Book: Oblivion Flight
The Oblivion Saga • Book 2
1700 Shattuck Ave #81, Berkeley, CA 94709
Copyright © 2018 by J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
Printed in the United States of America
ISBN 978-1-720871-36-1 | amazon paperback edition
ISBN 978-1-947826-84-7 | all other paperback editions
ISBN 978-1-947826-85-4 | epub
“pity this busy monster, manunkind,” copyright 1944, © 1972, 1991 by the Trustees for the E.E. Cummings Trust, from Complete Poems: 1904 -1962 by E. E. Cummings, edited by George J. Firmage. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording, or otherwise—without written permission of the author and publisher, except for brief quotations in printed reviews.
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BY J.R. MABRY & B.J. WEST
The Oblivion Saga
BY J.R. MABRY
The Berkeley Blackfriars Series
The Temple of All Worlds Series
The Red Horn Saga (with Mickey Asteriou)
The Prison Stone • The Dark Field
Summoners’ Keep • The Red Horn
BY B.J. WEST
there’s a hell of a good universe next door;
“I’ve found some anomalies.” Martin Pho’s voice was shaking.
Jeff felt his stomach plummet into a pit from which, he somehow knew in his bones, there would be no return. “What kind of anomalies?” he asked.
He looked over at Dr. Emma Stewart, saw the crease on her brow. She began to run some tests of her own. As he waited, he squeezed the arms of his command chair. He was captain of the Kepler, a scientific research vessel specially fitted for…squashing space-time.
Months before, he had crash-landed on a distant moon and been saved by an alien race that had developed the ability to teleport. When they did it, he paid attention, and when he discovered he could do it, too, he didn’t hesitate—he put the “talent” at the service of the Colonial Defense Fleet.
They needed all the help they could get, as a deadly race called the Prox was systematically annihilating their colonies on a dread advance straight toward Earth. Jeff had just performed the first successful “jump” of a starship—a small one, granted, but a starship nevertheless.
Mr. Pho’s voice continued to waver as he answered. “98 percent of the star field matches our records. Everything is exactly where the star charts say they should be.”
“You mean almost everything is exactly where it should be,” Jeff clarified.
“Er…yes sir, that’s what I mean. The other 2 percent…doesn’t match what’s on the charts.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Pho?”
“One percent of the stars are missing, and one percent are…well, there’s stars where there shouldn’t be.”
“How is that possible?”
“Could there be a corruption in the stellar cartography database?” Jeff asked.
“I checked that, sir, first thing. Backups show the same thing. What we’re seeing here,” he pointed with his chin toward the view screen, “isn’t exactly what’s in the computer.”
Jeff stood and advanced a step toward the view screen. He couldn’t go far—it was a small bridge. “What can that mean?” he asked everyone and no one. He looked at Emma, caught her eye, decided the question was for her.
She nodded, accepting the question. He saw her lips tighten as she thought. Is she thinking through the problem, he wondered, or is she thinking about how to say it? It didn’t matter. He knew the answer already.
“My best guess,” she said, “is that we’ve somehow…relocated…to an adjacent string.”
“You mean…we’re no longer in the same universe?” There. He’d said it out loud.
She continued to hold his gaze while she gave a curt nod.
Jeff brought one hand to his heart, and with the other, steadied himself on the headrest of Mr. Pho’s chair. He glanced at Communicator Susie Wall, saw her eyes widen, then saw her turn to run some tests of her own.
“Jeff, there’s more,” Emma said. “We’ve got quantum seismological activity that is…well, it’s off the charts.”
Jeff blinked. It took a moment, but he found his command voice. He cleared his throat. “On screen.”
The stars disappeared and several seismic waveforms looped across the screen in diverse, vibrant colors.
“Tell me what I’m seeing,” Jeff said. He wasn’t a quantum physics expert, and he wasn’t about to start playing at one. Not when he had the best damn scientist in the Fleet on his bridge. It didn’t matter that he was sleeping with her—she was still the best.
“The small wave pattern, in blue—”
“That’s a wave pattern?” he asked. “It looks like a horizontal line.”
“If you blew it up to 1000x you’d notice some slight drifting.”
Jeff nodded and waved at her to continue.
“That’s steady-state. If we’re not adjacent to any gravitational wells or experiencing any significant quantum activity—and you wouldn’t expect much out here—this is what it should look like.”
“Now see the shallow wave in yellow?” Emma continued. “That’s what happens if we initiate a major quantum event.”
“Like what?” Jeff asked.
“Like proximity to a black hole, or one of the Balliard experiments.”
“You mean something dangerous,” he clarified.
“They stopped the Balliard experiments precisely because of the seismic implications.”
He didn’t remember any details, but he remembered the media going apeshit over the possibility that the experiments would destroy a planet or even a whole a region of space.
“And that last wave, the green one?”
“That’s our current reading.”
The yellow wave was barely perceptible, extending a few centimeters above the baseline at one end and below it on the other. But the green wave filled the screen. It was not only as far off the baseline as could be contained on the grid, but the wave pattern was “busy” showing at least a hundred fluctuations where the yellow wave showed only one.
“Okay…I’m guessing that’s bad.”
“I don’t know if it’s bad,” Emma answered. “I just know that it’s big.”
“But what does it mean?” Jeff asked.
“Hold on,” Emma said. No one under his command would get away with saying that to him, but she was his equal, a civilian. She probably didn’t know better. Besides, protocol would be the last thing on her mind. She was seeing numbers that scientists in her field only dreamed about—or had nightmares about.
Jeff watched as her eyes went wide. Her shoulders slumped, and she leaned back in her chair. Her face was ashen.
“What is it?”
She couldn’t tear her eyes away from her screen.
“Dr. Stewart, goddam it, what the hell—” He didn’t finish the sentence. He strode over to her workstation and laid a hand on her shoulder. “Emma,” he said softly. “Tell me what you’re seeing.”
She looked up at him, and raised her hand—as if to touch his face—but she stopped midway. She looked back at her screen.
“Emma…” he repeated. “Tell me.”
Her voice quavered. “I just…sent a ping to the two adjacent reality strings.”
“Is that…a normal thing to do?”
“No,” she admitted. “There’s no reason to do so…normally. We can’t see into them, we can just… It’s like sonar. We can tell they’re there.”
“String 311 didn’t ping. Neither did String 309.”
“What string is our universe?”
Why didn’t I know that? He wondered. It seems like something I should know. “So?” he asked, feeling stupid.
“So I pinged 308.”
“You can’t ping 308. You can only ping adjacent strings.”
Jeff’s head hurt. He’d never been able to twist his brain around quantum mechanics’ pretzel logic. He assumed it would only get weirder from here. “But you did. Ping 308.”
“Nothing. As expected.”
Jeff shook his head, not comprehending. Before he could protest, she continued. “So I pinged 312.”
“But you can’t ping 312, because it’s not adjacent,” Jeff said, his voice taking on an edge of exasperation.
“Right. But…we got a response.”
“What?” Jeff asked, his eyebrows bunched in confusion. “What does that even mean?”
“It means that we’re no longer on String 310. We could be on String 311.” Then she held her hand up. “There’s more.”
Jeff blinked again. “Should I be sitting down for this?” he asked.
“It would be best,” she answered.
He backed up the few steps to his command chair and sat. “Give it to me,” he said.
“I pinged 310.”
“You pinged our universe?” Of course she would do that. If they got an affirmative answer it would confirm that they were indeed resident on String 311.
“Yes,” she answered.
“And did you get a response?”
“What…what does that mean?”
“It could mean that we actually jumped several strings, to String 313. So I pinged 314.”
“Emma, what the fuck are you saying? Plain English, please.”
“I can’t say this for sure, and I need to do more tests, but…given everything I’m seeing…I don’t think String 310 is there anymore.”
“What do you mean, it isn’t there?” Jeff snapped.
“I mean, it’s gone.”
“Still running dark, sir,” Commander Jo Taylor said.
Captain Jacques Telouse rubbed at his chin, not looking at her. There was no chatter on the bridge, not like there usually was. The air almost crackled with electricity.
The captain nodded. “Telemetry onscreen,” Telouse said, his words punctuated in odd places due to his French accent. He was an older man, with wiry gray hair and a scar across his nose. He was a man who had seen his share of battle.
The screen flickered and a map of the region appeared, including the course of their cruiser, the Talon.
“Sir, these coordinates—” the weaponer, Lieutenant Greg Shallit began.
Telouse held his hand up to stop him, watching the telemetry closely. “Bring us to a stop, Lieutenant Chi.”
Lieutenant Marcia Chi nodded, easing the starship to the precise point she had intended. “We are now in geosynchronous orbit around Avalon II’s larger moon, sir.”
The Captain checked his report logs, then nodded, finally satisfied. “All right, Mr. Shallit. You had an objection, I believe.”
“It’s a trap, sir,” Shallit said.
“It could be,” Telouse agreed. “But it’s been cleared by RFC intelligence, and we’re in the business of following orders.”
“That’s what worries me.”
The Revolutionary Freedom Coalition had considerable firepower, but shitty coordination, in Jo’s estimation. “RFC intelligence” was an oxymoronic joke among the rank and file.
“Coordinated Intelligence is accepting applications, last time I heard,” Captain Telouse said. “In case you think you can do it better.”
That shut him up.
“Sir, Authority battle carrier approaching. The moon will shield us for another twenty seconds.”
That wasn’t surprising. Avalon II was in neutral space—a largely uninhabited, disputed area between the regions claimed by the Terran Authority and the Revolutionary Freedom Coalition. The Authority didn’t control this space but there was no truce, either. If discovered, they would surely be fired on.
“All out,” Telouse said.
The last of the lights were extinguished, and even the computer powered down. Within three seconds, Jo was beginning to feel the vertigo of sensory deprivation. Almost imperceptibly, she could hear the captain counting. She focused on his words, her mind filling in the gaps when he was inaudible. He counted off two minutes, three, four. It seemed like an hour.
“All right, bring us back to operating dark,” Telouse said.
Jo blinked as the lights flickered on, seeming impossibly bright. Her computer leaped to life again, stuttered, then was once again displaying their telemetry.
“Status?” the captain barked.
“Carrier is beyond the horizon,” Jo said, “but…we’re not alone.”
Shallit jerked upright, looking straight at her. “What the fu…what do you mean?”
“We’ve got a messenger bag floating off our port side,” Jo said. “Beacon was already pinging when we powered up.”
“Excellent, Number One,” Telouse stood and straightened the blood-red jacket of his uniform. “Download the contents of that bag and file it under captain’s seal. Once that’s done meet me in my ready room.” He began walking toward the room.
“Aye, sir,” Jo began the handshake protocols necessary to retrieve the messenger bag’s contents.
“Wait, did that carrier just jettison that bag?” Shallit asked.
“I hope so,” Telouse said, nonplussed. “Otherwise, in addition to a war we’d also have a mystery on our hands.”
“Mr. Chi, you have the conn.”
“Aye sir,” Chi said, without looking up.
“You sound like you were expecting that bag,” Shallit said, his voice accusatory and sharp.
“We certainly were,” Telouse said as the door whisked shut behind him.
A slight smile crossed Jo’s lips as she completed the download. It was easy to get Shallit spluttering and she’d seen the captain work him into a lather more than once. It was dangerous to egg him on like that, but that wasn’t her call, and she was sure that she enjoyed it as much as the captain did. Shallit was a bit of a dolt.
She strode to the ready room and waited for it to read the permissions in her ID badge. A moment later it slid open with a whoosh. She stepped in.
“Mayan hot cocoa, am I right?”
“The spicier the better,” Jo said. It was a ritual they did every time they had a private chat. Jo was actually a little tired of cocoa, Mayan or otherwise, but she wasn’t going to tell the captain that. She enjoyed the ritual too much.
The captain slid a steaming cup of deep brown cocoa toward her. She picked it up and sniffed at it. Glorious. “Care to share?” she asked.
“It’s just what we were promised,” he said, looking up and scanning the downloaded docs in his neural.
“Which is? I haven’t been read in on this, sir,” Jo reminded him. The fact was, Telouse was getting old and his memory was not what it used to be. She was very fond of him, however, and she respected him. He might not be able to tell you what he had for supper two days ago, but he was a monster in a firefight. There was no place she’d rather be, and no one she’d rather be serving under.
“Oh? Damn. I thought you had. Right. Well, let’s just say we’re here to meet some contacts.”
“Contacts?” She sipped at the cocoa. It was spicier than usual. That’s nice, she thought.
“There’s a certain ‘philanthropist’ on Avalon II that might or might not have Union security protocols for us.”
“Let me guess: the ‘might have’ is dependent on a sizable donation to a good cause?” Jo offered.
“It is indeed.” Telouse sipped at his own tea.
Probably chamomile, she thought, judging from the dirty-sock aroma. “And did our messenger bag give you the contact info of this ‘philanthropist’?”
“It did, right down to GPS coordinates for the bar in which we’ll meet her.”
“I’ll get an away team ready.”
“No. The philanthropist is someone I know. An old…” He smiled sadly. “Let’s say an old flame.”
“Ah.” Jo gave a half nod. She was dying to know more, but she never pushed Telouse. He didn’t like it and she cherished the fact that he seemed to really enjoy her company.
“Shallit won’t like that,” she noted.
“Fortunately, I won’t have to listen to Shallit. You will.”
“I’ll take the B team,” Telouse smiled.
“Sir, I’m not sure this is a good idea. And Shallit will insist on going along to protect you.”
“He can protest all he wants,” Telouse said, his accent mangling the normal cadence of his words. “I cannot stand the man. So you must stand him for me.” It was an incorrect use of the idiom, but it was clear Telouse didn’t care.
“You really shouldn’t rile him,” Jo warned.
Telouse waved the objection away. “He’s an ass.”
“He’s a well-connected ass.”
“That is the most dangerous kind.”
“That’s exactly what I’m trying to say. It wouldn’t hurt you to throw him a bone sometimes, and…well, stop humiliating him in front of the bridge crew.”
Telouse moved his head back and forth, from shoulder to shoulder. “You are probably right. Again.”
“If I’m right all the time, why don’t you listen to me more?”
“Because that would be a betrayal of my muse,” Telouse pushed out his bottom lip.
“Has your muse ever been wrong?” Jo asked.
“Not about anything that mattered,” Telouse smiled and sipped at his tea again.
She scowled at him. “One day, your gut—”
“Not my gut, my muse,” he corrected her. “She’s sensitive.”
“Fine. One day you’re going to wish you had listened to me.”
He cocked his head. “One day, commander, you will make a fine captain. Then you can make everyone jump anytime you wish.”
“Jacques, I’m not trying to make you jump…” Her voice sounded weary, even to her.
“No, my dear, but you are…overcautious.”
“No one has ever said that about me,” she protested.
“And you don’t want them to,” he added. “Not in a war like this one.”
Jeff sat back in his command chair as if he’d been punched in the gut. “How could our universe just be gone?”
Dr. Stewart shook her head. “I don’t know that.”
“That may be the least of our troubles,” communications officer Susie Wall barked. “We’ve got an incoming vessel, trajectory 44T mark 811.”
“Mr. Pho, set a course in the other direction—as fast as we can manage.”
“How fast are they coming at us?” Jeff asked.
“C7, sir. We can’t outrun them.”
“Shit.” Their little vessel could only manage C5 for short distances. “Estimated time until contact?” Jeff asked.
“Six minutes, sir.”
Jeff punched at a button on his command chair. “Commander Nira, I need you on the bridge—now.”
His Number One would be sleeping—it had only been a few hours since he had relieved her of the command chair. He’d need to bring her up to speed—but right now he needed an acting weaponer.
“What kind of a ship are we looking at?”
“It’s a design we’ve never seen before. It’s not battle class, but from the readings I’m getting, it’s 28.2 times our mass.”
Jeff whistled. “Weapons?”
“I’m picking up radiation signatures congruent with particle cannons and nuclear torpedoes. Lasers are a safe bet, but I can’t say that definitively.”
“Lasers are the least of our troubles.” Jeff drummed his fingers on his armrest and chewed on his lip, thinking furiously.
“Prepare to jump,” Jeff said.
“Jeff, are you intending to…squash space again?” Emma’s voice was grave.
“Do you have a better idea?” he snapped. He instantly regretted it, but she didn’t back down.
“Jeff, our universe disappeared after the last jump. It’s…I don’t think it’s a coincidence.”
“What are you saying?”
“Can we speak privately?”
“We don’t have time for sensitivities. Just say what you need to say.”
It was like time was standing still. Every eye on the bridge was on him, then on Emma, then on him. He felt their anxious gazes boring into his skull. He ignored them and remained fixed on Emma’s taut mouth.
“Jeff, I need to study this. One possibility is that our last jump…destroyed our universe.”
Jeff felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. He also felt the pit in his stomach descending into infinity.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying…just what I’m saying. The last time you tried to squash space around a starship…well, we know what happened. Something this big…maybe something went wrong again. Maybe we pushed past what the natural elasticity of spacetime could tolerate. I think…maybe we…Jeff, we might have…” she couldn’t finish her sentence. It was too, too terrible.
Jeff’s throat suddenly felt like a desert. His hands started shaking. His bowels started cramping. “I…I gotta…” His legs felt like rubber bands as he stood and stumbled to the head.
When he emerged again, it was as if no one had moved.
The aft door hissed open and Commander Nira strode in. Her black hair was mussed from sleeping, but her eyes were alert and her mouth grim. “Nira reporting, sir, what’s—”
“Incoming alien vessel, Commander. Weaponer’s station, now.”
It was a joke. They had no weapons to speak of. Lasers. Useless. Jeff leaned on the stations he passed on his way back to his chair. He needed to be calm and resolute. But inside his head, the only thing he could hear was a snarling voice saying, “You killed everyone—again,” over and over and over.
“Contact in three minutes, sir,” Mr. Wall said.
“Can we get a visual?” Jeff managed.
“No, not…sir, we’re being hailed—audio only.”
“In what language?” Jeff asked.
“In English, sir.”
Jeff blinked. “Okay, open a channel.”
“Unidentified vessel, this is the Terran Authority vessel Kepler. Prepare to be boarded.”
“Kepler?” Jeff said aloud.
“We’re the Kepler,” Pho stated the obvious.
“We’re on an adjacent string to our own universe,” Emma said. “Things might be similar…and different.”
“What?” Commander Nira said. “What is she talking about?”
Jeff held his hand up. “I’ll explain later.” He felt his head swimming. His stomach lurched. He was sweating. He stood and straightened his jacket. “This ship is…us…in…in the universe we’re in,” he said. “We have every reason to believe that we’re the good guys in this universe or any other. We can’t fight them, and we can’t outrun them. So let’s greet them with the same honors we’d greet the esteemed crew of any other ship in our own fleet.”
He strode toward the bridge’s aft door and paused as it slid open. “Put everything on auto, Mr. Pho. With me, everyone.” He didn’t look to see if they were behind him. It didn’t matter. And if he could get a bit ahead of them, out of sight for a moment, maybe they wouldn’t notice the sweat, the shaking of his hands, the jerk of his knees going out from under him. He wanted to curl up in his bunk. He wanted to bury his face in Emma’s cleavage. He wanted to be alone.
He stood at attention by the main airlock. He removed his service blaster from its holster and stabbed his finger to open the armory cabinet. It slid open, but a spider had spread its web across most of the opening. He rolled his eyes and scooped the web out, wiping it on the pants of his uniform. When the others came around the corner, looking like scared cats, he held the lid to the armory cabinet open and motioned with his eyes for them to stow their weapons. When Nira approached, she shook her head.
He liked Nira. She was a short, compact ball of fire. Her black hair was bobbed like a boy’s, but her eyes were those of a fierce warrior. “It’s only going to endanger us, commander. It won’t make us safer. Stow it.” She hesitated but then obeyed, placing her own blaster in the cabinet beside his. He closed and locked the cabinet with his own code.
A proximity alert was blaring on the bridge, and they could hear it all the way in the aft of the ship. Jeff smoothed what was left of his hair and tugged again at his coat. “Make yourselves presentable,” he ordered them. “You represent the Colonial Defense Fleet.” The thought struck him that, at that moment, they were the Colonial Defense Fleet—sworn to protect colonies that no longer existed.
He couldn’t think about that now. He had to stay focused. The feelings that had overwhelmed him after Catskill attacked him with new, vigorous fury, pummeling at him from the inside, coating his guts with a caustic bile that threatened imminent disintegration.
His face twitched as he pulled himself to his full height. “Attention!” he barked.
He could hear the docking rods finding their slots, felt the clamps lock into place.
“Salute!” he ordered. As one, his crew raised their right hands to their brows.
The airlock hissed open and within seconds six black-armored mariners with automatic blasters poured into the hangar, their muzzles trained on Jeff and his crew.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Mr. Pho waver. “Salute, Mr. Pho!” Jeff said through clenched teeth.
He saw Pho stiffen, saw his arm straighten into a regulation salute once again.
“Secure,” one of the marines called. This was followed a moment later by, “Captain on deck!”
Jeff stood stock still as the captain of the alien Kepler stepped through the airlock door and straightened up, adjusting his own jacket.
Jeff’s salute faltered, and his hand slid to his side. He didn’t need to be introduced. His voice quavered as he spoke. “Hello, Danny.”
Jo spun as the bridge door slid open with a whoosh.
Communicator Tash Liebert darted to his station, avoiding her eyes.
“Your duty shift started at 0100, Mr. Liebert.”
“Yes sir,” the young man said, still not looking at her. “Sorry sir.”
Her eyes darkened and, hands clasped behind her back, she wandered over to his station. He was sitting down, hunkered over his control panel. He stiffened as he realized she was drawing close. Good. He ought to be nervous. “I’m going to let it go, Mr. Liebert. Don’t let it happen again.”
“No, sir. Thank you, sir.”
A smile cracked Jo’s command face as she took the captain’s chair. “And I want a double check on all comm systems between us and the captain, stat.”
“Yes, sir.” A moment later, he said, “All systems are transactional. Good signal strength from the surface.”
“Good to hear it.” There was a lot of waiting on a mission like this one, and among her fears was that a signal would be dropped or a comm path broken when no one was looking. Everything was fine…for the moment. But she reminded herself to be vigilant.
Avalon II wasn’t exactly a war zone, but it wasn’t a safe place to be, even if there hadn’t been a war on. It was in an unregulated part of space, not technically under anyone’s jurisdiction, and the locals had lobbied hard on both sides to keep it that way. It was a haven for smugglers, fugitives, runaways, organized crime, deposed monarchs, and anyone who did not want to be found or brought to justice. “It’s the fucking Wild West,” she whispered.
They’d tucked themselves into the hollow of an asteroid, almost large enough to be a moon by some astronomers’ reckoning. This kept them in an appropriate orbit for the time they planned to be there, but shielded them from detection from all sides except directly facing the planet. It had been a real find, and Jo made a mental note to credit Lieutenant Chi in her report for making it.
She studied the map on the view screen, showing the away team’s bio signs along the right column, and their location on a street grid covering the larger part of the screen. They were moving again, off a main street, into an alley. Her fingers dug into the leather of the command chair as she imagined what an alley on a place like Avalon II would look like. They were certainly in a more dangerous place away from public view.
“They’re meeting up with the enemy,” Weaponer Shallit said through clenched teeth.
Jo saw what he meant. Unidentified beings were approaching them—cautiously, it seemed. “They’re not enemies until we actually know something about them,” she corrected him. “They could be our contacts.”
“I should be down there,” Shallit pouted.
“But you aren’t,” Jo said, with a note of finality that warned him away from further whining.
“I should be.”
Jo rolled her eyes. “Mr. Shallit, that was the Captain’s call.”
“It was the wrong one.” Shallit didn’t look away from his panel. He was on thin ice now, and he knew it.
“You’re treading dangerously close to insubordination, Mr. Shallit.”
He turned and looked at her now, his eyes small and angry as spent buckshot. “I’m tired of seeing opportunities wasted with weak leadership.”
Jo felt her spine stiffen. “And now you’re a stone’s throw from mutiny.”
It was one of the unspeakable words in the military, even among the rebels, or as they preferred to call themselves, the Freedom Fighters. At the sound of it, his shoulders slumped and he looked away. She weighed whether the utterance deserved a note in her report. She hadn’t yet decided when Navigator Chi called out, “Authority ship approaching. They’ll be passing between us and the planet in forty seconds.”
“Power down,” Jo called.
“But—” Shallit protested.
“Down!” she repeated. “All the way.”
Within seven seconds the lights were out, with only the sound of the crew’s breath and the whine of the computers spinning down cutting through the terrible silence of space.
In her head, Jo counted until enough time had passed for them to be clear of the Authority ship’s line-of-sight sensors. “Power up,” she commanded. A moment later, the lights sprang to life again, and the familiar boot-up figures danced on the main view screen.
“Reestablish contact with the captain, Mr. Liebert,” Jo ordered.
“Reestablishing link, sir.”
The street map once again filled the main view screen, and Jo could see the dots representing the away team—different colors for their respective ranks. The captain’s was red, of course—the most easily recognizable color to the human eye.
“Sir, something’s wrong,” Liebert said. “I’m not getting bio signs.”
“Is there something wrong with the link?” Jo asked.
“Pinging…no, the link is fine.”
Jo scowled at the screen. He was right, the bio signs column had no activity, except…
“We are getting body temperature, sir.”
“I see that, communicator. What about heartbeat or brain activity?”
Shallit stood up, maybe out of surprise, maybe out of an instinctual effort to get closer to the view screen. “They’re not moving,” he said, his voice cold and quiet.
Jo blinked and took a couple steps toward the view screen herself. Even if they were standing still, she should still be able to see slight oscillations in their dots as they moved a step here or a step there. But there was nothing. The dots were stock still.
“Holy Christ,” Jo whispered.
“They’re dead,” Shallit said, punching at his station.
“Mr. Liebert, are they dead?” Jo turned to her communicator.
He was shaking his head, his mouth moving, but producing no words.
“I’m gonna fucking kill those Authority motherfuckers!” Shallit swore.
Jo felt an icy waterfall of dread shoot down her spine.
“Mr. Liebert, tell doctor Mbusa to meet me in the shuttle bay, and alert security that I’ll need a detail prepped to go planetside. Civilian dress. And have Charlesworth camouflage another shuttle, ASAP.”
“Now, before someone else finds our people and we can’t get them back. Mr. Chi, I want a flight plan plotted and loaded by the time we launch, which should be…” she looked at her display panel, “six minutes from now.”
“Sir,” Chi gave her a sheepish look. “Pardon the objection, sir, but if something has happened to the captain, that means that you’re captain. Do you really think you should be going down there? I mean, obviously, it’s dangerous,” she said.
“Send me,” Shallit said, rising to his full height.
Jo shook her head. “It’s the captain’s prerogative to lead any away mission. Captain Telouse was well within his rights, and so am I. I’m responsible for what happens down there. I need to be on the ground.” She turned and looked at Shallit. “But I need our best bridge crew in position. Let security provide the cannon fodder, I need a trigger finger I can trust up here.”
“Then at least give me the conn,” Shallit said.
She scowled at him. “Mr. Chi will have the conn. I need you at your weapons panel. Are we going to have trouble, Mr. Shallit?”
He stared at her, his eyes hard, his jaw set like a rock. She held his eyes, keenly aware of every second that was passing. Neither of them blinked.
She didn’t have time for this nonsense. Without breaking her gaze she stepped toward him, ignoring the fact that he towered over her. “You will stand down, Mr. Shallit. Now, or I can call a security detail up here for you.”
His eyes narrowed, but he turned away and sat back down at his station. Inwardly she sighed her relief. “The ship is yours, Mr. Chi,” she said, stepping toward the doors. “Stay out of sight. Stay safe.”
Jeff wondered why he wasn’t more shocked to see Danny. Probably it was because the Ulim—the crystalline aliens who had saved Jeff from certain death on New Manila’s moon—had taken Danny’s form, as drawn from Jeff’s memory. He had recently seen Danny alive and well again…kind of. It was both like and unlike seeing a friend after being a few weeks apart…except that this Danny was twenty years older. He smiled at his friend—for this really was his friend, or closer to it than the Ulim analog had been. This Danny had memories and feelings and ambitions that were truly his own. They just weren’t the same as the Danny he had known. I’ll take what I can get, Jeff thought to himself. “You’re looking well. For a dead man.”
Captain Daniel Hightower of the Terran Authority stood frozen in place, his mouth open, his eyes wide. His men spread out across the room, leveling weapons at Jeff’s crew, then looking back to him expectantly. Danny wasn’t barking orders, and Jeff instantly guessed that his paralysis was confusing his men.
For the first time, Jeff wondered about his own fate on this string. What is the me native to this place doing? He wondered. Unless… And then he knew. He knew mostly because of the shock registering on Danny’s face. That wasn’t the shock of a man thinking, “How did you get from New Delhi to here?” This was a man who was seeing a ghost.
“I’m dead, aren’t I?” Jeff asked. The disappointment in his own voice surprised him. “In this universe, I mean.”
Danny’s mouth moved, but no words came out. Jeff took a step toward his friend, but instantly half of the particle rifles carried by the Authority marines were trained on him, the multi-tonal whine as they powered up filling the air with unmusical urgency. Jeff put his hands up. “No need to die twice,” he smiled. He’d need to use words. “It’s good to see you. Do you think maybe we could catch up, captain-to-captain? We’re not your enemy. Hell, we don’t even know who your enemies are. Trust me, we’re…not from around here.” He chuckled, and his grin was sincere and disarming. “We’ve already stowed our weapons. Maybe one of your boys can pat me down, show you that we’re not dangerous. How about that?”
Danny nodded, still saying nothing.
Jeff put his hands over his head and with a twitch of his jaw invited the marine nearest him to do the honors. The marine looked to Danny. Danny blinked and nodded. The marine began a physical surveillance of Jeff’s clothes, starting with his armpits, then his arms, and moving down his torso. He spent extra time with the pockets of his uniform. Finally, though, he stepped back and nodded at his commander. “He’s clean, captain.”
“Care to pat down my crew, now?” Jeff asked.
Danny looked confused, as much by Jeff’s existence as by his cooperation. Danny nodded. His crew looked confused, too. He caught a question in Emma’s eye, and there seemed no reason to hold back. He waved over at his friend. “It’s Danny. The one I’ve told you so much about. The one who…the one who died. At Catskill.”
Emma’s eyes went wide, nodding. He watched as the marines approached his crew. The only person he had any doubts about was Nira. Had she stowed all her weapons? He watched carefully to make sure she wasn’t holding anything back. She wasn’t. He nodded with satisfaction and, still holding his hands away from his body, turned back to Danny. “I suggest putting them in your brig until you and I have had a chance to debrief,” Jeff said. “Just assure me that they’ll be treated well.”
Danny cocked his head, apparently continuing to be confused by his compliance and cooperation.
Jeff shrugged. “It’s what I would do,” he said.
Danny only nodded. When the pat-downs were complete, he called out. “Take them to the brig. Split them up. Treat them like they were your bunkmates.” He paused for a moment, then said, “Treat them better than your bunkmates. Treat them like your parents. That’s an order.”
