Authors: Edward W. Robertson
Tags: #Science Fiction, #aliens, #science fiction series, #Space Opera, #sci-fi
Edward W. Robertson
To Grant Naylor and Iain M. Banks, for getting me hooked on the stars.
Cover illustration by Andrzej "Dugi" Rutkowiak. Typography by Stephanie Mooney.
Jain prided herself on being a person who prepared for everything, but there was only so much you could do to prepare to jump across two thousand miles of open vacuum.
Within the walls, motors whirred and clunked. The air sucked from the lock with the hiss of water on sand. And then she heard nothing at all. The floor vibrated faintly. The doors parted on a sliver of blackness. It yawned wider and wider, speckled with colorless dots of light. The stars weren't twinkling. No matter how much time she spent outside the envelope of Earth, she still wasn't used to that.
She detached her shoes from the floor and jumped.
She craned her neck for a look at the ship, but the suit and her gear blocked most of it. A black oval shrinking behind her. Jain put her eyes forward and was immediately overwhelmed by the multidimensional vertigo of plunging into empty space. She had no sense of up, down, or across, and so she felt all ways at once. Her breath roared in the mask. The edge of her vision grayed. An insistent beep chirped in her ears, alerting her that her heart rate was dangerously elevated. She shut her eyes and breathed.
Once the beeping quieted down, she opened her eyes. Which insisted that space was in front of her. In fact, she was flying, exactly as she'd been doing a minute earlier. She just happened to be doing so in a much smaller vessel—an environmental suit.
Now that she was clear of the ship, it flipped on its tail and vectored away, making to separate itself from the asteroid by several thousand more miles. Ahead, she couldn't see the rock yet, but the readout on her visor insisted it was there. In all likelihood, this jump was paranoia. She had 24 hours until rendezvous; if she'd used the ship to deliver herself to the rock, the asteroid's solar orbit would have pulled her tens of thousands of miles from the ship's engine signature. But they were probably clever enough to check the trail, weren't they? After all, they practically owned half the system.
The stars burned across the black field, completely immobile. If she turned to her left, the sun glared through the darkness, but it looked too weak to be able to reach her. She checked her course. To her complete lack of surprise, the jump had been off. She told the computer to correct. Her thrusters engaged, tugging her body across all three axes. The stars swam. After a few seconds, the thrusters quit. With nothing more to do, she closed her eyes.
A polite beep startled her awake. The rock loomed above her, a gray, potato-shaped lump two hundred feet across. She was vectored to pass a few miles ahead of it at a very shallow angle. She muttered to her computer. As she neared, the thrusters kicked in again, aligning her path to duplicate the asteroid's. Once their orbits matched, the thrusters fired front, decreasing her velocity. Slowly, the asteroid began to gain.
More waiting. Over the course of an hour, it filled the display of her visor. Another beep, less polite, informed her when she was a hundred yards away. She fired her spike. It spooled behind her and plunged into the gray rock, deploying a sphere of dust. She reeled herself in. By the time her feet touched down, the microgravity was still pulling the dust back to the ground.
Jain secured herself to the surface, unpacked her gear, and began assembling the comset. Erecting it took less than an hour. Finished, she beamed a Needle to the ship, which was now matching course with the rock from a distance of twelve thousand miles. The ship—presently nothing more than a remote drone—confirmed the link.
Nineteen-plus hours until contact. She killed most of it watching the stars.
Yet another beep. As beeps went, this one was firm, like the bark of a dog. Through the Needle, her ship confirmed contact. The strange craft's outline was indistinct, which would have been unsettling if she weren't already as unsettled as she could get. The vessel came to and matched her ship's course at a point tens of thousands of miles away.
"Well," a male voice said. It had the too-clean sound of alteration, yet there was something familiar about it. No video to let her confirm her suspicions. "Fancy meeting you here."
"You too," Jain said into the comset, which Needled it to her ship, which then broadcast normally, as if she were inside it and not hidden on the surface of an asteroid that was useful only as the reference point for a meeting in the middle of nowhere. "Mind telling me exactly who you are?"
"First, how about you tell me why you dragged me out here?"
"Is this a trick?"
The man sounded somewhere between annoyed and amused. "To do what?"
"To determine if I'm the kind of fool who will spill your secrets to the first craft that comes along."
"It's not a trick," he said. "Is this?"
"To do what?"
"To get me to identify myself to the galaxy."
Down on the asteroid, Jain smiled. "Would you?"
"I'm going to move in a mite closer," he said. "Make sure you are what you look like. You, of course, are welcome to put me under the eye, too. Once we're certain neither of us is a Durant warship, or a bomb with wings, maybe we'll be comfortable enough to start answering questions."
