BUILDING NEW CANAAN – BOOK 4
BY J.J. GREEN & M. D. COOPER
Thanks to the Aeon 14
Just in Time (JIT) & Beta Readers
Copyright © 2019 J.J. Green & M. D. Cooper
Aeon 14 is Copyright © 2010, 2012, 2015-2019 M. D. Cooper
Cover Art by Andrew Dobell
Editing by Jen McDonnell, Bird’s Eye Books
Aeon 14 & M. D. Cooper are registered trademarks of Michael Cooper
All rights reserved
TABLE OF CONTENTS
OUR RETURNING CAST
THE BOOKS OF AEON 14
OTHER BOOKS BY J.J. GREEN
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
OUR RETURNING CAST
Angela – AI residing in Tanis Richards, a lifetime pairing.
Eamon – AI paired with Martin.
Erin – Colonist engineer, responsible for building space stations and orbital structures. Married to Isa and Martin.
Isa – Noctus refugee from Sirius who opted to join the Intrepid when it left Kapteyn’s Star. Married to Erin and Martin.
Joe – (Joseph Evans) General in the Intrepid Space Force and commandant of the ISF’s academy.
Malcolm – Martin’s assistant at his marine station on Knossos Island.
Martin – Marine biologist responsible for ocean seeding. Has worked for the past eight years on Carthage. Married to Erin and Isa.
Usef – Major in the Intrepid Space Force. Has been present for several notable actions, including the rescue of Tanis on Victoria.
Tanis – (Tanis Richards) Governor of the New Canaan System and top-ranking officer in the Intrepid Space Force. Wife of Joseph Evans.
Walter – AI paired with Erin.
Get full-size maps at www.aeon14.com/maps.
STELLAR DATE: 03.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: TSS Prudence, 91 AU from Canaan Prime
REGION: New Canaan System, Transcend Interstellar Alliance
The engineer settled into a chair near the back of the Prudence’s aft enlisted mess hall, waiting for his friend to arrive. He preferred to think of the contact as a friend, though he really knew nothing about the other person.
Rather, I’m certain that everything I know about him is a fabrication.
Chief Kars was the friend’s name, and he was an effusive person, always going on about some new delight he’d discovered, and sharing it with others on the crew. Given the fact that Iysra’s fleet had been lingering beyond New Canaan’s heliopause for over a decade—with little rotation on or off—new delights were in short supply.
Someone had found an ancient song, called ‘Hotel Calypso’, that matched the feeling of the fleet. It was a mournful tune with a haunting reprise that said, ‘you can check out, but you can never leave.’
The engineer all but symbolized that feeling. He was totally checked out. But New Canaan and the colony being built there was top secret; the fewer people who knew that this was where the Intrepid and its crew had come to rest, the better.
And so, once you were assigned to Iysra’s fleet, you stood a very good chance of being in it for the duration.
“Hey! There you are!” Kars roared his greeting as he sat across from the engineer, immediately dropping a small device on the table that would allow them to establish an undetected point-to-point link.
The engineer was passably good at maintaining two conversations, but Kars’ nature masked any inefficiencies in his partners.
The newcomer began to talk about a new sim he’d manged to get smuggled in, and how it was perfect for killing time between shifts. The engineer nodded along, asking periodic questions and doing his best to look interested.
Which he was—in the real conversation taking place over the Link.
<We’re in luck. I’ve been able to confirm that the PETER picked up the signal. The base configuration sets have been overwritten, and it’s already begun to have issues.>
<How can you confirm that?> the engineer asked.
<Because…they’ve already put in a request for the FGT to come help with it.> Kars timed the statement with a laugh in his audible conversation.
<Really?> the engineer was surprised. <I would have expected them to fix it on their own. Aren’t these the people with the most advanced tech out there?>
<You’d think so, right? What’s really going on is that they want to mask that tech from us, and lull us into thinking that they’re just simple colonists, while they use their pico for some nefarious purpose.>
The engineer nodded. That had been a message Kars had repeated many times. Sometimes he would suggest things that the New Canaanites must be using their pico for, other times he just dropped veiled hints.
It was clear that Kars was part of Grey Division, the Transcend Space Force’s intelligence group. It stood to reason that they would have some solid ideas about what was going on in New Canaan. If they thought there was danger, there was very likely something afoot.
<I imagine the bulk of their resources are also tied up in whatever they’re really up to,> the engineer said.
<Precisely. I suspect there’s an element of diplomacy at play here as well. They asked for a team of FGT engineers to come help, but you know there’s no chance of that happening. We’re not going to send a bunch of altruistic planet-builders in there. Those colonists will eat them alive. No, they’re getting a TSF engineering team, and you’re on it.>
The man sat back, eyeing Kars with an expression of wonder. <Seriously?>
<Yeah. Now, you’ve been talking to your friend, right? Preparing her in case she’s called to serve in this way?>
He nodded. <I have. She’s ready.>
<Good. Because I got her on the roster too,> Kars said.
A whistle slipped past his lips. <That’s amazing. Who else is on the team?>
Kars proceeded to outline the team going into New Canaan, and the goals of the mission.
As he spoke, the engineer nodded in satisfaction. The others were good, loyal citizens and members of the TSF, but they weren’t overly curious. They’d focus on the work and little else.
<Good, good. I look forward to this, Kars. I won’t let you down.>
<I know you won’t. Do this, and a promotion and a new assignment off this fleet will be yours.>
A laugh burst from the engineer’s lips. <Core, you should have brought something for us to make a toast with.>
Kars grinned and nodded in agreement. <When you return with what we need, we’ll drink for days.>
<I’m holding you to that.>
STELLAR DATE: 04.11.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
One month later….
Erin scrambled up the last few meters of the steep slope and stood atop the crest of the ridge. On one side of the divide sat a lake of boiling water. On the other stretched a valley of black, ashy earth, scattered with tough shrubs, clumps of rough grass, and one small, brave tree. The stinky tang of sulfur riddled the atmosphere. According to Walter, the temperature had risen to forty-five degrees centigrade in the two hours since sunrise.
Erin was beginning to regret her decision to hike the Badlands of Athens, but she was determined to inject some enjoyment into the vacation. Martin and Isa were toiling up the slope below her.
She shouted down, “Hurry up, you pair of slowpokes. It’s beautiful up here!”
Isa paused and looked up at Erin, squinting in Canaan Prime’s rays, which were already piercingly bright despite the earliness of the hour.
“You know what, Erin? This is exactly the kind of situation where an a-grav pack would come in handy.”
Erin tutted and replied, “I explained before we set out that a-grav packs would take away the challenge. Where would the fun be in that?”
“Fun?” Isa said. “I’m not having fun. Are you having fun, Martin?”
“Er…” Martin also stopped climbing, and began to look uncomfortable. He adjusted his backpack.
His pack was the heaviest of all of them because he was carrying the tent, but Erin doubted her husband’s burden was responsible for his discomfort.
“Oh, look!” he said, pointing at the ridgetop. “We’re nearly there.”
Isa rolled her eyes. Slipping her thumbs under the straps of her pack, she resumed her climb.
When she had nearly reached the ridge, Erin leaned toward her and held out a hand. Isa grabbed hold of it and Erin pulled her up.
“Look at the view,” said Erin. “Isn’t it amazing?”
Isa put her hands on her knees while she rested and caught her breath. Lifting her head, she gave the landscape a cursory glance and nodded. “Very nice.”
“Nice?” Erin echoed.
Martin arrived. He slipped off his backpack and slung it onto the rocky ground before he also took a look around. “It’s…sure something.”
It sure was. Erin swept the striking landscape with her gaze again.
Athens’ Badlands spanned narrow sections of the planet that surrounded the poles. Erin and her two spouses were hiking in the northern section, about four hundred and fifty kilometers south of the capital, Attica.
In the Badlands, living things struggled to survive. Volcanoes and lava fields dominated the landscape. Geysers spouted superheated steam among pools of bubbling mud. The air was hazy with particulates leftover from frequent eruptions. Another three hundred kilometers to the south lay the beginnings of the uninhabitable, highly volcanic region that encircled the bulk of the young planet.
Perhaps my choice of location for our trip was a bit extreme, Erin reflected.
They were far from the polar areas that were perfect for tourists, with their hot springs, wide beaches, and lush forests. Not to mention the luxurious hotels and evening cocktail parties.
But the spot was convenient for meeting up with the planetary engineers who ran the PETER, and Erin had a surprise for Isa and Martin she was confident they would like.
“Let’s go,” she said. “I told Lark and Fazir we would be there in an hour.”
Erin took a long step downward on the far side of the ridge, but as she moved, a deep vibration issued from somewhere below ground. A beat later, the ridge shook violently.
“Whaaaaaaaa!” Erin lost her balance and tumbled down.
While she rolled down the incline, the ground continued to bounce and shake, shifting as she hit it. Her head cracked against a rock, and Walter quickly dispensed a wave of analgesics to wash away the pain. Erin spread her arms and legs, picking up grazes and bumps, but managing to halt her roll. Though she continued to slither down the loose shale and bucking soil.
Finally, she hit a bush. She reached out and grabbed the prickly branches, uttering a “Yowch” as the thorns dug into her palms and fingers. Once more, Walter erased her discomfort. She had stopped moving, but still the ground jerked up and down like she was on a theme park attraction.
Erin was on her stomach, facing up the slope. She could feel a trickle of blood making its way down her forehead, and wiped it off with her sleeve.
What happened to Isa and Martin?
She found Isa first. Her wife was sitting upright a short distance down from the ridge, her legs and arms wrapped around a large clump of coarse grass. At some point during the ongoing quake, she must have face-planted, as her features were coated in black dirt. Erin also noticed that Isa was looking decidedly pissed.
Martin had managed to avoid falling. He was hunkering down at the top of the slope.
Erin held on and waited for the earthquake to stop. Half a minute later, the shaking began to ease; in another few moments, the slope was still. Erin waited a short while longer in case the quake hadn’t quite shaken itself out.
“That was a humdinger,” Martin called down. “Anyone hurt?”
“I don’t think I am,” Erin replied.
<You’re okay,> Walter said. <Just a few minor injuries that I’ll fix. Nothing serious.>
Erin let go of the bush and sat up. A few thorns had broken off in her hands, and she began to pick them out.
“Isa?” Martin asked.
Erin registered Isa’s tone and looked up at her. Her wife had released her hold on the grass and risen to her knees. She was trying to wipe the soil from her face, but in fact was only succeeding in spreading it around.
Erin’s regret over her choice of vacation increased. It would be the last they would be able to take for a while, so they had wanted to make the most of their remaining freedom. The triplets would be born soon, and for a few years, the girls would be too little to be left with someone else.
Martin’s long legs brought him quickly down the incline to where Isa struggled to her feet. Erin tossed aside the last of the thorns and climbed the slope to meet him.
“I guess that was off-schedule?” Martin asked.
“You guessed right,” Erin replied. “The schedule is becoming increasingly unscheduled. Looking forward to getting to the bottom of whatever is going on with the PETER.”
“That was a big one,” Isa added.
Along with the dirt on her face, her hair had picked up a fair amount of grime as well. In her efforts to clean herself, she had also somehow managed to create the impression of a thick moustache and beard.
Erin bit back a smile. She didn’t want to add to her wife’s irritable feelings. At the same time, she was pulling the data from the many seismometers stationed around the planet.
“It was the biggest earthquake this trip, and we were right on top of it.”
Athens had experienced five major earthquakes since their arrival eight days previously, instead of the usual two per week.
“Is it much farther to the place we’re meeting your colleagues?” Isa asked.
“Uh…” Erin wasn’t sure how much more hiking Isa could tolerate.
<Five point oh seven six kilometers,> said Walter.
She relayed the information. Isa made a face.
Martin shouldered his backpack. “Do you want me to carry your pack?” he asked Isa.
“You’re a sweetheart, but I’m alright, thanks.”
“It’s mostly downhill from here,” said Erin brightly. “Shouldn’t take us too long, but we’d better not hang around. Don’t want to keep the team waiting.”
She set off down the slope, digging the heels of her boots into the loose, dark soil. They would have to cross a cleft between two areas of high ground, and then climb again for a short while. Their destination was a lava field, where the two engineers who were responsible for the PETER were in the process of relocating a seismometer.
The PETER that was slowly cooling the planet was a vague band in the southern sky in daylight, the haziness of the atmosphere helping to obscure the gigantic structure hundreds of kilometers above the planet.
The rest of the slope was not so steep as the area Erin had tumbled down. They walked to the bottom quickly and began to cross the scrubby ground. The sparse vegetation made the going easy, though in the lower levels of the volcanic landscape, the odor of hydrogen sulfide grew stronger.
Isa wrinkled her nose. Even Martin began to look a little grumpy, and Erin had a hankering for a cocktail on the beach herself.
Nobody seemed in the mood for chatting, so silence reigned as they walked. No birds or other wildlife apart from insects had appeared in days. The animals of Athens were clearly too smart to try to live in the unstable, volatile zone.
They were still some distance from their destination when Martin said, “I can see your engineers. Look over there.”
Erin followed the direction he was pointing and saw two figures on high ground, silhouetted against a brilliant orange spit of lava that must have crept out after the earthquake.
“They’re so close to the lava,” said Isa. “Is that safe?”
“They probably aren’t as close as it looks,” Erin replied. “Besides, they’re wearing heat-resistant suits.”
After a few moments, the figures moved down and away from the lava, but the bronze sheen of the engineers’ suits meant they continued to stand out.
<Hey, Lark,> Erin said to the female engineer. <We’ll be with you soon.>
<Hi, Erin. Thanks for coming out to meet us. See you in a minute.>
* * * * *
When they arrived at the base of the slope that led up to the lava field, Lark had descended to the bottom and was waiting for them. The male engineer, Fazir, remained near the top, working on the seismometer they were relocating.
The lava stream wasn’t visible behind Fazir from the low ground, but it emerged to the left lower down the slope, spilling lazily, like someone had an accident while making fluorescent orange toffee. The air above it shimmered thickly with heat from the cooling lava.
Lark opened her visor and reached out to shake Erin’s hand. Erin introduced Martin and Isa.
“It’s nice of you to meet up with us while you’re on vacation,” Lark said.
“No problem,” Erin replied. “I thought, since we were in the area…”
“Yeah, we just happened to be passing by,” Isa said with a wry laugh and a glance at Erin.
Lark gave Isa puzzled look that turned into a suppressed grin of amusement. Erin realized Isa was still sporting her dirt beard and moustache.
“Have you heard from the Transcend’s engineers yet?” Erin asked.
While Lark answered in the negative, Erin caught Martin’s eye and subtly jerked her head toward Isa. He took a closer look at their mutual spouse, and his eyebrows rose. He took off his pack and, in a few moments, he had a bottle of water and cloth and had taken Isa to one side.
“Governor Richards ordered their ship to Carthage first,” said Lark. “We were informed they’ll be starting about the same time as you.”
“Right,” said Erin. “I want to establish a protocol with our visitors. Anything they ask for, I want you to send it to me first, okay? And all emerging data. So, for example, when you assess the readings from this latest earthquake, send them directly to me, and I’ll pass them onto the Transcend’s engineers. It won’t cause much of a delay—we should be able to figure out what’s wrong with the PETER in no time.”
“Of course. That’s why you’re here, right?” Lark’s pleasant expression had become strained.
Erin had expected to encounter an element of resentment. It was natural when an ‘outsider’ was brought in to help a specialist team do their job, especially when true outsiders were being brought in.
There wasn’t a lot Erin could do about it. Lark and Fazir’s security clearance was nowhere near high enough for them to know the true reason the Transcend was being sent in to help fix the PETER.
Lark called up to Fazir. “How are you doing? Are you going to come down here and say hello?”
The engineer had returned to the narrow ridge above the liquid lava. He raised a hand.
<I’ll be right there.> He waved at Erin in greeting.
As she waved back, Fazir suddenly wobbled. He turned his head to gauge his distance from the lava stream behind him, which only made him more unstable. He tried to regain his balance, his arms windmilling.
Lark cried out, “Fazir, be careful!”
She raced up the slope. Fazir’s arms flailed as if trying to grab something to prevent himself from falling, but nothing was there. Just as Lark reached him, one of his legs rose, and he toppled backward. In another moment, he was gone.
“Holy shit!” Martin exclaimed. He threw down his cloth and water bottle and ran up the slope.
“Fazir!” Lark screamed again.
Her arms rigid at her sides, she peered over the ridge to the stream of superheated lava below. Horrified by what she saw, she looked away.
Erin gaped, shock robbing her of speech.
STELLAR DATE: 04.11.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Lark suddenly burst into peals of laughter. Shaking with mirth, she doubled over and clutched her midriff.
Erin stared. Is the woman mad? Has she been driven insane by the shock of seeing Fazir die a horrible death?
Erin looked at Isa, hoping her wife might understand what was going on, but Isa appeared to be as astounded as she.
By this time, Martin had also reached the top of the ridge. He peered over the edge, his features riven with concern. Whatever it was he saw made him slump with relief.
He shook his head as if incredulous, and then indicated to Erin and Isa to watch the lava flow where it emerged farther down the slope.
Fazir’s feet and legs appeared first, covered in his all-in-one bronze-colored suit. They appeared unscathed.
Erin imagined an awful scenario of Fazir’s body being so badly burned it split in two, but his legs were quickly followed by his torso, arms, shoulders, and head in its helmet. He was entirely unharmed.
The man was lying on his back, floating atop the lava as it flowed downhill. When he saw Erin, he waved for a second time and climbed off the lava stream. Though his visor remained down, his poorly contained hilarity was evident as he walked over to the group, shoulders heaving from laughter. Each step that he took, pieces of lava that had stuck to the back of his suit cooled, hardened, and dropped away.
He lifted his visor as he approached, revealing a bearded face and eyes streaming with tears of laughter.
“Sorry,” he said between chuckles. “Couldn’t resist.” He laughed some more, squeezed his eyes closed, and wiped away tears with the back of his gloved hand. “Most people don’t know how well-insulated our suits are.”
Erin couldn’t find anything to say. What had just happened had to be probably the last thing she would have expected from two subordinates who were meeting their boss for the first time. Yet, technically, Fazir and Lark hadn’t done anything wrong. Playing a practical joke didn’t really count as insubordination. Erin was more in shock than anything else.
Witnessing her surprise and confusion, Fazir’s guffaws burst out again.
“I’m sorry,” he said after a few moments’ additional laughter, “but you should see your face.”
“I’m sorry too,” said Lark as she returned to Erin. “It was all his idea.”
“Hey,” Fazir said, “don’t put all the blame on me. It was you who said it would be good to do something to break the ice.”
“Yeah, but it was you who wanted to take it to the next level.”
“It’s okay,” said Erin. “I have to admit, you got us good.”
She wondered if Lark’s reserve when they had met had been a part of the joke too.
“Maybe it was a little crazy,” said Fazir. “To be honest, things have gotten boring here over the years.”
“I guess they must have,” said Erin.
Lark and Fazir had been tasked with maintaining the PETER ever since the Intrepid’s arrival. For a qualified engineer, it was a simple, low-grade job; both Lark and Fazir had come out of stasis at New Canaan qualified, but with minimal work experience.
Yet they were by no means dumb. As such, their work days must have been very unstimulating. Prior to the decline in the PETER’s efficiency, the years must have passed slowly for them.
“Tony said something similar,” Erin continued. “About getting bored, I mean. He told me several times that the FGT had left him with little to do.”
Fazir’s jovial expression faded at the mention of the planetary engineer’s name. “I hope you don’t think—”
“No, no,” Erin said. “I wasn’t imagining you two had anything to do with Tony or his crimes. I’m only bringing him up because I was wondering if he’d ever worked on the PETER. I didn’t see his name in the work log, but he might have paid an informal visit. He told me once or twice he was going to Athens due to some anomalies that had been spotted in the stabilization process.”
Erin had no reason to suspect that Lark and Fazir had been involved with the dead agent of Myrrdan who had tried to steal the picotech. According to all the information she had on the two engineers, they had rarely left Athens. That was one reason Tanis had thought it was safe to invite the Transcend engineers to assist them.
“I seem to remember he was supposed to come here at one time,” said Lark, “but we hadn’t set a specific date. Nothing major had happened at that stage. We’d only begun to see readings that were slightly off. We weren’t even sure anything was wrong, everything was within the tolerance range. Things only looked abnormal when we compared them to what we’d seen when we arrived. So when we didn’t hear from Tony for a while, we didn’t think anything about it.”
“He’d been over a few times prior to that, though,” Fazir said. “Just to shoot the breeze. I thought he was a great guy. I had no idea what he was really like.”
“Neither did anyone else, unfortunately,” said Erin. “I’m not going to rule out interference from him. Walter will be going over everything he did with a fine-tooth comb.”
<I suspect that he was looking for something to exploit, but settled on his other target, instead. Still, it will be good to rule his interference out.>
“Do you know what might be wrong with it, then?” Lark asked. “We’ve been over everything so many times, it’s driving us crazy.”
“I have a few ideas,” Erin replied. “Don’t worry. We’ll get it fixed.”
“What do you think about the Transcend’s engineers coming here too?” Lark asked. “I’m not afraid to admit I’m more than a little nervous. It’s going to be weird having them around.”
“That’s a second thing not to worry about,” said Erin, giving what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
The less Lark and Fazir knew about what was going on, the better.
* * * * *
<Those two are…> Isa left her sentence hanging, unable to come up with the descriptive word she needed, as they walked away from the two PETER engineers after saying goodbye.
Martin supplied not one, but two words. <Utterly insane.>
<That’s a bit unfair,> said Erin.
<Unfair?> Martin mentally spluttered. <They faked a man’s horrible, agonized death as a joke. A joke.>
<Well, maybe they are a little crazy,> said Erin. <But I think I might do the same in their position. Boredom does weird things to people.>
Isa shook her head, but just asked, “How far is it to the place you wanted to set up camp?”
“Not far. We’ll be there in a couple of hours, and we can rest up for the afternoon. And you’ll love it. I promise.”
Isa certainly hoped so. So far, she hadn’t enjoyed their expedition as much as she’d thought she would.
They hiked another seven kilometers or so, getting beyond the bare, exposed, volcanic zone and into a young forest that had sprung up on the north-facing side of a group of hills. The ashy ground gave way to lush undergrowth, and the air lost its sulfurous odor. A clear, warm stream appeared, tumbling down from the higher ground and flowing into round pools before gushing away in what sounded like a small waterfall farther down the track.
Tree ferns and giant, wild fig trees crowded the spot, draped in vines and hanging moss, and among the verdant vegetation, the exotic colors and sensual shapes of orchids peeked out.
They had arrived at a tropical oasis.
The place was beautiful, yet for perhaps the first time since arriving in New Canaan, Isa found she couldn’t enjoy the natural scene.
“This looks like the perfect place to set up camp,” said Martin.
“Yes, and it’s getting really hot now,” Erin replied. “Let’s look for some level ground.”
When they quickly found an area of flat forest where they could put up the tent, Isa was filled with relief.
“Do you mind if I rest while you two set up?” she asked.
“Sure,” replied Martin. “Take it easy. This is a job for two people anyway. Any more than that only complicates things.”
Isa took off her pack and dropped it on the ground before sitting on it. She leaned back on a tree trunk. She wasn’t actually that tired, or at least not physically. But she had been out of sorts ever since they had arrived in Athens.
She’d been whiny too, she knew. Martin and Erin were being patient with her, and she was grateful to them, yet she also couldn't seem to stop herself from making subtle complaints. Something was making her uncomfortable, but she couldn’t put her finger on it.
Martin and Erin had removed the tent from Martin’s backpack and placed it in an open spot. They stood next to Isa to avoid being in its way while it expanded. Isa watched as the structure popped up, almost too fast for the eye to follow.
“I’ll start up the environment control,” Martin said. “It’ll be nice and cool inside in no time.”
He disappeared into the tent, and Erin began to unpack the cooking equipment.
Isa recalled the previous time their family had gone camping. It had been during their ill-fated, short-lived stay on Troy. She had suggested a trip to a high plateau called Aeolia, with the idea that a change of pace and scene might kick Martin and Erin out of a disagreement they were stubbornly clinging on to. Her ploy had worked.
She also remembered that, at the time, she’d been dying to vacation on Athens. She’d counted the planet as her favorite place in New Canaan, though perhaps not for living year-round. Now was her final opportunity to enjoy Athens before their babies were born, so why couldn’t she?
“You can go first in the shower if you want,” Erin said, startling Isa out of her reverie.
“Thanks. That’ll be good.” Isa had felt dirty since falling down during the earthquake. “We aren’t at risk of a river of lava heading down here, are we?”
Erin laughed. “No. Well, it’s only a tiny risk. And you saw the speed of lava flows—we’d have plenty of time to get out of the way.”
“And the ground isn’t going to open up and swallow us?”
“You aren’t having much fun, are you?” asked Erin.
“You can tell?”
They shared a smile. Erin stopped setting up the dinner things and sat down next to Isa. They sat shoulder to shoulder in silence for a while. Isa listened to the invisible waterfall, finally feeling somewhat peaceful.
“I guess this wasn’t the best choice of vacation activities,” Erin admitted.
“No, it isn’t that. I’ve traveled and hiked plenty of times to make my installations. I usually love it.”
“So what’s wrong?”
“I wish I knew. I’ve felt bad ever since stepping off the shuttle at Attica Spaceport. I know this must sound crazy, but Athens is giving me the heebie-jeebies.”
“Maybe you’re sensitive to the heightened seismic activity.”
“Huh?” Isa turned to look at Erin. “Is that possible?”
“It can ionize the air, so it’s possible.”
“Maybe it’s only that I’m missing Jude.”
“Maybe. I miss him too, though I know he must be having a whale of a time with Cary and Saanvi. Hey, while Martin’s occupied, I want to talk to you about something.”
“I know what you’re going to say. This is about the names he’s been thinking up for the triplets, isn’t it?”
“You read my mind,” said Erin.
“I’m sure he wasn’t serious when he suggested Huey, Louis, and Dewey. He had that big fat grin on his face.”