No one protested, from Danny’s crew or Jeff’s own. One by one, Jeff watched as his crew was marched through the airlock toward the alien Kepler. Jeff looked at each of them with grave assurance as they passed. “Hold on. It’s going to be fine,” he said with a confidence that came only from seeing Danny standing there.
Soon Jeff was the only one left of his crew. Danny hadn’t moved since he’d laid eyes on Jeff, but there were still two marines with rifles trained on him. “Shall we?” Jeff asked.
He stepped past Danny into the new Kepler. He saw the last of the marines marching his crew aft toward the brig. He halted and called over his shoulder. “Where are we headed?”
“The bar,” Danny called.
“Damn straight,” Jeff replied. “But one of your men will have to lead the way.”
Danny directed one of the two marines to take the lead. The marine was tall and curvaceous and Jeff would have gladly followed her all day. He had difficulty taking his eyes off of her pear-shaped buttocks as they swayed out a cadence, moving deeper into the ship. She was shaped like Jo, and his heart ached with the loss of her. He reminded himself that even if she hadn’t died horribly in the Bohr accident, she’d be gone now…along with everyone else in their universe.
Then he stopped. If Danny was here, in this universe…maybe Jo was, too. Maybe she hadn’t died here. Maybe she was… He almost didn’t dare think it. But he couldn’t stop the thought. Maybe she’s alive. His pulse quickened, and his mouth felt like cotton. Jo, alive. And he knew—if she was alive, he had to find her.
He realized he was lagging and focused once more on his surroundings. Before long, Danny stepped into a rec area that could have been on any ship Jeff had ever commanded. It was small, which was fitting. This Kepler was a small ship—not as small as his own, but modest compared to a lot of battle vessels. “Clear the room,” Danny barked. The few shipmen who were there either drinking or playing cards halted, their eyebrows raised in mild surprise. But a moment later they leaped into action, collecting their effects and heading toward the door. A moment later, only Jeff and Danny remained, along with a marine with a rifle undeniably pointed in Jeff’s direction.
Danny turned back to Jeff. There was a moment of awkward silence. “Uh, have a seat, I guess.”
Jeff smiled, nodded, and sat at one of the gleaming white bar stools. “Okay if I have a drink?” he asked.
“It’s a bar,” Danny answered, walking behind it to serve. “What’ll you have?”
Jeff grinned. “Scotch. Give me every parts-per-million of peat you’ve got.”
Danny’s eyebrows raised, then he crouched to look under the bar. No doubt a peaty single-malt was a specialty item, and probably expensive. Jeff smiled at the thought that it would be going on Danny’s tab. Just like old times.
A moment later, a rocks glass was in front of him, sans rocks, he was relieved to see.
Danny poured himself two fingers and then walked around the bar to sit next to Jeff.
“Should we toast?” Danny asked.
“What are we toasting?” Jeff asked.
“How about the resurrection of dead friends?” Danny suggested.
“That…is a most appropriate toast,” Jeff said. They chinked glasses. Jeff took a swig. It was as smoky as he’d hoped.
“You are dead,” Danny said. “I watched you die. So you can’t be you.”
“That is true…and not true,” Jeff said, realizing he had picked up an annoying habit of equivocation from the Ulim.
“And you aren’t that surprised to see me…and that makes me nervous,” Danny confessed. “I want to know what’s going on. Now.”
Jeff took another sip and nodded. “Sure thing. But…where to start?” He looked down. “When I was tapped to command Project Catskill—”
“You were tapped to command Catskill?” Danny interrupted. “Admiral Tal chose me to lead that mission.”
Jeff nodded. “That would explain a few things.” He met Danny’s eyes. “So…did I die at Catskill?”
Danny nodded slowly, gravely.
“In my universe, things happened…a little differently,” Jeff said.
“What do you mean, ‘In my universe’?”
“We’re still working out the details, but there’s been…an accident.” Jeff told him they were experimenting with a new kind of superluminal drive and told him about the failure with the Bohr. He omitted the detail about the Ulim, only saying that they’d engaged in an experiment that had shunted them into the next universe on the string.
“That would explain a few things.” Danny filled his glass again.
“Like what?” Jeff asked.
“Like the disappearance of the Bohr. So they’re all dead, huh?”
Jeff looked down. “Yeah. Including Jo. She was captain. But I’m sure you knew that.”
Danny looked up sharply. “Jo Taylor?”
Jeff’s relationship with Jo had been the only rough patch he and Danny had ever had. They’d both fallen for her, but she’d chosen Jeff, at least at first—until the military became her only real lover. “Yeah. I’m sorry to tell you this, Danny, but she died in that accident.”
“Not here she didn’t.”
“She’s alive? Here?” Jeff’s heart almost leaped through his chest. The possibility of seeing Jo alive and well pierced him, even if she wasn’t technically his Jo. Still… “Is she aboard?” That would be hoping for too much. But he couldn’t stop the words from leaping to his lips.
“I wish. I’d have her in the brig, of course, until we could transport her to Earth to stand trial.”
“Trial? For what?”
“For treason, of course.”
“Danny, what are you talking about?”
Danny leaned back. “And just what side are you on?”
“What side of what?”
“Of the rebellion.”
“What rebellion?” Jeff had noticed that their uniforms were different. Jeff’s was midnight blue, while Danny’s was black with orange piping. But it didn’t occur to him that the political situations would be significantly different.
“It started with New Manila. They refused to pay their taxes, so we refused to send them military aid—or anything else, for that matter. And then it just spread like wildfire—most of the colonies joined forces and seceded from the…what used to be the Colonial Union.”
“That didn’t happen where I’m from.”
Danny’s eyes narrowed, as if he wasn’t sure whether he believed what Jeff was saying. “Good, because it’s been a hell of a war.”
“And I take it Jo’s on the wrong side of it?” Jeff asked.
“She sure as shit is. She’s a commander, number one on a battle cruiser.”
“She’s a…she was a captain in our world.”
“So you said.”
They sat together in silence for a few moments.
“Do you know how to get back to your…I’m sorry, but it just sounds too weird to say it, but…to your universe?”
Jeff knocked back the rest of his whisky and looked at the black poly of the bar. “We’re pretty sure…Emma…Dr. Stewart is pretty sure that…well, that it isn’t there. Anymore.”
“Your universe isn’t there?” Danny’s eyebrows bunched up skeptically.
“That’s what she…what she’s afraid of. Which means…Oh, God.” He blew air through his cheeks. “I think…I’m afraid I killed them all.”
“I know a thing or two about how that feels,” Danny said. “Let me tell you about Catskill…”
Jo looked up to check her neural. Almost there. They’d landed at the same shuttle port the captain had, and had walked into town without arousing any undue suspicion. She was breathing heavy from the exertion, but was trying not to let it show. She’d set a fast clip, and was a little surprised that her away team was keeping pace. Especially Dr. Mbusa, who had a few more pounds on him than the Revolutionary Freedom Coalition preferred. Her three security officers, however, were fit and young.
“What a shithole,” one of them said.
What was his name? Jo asked herself. Oh yeah, Leif. Arnesson. Weird name. He was solid. Green, but solid.
“How can people live here?” Arnesson continued.
“We live on a grimy starship,” another of her security officers said. She couldn’t remember his name, but she could hardly forget the weird way his hair hung over his eyes like a wave. She glanced back at him and narrowed her eyes.
“Not…that grimy,” he corrected himself.
Jo allowed herself a slight smile that her security detail could not see. Then she checked their position against the map. Straight on. The streets were dusty, and would turn to mud at the first sign of rain—not that there was much of that on Avalon II. Avalon II, what were they thinking? she mused. This place is a dust bowl. She tried to stay on the pedestrian walkway, mostly constructed of what passed for wood on this world, and was not surprised to find that it was often rotted and soft beneath her boot, and just as often disappeared altogether, only to start up again on the next block.
To her right, across the street, were storefronts with metal, pull-down doors, chains swinging in the slight, dusty breeze. She was grateful for the breeze just now, not that it helped much. It was stinking hot. Without showing too much interest, she noted a tavern, a whorehouse, a vault-for-hire—closest thing to a bank this place could manage—a machine shop, two general stores—each trying to outdo the other with “sale!” signs—a pool hall, six bars, one storefront Taoist temple, and a barber. The offerings to her left were similarly varied, similarly disparate, similarly dusty and decrepit.
She glanced up again and saw that the alley they were shooting for was approaching on the left. She started looking for it, keeping her eyes down, taking care not to be noticed or caught noticing by the rough locals passing them on the street. And they were rough, too. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw what must have been pirates—self-consciously styled, but no less dangerous for their scarves, eye-patches, three-cornered hats, and other ridiculous garb. She saw mechanics and street preachers and whores—off work and on. Who are we supposed to be? Smugglers, she decided. Our ship is in for repairs, and we’re killing time, seeing the sights.
The sights repulsed her. The squalor and the petty crime and the macho posing just made her want to punch something. It made her realize just how precious the precision, the regimentation, the obsessive cleanliness of military life was to her, even among the Freedom Coalition. She knew who she was there, where her boundaries were. She knew how to move in that world. Here, she felt like a vulnerable amoeba swimming through a hostile organism, not sure when the next leukocyte was going to swoop in and devour her.
Out of the corner of her left eye, she saw the alley just up ahead. Keeping her hand low, she signaled to her team behind her. Without garnering any more attention than necessary, they turned. The alley was narrow, and she could hear radio jabber in an unfamiliar language coming from the second story window to her right. Music wafted from the building to her left. The alley was paved with trash, apparently thrown from the windows. The smell of rotten food and excrement pricked at her nose.
She strode on, counting doors to the left… Two, three, four… She stopped, facing an expanse of wall, a concrete building with power wires drooping off its roof. A small sign was bolted onto a steel door, “Cajan’s Boxing School. Hit or be hit. Cash or barter.”
“This would be the place,” Jo said. For the first time since they started walking into town, she glanced at her team. Dr. Mbusa’s face was grave and determined. If he was still out of breath, he wasn’t showing it. Her security boys were alert and serious—even the cute one. She avoided looking at him.
She took a quick glance back the way they had come, but no one was watching them or following them, not that she could tell. She nodded and unholstered her blaster from beneath her jacket. “Let’s go.” She pushed in on the metal door and it gave without protest.
Inside was a large, mostly empty industrial space. The lights were blazing, hanging from suspended sockets that dotted the cavernous room like motionless, random fireflies, fed by extension cords looped over the metal rafters. They illuminated a cement floor hosting a variety of gym equipment—barbells, medicine balls, weight kits, and platform spotters. Low tech stuff, Jo noted. She smelled the simultaneously repulsive and comforting odor of mildew and stale sweat common to all such places. It was a smell she liked. It smelled like empowerment.
The middle of the room was dominated by a boxing ring, elevated about three feet from the floor, carpeted with impact absorption pads, the kind that you’d throw under a pallet in a cargo bay. Beyond the ring she saw a series of open doors. Wordlessly, she waved for her team to follow. She noted that they had all drawn their weapons, even the doctor. As they approached the open door beyond the ring, Arnesson rushed ahead, putting his hand up as if to say, “Let me take point.” He was right. She was acting captain now, and it was stupid to put herself at greater risk than was necessary. It rankled her, though, and she felt the twist of resentment in her gut. But she nodded anyway and let him lead.
Arnesson hugged the side of the wall just beside the doorframe with his back, checking his weapon. Jo could see the light on the grip change from green to red—armed, safety off, ready to fire at the twitch of a nerve. The young man took a deep breath, then turned into the door, swinging his blaster one way, then the other. She saw him lower his weapon. She expected to hear, “All clear,” but he didn’t say that. Instead, without turning to look at her, he called over his shoulder, “Captain, you need to see this.”
“All clear?” the one with the weird hair asked.
“No one is going to shoot us,” Arnesson responded.
In a moment, Jo had entered and saw what he meant. “Oh, Christ,” she breathed, holstering her weapon.
They were in the mess, or what passed for a mess in that place. An industrial refrigerator stood against one wall, sloping slightly because the wheels were missing on one side of it. A utility sink was on the wall straight ahead of her, with a metal table beside it. Clean dishes were stacked on a gym towel, taking up half of the table. The other half was littered with three-liter jugs of protein powder and supplements, legal and otherwise.
She took all of this in instinctively, but what she really focused on were the bodies. She noticed the Authority cops first—six of them, splayed out over the floor. It seemed they had simply dropped where they stood, black uniforms with orange piping charred and frayed from where the blaster charges had torn them open. The plastic sheet flooring was slick with blood—shining black and crimson, depending on how the buzzing lights of different hues hit it.
She stepped over one of the corpses—a mustachioed sergeant, his eyes wide and still as stone, his mouth frozen in a silent scream. A few steps away were civilians—three men in Bedouin garb and an older woman in a sequined red dress. Those must be the captain’s contacts, she thought.
There were more bodies on the other side of a stained sectional couch. Her heart fell as she recognized her captain. Telouse was face down, but she would recognize his curly gray locks anywhere. She knelt by him and felt at his neck. There was no pulse, just as she knew there wouldn’t be. “Don’t touch anything,” she said. “Gloves.” She pulled a small plastic packet out of her jacket and ripped it open with her teeth. Inside were polyethylene gloves, which she put on quickly. She made a mental note to wipe her prints off the front door. “Don’t spit, don’t shed, don’t blink off an eyelash.” It was an impossible order, of course, but she didn’t want anything that would tie them to this place. Not with Authority cops involved.
The doctor, his hands already gloved, knelt by the captain to confirm his status, then moved on to their other crewmen. All dead. All by blaster fire. She didn’t need him to confirm that. She could see where the particle blasts had ripped through their clothes and spilled their entrails onto the plastic flooring.
“Careful not to step in any blood,” she ordered. She stood up and extracted herself from the mass of corpses.
“How are we going to get them back to the ship?” The cute security officer asked. He seemed to be asking no one in particular, but she answered.
The doctor jerked his head toward her at that. “I need to do full autopsies—”
“But you won’t be able to do that. Take good field notes, doctor, because that’s all you’re going to get.”
“That’s not how we honor our dead,” Arnesson objected, a little sheepishly. He knew he was out of line, but she didn’t press it.
“I know, and I’m with you on that. But these are battlefield conditions. Any moment now, Authority detectives could come through that door. Nothing is stopping them. This place is no one’s jurisdiction. We’ve already got six dead Authority cops here. They’re not going to make friendly inquiries, especially after they do a retina scan and figure out who we are. We’ve got to get out of here. The best we can do is offer our dead a dignified disposal.” It would also offer the dead the advantage of not being identified by the Authority cops, either, but she didn’t say that. She didn’t think she needed to.
She pulled another weapon from her jacket, a phase disrupter. She checked to make sure it was fully charged. With luck, she’d have enough juice to send their bodies out of phase and into…wherever out-of-phase matter goes, she thought. Into the Mystery.
“Doctor, you’ve got five minutes to finish up. Then we need to get out of this place. If we’re not gone before the detectives arrive, we’re not getting out of here at all.”
“Come.” Admiral Jason Tal leaned back in his seat and rubbed the back of his neck.
Captain Daniel Hightower stepped through looking as grim as Tal felt.
“Let’s make this brief, can we, captain? I just received some…bad news.”
Hightower stood at parade rest in front of the Admiral’s desk.
“Sit, son. Bourbon?”
“Don’t mind if I do,” the captain said. “End of my duty shift, after all.”
“Good. It’s the start of mine. I don’t think this bottle is going to last the shift.”
Hightower didn’t laugh. Tal poured the whiskey into two antique tin cups. They’d once been part of soldiers’ mess kits in the early 20th century. The metallic taste of the tin ruined the bourbon, but Tal didn’t care. It wasn’t great whiskey to start with.
“Can I ask…?” Hightower started, but couldn’t seem to find the words to finish.
“It’s classified, but…let’s just say someone I was very close to got killed in the line of duty…earlier today…a long way from here. I loved her once.”
“I’m sorry sir.”
“I want to snap the bastard’s neck, whoever it was.”
“Read me in,” Hightower said.
“Read me in. You have the authority. Read me in and I’ll snap the bastard’s neck for you.”
Tal considered this. It was tempting. He glanced at Hightower and suppressed a shudder. He was glad the captain was playing for his team. “Let me think about it.”
Hightower nodded. He knocked back his whiskey all at once. He didn’t even honor it with a grimace. “Did you see my report?”
“No, I…I guess I was a bit distracted.”
“Don’t blame you, sir.”
“It would be insubordination if you did.”
Hightower laughed. It was a harsh laugh, like saw blades on sandpaper. It made Tal’s skin crawl.
“Just give me the highlights,” the admiral commanded.
“You might need another drink.” He put the cup down on Tal’s desk. “I do.”
Tal raised his eyebrows and poured the captain a double. “This better be good.”
“Oh, it is.” Hightower took another swig. This time he grimaced, letting the sour mash run between his gums and teeth. “We ran across an unregistered vessel.”
“Unregistered? You mean RFC?”
“Nope. Not registered to them, either. Get this: It’s called the Kepler.”
“Your ship is the Kepler.”
“It’s another Kepler.”
Tal blinked. “But Kepler is a scientist from Earth.”
“Why would an alien name its vessel after a scientist from Earth?”
“It’s not an alien vessel.”
“But it’s not one of ours, and it’s not RFC.”
“Was there a crew?”
Tal blinked. “I don’t understand. Your Kepler was appropriated from the old Colonial Science Corps for the war effort.”
“So…we don’t allow more than one ship to have the same name. Just where is this ship registered?”
“As near as I can tell, Admiral, it’s a Colonial Science Corps vessel.”
“There are no Colonial Science Corps vessels. There’s no Colonial Science Corps.”
“There’s no Colonial Science Corps in this universe.”
Tal pursed his lips. Was Hightower playing with him? Yes, a little bit. That was clear. He was dancing around something big and was enjoying the guessing game. That was all right. Tal was enjoying it a bit himself. He’d had enough tragedy for one day. The puzzle was a good distraction. He smiled and took another drink of his bourbon. “Okay, Captain, I’ll play along. Who is the captain of this unregistered Kepler?”
“Captain Jeffrey Bowers.”
Tal frowned. “I know that name. Why do I know that name?”
“Twenty years ago, sir, you had to choose between two lieutenants to lead a top secret mission. You chose me, sir. ”
It all came rushing back. Tal set his cup down, suddenly feeling a little sick. “Catskill.” The word dropped off his tongue like an anvil.
“Yes, sir. Jeff Bowers was my best friend. He died on that mission.”
“I remember now.”
“I saw him die, sir. It’s…it’s why I snapped. It wasn’t in my orders to kill everyone in that village, as you know.” Hightower admitted this without a hint of remorse.
It made the hair stand up on Tal’s arm. “It earned you a reputation,” Tal said, not meeting the captain’s eyes.
“One that I hope I’ve put to good use.” Hightower grinned. Actually grinned.
Tal knocked back the rest of the whiskey in his cup.
“I’m through playing twenty questions, captain. Tell me what happened. The short version.” His mood had soured. Hightower was never company he cared to keep.
“It’s Jeff, all right. And several crew members of a contemporaneous Colonial Defense Fleet—as if the war had never happened. They say they were testing a new teleportation technology and ended up in Authority space…on an adjacent reality string.”
“What string do they say they’re from?”
“String 310. They list us as String 311. I don’t know about that, sir—”
Tal nodded. “That’s right. 311 is our string. But we’ve never…it isn’t possible…” he trailed off, looking out the large window into space at the stationary stars, burning brighter than seemed natural to someone brought up planetside.
“They seem as surprised as we are. And get this, in their string, you picked him instead of me. In his universe, I died at Catskill.”
“And there was no war.”
Hightower cocked his head. “What do you mean, sir?”
I picked the wrong man all right, Tal thought. But he didn’t say it aloud.
The chime rang out, indicating someone was at the door of Jeff’s cabin. The noise seemed distorted and loopy, bringing him from the depths of oblivion to the surface of consciousness—a place he had absolutely no interest in being. “Go away,” he called, not loud enough for anyone to hear. Just the volume he had been able to muster made his head ache. “Jesus Christ,” he said, cradling his head and turning over on his bunk.
Then came the knocking. Soft at first, then louder. Then insistent. “Jeff, I know you’re in there!” Emma’s voice, muffled, higher-pitched than usual, which meant anger or panic. Perhaps both.
“Go away!” Jeff yelled again, bracing himself against the pain.
“I’m not going away,” she called through the door. “You’ve been in there for days.”
“Go away,” Jeff repeated. She pounded on the door.
“Jesus!” he shouted, sitting up. His stomach leaped from all the whisky, and his face felt like it was on fire. His temples throbbed and a great burning pain the magnitude of the sun blazed behind his eyes. “Ahhh!” he moaned.
“Let me in or I’ll find a janitor who will let me in anyway.”
Jeff continued to moan. This world’s Kepler had escorted their own Kepler back to Sol Station. It was, in every way he could discern, an exact replica of their own Sol Station. He knew his way around, and it felt familiar and comforting. His crew had been granted low-security detention status—which means they’d been granted free run of the space station, but their neurals were being closely monitored. It was house arrest…in a really big house.
Jeff glanced at a half-empty glass of whisky and knocked it back, hoping the hair of the dog would take the edge off his torment. He spoke, trying to keep his voice even and normal so the computer would recognize it. “Let her in,” he said. The door slid open.
Emma was there, but he didn’t look up at her face. He knew what he’d see, and didn’t really want to see it.
“You look like hell,” she said, stepping in and taking his only chair. The door whisked shut behind her.
He slumped down onto the bed again.
“And you’re naked,” she pointed out.
He looked down. “Huh,” he said. “I hadn’t noticed that.”
“And there’s a pool of vomit by your pants.”
“Ugh.” So that’s what that smell is, he thought as he lay back down. The new body given to him by the Ulim was supposed to be resilient. But he had never pushed it like he had been pushing it for the past several days.
“Jeff, you have to stop with the drinking. No amount of alcohol is going to change what happened…what we did.”
“What I did,” Jeff corrected her.
“What we did,” she insisted.
“It’s Catskill all over again.” Jeff rose and poured himself another scotch. He looked up at the small cache of dishes above his sink to see if there was a larger glass. There was. He looked at Emma. He thought better of it and just used the smaller glass he had.
She grabbed the bottle before he could pour her any. “I knew this was going to happen.”
“You knew what was going to happen?” Jeff asked.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“Bullshit.” Emma wasn’t the kind of woman who bandied about profanity. It sounded alien and wrong dropping from her lips. “Jeff, ever since we docked at Sol Station, you’ve crawled into your hole—just like before, but worse.”
Jeff opened his mouth to protest, but she held up her hand. “Don’t even try to deny it. You’ve consumed more whisky in three days than you normally go through in a month. You’re sleeping all day. You’re irritable and sullen.”
“I’m just—” What was he going to say, “drunk”? He certainly was that.
“Shut up or I’ll punch you in the head,” Emma snapped. “You’re not ‘just’ anything. You’re depressed. And I’m not leaving until you accompany me to the infirmary.”
“Do you know what will happen if we go to the infirmary?”
“You might get some help? Maybe a dose of Plastaffex to help you manage your emotions—in a healthy way?”
“The doctor will want to do some routine scans and will discover that my fifty-year-old-body has the metabolism of a twenty-year-old. And it will be the whole can of shit we went through when I returned from the Ulim, all over again.”
Emma nodded, silent now. “You have been depressed.”
Jeff nodded. “Okay.” It was a concession. Of sorts. Sure.
“And it’s not Catskill.”
“Nope. It’s a billion times worse. A billion, billion times worse.” Jeff eyed the bottle in Emma’s hand. He was at the point of diminishing returns for the alcohol, and he knew it. It didn’t stop him from wanting it.
“Give me a glass, will you please?” Emma pointed toward the cupboard. “You’re scaring me—and you’re irritating the shit out of me.”
Jeff raised his eyebrows at yet another profanity. He shrugged and passed her a mug. “Always took you for a gin girl.”
She poured herself a couple of fingers. “I’m a white wine girl, thank you very much.”
Jeff sat on the edge of his bunk and rubbed his hands along his buzz cut hair. “Em, I…if you’re right, I just killed every person on Earth—not to mention every creature on every planet there is…was.”
“Trying to win a war against creatures that were systematically wiping out the human race. You…we didn’t do it on purpose. Science is filled with unintended consequences.”
“Edison burning his finger and what we did are hardly in the same category of ‘Oops.’”
Emma took a sip and made a face. “How can you stand this stuff?”
Jeff felt dizzy. He lay back down, arms spreadeagle. “Puts hair on your chest,” he managed.
“You want hair on my chest? Really?”
Jeff smiled sadly, but didn’t know if she could see it. It didn’t matter. They hadn’t made love since the accident. He couldn’t even summon any desire. Is that what I’m calling it now? he wondered. The accident?
“Jeff, we’re stuck here. There’s no home to go to.”
“If you’re trying to make me feel better—I don’t. I feel sick.”
“I’m trying to think things through. This is the only universe we’ve got. You’ve got to have a physical sometime. They’re going to find out you’re…altered.”
“Yeah. Okay. Sometime.”
“You need to get ahead of it.”
“What are you…what do you mean?”
“Talk to Admiral Jennings—”
“There is no Admiral Jennings. I checked. The Admiral here is Tal.”
Emma looked disturbed. “Do you know him?”
Jeff nodded. “He made me a captain. He sent me to Catskill.”
“Oh, Jeff,” she moved to his side and put her hand on his chest.
“But in this world, he chose Danny to lead that mission. Which is why I’m…dead here.” He swallowed. “So yeah, I know him.”
“Then go to him. Tell him…hell, tell him everything.”
“He’ll just want to use…” he was about to say “me” but after some hesitation, finished with a weak “it.”
“He might. And you’ll say no. And you’ll tell him that if you use it you risk destroying this universe too. He won’t allow that. He’s too smart.”
“He might. He’s an Admiral. He might try to force my hand.”
“What, by tying me to a railroad track and twirling his mustache?”
Despite himself, Jeff laughed. It hurt. “Oh, God, Emma…what have we done?”
She put the glass and the bottle on the counter and laid down next to him on the bed. She rested her head on his chest and hugged him to her. “The best we could, honey.”
She’d never used a term of endearment before. He put his arm around her and pulled her in closer. Without knowing where it came from, a sob erupted from his throat.
“That’s the best thing,” Emma said. “Let it out, baby.” She cradled his head into her belly and rocked back and forth as he wet her shirt.
Jo was deep in thought as the shuttle auto-docked with the Talon. She felt lost. She felt the gaping hole of loss in her belly. Not just the loss of the Captain and his away team, but personal loss…failure. She wracked her brain replaying the events that had led her to the present moment, every significant decision, every possible way she might have gone in a different direction or pushed things in a different direction. But Captain Telouse was not a man easily pushed, and her own responses had been by the book. She might, conceivably, have done something different, but it wouldn’t have made any sense in the moment to do it. She shook her head. She was already frazzled with grief, and now she was making herself crazy with all her second-guessing.
The shuttle set down lightly. She felt a barely perceptible bump as the shuttle’s skis kissed the floor of the landing bay. She’d have to make a full report to RFC command, and she’d have to hold it all together until they could rendezvous with a friendly space station and pick up their new captain. She felt unequal to the task. Her hands began to shake, and she squeezed them under her thighs to steady them.
With a whine of servomotors, the shuttle door swung up and clear of the entrance, and their restraints released. Dr. Mbusa avoided her eyes as he rose and headed first for the door. That meant one thing—the doctor was lost in his own thoughts and not really aware of what was happening around him. She decided not to call him on it. The security team followed protocol, however, and waited for her to disembark before them.
She emerged from the door and stepped down to the floor of the bay. Steadying herself against the hull, she turned and began walking across the cavernous bay floor. Then she stopped.
Weaponer Shallit had come to meet her. That was odd. Odder still was the fact that he was accompanied by a double complement of security officers. As her own security detail disembarked, they noted the oddity of it, too, and halted behind her. Dr. Mbusa simply pushed past them and headed for the lift.
“What’s up?” Leif Arnesson asked.
“Weaponer Shallit, what’s wrong?” Jo asked. “Why aren’t you on the bridge?” She felt the tiny black hairs on the back of her neck become stiff and stand upright. A chill ran down her spine.
“This crew is in a state of crisis,” Shallit said. “Morale is low—people are scared.”
“There’s no need for them to—”
Shallit interrupted her. “Confidence in leadership is low. For the good of the crew, for its survival, I am relieving you of your command.”
So that was it. Why hadn’t she seen this coming? She put her hands on her hips defiantly. “You don’t have the authority to relieve me of command.”
“I don’t need authority, I only need strength and the confidence of the crew.”
Jo glanced at the hard faces of the security officers—her security officers. “You mean the confidence of Security.”
He moved his head back and forth, indicating a flake of agreement. “They do the job.”
“This is mutiny. It will never stand.”
“Possession is 9/10ths of the law. When we complete this mission and return safely, no one will blink an eye.”
That was probably not true, but there was enough truth in it to make Jo nervous. The Revolutionary Freedom Coalition was well funded, but chaotic. There was a command structure, but there was an anarchic streak that made precise coordination of forces difficult at best. If he could gin up a good enough story, he might just get away with it. Or he was planning a career in piracy with a stolen vessel and crew. Jo wouldn’t put it past him.
“This is wrong, Greg.”
“You’re going to appeal to my morality now?” He lowered his head slightly and gave her a smile that said, Aren’t you pathetic?
Jo felt herself running out of aces. Her mind raced. It was stupid, her appeal to ethics. A man like Shallit only spoke the language of pragmatism. Idealism was an alien tongue.
“Throw down your weapon,” Shallit ordered. “You, men, with me.” He motioned for the security detail that had returned from the planet to abandon her and join their fellows. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see them wavering. But they could read the score as well as she could. They’d either cross over or surrender their weapons with her. Slowly, reluctantly, they stepped past her. Arnesson glanced over his shoulder and shot her an apologetic grimace.
She took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. If she was going to go down, it was going to be with some dignity.
“Your blaster, commander,” Shallit insisted. “Throw it down.”
“I’m not going to throw it down,” she said. “It’ll get damaged. Hell, it might explode. Here.” She removed her blaster from its holster and flipped it around. She held it out so that its handgrip was pointed toward Shallit.
He nodded and strode forward to take the weapon.
She held it out to him. Holding it as she was, her thumb was nowhere near the ID pad. Just as he reached out to take the weapon, she pushed the trigger forward with her thumb.
The particle blast erupted from the butt-end of the barrel, and it was close enough to catch Shallit full in the chest. The man went down, howling with pain and rage. Jo flipped the blaster into the air and caught it the right way ’round, placing her thumb on the ID pad as God had intended so that this time the gun would know its owner—would know it was her—and would fire properly and at full, hull-melting capacity. She trained the blaster at Shallit’s head as he clutched at his chest and writhed. “Nice try, asshole.” She glanced up at the assembled security teams. “You’ve all got two choices. Behave like loyal RFC Security from this moment out and we’ll forget any of this ever happened. Continue to back this asshole and you can join him for a tea party in the airlock until your guts explode out the top of your head. Which will it be?”
