted seven planets orbiting a regular old star. Bremwel, the third planet, had a significant thriving biosphere, with a substantial human population. Over four million now. Forestry and agriculture, art and music, sport and exploration. Criminals.

The two they were after, Jain Althred and Curria Bollienge, stood accused of the home invasion and murder of two of the wealthiest people on Bremwel.

A couple, Ashophel Minniat and Ree Anderson, owned mining installations around the system. Their money helped to fund numerous museums and scholarship programs. They were very generous.

Their bodies had been found floating in the small lake out back of their hillside mansion. They had no children, but there was one on the way.

Unused to such crimes, the Bremwel government had called on The Authority to help. Arlon and his crew had been within a day’s flight of the system so here they were.

All the evidence pointed to the pair of women, Althred and Bollienge. They’d already been involved in similar killings, but nothing with such a high profile.

“Captain,” Eva said. “I’ve got something.” Reaching to one of her consoles, she expanded an image.

“On the surface. Somewhere they might be hiding?” Locating this pair was taking every resource the Bright Edge could bring to bear. From her deep scanning systems to passive inference and extrapolation.

“On the surface, yes. But I’m not sure what it is yet.”

“North of us,” Marto said. A Crested Daison, Marto dwarfed the humans on the crew. Over two meters tall, with bulky musculature and an imposing presence. His brown, bristly fur covered most of his body, but on his head the fur was blonde and able to rise high into a crest.

A flat, wide nose, with nostrils where human cheekbones would be, and a grin that could be menacing if you didn’t know him.

Arlon valued Marto’s take on things. Quiet and reliable, but always ready with a useful comment, or a shot with a pulser, whatever was required.

There were six on the crew now. The three of them on the bridge, with Olivia below at the engines, Gen Jenner checking their navigation in a separate station, and Holly Blaise, hopefully asleep in her cabin. This was all routine stuff for now.

When they found their quarry, it would take all six of them.

“Yes, north,” Eva said. “I’ll adjust our orbit.”

“Vector coming over.” Marto sat at a console two back, just double-checking the incoming data. He waved some of it across to Eva’s console.

“Got it thanks,” she said. “You know what we should do when we get this pair? We should go to Eidelston’s Bistro.”

Marto grunted.

“What? No. I looked it up on the Bremwel directory. They serve something called kewlapper. It’s a kind of fish with a real high microorganism count. Somehow they sear it to perfection, just so the microbes don’t die. Also, the restaurant is set up in the mountains. Over some old hanging valleys from when glaciers tore the region up. I think you’d enjoy it.”

“Maybe I would.” Marto focused on his console.

Quite an accommodation from him.

The Bright Edge creaked as Eva adjust the trajectory.

“Life signs there,” Marto said.

“Show me,” Eva said.

“Coming over now.” Marto waved the data across to both Eva and Arlon’s consoles. The small displays on Arlon’s armrests showed scrolling data and some still images, as well as extrapolations.

One of the images showed a cluster of blue dots over a section of the asteroid.

“Those are the life signs?” Eva said. “That can’t be right.”

“It is right,” Marto said.

“There are dozens of them. I thought we were looking for two people.”

A number came up on Arlon’s display. A count of the blue dots.

Eighty-four.

“Looks like we walked into something different,” he said.



Chapter Two


Though she could set down on a planetary or asteroid surface herself, the Bright Edge boasted six landing skiffs. From the twenty-meter Scanlon Industries LS52, to the tiny two-person APEs that were basically pods with wings.

Eva positioned the Bright Edge’s laconic orbit so they would come in over the populated installation.

Nankong was two hundred and seventy kilometers on its long axis, though the asteroid was almost a sphere. Lumpy and a bit lopsided. Not quite big enough for gravity to pull it fully round.

Arlon scooted along the main companionway to the skiff hangar, grabbing loops and studs to guide his way. Sometime soon someone was going to get a grip on artificial gravity and change so much about space travel. Until then, he would still be floating and drifting.

He found Holly and Gen waiting outside the skiff docking airlock. Both of them were pulling on light flight suits for landing.

Each of the skiffs had their own dedicated airlock. Despite calling the storage space a ‘hangar’, it was only infrequently that the volume had atmosphere. Mostly the skiffs were in vacuum, ready to go, and meaning there was no need to go through wasteful evacuation of the hangar each time a skiff launched.

