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Authors: Deanna Lee

Close Encounter

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Cobblestone Press, LLC

 

 

 

 

 

Escape Velocity I:

 

Close Encounter

 

By

 

Deanna Lee

 

 

 

Cobblestone Press, LLC

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

 

Close Encounter

Copyright© 2012 Deanna Lee

ISBN:  978-1-60088-822-9

 

Cover Artist: Sable Grey

Editor: Jeff Curry

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

 

Cobblestone Press, LLC

www.cobblestone-press.com

 

 

 

 

Cobblestone Press, LLC

 

 

 

Dedication

 

 

For Sable Grey who made me an awesome cover for inspiration.

 

 

 

Cobblestone Press, LLC

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

March 5,
2
2
45

Ganymede Research Station

 

Dr. Sean Cohen stepped out of the narrow shower cubicle to the ping of an incoming communication. “Arti, take a message.”

“It is an emergency beacon, Dr. Cohen.”

Sean paused in drying himself off and glanced upward as if to look at the artificial intelligence that saw to the regular mission work on the single-man research station he’d been on for the past ten months. His twelve-month rotation in the research post orbiting Jupiter’s largest moon had been uneventful, practically a vacation compared to the schedule he endured when he was on Armstrong Station or Earth. “From where?”

“An escape pod. I’ve initiated the retrieval protocol. The pod is damaged and losing power.”

Sean pulled on a pair of boxers and grabbed a T-shirt as he hurried out of his quarters and toward the small landing bay that the pod would be hauled into. “Origin of the pod?”

“Unknown, sir; the transponder is not Teko Solutions.”

“Speculation.”

“Both the North American Union and the Euro-Dome have manned space explorations in progress.”

“You mean military,” Sean said as he slid into a UVA suit and clipped the helmet into place. “Time?”

“Ten minutes until the pod is beyond our reach, Doctor.”

“Swing the starboard arm out in case we miss it,” Sean ordered. “It’ll give us a second opportunity to catch it before we have to pass the situation off to Mars Station.”

“The pod will not make it to Mars Station,” Arti said matter-of-factly. “If we fail to retrieve it—the person within will expire in 19.87 minutes.”

“Have you found the information on the passenger?”

“Not yet, Doctor; the pod is transmitting basic data.”

“How big is the pod?”

“Seven feet by three feet.”

Not much bigger than the pods used for the supply shipments he regularly received from the large gas mining station that Teko Solutions had orbiting Jupiter. “Okay, we got this.”

“Of course, sir.”

“Open the doors,” Sean ordered.

He hooked a tether from his UVA suit to the console that governed the retrieval system, input his approval code, and let Arti handle the targeting. The pod didn’t have a matching transponder for the system, didn’t have a locking mechanism for them to catch onto for safe hauling. Two hundred things could go wrong, but he hoped that whatever bad luck had put this person in a pod had already run its course. The retrieval system pinged, and Arti launched the flexible arm out of the bay and into the path of the pod. Machinery within the bay whined under the strain as soon as the retrieval claw clamped onto the speeding pod.

“Arti!”

“Sir, the pod did not disengage thrusters,” the AI explained. “I’m attempting to hack the system, but it’s military and heavily encrypted.”

“How long before life support fails?” Sean demanded as the arm started to pull the pod toward the bay opening.

“15.75 minutes.”

He could see thrusters firing in rapid succession as if it was trying to free itself from a trap. Which, he thought wryly, wasn’t quite wrong. “Find some way to talk to that thing!”

“I’ve accessed codes available to commercial vessels during an emergency situation, and the pod is processing. Approval granted. The propulsion system has disengaged.”

The retrieval system sped up, and the pod entered the bay just as the claw lost its grip on the slick surface. The pod fell to the floor with a heavy, ominous
thunk
. “Close the fucking doors.” Sean started forward only to have the tether still clamped to his waist jerk him back into place. He huffed as he unhooked it and jumped down off the control platform. “Any information forthcoming?”

“The passenger is…Captain Eliza Hawthorne, NAU-Space Command.”

Sean unclamped his helmet with a curse and let it drop to the floor. “Are you certain?”

“Yes, sir.”

“Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.” He rushed to the pod and jerked the cover up from the control panel. “Her condition? How did she get past Jupiter Station, and why didn’t they warn us in advance so we’d have a better chance of catching her?”

