Free chapter preview: Chapter One, 2nd draft


The air was wrong – lighter with aromas of fire, food, stale sweat and metal instead of home. A home deep under miles of igneous rock that did not smell of sweat and bleach. Home smelled of gasses, ventilator grease and old rubber; the sensation of wrongness gnawed at the edge of dreams where they lapped at the shore of waking; like dreaming of a place far from home, warmer, redder.

Under a strange sun.

Warm was joined by the sound of someone snoring, echoing close from steel and alumaplast. Not an echo from rock. The soft susurration of ventilation and the hisses and clicks of another nearby bio-creche. Just one and not three. Beneath him lay his Evercool sheet, blanket and pillow, inviting him to stay in his dream of comfort, luxury and decadence. He began to note the sounds. Hiss. Click. Snore.

This is not home.

He opened his eyes and whispered, “Where am I?”

Above his head rose-painted alumaplast ceiling tiles refused to answer. He propped himself on one elbow to survey the environment while holding down panic as it rose in the back of his throat. It was all terribly wrong. Completely different from the room he went to sleep in. The bunk room of an Alpha One Oh Seven Courier was designed to hold one to eight occupants. He saw one, his brother, who should have been on the bridge instead of snoring in his bunk with the curtain pulled. Another creche, in the opposite corner, was closed and running. Most likely another brother.

I had no idea what an A107 ‘Courier’ class ship was when I went to bed. I wonder what else I just learned. Base cargo-cap, five thousand seventy tons. Base accommodation four two-tier bunks, table and chairs. Minimum bridge crew, two. One point one eight gee. Thanks to the mobius generators.

This isn’t fair,” he whispered cautiously, “bed angle sixty.” The bed portion of the stasis rig tilted silently to the specified angle. From there he hoped to assess the depth of whatever crisis he had dropped into. His usual morning health report popped up and he swept it aside with a flick of his wrist. The room had twin two-tier bunks and four personal effects trunks magged in place on the steel rail and alumaplast deck. The other creche was stenciled “Four”.

I bet he doesn’t know yet. If he did, he’d be screaming.

To his left was a table with three dull plastic chairs two of which were draped with reddish gray coveralls, skin-suits, and gray snareboots. In front of each seat, on the table, was a set of ID papers. In the center, a deck of cards and a large carton of deep-sleep-teaching chips. He stood and tip-toed through the open hatch to the bridge, where he found three seats with consoles and the typical forward holovid of most spaceship design. Home was six hundred ninety-two and three tenths millions of kilometers away.

Ugh,” he bit his tongue, and now I can pilot too.

The consoles were arranged in a classic triangle of Nav to the left, Com to the right and Pilot in the center. The Com seat hung lazily at an angle, as if in conversation, and the Nav faced stiffly forward at a badly worn console. The holo, focused ahead of the little ship, showed a freighter, the Floyd Henderson, outbound and two passenger ships inbound outlined against a background of stars across the inky black of deep space. Each pinpoint of light had an overlaid information icon that would provide type, velocity and vector when queried. He scanned the rest of the bridge, assuring himself that the emergency side ports, and circuit-management panels matched his new memories.

Knowing Five, I’m mostly just glad to be alive. From kilometers deep to outer space in a blink.

He continued his silent tour, back through the bunk room, stopping briefly at the table for clothes. A check of the IDs offered him a choice of being Jeremathy, Rus, Liam, Jian, MeDano, or Nash. All with the last name of Zebros. He left the cards on the table, finding the word play on their lab designation of “Lab Z, Brothers” held little humor. He shrugged into one of the sets of clothing as he surveyed the aft hall hosted a wall-galley where the counter had been turned into a repair bench and the microwave was covered in kaffe. Across from that was the shower and personal waste system. Further back, the creche marked Two, containing another brother, partially blocked the hall. One of the standard language labels stuck on the medical console was lit from behind. He shook his head and whispered, “Damn.”

Everywhere, hatches stood open, unwashed dishes were piled and other safety regulations had been ignored. Fortunately the overhead airlock was double-locked for travel. That was unsurprising since the engines wouldn’t fire unless the lock safety was engaged or a complex set of instructions were entered to override safe-mode. He slipped around the creche on the elevator/lock and looked right and left through the cargo hatches. The holds were each partially filled with crates. Further along the hall he found a handful of maintenance panels. It smelled vaguely of cleaning products, metal and well-done meat. A few little fluffs of fabric stuck to the air return in the ceiling.

Examining the floor, he found two incongruous tiny rust-colored spots on the deck below the recycling plant access panel. He crouched to look at them closely and decided they were dried blood. He stood and turned to the right cargo hold where it stank of sweat and something pungent, chocolaty. It contained crates marked as titanium parts, a mail packet data center and the discarded packing material from three creches.

He dogged the hatch closed and crossed to the second hold where he found crates of nitrogen-stabilized fruit and two unlabeled crates. In the corner he found a smallish, palletized claz’r turret. He closed the hatch and returned to the galley where he counted the dirty aluminum plates and flasks proving not only that the sleeper was Five, but that he had worked for at least two days before going to sleep.