“I heard there are a hundred fifty people down there,” Gen said as Arlon came within earshot. Gen had dyed his hair an odd blue-purple color that had some iridescence to it, shimmering in the backlight. “But that might be a conservative estimate?”

“Eighty-four,” Arlon said. “Don’t know how you got one fifty.”

Gen shrugged. “I guess I just double any number I hear I guess. You know, salary offers and fish size.” He thumbed the flight suit’s tab at his navel and the suit zipped closed.

“Sheesh,” Holly said. She was already in her tan-orange flight suit, with chunky ground-ready boots. She gave him a wink and her rosy smile. Maybe when this was done they could take one of the skiffs out for a couple of days comet-watching or some such.

“Who knows?” Gen said. “The number’s just plucked out of the air.”

“From the scans,” Marto said, coming up behind Arlon and swinging expertly around in the narrow space. Marto grabbed his own flight-suit. The one designed to accommodate his huge frame and slightly different jointing patterns.

“From the scans,” Gen said. “Right. Because the scans are always right. Yet we started out looking for two people. And did I mention that actually I was due for shore leave? Now? I should be throwing away last month’s salary on the craps tables and good vodka on Eesthomane, right? Now I’m stuck here–”

“Cut it out Gen,” Eva said, following along behind Marto.

Arlon smiled to himself. Holly noticed and gave him another wink.

Gen might mutter and complain but he was a crack navigator and troubleshooter and that always overrode anything. And even if he did have leave coming, he wouldn’t have missed a mission for anything.

“We taking the LS?” Eva said, pulling on boots, meaning the LS52 skiff. “I think we should call it the Eva, instead of just its model number.”

“It’s the one for the job,” Holly said.

Eva?” Gen said. “Seriously? You want to call the skiff after yourself?”

“I like Eva.” Marto said.

“See, buddy, that’s just ambiguous. Do you mean you like ‘Eva’ Eva, or that you like the name Eva, or that you like the idea of calling the skiff after her?”

“All of that.”

“Aww! You’re so sweet,” Eva said, pushing off the wall and grabbing Marto’s hair to pull herself in and plant a kiss on his snout.

Not everyone could just grab a Crested Daison’s hair and live to tell the tale. It stood as testament to how well this crew functioned. Quirks notwithstanding.

“Hey!” Olivia called from along the companionway. “Leaving without me?”

“We drew straws,” Gen said. “I drew for you.”

“Right, so I lost.” Olivia drifted in. Bigger than any of them, except Marto, Olivia was a good person to have on your side. Her shock of red hair drifted around her head like an anemone, ready to catch unwary fish.

“We’ll all go,” Arlon said. “Right now the Bright Edge is cruising just fine. We can link the Eva to the ship’s systems and have almost as much functionality as if we took her down herself.”

“Wait!” Gen said. “You’re actually going to officially call the skiff Eva?”

Arlon shrugged. “Sure, why not?” He gave Holly another wink.

“Because she–”

“I was only kidding,” Eva said. “I don’t want a skiff named after me. If they’re naming a vessel after me, it has to be one of those big liners. You know, with the pools and the theaters and endless buffets. That’s the Eva.”

Gen shook his head and puffed his cheeks, blowing air through closed lips.

“Someone got a better idea?” Arlon said.

Sir Hiegeloppe Furisstaenold,” Marto said.

Gen and Eva laughed.

“That’s a good name,” Holly said. “Sir Furisstaenold was one of the heroes in the Daison sphere. He saved thousands of people on Sumphe in devastating storms a hundred years ago.”

Everyone, including Marto, stared at her.

“What?” she said.

Gen grinned. “I knew you were smart, but I had no idea you were like a college professor.”

Holly gave a wan smile. “Not really. Just some information sticks, is all. How come I can remember something like that, but I can’t remember where I put my handheld two minutes ago?”

“Funny,” Gen said.

“I was joking,” Marto said.

Eva turned to him. “You? Joking. When did you ever make a joke?”

“Just now, right?”

“That’s two for two,” Gen said.

“All right people,” Arlon said. “Time to get to work.”