“Jupiter Station is requesting information from us, Dr. Cohen. Their sensors didn’t pick up the pod until I did. We have an incoming data-burst from Armstrong Station. Admiral Jason McAlister.”

Why the hell hadn’t Space Command warned them that they had an incoming pod? It was infuriating that they’d risked the life of one of their own rather than share the data with the private sector workers in the area. Though, it didn’t much surprise Sean. He’d spent ten years in Space Command himself and knew exactly how far they would go to keep a secret.

“Relay all the data you have and a brief outline of what we’ve accomplished so far to everyone,” Sean ordered. “Activate the medical lab. I need the codes to crack this thing before she loses life support.”

“Admiral McAlister included the security protocols for opening the pod,” Arti explained. “She is in cryo-sleep, which could be a problem.”

“Explain.”

“If she were injured when she went into the pod… her nano-bots wouldn’t have been able to repair that damage during cryo-sleep.”

“Nano-tech?” Sean questioned. “The Kepler Exploration mission left Mars a hundred years ago; we didn’t have nano-bots in use at that time.”

“She has a full complement of nano-bots, military configuration,” Arti reported. “Not as advanced as your own but well within acceptable perimeters. I’ve taken the liberty of requesting upgrade protocols for her bots in the event she is physically damaged.”

“Any implants?”

“She has a neural implant.”

Sean stepped back as the pod’s lid cracked of its own accord and broke away with a hiss of hydraulics. Eliza Hawthorne had left Mars at the age of thirty-six. The NAU reported the mission lost a year after that. The woman didn’t look even thirty years old much less the hundred plus years she technically was. “Injuries?”

“She has significant lung tissue trauma. An indication that she was exposed to some sort of smoke shortly before she entered cryo-sleep. Two fingers on her left hand are fractured. Most of her body is bruised, but there is no overt organ damage. We’ll need the medical scanner for a more in-depth study. You can pick her up, sir.”

Sean nodded and carefully scooped the slight woman out of the pod and winced at the coolness radiating off her body. “What do we have to do to get her out of cryo-sleep?”

“I’m waiting on a response from Armstrong Station.”

Sean accepted that in silence as he left the cargo bay and headed toward the infirmary. It was a well-equipped space with a variety of automated equipment, since it was rare for more than one person to be on board the research station. A medical platform was already protruding from a wall, and a diagnostic droid was hovering nearby. He placed her on it and took a step back. She was dressed in a dark blue uniform, but it was dirty, torn, and in some areas scorched. He leaned back against the wall near the door and watched in helpless silence while the machines around them handled her care.

She was beautiful, but then, he thought, that was one reason why she’d been the star of the Kepler mission. Eliza Hawthorne had been the poster girl for Space Command’s Explorer Initiative. One of the first missions to leave the solar system in search of a habitable planet or moon. There had been others since, including two privately funded ones headed toward the Kepler star.

“Dr. Riley is on the relay, sir.”

Sean went to the communications panel in the infirmary. “On screen, Arti.”

“Sean? What the hell?” Stephanie Riley leaned forward and took a deep breath. “Armstrong Station is pinging the hell out of us demanding direct access to you. We’re going to relay Admiral McAlister to you in three minutes. He’s insisting on an encrypted channel. Preston is working as fast as he can.”

Sean checked his watch. “You need to move faster then. I’m fifty-two minutes from orbital blackout, and I won’t have direct communication with anyone for forty-eight hours.”

“Did you really recover the pod of
Eliza Hawthorne
?”

Sean looked over his shoulder briefly. “Yeah, I have her out of the pod and on a medical platform in the infirmary. She’s in some kind of deep cryo-sleep that didn’t end when Arti cracked the pod. Steph, she’s got…” He slid his fingers down a sensor pad, and the comm screen popped out of the wall so he could take it across the room. “Nano-bots, military grade, and a
neural
implant.”

Stephanie’s bright blue eyes widened in shock. “But none of that tech was available… Fucking military. I wonder how long they had biological nano-tech, bio-modifications, and neural implants before they were forced to share it with the public. Millions of people died that could’ve been saved with…” She huffed and waved a hand when someone shouted at her from the background. “Preston is ready for you. Good luck with this, Sean. I’ll prep a package for her to include in your next supply shipment. I’ll try to do some research, too, see if I can update her on any family she might have living.”

Sean grimaced. “Don’t bother, Steph. You need to brush up on your history—the entire crew of the Kepler Exploration Initiative—none of them were supposed to have family. She might have a few friends alive though. That might be a nice way to help her reconnect with people.”