She watched as, one by one, they holstered their blasters and saluted.
“Grab this asshole and take him to that airlock.” She pointed to the one across the room.
No one complained. No one objected. They dragged his twisting body across the landing bay floor to the airlock and waited as it slid open, then shoved him in.
She stabbed a button with her finger and stepped back slightly as the inner hatch slid closed and sealed. Jo’s demeanor was like steel as she entered the executive code overriding decompression, then watched through the small porthole in the hatch as Shallit’s body was blown into the void.
Jeff’s and Emma’s eyes locked. She smiled encouragingly.
He’d slept some and his headache had abated, thanks to a gallon of Elektro and some Morphex. He felt slightly altered—and maybe a tiny bit still drunk—but he was alert and functional. He waited as the door slid open, and motioned for Emma to enter first. He followed her into a wood paneled office adorned with nautical tchotchkes and antique lithographs of jazz musicians.
Admiral Tal looked up from the pad in his hand only when they were halfway across the room. He didn’t smile exactly, but gave a satisfied nod. He was older than when Jeff had seen him last. His dark brown skin was more weathered, and his hair had grayed. He seemed to be the same Admiral Tal in every respect, except Jeff knew he wasn’t.
“Captain. Doctor. Please have a seat.” They did. Jeff felt a fleeting wave of nervousness. He flashed on being in the principal’s office as a teenager. He knew it was a silly thought, but knowing that didn’t make the feeling go away.
“You’ve come to us with quite a tale,” he said. He sat. “Can I offer you a drink?”
“No thank you,” Emma answered for both of them, a little too quickly. “Especially not him.”
A slight curl of a smile crossed the Admiral’s face, but it disappeared quickly. He leaned back in his chair. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you, Captain.”
“Since I died twenty years ago, I suppose that’s true. I’ve seen you since…in our universe. But it has been a long time.”
“Are you still holding a grudge?” Tal asked.
“Why should I? In my universe, you picked me.”
“Did I?” Tal nodded slowly. “Well, it was a close thing.” He drummed his fingers on his desk. “I have to confess, I find your story almost impossible to believe.”
Emma gave no reaction. Jeff nodded. “I understand completely.”
“You look like Commander Bowers to me. You’re older, but I’d know you anywhere. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you were haunting me. An admiral has to live with the ghosts of all the men he sent into battle who didn’t come back. We just don’t often have to confront them in the flesh.”
Jeff nodded. He swallowed. He could see the Admiral was struggling with this. There was nothing he could do but let him struggle. “You could be a plant, a trick. But the fact is that you know things that only Captain Hightower and the original Commander Bowers could know. So that’s…convincing.” He turned to look at Emma. “And there’s the odd fact that there are now two of you. You are teaching particle physics at MIT. Right now.” The air over his desk shimmered and a moment later a tiny version of Emma was lecturing on the admiral’s desktop. “Specialist in Quantum seismology.”
“Guilty as charged,” Emma said. “Admiral, can I ask a frivolous question? Am I…single?”
Tal chuckled. “I did not think to ask, my dear.”
“Needless to say, we’re interested to hear about what you all were working on, when the whole…”
“Accident?” Jeff offered, hating himself for saying it.
“Yes, when the accident happened.”
“I’d be happy to write up a technical evaluation,” Emma offered. “I was the one supervising the technical operation.”
Tal nodded. “Good, because we want to know what you were really up to.”
Jeff and Emma looked at one another.
“What do you mean, ‘really up to’?” Jeff asked.
“I’ve just received a report from our experts evaluating your voice and vid records ever since you returned—specifically your initial debriefing. Not a single man on your ship was telling the truth—not the whole truth, anyway. And that includes you, Captain.”
Jeff nodded. “I guess that’s why we asked to see you.”
“I can’t tell you how glad I am that you asked to see me before I summoned you. It was a close thing.” He folded his hands in front of him and leaned over his desk toward Jeff. “Are you gonna come clean with me, Captain, Doctor, or are you going to spin some more gold out of your asses?”
“You want the whole truth?” Jeff asked.
“I do, Captain. Knowing the whole situation is the only way you win a war. It’s the only way I can keep these people safe. So you can either give it to me straight or you can continue your depressive funk in a maximum security cell.”
Jeff glanced at Emma. She nodded. “Okay. The whole truth, then.”
“I’m going to be recording this. So we can tell if you’re telling the truth.”
“That’s fine, sir.” Jeff launched in. He told the admiral about Catskill, about the mysterious, suicidal commands, and about Danny’s death. He told the admiral about New Manila being dismantled by the Prox, about his crash landing on the moon, and about the Ulim.
The admiral blinked as Jeff related all he knew about the crystalline aliens, about how he’d been reconstructed back home in Anchorage. About how he’d seen them squash space and how he’d learned to do it himself. He told Tal about their early experiments, about the facility in Alberta, about the yak meat in Ladakh, about the disaster with the Bohr. Finally, he related the surprise attack of the Ulim and the desperate jump Jeff had initiated that had apparently wiped out an entire string of reality and landed them in a familiar but alien universe.
When he finally finished speaking, Tal’s eyes were wide. “I…need that drink.” He did not ask again whether Jeff or Emma would join him. Tal opened a drawer and poured himself a glass. He knocked it back.
Jeff blinked, waiting. Tal wiped the corner of his mouth on his sleeve. Then he propped one elbow on the desk and rested his chin in his hand. “So you’re…actually an alien.”
“I don’t know what I am. I’m me, though,” Jeff answered.
Tal sighed. “You’re sure none of these…Prox…made the jump with you?” Jeff knew what he was after. The admiral did not need another enemy to contend with, not with a civil war raging.
“No, sir. We would have picked that up on our sensors. We came through alone.”
“Good…that’s…good.” Tal nodded again. “Um…Captain, Doctor, I’m going to need some time to…”
“Process?” Emma offered.
“I was going to say, ‘have these recordings evaluated for veracity,’ but yes, I’m going to need to…process what you’ve told me.”
“Of course.” Jeff rose and straightened his jacket.
“I may have more questions,” Tal said.
“Of course, sir.”
Emma rose, too. “Are you going to lock us up?”
“If my experts tell me you’re telling the truth? No. If they tell me you aren’t, you’ll wake up in the brig. How’s that?”
“That’s only fair,” Jeff said.
“Are you going to wake up in the brig?” Tal asked.
“We’ve told you everything, sir,” Jeff said. “We might not have gotten it all right…I mean, we’re just guessing about the science…but you know everything we know.”
“That’s what I want to hear. Dismissed, Captain.” He nodded at Emma. “Doctor.”
Without another word, Jeff and Emma exited the office. The door slid shut behind them. Jeff watched Emma slump.
“Whew,” she said. “Do you think he really believes it?”
“Who knows? I’m not sure I believe it,” Jeff admitted.
“He seems suspicious.”
“Of course he’s suspicious. Seems like the old Tal, though. I might not know him, but I trust him.”
Emma slumped against the wall. “I need…to lie down a bit. Care to come?”
Jeff didn’t need a nap, he needed a drink. But he didn’t want to say so.
“I can see that you don’t. Never mind. See you for dinner?”
“I have an appointment with a depressive funk. I’ll see if I can reschedule.”
He watched her walk off, appreciating her figure. His cabin was in the same direction as hers, but he wanted space, so he decided on a more circuitous route. He wandered off toward the docks. There was something about the massive windows into space that soothed him. Whisky might be poison, but the stars were medicine.
About halfway there he started feeling sleepy himself. He heard his mother’s voice in his head, telling him that a rest would be healthier than a drink. He started to regret not taking Emma up on her offer. He’d been feeling distant from her. He had some responsibility to be intimate with her, didn’t he? Hadn’t he made some kind of implied contract when they’d begun to be intimate to continue it, to go deeper? He suspected so, but the question wasn’t really in his field. Besides, the large bay windows loomed in front of him, and words failed in the face of awe.
He put his face against the window, felt the biting cold of space against his hot cheek. It felt like bliss. He rolled his forehead along the glass, savoring the coolness. He opened his eyes and saw stars so vivid and bright that he was tempted to reach out and touch them. He reminded himself that he alone, among all the humans in this universe or any other, could actually do it. It also occurred to him that he would roast and die just like any other human. A despairing, cowardly part of him was tempted.
A commotion erupted just out of sight. Reflexively, he turned his head to see the source of the noise. A passenger transport was docking and a couple thousand people were disembarking. Their laughter and conversation reverberated through the docking port, making the room suddenly many times louder than it had been mere seconds ago.
Jeff never considered himself much of a people watcher—he suspected you had to like people more than he did to make a go of it—but he had nothing better to do and no place he needed to be. He saw a gaggle of marines, clamorous and ebullient, followed by two families, clearly on vacation. They were probably on a layover and would leave for one of the resort colonies later today or tomorrow. He saw scientists and lawyers and government suits. He saw the whole spectrum of human life, spilling over from the Earth into the petri dish that was Sol Station.
One man emerged from the docking tube that surprised him. He was short and dark, with small black eyes and severe cheekbones. He wore a brightly colored poncho and a comically tiny bowler hat at an angle. His jet-black hair was shoulder length. Jeff straightened as the man walked directly toward him. Jeff looked around to see if there was anyone else nearby that might be the man’s intended destination, but there wasn’t. Nor were there any facilities—just him and the long expanse of window. He relaxed. Of course, the window. The man had come to look out into space, just as he had.
Jeff turned and looked out again. A few moments later he felt a presence beside him, heard the man’s breathing in spite of the noise that filled the dock.
“There are two kinds of beauty,” he said.
Jeff looked down at the little man. What was he, a tribal chief? A shaman? As soon as he had the thought, he felt it was right. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. The little man was a shaman. And where was he from? Peru? Bolivia? Were those places even habitable now? He didn’t know. He didn’t bother to check it on his neural, however. Some sort of answer seemed in order.
“Uh…okay. What would those be?”
“Eternal and ephemeral.”
“What’s eternal beauty?” Jeff asked.
“Those are beauties that do not change—moral beauty, mathematical beauty, the beauty of complexity in nature.”
“And what are…what was the other kind?”
“Ephemeral. Ephemeral beauty is the kind we love best. It is the beauty of everything that can be lost. And the most beautiful things of all are those that are already gone.” The shaman turned and looked him up and down. “You strike me as a man who knows something about this.”
Jeff glanced down and caught the man’s eyes. A chill ran through him. It felt like this man was looking through him, into him, maybe even past him toward some greater truth that Jeff was not aware of. Jeff said nothing. He turned back to the stars.
“Ah, I see,” the small man said. “You have lost faith in yourself.”
“What?” Jeff snapped.
“A wise man once said, ‘The only limit to our realization of tomorrow will be our doubts of today.’”
“Who said that?” Jeff asked.
“FDR,” the shaman said.
“Who?” Jeff asked.
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt.” The little man’s brows furrowed. “You are from a place where there was no FDR. You have come a long way indeed.”
Jeff was tempted to look up this Roosevelt character but his thoughts were buzzing too fast. Before he could sort through them, the man spoke again. “They’re not gone.”
“Who’s not gone?” Jeff asked. Part of him was anxious for the impossible news that the beings of String 310 might still be alive…somewhere.
“The Ulim,” the man said.
Jeff’s mouth opened. He stared at the little man—at the shells and teeth dangling around his neck, at his ridiculous little hat. Time froze. “What did you say?”
“They go by another name, too. You will need to discover it. But…you should find them.”
“How do you know about the Ulim? And how did you know…”
“That you knew? We’re part of a very elite club, you and I.” The man didn’t look at him, but stared out at the stars.
“Wh-what do you mean? Have you…met…the Ulim?” Jeff asked.
“Where?” Jeff asked.
“That is a story that requires…some telling. Perhaps another time.” He smiled. “Perhaps not.”
“Tell me now,” Jeff insisted.
“I cannot. I have a connection to catch.” The man turned.
“Wait,” Jeff said. “How did you know…about me?”
“You can see it.”
“I can’t see it.”
“You can. You are just not looking for it.” He leaned in closer and fluttered his fingers. “It’s like little blue fireflies.” He smiled and patted Jeff’s arm. “Adios, mi amigo.”
Jo stared as Shallit’s body tumbled away through the cold vacuum of space. She thought she’d feel satisfaction and triumph as his arms pinwheeled and his legs moved as if riding an invisible bicycle, then stopped. She balled her hand up into a fist to keep it from shaking. With effort, she tore her eyes away from the view port and faced the borderline mutineers that made up her security teams. “We have work to do, people,” she said and strode toward the lift.
She wasn’t usually conscious of herself as she walked, but as she pushed past her shocked men, she was aware of every muscle as she moved it, every articulated joint in its mobility. She almost stumbled from the alienness of trying to consciously coordinate the simple—or, as she discovered in the moment—extraordinarily complex act of walking.
She felt lightheaded, too, which didn’t help. She willed herself to be calm as the lift slowed. She was once more upright and regal as the doors to the bridge slid open and she stepped out.
She arrived to the great surprise—and horror, it seemed—of the bridge crew. The odd thing was that none of them were bridge officers. She vaguely recognized the man sitting at the communications station, and the woman in the weaponer’s chair. She knew the navigator, too, from engineering, but none of them were bridge crew. Everyone stopped and stared at her. None of them saluted. Their mouths gaped and she saw fear flame in their eyes. “Captain on the bridge!” Jo shouted, and watched as they scrambled to attention beside their stations.
“At ease,” Jo said, taking the captain’s chair. “Reports. You.” She pointed at the man at navigation. He looked down at his console and stammered, “Um, c-course set for Luyten, Gamma Station, sir.”
“Who gave that order, Mr.—”
“Mr. Vale, who gave that order?”
“Captain Shall—Mr. Shallit, sir.”
“Why are we headed for Gamma Station, Mr. Vale?”
“Mr. Shallit said something about ‘joining up’ with someone there.”
“I don’t know, sir. He didn’t say.”
She turned toward communications. “Mr…Fein, is it?”
“Yes, sir.” The young man blinked, and Jo could see him sweating straight through his uniform. She pitied him.
“Did Mr. Shallit send any communications after the away team left?”
“Um, yes, sir. One secure data packet.”
“Send that to my neural now, please.”
The young man looked down and tapped in a few commands. “Should ping you right about…now, sir.”
Indeed, an orange light blinked in her peripheral vision. She looked up to retrieve the message. She read it carefully but quickly. So it was to be piracy after all. Good to know your true colors, Mr. Shallit.
She turned and faced the acting weaponer, a bulky young woman with short blonde hair. “Mr.—”
“Mr. Hagen, I wonder if you can tell me the location of my primary bridge crew? Or the secondary bridge crew, for that matter?”
The young woman’s eyes grew wide and she gulped.
“They are aboard this ship, are they not?”
“They are,” she said. “They’re in the…in the brig, sir.”
“And what offense landed them there, Mr. Hagen?”
“By which you mean they refused to be subordinate to Mr. Shallit when he took over the ship?”
“Which only leaves one question in my mind,” Jo tapped on the arm of her command chair. “Why are you here and not there?”
Hagan froze, as did every member of the crew.
“You may be wondering if you can band together to overwhelm me,” Jo said with an eerie calm in her voice, so calm that it unsettled even her. “Mr. Fein, I wonder if you can lock onto Mr. Shallit’s neural and get us a picture of where he is now?”
Fein turned to his console and tapped in a few instructions. “I have him…kind of.”
“Then let us see him. Main viewer, please.”
The larger view screen flickered and suddenly Greg Shallit’s body was clearly visible, tumbling slowly in space.
“What…happened to him?” Fein asked, his voice uncertain.
Jo let every one of her next words drop with as much ice as she could summon. “I. Happened. To. Him.”
She saw Fein’s hand start to shake. Good. He ought to be afraid of her. They all should.
“There’s a reason mutiny is treated like no other crime in the armed forces,” she said. “And it is also the only crime I have license to handle without due process.” She waited for that to sink in. “So I handled it.”
She stood and began to circumambulate the small bridge. “The problem before me now is discerning the fate of Shallit’s accomplices. Which actions among them constitute mutiny, and which are simply survival under mutinous conditions?”
No one moved. She saw Hagen’s fist balling. Open, shut, open, shut. She intentionally turned her back to her and measured her steps—slow, steady. She needed to create an inviting enough target. The blur in her peripheral vision told her that she had succeeded. Jo lunged to the left, simultaneously reaching toward the pouncing weaponer and snagging her uniform by the neck, hoisted down with every ounce of strength that was in her. Hagen’s head hit the side of the navigation panel with a sickening thuk. Her body dropped to the floor. Jo straightened her red uniform jacket and leveled her gaze at Fein and Vale. “Anyone else want a shot?”
Fein looked like he was about to cry.
“Mr. Vale, lay in a new course for Ross 154. Then send me a full report.”
He gulped. “Speed, sir?”
“Mr. Vale, where did you learn to fly?”
“Mars Academy, sir.”
“Are you a Martian, Mr. Vale?”
“I am, sir.”
“You’re awfully polite for a Martian.”
“Enhanced training, sir.”
“Obviously.” She afforded him a slight smile. Then she turned to Fein. “Mr. Fein, connect me to Security.”
“Security here,” a voice answered promptly.
“To whom am I speaking?” Jo asked.
“Security chief Dixon, sir.” The voice sounded Jamaican.
“That’s quite a patois you’ve got there, Dixon.”
“I work on that in my spare time, sir.”
“I hear you’ve got some of my crew members in lockup down there.”
“We do, sir, yes.”
“I’m going to need those folks on the bridge.”
“They’re pending charges, sir.”
“I’m invoking Captain’s Privilege subsequent to regulation 27, subsection F, item 2. I want them back on the bridge in five minutes, sir.”
“They’re in the middle of dinner, captain.”
“Then get them to-go bags and promise them a picnic on the bridge. I also have one here for you to take back with you. Captain out.”
Somehow, Jeff found himself back at his cabin, although he had no memory of what transpired between the docking port and the moment he was standing outside his own door. He felt as if he were floating outside his own body, watching his movements from above. Everything was surreal and slightly out of focus. His arm lifted to hit the button that would open the door, but he didn’t know why he was there. Habit, I guess, he thought. But there was nothing in his cabin he wanted. He didn’t want to sleep, he didn’t want to change, he didn’t want a drink…
His head snapped up. That’s odd, he thought. Why don’t I want a drink? The craving for alcohol, for respite from his guilt and despair, however temporary, however problematic, however many unpleasant side-effects it brought in its wake, was omnipresent. But now it simply…wasn’t there. He blinked. He didn’t know what to make of it.
He broke the surface of his affect, as if dipping a toe into water of a suspicious temperature, lightly touching the place that housed his shame. It was there, but he felt strangely detached from it. He could see it. If he poked at it, he could feel it, but it was as if he were watching something horrible on display in a museum—it was preserved and observable, but not something he needed to live with.
His eyebrows bunched in confusion, and he decided maybe he needed to lie down after all. The dissociation was not dissipating and brought with it a nauseous and unpleasant vertigo.
He punched at the button, the scanner performed its handshake with his neural, and the door slid open. He cast off his boots and stumbled to the bed. Lying down, he stared at the ceiling, but the only thing filling his vision was the memory of the little man, the shaman.
He wanted to speak to him again—needed to speak to him again. But what was his name? Where was he going?
A feeling of urgency sped through Jeff. I’m not thinking straight, he thought. I shouldn’t be here, I should be tracking that man down. He blinked and accessed his neural. He did a search for interstellar launches, and discovered only one for two hours before or after—to Barnard Station—and it had already left. The little man was right—he’d had little time for the transfer.
Jeff sought access to the flight manifest. There would be hundreds, maybe thousands of passengers on that flight, but a part of him hoped for a name that sounded Peruvian. What the hell does a Peruvian name sound like? he asked himself. And how would it be different from a Panamanian or Mexican or Chilean or Argentinian name? He didn’t know. Goddam it, he sighed.
Just then there was a ping from the door. “Who is it?” he asked the door. “Neural scan indicates Dr. Emma Stewart,” the computer’s voice said. It was the same annoyingly calm voice he was used to from his own universe. He hated it.
“Let her in.”
A moment later, Emma was hovering over him. He didn’t look at her. He could feel her there. “Hi.”
“Jeff, you’ve got to come quickly. They’ve been arrested.”
“Who’s been arrested?” He opened his eyes and hoisted himself up on his elbows.
“Members of the crew. Pho and Nira. Not Wall, though.”
“Whaaaat?” Jeff sat up. “Why? Neither Pho or Nira is the type to get into a bar fight.”
“I don’t know. I just know…that you’d want to know.”
“Christ. Have you seen them?”
“No. I just heard about it from Wall. I came straight here.”
He was glad his head was clear. The dissociation seemed to be dissipating, too. “Guess I have a mission. You along?”
She cocked her head. “I have no other duties.” There was a note of sarcasm in her voice.
Jeff stood and straightened his jacket. “Let’s find out what’s going on.”
Leaving his cabin, Jeff accessed his neural and inquired as to the location of the brigs. They were just where he expected them to be—three of them, in precisely the same places they had been on their own Sol Station.
He sent an inquiry as to the location of his crew, but got nothing back. That decided it—he needed to go to the main security station and beat some heads together. He didn’t need a map to find that.
Emma seemed to have trouble keeping pace with him, and every few yards she had to scramble to match him. He noticed, but didn’t slow down. He could feel the adrenaline bolting into every system in his body—it was the feeling of clarity, of purpose, of indignation. He didn’t eschew any of it. Instead, he bathed in it, the polar opposite of the alcohol’s effects. It was euphoric and ecstatic in every way that whisky was not. It felt right and good.
It took them ten minutes to traverse the distance. He supposed they could have taken a tube, but that would have meant going the other way straight out of his cabin, and he hadn’t been thinking clearly enough for such a non-intuitive move. It didn’t matter. The exercise was doing him good, too, and it wouldn’t have saved them that much time.
He burst through the doors of security with Emma trailing. She seemed to have given up on keeping pace, but was still following. She caught up to him as he stood at the desk.
Jeff glared at the duty officer, who was talking to someone through his neural. His fingers drummed at the counter impatiently. The officer put his hand out, which Jeff took to mean, I see you, just a minute. Jeff studied the man. He seemed to be of African descent, and part of his head was clearly prosthetic. Jeff surmised that he’d been wounded in battle and in exchange for his courage and health had been awarded this lovely desk job. Jeff drummed his fingers some more.
Emma covered Jeff’s hand with her own, stilling it. He took a deep breath.
A few moments later the duty officer looked down from his neural and gave them a perfunctory smile. “What do you need?” he asked.
“I need to know where my crew is being held, and I need to see them,” Jeff said.
“Names?” The man sighed and looked up to retrieve the records from his neural.
“Lieutenant Martin Pho and Commander Camil Nira, from the crew of the Kepler. The…uh…the other Kepler.”
“Oh yeah, I heard about that,” the duty officer said. “Weird thing. Can’t wait to get the whole story.”
Strangely, the young man did not ply Jeff for any details to the story. That was just fine with him.
“Uh…huh. Okay. I can see where they are…but it’s classified.”
“What do you mean, it’s classified?”
“What do you mean, what do I mean? It’s just classified.”
Emma put a hand on his arm. “Don’t take it out on him, Jeff. We just need to go around.”
The duty officer looked down and smiled at Emma. “That’s exactly right.”
“I’ll send a message to Danny,” Jeff said to Emma. He turned back to the officer. “Perhaps you can explain to Captain Hightower where they are.”
The duty officer recoiled a bit. “The Butcher?”
Jeff blinked. “What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing,” the young man said, obviously rattled. “Uh…Captain Hightower does not have sufficient clearance.”
“We’ll go to Tal, then,” Jeff said.
“Admiral Tal?” The young man asked. His voice actually cracked.
“Yes, of course, Admiral Tal,” Jeff snapped. He looked up and shot off a message to the Admiral. When he looked back down, he narrowed his eyes at the young officer. “Does Admiral Tal have enough fucking clearance to access this information?”
“Uh…yes sir, of course sir.”
“Good. We’ll wait.”
“How about some coffee, Jeff?” Emma asked. She pointed to a compact food synthesizer on the wall and cocked her head at the service officer.
“Oh, sure. You’ll find cups right over there. Help yourself. They’ve got a new cocoa in that’s wonderful.”
“Fucking cocoa,” Jeff said, as Emma handed him a cup. “Jo drank cocoa.”
“Don’t go there,” Emma said.
“I am not jealous of Jo. Jo is…” Jeff knew she was about to say “dead,” and she must have realized how it would sound out loud. “I have never been jealous of Jo.”
“Bullshit,” Jeff said.
“I liked Jo.”
Jeff gave her a dubious look.
“Okay, if we had met under different circumstances, we would never have hung out together or anything. But I didn’t dislike her.”
“The double-negative speaks volumes.”
“And I understand why you did. Like her.”
Jeff nodded. It was big of her to concede it. He felt grateful somehow. “Thanks.”
Jeff considered telling her about the shaman, but thought better of it. He needed to know more before he said anything.
“Uh…excuse me,” the man at the desk waved to them. Jeff leaped up and Emma came to his side a moment later. “Okay, you’ve got clearance to see them, courtesy of the Admiral.” The man looked shocked. “You must have some fucking clout.”
“I’m a ghost,” Jeff answered, “and that seems to be worth something, at least until the novelty wears off.”
“Here are your passes.” The man handed a lanyard to each of them. “Now if you’ll just hold still so I can get a retina scan, I’ll pull up your neural codes and enter your permissions.”
Jeff and Emma stood still until the green light flashed and the man nodded, apparently satisfied. He manipulated something on his pad and then gave them a perfunctory smile. “That will do it. Now…no explosives, drugs, weapons, or contraband of any kind. No liquids, fruits, vegetables, or spices while you’re inside—”
“I know the drill, sergeant.”
“I don’t!” Emma slapped him on the arm. “I’m curious. What else can’t we bring in?”
“No granulated sweeteners or perfumes or cosmetics. No prosthetics or religious materials.”
“Why are those in the same category?” Emma asked Jeff. He shrugged.
“No electronics or bio-drives or disease agents or biological fluids or organs.”
“I assume you don’t mean those I’m carrying within my body?” Emma clarified.
The man jerked a bit, disturbed at having been interrupted in the middle of his recitation. “Er…that would be correct.”
“Good thing I’m not accustomed to carrying around internal organs in a bag,” Emma said.
“We get the idea, sergeant. Can you just let us in, now?” Jeff asked, trying not to sound too testy, but failing.
“Sure.” The desk sergeant tapped on his console and a loud “clack” sound emitted from a large metal door on the far side of the room. Jeff strode toward it, noting that it looked more like an airlock than a door. As he approached he saw a red light on the keypad switch to green as it caught the handshake from his neural. It flashed green again as Emma came within range.
“I’d rather walk beside you than behind you,” Emma said, not sounding too annoyed.
“Sorry,” Jeff said. “I’m…” he paused to consider what he was actually feeling. The jumble of emotions was hard to sort out in the moment.
“Anxious? Harried?” Emma offered. “I get it, Jeff. Just…let me be part of it.”
He nodded and they passed through the large metal door together.
The hallway on the other side was claustrophobically narrow and gleaming white—a bit too bright for Jeff’s eyes. He squinted as they walked. “Why so bright?” he asked.
“You tell me. You’re the military expert.”
At the end of the hall was another airlock-style door.
“Are they actually holding them off-station?” Emma asked.
“It’s a detention pod. Only one way in or out. It’s a maximum security tactic,” Jeff explained.
“How big is the pod?”
Jeff shrugged. “Could be five cells and a common space, could be a hundred. Hard to say.”
“Remind me never to sneak another piece of pie again.”
The airlock door opened—it was smaller at this side, so Jeff stepped back and waved Emma in.
Once inside the vestibule, they waited until the inner door read their neural clearances and activated. It swung open and Emma exited first. Stepping over the raised threshold, Jeff looked around. It was still glaringly bright. Probably so no one can hide, he thought, but he didn’t remember their own holding cells being like that. You have to account for minor differences here, he reminded himself.
Inside, an armored and armed guard held a hand up as he read their neural clearances. Apparently satisfied, he nodded wordlessly and waved them to the left. They entered a large common area. Jeff noted white poly tables and chairs, a large view screen set to display a calm forest waterfall. The sound of the waterfall filled the air with white noise. Jeff felt himself relax. Well, that works, he thought.
The guard waved them over to another door. He tapped some commands into the pad beside it, and it swung open. Again, it was airlock-style. “It’s a double-hatch system,” the guard explained. “When this door latches, the next one will open.”
Jeff nodded and he and Emma stepped through. He fought back a moment of panic as he considered the possibility that the guards would not allow them back out. That’s not how they do things, he reminded himself. Once he heard the lock latch, the door in front of them emitted a series of complicated sounding clacks. Eventually, with the sound of hissing air, it swung inward. Jeff met Emma’s eyes, wondering if she was having the same thoughts. The fear in her eyes told him all he needed to know. “There’s no going back now,” he said, waving her in.
She stepped over the airlock threshold, and he did the same. Inside, Nira and Pho were poised to act—although what those actions might be, Jeff couldn’t say. Were they ready to attack or run for the back of the pod?
Nira and Pho relaxed when they saw who it was. Nira rushed up and hugged Jeff—a serious breach of protocol, but he didn’t reprimand her. “I was afraid they’d capture you, too,” she said.
“They didn’t capture us…at least, I don’t think we’re under arrest,” Jeff said as she pulled away from him. “We just came to see you.”
“You mean they’ll let you two back out?” Pho asked.
“I hope so.” Jeff said.
“I hope so, too,” Pho confessed, but his face was stricken.
Jeff looked around. The blinding light was gone, replaced by a cool blue glow—no doubt engineered to inspire calm. The pod was about fifteen feet square—roomy enough, even for two. Bunkbeds took up one side of the room, with a table and chairs on the other. Exercise equipment was set into one wall, a treadmill stood erect against it, ready to be pulled down for use. The door to a toilet facility was just past the table. It was tidy, if a little dim. Maybe my eyes will adjust, he thought.
He sat down on the bottom bunk. “What did you two do?”
Nira and Pho glanced at each other and blinked. “What do you mean?” Nira asked. “We didn’t do anything.”
“Then why are you here?”
“We don’t know. They kept calling us ‘rebel spies,’ and—” Pho’s voice became hard—“they spit on us.”
“They…spit on you?”
He nodded. That can’t happen, Jeff thought. Not in my universe anyway. He didn’t need to remind himself that he wasn’t in his universe.
“Did they hit you?” Jeff asked.
“No,” Nira said. “They just…there was a lot of rough language. It…it was like being in high school again.”
“That is not the conduct of professional soldiers,” Jeff pronounced. No one disagreed with him, but it was hardly a revelation.
“Are you well treated now?” Jeff asked.
“They leave us alone. We’re comfortable here. The food is decent—at least lunch was.”
“And the other inmates?” Jeff asked, pointing to the door leading to the common space outside.
“There are no other inmates,” Pho said. “I mean, we didn’t see any at lunch.”