“I know, but I don’t like the way his mind is working. I don’t think we should call our girls something cute that draws attention to the fact that they’re triplets. They might be sharing a womb, but they’re individuals.”
“I understand, and I agree. By the way, I don’t think I ever told you how much I love the fact that they’re together as they grow. I wasn’t sold on the idea at first, but now I see what you mean about keeping each other company.”
“Exactly. After seeing you when you were pregnant with Jude, a proxy womb seemed a kind of cold way to gestate a baby. Though I’m sure there aren’t any negative effects from the process. It’s only how I feel about it.”
“What we’re doing is a great compromise. I’m so looking forward to seeing them.”
“Well, you could always have them birthed when you and Martin get back to Carthage.”
“No way! You have to be there. Besides, we’ll need you around to look after them. Sometimes I worry about what we’re letting ourselves in for by having three babies at once.”
“Okay. I’ll try to speed things along with the PETER as much as I can. You never know, maybe I’ll be home before the Landfall Anniversary.”
“That would be great.”
Martin poked his head through the open tent flap. “Everything’s ready. It’s nice and cool in here. Want to come inside?”
“Great,” said Isa, standing up. “I need a shower.”
“While I was working,” Martin said, grinning, “I had another idea for the triplets’ names. What do you think about Eeenie, Meenie, and Minie?”
* * * * *
Erin offered to brush Isa’s hair after her shower. It was one of her favorite things to do. She sat cross-legged on the bed and Isa sat down in front of her. Erin grasped a tress of her wife’s hair and began to brush it.
“So, back to Attica in the morning,” said Martin as he joined them on the bed. “It’s been fun, but…”
“It hasn’t really been fun,” said Erin. “My fault. But the torture will soon be over. Tomorrow, we’ll be back at the hotel, basking in luxury and indulging our every whim.”
“I like the sound of that,” said Martin.
“And then I start work on the PETER.”
“Yeah,” said Martin, his tone suddenly flattening.
“What’s wrong?” asked Erin.
“I don’t like the idea of you working with the Transcend’s engineers,” he told her. “They’re practically our enemies. What good is going to come of inviting them into New Canaan?”
“Tanis explained it all when we dropped Jude off,” Erin replied. “She’s hoping the friendly gesture will help forestall them trying to seize our tech. The longer we have to prepare, the better. Didn’t you hear her?”
“I heard her. I’m just not convinced. And I don’t understand why it’s you who has to be around those people. You know all about New Canaan’s defenses, and they’ll guess that from your position. Why are you in the firing line again?”
“It isn’t always me who’s put forward for dangerous work, and you know it. And this isn’t even dangerous. The Transcend’s people are only going to be consulting on the performance of the PETER. It’s the perfect job for them. They aren’t going to find out anything about New Canaan’s defenses out here in Athens. And Lark and Fazir are so out of the loop, they couldn’t tell them anything sensitive if they wanted to.”
“I hate the way Tanis is so free and easy with other people’s safety,” Martin said, as if he hadn’t heard a word of what Erin had said. “I’ll never forget that time she frightened the living daylights out of Jude.”
“Hey,” said Isa, raising her hands and looking from Martin to Erin, “let’s not go there, okay?”
A retort rose to Erin’s lips, but she left it unspoken. Isa was right. Going over what had happened at the invasion drill on Troy wasn’t going to benefit anyone and would only stir up bad feelings. Martin’s opinion of Tanis had soured at that moment and it hadn’t really recovered since. He would probably always look with a jaundiced eye at everything New Canaan’s governor had a hand in.
Erin continued to brush Isa’s hair, keeping her thoughts to herself. In actuality, she was also worried about working with the Transcend’s engineers, though not for the same reasons as Martin. She wasn’t concerned that they might plumb her for useful intelligence; she wouldn’t have any problems keeping her knowledge of the shipyards inside hollowed out moons and other military secrets to herself—her concerns were just about getting along with people whose government was not on friendly terms with New Canaan’s.
Erin had brushed Isa’s hair until it was smooth and silky. She put the brush down on the bed, wrapped her arms around Isa’s waist, and rested her head on her wife’s shoulder.
“Tired?” Isa asked.
“Uh huh.” Now that Isa mentioned it, Erin did feel tired. It was probably due to the long hike in the heat of the Badlands that morning.
“We can always have a nap now and explore the oasis later, after sunset,” said Martin.
“Mmmm, sounds good,” said Erin. She pushed gently on Isa’s waist, forcing her to one side. Isa chuckled and didn’t protest. Together, they fell onto the mattress.
Erin snuggled up against Isa’s back and closed her eyes. She felt Martin lie down too, and then felt the pressure of his arm as he stretched it over both of them.
Despite her tiredness, sleep didn’t come quickly to Erin. The memory of a recent conversation with Tanis bugged her. Her worries stemmed from the final part of the conversation.
“This will be a little different from what you’re used to,” the governor had said, referring to the PETER-fixing assignment.
“I don’t see how,” Erin replied. “It’s only another engineering job. The fact that my colleagues are from our adversary won’t bother me.”
“No?” Tanis asked. “It should. This assignment has to go smoothly, Erin. It’s the perfect opportunity to encourage a lessening of tensions between us and the Transcend, but that also makes it the perfect opportunity for something to go badly wrong. Working with representatives from the Transcend will be an exercise in diplomacy.”
“Diplomacy?” Erin echoed, like an idiot.
The thought that she wouldn’t only be dealing in practical things hadn’t occurred to her. Fixing the PETER should be a cinch. But diplomacy? She had suddenly felt entirely out of her depth.
“That’s what I said.” Tanis cocked an eyebrow. “Whoever they send, you have to do your best to avoid direct confrontation—as much as that sucks, honestly. The last thing we want to do is piss them off. What we do want to do is send them back to Admiral Iysra’s flagship full of bonhomie for their New Canaanite friends.”
<Diplomacy,> Erin said to Walter.
<What about it?>
<Are you any good at it?>
<Without blowing my own trumpet, I think I may have some talent in that area.>
<Great, because I’m going to need all the help I can get.>
STELLAR DATE: 04.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Early the following morning, they ordered an aircar from Attica and set about packing up the camp while they waited for their ride to arrive. The heat of the Badlands had yet to penetrate the small open space in the tropical forest, and the air was refreshing and cool, if heavy with humidity.
Erin had finally slept heavily the previous night, despite her unease over the additional responsibility Tanis had placed on her with her latest role. Having her spouses close by always calmed her worries.
They had packed all their things into their backpacks and were only waiting on Martin to deflate the tent, when Isa suddenly grabbed Erin’s arm.
“Did you see it?”
She was looking in the direction of a clump of tree ferns, beyond which lay the waterfall they had visited late that afternoon.
“No, what?” Erin asked. Then she saw a flash of brilliant scarlet.
“There it is again! What is it?”
Martin paused in his work and looked up. “What did you see?”
“There’s something flying near the waterfall,” said Erin.
“Probably a—” said Martin, just as the creature flew into the small clearing.
It was a dragonfly, and what a dragonfly it was. The creature’s four transparent, veined wings spread a little less than a meter wide and its body was as thick as Martin’s arm.
“Cool,” he breathed. “I’d heard the FGT had seeded Athens with some ancient Earth species, but I didn’t know they’d included Protodonata.”
“What are they?” Isa asked.
“Dragonflies. Athens’ atmosphere is rich in oxygen, so they can grow pretty big. Makes lighting a fire risky, but it means we get to enjoy beauties like that.”
The huge dragonfly skimmed across the clearing, hovered for a moment, and then darted away again, its shimmering wings little more than a blur.
“Is that one of the insects whose larvae make silk?” asked Isa.
“No,” Martin replied. “But I can see why you would think that. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
“Whoa!” Isa exclaimed.
The dragonfly had perched on her head, balancing on the tips of its six long legs.
“Stay still,” said Erin. “I’m recording.”
Isa was more than ready to comply, but the sound of the approaching aircar spooked the insect. It flitted away within a moment.
“Oh no,” Isa said wistfully. “Still, it makes a nice end to our trip.”
“Tent’s put away,” Martin announced, picking up the pack.
The aircar appeared above the clearing, casting everything into shade.
“Move back, and I’ll tell it to land,” said Erin.
The vehicle from Attica dropped slowly into the clearing until it hovered a few centimeters above the ground. Erin unlocked it, and they loaded in their packs before climbing in.
The aircar swept up into the sky, and the spot where they had spent the night became a green splash in a steaming sea of brown, red, orange, and yellow.
“Bye-bye, Badlands,” said Isa. “I’ll be back when you’ve cooled down.”
Erin hoped that would be sooner rather than later, but it depended on her or the Transcend engineers being able to find out what was wrong with the PETER.
If the current situation continued, Athens would become more and more volatile and unstable. One extreme scenario was that the planet would become unlivable, even at the poles. All the tourists and the permanent residents who provided their services would have to be evacuated.
Erin didn’t know the figure without checking, but she guessed it might be as many as fifty thousand people.
What a nightmare it would be if they all have to leave at short notice.
She shook her mind free of the thought. Her worries were getting the better of her again.
In another couple of days, after finishing off her vacation in the luxurious resort at Attica, she would be able to get her teeth into the PETER assignment. Until then, she was determined to have fun with Martin and Isa. Usef was going to be there too, and Erin was glad of the opportunity to ensure the air between them was clear.
* * * * *
The tsunami surf-off was finally on.
“I can’t believe it’s taken so long for our schedules to match up so we can do this,” Martin said to Usef as they awaited the approaching, gigantic wave.
“Time’s flown, right?” the major replied. “The invasion defense prep has kept me pretty busy. I hope you’ve used your time well,” he added with a sardonic twist of his lips. “You better have gotten plenty of practice in. You don’t want to embarrass yourself.”
“Practice?” asked Martin, mirroring Usef’s challenging tone. “Who needs practice? I was surfing before I was in school. Had a little board about yay big.” He held his hands about a meter apart. “Must have been a second birthday present or something. But don’t let my greater experience bother you. I’ll teach you some moves later on if you like.”
Usef laughed good-naturedly.
“You guys!” said Erin, bobbing in the water beside them. “This is just a bit of fun, okay?”
“OK, sure,” Isa added a snort as she floated a little farther down the line of tsunami surfers. “That isn’t what you were saying at the limbo-dancing competition last night. When Usef nearly beat you, I thought you were going to injure yourself getting under the pole.”
“That was totally different,” said Erin. “I had a reputation to preserve. I wasn’t going to pass along my Limbo-Dancing Queen title to some upstart on her first vacation in Athens. But with Martin and Usef, it’s only a casual contest between buddies, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Martin, giving Usef a mock steely-eyed look.
When Usef returned the look, Martin wasn’t so certain the major was kidding.
The truth was, his own attitude was all fun and bravado. He didn’t really think he stood a chance against Major Usef, pride of the Marines and probably the fittest and strongest man in New Canaan. Martin only hoped that Erin and Isa wouldn’t tease him too much that evening, which was to be the last of their vacation.
“Here it comes!” called Isa.
Martin turned to see the wave barreling toward them like a megalodon on the attack. He powered his board forward while looking over his shoulder and watching the wall of water. He could hardly believe the size of the thing. Even for a tsunami, this was a monster. He guessed the excessive seismic activity that Athens was experiencing was responsible for the mammoth surge.
Timing the right moment to jump up on his board would be critical; if he miscalculated, he would be swept under the water and forced to wait in utter humiliation for the rescue team to arrive.
Martin drove his board onward, waiting for the exact split second to rise to his feet and surf.
The moment came.
He made it! He was up. Behind him, millions of tons of water surged forward, relentless and unstoppable. Looking around, he saw that Erin was also on her board—though appearing unsteady—but there was no sign of Isa. He checked again. Usef was up and riding the wave, but there was only a gap in the line where Isa had been.
<You okay?> he asked her. <I can’t see you.>
<Wait a sec,> she replied. A moment later, she answered, <Uh, yeah.>
Martin guessed she’d been waiting until she surfaced to reply.
Her rueful tone came through the Link once more. <I didn’t make it.>
<Sorry, love,> Erin chimed in.
<This one’s a whopper,> Martin said. <It could be the biggest I ever surfed I think.>
He rode the wave about a third of the way down from the top and was streaming steadily across it. Behind him, the still-rising deep blue bank roared.
<Too big for me,> Isa decided. <I contacted rescue. They shouldn’t take too long.>
<That’s too bad, Isa,> Erin said. <Next time.>
<Yeah, next time. See you both back at the hotel. I’ll be in the spa, enjoying a hot water massage, so don’t pity me too much. Good luck, Martin. Don’t forget, our family honor is at stake.>
<What?> Martin asked, sounding slightly alarmed.
<Yeah, you do know I didn’t mean all that ‘casual contest’ nonsense?> said Erin. <That limbo-dancing contest showed that the Marines are getting too damn cocky. It’s time to take them down a peg or two.>
<I thought that didn’t sound like you,> Martin said. <No pressure, right? Okay. Don’t worry, I got this.>
Things had gotten serious. Martin didn’t mind losing if it was only his pride involved, but he didn’t want to let down Isa and Erin.
His gaze had remained on Usef during the conversation with his spouses. The major hadn’t tried to do any tricks yet. He was probably waiting for Martin to make the first move.
Martin considered what to do first. There had been no need to agree to the rules; they were always the same in this kind of match. He and Usef would attempt more and more daring feats until finally one of them wiped out. Whoever remained on his board was the winner.
Deciding this called for some serious concentration, Martin pulled his favorite music from the Link, an instrumental piece with a heavy beat. Exactly what he required to block out any interfering thoughts or anxieties and clear his mind.
One of his best tricks popped into his head. Martin shifted on his board to alter its angle just a little. Soon he was rising, sliding inexorably upward to the crest of the tsunami towering above. The force of the water was so powerful, he found himself hurtling to the summit.
When he reached the top, his momentum carried him onward. He flew out into pure air, leaving the watery wall behind. Already, his board was turning, guided by his feet. He had just enough time to spin a perfect three-sixty-degree twist before gravity dragged him down, and he hit the wave again.
Martin glided smoothly back to his former position, Erin’s whoop so loud he could hear it faintly over the rushing of the water. He caught Usef’s glance as the major turned his head away. He had been watching.
<Not bad,> said Usef.
Martin was keeping an eye on the major, waiting for him to make his move. His own trick had been something most skilled surfers could pull off. What would Usef do to top it? The competition had only just begun.
Major Usef was already traveling like an arrow up the aquatic wall, the muscles in his massive legs rigid as iron. Usef’s speed increased as he neared the top.
Was I going that fast? Martin doubted it.
The large man rocketed off the highest point of the wave, sailed into the atmosphere, flipped head over heels in a loop, and splashed down again. If Martin hadn’t seen it with his own eyes, he would have found it hard to believe that someone of Usef’s physique could pull off such a dexterous maneuver.
<Good one,> Martin said to Usef, genuinely impressed.
But the heat of competition was on Martin now. He was sure he could do better. He’d barely started, in fact.
Turning his board, he headed downward.
<What are you going to next?> asked Erin.
Martin had almost forgotten she was there. <You’ll soon see. Gotta build up speed.>
The huge swell of water at the base of the wave zoomed up toward him. A moment before he reached the beginning of the long, tapering curve, Martin executed a bottom turn to bring himself around.
Rising again, he aimed himself at an angle that would lead him toward the peak of the tsunami high above. He gripped with his feet and rose, driving upward, drawing on the monstrous power of the water. All the way to his destination, his momentum increased until finally he felt like he was flying.
In spite of the music thumping in his head, an anxious reminder crept in: he had only succeeded in performing this trick once before.
Can I pull it off again?
He compressed his body low and tight. The open air approached at a breath-taking velocity.
He was there.
Martin burst upward like a cork from a champagne bottle. He looped. He looped again. The nose of his board slid toward the curling, white water. Martin had a vision of himself hitting at a bad angle, tumbling over and over down the entire height of the wave, disappearing ignominiously into the blue depths.
Then the bottom of his board hit the wave, and he was surfing again.
<Holy smokes, Martin,> said Erin. <I’m sending a vid of that to Isa or she won’t believe me.>
<Okay, maybe you do have a little talent, my friend,> said Usef. <Just a little.>
When Martin looked at him, the Marine was already doing a handstand on his board. So the major wasn’t going to attempt to outdo Martin’s stunt? That was a telling decision. Martin jumped and flipped onto his hands. <That’s kind of you to say so.>
<No problem.> Usef lifted one hand into the air and idly scratched the back of his head. Then he brought his hand around to cover his mouth as he yawned.
Martin also lifted a hand from his board, though he pretended to pick something out of his teeth. Erin’s laughter echoed in his mind.
Usef was standing on two hands again. As Martin watched, the major executed a figure-eight move on the near-vertical surface.
That was easy. Martin copied him, and then tried to think of a feat that would be impossible for Usef to perform. He had it.
As Martin flipped onto his feet, he checked with Eamon that his trick could work.
<Hypothetically, it’s possible,> the AI replied. <Your board is heavy enough, but you’ll have to move extremely fast.>
<Erin, come over here and surf right below me.>
<Huh? Why? What are you planning? You know I’m only just managing to stay on here, right?>
<It’s something I’ve never tried before. But it’ll be fine. Eamon said so.>
<What? Eamon spluttered. <I didn’t say any such thing.>
<Okay, Erin,> said Martin, <I need you to shuffle forward a little on your feet, if you can do it without losing your balance. Then stay steady as a rock.>
She was below him and just ahead, so Martin watched as she began to edge her feet forward. He could feel Usef’s gaze on them both.
Martin surfed closer and closer to Erin until his board was so close to hers they were almost touching. The tsunami would be petering out soon; it was now or never.
He made the leap.
Martin landed as lightly as he could on the back of Erin’s board, only mildly unbalancing her. A beat later, he bounced blindly backward onto his own board, estimating its new position. The board had flipped up, of course, but his feet hit the firm surface, not water, and he quickly brought his board under control.
I did it, first try! Martin almost jumped in elation, but he restrained himself.
<Did you just do what I think you just did?> asked Erin.
<Hmm. Interesting,> said Usef. <Never seen that before. Shouldn’t be too hard, though.>
<He’ll never pull it off,> Erin said privately to Martin.
<I hope not,> he replied. <I’m all out of ideas for anything to top it.>
One of Usef’s pals was dropping down the tsunami toward him. The woman was a typical Marine, tall and heavily muscled.
Martin’s hopes rose. He had a strong feeling that both Usef and his friend were too heavy to achieve the board-to-board jump.
The two Marines were lining up.
<Here they go,> said Erin.
She’s right, they’re never going to do it, Martin thought. His gaze was fixed on the pair, who had worked across the wave’s surface until they were some way along it.
Martin cut the music that had been pumping in his mind. Now all he could hear was the thundering water and the wind that beat steadily against his face.
Usef’s friend was trying to edge forward as Erin had done, but her board wobbled dangerously. She gave up trying to move any farther, clearly knowing that she would end up in the ocean if she moved another centimeter. That didn’t leave much room for Usef to land, but it looked like he was going to try anyway. The beefy Marine was eyeing his tiny landing space.
Suddenly, there was nowhere for him to land. At the same moment he’d jumped, the woman had slid slightly forward, and the tip of her board dipped. When Usef left his board, she began to tumble and her board overturned.
Usef smacked into the water like a breaching whale. The tsunami swallowed him like he had never existed.
Martin had done it. He felt a boyish pleasure.
<I would call that a decisive victory,> said Eamon.
Erin was already hollering. She turned toward Martin, raised two fists into the air, and pulled them down. The action unbalanced her, and she fell sideways. In an instant, the tsunami took her as well.
From somewhere in the watery depths, she asked, <Usef couldn’t have seen that, right?>
<I think you’re safe,> Martin replied, chuckling.
STELLAR DATE: 04.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
That night was their final night together on Athens. The next day, Erin would start work at the PETER, and Martin and Isa would return to Carthage. It was also Erin’s final chance to enjoy the luxurious benefits of an Attican tourist resort, and she wasn’t about to let the opportunity go to waste.
After dinner, she suggested that they go to the hotel’s outdoor pool to lounge about for a while and drink expensive cocktails. None of the other guests had the same idea, and the family found they had the pool area all to themselves.
The water was still and brilliantly mirrored the lights of the hotel and the outdoor lamps. Sounds of the remaining diners chatting drifted out from the hotel restaurant, but otherwise, the night was quiet.
Isa lay down on a lounger and closed her eyes.
“Don’t fall asleep yet,” said Erin. “There’s an after-dinner show I want to watch.”
“I’m not sleeping,” Isa replied. “I’m watching Martin’s surfing tricks again. They’re amazing. I wish I’d been there.”
“That’s definitely a vid for the family records,” said Erin. “I sent it to Jude already. He’ll be so proud of his daddy.”
“You did?” Isa’s eyes opened and she sat up. “That means the first thing he’ll want to do after we get back is get in the water and copy his father.”
“Don’t worry,” Martin said. “The swell in the Med doesn’t reach anything like tsunami heights.”
“I guess so.” Isa lay down again. “I miss him. And the triplets.”
“But they aren’t even born yet,” said Erin.
“I know, but…”
A servitor appeared, bringing their drinks. They were all trying something new. Erin had ordered a New Canaan Iced Tea, Martin was having a Picobomb, and Isa had been tempted by a Davy Jones Soda.
“We still haven’t thought of names for them,” said Martin.
“Huh?” asked Erin.
As she sipped her drink, she wondered if Martin had thought up some more nonsensical names.
Isa said, “It’s hard. Maybe we should—”
“I have a suggestion.” Martin put down his cocktail and propped his elbows on his knees. “What about Chico, Harpo, and Groucho?”
Erin snorted with laughter, sending a mouthful of cocktail up her nose.
“Aghhh, that burns! Walter, do something.” Her eyes were watering with the pain of alcohol inside her sinuses. At the same time, she couldn’t stop laughing. “Those must be the most stupid names I have ever heard!”
Isa was aghast. “Aren’t they boys’ names? They definitely sound like boys’ names.”
“Possibly,” Martin said. “I noticed them in an article on cultural icons of ancient Earth, but I didn’t read it closely. They have a ring to them, right?”
“He’s joking,” Erin said to Isa. “You are joking, Martin, aren’t you?”
The noise from the hotel suddenly increased in volume, indicating that someone had opened an exterior door. Erin glanced toward the structure and saw a large figure block the light, and recognized Usef. She was glad to see him.
“I’ve been looking for you all for a while,” said the major as he walked toward the loungers. He stopped in front of Martin and held out his massive paw. “Congratulations. That was some competition. I’ve never seen anyone do that last trick you did.”
“Thanks.” They shook. “That was a first for me, too. To be honest, I kinda cheated. Leaning on Marine augmentations a bit, there.”
“That wasn’t cheating, that was smart battle tactics.” Usef lifted an eyebrow at Erin. “Did you give him the idea?”
“Not me. But, uh, I wanted to talk to you about something, if you have a minute.”
Usef opened his mouth to reply, but all of a sudden, the ground began to shake, the water in the pool sloshing over the sides. Erin’s lounger jerked from side to side, and Martin’s shifted so hard he grabbed the armrests. Usef had dropped into a crouch.
After a few moments, the shaking stopped.
“That’s the first earthquake I’ve ever felt in Attica,” said Isa.
“Me too,” said Usef, “and I’ve been coming here for years.”
Erin frowned. “This is getting ridiculous. I’m glad I’m going up to the PETER first thing tomorrow.”
Usef said, “I’m going inside. A game of bar roulette is about to start. Enjoy the rest of the night.”
“Wait a minute,” Erin said. “I wanted to speak to you, remember?”
“We don’t have anything to talk about.” His expression was friendly.
Erin guessed he wanted to save them both a slightly embarrassing conversation. “So…we’re good?”
“We’re good,” Usef agreed, then he bade them goodnight and returned to the hotel.
“I’m glad you and the major sorted it out, whatever it was,” said Isa.
“What?” said Martin.
“Something happened during Erin’s training,” said Isa. She swiveled around to face Erin. “Didn’t it?”
“How did you know?”
Erin hadn’t told Isa or Martin anything that had gone on during the recent military training she’d undergone. She hadn’t thought either of them would be interested, and, more importantly, she’d needed time to process what had happened.
“Because you’ve hardly mentioned it,” said Isa.
“Yeah, come to think of it, that’s true,” Martin said.
Erin sighed. “Usef was…rough on me during the training.”
“Is that all?” said Martin. “You know what he’s like, Erin. I’m surprised that’s been bothering you.”
“No, this wasn’t his usual thing. I won’t go into the boring details, but he was very harsh at one point. I was upset at first, but now that I’ve thought about it, I understand.”
“Come on,” said Isa. “Spill the beans.”
“I thought he was trying to teach me a lesson about getting too cocky. Only I wasn’t being cocky, I just wanted to be the best, you know?”
“I do,” said Isa, giving her wife a knowing look. “So Usef got it wrong?”
“No. It was me who got it wrong. He wasn’t trying to teach me not to be cocky, he was trying to save my life—all our lives.”
She paused, deciding the story was too intense for the occasion.
“I’ll tell you about it another time. Let’s order another cocktail,” she suggested. “I’m going to have a Bob’s Fury.”
“Really?” asked Martin. “Did you read what’s in it? You’d better ask for Walter’s help with that, or I’ll be carrying you upstairs tonight.”
“You say that like it’s a bad thing,” Erin teased, smirking mischievously at him.
* * * * *
The rest of the evening and night passed in the best possible way. They enjoyed several more cocktails by the pool before joining the rest of the crowd inside the hotel. After watching the show, they went to their room and said a long, pleasurable goodbye until the next time they would be together again.
Erin woke early the next morning. The reality of parting from her spouses and beginning her latest assignment seemed almost cruel in the bleak, pre-dawn light that filtered in through the window. The memory of the training course returned stronger than ever, bringing with it the most important understanding she had taken from it.
New Canaan was currently enjoying a period of peace, but how long would it last? Had she, Martin, and Isa done the right thing in having Jude and the triplets, knowing that at some point, the star system could come under attack? Was it right to create new lives when the possible annihilation of the system lay on the horizon? What would happen to her family when the time came to defend their home?