Her visor fed her the fore camera, following the progress of the other ship as it powered closer, advancing deliberately, as if not to spook her. It took several minutes before it was in detailed scan range. To her lack of surprise, it was armed, with fearsome-looking banks of weapons her computer didn't recognize, but nothing too far out of the ordinary.
Except for its hull profile. This shifted and undulated, as if it were wrapped in a cloud of dust or spores. Despite this, it wasn't all that much bigger than her ship, which was as lean as it was fast.
Strange, no doubt about it, and probably capable of pulping her in under a minute flat. But that was why she was spiked to a lumpy rock and not onboard the shiny, vulnerable target.
Her ship indicated that it was also being scanned. This completed, followed by a few seconds of silence that might have been digestive. She waited. The cloudy vessel began a new transmission. No speech. Just a packet of ones and zeroes that comprised her original message, complete with recipient footers.
"So," she said. "You're you."
"I could have told you that," he said. "How much do you know?"
"Let's assume everything."
"I don't think that's a safe assumption." The man sighed. "This is your first rodeo, isn't it? Listen, you've already
vague and ominous. That was the purpose of your first message. To convince me to go through with this ridiculous cloak and dagger business rather than swapping a few mails like normal people."
Jain gazed up into the wall of silver-specked black. "I know you didn't invent it."
He was quiet a moment. "Are you saying we stole it?"
"I don't know that."
"Irrelevant, I suppose. Let's take it before the Bones, here. What
"I don't think you should release it."
"I was afraid that's what your note meant," he said. "My first thought was you must be a Golden Virus type. Yearning to go back to the good old days of crapping in pits and dying on each other's swords. But you show no connection to them whatsoever. So…why?"
She frowned at the image of the frothy ship. "Because I know where it came from."
"Listen, we are talking about a
step here. It's not just about putting real people back in the cockpit. It's about snipping the fetters keeping us tied to this star."
"Sounds like you've already worked out the press release."
He laughed, making no effort to conceal his contempt. "Let's set aside why you think
the authority on the future of a matter you know nothing about. If I don't quash the project, what are you going to do about it? Go public?"
"That's about all I can do, isn't it?"
"I was just hoping to hear something a little more imaginative. Well, I'm not fond of the position you've put me in. I'm going to offer you a deal. I know you're going to want to reject it out of hand, because you're a crusader, but please, seriously—think about it."
She lowered her eyes to the gray, jagged surface. "Go on."
"Seven figures," he said. "
an Earth island plus a lifelong monthly stipend large enough to cover reasonable living expenses. Not some ice cube within shouting distance of Santa's workshop, either. Tropical. Private. Yours."
"Cash and tropical islands? Like
"Cash is liquid dreams. You supply the imagination." The man sniffed. "Take as much time to decide as you need. I don't really mean that. But take as much as an hour."
To her surprise, she did think about it. Not for herself. He wouldn't accept if he knew it was from her, but it would be easy enough to spoof him—trust fund from a bachelor uncle, say. He would look into it, naturally. But when you were staring a good life in the face, you didn't tend to spend too long hunting for wrinkles.
She couldn't, though. And the thought pained her as deep as deep got. Because it meant he was right about her.
"I'm sorry," she said. "But this is bigger than any of us."
"I know," the man said. "I have to say I'm highly disappointed. However, you can still help me."
Her blood went as cold as the vacuum. Instinct told her to spring up as hard as she could and kick the jets to max, but she was still spiked to the surface. Besides, she was already too late.
She turned. The man hovered above the surface thirty feet away from her. His suit was a mottled gray that shifted to match the landscape beneath it. The gun in his hand was dull black. Couldn't say at a glance whether it was lethal or suppressive, but she leaned toward the former. Lethal meant kinetic, and in microgravity, kinetic meant the user had better not miss—because the mass of the first shot was going to send them flying.
She let her hands hang from her sides, transmitting on the same band as before. "How did you find me?"
The man in the suit cocked his head. A black plate hid his face. "Of all the questions you can ask," he said, "you're going with that?"
"You're right. You bugged the ship, sniffed my trail, used some fantastic tech no one can afford but yourselves. Whatever it was, it was boringly mundane and I can't undo it now."
"That's more like the Jain Kayle I've studied."
"You guys are so
," she laughed. "Tell me what's next? What will you do with it?"
"Take the last step before the leap." He inclined his face toward the gray dirt. "For you, nothing more."
A sphere of flame erupted from the gun. Jain felt the bullet enter her body, but oddly, the reaction of its discharge didn't budge the man an inch. Not even when he fired a second shot and a third. Her brain wanted to puzzle through this, but she didn't need the panicked beeping of her suit to tell her she didn't have time.
Her last thought was of the cabin. The moment was as fleeting as a shooting star, yet it seemed like it would never stop, like a satellite passing out of the outer edge of the system, to fly forever into the ink beyond.
Yet she had prepared for this, too—something like it, at least.