Jeff cocked his head. This is a big facility. Why… But he couldn’t fathom it. Still, there were two other brig facilities. Perhaps this one was just used for suspected rebels.
“When did this happen?” Jeff asked. “I mean, when did they arrest you?” And why didn’t they contact me as your commanding officer? he wondered, but didn’t say it.
“About 10 hundred hours,” Nira said. “Security just knocked on my door and told me to come with them.”
“Same here,” Pho agreed.
“Why you and not Wall?” Jeff wondered aloud.
“They didn’t get Wall?” Pho asked. “And they didn’t get you. I figured you were all being held in a different pod.”
“No. We haven’t been arrested…yet.” Jeff wracked his brain to understand what sort of charge they might be bringing. But this was not his universe. There was simply too much he didn’t know.
He rose and put a hand on Pho’s shoulder. “Don’t worry, Mr. Pho. I won’t rest until I get the two of you out of here.”
Nira hugged him again, and in spite of his training, he hugged her back. Emma hugged both of them and then followed Jeff to the door. Jeff waited for the door to read their neural signal. “Now I guess we’ll see whether they plan to let us out of here,” he said.
To his great relief, the airlock opened and he and Emma stepped into it. Five minutes later they were clear of the brig and were speed-walking toward Tal’s office. Emma grabbed at his sleeve. “Whoa, tiger. What’s the plan?”
“I’m going to find out why my people were arrested.”
“Admiral Tal isn’t Jennings. He isn’t even your Admiral Tal. He’s not going to have a lot of patience for intrusions.”
He felt torn. She was making sense—too damned much sense. But he felt driven to resolve the situation. The pull toward Tal’s office was almost magnetic. Emma seemed to notice. She put her arms around him and squeezed. “We aren’t going to solve this in the next five minutes. And we don’t want to do damage we can’t undo. We have to be smart about this.”
She was right, and he knew it.
“Let’s eat and come up with a plan.”
It was a good idea. He looked at his shoes. He didn’t seem to be able to move them. He fought the urge to sit down right in the middle of the hallway.
People were already looking at them curiously as they passed. Jeff started to sweat.
“This way, baby. Come on,” Emma said. She took his hand and pulled him toward the mess.
“I’ll be in my ready room. Mr. Liebert, when you’ve established an encrypted channel to Coalition Command, patch me through.”
Jo straightened her jacket, narrowed her eyes, and strode to the door of her ready room with the confidence and swagger of a victorious gladiator. The door slid open and then closed behind her. As soon as it was closed, her knees buckled. “Holy Christ,” she said out loud. She reached for the back of a chair and steadied herself as she sat. She pitched forward until her forehead rested on the cool poly surface of the table top. She felt like crying, but she didn’t. She felt like screaming, but she didn’t. She felt like lying on the floor, curling up into the fetal position, and rocking—but she didn’t. Instead, she just felt the table grow slowly warm, breathing in, breathing out, willing the shaking in her limbs to cease.
She’d never thought about what Captain Telouse—or any other captain she’d ever served under—was like when they were behind closed doors, with no other company but themselves, their gods, and their conscience. She never suspected they might be like this. It was unthinkable. How could she ever expect to rank among them?
I can’t, she thought. I don’t.
Yet here she was, in command of a war vessel, hurtling through deep space, going…where? She was about to find out.
There was a computerized ping, and Mr. Liebert’s voice broke the silence. “I’ve got an encrypted channel, sir. Patching you through now.”
Jo jerked upright and ran her fingers through her hair. For what good that will do, she thought. She straightened her red uniform jacket and stared at the monitor. “Thank you, Mr. Liebert.”
The screen flickered and a 3D image of Admiral Alinto resolved itself. She was Maori and about fifteen years her senior. Her broad brown face was deadly serious. “Acting Captain Joleen Taylor. I wish we were meeting under better circumstances.”
Jo swallowed, then nodded. “Admiral Alinto. Captain Telouse was the best captain I ever served under.”
The admiral’s mouth quirked. “He was…a complicated man. I could tell you stories, but…now is not the time for stories. But he was a fine captain, as you know. No enemy was safe when he was at the helm of a battle cruiser.”
“How are you doing, Commander?”
“Sir?” It wasn’t like an admiral to make small talk. Jo felt at a loss.
“I’m not saying ‘How do you do?’, Commander, or as you Yanks used to say, ‘howdy.’ No. No. No. It is imperative that I know your state of mind. Are you physically fit? Are you emotionally stable? Are you well rested? I must assess your well-being. So I will ask you again. Commander Taylor, how are you doing? Please be aware that if you answer, ‘fine,’ I’m going to instigate a court-marshal.”
Did the Admiral almost smile? It was hard to tell. Jo swallowed. How much should she say? She opened her mouth, then closed it again. Then she said, “I just threw a man out an airlock. He had instigated a mutiny and declared himself captain. He was stealing the ship and going pirate.”
The admiral’s eyebrows rose. “I look forward to the full report on that one.”
“Yes, sir. I retook the ship, liberated my bridge crew from the brig, and put things in order. Then I came…to…talk to you.”
“I’m going to make a few guesses and you’re going to nod if I’m right.” It was not a request. It was an order.
“The adrenaline is wearing off and your hands are shaking.”
“You’re extremely thirsty, but you don’t really have the energy to do anything about that.”
“Commander, is everything well and truly under control there? Don’t lie to me, kotiro.”
“Everything is in order. My A crew is on bridge, my B crew is free and sleeping. The mutineers have been offered clemency for returning to their regular posts without complaint, although a note will go in their permanent file. And the leader, as I said, has been dealt with. Everything is f—” She stopped short of saying “fine.” “—satisfactory. Sir.”
The Admiral’s eyes narrowed momentarily. Then her face softened. “Good to hear that. Now let’s see if you can follow orders. Can you follow orders, Commander?”
“Sir. Yes, sir.”
“We’ll see about that. First, I want you to put another pip on your uniform. We’ve got a fight brewing about fourteen parsecs off your starboard prow, and I need a captain I can trust in your seat. I don’t have time to play musical chairs, so you’re my man. Effective immediately. Welcome to the chair, Captain Taylor.”
Jo swallowed again. She tried to move her lips, but nothing came out.
“We need you in battle as quickly as you can get there—”
“But sir, Captain Telouse and four of our men are dead. Someone needs to find out who killed them and why.”
“Yes, they do. That someone will not be you, however. I’m up to my hairy armpits in agents, but what I need are seasoned battle commanders. You can rest assured someone is going to investigate, but you, my dear, you’re going to fight. Is that understood?”
Jo didn’t agree, but she didn’t protest. “Understood, sir.”
“Good. Now here’s what I want you to do. Turn about and make for the Aken system—I’m sending a data packet with the coordinates now. It will take you about nine hours to get there at C7. Don’t delay, we actually need you there sooner, but don’t tax your engines. Do you hear me?”
“I hear you, sir.”
“Good. Once you get your new course laid in, I want you to go to the infirmary for a cocktail of Paxium, Newzit, and Flush. I’m putting the request in to the doctor myself, so I’ll know if you don’t. Then I want you to get a massage. There are six registered masseurs among your crew. Pick one. If there’s a ship’s counselor, go and talk—what you’ve been through is traumatic, I don’t care how tough you want to appear. Then eat something heavy—none of that salad crap—and hit the sack. When you drop into normal space I want you to be rested, relaxed, and invigorated. Do let me know if there’s anything you don’t understand, Captain.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Good. Then get moving. Sensors show that we have twenty-six Authority battle cruisers headed our way, and we need every gun in the fight. Alinto out.”
It was the shaman. He was holding a globe aloft—the globe was spinning on the tip of his finger, like a basketball—but slowly, too slowly to stay in place. Jeff could see the land masses as it turned, but he didn’t recognize any of them. The shaman looked up at him and smiled. “Find me.” Jeff was certain the little man was speaking to someone else, but when he looked away, the only one he saw was Emma, getting out of the shower. She slipped, and bashed her elbow on the poly sheeting of the shower stall. “Goddam it,” she said. He thought he should help her up, but he couldn’t move. He could admire her boobs, though, and did.
He looked over at the shaman again, but he was gone. The globe was still spinning, however, hanging in free space…
Jeff’s eyes snapped open. He looked up to access his neural and read the time. He relaxed. He had forty-five minutes before he had to meet Danny. Plenty of time.
He flipped the gray blanket aside and headed for the shower. Ten minutes later he was walking toward the mess and his first cup of coffee.
He felt a stab of guilt that he was walking the corridors free when two of his crew were in the brig. He should be storming heaven to free them, but Emma had been right, as she often was. He had to play this smart.
The mess was busy, but not crowded. He snagged a tray and piled up a good breakfast. He placed two cups of coffee on it and found a table in the corner away from everyone. No one seemed to notice him.
He was grateful to Emma for stopping him. He knew his emotions were running the show, and that had never worked out well for him. Somehow knowing that didn’t help to quell his impulses. And he had little hope when they’d settled down to eat that they’d come up with much of a plan. The answer had come when they were nearly finished eating. Jeff’s neural had pinged and he called down a note from Danny inviting him to join him on inspection of a newly commissioned battle cruiser this morning.
He’d often wondered what would have happened to Danny had he not died. This was probably as close as he was going to get to finding out. He flashed on something the kid guarding the security desk yesterday had said: “The Butcher.”
Every drop of taste seeped out of Jeff’s tongue at the memory. His toast became a dry, unsavory thing, sawdust in the form of slices. He chewed anyway.
That’s me, he thought. I’m the Butcher. The Butcher of Catskill.
Only in this world, it was Danny who had to wear that mantle, to carry that weight. His heart went out to his friend in a way he had never allowed himself. Pity was anathema, a gift to be given but never received. The revelation was jarring but there was nothing to be done about it. A person like him didn’t deserve pity or forgiveness or love or…
“Anything good,” he said out loud. Just then it struck him why he felt so neurotically driven to get Nira and Pho released. He longed for some form of redemption, as if the emancipation of these two might somehow balance the scale of justice—even the tiniest bit—for his crimes. Catskill had been heavy enough. He’d been kicking himself in the gut for twenty years over that one. But now…
I’m the Butcher of String 310, he thought. He stared at his plate, but he did not see it. He reached mechanically for his coffee, but he did not taste it. There was no redemption for someone as damned as he was, as unlikely, as worthy of hatred and scorn.
And if the people of this universe couldn’t quite muster that hatred and scorn, he would confect enough of it, all by himself. Hell, he was already overflowing with it—enough bilious self-loathing to power a starship.
It occurred to him that he could just squash space, put himself four parsecs hence, in the middle of deep space—no helmet, no suit, no ship. It would be over in minutes. But Nira and Pho needed him. There would be ample time for suicide once they were released.
He wasn’t sure why that made him feel better—and it wasn’t very much better—but it did.
“Come find me,” the shaman’s voice said in his head. Wisps of the dream invaded his memory.
“I thought you’d come find me,” Danny said, sliding into the seat across from Jeff.
“Uh…” Jeff said.
“Are you hungover?” Danny asked.
“Uh…no.” Jeff lied.
“Your eyes look…lizard-like.”
“You’re pretty, too,” Jeff said.
“I don’t look like a lizard.”
Jeff rubbed at his eyes. “Sorry.”
“You feeling okay?” Danny asked, taking a sip from Jeff’s untouched cup of coffee.
“Uh…yes. Fine. Just…worried about my crew.”
Danny’s head jerked. “What’s up with your crew?”
“In the brig. Two of the four of them.”
“What for?” Danny asked.
“I don’t…no clue. And no one is talking. I was hoping, maybe…”
“Let’s find out,” he said, looking up and blinking.
Jeff watched as his eyes twitched, making the micro movements necessary to navigate and read what he was seeing. Jeff was just polishing off his coffee when Danny looked back down.
“Your crew are rebel spies.”
“I was afraid you’d say something like that. What makes them think that?”
“Because one Commander Martin Pho and Sergeant Camil Nira are both registered combatants with the RFC.”
“You have some homework to do. Revolutionary Freedom Coalition. It’s what the rebels call themselves. We just call them rebels. Or traitors.”
“I see.” Jeff set his cup down. “But here’s the problem with that. Pho isn’t a commander, he’s a lieutenant. And Nira isn’t a sergeant, she’s a commander. And these are not the same people—they’re different.”
“We have DNA on record from before the war—”
“Was Pho even born when that war started?” Jeff asked.
“Look, the action you died in—” Danny began.
“Catskill,” Jeff said between gritted teeth.
“Fine. Catskill. It started the snowball rolling that led to the war.”
Jeff nodded. “So Pho would have been three.”
“And we collect DNA samples from every newborn. They’re sequenced and logged in the Authority’s organic database.”
“What’s your point?”
“The point is, your man Pho is a 100% DNA match.”
“Of course he is, he’s the same person—genetically. But he isn’t from here. Our…my Martin Pho isn’t in rebellion against the CD…the Authority. He’s as loyal a serviceman as you’ll ever meet. He’s my navigator.”
“And until we can prove that he isn’t the Martin Pho enlisted with the rebels, he’ll enjoy the hospitality of our brig.”
“Danny, I can’t allow that.”
“Jeff, you can’t do anything about it.”
Jeff looked at the table top.
“I’m sorry,” Danny said. “Look…I don’t know what to believe. I think you’re lucky not to be in the brig yourself.”
Jeff nodded. He wasn’t sure it was luck, but he didn’t know what it was. “I get it. It’s war time. I just want you to know this: as sure as there are spiders in space, my crew is innocent.”
Danny cocked his head. “Spiders in space?”
“Sure, you know—” Jeff saw Danny’s brow knit together. He stopped. Come to think of it, he hadn’t seen a single spider since they’d jumped strings. “Do you mean to say that every ship in the…in the Authority isn’t crawling with spiders?”
Danny shook his head slowly, and had a look on his face that could only mean one thing—the man was questioning his sanity. Just then Danny shot up onto his feet. “Crewman!” he shouted.
Jeff looked over his shoulder and saw a young ensign cringe. The young man couldn’t have been out of the academy more than a few months, Jeff guessed. He raised his head slowly, saw Danny, and his face crumbled. Oh, no, he mouthed.
Danny put his hands on his hips and raised himself to his full height, his chest puffed out unnaturally. He dwarfed the ensign. “Who told you you could eat among people with honor, crewman?”
The ensign said nothing.
“Who told you that you had the right to breathe in my presence?”
The crewman’s lips were as tight as an airlock seal.
“Drop and give me a hundred, soldier. Now!”
With everyone watching, the ensign slowly got to the floor.
“Today, ensign, or you’ll do pushups in the brig!”
By now the ensign was on the ground, pushing himself up the full length of his arms with efficient jerks. Jeff could hear him counting under his breath.
After about thirty repetitions, the ensign’s left arm began to shake.
“That was a poor showing, crewman,” Danny said. “Begin again.”
The crewman started over from “one.”
At around fifty, both arms were shaking, but Danny didn’t call him on it. The last twenty were touch-and-go, but the young man struggled through to a hundred. He collapsed to the floor and panted, his cheek kissing the poly.
Danny squatted near his head.
“You either find another mess or you make damn sure I’m not in this one. You won’t speak to me, you won’t come near me, and you will walk the other way if you ever see me in the corridor. Am I understood, ensign?”
Between pants, the young man said. “Yes…sir…”
Danny stood up abruptly and returned to his table.
Jeff’s eyes were wide. “That was quite a display. What did the kid do?”
“Who, him? Nothing, I guess. Don’t like his look.” He pointed at his face. “Lazy eye. I hate the smell of weakness.”
“Listen, Jeff, let me talk to Tal about your crew. Give me a day or so…I’ll see what I can do.”
Danny grabbed a last piece of bacon off Jeff’s plate and tossed it into his own mouth. He grinned and chomped on the bacon with his mouth open.
There was not a ship’s counselor on board. Jo had never trusted them, and when she checked, was relieved to see that the one assigned to them was on sick leave and a replacement had not yet been assigned. But she felt obligated to honor the spirit of Admiral Alinto’s orders, if not the letter. As captain, who could she talk to that wouldn’t be inappropriate or create an ethical breach?
“Palamar,” she said out loud.
Cordwainer Palamar was one of her oldest friends—although perhaps “friend” was not the right word. They had been at the academy together, but while Jo rose quickly in the ranks, Palamar had not done much of anything with his commission. He served as senior boatswain, which meant he was a glorified supply clerk.
Still, he was the one person aboard she knew well enough to talk honestly with. And he knew her well enough to know when she was bullshitting. Accessing her neural, she saw that he was off duty. She did a search for him—his neural put him in the bar, which surprised her not at all.
In minutes she entered the bar and spied him at a table, looking over something on a datapad. She slid into the seat across from him.
He looked up and did a double-take. “Jo…er, Captain! Uh…am I dreaming?”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means that you have a lot to do…and I’m confused as to why you’d be bothering with the hoi polloi.”
“You are not the hoi polloi.”
“You flatter yourself.”
He grinned and swirled his drink in his glass. “You drinking?”
“I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
Palamar raised his glass to the barkeep. A moment later another glass arrived. Jo sipped at it.
“I hear you’ve had quite a day.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” she said. “I want to know…if Shallit had succeeded, would you have gone along with it?”
“As opposed to mounting a rescue?”
She didn’t answer that.
“Do I look like the heroic type?”
He did not. His hair was thinning, and his middle was just about as thick as it could be without getting him bounced from duty.
“No, sorry to disappoint you, if that shit Shallit had prevailed, I would have kept my head down and waited to see what would happen. Like most people, I assume. Any other response is likely to get you a hole blasted through your chest.”
“No hard feelings, then?”
She didn’t answer him. She did have some hard feelings, if she were honest with herself.
“Look, Jo, you are the heroic type. It’s one of the things that makes you you. It’s why you’ve got the pips. Not everyone can be you. We can’t all be captains. The fact that you did what you did…it just means you’re in the right place.”
Her lower lip trembled. “Do you think so?”
His look softened. “Ah…this is the comedown. The self-doubt is kicking in. All those little voices in your head nattering about how you’re not worthy and shit. Am I right?”
Jo looked surprised. “You can hear them?”
Palamar chuckled. “Loud and clear, sunshine. And you’ve come here because I’m the only person aboard who can keep your secrets.”
“And I’m not too sure about that,” Jo narrowed one eye at him.
“Well…you know, if the price were right.” He winked at her.
There were a few moments of awkward silence. “I am glad you’re here,” Jo said, not looking at him. “Just knowing that you’re aboard….”
“Stop…before you embarrass yourself.”
She did stop. She looked down, twitched her nose, and nodded. “Yup, you’re right.” Then she took a swig from her glass. “Admiral Alinto told me to talk to someone. So I can check that off my list.”
“Happy to oblige.”
“Next I’m going to get a massage.”
“I have just the guy—”
“Do you get a kickback for this referral?” She scowled.
“Something wrong with that?”
“You never change, do you?”
“I don’t know, sunshine.” He cocked his head. “Do you?”
The door slid open. Hightower stepped in.
Tal waved him in, unable to speak for the moment.
“You met him?”
“Yes, I met him.”
“Creeped you out?”
Tal nodded. “He’s aged, but it’s him, isn’t it?”
“It sure as shit is….uh, begging the admiral’s pardon.”
“As you were.” Tal motioned to the chair. “Sit.”
“I heard you just put his crew in the brig,” Hightower said, taking the seat.
“What else could I do? Intelligence was able to trace their neural codes—they belong to rebel soldiers that go by the very same names.”
Hightower’s eyebrows shot up and he nodded, as if to say, That’s reasonable. “Can’t prove they’re rebels,” he offered.
“Can’t prove they’re not,” Tal said. “If we’re wrong on this, it would mean enemy spies loose in Sol Station. No matter how you slice it, that’s grand-scale incompetence on our part.”
“On your part,” Hightower corrected him, reminding Tal exactly why he hated the captain. He knew exactly where the razor’s edge of insubordination was, and he rode this side of it like a surfer on a wave. If only there were a dangerous mission he could send the captain on, something he might not come back from, the entire civilized world would be a safer place. But so long as there was a war on, he needed every killer wearing his colors. Black. “One thing in their favor: Ensign Wall is assigned right here on Sol Station.”
“Our Ensign Wall?”
“Right. There are two Susie Walls on board. One from this universe and one from theirs.”
“I think their Wall is a lieutenant. Our Wall is the slacker.”
“Okay, but it shores up their story.”
“It does that. If there are two Walls—”
“And two of Dr. Stewart—she is indeed on earth and very much alive and well.”
“—it stands to reason that their Nira and Pho are not rebels.”
“You can’t let them out of the brig until you can establish that definitively.”
“Right. Is that going to create a problem getting Captain Bowers to be cooperative?”
“Cooperative with what?”
“With revealing to us whatever technology he was working on.”
Tal had never seen Hightower look alarmed before. This was close to it. “Uh…if they’re right, that technology wiped a reality string from the cluster. I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of attached to this reality. I mean, if we’re not, what are we fighting for?”
“Begging the Admiral’s pardon, but did you really ask me here to give you an update on Bowers? Because you could have—”
“No, goddam it.” Tal looked up and triggered a holo display that flickered and then resolved, hovering just above his desk. He could still make out the captain’s face through the holo-display’s shimmering opacity. “I’ve decided to read you in. I need a fresh set of eyes on this. Besides…” he didn’t finish the sentence.
Hightower cocked an eyebrow, studying the display.
“There’s a lot of dead people there.”
“There sure are.” The admiral pointed, not sure that the captain would be able to pick out who he meant because of Hightower’s angle of vision. “You see that woman? The one with the red dress.”
Hightower nodded gravely. “Was that your girl? The one who got killed?”
Tal nodded. “She was an operative for the Authority. Under cover. There was a supply pipeline running through Avalon II—do you know it?”
“I know it. Hotbed of thugs, from what I’ve heard.”
Just your type of folks, Tal thought. Aloud, he said, “Gunned down along with her bodyguards and a whole shitload of local cops. Authority cops, too. And a handful of rebels. You ever hear of a Captain Telouse?”
“Yeah,” Hightower nodded. “Decorated son-of-a-bitch, before the war. Shame we lost him to the other side.”
“He was my friend, too, at one time.” Tal looked down.
“Who did it?” Hightower asked.
“That is the question,” Tal said. “If it wasn’t us and it wasn’t the rebels—”
“How do we know it wasn’t the rebels?”
“Because the goddam rebels would not want to lose a war hero like Telouse. He might be an old man—same age as me, so no snide quips—but his record is golden. He’s taken out more of our boys than any other rebel commander. That’s a fact.”
“Who did it?” Hightower asked again.
“Intelligence has a couple of theories. Their best one is that a registered rebel has seized control of their battle cruiser and is headed for unclaimed space.”
The admiral blinked and the face of Commander Jo Taylor floated above his desk.
“Oh shit,” Hightower said. “You’re kidding me.”
“I am not. It’s why I’m reading you in. Intelligence says you have history with rebel Commander Taylor.”
“Yeah. We used to date. She fell in love with me. It wasn’t mutual.” Hightower shrugged, cold as a salamander. Tal shuddered.
“What can you tell me about her?”
Hightower looked down and away. His shoulders deflated. “She…” he sighed. “She’s hard as nails. Pretty, in a butch kind of way, but she’ll rip your guts out soon as look at you.”
“No, not really. She’s got it in her, but she’s strictly by the book.”
“You seem to know her pretty well.”
“Look, we were lovers, but only briefly. We were kind-of-friends for a while though—at the academy. So yeah, I know her pretty well.”
“The civilian authorities want her.”
Hightower laughed, met his eyes again. “Good luck catching her! And she’s in unclaimed space?”
“I want you to go after her. Find her.” Tal swallowed. “Take her out.”
Hightower narrowed his eyes. “You don’t want to question her?”
“Triage. Intelligence thinks we can kill her, but can’t spare the resources to capture her.”
Hightower nodded. “I have a better idea. Let’s let Bowers do our work for us.”
Hightower’s lip curled as he held the admiral’s eye. “Destroying her.”
Jo arrived on the bridge feeling better than she had in weeks. She hated to admit that the admiral had been right about the self-care.
“Captain on the bridge,” Communicator Liebert announced.
Everyone started to stand.
“As you were,” she said, watching them sink back to their seats. No one actually expected to stand all the way up, but the navy had always had its traditions.
Jo sat in the command chair and glanced toward the ceiling, accessing her neural. She read the various duty reports and, satisfied that the ship was battle-worthy, she looked down again, focusing on the main view screen as stars streamed past them.
“ETA to target?” she asked.
Navigator Chi didn’t need to consult anything. “We’re set to drop into normal space in twenty minutes, sir.”
Good. She’d timed that well. She turned to her new weaponer, a thin-limbed young woman with a severe countenance which took some getting used to. “Weaponer Ditka, welcome to the bridge crew.”
The young woman’s eyes were sharp and wide-set, and her hair was a blonde buzz cut. “Thank you, sir. It’s an honor, sir.”
“This is going to be your first battle situation, I understand.”
“I’ll be honest with you—if there were another weaponer aboard with any experience at all, they’d be in that seat right now.”
“But your simulations reveal that you’re the meanest gun-toting bitch on this vessel.”
“I am, sir.” One lip curled back, showing Jo more crooked teeth than she cared to see.
“What’s our situation?”
“I’ve got sixteen gunners, all first class, and three with first-class honors. They’re prepping every cannon port we’ve got. The torpedo crew has been drilling for the past four days. I told them to get some rest last night, but they’re in place and they’ve run one simulation—we’re at 104% efficiency, according to RFC goal standards, sir.”
Jo nodded. “Good. Get to work.”
“Yes sir.” Ditka’s head snapped down to look at her console and her fingers flew over it. Every now and then she looked up to reference something on her neural.
Jo swung about to face the view screen again. A calm came over her that only materialized in the heat of battle. It was how she knew she was destined to be a soldier. Every woman she grew up with would have been scared shitless—that was true of most of the men as well. But she welcomed it, like an old friend, the feeling of ecstasy mixed with centered, focused attention. Let others opt for whisky or morphex. This was her drug of choice.
She punched at the arm of her command chair. “Dr. Mbusa, everything battle ready in sickbay?”
It took a moment, but seconds later she heard the doctor’s sonorous voice. “We’re ready, sir. Fully staffed, with first aid teams located throughout the ship. I’ve got stasis tubes powered up and ready to hold the worst injuries until we can get them proper treatment.”
“Excellent. Bridge out.”
They were as ready as they were going to be.
“Mr. Chi, I want you to adjust our course.”
“Aim wide of the battle and overshoot. In fact, I don’t want to drop into normal space until we’re past the thick of it. As soon as we’re running on conventional thrusters, I want you to bring us about on an arc, approximately 750k from the epicenter of the conflict, and keep us there.”
“Adjusting course settings, sir.”
Captain Felix of the Fang had mission authority, but until she got a direct order she was going to trust her gut. It had never steered her wrong before.
A few minutes later, Jo heard the telltale whine of the thrusters, and felt the momentary, gut-lurching transition as the ship dropped out of its C-register and into normal space. She watched the star wheel turn on the main viewer as they came about.
“Full tactical display,” she called over her shoulder to Liebert.
A moment later the main view screen was segmented, and she was able to sort through what they faced. At the top was a bird’s-eye view of the conflict. She saw the moving red dot that was the Talon near the periphery, just as she’d hoped. Other colored circles identified friendly and enemy ships, fifty-two of them all told.
There didn’t appear to be anything just ahead of them, and indeed, the portion of the screen reserved for the prow camera showed her nothing but distant stars.
She began to sort through the specs of the ships they had and those they were facing. She made mental notes and occasionally looked up to check a fact on her neural. She rubbed at her jaw. Finally she spoke.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. Mr. Chi, set a spiral course working our way into the center of the conflict, adjusting only to intercept enemy ships within 100,000 kilometers of that course. Instead of joining the thick of the battle, we’re going to clean up the field of every single ship not engaging. Try to come up behind these ships if you can. Use your head.
“Mr. Ditka, I want you to be smart about how we attack. I don’t care about destroying these ships, I only care about their ability to fight. Don’t waste firepower making big explosions. Target smart and take out their weapons and drives. Do the most you can as fast as you can. We’ve got a lot of ships to cripple.”
Jo spun in her chair. “Mr. Liebert, I have a special assignment for you. I want you to catalog every enemy ship within hailing range. Find me the one that isn’t doing anything.”
Tash Liebert scowled. “Not doing anything?”
Jo spun back toward the main viewer. “Look at that—they’re kicking our asses, and they’re doing it smart. Someone is calling an organized game—more than we’re doing. We need to find them.”
Chi and Ditka looked at each other, then back down at their consoles.
Liebert spoke, his voice much higher than usual. “Sir, I have an Authority vessel coming up on our starboard bow—distance 498 kilometers.”
There was a flicker, but the ship soon came into view. It was facing the main battle, and looked like it was aligning itself for a run at one of the RFC battle cruisers.
“Swing wide, Mr. Chi. Try to get us in his exhaust chute.”
“No good, Captain. He’s seen us. He’s coming about.”
Jo’s eyes narrowed. “Mr. Ditka, take out those guns and seal those torpedo ports. Fire at will.”
The Authority ship had fired first, however, and the bridge lurched as Navigator Chi tried to evade the fire. Jo felt the metal bones of the ship shake as the torpedo connected.
She punched at the arm of her chair, calling up engineering. “Status?”
“Direct hit to our port bow,” Chief Engineer Avery’s voice was quick and distracted. “Shields at 95% and holding. No structural damage.”
“That’s what I want to hear,” Jo said.
Shell Ditka’s fingers were flying, and Jo watched as a barrage of particle bursts erupted across the hull of the enemy ship. Then, a surprise—two thin laser lines converged on a point she could not make out. There was an orange flare.
“The enemy’s aft cannons are offline,” Ditka called out.
Two torpedo bursts shot from beneath them and arced toward the enemy cruiser, one following the other along a slightly divergent route. A swarm of laser fire caught the first one and lit it up—the explosion filled the screen for a few seconds, but a larger explosion followed as the second torpedo found its mark and the ship’s exhaust cones transformed into a blinding fireball that soon consumed the whole ship.
“That’s one way to do it,” Jo said. “Good work, Mr. Ditka. Only next time, let’s just disable the ship, if we can. Ships are cheaper to appropriate than they are to build.” She tapped at her temple, “Long range vision.”
“Captain,” Liebert called, “I’ve got RFC Mission Command for you—Captain Felix.”
There was a flicker, and then Jo was staring at a bridge much like her own. In the command chair was a slight, Indian-looking man of about her age with a large nose and a wispy mustache. There was a lot of noise on his bridge, but his own voice cut through. “Captain, welcome to the fight. I see what you’re doing there, and it’s a good idea, but I need you in the thick of it. I’m sending coordinates. I want you in place ASAP. Good to have you alongside. Good hunting.” The screen flickered and was quickly replaced by tactical schematics.
“Damn,” Jo said under her breath. “That’s no way to survive a firefight.” She spoke up. “Do you have those coordinates, navigator?”
“Just coming through now, sir.”