Though Erin hadn’t said anything to Martin or Isa, such thoughts had been preying on her mind ever since the training. Like most of the population, her spouses seemed to find it easy to forget about the ever-present danger. Martin was absorbed in his work shaping Carthage’s marine ecosystems, and Isa was frequently engrossed in creating stunning, evocative installations for her gallery. And until recently, Erin felt that even she’d become complacent and forgetful that their enemy stood at their door.
Erin buried her face in Isa’s soft hair, and her mind drifted back in time. She was at the Landfall military training facility, taking part in the special combat course for selected civilian personnel.
When New Canaan eventually came under attack, Erin would be responsible for organizing the citizens’ defensive response in her local area. The idea was that the Marines would be left free to concentrate on defending critical sites, rather than people.
Erin had joined the course at Usef’s ‘invitation’, along with other New Canaanites who had demonstrated a high aptitude for combat skills.
The first days of training had gone well. The early schedule consisted mostly of shooting practice. That skill had always been one of Erin’s strengths, and she’d enjoyed the satisfaction of achieving exceptionally high scores.
Usef was on hand for the training, though he wasn’t acting as an instructor. He only hung around, quietly observing the sessions. When she’d returned her weapon to the store at the end of the day, he was there.
Upon seeing her, he said, “Ninety-eight-point-seven. Pretty good.”
Erin glowed at the rare praise from this man she greatly admired.
But then Usef added, “That’s it for target practice, though. Let’s see how you do without a gun in your hand.”
Erin felt her face fall. “I’m not looking forward to that.”
“I didn’t think you were, but all the trainees need to understand there’s more to fighting than wielding a weapon.”
Usef raised a sardonic eyebrow.
“I mean, I know there is,” said Erin, “but is there really more to it for someone like me? I’m not exactly built like a Marine.”
“True. Remember to tell that to your enemy. That’ll make him leave you alone.”
Erin exhaled heavily. “You know what I’m talking about, U—Major. If I’m faced with someone like you in a hand-to-hand fight, I won’t stand a chance. I might be able to slow them down, but eventually I’ll be overpowered.”
“In that case, you would have to do whatever you could, to escape, right?”
Erin recalled the sims Usef had devised to prepare the New Canaanites for invasion: no-win scenarios, fighting against all the odds, inevitable defeat and death. She guessed the hand-to-hand to combat training was going to be the same—for her, at least.
“Alright,” she replied. “I get it.”
However, the next day, training wasn’t as hard as she’d feared; not at first. The trainees were not fighting entirely unarmed…they had a blade.
The instructors taught them moves to avoid being stabbed and to disarm their opponent, and showed them where to stab their enemies to cause the most damage in the least amount of time.
The sessions only went over the basics, and Erin knew that it would take hundreds of hours of practice to perfect the techniques. Yet by the end of the section, she felt more confident about taking on an opponent while armed with only a knife.
It was during the final third of the course that things had gotten harder. That was when the trainees were entirely weaponless, and had to practice fighting with their bare hands.
Initially, the instructors paired up partners roughly equal in height, weight, and strength, but later on, they began to mix it up a little. They explained how a height differential could be a disadvantage, and not to the shorter person.
“A tall opponent has a longer reach, but he has a higher center of gravity,” the instructor explained. “He might also be slower. You can work that in your favor. Get him down on the ground, with you on top, and you’ll turn the tables pretty fast.”
As she’d predicted, Erin didn’t enjoy the hand-to-hand fighting as much as she liked shooting—mostly because she wasn’t as good at it. Yet she wasn’t so bad either…far from the worst in the class. She quickly learned the weakest spots to go for, like the neck, jaw, behind the ear, the solar plexus, groin, and knees. Knowing that brute strength was not at her disposal, she made it her goal to strike fast and hard to disable the other person as quickly as possible.
Though the training had been intense and exhausting, she approached the final day of the course fairly satisfied with her achievements.
Then the final session arrived. The trainees were to complete a program that covered everything they’d learned on the course, beginning with shooting, then moving on to knife fighting, and finishing with unarmed combat.
It was not a competition as such, but that was how everyone was treating it, Erin included. When she’d walked into the arena, she was not slow to notice Usef’s massive bulk spilling over the edges of a seat in the front row. Their gazes met, and he beckoned her over.
“How do you think you’re gonna do?” he’d asked.
“I don’t know,” Erin replied. Then she added, “Okay, I expect.”
Usef nodded, his expression enigmatic.
Doing well in the competition suddenly became even more important to Erin. Usef had put her forward for the course, and she wanted to show him that he’d made the right choice.
Little had she known the error she had fallen into at that moment.
The first half of the day went well, though the trainees were put through the wringer, given targets that were far harder to hit than anything they’d seen at the practice range. However, Erin’s skills didn’t fail her. She rose to the challenge, and by the time they broke for lunch, she’d led the field by several points.
She wondered if she could maintain her lead for the rest of the day. It was not certain by any means. Other trainees were better than her at knife fighting and hand-to-hand combat, but she remained determined to do her best.
When the knife fighting was over, Erin had lost ground in the scores, but she was still ahead. If she was partnered with someone who was physically her equal in the unarmed combat section, she would probably win the day.
On the other hand, if the instructors decided to randomly mix pairs, as they had during some of the training sessions, her prospects were far less certain. Only a few trainees were her size; unless she was lucky, she would end up matched with someone larger and stronger than her. Then she would lose so many points, she couldn’t possibly finish at the top of the board.
Erin had sent several glances Usef’s way over the course of the day, while he’d sat patiently watching all the competitions, his features betraying no opinion on what he saw.
For the first match, Erin’s partner was who she’d hoped it would be: Iris. The woman was a body modder from Ushu on Tyre, and not much larger than Erin. The two had frequently fought each other in sparring bouts, and Iris had only beaten Erin once in all the times they had been partnered.
Erin could see from the look on Iris’s face that she thought this match was going to go the usual way. A few minutes later, Erin proved her right. When the instructor told Erin to break her hold, she released Iris and straightened up, feeling somewhat pleased with herself.
She checked the scoreboard as the other results came in…. She was close to winning. Only one match remained.
She looked toward Usef’s seat, and was surprised to see it empty. Apparently, he had left the final training session before it was even finished. Erin sucked her teeth in disappointment.
Isn’t he interested in the final scores?
The instructors called out the pairs for the last match of the day, and the trainees began to line up. As Erin waited to hear who was to be her partner, she heard the arena doors open behind her.
“Erin,” said the instructor, “and Major Usef.”
She gaped and turned toward the doors. Usef was striding toward her, clad in training gear. His expression was serious.
Erin ran up to the instructor, avoiding Usef’s stare.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” she laughed without humor. “How in hell can I fight him?”
The instructor looked out over her head. “Everyone, take your positions.”
“Oh, come on,” said Erin. “This has to be some kind of a joke.”
“Take your positions, everyone,” the instructor said, glaring down at her.
Resigned that there was no escaping the fight, Erin trudged to the edge of the mat. Usef stood opposite her, hands loose at his sides. Erin had long been used to Usef’s bulky and impressive physical form, but she had never been more aware of his figure than at that moment.
I’m about to get my ass handed to me on a plate.
The klaxon announced the start of the competition. Usef strode onto the mat, and annoyance rose in Erin.
She’d been so close to winning the day. Even if she’d been matched against a bigger, stronger trainee, there had been a chance she might still have done it. But for some inexplicable reason, Usef, who she’d thought of as a friend, had decided to snatch away her opportunity.
<What the hell am I supposed to do?> she asked Walter, though she knew her question was pointless.
<I imagine you should perform the moves you’ve been taught,> he replied. <And soon, or you’ll lose by default.>
Ugh, Erin thought. Thanks for that.
For all they could do, sometimes AIs were totally useless.
Spurred on by irritation and ire, Erin ran at Usef. Not breaking her pace, she raised a fist to punch him in the throat, but before she was anywhere near her target, Usef idly brushed her arm aside as if flicking away an ant.
Without pause, Erin lifted her left hand, its fingers stiffened, and jabbed at his eyes. Usef slammed one of his great hands against her shoulder, knocking her down.
Erin hit the mat, but immediately tried to bounce up and away. Usef was too fast for her. He was already straddling her and reaching for her arms. Erin fought, bringing up a knee, aiming for Usef’s solar plexus, though she knew her chances of knocking the wind out of him were slim to nine.
She couldn’t make contact, he was pressing down on her too closely. She kicked at his knee and struck true, but had no effect on the solid muscle and bone.
Usef turned her over like he was flipping a pancake, and in another few seconds, it was over. He had one of her arms twisted behind her back and pinned. She couldn’t move. She was thoroughly defeated and had only made one offensive contact.
To add to her humiliation, she had a strong feeling Usef had allowed that single contact to happen.
The instructor called it, and Erin stopped struggling.
“Dammit, Usef,” she panted. “This isn’t fair.”
The major leaned down so that his mouth was next to her ear. “It’s never fair,” he hissed.
Erin craned her neck around to see Usef’s face, and was confronted with his intense stare.
“Even when death is certain,” he said, “fight anyway. This isn’t about winning a tournament, Erin. It’s about survival.”
He released his hold on her arm, and the pressure on her shoulder mercifully disappeared. Erin turned her face to the mat and heard Usef stand up and walk away. Then the arena doors had opened and closed.
“Can’t sleep?” asked Isa softly.
Erin’s mind returned to the hotel room, where she was lying in bed with her wife and husband. Isa’s hair was soft against her skin, and Martin was snoring gently in the quiet, pink-grey light of a new day.
“Just thinking about things,” Erin replied.
“You’re worrying, right?” Isa asked. “Try not to. You know, that uncomfortable feeling I’ve had since we arrived is gone. I’m sure everything’s going to be okay. With the Transcend engineers’ help, you’ll fix the PETER soon, and then you can come home, and we can birth the triplets.”
Yes, Erin thought, but what then? How much longer will we have before the peace in New Canaan is shattered?
STELLAR DATE: 04.15.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Attica Spaceport was busy with the usual stream of arrivals and departures. Erin walked with her spouses through the crowds to the exit that led to a private spacecraft. Erin had been assigned a skiff for her use during the PETER assignment, and Isa and Martin had come with her to see her off before heading back to the hotel, as their shuttle to the Odyssey didn’t leave until the evening.
When they arrived at the skiff in its hangar, Erin put down her bag and turned to give Isa a hug. She held onto her wife, not wanting to let go. Things had changed since the days when she would spend months away from Carthage, hollowing out moons in the outer system. Over the past couple of years, she’d hardly been away from home, so in that time, parting from the people she loved had grown that much harder.
She kissed Isa on the lips, then broke her hug and turned to Martin. She had to stand on her tiptoes to hug and kiss him.
“Better not keep those TSF engineers waiting,” said Martin, releasing her.
Perhaps he had sensed Erin’s sadness and thought it would be better if their goodbyes were not drawn out.
“Yeah,” Erin replied. She hesitated before adding, “With the way things are, there might be another earthquake and an unscheduled tsunami, so be careful. I wouldn’t go surfing again today if I were you.”
“Don’t worry about that,” said Martin. “I wasn’t planning to. Usef might ask for a rematch, and I’m not sure I’m up to it.”
“I don’t want to go surfing either,” said Isa. “I agree that things seem to be getting unsafe. It wouldn’t surprise me if they closed all the resorts and sent everyone home soon.”
“I think they’ll try to hang on for a month at least, until Landfall Day,” Martin said. “The preparations for the anniversary celebrations are already well underway. The Athenians are probably hoping the PETER will be fixed quickly and the planet returns to normal. They won’t want to waste all the work they’ve done.”
“Yeah, that makes sense,” said Isa. To Erin, she said, “I’m glad you’re going to be living up on the PETER and not down here. Do you know what it’s like up there?”
“If it’s like the other terraforming rigs I’ve worked on, it’s going to be pretty spartan. Quite the change from an Attican tourist resort. I’ll have to come down to the surface sometimes, but—”
Martin gave a polite cough.
Erin took the hint. “Okay, okay. I’m going. Give Jude a special cuddle from me and tell him Mommy Erin misses him.”
“We will,” Isa said. “Try and get that damned PETER fixed as fast as you can. We’re all going to miss you too.”
Erin lifted her bag onto her shoulder and walked over to the skiff, while Isa and Martin returned to the passenger hall of the spaceport. After Erin climbed inside the little two-seater, she started it up and taxied the vessel outside. A moment later, she was flying into the morning sky.
<I’m glad there’s one person I don’t have to say goodbye to.>
<Aww, I’m touched,> Walter replied. <Though, sadly, we will have to part ways quite soon.>
<Has it really been that long?> Erin counted the years since Walter had joined her. He was right. In only a few months’ time, they would have reached the time limit for their pairing. <Well, gee. I’m going to miss you.>
<And I you,> said Walter. <I’ve enjoyed sharing your mind and getting to know your family. But I’ve decided I want to stick around on Carthage for a while, so we can still chat.>
<I’m glad to hear it,> said Erin, and she meant it.
The PETER was coming into view as Erin entered the upper atmosphere, though she had thousands of kilometers yet to travel. The structure was so vast, encircling Athens above the planet’s equator, that she didn’t have to go far beyond the northern polar circle to be able to see it.
Hanging motionless six hundred kilometers above Athens’ surface, the PETER was one hundred kilometers wide and nearly a thousand meters thick. Most of the structure looked like little more than scaffolding. The lowest section housed most of the machinery, including the tens of thousands of nodes that drew energy from the planet via a high-frequency waveform.
According to the information the FGT had left behind, the PETER should have operated with no intervention for the next several hundred years as it completed Athens’ cooling and stabilization.
Erin’s mind was switching modes, and she was mentally reminding herself of the specs of the planetary engineering device. Next, she began to recheck the diagnostic testing results Lark had sent her.
Five minutes before she would arrive at the PETER’s Command and Control section, she sent Lark and Fazir a message that she was on final approach and would see them soon. The PETER’s many criss-crossing struts now filled her immediate view.
She guided the skiff toward a black, rectangular hole that was the entrance to the C&C’s landing bay. As soon as she had flown the skiff through the opening and set the vessel down, Erin saw Fazir and Lark emerge into the bay.
“There’s no need to come to fetch me,” Erin said as she climbed out and grabbed her bag. “I was going to go straight to the meeting room.”
“We guessed that,” Lark replied. “We actually came out here to escape the our vistors for a few minutes. Things were getting awkward.”
“How so?” Erin asked, recalling how Tanis had stressed the importance of maintaining a diplomatic accord with their guests.
“They arrived an hour ago,” said Fazir, “It’s really nothing with them, the situation is a bit awkward. Turns out that they’re not FGT engineers, they’re just from the TSF fleet out there and have a bit more data on the PETER than we do.”
“Really?” Erin blew out a long breath. “I wonder why they didn’t just send us that additional data. If these people haven’t ever worked on one of these rings, they probably know less than you two.”
Lark and Fazir nodded, sharing an uncertain look.
“What are they like?” asked Erin as they walked out of the bay.
“Put it this way,” said Fazir. “If we’d forgotten about the threat the Transcend represents, they’re here to remind us.”
“Great,” said Erin heavily.
As she stepped into the meeting room, she immediately saw what Fazir meant. For one thing, Admiral Iysra had sent four engineers to consult on the problem with the PETER. Erin had been expecting two at most. Four was certainly overkill.
What concerned her most was that she, Lark, and Fazir were outnumbered. Though she doubted the Transcend could do much to hurt New Canaan from high up on a PETER, security was an issue. If the group split up, they would not be able to keep an eye on them all at once.
Making a mental note to speak to Athens’ AI, Phaedra, about her concerns, she introduced herself.
A tall, raven-haired woman was the first to come forward and shake hands. “Reiko.”
Three men accompanied Reiko. Erin was already reading the profiles the Transcend had sent of its consulting engineers. The men’s names were Jere, Hal, and Leif.
The three identified themselves to Erin, and she greeted them, thanking them for their help. The one called Jere was in need of a rejuvenation treatment. His brown hair had silvered above his ears and around his temples, and faint lines framed his mouth and radiated from his eyes.
Hal was curly-haired and, unlike the others, wore an open, innocent expression. He immediately reminded Erin of Tony, which caused her to distrust him more than the rest.
Leif was burly and bearded, and his hair was dark blond. His grip was powerful as he shook Erin’s hand.
“Let’s sit,” Erin suggested.
“Wait,” said Reiko. “Before we begin talking about the PETER’s issues, I want to say something to clear the air.”
Jere and Hal shared a look.
“Go ahead,” Erin said.
“Before we were allowed to come to Athens, we were told we had to divert to Carthage, without any explanation as to why. When we arrived there, we were detained and our belongings were thoroughly searched. No one would tell us anything, only that the procedure was a condition of our entry into New Canaan. I want to know why we were subjected to such degrading treatment.”
“Degrading?” asked Erin. “You think being searched when entering a foreign territory is degrading?” The words were out before she remembered she was supposed to be steering the group on a diplomatic course.
“Yes,” Reiko said emphatically, “I do.” Her gaze challenged Erin’s stare.
Erin broke eye contact first, though the action rankled. “I’m sorry you feel that way. I can assure you that no offense was intended, but you have to understand that you have entered an autonomous system, distinct from the Transcend.”
“We are not at war,” said Reiko. “We’re here to help you. We should not be treated like an enemy.”
Erin gave an inward sigh. Were they told to avoid treading on toes? There was no sign of it.
She gritted her teeth. “And New Canaan is grateful for your presence. If your experience in entering our system has been unpleasant, I can only apologize.”
<Dammit, I hate apologizing when there’s nothing to apologize for,> she vented to Walter.
<Exactly,> he replied. <If you had boarded Admiral Iysra’s flagship, you would have expected to be searched. It’s standard procedure.>
But pointing out the obvious to Reiko would not be wise. Erin had to try to avoid arguing with the woman, especially at their very first meeting.
The female engineer pulled out a seat and sat down, folding her arms across her chest.
Judging by Reiko’s attitude, Erin thought, there will be plenty of opportunities for arguing later.
“Shall we all sit down?” she invited the others.
The three male engineers took their seats. From their demeanor, they appeared not to support Reiko in her complaint, Erin noted. She hoped it was a sign that they would be easier co-workers.
“I’ve sent you the relevant data,” she told them. “We need some ideas about where to start looking for the source of the problem.”
Pragmatically, New Canaan could benefit from the engineers’ experience and know-how. Erin was genuinely interested in what they had to say.
The burly one called Leif said, “I don’t understand why we can’t have free access to all the data. We’ll need to see everything you have on the PETER and Athens’ seismology since you took over the system.”
“Everything?” Erin asked, skirting the man’s first statement. “Are you sure it’s necessary to go back that far? That’s a helluva lot of information. I believe we’re more likely to discover what’s gone wrong if we look at the time period prior to the onset of the anomalous readings.”
“Yes, it’s necessary,” said Reiko. “I understand you don’t have a lot of experience in planetary engineering, so I can see why you wouldn’t know that.”
Fazir’s eyebrows rose. He looked at Lark, who remained poker-faced.
Erin nearly rose to the bait, but she checked herself. Reiko was only trying to provoke a reaction. Erin’s work history was readily available to the visiting engineers. Reiko knew all about what Erin had done at Victoria.
“I’ll look into what other data I can send you,” Erin said.
<Nice response,> said Walter. <You seem to be getting the hang of diplomacy rather fast.>
<Ugh, don’t speak too soon.>
“I have a suggestion on where we might start,” said Fazir.
“Go ahead,” said Erin.
“I’ve been wondering about this for a few days. What if it’s only a calibration fault? Lark and I have done our best to make sure that all the nodes are properly configured. We went over it awhile back, but you all might spot a nuance we missed, not being familiar with some of the Transcend’s nomenclature.”
“I don’t think it could be that, Fazir,” Lark said. “We saw the change in the readings way before the last time we checked the standard.”
“But what if the small swing we saw in the beginning isn’t anything to do with what’s happening now?” he asked. “The PETER ran so smoothly for so long, we noticed a change even though it was in acceptable limits. It could be that the fault occurred much later, and we’re making a connection with earlier readings that isn’t there.”
“You could have a point,” said Erin. “It won’t hurt to check the standard setting and then recalibrate all the nodes. If we begin to see a change in the seismic readings, we might have found the problem.”
“That’s taking things a little fast, isn’t it?” asked Reiko. “It would make more sense to work up from the basics.”
“No,” said Erin. “There’s no point in overhauling the entire mechanism if it isn’t necessary. I want to fix the PETER. The Landfall Day celebration is coming up in a month’s time. If a quick fix is a possibility, we should go for it.”
The Transcend’s engineers looked skeptical, but she was in charge, so it was tough luck if they didn’t like her proposal.
Then Leif said, “But—”
“Have you seen your quarters yet?” asked Erin.
“No,” replied Leif. “But there’s—”
“Let me take you to your rooms,” said Erin. “I’m sure you’ll want to freshen up after your journey from Carthage.” She pushed her chair back and stood up. “And I want to check that you have everything you need.”
Leif gave up trying to voice his objection. The Transcend engineers all left their seats and began to file out of the room.
Lark smiled conspiratorially at Erin as she walked alongside her. <You back-footed them nicely.>
<I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,> Erin replied innocently, though she returned Lark’s smile.
She had put the Transcend engineers in their place for the time being, but she hoped that Fazir was correct about the problem with the PETER. If not, she would have two major occupations for the near future: fixing the PETER and keeping the visiting engineers within tight bounds.
STELLAR DATE: 04.18.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
A few days later, the engineers were forced to conclude that Fazir’s suggestion hadn’t worked. Rather than beginning to flatten out, Athens’ seismic activity had increased by a leap.
Erin was finding the learning curve to maintain a diplomatic façade similarly steep. Engineers were plain-speaking people. The concept that they might hurt someone’s feelings rarely entered their heads. What mattered was getting the job done. If someone was wrong, engineers were quick to point out the fault, whether it related to the work at hand or an attitude or behavior. Yet they were equally quick to forgive and forget.
Except, Erin reflected as she and the others made ready to go down to the surface, when they can get some fun out of an incident.
After she’d nearly crashed a pinnace on the Trojan space station, Messene, McCarthy and Linch had milked the memory for endless jokes and teasing. She knew they wouldn’t let up with wisecracks about her poor navigation and steering skills for years, but she vastly preferred that to the horrible, woolly-mouthed artfulness she had to exercise around the representatives from the Transcend.
That morning, they were heading to the surface to deploy more core probes into the planet to help with collecting data on Athen’s internal state. Erin had wondered if it was an uneven functioning of the PETER, not a system-wide deficiency, that was causing the planet’s problems. If only one or more of the PETER’s sections wasn’t working as it should, the effects would be measurable in the corresponding places in the crust.
The engineers were in the bay that held the skiffs and the drones used for hauling large items of equipment. While Erin was sending the coordinates to the drones, she became distracted by Fazir waving his arms enthusiastically. He was in the middle of explaining something to Leif, Hal, and Jere. Lark and Reiko were already climbing into a skiff.
“Hey, Erin,” said Jere. “Are you taking the long way down too?”
“Am I what?” she replied.
“It’s only an idea,” Fazir said. “But it’ll make the journey more interesting.”
“I hope you’re not suggesting what I think you’re suggesting,” said Erin, only partly joking.
“If you’re thinking I’m suggesting that we planet dive, your hopes are in vain,” said Fazir.
“From up here?” Erin asked incredulously.
Off the top of her head, she could think of at least four separate ways to die from attempting to planet dive the six hundred kilometers to the surface.
“From up here,” confirmed Fazir.
“Sounds great,” said Hal. “It makes a change from a skiff.”
The engineer’s face was lit with excitement. Jere appeared to feel the same way.
“What do you say?” Fazir asked.
Erin hesitated. Jere and Hal had become more friendly over the previous days. Even Leif and Reiko seemed less frosty. It would be a shame not to build on the burgeoning camaraderie.
“I fixed wings onto our EV suits,” said Fazir, “and added a-grav packs. It really isn’t dangerous, and it’s a lot of fun.”
Reiko and Lark’s skiff was leaving the bay.
<See you later,> Lark said to Erin. <I take it you’re planet diving with the guys?>
<It looks like it,> Erin replied. <So you’re stuck with Reiko for a while.>
<To be honest, she seems okay now I’ve gotten to know her a bit.>
<I used to think Tony was a really nice guy too.>
“So, what do you say?” asked Fazir.
“Okay,” Erin replied.
“Fantastic,” said Fazir. “I’ll fetch the suits. I built a launch station near the bay. Actually, I have to confess I built planet diving launch stations at most of the bays. What can I say? I had a lot of time on my hands until recently.”
Erin lifted an eyebrow, but didn’t comment. She wasn’t certaint that she wouldn’t have done something similar after years of the same assignment.
“I’m looking forward to setting foot on real soil,” said Hal. “When we went to High Carthage, it was the first time I’d even seen a seen a terraformed planet in years.”
“A change of scenery is good once in a while,” Erin replied.
“I’ve been in the black too long,” said Hal. “That was one reason I put myself forward for this assignment.”
“Here we go,” said Fazir as he returned laden with five of his adapted EV suits.
“How come you have so many?” Erin asked.
A subtle flush spread over Fazir’s face. “I, er…. Sometimes, if my friends were vacationing on Athens….”
“All right,” said Erin. “You don’t have to explain. I get it.”
Inviting your buddies up to the PETER in order to take them planet diving wasn’t strictly against the rules. However, that was mostly because no one had imagined that jumping out of a PETER would be a thing.
Fazir handed Erin an EV suit, and she checked it over before putting it on. Fazir seemed to have done a good job in adapting the suit.
<Is it safe?> Erin asked Walter.
<Do you mean the suit or what you’re about to do in it?> Walter retorted, sounding a little peevish.