He ran the dishes through the outside hatch on the head, part of the algae recycling system, and stowed them properly in the galley. The work table had a vise and metal micro-mill where he found a small container of fresh metal shards. The tiny locker of tools and repair items was open. Sitting unsecured on the ledge was a broken switch and switch cover which he also stowed before examining his food options.

The galley menu was enormous. It was well-provisioned and had all sorts of great recipes that could be ordered from based on the remaining foodstuffs and biomass. He had no clue what half of them were, but settled on eggs and juice and skipped the “Real Kaffe” the description of which was “A bitter hot beverage containing caffeine, frequently consumed with cream and/or sugar syrup.” It sounded more like a drug than a drink.

He took his breakfast to the bridge, closing the safety hatches in his wake, where he applied his new knowledge to the consoles. It took him only two tries to get logged in and open the pilot and navigation programs on the captain’s console. There was a vector check and analysis he could do and a vlog he could review. The vector had been sent from Majin traffic control and verified both automatically and manually by the pilot. He did the calculus for the vector to see where they were going.

The ship was outbound from the Majin refueling station, accelerating at two gee toward a point in space where a local gravity wave intersected an M-space string. He recalled from watching holos that the point was called a twistor due to its n-dimensional appearance as a subspace tornado. They would reach it in forty-three minutes for transit to the Al Sharab system. The ship was owned by the Drago Corporation and employed as a courier for their business interests. Typically the ship carried specialty medical parts and drugs, short haul items as needed, and any local mail from point to point. Apparently a few black-market parts made their way aboard as well, finding their way into the hands of people with questionable funding sources.

Since Five had never been good with details, cleaning or proper discipline, One checked all the life-support systems for anomalies and viability. The soda filter sensor indicated the filter had been installed at Majin five days ago and the estimator indicated that it had been in use for seven days. He checked the particle filter system to verify its viability and found the same service date and time, but its estimated use was eighteen days. He queried the life support system for explanation, but it wasn’t robust enough for a detailed analysis. Then he found the recycler was overloaded by two hundred sixty kilos.

He considered the situation for a few moments. Then he checked the readouts for biological pathogens, finding several potentially deadly germs. He shuddered with dread at that news and hoped the creches had enough antibiotics to keep him alive.

Multiple germs, aromas, fluff, stressed filters, a broken switch, blood on the deck and overloaded solid waste. It doesn’t look good for us. Even if it wasn’t luxurious we were safe in our nice clean lab and not flying away in a coffin.

He was surprised to see only twenty-three days of semi-stasis had passed instead of their usual twenty-seven. He began reviewing the logs for information on how they had made it into deep space. The vlog was adequately labeled with weekly and daily titles that indicated the 2/3 Drago had docked five days ago at Majin station, dumped the mail packet, accepted a transshipment of fruit bound for the Federation military facility on Kohnor, exchanged waste material for O/H2O, and replaced their filters.

The bridge seats had been occupied by Draveth Par, Olo Fayed and Vachs. Just “Vachs” – no other name. They were worn in a pattern that indicated years of use. Olo, who had handled all aspects of nav data, including vector mapping, appeared to have turned toward Captain Par most of the time. The chair turned easily when he pushed it, but always came to rest one hundred five degrees away from the forward display. Vachs seemed to have been a nervous communicator and trader, his console was scratched and the key characters were nearly worn away.

Captain Par’s seat had molded completely to his buttocks. The left armrest pad was cracked and shiny from many hours of his large elbow wearing through it. He felt the worn spot with his elbow finding he was taller than Par based on the wear points. He could imagine the captain sitting here day after day, chin propped on the heel of his hand. He might even have cat-napped through the flight from in-system to transit points – many days of boredom spent waiting for the Minkowski field generator to eventually stop and drop them back into real space. Hopefully where they had aimed.

The vlog indicated that on the second day in dock, a man identified as Jian Zebros contacted them to move some critical medical equipment toward Earth through the next two legs of their route. He agreed to pay point-to-point charges as well as passage for himself. The captain made note to search him thoroughly before un-docking. Zebros hadn’t given him the opportunity.

He skipped forward through normal activities until he saw a large, pod-sized crate being lowered into the ship, followed by Vachs moving it to the hold. This was followed by a second crate. When the third arrived, someone was standing atop the crate, visible from the waist down. Vachs looked up, “Where’s Fayed? What the hell are you doing? No!”

He strangled on his own blood, sliced by beam of coherent light as the unseen assailant killed him with a blaz’r. As his lifeless body dropped to the deck the masked figure landed, cat-like, blaz’r outstretched toward something under and behind the camera. He fired again twice. On the second of the three camera screens, the recording of the bridge, the captain jumped from his seat and turned toward the airlock. His movement blocked the view of the camera through the bunk room but in an instant he crumpled to the deck.

The killer, moving like Five, stalked forward through the three camera views to the bridge. He pulled off a pair of gloves and imprinted his thumb on the open command console taking command of the ship effective immediately and, assuming Fayed was dead, sole control over it. He stuffed the blaz’r in his waistband and pulled off the mask, yep – Five, dropped it on the captain’s seat and began tidying up.

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