“Set a new course once you’ve unpacked them. Weaponer, remember: disable, don’t destroy. Communicator,” she turned to face Liebert again. “That ship that’s not doing anything? Keep looking for it. That’s your number one assignment.”
The ship lurched, then a moment later the motion dampers kicked in. “Easy, Mr. Chi,” she said, leaning forward in her chair. “Get us to the fight in one piece.”
“Sorry, sir,” Marcia Chi’s shoulders rose above her ears as she hunkered sheepishly over her console.
Jo watched the whirling stars in the view screen as they came about and punched at the comm buttons on her armrest. “Battle stations, everyone. This is the big one.”
He was staring at the stars when he felt a presence behind him. He knew it was her before he looked, although he didn’t know how. Was it her scent, or the way her foot fell on the poly flooring? It was hard to say. “Hey,” he said without turning.
She slipped her arm around his waist and joined him at the window. “I expected to find you in a bottle,” she said. “This is better.”
“Yeah, strangely…” He shook his head, not finishing the thought.
“I was on my way to your cabin. I was hoping we could catch dinner.”
Jeff nodded. “Yeah. That sounds fine.” He backed up from the window and caught her eye. He smiled. She took his arm, and they began to stroll toward the mess.
“I just came from Wall,” Emma said. “She’s…a little freaked out.”
“That seems appropriate.”
“She’s freaked out because she ran into herself.”
“That would freak me out too,” Jeff admitted.
“Then…they had sex,” Emma said, watching Jeff for his reaction.
“That’s…just weird,” he said, eyes wide. “I didn’t know…I mean, I’m not surprised…but still…with herself?”
“Yep. It’s a little narcissistic—”
“Now she’s holed up in her cabin with the covers over her head.”
“Plus, she’s got survivor’s guilt.”
“Who doesn’t?” Jeff almost spat.
“Oh…well, that’s not what I mean. She’s feeling guilty that Pho and Nira are in the brig and she isn’t.”
“She’s feeling so guilty she’s on a sex binge, you mean.”
“People react to stress in odd ways,” Emma said.
“Isn’t that technically masturbation, though?”
“Does that make it better if it is?”
“No. It’s still weird.”
A moment later they were standing outside the mess. “After you,” Jeff said.
After loading up their trays, Jeff followed her to a seat near the rear of the galley, as far away from anyone else as she could manage.
“Are you sure we don’t want to find a storage closet or something?” Jeff said. “Cause we could probably do that.”
Emma sat. “I don’t want to be overheard,” she explained.
“Fair enough.” Jeff’s nostrils twitched as the aroma of his dinner filled them. “This looks surprisingly good.”
“The food aboard Sol Station was always good.”
“Our Sol Station. I think this Sol Station slips a bit.”
“Yes, sir.” Jeff said, picking up his cutlery. “I had breakfast with Danny this morning.”
“He said he’d talk to Tal. You never know. I have no idea how much pull he has. But…”
Jeff put down his fork before he’d tasted anything. “I watched him humiliate an ensign for absolutely no reason at all. He did it in front of the entire mess. It was cruel and abusive, and…completely unlike him.” He stared at his plate, aware that it was cooling. “I don’t know what to think about it.”
Emma pursed her lips. “You want to know what I think?”
“I think this is not your Danny, in two senses.”
“First, the obvious—this is a different world, and this Danny is just a different guy. Maybe he has a cruel streak that the Danny of String 310 didn’t have.”
Jeff nodded. “And the non-obvious?”
“Let’s say that, twenty years ago, this Danny and your Danny were exactly the same—not just physically, but psychologically. He lived through Catskill, you didn’t. So let me ask you, did Catskill change you?”
Jeff froze. He didn’t respond.
She continued. “And did it change you for the better?”
Jeff shook his head slowly.
“People deal with stress in odd ways,” she repeated. “You became an extreme introvert.”
“Morbid isolation,” he intoned.
“That is as good a term for it as I have heard,” she smiled. “Where did you hear that?”
“It was something Jo said once,” he said. “She had an uncle who was a monk, an actual hermit.”
“Ah…” She took a sip of her tea. “How did you sleep?”
“Fine, but…I had some very weird dreams.”
“Tell me about them,” she began to cut into her steak.
“I dreamt about—” he realized he hadn’t told her about the shaman. “I met this shaman, at the docks.”
“Yeah, he was from Peru or something.”
“How do you know he was a shaman?”
“I…” Jeff stopped. “I guess I don’t. It was just a…I guess I just knew.”
“Okay. That’s weird. So what happened?”
“He knows about the Ulim.”
She dropped her knife. “He what?”
“So I dreamed about him. And in the dream, he was saying, ‘Come find me.’”
“That was all?”
“No, then I dreamt about you in the shower—”
“Jeff, don’t tease—”
“No, I’m serious. I saw you getting out of the shower, and you slipped and hit your elbow. You swore.” He smiled. “I like it when you swear.” He stopped when he saw her eyes were wide.
“Jeff, that wasn’t a dream.” She pulled back her sleeve and showed him her elbow—an angry purple welt graced her skin. “That really happened.”
“Shit,” he said, taking her arm gingerly in his hands. “I’m so sorry.”
She pushed her sleeve back down. “It’s okay, it doesn’t hurt—not anymore.”
Emma’s brows bunched as she thought. Attacking her steak once more, she said, “Jeff, what if your shaman dream wasn’t a dream either?”
Jeff hadn’t even considered it.
“How could it not be a dream? It was a dream.”
“You seeing me in the shower—that was not a dream. That happened.”
“I don’t know what to say about that.” Jeff realized that he still hadn’t touched his food.
“You know what I think?” Emma asked.
“I think it’s like the early stages of squashing—how you scope things out before you squash. I think maybe you were doing that in your sleep.”
“I was squashing in my sleep?” Jeff’s voice rose several pitches.
“Don’t panic.” She put her hand on his arm. “You didn’t squash, you just…looked.”
“But if I tried to squash in my sleep, I could—”
“Destroy another universe?” she asked. “Yes. But you didn’t squash in your sleep. Just…relax and examine the theory. Be a scientist for a moment and not an emotional soldier.”
“I’m—” He started to protest that he wasn’t the emotional one, except that it wasn’t true and he knew it. “Fine,” he said.
“Nothing bad happened until we tried to move a space ship,” she said.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying I think we’re overlooking another aspect of your…talent. You might not be able to move starships without wrecking the place, but there’s nothing saying you can’t spy.”
Just then a light pinged in Jeff’s neural. He glanced up and opened the message.
“I’m being summoned,” he said. “Admiral Tal.”
“Bring us about wide and then loop us in,” Jo said, her eyes glued to the tactical screen above her.
“Coordinating with the Fang for real-time deployment,” Liebert called.
“You do that,” Jo nearly spat. Reflexively, she tried to stand, to pace, but her restraints kept her locked into her chair. She chafed at the limitation, but kept her gaze riveted. “Mr. Chi, here’s what we’re not going to do—we’re not going to give these Authority fucks an easy target. We’re not going to float in like a barge with weapons flashing.”
“We’re not a Carson scout, sir,” Chi called over her shoulder and then cringed, realizing what she’d said.
Jo took note of her tone, knew that it was an honest reaction, not an insubordinate one. “No, we’re not. We’re a big lumbering brick, so we’re going to make inertia work for us rather than against us. Get us into a Möbius loop—”
Marcia Chi looked away from her controls, her forehead bunched in confusion. “Möbius loop?”
“Get us locked into an infinity sign pattern so that we change our horizontal orientation by 180 degrees every 1.5 repetitions. Is that clear enough?”
Jo could see her eyes darting back and forth.
“You want us to lock into a figure eight pattern, but every time we hit the middle you want us to turn over a little bit, so that every third loop ‘up’ is pointing a different direction?”
“Make it happen before we hit that cluster. Deviate only to avoid collisions—and if we’re going to collide with anything that won’t destroy us, don’t worry about it. Let’s push our weight around a little.”
“Yes sir. Where did you learn this, sir?”
“I didn’t learn it anywhere, lieutenant. I made it up on the spot.”
“Fuck…” Chi said under her breath.
“Shooting to disable, sir. We learn fast.”
Jo couldn’t suppress a smile. Weaponer Ditka learned fast indeed.
“I don’t want us to come within 2000 kilometers of a gun we don’t take out.”
“Aye sir. You can count on us, sir.” The oddness of the woman’s long face added severity to her tone. Jo instinctively felt they were in good hands.
“That’s my boy. Hold on, everybody.”
Chi had done her work quickly. The star field on the main view in front of them began to spin slowly and relentlessly, causing Jo’s stomach to lurch. She forced herself to look away from the star field and focus on the tacticals.
“Incoming—torpedoes, bearing 294.6,” Ditka announced.
“Hold us steady,” Jo said, watching the tacticals as a barrage of torpedoes drew near—too near. Jo felt a lurch as Chi dodged and the torpedoes zipped past them into deep space.
“They’re going to clue in to this pattern before long,” Chi predicted.
“They are…” Jo agreed. “So let’s give them another target. Launch both shuttle craft, fix them in synchronous orbit around the ship at equidistant diametric poles. Do it.”
Chi’s fingers flew, making the calculations and launching the shuttles. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever heard…” she sang under her breath, her lips not moving.
Jo didn’t mind. It was crazy. And that was exactly why it was going to work.
“Slide us into the heat of the battle, Mr. Chi,” Jo said. She glanced up at the tactical screens and assessed the field. They were a barge—so be it. They were now a barge that was not going to sit still long enough for any Authority weaponer to lock onto. They were also moving in a tight enough pattern to give them a host of access angles relative to any ship they approached. They wouldn’t have to wait long.
Jo saw fourteen RFC ships, all of various battle castes, spread out in a random assortment against the field of stars. Dotted in between them were twelve Authority ships. Jo noted that while there were fewer of them, they were generally of higher castes, and their collective firepower was greater.
Nearest to them now was the Claw, nearly nose to nose with an Authority battle cruiser of similar caste. Just off the Claw’s portside prow was a fighter carrier, spilling out nimble fighters faster than the computer could count them. The Talon was closing in on this carrier—an excellent test of their battle readiness.
“Weaponer, I want to shut down every fighter spilling out of that carrier.”
“Can’t do it, but we’ll die trying,” Ditka said through clenched teeth. She didn’t look up, but her fingers were a blur on her console.
“Put the other half of your gunners on the cruiser. Shut those bay doors, fry them out—I don’t care what you do. Shut that motherfucker down.”
“With lilting joy, sir,” Ditka still didn’t look up, but she was smiling.
“Do we have gunners for every port?”
“No sir—we have more ports than trainees, I’m afraid. We have three unmanned guns.”
“Give me one of them,” Jo said.
A moment later a blue light pinged in her neural, and looking up, Jo saw a targeting interface—a familiar sight from her days as a cadet. Keeping one eye on the tacticals, she primed her weapon and went through her mental checklist reflexively. She was surprised at how quickly it all came back.
“Coming within range now, sir,” Ditka called, more loudly than she needed to.
“Fire at will,” Jo growled.
An explosion lit up the spinning star field, and Jo chanced the vertigo to assess it. Her fingers gripped the arms of her command chair as she leaned forward, hoping to catch view of the Authority cruiser, disintegrating into lumbering sections, but instead she saw that it was the Claw that was crippled. “Damn,” she swore, tearing her eyes away before she became dizzy.
The first of the fighters buzzed by them and lit up their starboard iconel sheeting. A volley of laser fire converged on the zipping fighter, and Jo was relieved to see it spin off, crazily trying to regain control. She thrilled inside, but reminded herself they had just swatted a gnat, nothing more. The dragons were still in front of them.
They were reaching targeting proximity to the nearest of the Authority ships—the Nathan Hale, she noted with a glance at the tactical display. Another squadron of fighters strafed their port side this time, and Jo got off at least three good shots before they passed, although she hadn’t disabled any of them. Her marksmen, however, were more successful. Of the twelve fighters in formation, five of them ended their run drifting and dark.
“That’s exactly what I want to see,” she said under her breath.
“Sir, the Authority ship is readying torpedoes,” Liebert noted.
“Mr. Chi, are those shuttlecraft in position?”
“They are, sir, orbiting us at a steady range of five kilometers.”
“Excellent. Now, Mr. Chi, as soon as they’ve fired, dodge—”
“Sir, we’re too big to dodge anything.”
“It doesn’t have to be far or fast, just move so that one of those shuttles is in the direct line of fire and will draw the targeting system of that torpedo. Better an unmanned shuttle than us.”
Jo had no idea if that would work—it was a labor-intensive way to fight. It was also defensive. That’s all right, she told herself, we’ve got plenty of offense going.
Jo ignored the next wave of fighters as she watched her tacticals. Her fingers tightened on her command chair as the lines that represented the torpedoes grew closer. The main viewer exploded with light.
“Direct hit, sir,” Ditka noted. “We have lost shuttlecraft B.”
Jo saw that the other torpedo had gone wide of its mark and was executing a wide turn. It would be back, and soon.
“Mr. Ditka, I want you to target that torpedo and make sure it explodes before it gets another shot at us.”
“Aye, sir,” Ditka glanced up at the tactical display, then down at her console.
“Sir, I’ve got an explosion off our starboard stern—the Nathan Hale has been hit.”
The main viewer switched to a view from their stern camera. A fireball erupted on the Nathan Hale’s port side, amidships.
Jo looked up to see the Claw drawing closer to the Nathan Hale—too close.
“He’s ramming it,” she said aloud. “That crazy motherfucker. Mr. Ditka, get every gun you’ve got on the Hale. Don’t worry about saving it, target everything that could possibly go ‘boom.’ If the Claw is going down, let’s make sure those bastards go down with them.”
No one said, “Aye”—no one had the time. Jo wiped the sweat from her forehead with her sleeve and watched as her own gunners pounded at the Nathan Hale’s shields.
“Their shields are at 20%, Captain,” Liebert said.
“Keep at it, boys,” Jo said.
“Sir, that torpedo is headed back, and we have not hit it,” Ditka informed her.
That was not good news. She glanced up at the tactical to gauge its trajectory.
“Impact in five…” Liebert’s voice from behind her began to count it off.
“Dodge, Mr. Chi.”
Jo scowled to see that their remaining shuttlecraft was not aligned to draw the torpedo’s fire. She cursed under her breath. “Brace for impact!” she shouted just before the torpedo hit.
The motion hit before the sound did. With a great heaving lurch the bridge seemed to tumble in free space before the motion dampers caught up with it. The hull screamed as it was torqued out of true. Mr. Ditka’s console sparked and caught fire, and several ceiling panels crashed to the floor. Explosions echoed up from the lift chamber.
Jo realized that had she not been strapped in, she would have been plastered against the port wall. Ditka lost no time in racing to a spare station and transferring her controls.
Jo punched at the comm button on her command chair. “Engineering, give me the damage!”
“Shields down to 40%,” a voice came back. “Major structural damage starboard amidships, levels C through F.”
“I don’t know that, Captain.” Of course he didn’t, and she was stupid to ask. They weren’t going to have a body count until this whole shindig was over. Focus, she told herself.
She looked up just in time to see the Claw ram the Nathan Hale. The impact created an explosion that made the entire view screen fade to white.
“Get us out of here, Mr. Chi,” Jo said. “Captain Felix is toast, so until whoever assumes command gives us orders to the contrary, we’re going back to our previous strategy of picking off the outliers as we work our way inward.”
“Strafe coming on our port side, Captain,” Liebert called.
“Motherfuckers,” Jo said, raising her eyes to her targeting display and firing a volley of laser bolts at the oncoming spray of fighters. This time she set three of them adrift before they pulled even with the Talon. I’m good when I’m mad, she thought, turning and catching two of them in the tailpipe as they buzzed past.
Turning back to tactical, she saw that they’d moved away from the thick of the battle, and she was grateful that the Möbius pattern had ended. She suspected it was responsible for the headache she felt at the back of her eyeballs.
“Enemy ship in our direct path, Captain, distance 4,200 kilometers.”
Jo looked up and located it on the tactical display—it was engaged in battle with the Fang, a short-snouted battle puncher favored by the brass recently. They were quick, deadly, and ugly as sin.
“Let’s give the Fang every assist we can,” Jo said. “Come up behind the—” she glanced at the tactical readout for the enemy ship, “—the Douglas MacArthur and let’s deposit two torpedoes in its exhaust chute before they know we’re here.”
“Having trouble—” Ditka’s fingers kept punching at her borrowed console. “Ah! Got it. Firing now, Captain.”
The Douglas MacArthur saw them and dodged—or as close to a dodge as a ship of her weight and size could manage—but their torpedoes corrected. Ditka had spaced them once again so that the first disrupted their shields and the second broke through to slide up its ass. The screen erupted with green flame and Jo watched with satisfaction as the great beast of a ship began to break up.
“We need more like that.”
“I thought we were wounding,” Ditka called without looking up.
“Wound where you can, kill where you have to. That kill was a must,” she said with a note of finality, to which Ditka responded with a smile—but she still didn’t look up.
Jo checked to see where their trajectory would take them, and saw that Chi had plotted a spiral course that would take them in a direct line to seven battles already underway in quick succession. “Let’s pick the motherfuckers off,” Jo said. She leaned forward in her seat and began to study the tacticals, already making plans for their next attack.
“Uh…Captain?” Mr. Liebert’s voice was hesitant.
“What is it, Mr. Liebert?” Jo didn’t look away. She already had an idea and she was teasing it out in her imagination.
“I think I found your sleeper.”
Jeff set his jaw and headed for the corridor. Emma jumped up. “Don’t think I’m not coming with you.”
“You weren’t summoned.”
“I don’t care. We’re in this together.”
Jeff grunted but he didn’t complain. He’d begun to chafe recently at how closely she stuck to him. He caught himself stealing odd moments alone and savoring them. As much as he cared for her, there was a part of him that craved the isolation he’d spent the last twenty years pursuing. It wasn’t an exile, he was discovering, but a hunger. Not an aberration, but a fulfillment. That would take some sorting out. There were times when he could see how a ship’s counselor might be helpful. Those times were fleeting and few, but he had them.
“Any hint in your summons?”
“As to what this is about?” Jeff rubbed at his jaw. “Danny said he would speak to Tal about the crew—”
“About their being in jail?”
“We call it ‘the brig,’ but yeah.”
“Sorry. ‘The brig.’ Do you think he’s going to release them?”
“Or put me in it.”
“Great. It was really that vague?”
“It was just a summons. Here look at it yourself.” He looked up and blinked, forwarding it to her.
She was silent for several paces, obviously reading. “That…is pretty minimalist.”
“Like I said.”
“Now you’re just reading into it.”
“Maybe. Jeff, I don’t think you should worry. They know you have a…talent. They’re not going to want to alienate you. They will want to exploit this. They’re the military, after all.”
He scowled at her. “I’m the military,” he said.
“So you know exactly how they think,” she affirmed. “It’s going to be fine.”
Her forced optimism was beginning to annoy him. He once again felt the urge toward solitude. I may get more of that than I want in the brig, he thought to himself.
“Captain!” A voice came out of nowhere. Jeff stopped. It was Danny’s voice, he was sure of it. But he saw no one. Emma rushed ahead a few paces before she realized he’d frozen in place. She turned to look back at Jeff, a confused look on her face. Then she brightened, walking back and snagging Jeff’s sleeve. “C’mon, it’s Danny.”
Jeff turned and saw Danny standing at the corner of a side corridor intersection looking tense. Jeff looked up and down the main corridor, at the hundreds of people coming and going. Something wasn’t right, here. Why was Danny hiding? Who was he hiding from? Security cameras? Danny has a neural, he thought. It doesn’t make any sense.
He followed Emma over to his friend nevertheless. “Captain,” he said cautiously.
“This way,” Danny said, looking around. He strode into the side corridor, and they followed.
“I’ve been summoned,” Jeff said.
“I know,” Danny answered. “You can’t go to Tal’s office.”
“Because there’s a security detail there waiting to take you into custody.”
“Thanks for the heads up,” Jeff deadpanned.
“I can’t let that happen.”
Danny didn’t answer. As they approached another intersection, he held his hand up. Jeff and Emma froze. Danny looked around the corner, then waved them on. Apparently it was clear.
“I’m not liking this,” Jeff said.
“You’ll like what Tal has in mind for you a lot less.”
“It’s what you have in mind that worries me.”
“Shut up and follow me.”
Jeff clenched his jaw and did just that. Even Emma got quiet. They followed Danny through a series of service corridors, then through a crawlspace onto a catwalk over a hangar. Looking down, Jeff saw the Kepler. His Kepler, although he noted that the seal of the Colonial Science Corps had been covered over with a generic merchant ID.
“Danny, what’s going on here?”
Danny had begun to descend a ladder set into the far wall of the hangar. He didn’t answer. Jeff climbed down after him. Looking up, he saw that Emma was following.
Once at floor level, Danny waited for them both to finish their descent. Once on the floor, Jeff turned to Danny. “I want to know what’s going on, right now.”
“What’s going on is that you’re getting out of here.”
“I’m not leaving without my crew.”
“Your crew are on board,” Danny said, waving them over to the ship. He continued to look around nervously, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the hangar.
“Are you offline?” Jeff asked.
Danny didn’t answer. Jeff sent him a message. Danny didn’t answer, and there was no acknowledgment of receipt. Jeff scowled.
When they reached the ship, Danny handed Emma a data chip holder shaped like a koala bear.
“Cute,” Emma said.
“Those are launch codes for a class F merchant vessel, the Silver Goose. If anyone asks, you specialize in smoked waterfowl.”
“Smoked duck, got it.” Jeff said. “Where are we going?”
“Anywhere that isn’t Authority space.”
“When will they come looking for us?”
“As soon as they discover you’re gone.”
“We can’t outrun a cruiser,” Jeff said.
“We’ve got bigger fish to fry,” Danny said. “I’ve just been deployed to neutral space myself—every Authority ship with guns is being dredged up for this one.”
Danny nodded. “A big one. The rebels are putting everything they’ve got in it. It looks like we’re doing the same.”
“Looks like you’re not happy about that.”
“I’d prefer something a little more...strategic. As it is, we’re simply throwing every gun we’ve got into the fight and…” Danny shifted to his left leg, looking down. “I guess we’ll see who’s left.”
“You’re taking a huge chance, here, buddy,” Jeff gripped his friend’s arm. He didn’t understand everything that was going on, but he understood enough. Danny was putting his career on the line to keep him out of the brig.
“Look, I let you down once,” Danny looked at his feet. “You didn’t survive it. Now that I’ve got another shot…I’m not going to let it happen again.” Then he looked into Jeff’s eyes, and Jeff saw his friend’s sincerity. For the moment, it was enough.
“It was an honor to serve with you, Captain,” Danny saluted him.
Jeff saluted back. Then with the crisp, jerky movements the military loved so well, Danny turned and strode from the hangar.
“Send me the coordinates,” Jo said, feeling the hair rise on the back of her neck. She suddenly felt thirsty, and she felt her pulse rate jump. The thrill of the hunt was upon her, and she crouched in her command chair like a cat on the prowl.
Jo checked the coordinates against the tactical display—saw where they were, and where they needed to go. Liebert was right—there she was: a small ship, barely noticeable amid the fighting, just hovering in space like a drifting asteroid. “I see you,” she said under her breath. “And I am going to eat you for lunch.”
“Sir?” Mr. Chi looked over her shoulder. Jo wasn’t sure whether she was questioning her sanity or asking for their next destination. She discovered she enjoyed that ambiguity.
Jo punched at the comm button on the arm of her chair. “Engineering, this is the captain.”
“Ocampo here, Captain.”
“Commander. Can a science probe deliver a nuke?”
“Huh…a probe is plenty maneuverable, and it has power. In space, it wouldn’t be hard. Problem is just attaching the two so that the probe could get free—”
“Never mind salvaging the probe.”
“Oh. Then, no problem, sir.”
“How quickly can you rig one up for me?”
“Uh…how about fifteen minutes?”
“How about seven?”
“I’ll meet you at ten.”
“Make it seven. Hail me when it’s ready to launch. Captain out.”
“Mr. Chi, set coordinates for 297.21 by 592.6. Take us in so we come up behind the Authority vessel.”
“Aye, sir. Laying in course now. We’ll be there in…seven minutes, sir.”
The coordinates were for the nearest Authority vessel adjacent to the dark ship—which looked like the…the Dwight Eisenhower. She scowled, studying the tactical panels. That ship looked like it was putting up a hell of a fight. She saw the flaming remains of two RFC battle cruisers already drifting off into space, and a third was engaged in active fire. “Hold on, brother,” she said through her teeth, “we have got your fucking back.”
It seemed like seconds rather than minutes. Jo gripped the arms of her command chair as they slid into firing range of the Eisenhower.
“Sir, we’re being fired upon,” Ditka shouted. “Their aft gunners are opening up—looks like strategic lasers and particle cannons. They’ve got one aft torpedo bay as well.”
“Shields?” Jo asked.
“Back up and holding at 95%.”
“Mr. Ditka, you’ve got one thing at the top of your to-do list—plug that torpedo bay.”
Jo’s eyes moved back and forth between the tactical display and the image sent by the forward camera. She knew she needed to bring her ship about to get as many guns into the fight as possible, but there was a tactical advantage to being a small target as well, and she clung to it as long as possible. Torpedoes could maneuver, however, and she noted that Mr. Ditka lost no time getting off two, four, then six rounds.
“Captain, this is engineering,” Ocampo’s voice broke through her concentration. “Your…nuclear probe is ready. I call it the Little Shit.”
Jo allowed herself a smile. “Get ready to launch the Little Shit, then, Mr. Ocampo. On my signal.” She turned in her seat. “Mr. Chi, I want you to program and load a course for that thing ASAP.”
“I know you’ve got your hands full. Multitask, navigator. Send it back the way we came, then dip in whichever direction is down for our sleeper. Navigate back on stealth mode, and come up beneath her as quiet as a fucking mouse. Got it?”
“Got it, sir.”
“Then let’s show the Eisenhower our starboard broadside, Mr. Chi. Let’s open this girl up.”
The stars swung on the viewer as the Talon pivoted, bringing a full complement of her guns to bear. “This is not how I like to fight,” Jo whispered to herself. It wasn’t nearly sneaky enough. But it sometimes has to be done, the voice in her head reasoned, and she knew it was right.
“How are we doing on that torpedo bay?” she called.
“Six direct hits, but their shields are holding—although they’re down to 50%.”
“Keep pounding them until we get something through.”
Jo glanced to see how their sister ship—the Claw—was faring. Their shields were down to 30%, and nine of their seventeen guns had been taken out. Jo saw that the Eisenhower was holding the Talon off with one hand, but her full attention was on the Claw.
The Claw’s captain seemed to be pummeling away at a structure that Jo guessed must house a reactor—it was the only explanation that made sense given the ship design. “Swing us around to her starboard side, Mr. Chi. Let’s give the Claw a hand.”
“Aye, sir. By the way, sir, course is laid in for Little Shit.”
“Excellent, Mr. Chi.” She punched at the arm of her chair. “Mr. Ocampo, launch that probe when ready.”
“Ready and…launched, sir.”
Jo watched as they approached the Claw. Jo looked up and blinked, performing a handshake with the ship’s captain. He no doubt knew she was there, but now they had an open comm link. Jo used it.
“Mr. Ditka, give that reactor housing everything we’ve got—” Before she could finish, her screen erupted with blinding white energy, and she felt the Talon lurch and rumble beneath her. Her eyes darted over to tactical, and she saw the last thing she expected or hoped for—the Eisenhower was still intact. It was the Claw that had gone up in a spray of atoms.
“Shit,” Jo said out loud. That would mean one thing—the Eisenhower would now be turning the full barrage of their firepower on the Talon, and they were not in a strategically advantageous position. Far from it.
“Keep plugging at that reactor housing!” Jo yelled.
“Sir, debris from the Claw took out three of our guns.”
She jabbed at the arm of her chair. “Damage, Mr. Ocampo?”
“Still awaiting reports, sir. Looks like we need to seal off deck two—we’ve got hull breaches in two places. My men are on their way now. We’ll get patches in place as soon as I can get them into suits.”
“Damn damn damn…” Jo realized she was chewing on her nails, but she didn’t stop. “Think think think…” she told herself.
A patterned burst of laser fire sprayed out from the Eisenhower, pinpointing targets along the Talon’s hull.
“They’re targeting our guns, sir,” Ditka was yelling, though there was no reason for it. “Shields holding.”
Just then Jo heard a boom that reverberated along the Talon’s hull.
“What the fuck is that?” she asked.
“That…is an e-disruptor mine, set to go off in five…”
An electrical disruptor mine would take out their power—temporarily, but that didn’t matter. They only needed to get through their shields for a few seconds to polish them off. “All power to C-drive. Gun it, Mr. Chi, get us out of here!”
Chi’s eyes were wide as she punched away at her console. Jo heard the standard propulsion engines’ whine rise to a high-pitched whistle as they strained against physics to move them faster than was actually possible. Before the C-drive kicked in, however, there was the sound of metal striking metal that shook their hull, creating an ominous, metallic echo.
Then everything went dark.
“Don’t engage C-drive until we’re well clear of the station,” Jeff ordered. “We don’t want to look like we’re running.” Danny had risked a lot to orchestrate their escape. He sure as hell didn’t want to mess it up.
“How soon would a merchant ship actually move to their C-drive?” Emma asked.
“I don’t know anything about merchant ships. But with military vessels, you want 500,000 kilometers out, just for safety. C-forces can buckle the hull of a ship or a station. I’ve seen it happen.”
“Begging your pardon, sir, my uncle had a transport business,” Commander Nira offered. “The designated safety margins are the same.”
“Okay, then. Light ’em up at 500,000K,” Jeff said.
Martin Pho worked at his console and nodded. “Aye, sir.” He turned to look at him. “And then where?”
“They didn’t really give us a choice. Head for neutral space. Mr. Wall, give me a list of options—space stations, planets, casinos, any possible port in the storm. Ideally, we want a place we can refuel and get some supplies.”
“With what funds?” Emma asked.
That caught Jeff up short. He was a military man; he didn’t think about paying for things. “I…I have no idea.” He stood up. “But we’ve got some time. Commander Nira, you and Dr. Stewart are with me. Until further notice, the mess is off limits. Let me know if we hit any trouble. Mr. Pho, you have the conn.”
Jeff felt a little wobbly as he rose from his chair and made his way to the door. It slid open and he crossed the short distance to the mess. It was a very small ship, and he didn’t have far to go. He could hear that Nira and Emma were behind him. He stopped at one of the wall units and got a cup of coffee before sitting down.
Emma did the same, but Nira seemed to have no interest. She moved directly to the table, her brow bunched and her jaw tight. “Out with it, Commander,” Jeff said.
“I don’t understand why they just let us go.”
“I don’t think they did. Danny risked a lot—”
She interrupted him. “And you trust him?”
Jeff blinked as Emma took her seat. It was a very good question, and if he was honest… He squirmed in his seat. “No, I don’t trust him. But having you out of that heightened-security pod, in our own ship, under our own power certainly seems preferable to—”
She looked at his coffee and nodded. “I just don’t trust them.”