“But we don’t have a name for the skiff,” Gen said.

Olivia grabbed his shoulder. “Let’s work that out when we get back.”

Gen looked around. All right. “When we get back.”



Chapter Three


The installation was obvious from three kilometers away. The building stood stark and tall. Black, with white markings. A couple of small ships parked on a compacted apron around the central building. Skiffs even small than their own.

Arlon sat up front in their skiff with Eva as they came up on approach. The vessel hummed and Eva handled the skiff’s systems with ease. The tiny cockpit still had a new smell to it, like polish and adhesive. All the fittings gleamed and the lines were straight and true. Every locker stuffed with new equipment, from spare handhelds and specialist sensing devices, to extra rations, suits, tools, inflatable rescue pods, communications gear and spares for critical systems.

Factory new.

“It’s always nice taking out a brand new ship,” Arlon said.

“Nah, I’m not much for it. They’re all flash and shine. Give me a good-old worn-in vessel anytime. Like the Luminou. She was a fine ship, quirks and all.”

They eased in to a landing right at the edge of apron. Dust flew up, pushed by the skiff’s Voith fields. Something bleeped from Eva’s console. A red spot glowed from the display, with some data lined up next to the spot.

“Us?” Arlon said.

“Yes. Just a blocked vent in the number three ventral cycler. No big deal, but we’ll have to check it out next chance we get.”

Arlon smiled to himself. Eva would love that, some ship maintenance to keep things ticking over.

“I saw that smirk,” Eva said. She didn’t look away from her consoles. Overseeing the skiff locking itself to the surface. The system involved cables and pitons. Not as if the skiff would blow away or fall off, but with the low gravity it paid to be cautious.

Likewise they’d all be tethered to the skiff when they headed over to the installation. Gen had been attempting to get communications going with the station’s occupants with no luck.

“We weigh nothing at all,” Olivia said, stepping lightly through to the cockpit. “We’re going to have to watch ourselves.”

“Are we all going over to the installation?” Eva said, looking up from her consoles and through the skiff’s transparent forward viewscreen. “We might need to do a fifty-fifty.”

Half the crew going over, and half staying aboard the skiff.”

“I can work with that,” Arlon said. “So who stays aboard?”

“I’ll draw Gen’s straw for him,” Olivia said.

“Funny,” Gen said, from behind in the navigation station.

“You, Marto and Olivia,” Eva said.

“My thoughts exactly,” Arlon said. The crew was not a democracy, but it paid to keep everyone in the loop and happy. When they made good, concise calls, of course. “Let’s suit up.”

Something bleeped from the navigation station. Gen whipped around and focused on the displays.

Arlon pulled cautiously from his chair. Despite all the time he’d spent on asteroids, it always took a few moments to get used to this kind of microgravity. With a mass of around ninety kilograms, he would weigh something like a hundred grams here.

Holly watched him from the narrow hatchway that led through to the skiff’s meagre accommodations and lab. She had a handheld with a bright display. Something plotted on it.

“What’s up?” Arlon said.

“Might be something else coming in,” Holly said.

“Uh-oh,” Gen said, peering in at his console displays.

“What?” Eva said.

“She’s right. Big vessel. Real big. Coming in right now.”

“How ‘real big’?” Marto said.

“Thirty-two thousand meters.”

Arlon blinked. That couldn’t be. A ship thirty-two kilometers long. What use would it be?

“Did you say thousand?” Olivia said.

“Yes. Thirty two kilometers.”

“Impossible,” Eva said.

“He’s right,” Holly said, waving her handheld. “And it’s just released its own skiff. Which is heading right for us.”



Chapter Four


When Holly said the gigantic vessel had released its own skiff, she probably should have added that that skiff was itself gigantic. Around seven hundred meters stem to stern. More than twice the length of the Bright Edge. Their own interstellar vessel that had brought them here.

Arlon peered over Gen’s shoulder, looking at the images and data on the display. No designation. No transponder. “It’s a ghost,” Arlon said.

“Usual story,” Gen said. His breath smelled of garlic, as if he’d just eaten a few cloves.

“Yuh, they file off all their identities,” Eva said.

“You figure these are our pair?” Holly said. “Althred and Bollienge?”