Erin wondered what was eating him. <Both, I guess. You know I’m only doing this to be friendly, right?>
<I know. All your suit’s systems are operational. But I’m still uncomfortable around these people. I’m not sure you should put yourself into potentially dangerous situations with them. I have tried many times to build a rapport with their AIs, but they barely communicate with me. I receive monosyllabic answers at best.>
<Hmm. I see what you mean. I’ll make it the first and last time we do this.>
The seals on Erin’s suit closed. The others were ready too, so Fazir led the group to his specially constructed launch site. The portal slid open. Outside, a simple platform with railings was fixed to the PETER.
They were looking directly out at inky black speckled with hard points of light. Their side of Athens was facing Canaan Prime, which hung heavy and solid in space. Athens’ surface was bright in daylight six hundred kilometers below.
It was a long, long way down.
Lark and Reiko’s skiff had shrunk to a mere dot, barely distinguishable against the planet below. The drones were slower and therefore larger, their forms bulky and irregular compared to the probe equipment slung beneath them.
Erin felt rare fingers of nervousness reaching inside her. Not usually fazed by daring feats, this one was giving her the willies.
<You’re sure you’ve done this before?> she asked Fazir.
<More times than it would be wise for me to admit to my boss, if I’m honest.> Switching to the group channel, he went on, <I’m sure I don’t need to tell you all, but you can freefall for about three hundred and fifty kilometers before you must activate your a-grav to begin braking. That’ll take about four minutes, and you’ll reach seven thousand kph. If you don’t start braking then, you’ll hit the atmosphere too fast, and it won’t be pretty. I’ll go first. See you in the hot mud.>
With those words, Fazir leapt. He hung in the near-weightlessness for several heartbeats before beginning to float gently toward the brown, green, and brilliant blue ball below.
<Come on in,> said Fazir. <The water’s fine.>
He opened his suit’s wings—probably for effect, seeing as there was no atmosphere to glide on. His silvery, spread-eagled shape grew smaller.
Now that it came to actually taking the plunge, Hal, Leif, and Jere’s behavior was not matching their earlier eagerness. All three men were hanging back, holding onto the railings of the launch platform.
<We can still take a skiff if you’d prefer,> Erin said.
Jere seemed to take this as a challenge. <Come on, guys! We have the TSF’s rep to uphold.>
This appeared to spur Hal into action. He pushed himself away from the hull and launched into space, issuing a <Woooweee!> as he floated away. He pirouetted, and his spin continued as he fell.
Erin smiled at the man’s antics.
<I was only waiting because I was trying to think up some moves,> said Jere.
He stepped to the platform’s edge and jumped off, executing some forward rolls before spreading out his limbs. He fell away backward, waving.
<Do you want to go next?> Leif asked.
<You first,> replied Erin.
<Hell yeah.> Leif took a couple of strides and stepped into space.
Erin waited a moment before following him. She took two long steps forward and then, with the third, hit nothingness. She was floating and slowly dropping.
By this time, Fazir was a winged, silver doll against the round jewel of Athens. The other engineers increased in size according to their proximity to Erin. They looked like they were having a good time, swooping like birds of prey and performing aerial acrobatics.
<I’ve lost Reiko.> Lark reached out to Erin privately.
<What? How? What’s happening down there?>
<I’m so sorry. The drones arrived with the probes, and I was busy setting one up. I thought Reiko was, too, but when I looked up, she was gone.>
<Ask her where she is, Lark. She can’t have gone far.>
<I will. Oh, wait. I can see her. She’s on her way back,> Lark said.
<How long has she been gone?>
There was a pause before her teammate answered. <I’m not sure. She says she was taking a look around because she hasn’t been planetside for a while.>
<Okay. Don’t worry too much. If she was snooping, she won’t find anything about New Canaan’s defenses down there.>
<That’s what I thought. I’ll be more careful though. I’ve asked her to help me set up.>
<Good.> Erin said to Phaedra, <Remember when I asked you to track the locations of the Transcend’s engineers at all times? I want to know where Reiko went just now.>
<She walked three hundred and sixty-eight meters away from Lark to the edge of a set of fumaroles, and then returned to Lark via a circuitous route.>
<Thanks. Anything notable about where she went?>
<Not that I’m aware of.>
Erin continued to fall, building speed, wondering what Reiko had been doing. The woman’s explanation rang hollow, but Erin couldn’t figure out what other motivation she might have had for wandering off. There wasn’t anything where Lark was setting up a probe except, as Fazir had said, hot mud. Maybe Reiko had only been trying to find out what would happen if she disappeared for a while.
The tug of Athens’ gravity was growing stronger. Erin checked her speed. She didn’t want to activate her a-grav pack too soon, or it would take forever for her to reach the surface. One of the Transcend’s engineers had gone AWOL already; she didn’t want to give anyone else a chance to do so.
Erin twisted sideways, spinning parallel to the planet’s surface. Athens rotated into view, and along with it, the other divers, though the one farthest beneath her one wasn’t much more than a speck. She had lost sight of Fazir entirely, until she used her augmented vision to seek him out.
Time to catch up to everyone.
Erin fired her a-grav emitters to slow her orbital velocity and push her closer to the planet below. Her speed increased, and she caught up to and passed a Transcend engineer. From his size, she guessed it was Leif. When she passed the next one, she caught a glimpse of him waving. Then she passed the third. Only Fazir was now below her.
She reached the upper edge of the planet’s troposphere and increased the a-grav field, shielding herself from the buffeting winds, and slowing her descent to a more manageable speed.
She’d settled down to a sedate two hundred kilometres per hour when something slammed into her, and her world spun out of control as she was sent twirling end over end. Space and Athens swapped places at dizzying speed.
<What the hell?!>
She fought to regain control, firing the EV suit’s propellent devices in the opposite direction of her spin, which decreased her spin.
<You were falling too fast,> said Walter. <I turned on your stabilizers.>
<Thanks. Now if you could give me something for nausea, that would be the cherry on the cake.>
<Sorry, I missed that. Here it comes.>
When Erin finally stopped spinning, she was surprised at how close she was to the planet’s surface. Comms were arriving from all her companions, asking after her status. The one Erin heard over all the others was Leif’s.
<Sorry about that,> he said.
<You’re what hit me?>
<I was trying to catch up to you, but I got a bit out of control. I guess I should have looked where I was going.>
Leif had managed to hit one of only two objects in all the airspace nearby.
<Yeah,> Erin replied. <I guess you should have.> To Walter, she said, <Do you believe him?>
<Not for a second.>
Erin didn’t know what stunt Leif had been trying to pull, but it was obvious he was lying.
The exercise of fixing the PETER had suddenly become a lot more serious. More than ever, Erin had to work to maintain a diplomatic friendliness.
She said to Leif, <Sorry for being snippy. You scared me for a moment there. Let’s forget about it and concentrate on arriving at the site in one piece.>
STELLAR DATE: 04.18.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Planet’s surface
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Lark and Reiko’s work on installing the probe progressed in near silence. The mid-air collision, or as Erin mentally referred to it, Leif’s barely disguised and poorly executed attempt on her life, had thrown a pall on the general mood.
After he and Erin had arrived at the site, the visiting engineer apologized so repeatedly and profusely that it became irritating and embarrassing to Erin. She had to snap at him to make him stop. Reiko frowned in disapproval. Lark pretended not to notice, focusing on the drilling.
By the time Jere, Hal, and Fazir had also arrived, the awkwardness had turned infectious, and the newcomers quickly succumbed to the disease. Leif’s ‘accident’ had redrawn the line between the two teams of engineers.
Drones from the PETER were already depositing more probes and drilling equipment at pre-designated sites across the landscape. Erin doled out the work, taking care to pair New Canaanite and TSF engineers, and skiffs settled down nearby to transport the engineers to the other sites.
Erin took a short walk away from the group while they waited a few minutes for the additional skiffs. The more she thought about Leif’s behavior, the more she got the sense that she was being played; no one as dumb and thoughtless as Leif was acting could have achieved the position of a highly ranked engineer.
Lark and Fazir could be wild and reckless, but when it came down their job, they knew when to be serious. They wouldn’t have accidentally crashed into someone when planet diving—on the remote chance that they had, they would have made a sincere apology and left it at that. They certainly wouldn’t have come out with idiotic and disrespectful remarks to their boss.
What Leif had done could have killed her. Was his intent really murder? What would that achieve?
Erin wondered if Leif had been trying to trigger a diplomatic crisis that might lead to active hostilities. Perhaps the Transcend was trying to find an excuse to attack New Canaan.
She could only guess that Leif was playing an elaborate game, the intent of which wasn’t clear. She decided to ask the opinion of someone much smarter than her.
<Walter, what do you think about Leif?>
<His behaviour in general leads me to believe that he’s the most aggressive of all the visiting engineers. You will need to be especially careful around him, Erin.>
<I’m glad you agree. Have you picked up on anything specific?>
<Just his reactions to various statements. He’s playing a clever game. He hasn’t done anything that you could use as a pretext for expelling him from New Canaan. If you do ask Tanis to order him to leave, Admiral Iysra would seem justified in recalling the others too. Hostile feelings between us and the Transcend will increase, and we both know where that would lead.>
<You’re right. I’ll talk to Lark and Fazir about him. I think Leif has plenty more planned. He’ll be waiting for more opportunities.>
<Opportunities to do what, I wonder?> asked Walter. <I suppose what would be useful to the Transcend Space Force and Admiral Iysra is information about New Canaan’s defense strategies and capabilities, but if that’s his aim, why do something that could kill you? You won’t be able to tell him much if you’re dead.>
<No,> replied Erin, <but you could.>
<Ah. That is true.>
<You’ve been inside my mind since the colonization began. Hollowing out the moons to build the shipyards, working with picotech, taking part in invasion drills….>
<And what a delightful mind it’s been to inhabit.>
<That’s sweet of you to say. It’s been good having you around too.>
<Which is another reason it’s important for you to watch Leif. I’d hate to break up our partnership prematurely.>
Putting aside concern over Leif, Erin took a look around at where her short walk had taken her. She wished Isa was around to see this part of the Badlands; the region was more settled than the site of their hiking trip. Trees had colonized the rich, volcanic soil decades previously, and between rocky slopes and lakes, thick forests flourished. From where she stood, Erin could see a clear lake, the steaming, transparent water stained cerulean by minerals. Around the lake’s edge ran a wide strip of brilliant orange.
Hearing the skiffs land, Erin turned and walked back to the other engineers.
Their work that day comprised setting up the equipment and supervising the drilling into the crust before inserting the probes. After the initial setup, there was actually little to do until it came time to insert the probes. Occasionally, a drill might hit something unexpected, like an upswelling of magma or a pocket of pressurized gas, and in such an instance, the rig would communicate with Walter, and he and Erin would select an alternative site. But these occasions were rare. The work mostly involved a lot of waiting around, sitting in the air-conditioned comfort of a skiff.
By the time evening approached, the tension between the two teams had eased somewhat. The tedium of the work made it hard for them to avoid speaking.
Hal and Jere told some funny stories over the Link about Admiral Iysra, and Fazir related some of his and Lark’s exploits on Athens. Erin was alarmed to hear they had been wearing their heat-resistant suits and sitting on geysers, waiting to be thrust tens of meters into the air. She rolled her eyes as she listened, while hearing the laughter of the Transcend’s engineers.
Monotony sure drives smart people to do dumb things.
Darkness was falling, and all the probes had been inserted. The engineers returned to their original landing site.
As everyone was packing up, Fazir said to Erin, <What do you say we all go out somewhere tonight?>
<I don’t know,> said Erin. <Maybe we should call it a day and head back to the PETER. It’s a long way to Attica from here.>
<I wasn’t thinking of going all the way to Attica. There’s a little outpost less than half an hour away by skiff. It’s not much to look at, but there’s somewhere we can sit and drink. I think it would be good for us all to relax a little. I’d like to try to fix things between us and our guests. I feel kinda responsible for what happened.>
<You feel responsible for Leif nearly killing me? How could that be your fault?>
<It was me who suggested planet diving. And it is a pretty dangerous activity from that height, now I come to think of it.>
<Oh, that just occurred to you, did it?>
<If you want to give me a hard time, go ahead. I probably deserve it.>
<No, I’m not going to give you a hard time,> said Erin. <You didn’t deprive Leif of his navigation skills or his common sense. But maybe you’re right about doing something to build some team spirit. Go ahead and invite them if you want to.>
“Hey, what do you say to grabbing some beers?” Fazir asked the group.
“You want to go to Delphi?” asked Lark before any of them could answer. “I guess that could be fun. It’s an interesting place, at least the first few times.”
“I should warn you,” said Fazir to the Transcend’s engineers, “Delphi’s rough and ready. On the edge, if you know what I mean.”
“I like the sound of that,” Hal said. “Let’s do it.”
“On the edge sounds good to me too,” said Jere. “I’m in.”
“Erin?” asked Fazir. “You’re coming as well, right?”
Wherever the Transcend engineers went, Erin had to follow.
“Sure, I’ll come along. But let’s not stay out too late, okay? We’ll need to be sharp in the morning to interpret the data the probes pick up overnight.”
“Yes, Mom,” said Leif.
Erin gave him a look that froze his juvenile grin.
STELLAR DATE: 04.18.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: En route to Delphi
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin accompanied Hal in a skiff to Delphi while Lark went with Reiko and Leif, and Fazir gave Jere a ride.
“I guess that must be it,” said Hal.
They had been cruising alongside a low mountain range for several minutes, heading for the coordinates Fazir had given Erin, before Hal spotted the anomaly in the regular slopes. An opening like a gigantic mouth yawned in the mountainside.
Now that Hal had drawn her attention to the spot, Erin noticed a two-story structure sitting on one side of the rocky aperture. Smaller buildings dotted the lower half of the mountain.
“Yeah, looks like it,” she replied.
“You haven’t been here before?”
“No. I live on Carthage. Until I came here to work on the PETER, I’d only ever been to Athens on family vacations. We usually go to Attica. I’d never heard of Delphi until Fazir mentioned it. It’s still pretty volatile out here, as you’ve seen.”
She spied a lot in front of the hamlet’s main building and flew the skiff down to it, wondering what sort of place Fazir had brought them to. Despite the short space of time she’d known the man, she had a handle on his style and knew to expect something out of the ordinary.
When she took a closer look at the drinking establishment, she was not disappointed. ‘On the edge’? Delphi looked like it was barely clinging to existence.
On her first visit to Athens, Erin had stayed in a fully traditional hotel suite in the style of ancient Earth. That had meant no environment control of the rooms via the Link, as well as gorgeous natural materials like wood and silk, and old-fashioned, perfumed, luxurious toiletries.
What confronted her now was also the old tech, or perhaps no tech, of bygone times, but in a different way entirely. The walls of the building were roughly plastered, as if the constructors that created them had been badly wired, and the roof looked like the next storm would take it off. Shutters hung askew from the windows. Even still, Erin could see a surprising number of people inside.
Outside, empty chairs stood around weathered tables. Glasses stained with beer foam and smaller shot glasses peppered the tabletops, some laying forlornly on their sides, left uncollected by the servitors.
Does this place even have servitors?
“Whoa,” said Hal as he climbed out of the skiff.
Erin also exited the vessel onto the dusty lot strewn with stones. Dusk had fallen, but the rocky landscape radiated the heat that had collected over the day, only lightly tempered by a cool breeze blowing down the mountain. Fazir’s skiff was landing on the opposite side of the lot.
“What do you think?” he called a moment later as he got out. He walked across to Erin and Hal. “It’s something else, right?”
“It certainly is,” she replied.
Lark and the other engineers arrived a minute later, and the group sauntered across the lot together toward the drinking den. Delphi seemed to be a place that required sauntering.
Fazir pushed at both half-doors at the entrance, swinging them open. A dim interior thick with people greeted them, along with an atmosphere heavy with the yeasty smell of beer and the sharp tang of strong alcohol.
The Delphinians appeared to also be from a bygone age. The men wore wide-brimmed hats and shabby pants and shirts, and the women were clothed in long, fitted dresses, in spite of the hot, dirty environment.
“Hey, Fazir,” said the bartender. “Long time no see.”
Erin’s guess that the place had no servitors seemed to be correct. Like the Odyssey’s cocktail lounge, the bar was staffed by humans. A slim, moustachioed man sporting a striped apron was behind the bar, and a woman holding two stacks of dirty glasses and wearing a saucy smile stood among the customers.
“Marvin,” said Fazir. “I’d like you to meet my boss, Erin, and some friends from the Transcend—Hal, Jere, Reiko, and Leif.”
“Visitors are always welcome,” Marvin responded. “It’s good to see new faces once in a while. What can I get you folks?”
“What do you have?” Jere asked. He was looking up and to one side, clearly trying and failing to read the bar list on the Link.
“We like to keep things simple around here,” said Marvin. “You can have whiskey, beer, or whiskey and beer.”
“Just beer for me, Marvin,” said Fazir.
“Taking it easy tonight, huh?” the barkeeper responded. “That’s not like you.”
Fazir coughed and glanced at Erin.
“Er,” Marvin continued, “except when you have important work to do, which is most of the time. Beer it is. And how about you, Lark?”
“I’ll have a beer too.”
Marvin gave a sigh of exaggerated disappointment and shook his head sadly. “Sweet lady, are you sure I can’t interest you in something stronger? Something that might lower your standards for just one night?”
Lark blushed and laughed. “You never give up, do you?”
“Can’t blame a man for trying. How about the rest of you?”
Erin and the others ordered beers as well.
“Where shall we sit?” Hal asked.
The bar was crowded. Most of the seats were taken, and the people who were standing clustered around one table. The ones at the back were craning to see past those in front of them. Something was happening at the table, but Erin couldn’t see what. The only spare seats were at the table next to the one where the interesting activity was taking place.
“I think we can squeeze in over there,” said Lark.
The engineers carried their beers over to the empty seats and moved the chairs around so they could all fit. Now Erin had a better view of the table next door. Six Delphinians were playing a game of cards. Their audience pressed close to them, peering over their shoulders to see what cards the players were holding.
“What’s happening there?” asked Hal, referring to the card game.
“I think they’re playing poker,” said Erin.
“What’s that?” asked Jere.
“You never heard of it?” asked Fazir.
“Not that I recall” said Jere. “How do you play it?”
“Certain sets of cards are better than others, in a hierarchy. The players bet according to the cards they have, hoping that their cards beat their opponents’, or they can bluff and bet high in the hope that the other players will pull out of the game and they can win the pot.”
“The pot?” asked Jere.
“That pile over there,” said Erin. “Can you see? They seem to be betting uncut gems.”
A pile of brightly colored though rough-textured stones sat in the center of the neighboring table, and smaller piles sat in front of each player. Erin guessed the Delphinians had dug them up locally.
Jere bent forward and peered between the players’ arms. “Cool. I’ll ask if I can join in later. Maybe I can buy some gems from someone.”
“That might not be such a good idea,” said Lark. “The games can get pretty heated.”
“You’ve seen a few, then?” asked Erin, unable to resist teasing, though she really didn’t mind at all what Fazir and Lark had gotten up to in order to pass the time.
“Oh, just one or two.” Lark coughed and covered her mouth.
The engineers watched the game and drank their beers, while Lark explained the finer points of poker.
After an hour or so, the gem piles in front of the players had dwindled, and the pot in the center had grown considerably larger. The tension in the bystanders was growing too. Dark looks began to pass between the players.
All became still. The play had stopped, and a silence stretched out.
The engineers had also stopped chatting, and their interest being drawn by on the poker game. Erin wondered what was going on. It was hard to tell without a clear view of the table, but whatever was happening, the players and the onlookers were rigid with tension. The crowd had ceased shifting about, and Erin had a good view of the table for the first time that evening.
Suddenly, a man growled, loud in the silence, “What’s it to be, Jake?”
“I’m still thinking,” Jake whined, slurring his words.
“We ain’t got all night,” said the first speaker.
“I’d fold if I were you,” an onlooker said. “Ned’s sitting there like the cat that got the cream.”
“Shut your mouth, Bernard,” Ned spat. He’d been the first to speak. The man’s smug expression shifted to anger.
“Hey, I was just sayin’,” said Bernard. “What I think don’t mean nothin’.”
Jake’s gaze was flicking between Ned’s cards and his own. He appeared to be digesting Bernard’s words. He blinked slowly once or twice.
“Dang it,” said Ned. “Don’t take any notice of him, Jake. He doesn’t have the first idea what he’s talking about.”
“That’s right, sugar,” said a female voice. The woman who was holding the dirty glasses was offering her opinion. “You do whatever you think is best.”
When Jake stared at his cards again, she subtly winked at Ned, who returned a grateful smile.
Jake’s features were riven with anxiety. He fingered the few gems he had remaining in front of him, then eyed the pile in the center greedily.
“I reckon you’re bluffing,” he said to Ned. Then he turned to Bernard. “And I reckon you’re in on it.” He pushed his entire pile of gems into the center. “I call.”
Ned whooped and threw down his cards. They scattered across the table, their faces upward. From her good vantage point, Erin saw two kings and three queens.
Jake cursed and flung down his cards. They bounced and turned over haphazardly, finally settling with two facing downward and three looking up: two jacks and a nine. Bernard reached out and turned over the remaining cards, revealing a pair of nines.
“I hate to say I told you so,” he said, “but—”
His sentence was cut short by Jake’s hands around his throat. The losing player had leapt across the table, scattering cards and gems to the floor.
Bernard fell backward into Jere, who exclaimed, “Hey!” before leaping up.
Suddenly lacking anything behind him, Bernard hit the floor, and Jake landed on top of him, his hands remaining clamped on Bernard’s neck. Bernard gurgled and turned purple. Jere backed away, holding his glass aloft.
The bar’s patrons piled onto the pair and tried to prise off Jake’s hands. Meanwhile, Ned was scooping the pile of gems into a bag.
“Maybe we should go outside?” said Lark.
“I think that would be a great idea,” said Erin.
The engineers rose from their seats and edged around the crowd, who were pressing closer, eager to see the fight.
“We’re going to sit outdoors,” said Lark to Marvin as they passed the bar. “It’s a beautiful evening.”
“Sure is,” he replied. “I believe it’s a little quieter out there too.” He gave her a wink. “Maureen,” he called toward the glass collector, who had abandoned the altercation and was chatting with a customer, “stop flirting, and go clean up those outside tables.”
“I’m busy,” she called back, holding up dirty glasses as if they were evidence. “Send Butler.”
As the bartender grumbled a response, Fazir opened the doors, and Hal asked, “Aren’t they worried that those men are going to bust up the place?”
“Look around you,” Fazir replied. “What’s there to damage?”
Hal had to admit that the man had a point. The interior was as rough and ready as the exterior. Marvin’s bartop was the only clean, polished surface in the place. The tables and chairs all bore the signs of many repairs, the walls were gouged with the scars of previous fights, and the floor was stained and uneven. Only the air conditioning seemed to be in good working condition, for when they stepped outside, the Badlands’ heat hit them like a tsunami.
They picked the least dirty table and moved the used glasses on it to another surface. While they were taking their seats, the doors opened, and an automaton walked out. The model looked like one that had been in service for decades at Victoria before ending up on Athens, and the machine seemed to be on its last legs. It advanced jerkily toward the table that held the dirty glasses, one arm bent at an awkward angle.
When the automaton reached the table, it didn’t stop in time and crashed into the edge, sending the glasses flying.
Fazir tutted and got up. Lark joined him as he went over to help the antique machine.
“Hey, Butler,” Leif called out, “get me a beer.”
“It can’t hear you,” said Lark. “Its auditory system is shot to pieces. I keep telling Marvin he should get it fixed, but he says he likes Butler just the way it is.”
“You’ll have to shout your order to Marvin through a window,” said Fazir. “Maureen will bring it out.”
While the poker game had been going on, Erin had fended off frequent questions from Leif about her work. She decided to try something and see what happened.
“Leif,” she said as the man leaned in toward the window. “Can you order me a shot and a chaser?”
“Sure,” he replied. Then his eyes lit up. “I’ll have the same.”
The noise inside the bar had returned to its previous level, and Leif had to bawl the drink order to be heard. Erin watched him from the corner of her eye as he returned to his seat, and she saw a look flash between him and Reiko.
So they’re a team. That means Reiko’s disappearance earlier wasn’t a coincidence.
Maureen appeared with a tray bearing two shots and two beers. With brusque efficiency, she deposited the drinks on the table and swept away saying, “I’ll turn on the environment control,” over her shoulder.
Moments later, blissfully cool air blasted down from vents in the overhang.
“This is quite the spot,” said Jere.
“You can say that again,” Hal said. “It’s like something out of a vid.”
The mountain took up half their view, the cavern in its side now entirely black, no starlight penetrating the deep interior. The Cradle shimmered above, and behind them in the decrepit bar, the Delphinians were becoming raucous. Laughter mixed with vigorous arguments. Every now and then, Marvin’s voice could be heard, threatening to throw someone out.
Erin lifted her shot glass, tipped her head back, and threw the whiskey down her throat.
Leif cheered his approval and disposed of his whiskey in the same manner.
Erin sipped her beer, watching him over the glass rim.
“Another?” asked Leif, his expression eager.
“Are we having a drinking competition?” Fazir asked.
“Maybe,” said Erin, giving Leif a challenging look.
“You’re on,” said Leif. “No AI help?”
“No AI help,” she agreed.
A drinking match was exactly the kind of childish activity that fit Leif’s M.O., and Erin had a good idea of what it would lead to.
She quickly downed her beer, and Leif moved to sit next to her.
Reiko said, “This can’t be an easy place to live. What I don’t understand is what all these people are doing here.”
“Delphi is special,” Lark explained, “and its people are special too. They built this town themselves, you know. Didn’t have much equipment, but they liked the spot, so they built their houses anyway. Delphi isn’t on any official maps…. We didn’t know it existed until we flew over it one day and saw the buildings—then we thought we would drop in and introduce ourselves. The Delphinians made us feel welcome. They’re good people, interesting and fun to be around. There’s not many who would choose to live in the middle of nowhere with only basic supplies.”
“But is it safe, living around here?” Jere asked.
“Seismic activity in the Badlands is fairly low,” Lark replied. “Or it was until recently. Delphi is as safe as anywhere else in these regions. But only the polar areas are really safe.”