“This,” Emma said softly, “is not our home. I don’t think we should let our guard down for a second.”
“This war is not our war, either,” Jeff said, agreeing. “I don’t know much about the other side, but the Authority is not the CDF. I’m not sure where our loyalties should lie.”
“I don’t think we have any,” Emma said.
“I don’t think we have any choice but to take sides eventually,” Jeff said. “After all, we’re here. We can’t be anywhere but here.”
“We could jump to another string,” Emma said.
“And destroy—or even risk destroying—every creature on this string? Not a chance.”
“What if we could figure out a way to jump the ship without endangering the string?”
“Too risky,” Jeff shook his head resolutely. I already have too much blood on my hands, he thought. “Besides, from what I’ve read, the theory is that the further out we go from our own string, the more…different…the universes become. We’re not going to find a world more like our own than this one.”
“We could try String 309,” Emma said.
“No,” Jeff said, with an edge in his voice that brooked no further discussion. He softened, adding, “Like it or not, this is our new home.” Neither of the women looked at him. They didn’t like the sound of it—hell, he didn’t like the sound of it—but it was true. It had to be said.
“If you don’t mind me saying so,” Nira said, “you look like hell. Sir.”
Jeff didn’t doubt it. He hadn’t been sleeping well, with his crew in the brig and the dreams.
“Why don’t you let me take this shift?” Nira asked. “All Pho and I have been doing is lying around and sleeping anyway. I’ll let you know at the first whiff of trouble.”
Jeff saw the corners of Emma’s mouth turn up in compassionate agreement. She reached over and placed her hand on top of his. “It’s a good idea, Jeff. Get some rest.”
Now that he stopped to notice, he felt an aching weariness in his bones. It would feel good to lie down. It was not unreasonable. “Okay, I’ll take four. But wake me if we hit a dust mite out there.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Go,” Emma said.
He stood and straightened his jacket, crossing the mess toward the cabins. They weren’t really cabins—that was too generous a term. There was barely room to stand up straight or walk three paces in them. When first entering, it looked like an empty 1x3 meter room, save for a chair at the far end, along with a sink and some bookshelves set into the wall. He pulled the little table top out from the wall and placed his coffee on it. Then he folded the bed down and eased himself onto it with a great, groaning sigh.
He didn’t remember falling asleep. One moment he was looking at the ceiling of his cabin, and the next, he was by a campfire. The shaman was there, smiling enigmatically.
“You found me,” he said. “That’s good.” The fire crackled and the night sky blazed with stars. The ridiculous little hat sat cock-eyed on the man’s jet-black hair. “I have much to tell you. But we need time.”
“Tell me now,” Jeff said.
“No. You must be here in body, not just in spirit. The body is as important as spirit. But you know that. You remember what it was like to lose one.”
He did. It had been terrifying, awkward. Not physically uncomfortable, but psychologically…
“Look at these stars,” the little man said. “When you see them again, you’ll know where I am.”
Jeff found himself looking at constellations he had never seen before. It took him a while, but he was able to identify a couple of clusters. They were different, of course, because his perspective had changed, but they were undeniably stars he knew. The others…there were just too many of them. His eyes grew wide as a serpent slithered across the night sky, twisted into an unnatural shape, and froze. Then it faded, leaving only blazing balls of light where the various bends and folds of its articulated body had been.
Jeff was conscious that he was no longer dreaming. He was more in control of this…vision…than he would be in a normal dream. He looked down and saw the shaman sitting alone by his fire, on a world that seemed untouched by technology. That couldn’t be true, but it seemed true. Perhaps the vision showed him something more or less than actual geography. Perhaps it was more…interpretive. He didn’t know.
He felt his consciousness gather to a point in his own brain, and then expand, filling the All. A question nagged at him, invading the ecstasy of the moment. Was he experiencing the true All, the All across all strings of reality, or was he just experiencing the All of this string?
The string was infinite, but he knew the answer to it instinctively. He could sense a barrier, the intangible separation between worlds, the limits of his Allness. That’s fine, he thought. I don’t care one way or the other, I just wanted to know. He allowed his awareness to fill the All, every square kilometer, every millimeter of it, every beating heart and excreting organ in every creature on every world. He experienced it all. Every topographical feature of every landscape. Every meteorological event on every continent on every planet. He didn’t try to hold on to it, or even to comprehend it. He simply entered into it, felt it. Then he rested in it.
And he felt her—felt her panic, her danger, her spiking pulse rate, the quickening adrenaline shooting into her blood stream.
Jo was in trouble.
They were sitting ducks, and Jo knew it.
“Mr. Chi, you have one job and one job only. As soon as power is restored—no matter what condition we’re in, your job is to hail our probe out there and plot a new course for it. Bring it back here and put it right up their main exhaust chute. Little Shit is fully cloaked, so they won’t notice it navigating until it’s sitting on top of their reactor. Got it?”
She couldn’t see Chi nod. The blackness was total. The only sound was the sound of her crew breathing, the fabric of her uniform squeaking against the imitation leather of her chair, and the rushing of blood in her own head.
Then, a moment later, the emergency lighting came on. She saw Chi poised to pounce as soon as her console had rebooted. Nothing yet.
Jo gripped the arms of her chair. “What are they waiting for?”
Then it came—an explosion that made the bridge buck and lurch as if it were made of some poly material, as if it were being shaken. She wanted to yell, “Damage report!” but she bit her tongue. There would be no damage reports, not until power was restored—if power was restored.
She saw raw terror in the eyes of her crew. She pounded on the arm of her chair, desperate to do something. She’d never felt so helpless in all of her life.
Another explosion sent them reeling. Jo felt the straps of her restraints bite into her shoulder, into her sides. She tasted a warm coppery fluid that filled her mouth and realized, in the midst of the unwelcome g-forces, that she’d bit her tongue.
I’ve failed. The thought invaded and tried to take over, tried to shut down all other thought. She shoved it down and insisted her brain be open, unencumbered, nimble.
Just then she heard a familiar whine of computers rebooting, of power coming online. It had never sounded so welcome or so good. “Shields up!” she roared and watched as Ditka’s fingers flew the moment power was available to her console. Chi leaped into action at exactly the same time.
“Shields at 22% and holding.”
“Target their engines, Mr. Ditka,” Jo said. “Make sure they don’t go anywhere before our little friend arrives.”
“Yes, sir.” She saw the cruel smile creep unconsciously onto Ditka’s face. She decided she liked Ditka—so long as Ditka was fighting for her.
She punched at the comm buttons on her chair. “Damage reports, Mr. Ocampo.”
It took a few moments for Ocampo to respond. When he did, he was yelling over the engine room noise. “Massive damage, sir. We’re still trying to get a handle on the extent of it. We’re getting no reads from decks A through C. My guess is that they’re just gone. The good thing about this ship’s design is that all the essential functions are tucked up into its interior.”
“Get to work. Send me updates by neural as soon as you get anything. Do we have C-drive?”
“No sir, and standard propulsion is down to 40%. We can achieve maybe 600 kilometers per hour right now.”
“Let me know when we’ve got C-drive capability again. In the meantime, direct all available power to our shields. Let’s see if we can bump them to 75%.”
She felt the bridge rock from another missile assault. This time the shields absorbed the brunt of it.
Chi didn’t wait for the question. “New course laid in, sir. Little Shit can do almost T1, but carrying the nuke…I’m putting it at 20 minutes.”
Jo relaxed. She hoped they could hang on for another 20 minutes, but they didn’t need to. As long as the Eisenhower didn’t engage its C-drive, Little Shit would find it. And end it. Her mission was accomplished. The enemy would be destroyed. The only question for her now was, could she save her crew?
There were 127 souls aboard the Talon. She had to do everything in her power…
“Why wait?” Chi asked.
“Wait for what?” Jo asked.
“Chief engineer Ocampo put Little Shit together in under twenty minutes. Why not do another one? It will cut our time in half.”
Jo leaned forward, thinking about it. Maneuvering under standard power, they could block its launch from the Eisenhower. And once launched and cloaked…it could work.
But it gave Jo another idea. She punched at the arm of her chair again. “Mr. Ocampo, can you put a nuke in an escape pod?”
Again, it took a moment for the engineer to answer. Well, he is busy, Jo thought. Soon, however, his voice came through, sounding harried and rough. “Uh…yeah.”
“Remote detonation or timer?”
“Do it. Put it in the captain’s pod. Send the detonation codes directly to me for neural activation.”
“Also, can you fake a C-drive core breach?”
“We routinely ramp it up to test it. We could prolong that without any permanent damage to the core—but it would certainly look like trouble at a distance.”
“Perfect. Do it.”
She punched the comm button on her chair. “Security Chief Dixon.”
“I want twenty volunteers from security to make their way quickly and calmly to the escape pods. Arm them with regular blasters, but make sure they’ve got silicone disruptors hidden on their persons—we’re going to need them.”
Dixon didn’t respond for a moment. “Uh…yes sir.”
Jo knew they didn’t trust her. She was green. This was her first time in the chair. And she was doing crazy shit. The fact that they were even going along with her amazed her.
Jo turned to her navigator. “Mr. Chi, thank you for the brilliant idea. And by the way, turn Little Shit around and reload its original flight plan. We may not survive this battle, but that sleeper ship calling the shots sure as hell won’t, either.”
Jeff reached out with his mind. He found her. He felt the sticky elasticity of space as he willed himself onto her bridge. He saw the tactical screen, the tense determination on her face. At the same time he was aware of every aspect of the battle taking place all around her. He felt her rising pulse, could almost taste the sweat on her upper lip—and wanted to.
Something in his chest twisted at the sight of her. Something precious to him, something lost forever, had suddenly been found. It wasn’t his Jo, he knew that. And if Danny had taught him anything, it was that the versions of the people he knew in this world could be vastly different than those he knew in his own.
Was that fair? he asked himself. After all, Danny had risked everything to help them escape. But he had a knot in his stomach when he thought about it, one that he couldn’t quite figure out.
Why not check it out? he wondered. He reached out in the other direction and found Danny. His friend was in a dark room, licking the breasts of a woman—a prostitute?
He moved toward Jo again, just staring at her. He could hear the things going on around her, but he wasn’t really paying attention. It was enough to see the way her black hair swooped over her shoulders, the crow’s feet at the corners of her eyes, the angularity of her jaw. He noted how the red rebel uniform hid her breasts, making her look flat-chested, even masculine. That only made her hotter. He wanted her so badly his soul ached. He realized that his body, so far away, actually had an erection, but it was an academic fact, like the rules of calculus or the tendencies of particle physics.
I have to go to her, he thought.
And that was all. He knew it was a bad idea. He knew nothing about the rebels or the details of this conflict. He had studied the events out of sheer curiosity, certainly, but he hadn’t lived them—they were just more academics.
But here was the one thing that wasn’t academic or theoretical. Here was Jo, in the flesh, giving orders—orders that his own body would kill to obey.
I need a drink, he thought. But he didn’t. He was just conflicted, and didn’t know how to sort it out in the moment.
He watched her until the ache simply became too great for him, and he allowed his consciousness to return to the cramped confines of his cabin. Okay. Shit. What am I going to do now? he asked himself. He’d never needed guidance before—or never felt like he’d needed it. Not once. But now… But there was no one to ask. He wished he could speak to the shaman, although a part of him also realized how absurd that was. What did a traditional healer from Peru know about his troubles? And why should he care?
Jeff sat up. He felt guilty. How would Emma feel if she knew the feelings he was having for Jo? It would crush her. He couldn’t bear to think about it, but he couldn’t stop thinking about it, and the thought created a desperate ache in his stomach.
He took a quick sonic, savoring the feeling of the pulses on his skin. Then he dressed and headed for the bridge.
As he walked on, Nira shouted, “Captain on the bridge!”
They all began to rise, but he gave the almost liturgical response, “As you were.”
Jeff noted the crew members were all present—all except for Emma. He nodded at Nira. “Anything to report?”
“Nothing sir. Quiet flight.”
He’d expected to be pursued. Maybe they still would be. “How far to neutral space?”
“Eighteen hours, sir,” Mr. Pho said.
“Are you just dropping by, sir, or are you taking the helm?” Nira asked.
“I can’t sleep anymore,” he said. “But you all need to. Let’s start rotating off, four hours each. Mr. Nira, you’re first. When you return, you can fill in for Mr. Pho.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.” Nira surrendered the chair and padded off the bridge, no doubt to grab a bite and a nap in her own, even smaller, quarters.
Jeff took the chair and wondered where Emma was. Probably sleeping. He should have let Nira stay, should have gone to lie down next to Emma—maybe make love to her. The thought made him feel even more conflicted than he already was. He wondered if it would feel like a lie. He decided he already knew the answer to that.
He needed to distract himself. He read through the hourly crew reports. Everything seemed to be ship-shape. He was considering how awful it would be to work a puzzle in his neural where no one could see it when Mr. Pho looked over his shoulder.
“Uh…Captain, I’m getting some trajectory predictions I can’t reconcile.”
Jeff cocked his head. Finally, something to solve, something solvable.
Mr. Pho put their course on the main viewer. “When we set out, I plotted this course, sir. The blinking red light should be our position.”
“What do you mean, should be?”
“I just ran a stellar cartographical check using the neutrino sextant program—”
That was standard procedure, Jeff knew. “And what did you find?”
Another course appeared, superimposed over the original one on the display.
“That is our actual location,” Pho said, pointing to a green blinking light.
Jeff saw an elliptical trajectory that seemed identical for the first three-quarters of its arc, but began to diverge very slightly as the arc reached its end. The blinking lights were almost on top of each other. Almost.
“Have you run a diagnostic, Mr. Pho?”
“Waiting for the results now, sir—wait, here they are. Uh…” He studied them, then sat up and looked at Jeff. “Nothing, sir. Everything is working normally.”
“Well, something’s off.” Jeff said.
“So what is it?”
“I…I don’t know, sir.”
“Well, let’s start testing. I’ll get Dr. Stewart up here to work with you.” He leaned back and shot a glance at Mr. Wall. “Mr. Wall, will you please summon Dr. Stewart to the bridge? Tell her we have a mystery to solve.”
“The Captain needs twenty volunteers for a tactical launch of our escape pods.” Security Chief Dixon’s thick Jamaican accent was musical but staccato. Leif Arnesson heard the order through his neural, but chose to ignore it. He had always been the kind of guy who needed to finish one job before he could move on to something else, and he was only halfway through his weapons check. They were in the middle of a firefight, after all, and weapons systems required constant attention. He had gotten good at running three diagnostics simultaneously, but it required focus. Dixon could wait.
Except that, apparently, he couldn’t. Leif brushed his almost silver-white hair from his eyes and studied the three panels he was monitoring. All good, except for a power fluctuation in one of the starboard particle cannon arrays. He was about to chase that down when he felt a tap on the shoulder.
“Too good to volunteer for the captain?” Security Chief Dixon asked, his lips tight, his perpetually bloodshot eyes drilling Leif to his place.
Leif looked around. There were a few engineers in the bay, who immediately looked away and pretended nothing was going on.
“Your captain has asked for volunteers,” Dixon asked. “But I demand compliance.”
“But sir, I’ve got three diagnostics going, and—”
“Mr. Arnesson, is there a reason you’re not leaping for this assignment?”
“Perhaps a bullshit psychological reason?” Dixon raised one eyebrow, his hands behind his back.
Leif looked down. “I let her down.”
Dixon inclined his head slightly. “We all let her down. We let a usurper take her place, and because none of us thought she was strong enough to stop him…we didn’t stop him, either.”
Leif looked up and saw the sincerity in his superior’s eyes.
“I want to help, but…I don’t want to see her. I’m…I feel…”
“I think the word you’re looking for is shame, Mr. Arnesson. It’s a tragically underused word in the military. Embrace it. Learn from it. It is telling you something true. But I want you to hear the next thing I’m going to say.” He leaned in so that his head was almost touching Leif’s. “Failure in the past does not justify failure in the future.”
Leif looked down again. “No sir.”
“Do you want to advance in this man’s navy, ensign?”
“I do, sir.”
“Then plant your ass in an escape pod within the next thirty seconds or you’ll be cleaning lint out of blaster hardware for the next fifteen years.”
“Yes sir. But…there’s a power fluctuation in one of the starboard—”
Dixon raised one eyebrow, his lips pursed in a look that said, Do not fuck with me.
“Yes, sir,” Leif said. He stepped away from the panel and began to jog toward the nearest pod launch deck.
“Run, you sorry excuse for a security officer!” Dixon shouted.
Ten minutes later, Jo was staring out the port of her escape pod, designated as the captain’s pod with an eagle ornament over the door. She saw flashes in the distance, evidence of the extended battle going on all around them. Jo had never seen this many ships engaged at one time. If the RFC’s full complement of battle cruisers wasn’t present, it soon would be. The Authority fleet outnumbered them, of course, and always had. They’d survived this long by fighting sneaky, fighting dirty. She hoped she was faithfully carrying on that tradition.
Just before launching, engineering had instigated a sustained burn of the C-drive core. She knew what it would look like to the captain of the Eisenhower—a core breach, especially when the pods started launching. If the Eisenhower was smart, it would turn tail and put as much distance between itself and the Talon as possible.
And it looked like that was exactly what was happening. The great lumbering beast of a ship was turning about, showing the giant cones of her exhaust ports to the Talon as it prepared to run. Jo opened a channel to the bridge on her neural. “Release pods,” she said. Then she pressed the manual release on her own pod, and was pushed back against her restraints as the g-force of its acceleration pushed her away from the Talon—directly past the massive exhaust cones of the Eisenhower.
She was the bait. She knew the captain’s pod would be irresistible. A captured captain was prestige, a round of drinks on Sol Station, a step toward a significant reputation as a battle-seasoned hard-ass—which was every captain’s aspiration.
But she was also the hook. The sheer irresistibility of her would be their undoing. It would be she that wins the reputation. She felt a swelling in her chest, and let a smile slip onto her angular lips.
Sure enough, just as she was slipping past their midships, a tractor beam arrested her flight. There was a jarring jolt as her inertia was interrupted and reversed. The pod began moving backward toward the aft docking bay. She glanced at the nuclear device, hastily disguised as a thermal duct. A glance wouldn’t betray its presence, but a detailed search of the pod would. She felt her pulse quicken at the thought, but chose to trust the arrogance of the Authority not to investigate too carefully.
Her neural contained a short-range transmitter, standard with all neural models, capable of reaching a transceiver anywhere on board a ship. Her neural wouldn’t be able to reach the Talon, nor would she be able to interface with the Authority computer without the proper clearance protocols. She glanced up and blinked, completing a test handshake between her neural and the nuke’s detonator. Online and operational. She grinned as the pod touched down in the bay.
She could just see the bay doors closing through her viewing port. She had expected them to retrieve a few more of the pods, and her anxiety rose as she realized she would have no backup here. Her security men would be safe—as safe as people in escape pods could be in the middle of a firefight—but they wouldn’t be here. Apparently capturing the captain was the only thing the Eisenhower cared about. That was good information.
And maybe that was a good thing. If she needed to detonate while she was still aboard, she wouldn’t put any of the rest of them in danger. Of course there was always the possibility that they were bringing the others in through a different bay. She pushed the thought aside.
She heard a banging on the outside of her pod hatch. She took a deep breath and set her face to something approximating crestfallen defeat. Then she pushed the button and waited for the hatch to swing wide.
Climbing to the floor of the deck, she saw herself surrounded by a security team, blasters pointed directly at her. I think I’m getting used to this, she thought. She marveled at how calm she was. She had a plan, after all, and so far most of it was going as she’d hoped.
“Put any weapons on the ground,” the security chief barked.
She had brought a blaster, just for show. She unholstered it and let it drop onto her boot. She kicked it away.
She didn’t meet his eyes, but shook her head.
“Get moving, through those doors.” He motioned with the muzzle of his blaster toward a set of insulated doors at the back of the bay.
They marched through the bowels of the ship directly to the brig. Several of the security force stepped aside, guarding each side of the sliding metal door. When the door opened, she stepped inside.
She was being handed off to the gaolers. They processed her, forced her to strip and shower. She was glad to see that they allowed her privacy for this, or that at least there was the semblance of privacy. In place of her own uniform she was given a white paper jumpsuit. She put it on without complaint.
Along the way she’d felt the dampened lurch of the C-drive kick in, but it had been a short burst. They’d gotten some distance from the Talon, but not much. They wouldn’t want to be seen leaving the battlefield before it was over. Indeed, she expected they would simply jump to the aid of another ship—at least, that was what she would do.
A subordinate gaoler with pretty, bobbed red hair led her to a cell, and waved her in. A security officer stood behind her, blaster at the ready. Jo didn’t give them any trouble. She stepped into the cell and sat on the poly stool to one side of the bunk. The cell wasn’t palatial by any means, but it was bigger than an ensign’s cabin aboard her own ship. The door to the cell slid shut, affording Jo a view of frosted white security glass.
She blinked at the brightness, the antiseptic white of the cell. Moments passed, but they seemed elongated. She felt a heaviness in her chest she didn’t understand. Other than her breathing, nothing moved or changed in the cell. There was no indication of anything going on outside of it. Time seemed to be standing still.
She knew she might have to wait until a lull in the battle to be summoned. She hadn’t thought of that, and it was a major flaw in her plan. She weighed the damage she’d be able to do as part of this ruse against what she’d be able to do at the helm. She felt a sinking feeling in her gut, realizing her error. She had expected her confrontation to be quick, but of course there was no way to guarantee that. She was a gnat, an annoyance, a prize of war now, nothing more. They would not bother with her until the fighting was over for the day.
Which left the Talon adrift without firm leadership, without even a Shallit to command her. Sure, she’d given Chi the helm, but Chi was a navigator, not a commander. She’d keep things safe, keep things together, but the girl wasn’t built for war.
“I just fucked everything up,” she said out loud. They are listening, she thought, and then internally kicked herself. Her mind raced, trying to think through all the ways they might possibly interpret what she’d just said. But the most obvious meaning was the one that her ruse rested upon. She relaxed.
Then the door slid open, and the pretty gaoler was there. She stepped aside and waved Jo out. “The Captain wants to see you.”
Jeff watched as Mr. Pho studied his test results. The kid’s head seemed unusually oblong and pointed. It had never bothered Jeff before this moment. Hovering over the navigator’s shoulder, Emma glanced back and forth between her own data pad and the navigator’s console. “Anything?” Jeff asked.
“Sir, I’ve got that list you asked for,” Susie Wall said.
“Good. Post it, please.” Jeff blinked and called up the document. It’s a good list, though, Jeff thought. Thorough. Every possible place for them to refuel and restock was here, it seemed. But where would they be least likely to be noticed? They could head for some little moon or outpost where the smallest number of people would see them. The problem with that was that they were likely to make a bigger impression on those few folks. Plus, there would be limited choices when it came to supplies. They could go for a crowded place, get lost in the masses. The advantage of that was they’d be able to get everything they needed in one stop. More chance of being noticed, though. And Jeff did not know what he was up against.
He wanted to trust Danny, but his gut was off whenever he thought about it. He was glad to be rid of Sol Station, but he wasn’t sure who knew about them, who might be looking for them, or lying in wait for them. He didn’t know whom to trust. Sometimes the Devil you know… he thought. He was flying blind, and he did not like it.
“Epworth Station,” he said out loud. It was a good two parsecs into the neutral zone, and seemed to be huge. He’d also never heard of it—obviously it was one of the many things in this universe that did not have an analog in his own.
“What was that?” Emma said looking over.
“Uh…nothing. Just looking for a destination to restock.”
She nodded and returned her attention to her work. Jeff got up and walked over to Pho’s station. He put a hand on the young man’s shoulder. “What have you found?”
“Running one more test, sir,” Pho said without looking up. “Just…here’s the results now.”
Jeff saw a string of numbers that were as mysterious to him as the whole flight trajectory anomaly.
“Huh,” Pho said.
“Huh, what?” Jeff asked.
“Okay, these numbers here”—Pho pointed to the first column—“are the expected weight distribution inventories for this class vessel.”
“Okay,” Jeff said, his brows knitting.
“This second column are the adjustments we make because of stocking or…furniture or storage or whatever.”
“I follow you.”
“See the third column? Those are the actual weights.”
“How did you achieve the actual weight? We’re nowhere near a space dock.”
“Uh…Dr. Stewart figured those out with a…” He fished for a word.
Emma interrupted. “It’s complicated, but basically we factored the distortion in the space-time fabric against our speed and the nearest gravity well for each section of the ship.”
Jeff’s eyes moved back and forth as he thought. “Those…would be some pretty precise measurements.”
“What do you think has been taking us so long?” Emma asked, with a note of mock exasperation. She followed this up with a smile.
He nodded. “And what did you find?”
“We found that there are four tons of mass in the fore cargo hold that are not accounted for, distributed on both port and starboard sides—the distribution is not precisely even, however.”
“What the fuck is down there?” Jeff wondered. “Mr. Wall, bring up security cams in the hold.”
They all looked at the main view screen as the picture switched. Jeff saw only a dim, quiet hold. Nothing out of the ordinary. “Mr. Wall, summon commander Nira. Have her meet me in the armory ASAP.”
“Aye, sir,” Wall said, fingers playing over her console.
“Everyone else…stay put,” Jeff said. He straightened his jacket and strode to the door. I should have looked back at Emma. I should have kissed her, he thought. The bridge door slid shut behind him. He walked through the mess to the armory, and sighed when he saw it empty. “Great,” he sighed. “I should have guessed.” He rummaged through each of the metal cabinets, to no avail. They were empty. No weapons.
“Reporting, Captain,” Nira stepped into the tiny alcove that housed the armory.
“We’re cleaned out, I’m afraid,” Jeff said.
“Damn,” Nira said. Her mouth stayed open in alarm. “What’s…” It seemed to Jeff that she was about to say, “What’s up?” but caught herself. She closed her mouth and tried again. “What are we up against, sir?”
“We don’t know. We’ve got unexpected weight in the fore cargo hold.”
He saw her head jerk and her eyes dart back and forth, thinking. “How much weight?”
“Not a stowaway, then.”
“Not unless it’s a very, very large stowaway. Whatever it is, it doesn’t seem to be moving.”
“Stay here, sir.”
“Uh…please…just for a moment. I’ll be right back.”
She darted out of the armory. Jeff checked a few more drawers. He was not surprised to find them empty. Danny had wanted them gone, but he had not wanted them armed. Jeff shook his head. He didn’t understand it.
Just then Nira reappeared, handing him a hunting knife. He took it with a nod, and noticed a set of nunchucks in her other hand. “You know how to use those things?”
“Manila champion two years running,” she said. There was not a hint of pride or braggadocio in her voice. It was just a fact, like the Telluride quantum field equation or the fact that earth’s sky is blue. “I’m deadly.” Now he saw a smile curve onto her lip. He smiled back.
“Let’s go find our stowaway,” he said.
Leif clutched his poly neural disruptor, and for the fifth time made sure it was charged and loaded. Looking out the window, he saw the Talon drifting away as his pod was ejected from her port side. He didn’t understand the captain’s plan, but a part of him wanted to do something—anything—to make things even with her. For the thousandth time in the past couple of days, he berated himself for supporting that asshole Shallit. He knew what was right, he knew the chain of command, but he also didn’t know how—when they’d stepped off that shuttle—he could have done anything differently without getting his head shot off or getting thrown into the brig.
“Maybe getting thrown into the brig wouldn’t have been the worst thing in the world,” he said out loud to the empty pod, “especially given how things worked out.” If he had done that, he’d be out of the brig now, and he’d be in full possession of his pride and the captain’s favor. If, that is, I didn’t have my head shot off, he thought. Then he shuddered.
The pod was a standard ensign’s escape pod. It was built for two, yet there was only about five feet of space to walk in, and about seven feet of clearance. If you needed to sleep in one of these, you had to turn off the artificial gravity, since there was no way to lie down. There was a kneeling toilet, which he hated, and four months’ supply of cold rations in a cabinet.
The idea of drifting in space for four months, hoping someone would find your signal before you ran out of food and oxygen, terrified him. The only comfort was the fact that there were two doses of Happy Ending in the medicine cabinet. Within seconds of taking one, you would be flooded with euphoric feelings—no pain, no worries, just delightful giddiness. Then you’d get sleepy. Happy, dopey, and sleepy. And then you’d be dead.
That is definitely how I want to go, Leif thought. Not a blaster to the head.
But he’d have little control over that, and he knew it. He checked the poly disruptor again. It was still charged and loaded.
He looked out the tiny circular window and saw several other pods drifting off into space near him. He had friends in those pods. He sighed.
Just then he felt a jarring change of direction. It didn’t feel like he’d collided with anything, more like a quick acceleration.
“Oh shit,” he thought as he saw the great metal underbelly of the Eisenhower drift into view as his pod turned. Tractor beam, he thought. Was this what the captain intended? Why else had they been armed with the poly disruptors? He would have felt better if he’d known the details of her plan.
Mine is not to wonder why. Mine is just to do…
He didn’t finish the thought.
Jo controlled her breathing as she followed the security officer. She had no choice about following—she was flanked by a full security detail on all sides. The only choice before her was panic or control.
The fact that she was being summoned quickly was good—they might still be in the game. She still wondered about where her men might be, but she couldn’t let it distract her.
The layout of the ship was unfamiliar—it wasn’t a class she had boarded before. But the various parts of the ship they walked through were all familiar enough. There would be no mysteries here—a warship was a warship, and she knew warships.
A few minutes later the young woman ahead of her held up her hand as she requested permission to board the bridge. It must have been given, as the door slid open and she was waved through.
Jo went to straighten her red jacket, but realized she was only wearing the white paper jumpsuit. She raised her head with a note of exaggerated pride to compensate for the indignity and stepped onto the bridge.
Jo’s eyes darted back and forth, assessing the scene before her. The bridge was massive, and it looked like every station was manned. Women and men in black uniforms with orange piping huddling over their panels, fingers flying, eyes wide with the electricity of battle. No one took much notice of her. A captain was on deck, but no one rose.
She followed the blonde security officer with the bobbed hair directly to the command chair. The captain was about ten years her senior, his buzz cut shining with a faint orange tint—a common Authority affectation. It matched their uniforms.
He didn’t even glance at them—his eyes were riveted to the tactical screen. On the main viewer, Jo could see another RFC vessel. It wasn’t the Talon, but she couldn’t make out the name. But her shields were holding and her guns were giving as good as they got. She nodded her approval.
After a moment, the captain barked. “Take the helm, number one.”
The XO assumed command seamlessly, studying the tactical and calling out orders.
The captain turned to face her now, looking her up and down for the first time. His cheeks puffed into jowls, and his eyes darkened. He did not look impressed by the sight of her.
“I am Captain Johann Federer. And you are?”
“Captain Jo Taylor of the Revolutionary Freedom Coalition ship Talon. Sir.”
“You had a core breach.”
“But our scans show your ship is still intact.”
His eyes narrowed. “Are there still crew aboard your ship?”