“Can’t be,” Gen said. “We tracked them to this installation.”

“That’s always going to be best-guess stuff,” Holly said.

“Exactly,” Olivia said. “And that data proved to be wrong anyway. Eighty-four people in the installation. Our information is wrong forty ways from Tuesday.”

“Let’s discuss all this later,” Arlon said. “It’s moving. Coming in fast.”

The display showed a slightly-jerky enhanced view of the approaching vessel. Nose-on it looked like a moth, thicker in the middle and tapered on either side. Darkened cockpit windows near the top in the middle.

“What’s its ETA?” Holly said.

“Three minutes.” Gen waved up data on the display to show a count. 168 seconds.

“I can call up observation feeds from the Bright Edge,” Eva said, darting back to her console. “We can get a better look at this thing.”

“Three minutes?” Holly said. “That includes deceleration time?”

“Sure,” Gen said. “It’s a full extrapolation.”

“But we don’t know its acceleration-deceleration profile. It could be here sooner.”

The moth-like vessel continued to grow in the display image. The jerkiness diminished as the skiff’s onboard systems got a better read on the ship.

“There,” Eva said. “Good feed from the Bright Edge. Throwing it over there.”

“We should move,” Holly said, as the image came up.

From the Bright Edge’s vantage the approaching ship looked more like a disc. Though slightly skewed because the Bright Edge had moved along in her orbit, wasn’t directly above.

“I can correct that,” Gen said. “Adjust the parallax.” He began waving commands at the console and the image changed.

“We don’t have time to sit around analyzing,” Holly said. “This thing could land right on top of us.”

“It’d crush us like we were made of foil,” Olivia said.

“They are correct,” Marto said.

“I can up-stakes,” Eva said. Her harness snicked? as she belted herself in. “Better take a seat.”

“Wait,” Arlon said. “It’s not us they’re after. They’re not going to crush us. Gen, run trajectory analysis.”

The countdown turned over to 99 seconds. A minute and a half. Barely time enough to get clear anyway.

Things changed fast in space, or they took a long, long time. No in-betweens really.

This was one of the fast changes.

“Buckle up,” Eva said. “Everyone. We don’t know how this might go.”

The skiff shuddered, and whining sounds came from deeper in the hull. Eva had pulled up the pitons. Ready for a fast departure.

Gen reached to the back of his chair and thumbed the harness set-up. The straps whipped out around him, holding him fast.

“Seats, everyone,” Arlon said.

Like a precision machine, the crew moved to take their seats. The snicking sound of harnesses followed quickly.

Arlon pulled the count up on his own small consoles.

34 seconds.

“Is it just me,” Eva said, “or is that count getting faster?”

“Yep,” Gen said. “She’s not slowing down by much.”

“Not landing?” Olivia said.

The count hit 19 seconds.

“Maybe dropping bombs?” Marto said.

“No bomb bay open,” Gen said.

Arlon adjusted his console to bring up the image. The giant skiff’s keel was visible now. No bomb bay.

But some kind of ring slung underneath. Glistening with purplish gold plasma.

The display read 5 seconds.

“Captain?” Eva said.

“Hold tight,” Arlon said. “Let’s wait.”

1 second.



Chapter Five


A few years earlier Arlon had shipped out with a different crew, aboard a vessel far older and smaller and more basic than the Bright Edge. Straight out of a refit, the Copenhagen had a crew of four, with Arlon in command.

They’d been tasked with locating sixteen missing members of the Prinz Eustace, a large haul vessel that had a disastrous hull breach. Forty-eight of the crew had been recovered, but one lifeboat had gone spinning away. Tracking data lost.

The lifeboats had a six-week lifespan. Technically more than enough to guarantee survival. Even in remote systems, a vessel’s skip buoys would leap away to inhabited planets, carrying news of the problem. The first three boats had been picked up within six days.

The Copenhagen had arrived at the scene eight days after the wreck had occurred. And Arlon and his crew had stayed on station, making sweeps from the Copenhagen for over five weeks.

Technically beyond the lifespan of the lifeboat.

When the Copenhagen found them, it was at an impossible location. More than fifty million kilometers from the wreck site. As if they’d accelerated and traveled at an average of something like fifty thousand kilometers an hour.