“Is there a reason they came here in particular?” asked Hal.
“That was part of why I wanted to sit outside,” said Lark. “If you wait a while, you’ll find out what’s really extraordinary about Delphi.”
While the conversation had gone on, Leif had ordered Erin and himself more shots. Maureen brought them out and deposited them on the table. Looking Erin in the eyes, Leif threw back his shot. She did the same. Leif smiled as he picked up his beer.
Suddenly, a low groan issued from somewhere. The deep note echoed and vibrated before rising slowly in pitch. Everyone except Lark and Fazir widened their eyes in surprise. The sound finally petered out in an almost-human sigh.
Hal said, “What the hell was that?”
“That’s the Oracle,” Lark replied, chuckling. “The noise comes from the cave erratically. Fazir and I think it’s probably volcanic gases escaping from the heart of the mountain, but no one knows for sure. The cave opening magnifies the sound.”
“So that’s why the locals named this place Delphi,” said Jere.
“It’s a little creepy,” Hal said. “Like something’s trapped in the mountain and it’s crying to be released.”
“When you put it like that, it does sound creepy,” Jere said. “I need another beer to calm my nerves.”
“Another drink for us too, Erin?” asked Leif.
She shrugged. “Sure.”
A couple of hours later, they’d continued to match each other shot for shot. Erin had lost count of how many she’d drunk. Leif had begun to talk to her quietly while other conversations went on around the table.
As the others had remained relatively sober and chatted about work, swapped funny stories, and generally shot the breeze, Leif had draped a supposedly drunken arm over Erin’s shoulder. She didn’t protest.
Emboldened, Leif again asked her about her work in New Canaan. They talked about other things too, but he always brought the conversation back around to what she’d done, where in the system she’d worked, what projects she’d worked on. He was trying to milk her for all she knew about the system.
Erin’s suspicions were confirmed.
She fed him some lies about her work history, keeping the information vague. When she grew bored of deceiving him, she pushed away the next shot of whiskey that had arrived.
“I’ve had it, Leif. I give up. You win.”
He smiled smugly. “You did well for someone your size, but you never really stood a chance.”
Erin nodded and straightened up, pretending that Walter was clearing the alcohol from her system.
Fazir suggested it was time to head back to the PETER.
<Seems as though we were right about Leif,> Erin said to Walter as she walked to her skiff.
<Is everything okay, Erin?> asked Lark.
<I’m fine. Just trying to figure Leif out.>
<I thought so, but I wanted to check,> Lark said. <See you at the PETER.>
<Thanks for clearing the shots before I felt their effect,> Erin said to Walter.
<No problem. Of course, Leif’s AI did the same.>
<What a farce. Both of us sitting there pretending to be shitfaced. Do you think he suspects I wasn’t drunk?>
<No, or he wouldn’t show his hand by questioning you as he did. He must be quite arrogant. He believes you’re naive enough to let your guard down around someone from the Transcend.>
<This ‘diplomacy’ isn’t so hard after all,> Erin said.
<I can’t deny that you seem to be getting the hang of it nicely.>
Buoyed by the rare compliment from her usually laconic AI, Erin climbed into her skiff with Hal, who input the PETER coordinates. The vessel rose into the air, and Erin began to compose a report to Tanis, detailing what had happened.
Erin would have loved to kick all the engineers from the Transcend out of the system, but she realized the action wouldn’t be prudent. She didn’t hold back in expressing her opinion to Tanis, though.
As the skiff arrived at the PETER, she finished off the report, saying,
‘I wouldn’t trust Leif to fix my morning coffee, let alone mend the PETER. Not that he’s a bad engineer, but I’d probably end up poisoned. I’m not asking for permission to send him packing, Tanis. I get why they’re here. But in case you were wondering if the Transcend has grown any less interested in what New Canaan has to offer, the answer is hell no.’
Erin signed off and sent the message.
She could see that, until Leif returned to his ship, working with him would be an elaborate game of cat and mouse, with each of them playing both parts.
STELLAR DATE: 04.18.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
“Seriously, Leif, what were you thinking?” Reiko hissed as they sat on the bed in his quarters.
He clearly wanted to spend the night together, but she was too pissed at him to even think about sex.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. “I thought tonight went really well.”
Reiko groaned and placed her head in her hands. “Only if you wanted to make Erin crazy suspicious. Even Jere and Hal were giving you looks. You were practically interrogating her.”
“Oh relax,” Leif rolled his eyes. “Jere’s too busy staring at Lark’s tits to notice anything else, and Hal was joking with Fazir the whole time. We’re fine.”
“ ‘Fine’ is what we’ll be when we get this mission over with and get out of New Canaan. These people aren’t slouches—if Kars hadn’t altered the baseline configs for the extraction nodes, they would have had the PETER fixed in a heartbeat.”
“Which means…?” Leif drew out the question.
“Which means that we need to be smarter than them. Not act like a hormone-driven dumbass.”
Leif gave her a questioning look. “I’m not into Erin. She’s a serious prude.”
“I didn’t mean that, I meant tonight. Right now.”
Reiko was starting to wonder why Kars had trusted Leif with the mission…. Granted, if he’d stuck to the script, they’d be fine.
They still would be. She’d make sure of it.
“Look, we’re really close,” she told him. “When she tries to do a full manual reset—which will be soon—we’ll make our move. Then it’s all downhill from there.”
“Well, I hope it’s not too soon,” Leif said. “I’d like to get back onto the planet for one more night out before the place is unlivable.”
“Don’t be a moron,” Reiko chided. “Once we finish this mission, we can transfer to any dirtside posting we want.”
“Or Airtha,” Leif replied. “That’s the place to be.”
“Sure, whatever,” she nodded. “Let’s just focus on getting this done. Then the Transcend is our oyster.”
STELLAR DATE: 04.19.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
The fact that she still hadn’t figured out the fault in the PETER frustrated Erin immensely. As she sat in the lounge area of the engineers’ living space, she seemed to be the only one who wasn’t feeling the good mood.
The previous evening’s relaxation at Marvin’s Bar in Delphi had triggered a change in the sense of camaraderie in the team. Jere and Hal had always been the friendliest of the Transcend’s delegation, and now they and Fazir and Lark were acting like they’d worked together for years. Leif was also buoyant and affable, though that was probably due to his belief he’d succeeded in getting Erin to let her guard down. Even sour-faced Reiko was cracking a smile every now and then.
It seemed that Erin was the only one who remembered that the Transcend’s engineers were all but de facto enemies, and that everyone was only there because they had a job to do.
Interrupting a conversation about the fight over the poker game at the bar, Erin said, “Today I want us to go over all the data from the last six months, from when the PETER’s—”
“But we already did that,” said Lark. “We showed it all to you when you arrived, remember?”
“I do, but the problem’s gotten worse since then, and we have more data now,” said Erin, irritated at Lark’s out-of-character objection. “A pattern might be visible that was not before.”
The engineers’ expressions had become glum. Erin ignored their reactions. It was true that numbers work was often tedious; it was mostly a job delegated to NSAIs, while human input often revolved around thinking out of the box. Like the rest of them, Erin preferred the hands-on, practical aspect of her job, but sometimes the key to a problem lay somewhere among trillions of data elements, and there was no alternative to wading through it all.
Erin outlined each person’s assignments and then walked out of the lounge. The team would take at least an hour to crunch the data, and she wanted some space to think over the problem. The sooner she found the solution, the sooner she could legitimately send the Transcend’s engineers back to Admiral Iysra’s flagship. Then her diplomatic mission would be accomplished, and she could return to her family.
She missed them; though she sent and received messages and vids, it wasn’t the same as being with them. She knew they were also impatient for her to return, waiting for her arrival so they could welcome the triplets into their lives.
Erin wanted that too, more than ever, especially now that her experiences with the Transcend’s team had brought the threat of eventual invasion more into sharp relief in her mind. Never had the struggle to defend New Canaan seemed more real.
Erin found herself at the landing bay, gazing into the black. The arch of the PETER curved away around Athens. The heat that the structure continued to leach away from the planet—albeit at a non-optimal rate—wasn’t visible to Erin unless she switched to augmented vision, but she imagined the energy rising from the hot core, oozing out through the uninhabitable equatorial band, and ascending to the PETER’s hundreds of thousands of nodes.
What went wrong?
Erin loved a challenge, but this one wasn’t paying out any sense of satisfaction or achievement. It was like trying to wrestle Usef. No matter what tricks and strategies she threw at the problem, she couldn’t make headway.
“Erin,” said Lark, entering the bay.
“Hi. What’s up?”
Lark joined Erin at her vantage point. Erin wondered what had prompted the woman to seek her out in person when she could have talked to her over the Link.
“It’s quite the sight, isn’t it?” said Lark looking out into space.
“Yes, but you must be used to it by now.”
“I don’t think you can get used to something like a PETER. I’m always in awe of it whenever I remember to take the time to really look at it…. I mean, it’s a planetary ring, and it’s just a throwaway structure for the FGT….” Lark seemed to be struggling to say something.
“Is this leading somewhere?” Erin asked.
“I want to apologize for complaining earlier. That wasn’t very professional of me.”
“Is that all?” said Erin. “Apology accepted.”
“It’s been hard getting along with the Transcend’s engineers, hasn’t it?” said Lark.
“That’s only to be expected. They aren’t exactly our friends.”
“I can tell it hasn’t been easy for you to keep relations smooth between us and them.”
Erin smiled. “Is it that obvious?”
“Honestly? Yes. If I can be frank, you probably aren’t as good at hiding your true feelings as you think you are.”
A snort of laughter came from Erin. “Guilty as charged. I’ll try to control my facial expressions better in the future. Thanks for the heads up.”
“I only wish I could say the same,” said Lark ruefully.
Lark took a breath. “Jere and I have been hooking up.”
“Oh. You have?”
“Yeah, I guessed that no one had noticed. It gets lonely up here. He’s a nice guy, and we get along well. Fazir isn’t into women.”
“Lark, has Jere been asking you about New Canaan?” Erin asked, suddenly fearful. “You remember you have to be careful about what you say to our guests, don’t you?”
“I do, and he hasn’t asked me anything. You know I don’t know hardly anything of what goes on outside Athens.”
“Yes, but I still want you to be careful,” said Erin. “You realize this is going to be a blow to Marvin the bartender, right?”
Now it was Lark’s turn to laugh, but her expression quickly turned somber. “I really like Jere, Erin, and I think he feels the same. Only he’s from the Transcend, and I don’t want to leave New Canaan—this is my home. So one day soon….”
“You’ll be forced to part ways. I understand. That’s going to be hard.”
“I think that’s why I was griping earlier. I’m wound up about it all.”
“I’m sorry, but it’s okay. I’ve had worse problems from my teams, believe me.”
“You haven’t heard everything yet.”
Erin had a sudden premonition that Lark was leading up to something more serious than her personal affairs.
“Does this have something to do with our work on the PETER?” she asked.
Lark looked down.
“Okay,” said Erin. “Spit it out.”
Lark glanced over her shoulder to the entrance to the bay. “I saw something in the data that’s potentially explosive. I didn’t want to believe it at first, but I’ve triple-checked, and it’s still there. But I can’t believe Jere has anything to do with it.”
Erin waited, leaving a silence for Lark to fill. She hoped that the woman hadn’t delayed in passing on crucial information due to misplaced loyalty to New Canaan’s enemy, or things would look very bad for her.
“Over the past two years, there’s been a slow change in the efficiency of the nodes that pull energy out of the equatorial rift on Athens—”
“Yeah,” Erin replied. “That’s been one of our biggest issues. The nodes drawing from the rift report near perfect efficiency, and the models of the tectonic layout on the planet show that we should be having better than expected energy extraction, not worse.”
“Right. You have no idea how much sleep I’ve been losing over that. But it’s changed.”
“Not long after our friends arrived, the extraction rate began to shift.” Lark’s lips pursed and she blew out a slow breath.
“Let me send you the figures. You can see for yourself.”
Erin perused the data and checked the timeline. “That’s some alteration. More like a freaking great leap. When did you notice this?”
Erin’s apprehension eased.
“I didn’t say anything while I was with the others. I haven’t even pointed it out to Fazir yet. I thought it was best to come and tell you first, considering the sensitivity of the situation.”
“You did the right thing,” said Erin. “Well done for thinking about the wider implications, despite your personal concerns.”
Those implications didn’t need spelling out. Whatever was wrong with the PETER, it was possible that one or more of the Transcend’s engineers had discovered the fault and, rather than bringing it to light so that it could be fixed, had done something to exacerbate the problem.
“For what it’s worth.” Lark’s voice lowered. “If one of our new friends is responsible, I don’t think it’s Jere.”
Erin nodded absently, determined to let the evidence point to who may or may not be guilty. The engineer’s finding had narrowed down the possibilities, though hundreds of systems were involved in producing the relevant data. Erin guessed the perpetrator was Leif. If he was there to snoop on New Canaan, he had no incentive to fix the PETER and a strong motivation to prolong its faulty operation.
What to do about it, though?
Again, demanding his expulsion without any evidence was tricky. She was supposed to be avoiding a diplomatic crisis, not creating one. She had to find a way to fulfill Tanis’s plan to buy New Canaan more time before the inevitable invasion.
“Thanks for letting me know,” Erin said, “and for coming clean about everything. I’m not going to accuse anyone of anything. We can still use the information you’ve turned up, we just won’t draw attention to the dates—we’ll point out the leap and leave it at that.”
“I’ll do that,” Lark replied. “Are you coming back into the lounge?”
“Yes. I’ve thought of a way we might catch our culprit.”
* * * * *
Armed with the data from Lark’s discovery, Erin reconvened the team and told them that they were about to embark on a new tactic that she’d modeled out with Walter.
Lark and Fazir—and then Erin—had performed multiple resets on the equatorial nodes, operations that should have brought them back to default settings and ensured a standard operating efficiency. Normally that would have given a solid baseline for further adjustments.
However—despite the fact that the nodes were not performing properly—the resets did nothing more than cause efficiency to fluctuate outside the norm.
Whether or not it had been introduced on purpose, she was convinced there was a flaw in the automated reset procedures. What she wanted to do was walk each of the equatorial nodes through a manual reconfiguration in a pattern outlined in the operational guidelines for the PETER.
It was a task best performed in a fully immersive virtual reality, and although it was a documented procedure, it was tedious, especially with only six engineers and four AIs.
“All clear on what we’re doing?” Erin asked after assigning the tasks.
The engineers replied in a glum affirmative and began their work, hunched over consoles in the C&C, as sections of the PETER began to shut down for recalibration.
Erin hadn’t assigned herself any tasks, ostensibly to supervise, though in reality, she planned to watch only one member of the team. Leif would either comply with her instructions or reveal his true intentions.
There was a chance that he would give up his subterfuge and fix whatever it was he’d done, but Erin hoped he wouldn’t. She wanted to catch him red-handed, which would be a legitimate justification for kicking him out of New Canaan. At the same time, she would see steps he’d omitted and could use the information to finally fix the PETER.
While the team got started, Erin walked to a cooler in the back of the room and grabbed a cream soda, ready for a long shift. Once armed with her beverage, she found a console and closed her eyes, sinking into a virtual simulation of the orbital ring, traversing the hundreds of kilometers to Leif’s sections. After finding the node he was working on, she initiated a trace, following his actions.
Erin had gone on similar virtual expeditions with her AIs, entering the workings of something and accompanying them as they traveled through it. Though it was a mental strain, she enjoyed the experience. An AI felt more real to her at those times. It was like going hiking with Martin or Isa, except that the sensation was purely internal. At that moment, she could feel Walter’s presence almost as strongly as if he was walking beside her.
<Leif seems to be behaving himself so far,> she said. <Do you think he suspects we’re watching him?>
<He may,> Walter replied, <but he won’t be able to tell for sure. I’ve ensured that the control systems won’t reveal our presence to him.>
<I wish this thing’s NSAIs would give us information on what’s wrong with the ring.>
<If they knew that, we wouldn’t be here.>
As always when deep in a virtual reality, Erin began to lose track of time. She also became less aware of her physical presence.
<I’m taking a break,> she said to Walter after some time. <Keep an eye on him. I’ll be back in a minute.>
She opened her eyes and sat up. More than an hour and a half had passed. The engineers were slumped in their seats as if asleep. Hal was drooling. Erin took a drink of cream soda and closed her eyes again.
Walter reported that Leif had continued to act exactly as an innocent engineer would, and Erin couldn’t detect anything suspicious in his behavior. Perhaps he held her in greater esteem than she thought, knew she suspected him, and guessed that she and Walter were following his every move.
<Erin!> Fazir exclaimed.
Her concentration shattered, she replied, <What?>
<Thermal extraction is increasing rapidly!>
Erin quickly withdrew from observing Leif’s section and looked at the ring-wide figures. She could hardly believe what she saw. Within the space of less than four hours, the energy extraction had moved back into a normal range and was now beginning to climb toward the top end of a safe rate.
As she watched, the rate of change shifted from a steady crawl to a near exponential increase.
<Everyone, stop!> she called out. <Something’s not right. Initiate rollbacks for all the nodes you’ve worked on.>
Confused responses came at her.
<What? Everything?> Lark asked.
<Are you sure?> asked Jere. <Maybe we can—>
<Prior state rollback,> Erin barked. <Immediately.>
She fixed her attention on the extraction levels, which had continued to rise at an alarming rate during her brief conversation with her engineers. She had no idea what had been done to cause the change, or who had done it. She was sure that none of Leif’s actions could have caused the over-activity, but neither she nor Walter had been closely watching anyone else.
Silently, the engineers worked to undo their actions of the previous few hours, their brows furrowed. Tense minutes tiptoed by. Ten of them passed, then another ten. Half an hour came and went as, one by one, the team reported progress on resetting the nodes to their prior states.
There wasn’t anything Erin could do. There was no time to scrutinize the steps that each of the engineers had taken while they’d been working to tell which of them had triggered the runaway effect.
The figures crawled higher, reaching unsafe levels for both the nodes and the planet below.
“Shit! Come on, people!” said Erin. <Any suggestions, Walter?>
<You know I would tell you if I had them. I believe you’ve taken the only action available to us. I’m unable to track down the source of the increase in operation. We can look at what happened more closely later.>
Erin almost didn’t hear him. As Walter had been giving his answer, the rate of increase had flattened out and then leveled off.
Did someone, at some point in the last hour or so, do something right?
Holding her breath, Erin watched as the rise in readings continued to slow. Then the primary equatorial extractors began to show decreasing levels—the rate began to fall.
“Don’t stop what you’re doing,” she said, “but I think we may okay.”
One by one, the rest of the readings also finally began to drop.
The tension melted from Erin’s muscles.
It was late evening before everyone had finished their reversions and rechecked all of the configurations and settings, leaving the team tired and cantankerous. The mood at dinner was low. After a day of exhausting work, they were no farther on than they had been when they began.
Erin wasn’t keen on conversation either. Weeks of work hadn’t improved the PETER’s functioning, and she’d formed a near-concrete belief that Leif wasn’t working alone. She hadn’t forgotten the look that had passed between him and Reiko when he suggested the drinking match. Had that day’s close call been an attempt to divert attention from Leif?
Erin was about to announce she was going to bed—where she planned to watch some messages from her family—when Walter said, <Erin, take a look at this.> He presented the real-time readings from the equatorial nodes.
She had gotten so used to studying them that she had to look twice to see what he meant.
The other engineers lifted their bowed heads and stared.
“Look at the levels,” she urged. “Check the levels!”
“Stars!” Lark exclaimed. “That’s amazing. How is it possible?”
“I don’t know,” Erin replied. “But almost every single reading is almost smack dab in the optimal range.”
“It might be a blip,” said Jere. “A temporary effect from what we did today.”
“That’s true,” Erin said. “We’ll take another look in the morning and watch things for another couple of weeks, but….”
For now, the energy extraction systems were functioning normally again.
Like any engineer, she hated it when something magically fixed itself. That meant the problem could recur, and they’d be none the wiser as to how. But maybe careful examination of the changes during the day would unlock the clues.
Even so, if the ring continued to operate nominally, the TSF engineers would leave, Lark and Fazir could go back to their usual shenanigans, and Erin could return to Martin, Isa, Jude, and the babies.
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
The crowds were thick at Attica Spaceport. Hordes of people had arrived in time for Landfall Day. Athens was famous for its anniversary celebrations, known to be the best in New Canaan. Isa searched among the people in vain; Erin’s small stature made her more difficult to spot at the best of times, let alone among a crowd of thousands.
In the end, it was Jude who located her first.
“Mommy Erin!” he shouted. He pulled his hand from Isa’s grasp and bolted toward a milling group.
“There she is,” said Martin, peering over people’s heads.
Isa finally saw her. Erin had picked up Jude, and he was clinging to her like a monkey.
“Aren’t you getting a little big to be picked up?” asked Martin when he and Isa reached the pair.
In truth, he was. Jude had inherited his father’s long legs, and though he was only five years old, on Erin’s small frame, they hung well below her knees.
“I don’t mind carrying my best buddy,” said Erin. “You are my best buddy, right?”
Jude answered, “Yes, I am, Mommy Erin. I missed you.”
“You did? How much?”
“This much!” Jude spread his arms wide and almost knocked himself free of Erin’s grasp.
“Careful,” said Erin, clutching her son. “That’s a lot, but I think I missed you even more.”
“I don’t think so. Are we going to see the fireworks now?”
“Soon,” said Isa. “Let me say hi to Mommy Erin too, then we’ll get out of the crowd.”
Erin put Jude down, and the three parents hugged.
“It was a great idea to suggest we bring Jude to Athens for the celebrations,” said Isa. “We’ve all missed you so much. It’s been a long month waiting for you to come home.”
“Very long,” said Martin. “How much longer do you think you’ll be here, Erin?”
“Let’s go to the stands,” Erin replied. “We can talk about it there.”
They walked out of the spaceport and down the road that led to the seating set up to view that evening’s fireworks. Afterward, more celebrations would take place. It would be an exciting evening for Jude, and Isa was glad of the opportunity to see Erin face to face. It was worth the two-day trip from Carthage, though it would be sad to say goodbye again. She didn’t like way Erin had dodged the question when Martin had asked her for an ETA.
They found seats toward the front of the stands, which were already humming with life. People were pouring into them from the direction of the spaceport, and from the tourist resorts farther out. The night was balmy and the Cradle was shining down in all its brilliance.
“I can only stay a little while,” said Erin as they sat down.
“What?!” Isa said. “How come? I thought you were going to stay in Attica with us tonight.”
“I was, but things have progressed a lot over the last few days. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure, but we’ve fixed the problem. The PETER is working as well as the day we arrived in New Canaan—its energy extraction is properly tuned again, and Athens’ seismic and tectonic activity are about back to normal. I’m returning to help pack up the temporary seismometers tonight. They’re on the other side of the planet, where it’s daylight. Then tomorrow I’ll meet you at the spaceport and go home with you.”
“You’re coming home, Mommy?” said Jude. “Woohoo!”
“That’s great,” said Martin. He reached over Isa and Jude and gave Erin’s arm a squeeze.
“We had something of a breakthrough,” said Erin. “To be honest, I don’t quite understand it, but I’m tired of being away from home and I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.”
“What does that mean?” asked Isa.
“It means I’m grateful we have a fixed PETER, even if I don’t know how we fixed it—for now anyway. I’ll be happy to see the backs of the Transcend’s engineers. Earnest is going to be back from his current project in a few months, and then he and I will go over everything together.”
“Just a short visit,” said Erin. “When the babies are older.”
Isa threw her arm over Erin’s shoulders. “It will be wonderful to have you home again. I’ve been dying to hold the triplets, they look so cute. You should see them.”
“I have seen them. You sent me about a million images, remember?”
“Oh yeah, I do remember doing something like that.”
“And Martin sent me another million.”
“You did?” Isa asked Martin. “I thought we agreed I’d be the one sending the pictures.”
“I don’t recall coming to a final agreement on that matter. But…” He held up a finger. “While I have the attention of both of you, I’d like to suggest a few more names.”
“No,” said Isa, shaking her head emphatically. “No more name suggestions. No Harpo, Groucho, or Zeppo. No Blossom, Bubbles, or Buttercup. No Athos, Porthos, or Aramis. And definitely no Ed, Edd, or Eddy.”
Erin burst into laughter, alternating between snorting and guffawing. “Athos, Porthos, and Aramis? Who the hell are they?”
“Famous historical figures,” Martin replied loftily.
“They sound like famous male historical figures. Am I right?” asked Erin.
“Ed, Edd, and Eddy are definitely boys’ names too,” said Isa.
“Boys names can work for girls,” Martin said. “They would certainly be unique in New Canaan.”
“Three girls called Ed, Edd, and Eddy would be unique in the galaxy,” Erin said. “But you aren’t serious, are you? Isa, what’s going on? We talked about this, remember?”
“Don’t worry” said Isa. “We can always overrule him.”
“Huh,” said Martin, folding his arms. “You two are always ganging up on me.”
“You think it’s bad now?” said Erin. “Just wait until the triplets have grown up a bit. You won’t know what’s hit you.”
Martin’s mock umbrage faded. He said, “I can’t think of any other people I’d rather have pushing me around.”
His statement was met with smiles, and then the countdown to the beginning of the firework display was announced over the Link: they had ten minutes to wait.
“I guess this is where I leave you,” said Erin.
Jude’s eyes had been wide as he stared around the stadium, but at Erin’s comment, his attention snapped back to his parents. “Oh, Mommy Erin, do you have to go so soon?”
“Yes, we’ve hardly seen you,” Isa echoed. “Can’t you hang around a little longer?”
“I guess a few more minutes won’t make any difference.”
“Great,” said Martin. “But why not leave your team to do the dirty work and stay here with us? You can go back and say goodbye to them in the morning.”
“I told them I’d come back, and I’d rather not bail on them. Besides, it’s the last time I’ll see the Transcend’s team of engineers. They’re leaving straight after we finish. Tanis wants me to maintain a good relationship with them for diplomacy’s sake, so I have to go back to thank them for their help, wish them a safe journey, yadda yadda.”