“I ordered everyone out. I don’t know if there is anyone aboard now or not.” She held his gaze. She was a damn good liar, and she knew it. “Of course, if they’re still there, then it sounds like engineering got a handle on the problem. Crack engineers, my guys.”
Now was the time. Jo looked up, accessed the interface with the nuke, started the countdown. Four minutes until detonation. She had four minutes to bluster her way to mastery of the situation. Piece of cake, she thought, but she made a fist to stop her hand from shaking.
“Captain, I regret to inform you that there is a fifty-megaton nuclear explosive on board your ship, and unless I disarm it, your ship and everything on it will be a husk of smoking carbon in a little less than four minutes.” She swallowed, and narrowed her eyes as they looked into his. “I’ll be taking over as captain now, and you will hand your security codes over to me. You will also prepare to be boarded. This will be a peaceful transition of ownership. You and your crew are free to leave via your escape pods.” She smirked. “Never let it be said that the RFC is inhumane.”
“The RFC is humane? Is that why you gunned down a businesswoman and six cops back on Avalon II?”
Jo cocked her head. “We did no such thing. Where did you get such an idea?”
“It is established fact. You have a price on your head—not just for being a enemy combatant, but for espionage and mass murder.”
“It can’t be an ‘established fact’ if it isn’t, in fact, true,” Jo said. “And it isn’t.”
“You can tell it to the Authority. And your threats are useless. We found your nuke as soon as you came aboard. We disarmed it. Thank you for the plutonium.” He hadn’t yet blinked, but his lips curled into a cruel grin that made her squirm. “As soon as we’re finished here, we’ll be heading back to your ship—the Talon, is it? You may have the honor of contacting what’s left of your crew and informing them that it is you who will prepare to be boarded.”
Jo felt like she had been punched in the gut. An old childhood voice began to shout, Stupid, you are so stupid, over and over in her head. Despite her best efforts to keep her eyes fixed and her chin up, her shoulders sagged noticeably. She thought about the last time a cruel asshole had tried to steal her ship from her. Goddam Shallit, she thought. And this guy’s just like him.
Until Shallit, she never thought she’d be capable of killing someone—not outside of a battle situation, anyway. She had learned a lot about herself that day—who she was, what she could do when pressed into a corner. Her mind flashed on how she’d shot him in the very act of handing over her gun.
Her head jerked. That…is an idea, she thought. “Put me through to my crew,” she said through gritted teeth.
Captain Federer looked up at his communicator, who was, it seemed, listening in and standing by. He nodded. The communicator pressed a few nodes on his panel, and turned back to them. “We have the Talon.”
A moment later, Jo was looking at Marcia Chi, looking grave and scared. The command chair seemed to dwarf her. “This is the RFC battle cruiser Talon,” she said, her voice high and tentative.
“Navigator Chi, this is your captain,” Jo said, forcing her voice to be strong and steady. It did not fail her.
“Captain, are you all right?” Chi’s eyes were wide as she recognized her captain out of uniform.
“I am unharmed. Unfortunately, our plan is in shreds. I’m afraid they caught us with our boots off. I want you to surrender the ship with as little disruption as possible. Surrender protocol Zed 8593.”
Chi blinked. Her mouth opened, but no sounds came out.
“I…need to…I’ll get right back to you…”
Jo’s heart sank. She had counted on Chi to be clever, to pick up on her clues and signals. She hung her head. She had no ideas left.
Jeff lowered himself down the ladder into the fore cargo hold. His feet hit the sloped deck and he grabbed at a handrail to steady himself as he watched Nira lower herself down. She was a good deal shorter than he was, but he didn’t for a second doubt her ferocity. The nunchucks stuck awkwardly out of a long pocket on the leg of her flight suit, ready at hand should she need them.
He remembered the knife in his own pocket and carefully withdrew it. Nira’s boots hit the deck, and she turned to him for instructions. For some reason, it didn’t seem necessary to speak. He just nodded at her and began to climb up the sloping curve of the deck.
The floor was covered with poly restraint belts, cables, and buckles. Strangely, this made it easier to navigate, since one could find purchase on them where the sloping deck alone would have been slippery. The hold was small, maybe five meters square. It also appeared to be empty. Jeff circumambulated the hold once, looking carefully at the floor, hoping, under the tangle of straps, to find some unexpected cargo or passenger.
Nothing. No one.
Finishing his circuit, he steadied himself near the ladder and looked to his number one with a brooding eye. Finally he spoke. “Did you see anything?”
“Not a thing.”
“Did you notice anything unusual?”
“I don’t understand why the military can’t come up with a more orderly way of storing hold restraints.”
Jeff grunted. It was a mild joke, but he was grateful for it. Nor did he disagree with it—it was a mess down there.
“Okay, then…we look again. Only we look closer this time.”
Jeff began another clockwise examination of the hold, only this time, he did it on his knees. He crawled along the edge of the wall, while Nira was on her hands and knees directly to his right, pouring over every inch of the regions closer to the center of the hold.
Aside from the proliferation of straps, the floor appeared to him almost antiseptic in its cleanliness. Sure, there were spider nests here and there, but strangely, the spiders seemed to be gone. Where had they gone? He had no idea. Maybe the Authority mechanics had sucked them up. But why remove the spiders but not the nests? Maybe they simply hadn’t had time yet? He couldn’t fathom it.
He completed the circle and sat back on his haunches, shaking his head. Nira looked as puzzled as he did.
“We need an imager,” she said.
He nodded—the handheld device could detect light not visible to the human eye, as well as radiation and mass. “I’ll run up,” she said, and a moment later she was crawling up the ladder to the deck above.
Jeff used the time for another pass, looking for something, anything, that he might have missed.
Then he found it. A white splash on one of the straps. Jeff fished a small flashlight out of his flight suit and trained it on the spot. It looked as if someone had spilled—or wiped—some kind of liquid epoxy on the strap. Teasing the end of the splash with his fingernail, he peeled it off the strap, enclosing it in his fist. Then he tied a knot in the strap he had found it on.
The strap was directly at the intersection of the floor and the wall—hell, the floor almost was the wall, it was so steep at that point. Jeff examined the wall from where it joined the floor, moving toward the ceiling. He didn’t see anything out of the ordinary—joist plates at the intersection with the deck, then an unbroken expanse of white, until—
A single hole, about five millimeters in diameter, nearly invisible, as it was sealed off with some kind of poly epoxy that had dried almost an identical shade of white as the rest of the wall.
He knew he was looking at what ship engineers called the tertiary hull. There would be a gap of about twelve millimeters between that and the secondary hull. It was a poly lining to insure a zero aeropermeability status. Basically, it was the plastic bag that kept the air in and the great cold void of space out.
Beyond the secondary hull would be the outer or primary hull—20 millimeters of solid iconel. Had someone put something in between the secondary and tertiary hulls? Jeff scowled. He began to run his fingers across the tertiary hull, in a straight line to his right. He stumbled once over a strap, but caught himself before he fell. He kept looking.
There. Another hole.
He heard the rustle of Nira’s flight suit behind him as she descended. She came up beside him and he pointed at the holes. Her eyes grew wide and she nodded. He held out his hand and opened his fist. A tiny scrap of some kind of poly material lay crumpled in his palm, its wispy ends quivering under the force of their breathing.
Nira’s eyes looked up to his, filled with questions. Unfortunately, he had no answers for her. He motioned for her to follow him to the rear wall.
“Let’s see what that thing can show us,” he said.
Nira turned the tiny device on, and Jeff looked up, interfacing with it using his neural. A few moments later the diagnostic screen materialized in front of him, superimposed over the cargo hold. “Fire it up,” Jeff said.
Nira nodded, and began the first of a series of scans. The infrared showed them nothing. The ultraviolet, however, showed several specks along the wall, and some on the deck, where whatever had been pumped into those holes had spilled out.
“We’re not wrong,” Jeff growled. “Some kind of polymer has been pumped in between the hulls.”
Nira nodded again, but said nothing. She selected another scan and gasped.
So did Jeff—he could clearly see what looked like the silhouette of a range of mountains. He scowled, trying to make sense of the image.
“They poured the epoxy in there,” Nira said, pointing to one of the holes in the wall. It appeared on the readout as the peak of one of the mountains. Then Jeff saw that all the holes showed up as mountain peaks. And the mountains descending from those peaks were simply where the epoxy had flowed down from the holes, filling up the space between the secondary and tertiary hulls. The mountain range descended to ground level gradually, roughly on equal sides of the port and starboard hulls. At least it was more-or-less balanced, and thus had a greater chance of avoiding detection.
But not today.
“Do you think there could be four tons of epoxy in between those walls?” Jeff asked.
“Easily,” Nira answered.
Jeff opened his fist again and stared at the quivering scrap of epoxy in his hand. “Okay, then. Let’s go to the lab and find out what the fuck this stuff is.”
The pod hit the docking bay floor with a jarring clank. A moment later, the door swung open and Leif Arnesson was staring down the barrels of four blasters trained on him by Authority security. “Hands where we can see them,” barked one of them, a short man with a ridiculous handlebar mustache.
Leif put his hands up and followed orders, stepping over the gunwale and onto the deck.
“Pat him down,” the mustache ordered. His eye never left his scope.
One of his men slung his blaster over his back and started feeling at Leif’s clothes—his arms, under his arms, his torso and waist, then down his legs.
“These other bastards had disruptors.”
“No disruptors here,” the man said.
“I’m fucking sure. You want to feel him up yourself?”
The man winced at the barb. “Where’s your disruptor?” he asked Leif, still not removing his eye from his scope.
“We ran out of disruptors. I have a blaster in the pod—” Leif started to turn back, but the mustache barked at him again.
“Okay, okay, I thought you wanted the blaster.”
“We’ll get your fucking blaster when we strip your pods for parts.” He motioned toward the other RFC security personnel, huddled together in the middle of the bay. They were surrounded by Authority soldiers, weapons trained and eager for an excuse to shoot.
Hands still in the air, Leif joined his fellows, and tried to keep his face neutral.
“What’s going to happen to us?” his friend Alison asked.
Before he could say anything, Ernesto answered her. “We’ll be taken to Earth and tried for treason. Then we’ll be executed.”
Alison’s eyes narrowed.
Alison may not believe it, but Leif did. He wished he’d snagged the doses of Happy Ending from the pod before he’d left it. One for him, one for her. They could fall asleep together.
But it was too late for that now.
“Move out!” the mustache ordered, and the Authority security team shifted, opening a way for them to move—in only one direction.
Leif knew what direction that would be—toward the brig. So I’m not going to escape the brig after all, he thought. It’s really not my week.
Captain Federer offered a smug smile that Jo wanted to rip from his face—preferably with a blaster.
“Security,” he said, with an imperial air. “You can return the rebel captain to her—”
Jo lifted her hand, “Please, Captain Federer, if you don’t mind, there’s a matter of honor at stake.” She looked down at her feet. “I mean, captain-to-captain…we’re supposed to go down with our ships. If I can’t do that…I should at least have to watch it.” She looked up at him again, her jaw jutted out bravely.
He seemed to take her measure and approve. He nodded slowly. “That…is fitting. You may watch.” He nodded at the security guard standing a little too close to her. The guard took a step back but did not remove her hand from her holstered blaster.
“Hail the Talon, Mr. Barrow,” the captain said to his communicator.
“I have the acting captain,” the young man at the communications station said.
Once again, Jo saw Marcia Chi’s worried face.
“Prepare to be boarded.”
She saw Chi nod. “The crew have been informed. They will be docile and compliant.”
“Either that or they’ll be dead,” Federer pronounced.
“I understand sir,” Chi said with a quick nod. The screen was quickly replaced by a field of stars. Jo watched the Talon slowly float into view as the Eisenhower moved into position.
“Ready the boarding tubes,” the captain said.
Several moments passed when silence reigned on the Eisenhower bridge, broken only by the occasional electronic alert from one of the dozen stations that surrounded them. Jo dug her nails into the meat of her palm, the pain focusing and calming her.
“Boarding tubes in place, sir,” the weaponer called. She was a stocky woman with fiery red hair. It occurred to Jo how much she’d like to fight her. But it wouldn’t be today.
“Begin boarding,” the captain said with a wave of his hand.
He turned to Jo. “I have two hundred men pouring through those tubes into your cargo and shuttle bays. How many people do you have aboard?”
Jo shook her head. “Who knows? Our full complement is one hundred and twenty-seven, but I don’t know how many got away in the pods.”
He sneered. “So it will be over quickly.”
Jo said nothing. Instead, she felt bile at the back of her throat. Inwardly, she cursed Chi for being so thick, so scared, so stupid. She needed an XO she could trust, someone who could complete her sentences. Her mind flashed on a distant memory of Jeff. It had been a long time since she’d thought of him. She felt an unfamiliar wave of grief ripple through her. She shook her head to clear it. She didn’t have Jeff, or even Danny. She didn’t have a competent XO. She only had her wits, and those, it seemed, were in short supply.
“What is going to happen to me?” she heard herself ask. She was shocked at the words—her people were dying, and she was concerned with herself? Obviously, some deep part of her was.
The captain narrowed his eyes at her, disapproving. As well he should, she thought, feeling the heat of shame on her neck.
“You? You’ll be delivered to the Terran Authority War Crimes Division for trial and execution.”
“Execution how?” She couldn’t look at him.
“Live public disembowelment is the current penalty. It’s live-streamed, of course. Your admirals could watch, if they like, if only to get a glimpse of their own fate.” He smiled.
Jo felt a wave of vertigo wash over her. She clutched at a nearby chair, willing her knees to hold. She stood straight, she felt her knees lock into place. Like a winch hoisting a girder, she willed her chin to rise, forced herself to look him in the eyes. She locked onto them, and willed her lips to slide back into a sneer. It was all force of will, a show, a charade. But at the moment it was the only thing in her power she could draw on.
Captain Federer met her eyes and gave her a look that was one part sneer and two parts pity.
“Bring it on, motherfucker,” she said.
Jeff dropped the scrap of epoxy into a plastic dish filled with solution. He fixed the lid to it and slid it into the electron analyzer. As the machine began its work, he saw multicolored lights dancing across its display. Soon, strings of numbers began to organize themselves into groups. He felt hot breath on his ear. He didn’t have to turn to know it was Emma. He could smell her. Instead, he leaned ever-so-slightly, touching his ear to her cheek. She squeezed his shoulder.
Looking past the machine, he saw Nira standing at the other end of the small lab, staring at an auxiliary display, no doubt studying the same information he was. He admired her—she was a compact tornado of cunning and will, and he did not doubt her loyalty. She was as good an XO as he had ever worked with. Her eyes widened suddenly, and she looked up. Then she pointed down at the display.
He looked at it himself, but didn’t understand at first what he was looking at. Chemistry was not his best subject—but it didn’t matter. Apparently, there was nothing that Nira didn’t excel at, and she didn’t mind translating.
“It’s a poly explosive,” she said. “R-29.”
“R-29? Who uses R-29 anymore?” he asked. “It’s not quite as powerful as the R-30s.”
“It’s still plenty powerful, though,” Nira said. “And apparently the Authority still uses it. Maybe they haven’t developed the R-30s.”
“Maybe,” Jeff said, staring at the molecule on his display. There were three molecules, actually, but he could see that one was a simple poly base, another a standard explosive stabilizer. It was the third one that was exotic, sporting connections to nucleotides that reminded him of bed hair or an upside-down waterfall.
“How stable is it?” Jeff asked. Emma squeezed his arm. He gave her a quick, grim smile.
“It’s as stable as R-29 ever is. Which is to say that as long as we don’t hit an asteroid or discharge a bunch of electricity between those hulls, it’s going to stay inert.”
“They must have put it there for a reason.”
“There’s no question they put it there for a reason.”
“It wasn’t there before,” Jeff said.
Jeff chewed on his lip. “Do you think they intended us to discover it?”
Nira blinked, her black eyes a little too large for her head. “To what end?”
“Who can say?” Jeff asked.
“So what’s your theory?” Emma asked.
Jeff sighed. “I think they hid it pretty carefully. They tried to even it out so that there wouldn’t be any flight anomalies—”
“Except that there was one,” Emma reminded him.
“I think we should come back to that,” Nira said. “Buddha’s arrow.”
“What?” Jeff made a face.
“Buddha’s arrow. A follower of the Buddha was asking all kinds of impossible-to-answer questions—like ‘Is the world eternal,’ and ‘What happens to us when we die?’—and to shut him up, the Buddha told him a story.”
“What’s the story?” Jeff asked.
“A man is shot with an arrow, and his friends need to pull it out in order to save his life. But the man won’t let them pull it out until he gets all his questions answered. ‘The man who shot me, was he short or tall? What color was his skin? Is the fletching done with vulture feathers or hawk feathers?’ Shit like that.”
Jeff scowled. “What difference could any of those things possibly make?”
“None. That’s the Buddha’s point. He’s saying, ‘Unanswerable questions are a distraction. Deal with the danger that’s in front of you.’”
“And the danger that’s in front of us?”
“We have four tons of poly explosive sealed into the hull of our ship, and no idea how it’s rigged to detonate.”
Jeff felt his stomach sink. She was absolutely right. Obviously, the explosive was not cargo. Someone wanted them dead, or something destroyed, or someone—
He felt like an idiot. He shook his head to clear it. “Okay, then, let’s find that detonator. Preferably before it goes off…”
The good news was that the cell was much larger than the escape pod. The bad news was that Leif was crammed into it with all twenty of his fellow RFC security personnel. Leif shifted, trying to worm his way into a space on the floor where he would not be touching one of his fellows. It was pretty much impossible, and he resigned himself to the fact that he was going to have to lean on someone, or someone else’s leg was going to be draped over his. He sighed.
The cell was built to accommodate four comfortably. There were four beds, and each of them had three people seated on them, side-by-side. There were two chairs, both occupied. Someone else was even sitting on the toilet, although not using it, thankfully. But that would come.
Svoboda was pacing, picking his way around and over people. It was annoying and Leif wished he would just light somewhere.
“We’re fucked,” Cheodon said. His black hair and swarthy skin revealed his Tibetan ancestry, and he wore a dark wooden wrist mala. It wasn’t regulation, but no one gave him any shit about it.
Leif glanced over at Alison. He liked her because she was funny, smart, and real. She also didn’t take shit from anyone. After trying to squeeze into a number of places, she finally gave up on trying to find a spot on one of the beds, and instead, climbed over the bodies of her shipmates toward him. She kicked him with her boot. “Scooch,” she said.
“Scooch where?” he asked.
“Don’t care,” she said, sitting down almost on top of him. Everyone around them shifted resentfully, but they made space. Leif was beginning to feel claustrophobic.
“What was the plan, anyway?” asked Teeley. Leif hated Teeley. He was a back-stabbing opportunist who would sooner sell his mother to the wolves than do an honest day’s work. Leif kept expecting his superiors to catch on, but if there was one thing Teeley worked hard on, it was making himself seem indispensable. The man had a mane of bright red hair that made Leif hate red hair no matter who it was on. And that, he knew, was irrational. He didn’t care.
“I think we were supposed to infer the plan,” Leif said.
“Infer? What the fuck does ‘infer’ mean?” Teeley’s eyes narrowed.
Leif wanted to say, It means you’re an ignorant donkey’s ass, but he kept his mouth closed and just stared.
“Whatever.” Teeley was, thankfully, sitting on the bed furthest from Leif. “But fat lot of good the poly weapons did.”
Leif looked around, trying to detect a camera. Surely there was one. But all he saw was the frosted white walls of the cell. And there had to be a microphone. He didn’t dare speak his secret aloud. Instead, he took Alison’s hand and guided it to the small of his back.
“What the fuck are you doing?” She snatched her hand back. “Pervert.”
He looked her in the eye, and lowered his head slightly, nodding slowly. He saw her expression change, saw that she knew he was serious. He held his hand out to her. She bunched her eyebrows, but put her hand back into his, and this time allowed him to guide her to his back. And then she felt it. The disruptor.
“Fuck,” she said.
“What?” asked James, next to her. His people were from South Africa, and Leif had heard plenty of stories of his rough-and-tumble childhood in Soweto.
She leaned in and whispered. His eyes widened and a grin broke out on his face.
“What the fuck, Frank?” Teeley asked.
James leaned over and whispered to the woman next to him, who passed the message along. But long before the message had gotten to Teeley, he blurted out. “What? Do you have a piece?”
It was the last thing Leif heard for a while. There was a flash of light, and he found himself instantly immobilized—able to think, but not able to move. He was not even able to twitch his finger. And although he could not move his eyes, he discovered he had been frozen at a good time. His eyes were wide open—they could have been at mid-blink, he realized—and they were looking out into the room. He watched as the frosted cell door slid open, and he heard the whine of a small electrical engine.
A moment later, a lab robot with an extended grip rolled in, but found its way blocked by the mass of bodies. It tried several paths, and Leif realized it was trying to move in his direction.
Fucking Teeley, he thought. Of course they were watching. Of course they were listening. And no doubt there was an automatic security monitor system in place listening and looking for contraband—especially weapons. This was probably all automated, but Leif was certain somewhere in the deeper bowels of the security unit, alarms were blasting and Authority security personnel were scrambling. First chance I get I’m going to punch the teeth out of that fire-headed fuck.
Leif’s feeling of claustrophobia was magnified every second he was frozen. To not be able to move, to not be able to wipe a bead of sweat, to not be able to speak…or scream. He strained against his immobility and an irrational panic began to rise. He felt his heart rate increase, heard the driving thub, thub, thub drumbeat in his ears.
He was struggling so hard, he barely noticed when the robot backed out and the door slid shut again.
Like someone letting go of one end of a stretched elastic band, he felt his body lurch as the immobilization beam was shut off.
He met Alison’s eyes, and an understanding passed between them. The robot had failed, but people were coming. They were coming for his disruptor and they would not be gentle or kind or pleasant. Alison pivoted so that she faced him, sitting on his lap. Her eyes stayed locked on his as she removed his disruptor from its hiding place in the small of his back. Blocking as much of a view as she could between their two bodies, she passed it around to his groin, then up, under her shirt, moving it into place just above her breasts.
He nodded. He had no idea what she was up to, but he trusted her. If she had any ideas at all, it was more than he had. She climbed off of him and began to roll and crawl her way toward the door.
She is one badass motherfucker, he thought. And that’s just sexy as hell.
Marcia Chi felt paralyzed. The comm link with the Eisenhower had just broken off, leaving her looking at the exterior hull of the great Authority war ship. They were outgunned, outmanned, and whatever plan their captain might have had was disintegrating like an unshielded probe on re-entry. That was when she realized that every eye on the bridge was staring at her, demanding something of her—something she did not have.
Tash was moving his hands furiously over his console.
“Uh, Captain Chi, I looked up protocol Zed 8593.”
Marcia’s head jerked around to see Tash Liebert’s hopeful expression. She realized just how thirsty she was for that hope. “And?”
“It’s not a surrender protocol at all, sir. It’s an emergency docking protocol.”
“Is that a mistake?” The last thing they needed was for their untried captain to be mixing up her protocols. But with everything else going wrong, it wouldn’t surprise her for a moment.
Then she saw Liebert smile. “Oh, no sir, it’s no mistake. It’s…kind of fucking brilliant.”
“Epworth station in four hours, sir.”
“Thank you, Mr. Pho.” Jeff felt paralyzed in his command chair. He was keenly aware that he was in the saddle of what was essentially a superluminal bomb. And they were riding that bomb right into a densely populated area. If Danny…or Tal…wanted to effect a terrorist strike against a target in the neutral zone, a strike that would not reflect back on them, this would be the perfect setup. Blame it on the strangers from another galaxy—if there were anything left of the Kepler, it wouldn’t be traceable to anything from Authority space.
It was almost too perfect, and Jeff admired it…if that indeed had been the plan. There were too many unknowns, however. How did they intend to detonate it? And exactly what was the target—what would trigger the detonation? Proximity to…what? Or did they simply intend to blow the Kepler to hell after they cleared Authority space? The epoxy could, he knew, blow at any moment. It made the hair on his arms stand on end.
“Mr. Pho, bring us to a stop.”
“Sir?” Pho turned around, his youthful face long with surprise.
Pho’s eyes darted back and forth. “Stopping sir.” He turned back to his station and a moment later, Jeff felt the dampened lurch of a starship exiting C-space.
“Stopped, sir. Drifting.”
“Anything we should be concerned about around here?”
“No sir, nothing but open space for a couple hundred thousand kilometers.”
“Good.” He knew Pho wanted an explanation. But he didn’t need to explain everything.
A moment later, Nira stepped aboard the bridge, followed by Emma. Emma flashed him a warm smile and went to her science station. Nira paused by his chair. “Permission to speak in private, sir.”
Jeff rose and gestured toward his ready room.
Nira walked ahead of him, and as soon as the door slid shut behind them, she held her palm out. “Found it.”
In her palm was a poly patch, approximately four centimeters square, no bigger than a mouse. Four wires hung from one side of it like a tail. “It has a flexible bio-chip embedded in it.”
The whole patch was easily bendable. Jeff could even have rolled it, had he wanted to. “Where was it?”
“Fastened to the interior wall of the tertiary hull. Since there’s no metal, it wasn’t detectable by the imager. I inserted a worm-cam into the holes and looked around—found this just above the middle-most hole. I figure they rolled it up, stuck it through the hole, and then, using tweezers or something, stuck it to the near wall inside the tertiary hull. It wasn’t perfectly flattened out, which supports my theory—but it was stuck there pretty good. And the leads were embedded in the explosive.”
Jeff examined the leads. They weren’t wire, but a superconducting polymer they called fibrex in his universe—who knows what it was called here?
Jeff nodded, sighing his relief. “Have you had a chance to scan the bio-chip?”
“Yes. It’s set to trigger in proximity to a neural code.”
“What code?” Jeff’s face looked haggard, drawn, haunted.
“TDP3079317.” She glanced up to check her neural. “It belongs to a Captain Joleen Taylor.”
Jeff felt his legs buckle under him. He reached to steady himself against the table.
“You knew her, didn’t you, Captain? In our world, I mean?”
“I did know her, number one. She was…a close friend.”
“I’m sorry, sir.”
Jeff pulled back a chair and eased himself into it. His hands were shaking.
“Are you all right, captain? Do you need anything?”
Jeff didn’t answer. A moment later Nira set a glass of water in front of him. He didn’t want it. He took it up and downed it. He couldn’t look at her. The heat of shame rose from his neck. He didn’t want his XO to see him like this.
Danny had mentioned Jo, had mentioned that she was one of the rebels, that he’d love to see her in the brig. Apparently he also wanted to see her dead, and his old friend didn’t mind sacrificing Jeff and his crew to accomplish that. With friends like these… he thought.
“They’d been lovers,” he said.
“Permission to sit, sir?” Nira asked.
Jeff nodded and she pulled back a chair.
“Who had been lovers, sir?”
“Danny—Captain Hightower and Captain Taylor. Just out of the academy. For a short time—”
“Begging the captain’s pardon, but I’d heard a rumor that you and Captain Taylor….” She didn’t actually say it.
“That’s not a rumor, that’s true.” He didn’t smile at her. He didn’t even look at her. He simply stared into space. “I love…loved her.” He couldn’t believe he’d said that out loud.
“I understand,” Nira said, although she couldn’t possibly understand. Could she?
“I fell in love with someone. A couple of years ago. She was…she wasn’t perfect, but she was perfect for me. I had to make a choice—”
“Between your career and your sweetheart,” Jeff said.
“Maybe you do understand.”
Jeff felt numb. He stared at his hands. “I know what betrayal feels like. Whoever sent those commands…” he stopped himself. Catskill was classified. He didn’t need to say more. “Danny…my Danny…couldn’t have done this.”
“Were you in love with Captain Hightower, too? I mean, in our world?”
Jeff blinked and looked up. “Huh? Oh, no. I mean…I loved him. But not…not like that. We were both interested in Jo, though. She picked me, and then she picked the CDF.”
“Did your friendship with Captain Hightower survive it?” Nira asked.
“Yes…we had some rocky patches. We had a fistfight. We ended it laughing our fucking heads off.”
“I would have liked to have seen that fight, sir.”
“It was probably still floating around on some of the file-sharing sites before—” Before our universe was destroyed. Before we destroyed it.
Jeff opened his fist and let the poly patch tumble onto the table. “Find the rest of them.”
Nira pulled something out of her pocket and held it out to him. “Already done, sir.”
He put his hand out and received the square, the detonator mouse, this one’s tail curled into a tight circle. He looked at Nira and cocked his head.
“Only two? Are you sure this is the last of them?” he asked.
“Absolutely, sir. I’d say I’d stake my life on it, but I actually am.”
“Heh,” Jeff chuckled, despite the gravity of the moment.
Nira waited for him to say something, but then broke the silence. “Sir, I don’t know how to say this…”
“Say what, commander?”
“This one…it’s wired different.”
“This one isn’t a proximity trigger. It’s live, keyed to another neural.”
“Meaning whoever it’s keyed to could just access their neural and detonate it?”
Jeff felt a chill run through his bones. “Whose?”
Nira swallowed and held his gaze. “It’s one of us.”
Alison crawled toward the door, then positioned herself beneath the “A” formed by Tyson’s knees, drawn up nearly to his chin. Alison’s head was beneath one knee, the disruptor beneath the one nearest the door. She checked the safety and made sure it was powered up. She checked the battery—80%. That would give her about five minutes of steady fire—more time than she’d actually get.
A disruptor was a poor excuse for a weapon when compared to a blaster. It was more of a neural disruptor than anything else. Its power was low, and it wasn’t instantaneous. Victims didn’t even necessarily feel anything when fired upon until their nerves started shorting out. But they couldn’t kill anyone—not unless they caused a heart attack. The only thing they had going for them was that they worked through any non-conducting material. If someone was wearing a metallic exoskeleton, they were useless, unless you could directly target some skin, or an area of clothing not covered by the exoskeleton.
“Disruptors are a good tool to have in your kit,” Alison remembered her drill sergeant saying, “But they are a sorry excuse for a primary weapon.”
But it’s all I’ve got now, she thought, fitting finger to trigger and willing herself to relax.
Two minutes went by…three. Sweat dripped from her eyebrow into her eye. She wiped it with her left hand, then returned it to steady her right. She was grateful to have the floor to rest them on—if she’d been standing up, her arms would be screaming with anaerobic exertion.
Then the white-frosted door slid open, and she was staring down the barrels of a dozen blasters held by Authority pricks in riot gear. She flattened herself as much as possible and, aiming as low as she could, squeezed the trigger on the disruptor.
She was relieved to see they weren’t wearing space boots, but the same leatherette service boots they all wore aboard ship. She aimed for the ankles of the men on her far right and, keeping up a steady beam, she slowly panned to the left. She had set the beam to be as horizontally wide as possible, but also as vertically narrow as possible—a setting she knew would tax her unit’s charge much more quickly than a simple spot-beam. But it was what it was. It took about twenty seconds to achieve neural disruption, so she panned slowly.
“Back up from the door!” one of the guards in the back barked—probably the one in charge. Of course, no one moved—no one could. “One by one, you’re going to come into the hall to be searched. You! Out here now!”