Easy enough if your ship had a conventional drive. But the lifeboat really only had maneuvering thrusters.

And they’d slowed almost to a standstill. So somewhere in there they’d decelerated.

There were just five of the crew still alive. Distressed, but healthy.

Immediately after the wreck they’d realized their predicament. No control. No vector. An awful long way from where they should have been.

An awful long way from anywhere.

So the other eleven had chosen to end their own lives, giving the remaining five–all with young families–a fighting chance.

Extending the food supplies and life support by more than three times. Assuming the power lasted. And still the lifeboat had stunk and been struggling when Arlon opened the docking hatch. Systems beginning to fail, the bodies decaying.

It was a tragic situation really. It had been everything Arlon could do to hold it together while they evacuated the remaining crew.

But on the trip back, they’d told him what had happened. They’d been attacked. By a vessel smaller than their own. The attacking vessel had used some kind of field to rip the Prinz Eustace’s hull apart. The field had lingered, glowing purple rings, and had caught up their lifeboat. They’d all been disorient, but the field had dropped them out all those millions of kilometers away.

One of the survivors had described the attacking vessel as having a ring assembly built into it. Glowing with a purple-gold plasma.

Exactly like the ship bearing down on them right now.

The count reached zero.

A blast of energy flared around them. Brilliant light seared the skiff’s cockpit.

Arlon pressed his hand to his eyes. But still he saw afterimages.

The skiff shuddered.

From all around the cockpit came creaks and groans. Arlon’s harness tightened against him.

Quiet sirens began sounding. Coming from all through the ship.

“What have we got?” Arlon said. They were still on the asteroid. That slight tingle of gravity still worked its way through his muscles.

“Nothing major,” Gen said. “No hull breach.”

Well, that was something.

“What hit us?” Marto said.

“Let’s figure that out later, big guy,” Gen said. “Let’s make sure the skiff’s going to hold together.”

“It will hold.”

“Eva?” Arlon said. “How are we doing?”

“I can’t see,” she said. Her seat was closest to the forward viewport. Her eyes would have taken the full brunt of that blast.

“Let me look,” Holly said. She’d already unbuckled and begun moving forward. She peered at Eva’s consoles.

“We still on the asteroid?” Gen said. “I can feel that tug of gravity, so, yeah, right?” He came forward too, rubbing his eyes.

Arlon blinked. He still had afterimages himself. He unbuckled, leaning forward. The mesh harness whirred, reeling away.

The viewscreen just showed black, as if they were staring into the void, light from the cockpit making it impossible to see the stars. But that could just be his eyes too.

“This looks wrong,” Holly said. She lifted her head to look over Eva’s consoles.

“What looks wrong?” Marto said. He’d come forward too, his alien scent coming with him.

“There’s nothing there,” Holly said. “The installation’s gone.”



Chapter Six


With the six of them jammed in, the little skiff’s cockpit was cramped, almost stifling. The light gravity meant they were all vertical as they crowded around.

“I can’t see,” Eva said. “I’m... my eyes.”

“Move back,” Olivia said to the others, pushing through. “Let’s get you to the med bay.”

As their largest skiff, the vessel came equipped with tiny coffin cabins, a miniscule mess that made simple meals, and a functional med bay.

Marto moved right out of the cockpit, freeing almost half the room immediately. Olivia took Eva’s hands and helped her out of the pilot’s chair.

“Don’t worry about me,” Eva said. “I can find my way there by feel.”

“Sure you can.” Olivia peered into Eva’s eyes. Turning to Arlon, Olivia gave a slight shake of her head. This was bad.

“We need to figure what’s happened out there,” Eva said.

“The others can do it.” Olivia led Eva delicately back through the cockpit. “Let’s get started on figuring out how long you’re going to be having trouble seeing.”

“Pretty sure it’s permanent.” Eva sounded very calm. Accepting.

“No chance,” Gen said. “They can grow you new eyes easy as–” He cut off, coughing, as Olivia jabbed him in the ribs.

“Thanks Gen,” Eva said, genuine, if a bit sad. “Looking on the bright side of things.”

Arlon squeezed through to follow. He put his hand on Eva’s shoulder. “We’ll return to the ship,” he said. “We can be on Bremwel in a few hours and get you to a full hospital.”