Isa gave her wife a sideways hug and put her other arm around Jude. Erin and Jude were holding hands on her lap. It was wonderful news that Erin would be going home with them the next day, more than she’d hoped for on the flight over.
“Mommy Erin,” Jude said. “Why do we celebrate Landfall?”
“It’s when everyone arrived in New Canaan.”
“But that doesn’t make any sense. Landfall is a place, not a time.”
Erin looked to Isa for help with the explanation, but how could they explain the journey of the Intrepid? The hundreds of years of struggling and fighting across the depths of space in order to arrive at New Canaan…. It was hard to convey the vastness of space and time to one so young.
Carthage was the only place Jude knew—or rather, remembered. As far as Isa could tell, he didn’t recall that terrifying time in Troy when he could have drowned.
“Popcorn!” Jude exclaimed, noticing a vendor walking along the base of the seating.
Grateful that Jude’s capricious young mind had relieved her and Erin of the need to deliver a difficult explanation, Isa reached out to the vendor over the Link and paid for a box of popcorn. He lifted a box from his container, and it was passed up the rows of people to her.
As Isa gave the box to Jude, Erin said, “I’m sorry, but I must go now.”
“Awwww!” Jude protested.
Isa said, “I guess you’d better. Can you let us know as soon as you’re done and on your way back?”
“Sure I can,” said Erin.
She kissed all three members of her family goodbye and walked along the row, now full of people, before disappearing.
* * * * *
Isa watched the spot where she’d had her last sight of Erin. The uneasiness she’d felt the previous time she’d been on Athens had returned full force. Despite the good news that her wife would be coming home with them the next day, she couldn’t shake the feeling.
There was no reason for it that she could understand. When Erin had been working at the outer rim, building the secret shipyards, Isa had missed her but she hadn’t worried about her at all.
“What’s wrong?” asked Martin, raising his voice over the noise of the crowd.
“I don’t know. I’m tired of Erin always going off and leaving us, I guess.”
“But she’ll be back tomorrow.”
“I’ll be glad when she’s away from those TSF people.”
Maybe that was it. The Transcend was not well-disposed toward New Canaanites, and Erin had been forced to work with their engineers for several weeks. In contrast, when she’d been building the secret shipyards, Erin had been among friends.
But now the PETER was fixed, and Erin wouldn’t have to work with the Transcend engineers any longer.
“When are the fireworks gonna start?” asked Jude through a mouthful of popcorn. He was kicking his legs.
“Don’t eat and speak at the same time, sweetheart,” said Isa, “and try to sit still. It shouldn’t be long now.”
The stands where they were sitting looked out over a lake. In the warm, sticky stillness of the night, the expanse of water acted like a mirror to the sky above, reflecting the Cradle as radiantly at the real thing. Somewhere beyond the lake, banks of fireworks sat, waiting to be set off.
All the seats seemed to be filled. The place was humming with anticipation. As the seconds counted down to the scheduled start time, conversations dried up, and gazes focused on the lake.
Isa began to record the view; the event would make a great addition to one of her installations set in Athens. Her worries began to ease as she contemplated the fantastic achievement they were about to commemorate.
The colonization of New Canaan hadn’t been entirely smooth and easy, but the colonists had overcome the challenges and created a thriving, exciting place full of possibilities. Now, anyone who had gumption and imagination could fulfill their dream.
A single stream of light burst from the lake and streamed upward. It was the signal that the fireworks were about to start.
“Do you see that?” Martin asked Jude.
In response, the little boy pushed his box of popcorn into Isa’s hands and clapped in excitement. His body was tense and his eyes bright as they reflected starlight and the long tail of light left by the rocket. Isa realized this would probably be the first Landfall Day celebration he would remember. She hoped it would be a good one.
Then the lake erupted.
Dazzling lines of light and color rocketed into the night sky and burst into showers of sparks. The millions of pinpoints of light then burst again and again, until the sky was a riot of rays almost as bright as daylight. Whizzes and crackles filled the air.
Jude squealed with excitement and bounced out of his seat.
Before the first display had faded away, another was launched. Rockets zoomed upward like arrows. They flew higher and higher, seeming to reach the stratosphere before they exploded, and the deafening sound ricocheted from the stadium and off the surrounding buildings.
A fizzing golden and silver shower descended until, at about a hundred meters above the ground, it changed direction and drifted down over the crowd. People leapt up, trying to touch the glittering sparks. When they did, the tiny dots of light burst on contact. Jude also jumped up, trying to catch the sparks, but when he did, he found his hands full of air.
Meanwhile, the third stage of the display had begun. This time, the fireworks remained low. Long, luminous vapor trails spread across the lower half of the sky. As the pyrotechnics moved, the trails crossed, and in a few moments, Isa realized they were creating an intricate pattern. Layer after layer of warp and weft of sky fabric was laid down, and music from the display drifted over the crowd. When the pattern was completed, the entire scene exploded.
Jude jumped and screamed and then quickly burst into giggles of excitement laced with fear. “I want to sit on Daddy’s lap,” he said to Isa, though she had to read his lips over the noise of the crowd and the fireworks.
She picked him up under his arms and passed him to Martin, who accepted the keyed-up child.
The fourth part of the display took place even lower down. Rivers of fire were spreading across the lake, doubled in the reflective surface so that it looked as though flames were boiling up from the depths. Isa continued to record, entranced by the scene.
The display had been going on for nearly an hour, and Isa was wondering what else the organizers had thought up to entertain the crowd, when she had the sudden sensation of being pushed by something she couldn’t see, as if a tsunami of air had hit her and passed her by.
Confused, she tried to figure out what had happened. Is the sudden pressure part of the display?
Hush and bewilderment fell over the crowd as it reacted to the same sensation.
Then an explosive crack assaulted Isa’s ears. The noise was different from a firework, and none accompanied the sound.
Isa looked at Martin. His arms were wrapped around Jude and his head was down, as if he was listening to something on the Link, but when Isa checked, she couldn’t find any news of what had happened.
Perhaps he is speaking with Eamon.
He lifted his head and looked her, his expression fearful. “Where did Erin go? Did she tell you?”
“I don’t know. All she said was she was going to the other side of Athens, where it’s daylight now. Why?”
“There’s been a massive eruption.”
Isa’s guts clenched. “Where?”
“A volcano called Poros.”
Isa didn’t need to check. She knew Erin was there.
That was what had been causing her anxiety. Somehow, she’d known Erin was in danger.
<Erin? Are you OK?>
Martin had asked the same question. They waited long seconds before an answer came.
<I think so.>
Isa wanted to shout at her wife, ‘You think so? What kind of an answer is that?’
Instead, she mastered her feelings and said, <What happened? Where are you?>
<A volcano just erupted, with almost no warning!>
<How close are you?> asked Isa.
<Closer than I’d like.>
<Are you near a skiff?> Isa asked.
Martin said, <Erin, get out of there! Pyroclastic flow could be heading for you.>
<I know, Martin, I’m not an idiot! I’m running.>
If the situation hadn’t been so serious, Isa might have been amused by yet another tetchy conversation between Martin and Erin. As it was, all she felt was terror about what might happen to her wife.
<Show me what you’re seeing,> she demanded.
Erin’s vision opened in Isa’s mind.
If it was day where Erin was, it sure didn’t look like it. She was speeding through a dark, smoky haze. Lush vegetation surrounded her, but the leaves were already thick with dust and ash. Ash was everywhere, smoldering dully, and still dropping from the sky.
Isa could also hear Erin’s breathing—she was panting, coughing, and choking in the heated, sooty atmosphere.
<Where’s your transport, Erin?> Martin asked. <Do you have far to go? Where’s everyone else?>
Isa was wondering all this too, but she hadn’t wanted to distract Erin from reaching safety.
Through Erin’s eyes, Isa saw the outline of a skiff. It was covered with ash, but the vessel was recognizable.
Sweet relief burst in her chest. Erin will make it out of there.
Then the connection was gone.
Isa blinked. She searched for Erin on the Link, but there was nothing of her in the present, just the memory of what she’d seen a moment ago. She turned to Martin. He was staring blankly, disbelieving.
“You lost her too?” he asked.
“Yes.” Isa had gone numb.
She realized the fireworks display had carried on despite the eruption on the other side of the planet. Jude continued to watch the lights and colors in innocent wonder, but to Isa, the sight and sounds of the display were not real. All she could hear was Erin’s labored breathing right before their connection had cut off. All she could see was an ash-covered skiff suddenly disappearing.
Then she felt Martin’s hand on her arm, clutching her. He was pale in the glow of the exploding fireworks.
“I can’t raise Walter, and neither can Eamon.”
<I’ve relayed her last known position to emergency services,> Eamon announced, a note of heavy concern present in the AI’s mental tone.
Isa swallowed. “Maybe she’s only been knocked out,” she said, though she knew her words were absurd. If Erin was unconscious, she would still be visible on the Link, and they should still be able to speak to Walter.
Something terrible had happened.
Isa couldn’t move. Reality had receded into the background, and her heartbeat pounded in her ears. Martin’s shocked face held her gaze.
Isa’s words seemed to echo across the space that separated her from her wife.
Why won’t she answer? She has to answer.
Time beat on.
Isa called Erin’s name again, clinging to the hope she would receive a reply. A single word. A breath. Something. Anything.
Martin had turned away. He faced the lights that continued to dazzle above the lake, but his gaze was unfocused.
Perhaps he is speaking to Eamon, Isa reasoned. Or perhaps he, like me, is trying to comprehend what happened.
In a lull after one set of fireworks, she said, “She could still be alive.”
<There is a lot of atmospheric ionization in the area,> Eamon said. <It could have disrupted her signal.>
Martin didn’t speak. He didn’t look at her. As if by instinct, his arms curled protectively around Jude’s torso.
“Ow! Daddy, you’re squeezing too tight!”
Isa stood up, finally getting Martin’s attention, while the person sitting behind her complained she was blocking his view.
“What are you doing?” asked Martin.
“I’m going to find Erin.”
“You’re going to the site of the eruption? Are you kidding? Emergency Services doesn’t need you flying in there too! It’s a disaster zone. You’ll die—”
But Isa was already edging along the row. She couldn’t just watch fireworks while Erin was out there somewhere. Maybe there was something that could still be done. Martin had been brought back from the dead, so could Erin.
Martin was following her, pulling a protesting Jude by his hand.
“But it isn’t over yet,” Jude said. “I want to see the rest.”
Isa reached the end of the row and began to descend the stairs. As she stepped downward, the fireworks petered out.
“Isa,” said Martin, catching up to her. “You can’t go there, you know it. Have you pulled the satellite feeds? The pyroclastic surge already hit where she last….” His words ended in a choke as he glanced down at Jude, who was watching a man walk by with a balloon.
The lake view was silent and dark again, though now the Cradle’s reflection was obscured by a light haze.
<I would like to make an announcement.> Athens’ planetary AI spoke into their minds, overriding all network traffic. <The eruption of Mount Poros indicates a critical instability in this planet that we have been unable to correct. I am declaring a planetary state of emergency and implementing mandatory evacuation. Visitors, please return to your hotels to collect your belongings and then proceed to the spaceport. Athenians, return to your homes and gather no more than one hundred kilograms of personal belongings. You will be provided with a shuttle boarding schedule.>
Isa was shocked. Leave Athens? When Erin might need me?
She wasn’t going to evacuate any more than she was going to sit and watch fireworks. What she needed to do was find a skiff or a shuttle and fly to Mount Poros.
She walked across the grass outside the stadium to the street that led to the maglev terminal, where she could catch a train to the spaceport. Crowds of people surged around her, but Martin kept pace with her, swinging Jude up into his arms to carry him.
None of the Athenians seemed panicked, but they were moving with purpose, trusting that if more haste was necessary, official services would tell them. Isa suspected that they’d drilled for this over the years, given the nature of the world they lived on.
“Did you hear Phaedra’s announcement?” Martin asked. “We’re going to the hotel, then leaving right?”
“You should leave with Jude. Get him away from here. But I’m going to look for Erin.”
“Isa.” Martin grabbed her arm and forced her to stop. The stream of people leaving the stadium split and rushed around and past them. “Please. You can’t go down there. If we can’t reach Erin or Walter over the Link, it’s…it’s because they’ve moved beyond our reach.” His features twisted as he spoke, trying to hold himself together.
“That doesn’t have to be true.” Isa snatched her arm from his grasp. “Maybe the Link has gone down in that area due to the eruption. Did you think of that?”
The anger conveyed in her words shocked her, but she couldn’t believe that Martin was giving up so easily. Erin could be badly hurt. She could need their help.
“You aren’t making any sense,” Martin insisted. “Did you look at the satellite feeds?”
“I did, and they show a lot of lightning and ionization in the area. That could be blocking her signal, and maybe she decided it’s too risky to take off right now.”
An expression of hope flickered across Martin’s features.
Seizing on his hesitation, Isa urged, “Take Jude back to Athens. You’re right, it isn’t safe here. I’ll go find Erin, and then I’ll bring her home.”
Martin’s expression grew doubtful. “No. You take Jude, and I’ll go and look for Erin.”
“This isn’t a job for you,” Isa replied. “Erin isn’t in the ocean. She could be trapped somewhere near the eruption, and I worked in hazardous conditions for years back in Sirius. I know the gear, and I know how to operate out there. I can link up with Search and Rescue at the spaceport and get out there. I need to help.”
“Isa, I can’t…”
“You can’t what? I’m doing this, Martin. I have to.”
Martin put Jude down and grabbed her. He hugged her tight, almost lifting her from her feet.
Pressing his head into her neck, he said, “I can’t lose you both.”
Isa hugged him back. “You won’t lose me or Erin. I promise.”
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
After a quick stop at the hotel, Martin had journeyed to the spaceport where he now stood holding Jude’s hand tightly as they waited in line to board the shuttle to the Odyssey.
People were pouring into the main terminal, their behavior a notch higher on the panic scale as reports of Mount Poros’s ongoing eruption continued to come in. It wasn’t a supervolcano by any means, but with a five-kilometer caldera, it wasn’t a small hole in the planet’s crust, either.
Martin glanced down at Jude, making sure his son was calm and not eager to run off after some exciting thing he’d spotted. Martin didn’t want to lose hold of him. He feared the little boy could easily be swept away in the crowd.
The Odyssey wouldn’t hold everyone on the planet by a long shot, so Phaedra, Athens’ AI, had been allocating seats to people with young children first; others would be sent to the freighters and drone ships in orbit over the planet.
Few tourists took their kids to Athens—the place was too much of a playground for adults. However, the Landfall Day celebration had attracted some families, so they would be first off the planet.
Martin’s glance at his son confirmed that Jude didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening. He held on to Martin’s hand and looked around, his young brow creased in confusion. Martin was dreading the inevitable questions.
Isa had hugged her son and said goodbye before leaving to look for a skiff or aircar to take her to the eruption site, but she’d left quickly, without any explanation to Jude. Now it would be down to Martin to fill in the details.
How to explain to Jude that one of his mommies was probably dead, and the other one had gone on a perilous mission to find her? And what if neither of them came back? Losing one parent would be a terrible blow to a four-year-old, let alone two.
After a thorough look around, Jude asked, “Daddy, where did Mommy Isa go?”
“She’s….” Martin squatted down to Jude’s level and looked him in the eyes. “Mommy Erin is lost, and Mommy Isa has gone to look for her.”
“Oh no! Is Mommy Erin going to be okay?”
“Jude, I….” Martin didn’t know what to tell his son. He didn’t want to upset him, but he didn’t want to lie to him either. “Mommy Isa thinks she is. She says she’s going to find her and bring her home.”
Jude gazed at Martin’s face, as if reading what he could find there. He was trying to puzzle out what was going on.
The little boy had Isa’s eyes, Erin’s hair, and Martin’s own chin. The genes of his parents had expressed themselves evenly across Jude’s features, but, despite his love of swimming, Jude seemed to have inherited Isa’s character most. He’d become thoughtful, quiet, and sensitive. He could tell that Martin wasn’t telling him something, yet even at his young age, he’d developed the consideration not to push the issue; no ‘But what do you think, Daddy?’ would pass his lips. Martin was grateful for that.
The line moved forward, and Martin was forced to stand straight and move along with it.
The shuttle entrance drew nearer, square and luminous. What a contrast the flight to Carthage would be, compared to the one they had taken to Athens. Then after that, how long would he and Jude have to wait for Isa to come home? Would she bring Erin with her?
Despite his wife’s optimism, Martin couldn’t allow himself to believe it. The best he dared to hope for was that Isa would return to him, grief-stricken and defeated, and they would mourn Erin together. Until then, he would look after Jude.
They passed through the shuttle entrance.
<Find a seat quickly,> the pilot was saying. <The sooner I get you all up to the Odyssey, the sooner I can return to collect more people. We’re packing her to the gunwales.>
The cabin was bright and orderly compared to the gloominess and chaos outside. The passengers were slipping into their seats, moving aside for newcomers, helping each other. The children chattered, oblivious to the sober situation, while the adults spoke quietly to each other, stranger to stranger, discussing the eruption.
Vids of the event were arriving via the Link. Martin found two seats together for himself and Jude, and as he strapped Jude in, he watched the recording of the volcano’s eruption. A cone-shaped mountain rose from a carpet of lush green. Martin couldn’t see any sign of Erin’s skiff or the engineers. He guessed they must have been somewhere under the trees.
The massive peak began to billow smoke and vapor, rising in a gigantic plume. Then the volcano convulsed, and billions of tons of rock shuddered and rose into the air.
Martin stopped the recording, and the exploding volcano froze. He couldn’t watch it. Somewhere in the green landscape that surrounded the volcano, Erin had been working, tidying up after the long assignment, unaware of the cataclysm about to descend on her without warning.
Why didn’t she have any warning? And why couldn’t she have let the other engineers to do the work? She was their boss. She could have done whatever she wanted.
If she’d only remained in Attica and watched the fireworks.
Martin recalled the reason Erin had given for returning to help her team—she’d said that she had to say a formal goodbye to the TSF’s engineers, for the sake of diplomacy. It was what Tanis had wanted.
Martin’s hand tightened on his armrest. Damn that woman!
She was always putting his family in danger. If she was responsible for Erin’s death, he would never forgive her.
<One step at a time,> said Eamon.
Martin almost jumped. In his misery, he’d forgotten the AI in his mind.
<Eamon, I’m so sorry.> Walter and Eamon had been good friends for many years, probably long before they had taken up residence in Erin’s mind and his own. <Did you manage to speak to Walter after the eruption?>
<I did, but our connection dropped at the same time as Erin’s.>
<What do you think the chances are they’re still alive?> Martin asked, but then immediately regretted the question. He already had a good idea of the answer and didn’t want Eamon to confirm what he dreaded.
<It isn’t impossible that there was some interference with the connection,> Eamon said. <But that would have been transient, there should have been something by now….>
Eamon’s incomplete sentence said everything.
The shuttle doors closed, and the pilot announced they would soon be lifting off. Jude had activated the seatback holodisplay and was playing a game. Martin hoped his son’s young mind had flitted on from the fact that his mommies were in danger.
Leaving Athens without Erin or Isa felt very wrong, but Martin knew he had to look after his son. Neither of his wives would criticize him for what he was doing. They would want him to take care of Jude. But as the shuttle pilot began to pull away from the terminal, Martin couldn’t help feeling like he was running away.
If Erin was dead and Isa died in the search for her, how would he live with himself?
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Isa leapt out of the autocab that had taken her from the maglev terminal to the hangar where Search and Rescue was organizing.
Two heavy shuttles had already taken off, headed in the general direction of the explosion, and another was being loaded outside the hangar as Isa ran toward the ship.
“Hey, hold up!” a voice called out, and she turned to see a pair of Marines approaching from her right. “This is an official S&R ship, ma’am, it’s not heading into orbit.”
“I’m not looking to get off-planet,” she protested as the Marines reached her and blocked her path forward. “I want to help. I have training in hazardous conditions.”
“Ma’am,” one of the Marines shook his head. “The S&R teams train together for this. A new person in the mix will just complicate things, you—”
Isa noted the man’s company by the patch on his shoulder, and interrupted his rejection.
“Corporal, are you assigned to Major Usef’s battalion?”
“Yes, ma’am. The Fighting Fifteenth.”
“I need you to tell Major Usef that Erin is missing, and her wife Isa is here to help.”
The two Marines looked at one another, and then the corporal nodded. “Well, I’ll pass it up the chain, ma’am.”
Long minutes passed as Isa stood with the two Marines blocking her way, neither speaking, just watching her and the surrounding landing strip.
Eventually, a voice called out from behind her.
She turned to see Usef step off the back of an open groundcar.
“Major, I need to help. There’s no way I can just stand—”
“Isa,” Usef placed a hand on her shoulder and nodded to the two Marines. “There are already S&R teams operating in the area, but the satellite feeds show that the pyroclastic surge hit shortly before Erin’s Link signal cut out…. An initial flight has already gone by, and they didn’t see any sign of her skiff where she’d landed.”
“Then she’s still out there!”
“Or the surge blasted away her transport,” Usef countered. “Look, I care for Erin too. But the S&R teams here know how to do their jobs.”
“Usef,” Isa said through gritted teeth. “If you don’t let me help, I’ll find a way to look for her. I’ll walk out there if I have to.”
The major stared at her in silence for almost a minute, and then shook his head. “Stars, Isa, I have half a mind to cuff you and throw you in a shuttle headed for the Odyssey.”
“I’d get free.”
“Honestly, I don’t doubt that,” the man gave a rueful nod. “Look. If you go out there and get hurt or killed, Martin is going to beat me to death with a surfboard. I’m willing to compromise. In the next hangar over, there are a bunch of civilian skiffs we’ve commandeered. Given that this is Athens, they’re rated to fly through most of what that volcano is tossing into the air.
“You can get in on the search pattern, and Phaedra will show you where to go. But you do not—I repeat, you do not—touch down.”
Isa had begun nodding vigorously, but Usef held up a hand.
“I’m escorting you to a skiff to make sure you don’t take any equipment for a ground search. You stay in the air and stay out of danger. Phaedra is going to make sure you don’t go anywhere you’re not supposed to, and if you do, she’s going to fly you right back here. Am I understood?”
The Marine’s attitude made Isa want to hit him, but she knew that would get her nowhere. She sucked in a long breath before speaking.
“I understand, Major.”
“Good.” He drew his sidearm. “You’re rated for this, right?”
Isa’s lips drew into a thin line. “I’ve completed my training. What am I going to need it for.”
“Stars willing, nothing.” He passed her the weapon. “Let’s go. I’ll see you to your skiff.”
* * * * *
Isa had been flying her assigned part of the search grid for half an hour, going as low as she dared over the scorched landscape, staying above the debris that was still soaring through the air as the massive volcano continued to belch out chunks of the planet’s insides.
That turned out to be nearly ten kilometers above the surface, and her skiff’s meager scan could barely penetrate the ash below, let alone find any sign of Erin’s skiff.
<Phaedra,> she said to Athens’ AI, <what the hell am I doing?>
<I’ve been wondering that myself for the last half an hour, off and on.>
<Have you picked up any signs of Erin or Walter?>
Isa knew if the AI had, she would have said so, but she couldn’t help asking.
<I’m afraid not. I’m sorry.>
<All the other engineers made it out, right? Erin said she was going to wrap everything up and see the Transcend’s engineers off.>
<Both engineering teams were together when Poros erupted. One of our team was badly burned by some volcanic ejecta, but they got him to safety back on the PETER. I believe they’re sending him to the Odyssey for transport to a medical facility. You can take the skiff up to the ship if you wish, or you can continue to search for the…ah, nevermind.>
Isa swallowed. <Thank you.> She was sure Phaedra had been about to say ‘search for her body,’ but the AI had stopped herself in order to spare Isa’s feelings. <How is the rest of the search going? When can ground teams go in?>
<I have advised that no humans enter the disaster zone. The volcano is showing no signs of reduction in activity. I’m poring over the data I have available, trying to determine why this happened when the PETER was once again operating nominally. From what I can tell, the pressure in the fault line under Poros was building to enormous levels, but no alterations were triggered. Even worse, the new readings I’m gathering indicate that not all the pressure has been released, and I cannot rule out another massive eruption.
Isa bit her lip. <That means we’re running out of time. If she’s trapped down there, we need to get her before the volcano blows again!>
The AI didn’t reply for almost a minute. Then she said, <It’s possible that Lark and the other engineers may be able to help search. They have the protective gear, and if there’s a chance that Erin is still alive….>
Looking down at the scorched landscape below, Isa knew that she had to get down to the location of Erin’s last transmission, and see for herself if her wife had made it to her skiff.
<OK. I’m heading up to the PETER. I assume you’re suggesting this, knowing that Usef would veto if it if he found out?>
<I’m only suggesting that you go talk to the other engineers,> Phaedra replied. <I am not responsible for what they decide to do.>
She sounded tetchy. Isa didn’t blame her. Like everyone else, she seemed convinced that Erin was dead, and no planetary AI liked to lose any of the inhabitants under their care. On a planet like Athens, that pressure was higher than usual. She was also probably concerned about getting through this emergency while avoiding more deaths.
Wondering if the AI would enforce Usef’s ban on a close flyby of Erin’s last known location, she decided to take a closer look before going to the PETER.
As she descended, the bright sunlight faded, and she entered a zone turned dusky by clouds of smoke and ash. The skiff seemed to be coping with the conditions well enough, so Isa decreased her altitude further, hoping for a patch of clearer air that would allow her to find out what was happening below.
She came through a thick bank of ash, and suddenly, the glowing orange of a waterfall of lava emerged in the distance, and a scene of utter devastation spread out before her in the scant light. All that remained of the volcano looked like a single, broken, jagged tooth poking up from corrupt, cadaverous gums. A thick blanket of black and dark grey smoldering ash coated the remains of a lush jungle.
Isa overlaid the coordinates of Erin’s last transmission onto her visual of the landscape. The dot representing her wife’s last known location sat at the base of a mound of rock that had blasted from the volcano. A distant glint of silver caught Isa’s attention. She looked closer. It looked like the tip of a wing of a skiff turned on its side.