Stephanie’s face disappeared and was replaced by an older man in a Union Space Command uniform. He pressed the comm panel on the wall near the medical platform and took a deep breath. “You’re Admiral McAlister?”

“Yes, listen, son, I know you have a limited amount of time before your orbital blackout. Space Command has already launched a retrieval ship for Captain Hawthorne. They’ll reach you in forty-three days.”

“That appears to upset you, Admiral.”

“It upsets me a great deal,” McAlister said bluntly. “We picked up her pod on our sensor net four months ago, Dr. Cohen, and someone higher ranking than me blocked every plan I had for retrieving her. Someone with a great deal of power doesn’t want to hear her story, didn’t want anyone on Earth to know she ever returned. Thanks to you, Dr. Cohen, the news of her recovery is moving swiftly through the ranks
and
the company you work for. I trained that young woman behind you, and she’s one of the bravest, strongest people I’ve ever known. She accepted nano-tech when it was experimental. She took a neural implant first—before any of the other members of her crew were fitted with one. Her pod is the only one coming—so whatever happened to her ship and crew must have been extremely bad. Shortly after my last attempt at retrieval was undermined, I sent a data-burst to her pod, which should’ve redirected her to a retrieval ship I have in orbit around Mars.”

“To protect her?”

“She has no family on Earth, Dr. Cohen. There is no one legally tied to her. If someone in the government wants her silenced—there is no one with the legal standing to ask questions, to demand answers if she disappears. Do you understand?”

“I do.” Sean closed his eyes briefly. The North American Union had been born out of years of world war and an encroaching ice age. Large city-states, some domed and others not, made up the country, and there were power games at play at every level of government from city governors to the office of the president. “Is she still active duty in Space Command?”

“Yes. Her status was changed shortly after her pod was picked up on our system; though she’s more than served her original contract terms.”

“They’re going to come here, take her into custody, and hold her hostage until she parrots whatever story they want told about the Kepler mission. She has no family, and you’ll be ordered to shut the fuck up,” Sean murmured. “And I don’t… Admiral, what do you want from me? I’m hardly in the position to fight off your people. I don’t even have any weapons on board.”

“How do you feel about marriage, Dr. Cohen?”

Sean’s mouth dropped open. “Pardon me, Admiral?”

“Marriage. A legal contract that binds two or three people together in the bonds of legal and emotional bondage until which time one of them regains their senses and files for a divorce.” The Admiral leaned forward. “I had a few minutes, Dr. Cohen, when I was waiting on your people to connect us directly. Your military records tell me you are an honorable and smart man.”

Sean sighed. “Arti, are you recording this?”

“Yes, Dr. Cohen.”

Fantastic
.
Maybe they could include it in their wedding holos. He glanced toward Eliza Hawthorne. “She’s unconscious, sir.”

“I’ve transmitted the protocols your AI needs to rectify that situation. We can have her awake inside of five minutes, but she won’t be conscious long, due to the length of her cryo-sleep. If you don’t agree, we can leave her in the suspended state she is until she is retrieved and returned to Earth.”

Sean focused on Eliza Hawthorne at those words. He’d seen plenty of beautiful women in his life—they were a dime a dozen thanks to advanced cosmetic surgery bots, implants, and bio-modifications. Beauty was a commodity bought and sold in their society. But she was also brilliant and courageous. She’d given up everything on Earth to undertake a mission that would’ve altered the path of their species had they been successful.

“What if she’s to blame?” Sean asked. “What if she lost it, killed her crew, and destroyed her own ship?”

“That’s probably one of the stories someone is already getting ready to spin, Doctor, but I don’t believe she’s capable of bullshit like that.”

“No,” Sean agreed. He’d read her work in grad school, and read through her mission reports when he’d served himself. She was the stuff space explorers were made of, and he didn’t believe for a second that her mission failed because of her. “I’ll do it if she’s willing.”

“Technically, Dr. Cohen, I’m still her commanding officer. I can make it an order, and I will. I’ll do everything I can to protect her, even from herself. AI-456Y87, you are authorized to revive Captain Hawthorne.”

Sean huffed and ignored Arti’s confirmation of orders. “Christ, Admiral, we can’t drag this woman out of cryo-sleep, tell her she’s a hundred years in the future, and force her to marry a stranger in the time we have left.”

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