“No.” She turned to him even as Olivia tugged on her arm.

“Don’t be a martyr,” Arlon said. “You come first. Any of us would.”

“No. I’m serious.” She stared at him through glassy eyes. “We don’t even know how bad this is. My vision might just fade back in by itself with some darkness and rest.”

Arlon took her hand. “Sure?”

“Yes.” She squeezed his hand and turned away. “Thank you, though. Let’s get this job done.”

When Eva and Olivia had gone through to the narrow companionway, Holly moved around into the pilot’s chair. She tapped at the consoles, bringing up data from their flight.

Bright Edge is still above the horizon,” she said. “So we can pull down data from her observations. But the installation has gone. Completely. There’s just a new crater there.” Holly looked around at him. “Clean walls, though. No ejecta. Like they scooped the whole installation out.”

“Scooped?” Gen said, moving forward to look.

Arlon moved aside to let him get in. The images looked exactly as she’d described.

A scooped-out hole.

The edges of the apron, not far from the skiff’s bow, were slightly broken up, but curved away to the left and right. Some purplish plasma licked around some of the broken rocks.

Lit by the skiff’s external lights, one of the other vessels lay broken in two at the edge of the hole. The vessel’s forward half was missing.

The other one wasn’t there, but maybe it lay out of view beyond the wreck. Arlon tried to recall the layout of the apron from when they’d approached. Hard to do with this huge hole where the installation had been.

“Time to explore,” Marto said, coming back into the cockpit. He must have slipped into his tiny cabin to let the other two through.

“You mean go out there?” Gen said. “Are you losing your mind? Do you see what happened?”

“I saw it.” Marto pressed up to the forward viewscreen, looking out at the scoop hole.

“Do you see that light?” Arlon said.

Marto nodded. The very human movement always looked odd on him. “Something very odd.”

“You’re right, we need to go and have a look.”

Marto pulled back around. “Getting suited up.”

“I’ll come with,” Holly said.

“Good,” Arlon said. “Where’s the vessel now? Still on our scopes?”

“How could a thirty thousand meter vessel vanish?” Gen said.

“Skip drive,” Holly said.

Gen gave a non-committal head rock. “Well, yeah, there is that. Sure.”

“But docking too,” Marto said.

“Right, Gen said. “That big old skiff. She had to head back upstairs to the mothership. That takes time.”

“The skiff was big enough for its own skipdrive,” Holly said.

“Counterarguments,” Gen said. “We just need–wuh-hoo! Oh boy!” He leaned in close to the console displays.

“What do you see?” Holly said.

“Here.” Gen pointed into the one of the displays. “There’s no signal from the ship.”

“We knew that,” Marto said.

“No, no. I mean there’s no background signal from anything. Even out here, there should be something. We’re close enough to Bremwel to have to filter out general chatter. Proximity systems take care of that, but there’s nothing wider.”

“We in a radio shadow?” Olivia said.

“No,” Holly said. “He’s right. There’s nothing at all.” Holly tapped at the console, working on the gain. She dialed it right up.

A crackly hiss grew from one of the console’s speaker. Faint bleeps mixed quietly within it.

“Background,” Gen said. “We... that can’t be right.”

“We moved somewhere,” Marto said.

“What?”

“Very, very far.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I get it,” Arlon said. “Do a navigation sweep. Confirm our location.”

“I just... right.” Gen moved by Olivia, returning to the navigation station.

“What are you thinking, captain?” Olivia said.

“That whatever ripped out the station out of the asteroid also ripped the asteroid somewhere else.”

“Like I said.” Marto shook his head and sighed.



Chapter Seven


It didn’t take Gen long to determine that he couldn’t tell where they were. He sat glumly tapping at his consoles, working through the data while Arlon, Holly and Marto began suiting up, preparing to go reconnoiter the hole.

“I can pick out a couple of stars,” Gen said. “Including Bremwel’s star. It’s close, but I’m still working on ranging. We haven’t come all that far.”

“How far then?” Marto said.

“Right,” Holly said. “Something skipped us, but instantaneously. We jumped somewhere. So, is not all that far something like fifty kilometers, or half a million?”

Gen said nothing.