Shit! It is there!
That had to be the vessel she had seen through Erin’s eyes. The skiff she’d been running to when….
Isa’s eyes were suddenly wet. She blinked hard to clear them. She refused to believe that the body of her wife was lying under that pile of volcanic debris; the mass wasn’t sufficient to block a signal. She was sure of it.
Given that no one seemed interested in mounting a rescue, and Phaedra was still denying ground teams access to the area, Isa wasn’t sure they’d send in S&R until the volcano either subsided, or expelled its next burst of pent-up pressure.
She was four kilometers up, and she brought her skiff down another thousand meters, cruising over the ashy landscape and the remains of the volcano that loomed above it. Smoke and superheated steam continued to billow from the fractured edifice. The sky was a mess of raining ash and dust. A rattling sound came from her vessel’s exterior as it was hit by small pieces of rock, reminding her that, while it could fly through ash and soot, it wouldn’t survive an impact with a larger piece of debris.
And even if I land, I don’t have any gear. I wouldn’t last a minute—Usef saw to that.
She knew it was no good. She would have to visit the PETER’s engineers, as Phaedra had suggested. Isa hated the thought of Erin lying wounded somewhere out there, needing help, but the delay was unavoidable.
Angling the skiff’s nose upward, she flew the vessel in the direction of the PETER. As she journeyed out of the planet’s atmosphere, climbing the six hundred kilometers to the ring before following it to the C&C section, Isa did her best to think positively, considering that Erin’s skiff could have survived, and that it had emergency systems to protect an occupant in these sorts of conditions.
The other engineers had worked with Erin for weeks, and would also know she could have survived. Isa was certain she could convince them to help.
She looked up the names of her wife’s team members. Lark and Fazir. She randomly picked one and reached out on the Link as her skiff approached the C&C’s docking bay.
<Hello, Fazir. I’m Erin’s wife.>
<Isa? I remember seeing you out at the lava field when we met Erin. I’m…shit, I can’t believe this happened. I’m really sorry.>
<Thanks, but your condolences are premature. I think she might still be alive. I’m coming up to see you. I’d like to borrow some equipment and go look for her.>
<Ah, I see.> Fazir paused. <You know that Phaedra has lost all trace of Erin?>
<I know, but I think I spotted her skiff, and she was almost to it when her signal was lost. She could have made it inside.>
Isa wondered how many more times she would have to explain the obvious. Everyone was giving up on Erin so fast.
<I guess that is remotely possible, though it doesn’t explain why we haven’t gotten any signal,> said Fazir.
Isa decided to play down the extent to which the skiff was buried. <It was partially obscured under a rockfall. The antenna could have been damaged.>
<I guess that makes sense.>
<So you’ll help me look for her?>
Fazir took a second to respond.
<Umm…this is really embarrassing, especially after my prank when we first met, but my legs got burned off. They’re about to put me in stasis and send me off to one of the military corvettes. Thank stars for pain shunts. Lark is staying on the PETER, though. Perhaps she can help.>
Isa bit her lip. <Okay, I’ll speak with her in a few minutes when I arrive.… I hope they get you patched up soon.>
Five minutes later, Isa’s skiff settled into the C&C section’s bay, where two more vessels sat inside, both bearing signs of damage from the eruption. One’s wing had been dented by a heavy impact, and the other craft was blackened, as if it had flown through thick ash.
As she climbed out of her skiff, an ISF medical shuttle landed next to her, and a pair of women rushed out toward a man who was pushing a stasis tube into the bay.
Isa approached quietly, glancing inside the tube to see a man with his legs ending in a scorched and bloody mass. The reality that many more people than Erin were suffering from this tragedy hit her.
“You must be Isa,” greeted the man pushing the container.
“Yes. And…shoot, Fazir…I’m sorry for asking for your help. I wasn’t thinking properly.”
The man’s eyes followed the two women from the medical craft as they rushed the stasis pod back to the ship. “It’s OK, this whole thing is crazy.”
“You’re from the Transcend?” Isa asked.
“That’s right. The name’s Jere. I don’t know that you and Lark should go down there. After Fazir told her what you found, she started prepping gear. I have to admit, I tried to put her off. We have suits that will protect you from the conditions down there, but with that level of volcanic activity, it’s crazy dangerous.”
“I get it.” Isa nodded.
“Lark is risking a lot to help you,” Jere stated plainly, then turned and beckoned Isa to follow him out of the bay to a nearby equipment room. Then he left.
Lark stood up when Isa entered. She was holding one of the heat-resistant suits she had been wearing when Isa met her. Another of the TSF’s engineers was in the room, and he nodded a greeting.
“Isa,” said Lark. “I’m ready to go. I’ve sent some drones with equipment to the eruption site, and it should arrive the same time as us. Take this suit.”
Isa lifted the garment from Lark’s outstretched arms. Despite her preoccupation over Erin, Isa couldn’t help noticing that the visiting engineer seemed oddly distracted. She wondered if he was still in shock from the eruption.
They finished donning their suits, and then the two women left the equipment room, heading for the docking bay.
As they walked, Isa glanced at Lark and said, “I take it that guy was from the Transcend too?”
Lark checked over her shoulder as if checking they were out of the man’s earshot. “Yeah. His name’s Hal.”
“He seemed really bothered by something. I thought there were four Transcend engineers here…. Where are the other two?”
“I think that’s his problem. They checked in that they were safe and headed to the PETER, and then we lost contact. Jere and Hal are going to go looking for them in a few minutes, they’re just double-checking with S&R that no sign of them has been seen.”
“Phaedra told me that Erin was the only casualty.”
“She was—oh wait…well that doesn’t make any sense,” Lark muttered. “They just checked in. They’re fine, but they flew to another section on the ring….”
“They didn’t come back here? How come?”
“I don’t know exactly. They gave an excuse, but it doesn’t hold water.”
Isa didn’t want to get involved in whatever weird political games were being played out among the two teams of engineers. She had more important things to focus on.
“I think we should start our search at Erin’s last known location,” she said. “If her skiff is still there, she might be in it.”
“Yeah, maybe,” said Lark.
The pitying tone in Lark’s voice set Isa’s teeth on edge. She knew the engineer had to be holding out some hope, or she wouldn’t be risking her life, but Isa couldn’t help but feel like the grieving widow that was just being humored.
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Near Mount Poros
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
“I can’t see anywhere to land,” said Lark.
It was hard to see anything at all. Dusk had fallen, and the low light compounded with the clouds of smoke made the darkness complete. All was black except for the distant orange glow of lava and the flashes of lightning dancing above the craggy remains of the volcano’s mouth.
Lark had to rely entirely on the skiff’s instruments to see the ground. According to what Isa could read from the display, a mess of hot rocks and treacherous pits of smoldering dust and ash lay beneath them.
“What about trying to land farther away from the eruption?” Isa suggested. “We can walk in.”
Lark nodded. “That’s a better idea. I don’t want to risk the skiff being hit by any debris. He’s still growling and he won’t be stopping anytime soon. I’ll redirect the drones too.” She banked the skiff to the left and turned one hundred and eighty degrees, heading away from the scene of devastation.
Can Erin really be alive somewhere down there?
Isa knew that, logically, the chances were slim to impossible. But she wasn’t operating on logic. What she was operating on, she didn’t know. Maybe her motivation was only an inability or stubborn refusal to accept Erin’s death. Whatever it was, she couldn’t help it. She had to look for her wife.
Lark managed to land the vessel a little over a kilometer away from Erin’s last known location. She directed Isa to put on her heat-resistant suit, and got dressed quickly herself. Then she climbed out of the skiff to go to the drones and unload the equipment she’d sent down.
As she was putting on her suit, Isa saw, out of the corner of her eye, one of the two bulky contraptions Lark had unloaded rise up. She looked closer and saw the equipment’s parts slot into place. Her eyes widened in recognition. Lark had brought along exoskeletons similar to the ones miners used occasionally to move around chunks of ore.
<I’ll explain the controls after you get in,> said Lark, speaking over the Link now that she was helmeted.
<I think I’ll be okay.> Isa replied. <I’ve used something like that before.>
<You have? I thought you were an artist.>
Isa’s throat swelled with emotion. Lark would only know that because Erin had told her. Erin had probably exaggerated how good Isa was, as usual.
<I am,> she replied, <but I used to be a miner.>
<Ah, okay. In that case, you shouldn’t have any problems. Climb in.>
When Isa had clambered aboard the exoskeleton and settled herself into the seat, the device’s screen dropped down. Her suit’s HUD disappeared to be replaced with the same data on the new screen. The information stated that local atmosphere wasn’t survivable without specialized equipment, but Isa was undeterred.
<Let’s go,> she said firmly.
Lark led the way toward the volcano, her exo’s legs powering over the uneven landscape. Isa’s machine rocked as it carried her along, but its motion was smooth and steady, unlike the old, under-serviced, jerky equipment she’d operated in the past.
Her HUD was already indicating areas of intense heat: the remains of what had been massive trees, and boulders flung from the volcano like toys tossed by a child. Lark sidestepped the hottest spots and walked slowly, placing the long, wide feet of her exo down carefully for each step.
After a few minutes, Isa grew frustrated with the slow progress. They were barely going faster than walking pace. What had happened to the daredevil planetary engineer that Isa recalled from her first encounter with Lark?
She guessed that maybe Fazir’s terrible burn had dampened the engineer’s enthusiasm for risk-taking. But when it came to saving Erin’s life, Isa was not prepared to be cautious.
She sped up and moved to overtake Lark. Isa knew exactly where they were going, and now that she had the exo, she could probably move the rocks without Lark’s help.
It had been hours since the eruption. Time was pressing.
<Isa, slow down,> Lark scolded as Isa passed her. <You have to be careful. The ground’s treacherous.>
<I can handle it. Don’t worry.>
<You might have used an exo before, but that doesn’t mean you know what you’re doing here. This isn’t an asteroid.>
Isa plowed on anyway. The spot she was aiming for was only half a klick away, and if anything, the landscape was evening out.
As she strode her exo toward the volcano, Isa practiced working the pincers. She opened them to their fullest extent, closed them, and turned them at every available angle. She wanted to move the boulders away quickly; she had a vision of finding Erin trapped in a hollow, perhaps injured, but alive.
Suddenly, the ground under her exo’s right foot gave away.
The machine instantly attempted to compensate for the imbalance, leaning away from the hole, but it wasn’t enough. Isa’s exo fell sideways into the rapidly expanding chasm. The cabin crashed against the edge of the opening, bringing her face to face with rocks and cinders.
<Are you okay?> said Lark.
<I guess I was going too fast after all.>
<Just a little.>
Isa had fallen onto a gully that had filled to the top with ash. The ground around it was also treacherous. Her exo tried to right itself, but the edges of the hole were crumbling, and the other leg was sinking deeper. More ash gave away, and Isa sank deeper still, dragging her cabin window against the rocks.
<Shut down your exo’s a-grav,> Lark ordered. <It’s just flinging ash and rock everywhere and making things worse. You’re going to dig yourself to the bottom of that gully in no time.>
Isa did as the engineer said, mentally cursing herself. None of this was helping Erin. She had to slow down and be careful, or she would end up dead, and then no one would search for her wife.
<I’m behind you,> Lark said. <I can reach you from here.>
A few moments later, Isa felt the impact of metal pincers, and she instantly dropped lower. Her position was precarious. She hoped Lark didn’t end up in the hole with her.
Isa felt herself move again, upward this time; Lark was pulling her exo out. Hanging suspended in the cabin, there wasn’t anything Isa could do to help. She watched the wall of the chasm ease past. Then she was out.
<You’re not home free yet. I’m going to put you down.>
Lark turned her upright and set her on her feet, looking at the dark, destroyed landscape again. Isa craned around and saw the other exo’s legs spread and its pincers extended on prehensile arms. As she watched, Lark released the pincers and retracted the long arms.
<I’ll take it easy from now on,> said Isa.
<Don’t feel bad. That could have happened anyway, whatever speed you were going. Like I said, the ground’s treacherous.>
Isa started up her exo and set off again. On a private channel, she called out, <Erin? Erin?>
She wasn’t really expecting a reply, yet the lack of one made her sad and fearful.
In another few minutes, they had arrived at the rockfall that marked Erin’s last location. It struck Isa as a little odd that only this one pike of ejecta had landed in the vicinity.
Lark immediately got to work, extending her pincers and removing the smaller rocks. Isa operated her exo to do the same, quickly lifting the material and placing it to one side.
After a few minutes, they extracted Erin’s skiff. It was relatively undamaged, but empty. After examining it as carefully as possible, they turned their exos back to the pile.
<You know, Isa,> said Lark in a soft tone, <I can manage this myself. If you want to step back until I’m finished, I don’t mind.>
Lark was thinking that Isa probably didn’t want to see what lay beneath the boulders. The woman thought she was on a mission to recover a body.
<I want to do this,> was all Isa could think to say.
It was true that she didn’t want to see Erin in that state. But unless she did see her, however she looked, Isa knew she would never be able to accept that Erin was gone.
They continued to work. One boulder was particularly heavy and they lifted it between them. All the while, Isa looked closely beneath each rock.
Finally, they were done. Only compressed, dented ground the color of ash remained in the space. Isa double-checked the coordinates Phaedra had sent. They were in the right spot, but Erin wasn’t there.
<Where is she? What do you make of this, Lark?>
<I don’t know. To tell you the truth, I was fully expecting to find some grisly remains, but the rocks are all clean.>
Isa probed the ground in the hollow with her pincers. The metal hands dug into the compacted earth, gouging deep ruts. There didn’t appear to be anything below the soil. Certainly nothing that resembled human remains.
The obvious answer to the question of what had happened to Erin had been eliminated. Isa began to explore other explanations for her wife’s disappearance.
She said, <I couldn’t help but notice when we arrived that this is the only pile of ejecta in the area. Does that seem odd to you?>
<I didn’t think about it, to be honest. I was concentrating on moving them. But it is a bit unusual that there is nothing else around….>
Isa waited while Lark viewed her recording of the pile of boulders before they’d cleared it.
<Hmm, you’ve got a point. The angle is a little off from what I would have expected, too…but that doesn’t mean anything, it was a massive explosion.>
<Well, if they didn’t land there by chance, that can only mean someone put them there.>
<But who would do that?> asked Lark in a tone that suggested she didn’t really believe Isa’s suspicions, but didn’t want to get into an argument either. <And why?>
<I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.>
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Near Mount Poros
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
The cloud from the volcanic eruption was stretching ever higher and wider across the planet’s surface, but eventually, the skiff cleared the haze, flying into clear space with the dark skies above them.
“I wonder when the eruption will be over?” Isa asked. “Phaedra said she expected another large blast.”
“One of many, if you ask me.” Lark shot Isa a worried look.
“If we don’t get Athens’ stabilization on track, Poros could be active for hundreds of years.”
“I wish I was. And what’s more, it won’t be the only massive eruption we’ll see if we don’t fix the PETER soon. The uninhabitable zone will spread, and the entire surface could be unfit for human life.”
Isa whistled. “I thought the evacuation was temporary. What you’re saying is, New Canaan could lose one of its habitable planets?”
“That’s right. I mean, the poles might remain livable, just about, but regular ejections of gas and dust into the atmosphere from volcanic eruptions are going to make global temperatures plummet. Those luxury resorts at Attica will be a thing of the past…. No one in their right minds will choose to live here.”
“I didn’t realize things were so bad. Erin said you’d gotten the place under control again.”
“That was what we thought. Everything seemed to be returning to normal. That was the trend, anyway, after the activity had been increasing for months. We really thought we’d fixed it, though it wasn’t clear how. Now I don’t know what the hell was happening, and I don’t know if I’ll be able to find out. Especially now that Erin’s gone.”
As Lark finished her sentence she choked up.
“Sorry.” She wiped her eye with the back of her hand. “I know you think she’s still alive. I really hope she is too.”
“It’s okay,” said Isa. “I know I must sound crazy in the circumstances. That’s what everyone seems to think. What will you and Fazir do?”
“Continue to live on the PETER. Bathe in hot springs a little less.”
“You live up there? I thought you lived on the planet.”
“No, we’ve always lived on the ring. Of course, if we can’t stabilize Athens, people could still live on a space station, if they wanted to stay.”
“Yeah, Erin would—” Love to build another space station. Isa bit her lip.
“What do you think has happened to her?” Lark asked.
“I was hoping you might be able to help answer that. You were one of the last people to see her.”
“I know, but I’ve told you. I was too distracted by Fazir’s injury, and Erin ran to her own skiff. It wasn’t until later I realized she was missing. Then I checked with Phaedra and heard the bad news.”
“What happened before that? Anything unusual?”
Lark’s eyes flicked up and to the side. “Uh, we were saying goodbye to the engineers from the Transcend, thinking their work was done. Thanking them for their help. You know, that kind of thing. Erin was doing her polite diplomat routine—”
“Erin? A polite diplomat?”
Isa recalled Erin’s table manners after she’d been shipside for a while. She remembered Martin and Erin’s huge argument after the invasion drill on Troy. She recalled her wife’s spectacular leap from two stories high during the drill, when the skirt of her dress had flown up over her head.
“Are you sure we’re talking about the same person?”
“Yes,” Lark replied, giving Isa a sad smile. “She did a great job at keeping the tensions between the two groups from building up. Hal and Jere really liked her, I think. Reiko and Leif weren’t so warm, but Jere was inviting her to pay a visit to Admiral Iysra’s flagship when Fazir noticed the plume from the volcano. He was the first to see it.”
“They were inviting her to go with them right then?”
“I think so. Or visit later. I can’t remember.”
“Why do you think they were doing that?”
“In the spirit of friendship between New Canaan and the Transcend, probably. The Transcend didn’t have to help us, after all. What do they care if we lose one of the planets for a century or two? New Canaan is a prize system. They didn’t want us to have it, from what I understand.”
“You sound like you like them.”
Lark blushed a little. “I don’t dislike them. Don’t forget, Sera Tomlinson gave us the tech that saved us at Bollam’s World. She’s from the Transcend, too.”
Isa knew that, but she also knew that, for all intents and purposes, Admiral Iysra and her fleet were just waiting for the orders to swoop in and seize everything New Canaan had to offer. Cozying up to them didn’t sound right to her, or like something that Erin would do.
“What about those two who went to another section of the PETER?” she asked. “What did you say their names were? You said they didn’t seem to like Erin so much.”
“I don’t think I mentioned their names in that context. Reiko and Leif. They seemed okay. Maybe it was only that they were a bit quieter than Jere and Hal. Reiko complained after they arrived, but she settled down in the end.”
Isa mulled over Lark’s words. Her instinct that Erin was alive came from her gut and had no origin in logic or reason. But the more she considered the situation as Lark had laid it out, the more she could see a story unfolding. A story that ended in Erin’s ‘death’.
The Transcend had everything to gain from having someone of Erin’s rank and inside knowledge in their grasp, but to snatch her in broad daylight would be a political disaster. It would be tantamount to a declaration of war on the system, and the Transcend’s fleet that lurked beyond New Canaan’s heliopause would be the first to be attacked, making it difficult to get Erin outsystem.
If the Transcend’s engineers had been sent in to extract sensitive information from a New Canaanite, they would have to fake that person’s death. A volcanic eruption would be the perfect cover. But if that was what had happened, Isa would have to move carefully to find Erin; if the kidnappers knew she was on their tail, they might be prompted to destroy the evidence of what they’d done.
Lark guided the skiff into the landing bay at the PETER. As they exited the vessel, Isa thanked the woman for her help.
“No problem. I’m sorry we didn’t find her. What do you plan on doing now? Are you going to get a berth on one of the ships heading for Carthage?”
“I was hoping I might be able to stay here.”
“You were?” Lark’s eyebrows rose. She’d clearly already dismissed Isa’s speculations, but decorum overcame her skepticism of Isa’s theories. “Sure, there’s plenty of room. We can find you a bunk somewhere. You’ll have plenty of time to catch one of the ships, if you change your mind and decide to evacuate.”
“Er, I wasn’t intending to leave. I want to keep searching for Erin, as long as it takes.”
Isa hated that she sounded like a crazy, grief-stricken widow. She couldn’t help that, but she needed Lark’s agreement if she was to remain on the PETER. She could work on persuading the engineer on her new idea later.
“Well, if you want to stay here for a while,” Lark continued, “that shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Come on. I’ll introduce you to Reiko and Leif, if they’re back.”
“A vid just arrived for me. Do you mind if I watch it before I follow you in?”
Lark left the bay, and Isa opened the message from Martin. It was a vid of himself and Jude aboard the Odyssey. Jude was sitting on Martin’s lap.
“Say hi to Mommy Isa,” Martin said.
“Hi, Mommy Isa! Hi, Mommy Erin!” The little boy waved his hand.
Behind his son, Martin’s face twisted in pain. “Do you want to tell her what you’ve been doing on the ship?”
As Jude explained how he’d made a friend and they had been playing hide-and-go-seek in the observation dome, Martin’s voice overlaid Jude’s.
<I haven’t told him anything much yet, Isa. I can’t bring myself to, and I guess you might be right. I hope so. I hope I’m wrong, that you’ve found her and you’re both on your way to Attica right now to catch the next ship out of there. Stars, I hope so.
<If not, please take care. If Erin’s gone, Jude will need you more than ever. And we have triplets who need a mommy too. As soon as you’re ready, come home. Then we’ll tell him together.
<I love you.>
Jude’s voice took over, continuing his excited chatter about his new friend. Isa watched her son’s image hungrily, remembering the soft, heavy feel of him sitting in her lap and the weight of him on her hip when he was younger. She recalled the little bronzed boy toddling after his father into the waves at their beach house on the Med, and running through the long grass next to the Black Sea on Troy.
For a moment, her resolve faltered. Was she imagining all this stuff about Erin? Had the news of her wife’s death affected her mental health? She’d required treatment to come to terms with the deaths of everyone she had left behind at Victoria…. Was she becoming mentally unstable again?
Guilt nagged at her. If something happened to her, Martin would be forced to cope with two deaths, while raising four children, and Jude would be devastated by the loss of two of his parents. Was she being selfish in refusing to accept the obvious truth about what had happened to Erin?
Then she remembered the boulders.
The rocks could not have fallen in that pattern. And if Erin did die there, what happened to her body? Even it burned, there should be some kind of a trace.
Those two facts couldn’t be denied. Lark had not been able to explain them. Isa knew she was right. Her instinct wasn’t leading her astray, the evidence had confirmed it.
She walked along the passageway to the living area of the PETER. She would reply to Martin later and tell him what she’d found; she would record a message for Jude too. She was so glad they were safe and traveling home to Carthage.
Two people she hadn’t met before sat in the lounge along with Lark and Hal. The four had been discussing something as she entered, but she’d been too preoccupied by her own thoughts to notice what they’d been saying.
From their expressions, it was clear they’d been talking about her.
“Isa,” said Lark, too brightly. “Meet Reiko and Leif.”
Reiko was an angular woman with a gaunt face and black hair cut in a short, severe bob. Leif had deep-set, grey eyes above a thick beard. Unlike Hal and Jere, they were both wearing TSF uniforms.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” said Reiko.
Isa looked into the woman’s black eyes. “Thanks for your condolences.”
STELLAR DATE: 05.12.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Mount Poros
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin had to fly several passes over the forest’s thick foliage to find a space large enough to land her skiff. The tree cover was dense in the foothills surrounding Mount Poros’s looming peak. By the time she reached the rest of the team, everyone was waiting for her. They had already taken up the seismometers and dispatched them on drones for storage aboard the orbital ring.
Erin walked up to the group feeling a little sad to be saying goodbye to Fazir and Lark, even though they were somewhat crazy—especially Fazir. But she guessed she would see them again at some point.
She would not miss the other engineers. Jere and Hal were okay, but Leif and Reiko had definitely been a thorn in her side the entire duration of the assignment. It would be a pleasure to see them go, and have the weight of maintaining secrecy about New Canaan’s defenses off her shoulders.
“Erin,” said Reiko, “I was worried you weren’t going to make it.”
“Don’t be silly,” Leif said. “We would have waited for her. We aren’t in a rush.”
“Yeah, no hurry to go back to another tour on a cruiser,” said Jere. “I want to thank you for the hospitality you’ve shown us. We’re well aware of the political tensions between New Canaan and the Transcend, and we’re grateful you could overlook all that and treat us as individuals who were sent here only to help.”
“No problem,” Erin said. “On behalf of New Canaan, I’d like to thank you all for being gracious guests.” Was that the right thing to say?
She guessed so. Diplomacy wasn’t so far from lying through your teeth.
There was a pause where everyone looked uncomfortable, having exhausted the average engineer’s supply of small talk. Jere was looking glum, and Lark looked like she might burst into tears at any moment.
Erin pitied them. It had to be hard to care about someone who lived on the other side of an unbreachable divide.
“Looks like this is it,” said Fazir, clapping his hands and rubbing them together.
“Er, I have an idea,” Jere blurted.
All present turned to him in surprise, the TSF’s engineers equally as taken aback as the New Canaanites.
“It would be a shame not to build on the rapport we’ve generated,” he continued. “You guys should pay us a visit in return sometime. Nothing formal, just—”
“Jere!” Reiko exclaimed. “You can’t make an offer like that without Admiral Iysra’s permission.”
“Yeah,” said Erin, “I’m sorry, but I really doubt our governor would agree. Besides, I have too much to do here. I appreciate it, but—”
“Holy smokes,” breathed Fazir. “Look!”
He was pointing at Poros, which dominated the view. Smoke and steam were gushing from the volcano in great puffs, bursting upward into the clear blue sky.
“I don’t like the look of that,” frowned Lark. “We should all get out of—”
Her words were cut off by a deep, loud, juddering rumble emanating from the volcano. At the same time, the caldera shuddered.
Shit!” Fazir hollered.
Millions of tons of rock exploded as the massive crater broke apart. An ear-shattering crack split the air, and a pressure wave nearly bowled Erin over. The ground leapt under her feet. She was thrown forward, a high-pitched whine ringing in her ears. The earth seemed to rise up to meet her, and for a second, she lay still, dazed.