He pointed at Mussorgsky, who put his hands up and stood. A couple of the security guards backed up, giving him space to step into the hall. He hesitated.
As Alison had hoped, none of the security personnel noticed the beam. None of them noticed a tickling on their ankles. None of them noticed anything amiss until it was too late.
The first of the guards fell to the floor and began to jerk about as his nervous system collapsed into involuntary epileptic shudders. Alison kept the disruptor steady and continued panning—it would take them a few seconds to figure out what was happening to them, seconds she would put to good use.
When half of them had collapsed, she shouted, “Now!” and was relieved to see her shipmates launch themselves into the hallway. They were careful to stay to her right, trying to avoid the beam. But by then it was moot, as the power failed and the disruptor became nothing more than a useless gun-shaped pile of poly.
But it was enough. Mussorgsky was the first into the hall, the first to grab a blaster. He threw himself on the ground next to the gun’s owner, and forcing the owner’s twitching thumb to cover the ID pad, began to fire upon the last few guards still standing. Others mimicked his strategy, and before long every one of the Authority guards were either twitching on the ground or dead.
Without anyone needing to call the shots, they began to turn the blasters on the twitching men. Then, working together, they narrowed the blasters’ beams and shot off the hands or thumbs of the fallen security personnel, holding or even binding their grisly trophies to the ID pads of their stolen blasters. It could have been quite a production, but adrenaline and the urgency of their situation made them both ruthless and efficient.
Alison estimated that their coup took all of three minutes to execute, from the sliding back of the door to the jerry-rigging of the last of the blasters. She caught Leif’s eye and winked at him.
Good job, he mouthed at her. She smiled.
Once everyone was able to stand and move and had retrieved all the working blasters, the first thing they did was to locate the cameras—or where they suspected cameras might be—and shoot them out. Leif pointed to one of them—he knew they would still be listening—and waved them down the hall. Alison understood. Their first stop—central security. She hoisted her blaster, pressing the severed thumb tight to the ID pad with her own, toggling off the safety, and making sure it was cocked and ready to fire. They needed to light the place up and kill every fucking officer monitoring security on that ship. Yep, she thought, I’m fucking ready for that.
Aboard the Talon, Shell Ditka kicked her boots aside and stared at her toes as she waited. All around her were what was left of the security personnel aboard and every other crew member capable of picking up a blaster. But they didn’t have blasters now—they had poly disruptors. She made sure hers was primed, the plastic shells aligned in the transport bridge. To tell the truth, she hated these things—they were flimsy and she was always afraid they would blow up in her face. But there was no time to question it.
She heard the access alarm go off and fixed her eyes on the viewer set into the wall near the door to the docking bay. She held her hand up, and everyone around her went silent. She glanced down the corridor, at nearly forty women and men, all of them readying their weapons, all of them barefoot.
She returned her gaze to the viewer as the docking bay doors slid open. Shell saw fiberglass pallets and scraps of packing material whisked into the vacuum of space. A boarding tube hovered just outside, waiting. When the door widened enough, the tube snaked in, coiling slightly on the floor of the docking bay. Inside, Shell knew, Authority forces were checking their blasters and saying their prayers. Who knew how many there were? The outer tube detached and withdrew, leaving a windowless segmented snake behind.
Shell saw one soldier emerge wearing a space suit. He marched to the manual controls, overrode the security protocols, and closed the space doors. He glanced at the gauge built into his sleeve until the pressurization was complete. He looked around. Is he disappointed? she wondered. He had probably been expecting a fight.
The pressurized door on the deposited section of the boarding tube twisted open, and men began pouring out, weapons brandished, primed, and at the ready. Just as the last of them hit the docking floor, the man in the space suit removed his helmet and readied his own rifle, nodding—probably at his team captain.
The man who seemed to be the team captain motioned for them to fall into line behind him as he made for the interior dock doors.
“Now,” Shell said. She grinned as she saw the Authority team captain freeze. The entire boarding party froze as their boots stuck fast to the surface of the dock.
Their forward momentum caused some of them to pitch forward, falling amid screams of pain as ankles and tibias snapped. Others issued howls of frustration as they tried to lift their feet.
Shell entered the access codes into the keypad, then looked into the eyes of her warriors. “Let’s kick some Authority ass,” she said. She flipped the safety off her poly weapon, flimsy as it was, and heard the whine as it charged to full power. Then the door slid open and she rushed through, raising her voice in a ululating whoop of challenge and victory.
Her bare feet pounded the magnetized steel floor of the bay. She shot four of the Authority soldiers before she reached them and took out another with an elbow to the teeth. Those soldiers that were still upright were shooting now, but there was no way to duck their shots. She just kept going, a blonde berserker firing and striking at everything clad in black metal. She didn’t need to go for the kill, she only needed them down—the gravity assist, turned up to three times its normal magnetic power, would keep them down and render their weapons unusable as well.
She chanced a glance over her shoulder and saw her team, streaming over the bodies, their weapons ablaze, their eyes filled with bloodlust and triumph. “HAAAAA!!” she screamed, plunging her weapon into the eye of one of the few remaining upright soldiers, drunk on ecstasy as she watched the blood spray from his face, watched him flail, watched him fall.
Jo noted how deadly quiet it was on the bridge. The security guard stood two steps behind her, weapon at the ready. A full bridge complement of five were sweating into their panels. The captain presided over it all imperiously. For a moment, it seemed as if time were standing still.
She stole a glance at his puffy face. She had spent her entire career being pushed around by assholes like this one. She had been passed over for jobs, seen her record ignored as less-qualified men were raised to ranks above her, and been nearly gang-raped twice by military mooks with too much testosterone and time on their hands. They didn’t win then, she thought. They sure as hell aren’t going to get the best of me today.
Anger flooded her, filling her veins with something more powerful and volatile than hope or despair. She relished the feeling of it and seized onto it like a shipwrecked sailor seizes a piece of flotsam in a storm. She fastened her hands behind her back and stood at parade rest. She dug her nails into her palms again. She fed on the fire of her hate, reveled in its ecstasy, stoked its flame.
Captain Federer was staring at the tactical and seemed to have lost interest in her. That was just fine with her.
“Boarding party, report,” he barked.
“No report, sir,” the communicator said.
“Tell the team leader I want a report.”
The communicator’s face went slack. “Uh…sir, team leader appears to be offline.”
“What?” the captain bellowed. “Put me through to the team leader immediately.”
“I…I would if I could, sir.”
Captain Federer blustered.
Jo blinked. What is this? she thought. A shudder of hope nearly undid her.
“Uh…Captain, we’re being hailed by the Talon.”
“On screen!” The captain’s face was red. Jo could tell he was a man unaccustomed to not getting his way.
Suddenly navigator Chi was on the main viewer, nearly twice her actual size, her face contorting with some unknown effort that Jo could not discern. “Captain Federer, you gave us just enough time to take our boots off, which was very kind,” Chi said. She gave up the fight not to reveal her feelings, and a smile broke out across her face. The mousy girl that Jo had been commanding just yesterday was nowhere in sight. “Thing is, no one goes into battle without their boots on, and when we tripled the magnetic gravity assist in the bays, your troops were pretty much glued in place. We disarmed them before any of them thought of taking their boots off. Some of them lost their weapons right away to the magnetized floor. There was a lot of clanking going on.” She waited a beat for that to sink in.
Jo blinked. Her anger mixed with hope to create something much more volatile, much more dangerous, something utterly unpredictable.
“Your men are enjoying the hospitality of our brig now—your commanders, anyway. The others are safely contained in one of our cargo bays, harmless as kittens.”
“Security, prepare another detail—” Federer barked.
Chi interrupted him. “Oh, if you have any more men for us to eat, we’re hungry, so you just send them right on over.”
Jo’s mouth gaped in disbelief.
“Oh, and Captain,” Chi said, her face taking on a note of mock sobriety. “I regret to inform you that a fifty-megaton nuclear device is gliding up your exhaust ports toward your main power generator—don’t bother trying to find it, it’s cloaked. It should be moving into place right about….” she looked off screen, her index finger raised, “…now.”
The ship was drifting. Jeff always imagined he could feel a bit of weightlessness when they were drifting. It was all in his mind, of course. The artificial gravity worked the same whether they were moving or still. But it still felt different to him.
Before him were his crew, each seated at the large mess table, with Emma directly to his right. There didn’t need to be anyone navigating. The ship would alert them if any danger presented itself.
“I called you here to let you know what Commander Nira and I found when we began to investigate Mr. Pho’s trajectory anomaly.” A couple of them had grabbed coffee or tea, but no one was drinking. All four sets of eyes were on him. He licked his lips.
“We found this,” he said. He tossed one of the detonator patches onto the table. He picked it up again and ran one hand along the wires trailing from it.
“What is that?” Mr. Pho asked.
“It’s a detonator.”
Mr. Pho’s eyes were wide.
“A detonator for…what?”
“Four tons of a poly explosive pumped between our secondary and tertiary hulls.”
Susie Wall shrank, her eyes darting from side to side.
“Uh…why is there four tons of poly explosive between our hulls?” Pho asked.
“That’s a very good question, Mr. Pho, and I’m eager to hear any theories you might have—that anyone might have. That’s why I’ve called you together. Together, the five of us are smarter than any one of us is alone.”
Pho nodded, as did Wall. Nira gave him an affirming nod as well. He looked over at Emma, who seemed lost in thought.
“Here’s what we’ve been able to figure out about this,” Jeff held up the detonator patch. “It’s wired to detonate in proximity to a particular neural serial number.”
“Whose?” Pho asked.
“We don’t know,” Jeff answered. It was a lie, but it was a strategic lie.
“Was there only one detonator patch?” Wall asked.
“Yes, we only found the one,” Jeff answered. “Do you think there are more?” He looked at Wall, feigning curiosity.
“No…I mean, I don’t know. It’s a scary thing. So I’m just…asking questions.” Wall looked scared.
“And it’s a good question. Commander Nira thought of that, too. These patches are poly, so they’re hard to detect—they have no metal and no mass to speak of, so they don’t show up on the imager. So we did a physical surveillance of every one of the holes they drilled into the tertiary hull, looking for detonators. This is the only one we found. We looked hard,” Jeff gave her a grave nod. “Don’t worry, we’re sure we got them all.”
“That’s a relief,” she said.
I’ll bet it is, Jeff thought.
“Who would do this?” Emma asked. She was pretending to be more out of the loop than she was.
Jeff played along. “As near as we can figure, Captain Daniel Hightower did it.”
They all blinked at him.
“Isn’t that…your friend?” Pho asked, his Vietnamese face seeming even longer as it registered his surprise.
“Yes. He was my friend. In our universe, he was my best friend…until he was killed.” Jeff swallowed. He wished he had gotten himself some coffee. Emma seemed to intuit what was going on and passed him her cup. He accepted it gratefully and drained the lukewarm tea from it. Shit, he thought. I fucking hate tea. “In this universe, we were friends, too, apparently, until I was killed. But the me from our universe and the Captain Hightower from this universe were never friends. I thought I knew who he was. I thought he’d be just like the Danny I…” He looked down at the empty cup in his hands. He put it down. “I was wrong.”
He nodded his head a few times. The silence in the mess was almost stifling.
Pho broke it. “Why…why do you think he wants you…us…dead?”
Jeff shook his head, slow and sad. “Son, I have absolutely no idea. The best guess we’ve got is that whomever this neural serial number belongs to is the real target. Who it belongs to, or how they knew we would ever find her…that’s a mystery.”
Emma leaned back and stared at him. “How do you know it’s a her?”
“What?” Jeff asked, blinking.
“You just said, ‘how they knew we would ever find her’—how do you know that neural code belongs to a her?”
Jeff’s breath caught and his mind raced. He hadn’t told Emma about Jo. It would only upset her. “Uh…I—”
Nira’s voice interrupted him. “Distribution protocol,” she said. “Odd numbered units go to males, even numbered units are assigned to females.”
Emma didn’t look like she was buying it. “What about transgendered people?”
Nira didn’t blink. “You only get the one neural. Its number is assigned with whatever gender you have at the time of implantation.”
“Uh-huh…” Emma shot him a look that he took to mean, We’ll talk.
He didn’t look forward to that talk.
“But we’re safe now,” Pho said, more of a question than a statement.
“Yes, we’re safe now,” Jeff said. “Unless…”
“Unless?” Wall asked.
“Unless Captain Hightower set some other booby traps for us,” Jeff said. No one said anything to that. Once more the ominous silence descended over the table. Jeff glanced at Wall. She was staring at her fingers.
Finally, Emma spoke up. “If we’re running around terrified all the time, we’re going to mess up. We’ve got to relax. There was a trap—we found it. We have to trust that we’re safe unless and until we find something else. Otherwise we’ll be jumping at shadows and second-guessing ourselves all the time. We’ll be miserable.”
Jeff nodded. That sounded like wisdom. “As FDR said, ‘The only thing we have to fear…’” He let the phrase hang in the air.
“…is fear itself,” Wall concluded.
Jeff looked around at the confused expressions.
“Who’s FDR?” Emma asked.
“President Franklin Delano Roosevelt,” Jeff answered.
“There was a President Teddy Roosevelt, but never a Franklin.”
“No,” Jeff said. “Not in our universe there wasn’t.” He stared across the table at Susie Wall. “Mr. Wall, perhaps you can explain your familiarity with the quotations of a President we never had?”
Wall’s eyes were wide. She sat ramrod straight. Instantly, her eyes rolled up. Jeff didn’t know whether she was intending to send a warning message to Sol Station or whether she was intending to detonate the explosive, but it didn’t matter—they were ready. Instantly, Commander Nira was behind her. A silver blade flashed in the cold, bright lighting of the mess as Nira drew it across Wall’s neck. Blood spewed forth onto the table in front of her. Nira held Wall’s head up by the hair for a few seconds, then pitched it forward. Wall’s head hit the table with a sickening thud.
“My god,” Emma breathed.
Pho leaped back, as much in horror as to avoid the growing pool of blood.
“Mr. Nira, check the communicator’s log and make sure you got her before she was able to send any messages,” Jeff said.
“Aye, sir,” Nira said, wiping her blade on a handkerchief.
“Mr. Pho—” Jeff began. Mr. Pho looked like he was going to be sick. “Resume our course to Epworth Station.”
The screen went blank, and it seemed that everyone on the bridge began shouting at once. Captain Federer stabbed at the comm unit on his command chair. Over the din, Jo heard him shout, “Find that nuke, goddam it!”
What’s chaos and confusion for if you don’t make good use of it? Jo asked herself. She lined up her gaoler out of the corner of her eye. Then she took one extra-large step backwards, placing her boot squarely on both of the woman’s feet. She swung her elbow back and around as hard as she possibly could, catching the young woman in the ribs, sending her flying backwards. As her elbow completed its follow through, Jo extended her arm and snatched up the blaster as it tumbled backward too.
It was useless without an ID of course, but Jo could certainly use it as a club, and did. The other two security guards flanking both sides of the bridge were only now taking notice of her acrobatics. As if in slow motion she watched their eyes widen and their shoulders slouch as they reached for their guns.
They would be too late. Swinging the blaster by its strap, she aimed the whole of its weight and fury at the captain’s chair, catching Federer in the head, and lifting him out of his seat. He fell back into it, but he slouched forward, head gushing, before toppling to the floor.
Once finished with her arc, Jo remained in motion, leaping to the floor and rolling behind a science console. She didn’t stop until she was on top of the blonde gaoler. Without even pausing to think or consider or shudder, she took the woman’s thumb into her mouth and bit as hard as she could, grinding through muscle, gristle, and bone. The warm, coppery taste of blood filled her mouth, gushing through either side of her lips. She gagged, but kept at it, employing her elbow again to spear the screaming woman’s throat to the floor. The gaoler thrashed and hit, but Jo’s jaws held fast, grinding, grinding until she felt the last morsel of cartilage snap, and the final shred of soft tissue rip free.
She spat the thumb out, rubbed it on the carpet, and held it on the ID pad, pressing it down with her own. The gun lit up like a navigator’s panel. She couldn’t hear the whine as it powered up, but she could read the gauge. Out of the corner of her eye she saw one of the security men come into view, and reflexively she shot his legs out from under him. She shot again, more carefully, aiming for his falling head. She felt the kick of the blaster as the man’s brains sprayed across the far wall.
As far as she knew there was only one other armed person on the bridge, though surely more security would be on the way. She pushed the thought aside and rose, eyes darting, lighting on the final security officer.
She must be quite a sight, she knew. She rose slowly from behind the console, blood streaming from both sides of her mouth, covering her chin, creating a crimson beard on her white paper jumpsuit. Her eyes shone with berserk brilliance as her lips turned up into the dreadful grin of ecstatic battle. The bloodlust raced through her veins. She reveled in it. She loved it. It was better than Morphex. And she knew without a moment’s reflection or regret that she would be chasing this high again and again for the rest of her days.
Jo squeezed the trigger and watched the young man’s eyes widen. Saw him quail, saw him fall as his abdomen exploded, saw his guts tumble out of him onto the immaculate charcoal carpet beneath him.
There was no one to oppose her now, and no time to waste. She jumped onto the captain’s chair and squatted there, with her feet on the cushion, poised like a cat ready to pounce. The blaster hung between her legs, one thumb on her grisly trigger.
Nearly every crew member was standing, their backs to their consoles, staring at her in open-mouthed horror…all except for one man, who kept pressing a square on his console and shouting for security. Jo aimed for his legs and grinned again as he screamed and writhed on the floor.
When the bridge door swung open, she wasn’t surprised. If it was to be her end, she was content with that. She had mastered her enemy. She had exacted her revenge, no matter how fleeting. But from the corner of her eye she saw not the black uniforms of the Authority, but red. Blood red.
There is a God, she thought, as her own security men fanned out around her, their own stolen blasters at the ready. Jo wiped the blood from her chin onto the back of her hand as she looked every member of the Authority crew in the eyes, feeding on their disgust but gorging on their terror.
She met the eyes of the communicator. He gulped. “Communicator, what is your name?”
“Mr. Prescott, open a ship-wide channel.”
“Y-y-yes, sir.” He fumbled at his panel, then turned back to her and nodded. “Channel opened, sir.”
“Greetings to the crew of the Eisenhower. This is RFC Captain Joleen Taylor. Your captain is dead and your bridge is under my command. This ship…is my ship. You will not underestimate me or my people. I am a tiger. I fucking eat people.”
She watched the eyes of the Authority bridge crew as she said it. These people, she thought, these people, at least, know that I am telling the literal truth.
“But I am not a monster,” she continued. She cocked her head compassionately, not losing eye contact, not ceasing for a second her maniacal grin. “I am going to spare your lives. You have exactly four minutes to get to an escape pod. Anyone not launched in a pod four minutes from now will be shot on sight. I suggest you not test me on this, because I will fucking hunt you down and shoot you myself. And I will enjoy it. Captain out.”
She watched the light on the comm button wink out. The bridge crew remained frozen in front of her. “That means you, assholes,” she said. “Run—before I pounce on you and rip the arteries from your neck with my own teeth.”
There were probably nicer restaurants on Epworth Station, but Jeff doubted he would feel comfortable at any of them. The one he picked was already two stars above his standard fare, and they had accommodated his request for a private room without hesitation.
Despite his crew’s shock over Wall’s betrayal—and execution—they seemed to be bouncing back. Nira was laughing—an unnatural sight that would take some getting used to—and Pho seemed downright gregarious. Emma was cautiously upbeat. She met his eyes, but her smile was tentative. She knew something was up, and it seemed like she sensed she wasn’t going to like it.
She was right, and Jeff felt his stomach tighten. He had good news and bad news, and he didn’t really know where to start.
A few minutes after they’d been seated, a waiter came by to fill their glasses. He wore a scarlet suit, from foot to head, and was so poised Jeff wanted to give him a push just to see how he’d cope with being off balance. Instead, he chose to respect the man’s dignity, however affected it might be.
Just beyond their table was a large window, running floor to ceiling. Beyond was the Epworth space dock. It was an impressive view.
“What are those?” Pho asked, pointing to a stack of yellowed, ancient paperbacks at Jeff’s right hand.
“Books,” Jeff smiled. “It’s…a bit of a hobby.”
“Do you collect antiques?” Nira asked.
“Uh…not really. More like I consume them.”
“You actually read those old things?” Nira looked shocked. “Can’t you find those on the Lookup?”
“I probably could,” Jeff said. “But the medium is…novel.” He grinned at the pun. No one else seemed to get it. It didn’t matter. “I like the feel of the book in my hand. I like the smell of the paper. I like coming across the printing flaws and errors. It’s…I guess it makes me feel connected to the past. It makes me feel…human.”
“Is there any doubt that you’re human?” Nira asked, picking up a butter knife and holding it out defensively in front of her. “Anything you need to tell us, Captain?”
Pho laughed, and Nira couldn’t stop the smile from breaking out across her face.
Jeff sighed. It was good to see them like this. They were letting off some steam, enjoying themselves, feeling safe and hopeful for the first time since…since their world had ended. It was good for them, and Jeff was glad of it.
But there was business to attend to. He bided his time until they had ordered. Jeff wondered if he could anticipate their selections, but he was mostly wrong. He’d expected Emma to order a salad, but instead, she’d selected BBQ ribs and slaw. He hadn’t seen that coming. Nira chose a Thai dish he’d never heard of, while Pho chose a Brazilian Paella. Jeff shook his head and ordered steak and potatoes. He was not an imaginative eater and he made no apologies for it.
Once the waiter exited the room, Jeff put his elbows on the table and cleared his throat. “I guess you’re all wondering what the plan is.”
“I’m hoping there is one,” Emma said. She was not quite smiling, hovering on the lip of approval and its opposite, waiting him out.
“We’re in a new world,” Jeff said. That was obvious to all of them. He looked down at the silver in front of him. “And it’s not our world. I…I can’t tell you where your allegiances should lie here. And you need to be free to choose them. Our old…obligations are moot. You don’t owe anything further to me or to the CDF…because there is no CDF. Not here, not any more.”
When his words stopped, there was dead silence. Six eyes were on him, Pho’s mouth was open. He wished the young man would close it, but there was always something about the kid that unsettled him—his elfin appearance, or the awkwardness of his movements…it was always something.
“We all need to make a new start. You can go to Authority space, you can join up with the rebellion. You can…hell, get a plot of land and be a farmer. Teach. Start a family. Do…whatever you want to do. I release you. There’s a whole new world here,” he waved at the space dock outside their window. “Go and explore it.”
“With what cash?” Emma asked. She crossed her arms and her brow was furrowed. She wasn’t liking this one bit, and that made Jeff uncomfortable. Not that he’d expected her to like it. It was, in fact, what he was dreading most.
Jeff took three chit cards from his pocket and put them in the middle of the table. “We’ve all been exploring the station—and I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I haven’t just been buying paperbacks, though. I’ve been busy…arranging some business.”
Emma raised one eyebrow, which Jeff took to mean, What business?
“As you might expect, four tons of poly explosive is worth a good deal of money. Even if the buyer has to extract it, it’s worth more than any of us would make in our lifetimes. And then the ship…that’s worth a good deal, too. I have…I’ve sold both.”
There was an eruption of protest and alarm. Jeff held his hand up for silence. When he got it, he continued, “The ship is still at our dock and you have twenty-four hours of access to collect your effects.”
They all visibly relaxed. He should have led with that…but then how would he…never mind. He got there. They’re fine. So far. Jeff took a deep breath. He waved toward the chit cards. “I opened bank accounts for all of you in your legal names—you can change those if you want, of course, but it was expedient. These cards will give you access until you can square your neural registrations with the networks here. And if you lose them, don’t worry—they’re cross-registered with your neural serial numbers at the bank, the…” he looked up, remembering, “Dogstar Credit System. There are two or three major banks here, but Dogstar seems to be the biggest and most reliable—I checked it out. There’s a Dogstar portal on every level of this place, and I even remember seeing the name on Sol Station, so it’s not even confined to neutral space or the rebellion, or…wherever. Your money will be secure.”
“How much money are we talking about?” Nira asked.
Jeff smiled for the first time. Finally, some good news. “You’ll never need to work again, unless you want to.”
“Take me to a planet with beaches,” Pho said, his face breaking out into something that looked a lot like joy.
“Some of you will have family here,” Jeff said. “You can find them.”
“Some of us have doppelgängers here,” Emma said. “Which makes family complicated.”
“True,” Jeff said.
“What about Wall?” Nira asked.
“What about Wall?” Jeff asked.
“The Wall you killed wasn’t our Wall,” she said. “Our Wall is still being held by the Authority.”
Jeff nodded. “I opened an account for her, too, and sent her a secure message. She’ll be able to access it with her neural serial number.”
“If she ever gets out of jail.”
“They’ll let her out, if they haven’t already. They have no use for her now.” Jeff sounded more sure than he felt. But it did make sense. Besides, there was little he could do about it at the moment.
“What’s she going to do?” Nira asked.
Jeff shrugged. “I sent her a message saying…pretty much what I’m saying to you now. She’ll do…anything she wants.”
“And what are you going to do?” Emma asked.
She still had her arms crossed. Her lips were tight. She didn’t look angry, exactly…not yet, anyway.
Jeff looked away.
“I see.” Now she looked angry. He could feel her eyes drilling him. “Could we have a moment alone, Captain?”
Pho was looking at the ceiling. Nira was studying the lines in her palm. The tension in the room was so thick Jeff felt like he was going to suffocate on it. Jeff rolled his eyes but scooted back from the table.
As soon as they were out of earshot, Emma whirled on him. “You’re going to her, aren’t you?”
She wasn’t wrong. He knew he had to find Jo, but he didn’t know why.
“It’s not her, you know. You do know that, right?” Emma asked. “She’s no more your Jo than Captain Hightower was your Danny.”
Jeff knew it. She was right. And still, it didn’t matter.
“Jeff, I’m right here. And it’s me. It’s really me. I’m your Emma.”
There was so much packed into that word your. It was possessive in every sense.
Emma waited, her eyes fixed on him. He looked back at the table, then back at her. He met her eyes and held them. His face softened into an apologetic frown. He was sorry, really and truly sorry. But the fact was the fact. He had been struggling with it since they’d arrived in this universe. He had to go to her.
But not yet. “I’m not going to deny it, Emma. Yes, I need to seek Jo out…sometime. Sometime…yes, yes, I will. But first…first I need to find someone else.”
Emma cocked her head.
“Well, that was a class A crap-effort,” Tal said.
Captain Daniel Hightower stood at attention before the admiral’s desk. He did not deny it. He did not say anything.
“They must have detected the explosive, sir—”
“You idiot, I know what happened.” Tal pounded his desk with one balled brown fist. “I want to know why.”
“I can’t say why, sir. We got an encoded message from Wall saying that they discovered a flight path anomaly—probably from uneven weight distribution of the explosive.”
“Or maybe someone forgot to change the payload weight defaults.”
“That’s unlikely, but…it’s possible.”
“It’s more than possible,” Tal looked up and blinked, sending Hightower a report. “It’s what fucking happened.”
“So…if you know why…?” Hightower began.
“Because, Captain, I want to fucking hear you say it!”
Danny bit down on his tongue to hold it. Sweat began to bead on his forehead.
“Have you recovered your man?”
“Yes, fucking Wall.”
Danny shook his head.
“What was that, Captain?”
“No, sir, Admiral sir!” Danny shouted.
“That’s better.” Tal swiveled in his chair and rubbed at his eyes. “And why haven’t you recovered Ensign Wall?”
“We don’t know what happened to her, sir. One minute her signal was there, and the next…well, it just wasn’t.”
“And that tells you what?”
“That she’s either offline or she’s dead, sir.”
“So what’s your best guess?”
“She could be offline. Maybe they’re holding her in the brig.”
“But we know they’ve reached Epworth Station. And our eyes and ears there report no sign of Wall.”
“True.” Danny blinked. “In all likelihood, she’s dead.”
“So what are we going to do with their Wall?”
“Kill her, sir?”
Tal blinked. “You really are a sociopathic monster, aren’t you? The only thing standing between you and galactic genocide is your rank. God help us.” Tal looked away.
Danny felt heat rising on his neck. He said nothing.
“She’s not a spy. She’s not even a fucking threat.” He sighed. “Give her a ticket to Epworth Station and let’s wash our hands of this whole affair.”
Danny said nothing.
“Is that understood, Captain?”
“Sir, yes sir.”
“No tricks, no underhanded passive-aggressive schemes. Just release her, give her a ticket and wave bye-bye.”
“That’s an order.”
“I understand, sir.”
“Don’t test me, Captain.”
“No, sir.” Danny waited a few moments. The time seemed to crawl by. “Will that be all, sir?”
“No, that will not be all.”
Tal was angry about something else, it seemed. Danny took a deep breath, fortifying himself against the next onslaught.
“Have you read about the defeat at Aken?”
“It’s all over the news, sir. I’ve read the classified reports, too.” Danny chanced a glance directly at the admiral. Finally, something that wasn’t his fault. “Hell of a thing, sir.”
“Your ex, rebel captain Jo Taylor—”
“She’s captain, now? I mean, not acting-captain?”
“Our sources say it was a field promotion, but that it came from the top, from Alinto herself.”
Danny nodded. Good for Jo, he thought, but didn’t say it.
“As I was saying,” Tal said, an edge returning to his voice.
“Your ex, Captain Jo Taylor, has won herself the distinction of becoming public enemy number one.”
Danny nodded. Those were the admiral’s words, but the news of her victory over the Eisenhower—and the subsequent turning of the battle into a humiliating defeat for Authority forces—was all that the news feeds could talk about.
“Have you seen this?” Tal tripped a switch on his desk console and a display lit up, hovering over the desk in the space between them. It was a holographic political cartoon showing Jo—looking bustier and sexier than he ever remembered her—as a giant, astride two starships, rodeo-style, with one foot planted on each ship. She held the reins taut in her left hand, while her right waved a nautical captain’s cap behind her. Her mouth was open in a howl of victory, and blood smeared her mouth like an explosion of mashed lipstick, covering her chin.
“No, sir. I haven’t seen that…not until now.”
“My fellow admirals are not happy about this. She caught us with our pants around our ankles. We look like idiots.”
“She needs to pay.”
“You need to make her pay.” Tal stood and leaned over his desk, his head jutting through the cartoon, his eyes dark and mean.
“Yes sir.” So that was it. Well, he didn’t know what to do with shame, but he certainly knew what to do with an order. That such an order entailed killing a woman he had once been intimate with bothered him not at all. There was a sweetness to the notion that he had never felt before. He savored it. It made his heart rate jump. It made him hard. He grinned. “With pleasure, sir.”
A note from the authors:
Thanks so much for reading our book—we hope you enjoyed it, and that you will continue the story in Oblivion Quest.
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—J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
Continue the adventure in the next
thrilling novel in the Oblivion saga:
by J.R. Mabry & B.J. West
In a parallel reality you gamble everything on an insane search. Now everyone wants you dead—friends, aliens, even lovers. And the only weapon you’ve got could wipe out yet another universe…
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