“Gen? Our database should be able to tell us right away. The processing time as instantaneous as that jump. Unless we’re in another galaxy.”

Marto grunted.

“Let’s take that off the table,” Arlon said. “We’ve traveled, but a reasonable distance. Still within the human-occupied sphere.”

Humans now lived on dozens upon dozens of worlds, in vague blob over a hundred light years across. Earth in the center, a few outlying frontier worlds right at the edge.

“Right, Gen,” Holly said. “What’s the bad news? Over a million kilometers?”

“More like thirty million.”

No one said anything. Arlon moved around, tugging on a stiff loop to pull over in the light gravity. Gen’s display showed the figure.

Thirty-two million kilometers, and change, from where the asteroid should have been.

Marto crowded in too, staring with his dark eyes. His whistled quietly through his long nostrils.

“What’s up?” Olivia said, coming through, carrying a cluster of juice squeezies. She handed them around. “Stay hydrated people.”

Arlon took one, glad to have her around. She always kept an eye on the little things while everything else was falling apart.

“We’re thirty million kilometers from where we should be,” Holly said, taking one of the squeezies too. She cracked the top and sipped.

“There’s no technology that can do that,” Oliva said.

Arlon sipped. The juice was cold and refreshing.

“Apparently there is,” Gen said. “We’re also definitely way out of the plane of the ecliptic.”

Bright Edge, though,” Olivia said. She handed squeezies to Marto and Gen. “I thought it was still with us.”

“Maybe caught in the field.”

“We should get back to her. Sitting around on this rock is not getting us anywhere.”

“We need samples.” Marto downed his squeezie in a single gulp and continued putting on his suit. Awkward work in the cramped cockpit.

“Samples?” Gen leaned back in his seat. In the light gravity he rose a fraction before grabbing the armrest.

“He’s right,” Holly said. “We should send out one of the robots to scoop up pieces of that rock.”

“Not a robot.” Marto thumbed the neck of his suit and it formed up into a hard ring, ready for the helmet. He stood and went into the companionway.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Gen said, looking around at the others. “Where’s he going?”

“Come on,” Holly said. “I want to take a look at what we’ve got out there.” She thumbed her own neck for the ring to form up.

“Really?” Gen said. “Did you not notice how we’re in a predicament here? We’re thirty million kilometers from where we should be. We need to be working on that. Also the whole installation vanished. Just like that. Now is not the time to be going EVA. We should stay in the ship.”

“I’ll work on it with you, Gen,” Olivia said. “Let the others do what they need to do.”

“How can they need to...” Gen trailed off and glared at his console. Leaning forward, he whispered, “Don’t blame me if this all falls apart.”

“No one’s going to blame you,” Arlon said, squeezing by to follow the other two. “We’ve all got jobs to do.”

Leaving Gen and his muttering behind, Arlon went along the companionway. He checked on Eva in the med bay before joined Holly and Marto at the airlock hatch in the skiff’s floor.

“How’s she doing?” Holly said.

Arlon looked glum. “As well as could be expected.”

“Opening airlock now,” Marto said, crouching to lift the hatch out of the way. It clicked back into a latch on the wall. Marto took helmets for them from the rack above.

“Radio check?” Holly said, twisting hers on.

“Loud and clear,” Gen said. “I’ll make one last protest.”

“Noted,” Arlon said, fitting his own helmet in place.

“Check, check, check,” Marto said.

“I’m receiving all three of you just fine,” Gen said.

“Good.” With the light gravity, Arlon just about had to pull himself down into the airlock.

The airlock just had space enough for the three of them. Marto followed Holly in.

“It would be easier without you,” Holly said

It was tight with the three of them in the airlock volume, and Marto seemed to take up most of the space.

“Back at you,” Marto said.

“Well, you’re right.” Holly peered at him through her slightly gold visor. “And where did you learn that expression.”

“Gen uses it.”

“I do not,” Gen said. “I’ve never in my life said ‘back at you’.”

Marto said nothing.

“Are we all set?” Arlon asked. It was good hearing the crew banter. As always, the level of banter didn’t diminish if the situation was dire. “I figure fifteen minutes out there to pick up some rock, and then we’ll be right back.”

“Cycling airlock now,” Marto said. He maneuvered his gloved right hand behind Holly and tapped at the controls. The hatch clanked and began winding closed.

“Did you see the light out there?” Gen said. “There’s something odd going on with those rocks.”

“That’s why I want to take a look,” Arlon said.

The hatch closed with a hiss. Their suits began shifting, expanding slightly as the airlock evacuated.

“I’m bringing weapons online,” Gen said. “Just in case something happens.”

“I wish you wouldn’t,” Holly said, at the same moment as Marto said, “Nothing will happen.”

“Right,” Gen said. “Good luck.”

Telltale lights glowed in the airlock. Green.

Ready to go.



Chapter Eight


Out on the asteroids airless surface, their boots whipped out their own pitons on strands. Tiny needle-like darts that would search out crevices to cling to. Arlon and the other two moved along underneath the skiff’s hull. The skiff’s tall undercarriage had grasped the surface too. Olivia had reset the skiff’s piton cables too.

“You’re all nominal,” Gen said, his voice slightly staticky through the comms system.

“Suits are operating just fine.”

“Gen,” Holly said. “We’re good out here. How are you doing on raising the Bright Angel?”

“Waiting for her to come around. I think we should take off and go find her. What if she’s broken orbit?”

Gen had a good point. But this was important too. They needed all the information they could get.

Each of the three of them on the surface had tethers leading back to the airlock. The asteroid’s escape velocity was probably unattainable with a trip or a jump, but it might still take a long time to come back down if you messed up somehow.

“Gen,” Arlon said. “Keep working on that. I get your concern, but we’re all in the same boat. Right now I’m betting that these rocks will have some clue to help us out.”

Holly had pulled a small geology pack from stowage alongside the airlock’s external hatch. The size of a football, but lemon in both shape and color, the pack held charges, spectroscope, hammer, mesh bags and other useful equipment. Really they just needed samples. The lab on the Bright Edge could do all the spectroscopy and any other analysis they needed.

“Copy that,” Gen said. “I’ve thought of another name for the skiff.”

They’d stepped out from under the skiff now. The edge of the hole was only thirty meters away.

It was odd getting used to walking again in light gravity.

But they’d trained for this. Hours in sweaty, smelly simulators, learning how to perform in the worst situations when things really went south.

“What name did you come up with?” Holly said.

Red Arrow.”

“That’s a great name.”

“We’re not calling it Red Arrow,” Olivia said through the comms.

“Let’s concentrate here,” Arlon said. “We just need some of these samples and we can get out of here.”

Truth be told, he wanted to get a good look at the hole himself. What kind of force could scoop out a volume like that so effectively and so quickly?

Of course the by-product of the force was tossing the whole asteroid thirty million kilometers, and bringing it to a stop.

Perhaps there was something in that in terms of propulsion too. Skip drives were ridiculously fast–able to leap across light years in a matter of days or weeks. But how did that compare to the time it had taken the asteroid–which was an awful lot of mass compared to a ship–to cross a distance of more than a light minute, in a split second?

He wanted a look at that hole.

Was there any of the installation left? What did the sides of the hole look like? Sheer, as if cut with a field of some kind, or ragged and messy as if the process had been mechanical.

There were too many unanswered questions.

He slowed as the three of them came up toward the edge of the hole. Those odd snaps of plasma still lingered around most of the broken up rocks. Would it be safe to bring those into their vessel?

Holly stopped right at the edge and crouched. No chance of falling in, really, but even in light gravity like this you still had to take care.

“What do you see?” Arlon said. He came up alongside her and peered into the hole.

Marto stood nearby, shining his suit lights out across the hole. The far side was just visible. Smooth, but streaky, almost striated.

“Hundred meters across,” Marto said.

“That’s what I read too,” Gen said from back in the ship. “One hundred meters. Circular. Looking at the angle of the face of the hole, it looks like it’s a hemisphere.”

“Scooped out is right,” Olivia said. “Like an old-time ice-cream cone.”

“We’re dealing with something so unknown here,” Holly said. “I don’t know of anything that could do that instantaneously. And we’ve got some pretty good diggers nowadays.”

“Gen,” Arlon said. “Check the time signatures. Did all this happen in an instant? Or were we thrown out time-wise?”


Purchase this book or download sample versions for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-49 show above.)