<Run, Erin,> Walter urged.
Thanking the stars she could hear him if nothing else, Erin struggled to rise. Everyone had disappeared, no doubt running to their skiffs to escape the eruption. Hot ash, dust, and chunks of rock rained down, quickly dulling the vivid green of the undergrowth.
The explosion had disoriented her. She swung around, trying to figure out where she’d landed her skiff. As she scanned her surroundings, she saw the volcano—or what remained of it. Half of it was simply gone, dissolved into grainy clouds that pirouetted toward the sky briefly before spreading outward and plummeting down as if sucked in by the ground.
I have to get out of here.
Turning, she saw the skiff in the distance. The ground beneath it had shifted, and the vessel lay on its side. Erin sped toward it. Even in its current position, she thought she could take off in it. She only had to reach the damned thing.
<Erin, are you OK?>
It was Isa. News of the eruption must have arrived in Attica.
Erin spoke with both Isa and Martin as she ran across the smoldering, black ground, already thick with ash. The air was filled with the sulfurous fumes and iron scent of the eruption, but Erin caught a whiff of something else, a horrible smell. She finally recognized it.
Her hair was burning.
She ran a hand over the short strands, wincing as her palm met a smoldering piece of debris. She brushed it and the burned strands of hair away.
Each breath was turning into a struggle, and she pulled her shirt up over her mouth and nose to keep out the ash and dust. Walter was attending to the damage that the heated atmosphere was doing to her lungs, but she had to reach the skiff soon.
The vessel lay only a few meters away, one of its doors popped open. Though she wasn’t quite safe yet, Erin felt the welcome pleasure of relief. Even if she couldn’t get the skiff off the ground, she might be able to seal herself inside for a while and escape the worst effects of the disaster.
But then something barreled into her hard enough to lift her off her feet and fling her forward. The last thing she remembered was a boulder rapidly approaching her face.
STELLAR DATE: 05.13.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin woke to utter darkness. She lay on her back, secured to a hard surface by restraints at her wrists and ankles. When she tried to lift her head, she discovered another restraint around her neck.
Confusion befuddled her.
Am I having a nightmare?
But nothing was changing. She wasn’t waking up, she was already awake. She reached out with her mind.
What the hell?
She had no Link access. Her mind felt wrong, like someone had poked holes in it.
When no answer came, Erin wondered again if she was dreaming. She tried to think of possible reasons Walter might not answer her, but she couldn’t come up with any. Her head hurt, but if her brain had been damaged enough to also damage Walter, she wouldn’t have been able to think.
There was nothing. The direct connection to her AI was null-routed. She tried to access the Link again, then her other mods, finding them either null-routed, or reporting offline. She finally managed to access a base bio-data module, but all it gave her was the time; she couldn’t even access her body’s nano.
Almost an entire day had passed.
Anxiety began to overwhelm her. What had happened to Walter? Had someone removed him from her mind? Why would anyone do that? And where was she?
Her eyes strained to penetrate the darkness, but it was complete. There was no heat, no EM, nothing.
Knowing it was futile, she mentally said Walter’s name again.
Erin tested her restraints again, but they were firm, allowing no more than a couple millimeters’ movement. The neck restraint even tightened uncomfortably when she swallowed. She strained her ears, but she could hear nothing except a deep, quiet, familiar hum. She was on the PETER.
How did I get here?
The last thing she remembered was Poros erupting.
“Hey!” she shouted.
The sound barely echoed before dying away. So, she was in a small, enclosed space. She shouted again, trying to judge just how small from how it reflected her voice, but it was hard. Walter could have told her exactly, down to decimal points.
Where is he?
Erin was utterly alone, for the first time since she could remember. AIs had been part of her mind for a long time. When one had gone, another took his or her place. They were a part of her.
Yet the inexplicable loss of her AI was the least of her worries.
Erin ran through the recent events she remembered. She’d been running to her skiff after the volcano exploded, deafened by the noise and probably the pressure wave too, dodging the falling debris, the hot air and ash searing her throat and lungs.
Something had hit her in the side, she couldn’t remember what. And next, she’d woken up in this, this….
Did someone make a terrible mistake, and now everyone thinks
Erin recalled history lessons about how people used to die when they were very young, and those left behind had to dispose of the dead bodies. Sometimes they would put them in something called a tomb.
She appeared to be in a similar kind of place, but she was pretty sure they didn’t used to tie the corpses down, or that’s what she rememeberd….maybe. What was wrong with her brain?
Another memory hit: Martin and Isa!
They would be waiting for her in Attica, wondering what had happened to her. They would be worried out of their minds, and she had no way to contact them.
Erin struggled vigorously against her bonds, which only resulted in choking and sore wrists and ankles. She reasoned that she would not be restrained unless someone meant her some harm.
This has to be Leif’s doing. Or maybe Reiko’s. Probably both.
She didn’t particularly trust Hal or Jere either, no matter what Lark thought of them, but surely none of the Transcend’s engineers would risk kidnapping her. That would be insane. Phaedra would easily notice she’d been abducted, and as soon as Tanis found out about it, she would have them all arrested.
Time was dragging on, though in the darkness, and lacking some of her augmented mind’s most basic functions, she kept losing track of time—used to seeing it displayed on her HUD. She was soaked in sweat from her struggles, and growing thirstier and thirstier.
Deprived of her senses, she began to see imaginary colors and hear voices speaking far off, their words indistinct. Her sense of isolation grew, accompanied by increasing anxiety.
Did Leif and Reiko get what they wanted from Walter? Are they going to leave me here to die? How will my family cope if they never see me again? Will Jude ever get over it? She began to wish she’d spent more time with him.
Dread and misery gnawed at her, but then something else kicked in. She’d forgotten all about the training she’d done. What had Usef told her? It was about survival. Whatever it takes. It was time to put her training into practice and reach deep. She could survive this. She would survive this.
Erin realized her breathing rate and pulse had been speeding up, and that she was wasting her energy. She deliberately calmed herself, shutting out the thoughts that would lead her down a rabbit hole of despair. She even forced herself to shut out her anxiety over Walter, Martin and Isa. Her breathing and heart rate naturally followed suit and slowed down.
She had to get out.
She asked herself what Usef or Tanis would do, and knew immediately that they would find a way, no matter what. She might be able to open the other restraints, if she could get a hand free. Which she probably could, if she pulled hard enough. If she could shut her mind to the pain. That was a grisly thought. Her control systems to dispense analgesics were offline—likely tied to Walter’s removal—so it would be agony, and what was left of her hand might not work very well, but anything was preferable to passivity and helplessness. She wasn’t going to die alone in the dark without putting up a fight.
No time like the present.
Erin grimaced and set her teeth as she began to pull. The restraint cut into her flesh at the base of her thumb bone. Her hand was pretty small, but she relaxed it, trying to make it even smaller. If she was lucky, she might only lose some skin. The restraint bit deeper, and Erin gasped. She felt blood trickle out.
All of a sudden, a crack appeared in the darkness, allowing in piercing rays of light.
Erin squinted and blinked as the crack grew wider. A door was opening. The silhouette of a human figure passed across the blinding beams, then the door closed, and all was dark again. Erin thought she’d recognized the person from the brief glimpse, but she wasn’t sure.
A light turned on, and she saw her guess had been correct. Reiko stood in the narrow space. The gaunt woman did not look at all friendly.
Erin had found her kidnapper.
While Reiko glared at her, fury twisting her features, Erin quickly took in her surroundings. She was inside a slim storage tank; the ceiling curved only a meter above her bed. If Reiko stretched out her hands, she would be able to touch both walls at once. Erin guessed the space had formerly stored equipment for the orbital ring. Perhaps the walls were made from a material that blocked Link signals…. That would make sense, yet in the brief time the door was open, Erin had attempted to make a connection and failed—which strengthened her fears about what had been done to her, and to Walter.
“What have you done to my brain? What did you do with my AI?” she demanded.
Reiko didn’t answer immediately. Her eyes narrowed, and she looked at Erin as if considering what to tell her. Finally, she spoke.
“Your AI…Walter, was it? He rather stupidly decided to sacrifice himself for New Canaan.”
A shadow settled over Erin’s heart.
“What do you mean?” she asked, though she’d already guessed the answer.
“Faced with the choice of giving up your system’s defense plans or his life, he chose the latter. I strongly suggest you don’t make the same mistake.”
Sorrow and grief rose in Erin like a great tide, but she fought to maintain control of herself. She would have time to grieve Walter later—after she’d killed Reiko.
“You’re a fool. Walter didn’t know New Canaan’s defense plans any more than I do. We’re engineers, not military. But when Tanis Richards finds out you’ve murdered an AI and kidnapped me, you’ll be the one to die, and all for nothing.”
“No, you’re the fool. No one’s even looking for you, everyone thinks you died in the eruption. You’re all alone, Erin. There’s no rescue on its way. If you decide not to tell us what we want to know, all I have to do is leave and lock the door. Your death won’t be pleasant, and it’ll take a long time. So what do you say?”
“Some choice. Even if I did know something about the system’s defenses, what would be the point of telling you? So you can leave me here anyway? So my family can be killed when the Transcend attacks?”
“If you answer my questions truthfully, we will offer you and your family safe passage outsystem.”
Erin almost laughed. “You think I would leave millions to die as long as the people dear to me are safe? You think I would be that much of a traitor?”
“One person’s traitor is another person’s smart decision-maker. You should count yourself fortunate you’ve been given this opportunity.”
This time, despite the loss of Walter and her dire situation, Erin did laugh. “If this is good luck, I’d hate to encounter bad.”
Reiko leaned in close to Erin’s face. “We will have the picotech. It’s inevitable. And if we don’t take it, someone else will—such an imbalance of power can’t exist forever. New Canaan is doomed whatever you do. If you don’t tell us what you know, you’ll die here, alone and in agony, and your family will die too.” She straightened up. “Personally, I think it’s a good offer. I’d take it, if I were you.”
“You’re not me, though. New Canaanites don’t steal what doesn’t belong to them.”
“Very noble, Erin. Let’s see how long your moral superiority lasts.”
Reiko walked out and slammed the door, and Erin was immediately plunged into darkness once more.
She exhaled heavily. Walter was gone; they’d killed him. She would never feel his familiar, welcome presence again. Her eyes filled with hot tears that ran out the sides and into her hair.
Of course he hadn’t told them anything. And neither would she. She would never jeopardize the safety of New Canaan. She would never make Walter’s death meaningless.
One thing working in her favor was that Reiko hadn’t actually harmed her yet. That meant, now that Walter was gone, Erin was the only source of information Reiko had, and she would be reluctant to kill her.
That fact would buy her time.
Erin realized something else: Reiko had said ‘we’ and ‘us.’
That means Leif, for sure.
She wondered if all the Transcend’s engineers had been in on the scheme to extract intel. It would have been hard for Reiko and Leif to get her away from the eruption site by themselves.
Reiko had said no one was looking for her, which meant that, through some butchery of her mind, they had destroyed her Link access. That meant Phaedra would not receive her signal.
Martin and Isa must think I’m dead.
The thought tore at her. She resolved to do her best to prove she wasn’t.
STELLAR DATE: 05.13.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Hours had passed since Reiko had left. Erin guessed the engineer was concerned her absence would be noticed by Lark and Fazir if she was away too long. Erin had spent that time trying to free herself, but all she had achieved were bloody and torn wrists and ankles.
When she’d undergone her military training, Usef had suggested she upgrade her mods to military standard, but she’d wanted to put it off until after Athens’ PETER had been fixed.
If only I’d done it earlier, I could break out of these restraints, and be ready to give Reiko a nice surprise when she returns.
She might even have been able to break out of the tank where she was confined. But wishing wasn’t going to change anything.
Erin had decided her best option was to play for time, wait for Reiko’s vigilance to wear down, and watch for opportunities. Perhaps she could feed her tidbits of information that were convincing but unverifiable, or put on a performance that her resolve was crumbling and her sense of desperation increasing.
Whatever she did, Erin knew she was on a fixed timetable…. The Transcend’s engineers couldn’t remain at the PETER forever. The eruption would put back their departure for the moment, but the day would come when either Tanis would decide they were incapable of fixing the PETER, or they would actually fix it, removing their reason for remaining.
The door opened.
“Hey!” Erin yelled. “Help! It’s Erin! I’m in here!”
The door closed. When the light inside the tank turned on, Reiko was smiling.
“You’re a long way from help. Unless you can make your voice carry hundreds of kilometers, no one’s going to hear you.”
It was a small piece of information, but worth knowing. Erin now knew she was somewhere on the PETER, far from the section where the engineers lived. This was important because it meant that a skiff was nearby, as Reiko would need one to fly there.
“You’ve been busy,” said Reiko when she noticed the bloody effects of Erin’s struggles. “To be honest, I’m not surprised. I guess I would do the same in your circumstances. But it really was a waste of time. The only way you’re getting out of here alive is if you tell me all you know about how Tanis plans to defeat an invasion of New Canaan.”
“What’s the point of telling you anything?” said Erin. “You’re going to kill me no matter what I say. You have to. You can’t risk anyone finding out that you faked my death and kept me here. You would never make it out of the system.”
“All good points. But you’ve forgotten that I could take you with me when I leave and no one would know you survived the eruption. You could have a life in the Transcend. You would be welcome, especially considering everything you know.”
“I’m happy here, thanks.”
Reiko heaved a sigh. “I thought you would say that. You leave me with no alternatives. Erin, I’ve worked alongside you for weeks. I’ve gotten to know you and, strange as it may seem, I don’t dislike you. I’m not going to enjoy what I’m about to do. You have to understand, I’m not a bad person, only a determined one. If I have to put you through hell to get what I want, I’ll do it. Do you understand?”
Erin saw the absolute sincerity in Reiko’s eyes. She wanted to say, ‘If you know me so well, you’ll know this entire exercise is pointless’. But she kept her mouth shut. As long as Reiko held the smallest belief that she might learn something useful, she wouldn’t kill her torture subject.
When Erin didn’t answer, Reiko slipped a slim, steel wand from her sleeve. Its end was rounded, not sharp.
Did she sneak it past the security check when she arrived in New Canaan, or did she make it while she was here?
A good engineer could turn their hand to most things if they had the right materials.
Feeling slightly nauseated, Erin next wondered what Reiko planned to do with her metal stick.
She didn’t have to wait long to find out.
Reiko touched the tip of the wand to Erin’s bloody wrist. Agony flared up her arm like lightning. Her back arched, and she heard herself screaming. The pain seemed to go on forever, then suddenly it was gone. Erin was back from her well of agony and in the tank once more. The nerves from the fingertips of her left hand up to her spine tingled furiously as Reiko stood over her. Though the engineer had described herself as ‘not a bad person,’ Erin saw only curiosity in her eyes, not a shred of pity.
“That was the mild setting,” Reiko said simply.
She said something else, but Erin had tuned her out. If this was what she had to endure, she had to learn to shut out the pain. She was in no position to stop Reiko at that moment, but she could control her perception of what her nerves told her. She didn’t want Reiko to know what she was doing, though, or the pieces of information she intended to feed her would be less convincing.
Reiko touched the wand to Erin’s other wrist. Again, white-hot pain flared, but Erin tried to push it down, closing her mind to it. However, she still screamed and struggled against her restraints.
The torture session continued. Reiko turned up the intensity of the nerve stimulator. Erin didn’t succeed in entirely shutting out the instrument’s effects, but she managed to subdue the sensation. She suffered terribly, but she stayed in control, holding onto the fact that, at some point, Reiko had to stop.
Finally, she did.
“Yes,” Erin panted.
She considered that it might be time to pretend to give up, but quickly dismissed it. Reiko would never buy it; she had to play the game a little longer.
She swallowed and added, “Your stick tickles.”
“Still defiant, huh? You’re made of tough stuff. I guess I’m going to have to try something else. I prefer the wand…. It’s clean, leaves no marks. But some people require messier methods. They might be able to bear pain, but they can’t stand to see a limb amputated.”
“There’s no need to do that on my account. I’d hate to see you cut off your arm for no purpose.”
“What wonderful bravado in the face of watching me cut a piece from your body.”
“Appendages can be replaced. I already did that once, I can do it again.”
“Not if you die from blood loss or shock.”
“If I die, you’ll never find out our secrets.”
“So you do know something.”
Erin was silent.
Reiko looked like a cat that had caught a mouse. “I knew it! I knew I was on the right track. Leif—” She sucked in a breath.
“So, Leif is in on this too?” asked Erin. “Is it only you and him, or all four of you?”
A shadow of anger passed across Reiko’s features. “It doesn’t matter what you know.”
“No, it doesn’t, because you’ve planned to kill me all along.”
Reiko scowled. She lifted the wand and thrust the tip against Erin’s cheekbone. The movement was so sudden, Erin didn’t have time to prepare herself. She received the full force of the pain inflicted. For a time, she lost all control. She could feel herself writhing and hear her shrieks echoing off the metal walls around her.
When Reiko withdrew the wand, Erin was blind in her left eye. All her muscles throbbed, protesting against their long restriction and the knives of pain that had passed through them. Echoes of the nerve stimulation reverberated behind her eye and across her face and ear. Blood in her mouth told her she’d bitten her tongue.
Reiko leaned down and put her face so close to Erin’s, their noses were nearly touching. “Tell me what you know,” she hissed.
All Erin’s calmly prepared plans to feed the woman plausible lies and eke out the time until an opportunity to escape presented itself had gone out the window. The torment Reiko had inflicted had provoked a deep hatred in Erin. If she had been free at that moment, she would have strangled Reiko with her bare hands.
This bitch killed Walter. My husband and wife think I’m dead…. My son probably thinks so, too.
Erin worked her mouth, gathering a gob of saliva and blood, and then spat.
The other engineer reared backward and wiped the bloody spit from her cheek. Pale with anger, a deadly calmness settled over her. She glared at Erin. All formality and pretense had dropped away, and loathing oozed from her. Erin was glad of it. Now they both knew where they stood.
Reiko lifted the wand as if to use it again. Erin tensed and readied herself.
But Reiko hesitated.
She held the wand indecisively in midair, then she flung it down. The instrument clattered on the metal floor. Reiko turned, strode to the door, and pulled it open. She passed through the portal, and the door clanged shut.
Erin was alone again. But now, everything was different. Reiko had left the light on, so Erin was no longer in the dark. Even better, the engineer had left behind a handy weapon.
Now all Erin had to do was reach it.
STELLAR DATE: 05.13.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
She’d done it. Erin had pulled one of her hands out of its restraint. The waves of pain were beginning to recede, but she didn’t want to look at the effects of her efforts on her skin and flesh. As long as her hand still functioned, any injury would be worth it. If she didn’t get out of there soon, her physical state wouldn’t matter.
Erin gingerly tried to flex her fingers, touching each one to her thumb in turn. Her blood made the contact tacky, and the pain returned in full force, but victory and relief welled up when she managed the action successfully.
It was oddly ironic that it had been Reiko’s torture that had enabled her to free herself. After enduring that agony and trying to control her reaction to it, nearly pulling off her own hand had been downright bearable.
Now to see if she could remove her restraints.
She explored the neck restraint first. Erin had spent some of her long time in captivity speculating about Reiko’s attempt to extract intel from her. All of the engineers had been searched upon their arrival, and found to be carrying nothing suspicious. She wondered if something had been left behind on the PETER by the FGT, or if they had simply outwitted the ISF inspection team.
As her tender fingertips alighted on a catch on the restraint, Erin found that her guess had been correct. Military-grade prisoner restraints would not be operable by hand; they would require a security access to lock and open them. But Reiko had tied Erin down using simple grips she’d found somewhere on the ring.
Erin fiddled with the grip, feeling out the lock’s design. She wiggled in a broken fingernail and flipped the catch. It sprang open and her neck was free.
She sat up and looked around, noting that she’d been lying on an equipment box. The grips were threaded through a network of square holes in the lid. She reached for the one that was confining her other wrist, trying to ignore the bloody wreck of her free hand. In moments, she had two hands free, and seconds later, both feet.
Erin swung her legs over the side of the box and climbed down. She tried the door, but it was locked. Apparently, Reiko’s rage hadn’t caused her to forget that task.
With her good hand, Erin unfastened her shirt and pulled it off. Next, she took off her undershirt and wrapped the material around her injured hand. After putting her shirt on again, she scanned the floor of the tank. At first, she saw only bare metal…. Then her gaze alighted on the slim torture device. The silver wand had ended up in a corner near the door.
Erin retrieved it and examined the instrument. It was a simple piece of thin, smooth metal. To ignorant eyes, it looked innocent, and could have easily been passed over during an inspection. There were no buttons or any other physical clues on how to operate it, as far as she could see. Erin guessed that Reiko could connect with it mentally.
The discovery was a big setback to her plans. One touch of the wand would incapacitate an attacker, but only if she could operate it. Conceivably, if her ability to connect to the Link remained intact, she would have been able to figure out how to access the device, but as it was, the wand could possibly be used as a small spear, though a blunt one. Still, it was better than nothing.
Now she only had to wait.
Erin squatted down next to the door, the wand poised in her good hand. She’d chosen to sit next to the side of the door that opened. She didn’t want to risk waiting behind it. The instant Reiko opened the door even slightly, she would be able to see that the surface of the equipment box was empty. She would know that Erin had broken out of her restraints and was waiting for her. Then she might just close the door, trapping Erin inside forever.
No. Erin would have to wait for the door to open, then she would rip it wide and attack. While she waited for Reiko’s return, Erin studied the wand in her hand, trying to figure out the best way to kill Reiko.
* * * * *
More hours passed. Fatigue began to plague Erin. After her legs started to ache unbearably from squatting for so long, she sat down on the floor, leaning against the wall. Her nerves continued to jangle from her torture, and the stress of her ordeal had left her in dire need of sleep. She was also desperately thirsty.
If Walter had been with her, he would have taken care of all her physical complaints.
Poor Walter, Erin thought again, aching with his loss.
She’d always missed her AIs when it came time for their partnership to end, but this was different. To know that she would never speak to him again, never hear the slightly nagging and chiding tone in his voice, hurt her deeply. She could imagine his defiance and sharp sarcasm in reaction to Reiko’s attempts to make him turn traitor.
I have to avenge him. She hoped her actions would honor his memory.
She pressed her head against the thick metal wall of the tank. The coolness of the surface was helping her to remain awake, but nevertheless, her eyelids were drooping.
Then she heard movement at the door.
Erin snapped upright and leapt to her feet. The door was opening. Erin thrust her fingers into the gap and pulled, wedging her foot into the space created at the bottom. Through the open space, she saw two surprised, frightened eyes—grey eyes. It wasn’t Reiko returning, then. It was Leif.
Momentary shock weakened Erin’s grip on the door. The portal was open a forearm’s length, but Leif pulled it sharply, trying to close it. The door closed on her foot instead, and Erin renewed her grip on the door with both her good hand and her bloody one.
Leif tugged on the handle, hitting Erin’s hands while kicking her foot. His attempts to dislodge her loosened his hold, and with a grunt, Erin dragged the door open wider.
She pushed herself into the gap and saw that Leif was drawing out his own torture wand. Knowing it would take the fight out of her if he brought it to bear, Erin reached out and chopped at his wrist. He didn’t drop the wand, but it was batted away. In another moment, she was through the door.
With a wordless scream, she flew at him, crashing into the burly man at full force. Leif stumbled backward, and together, they toppled to the floor.
Erin landed on top of the sprawling man, and immediately ground a knee into the elbow of the arm that held the torture device so that Leif couldn’t raise the wand to her. Her other knee was on his shoulder. She plunged Reiko’s torture wand into him, thrusting the blunt metal down, aiming for the hollow above his collarbone where no cloth covered his skin to impede the metal.
She ripped the wand out and thrust it into his chest cavity again like lightning, reminding herself that this man had helped to kill Walter. Twice more she stabbed, speculating wildly on how many more times it would take. She had only a second or two before he would overpower her.
Leif writhed and struggled. Erin’s stabs seemed to be having little effect. Blood only dribbled from the wounds.
Suddenly, he rose up. Grabbing her around her waist, he savagely threw her off of him. Her back hit the wall, and she slid to the floor. His face red with rage, Leif came at her with his wand raised.
Erin skittered sideways on all fours. Abruptly, she hit another wall. She was in the corner of a small room.
Leif advanced, bear-like in his size and predatory gait, a killing look in his gaze. Erin shrank backward, though she had nowhere to go. She lifted the slim piece of metal that was all she had to defend herself with.
He lunged, and Erin threw herself sideways, kicking at one of the large man’s knees. He yelled and fell, but as he tumbled, he reached out and touched the back of Erin’s thigh with his wand. Without time to prepare for the nerve stimulation, agony ripped through her.
For several long seconds, she could do nothing except squirm and scream.
A blow to her head sent her flying into the wall. Blackness encroached, and she fought to remain conscious. She vaguely heard Leif’s footsteps behind her. A hand gripped her neck, and she rose into the air, suspended like a puppy from its mother’s mouth.
Excruciating pain burst from her side. Erin shrieked, but the sound barely escaped; Leif’s huge hand was fastened around her throat, choking her. Then suddenly, she was dropped on the floor, and a thud came from behind. She turned, wondering why she was still alive.
Leif was lying face downward. One of his arms was outstretched, and his wand was lying underneath his open hand. His other arm was folded up beneath his chest.
Erin pulled up her knees and looked around, surmising that she was still alone. With that concern satisfied, she sat up to look more closely at the man. A pool of blood was forming on the floor under his neck and quickly growing wider. Erin crawled toward Leif’s dropped wand and dragged the device toward her. She tucked both wands down the back of her pants and then stood up.
She pushed at Leif’s shoulder with the toe of her boot. When he didn’t respond, she grabbed his hair and lifted up his head. Blood dripped from his beard, and his blood-suffused face was lifeless.
“Huh,” she whispered. “It was me.”
Her strikes had taken a while to have an effect, but she’d killed him. Relieved, Erin let go of Leif’s head, which thumped onto the floor.
She again took stock of her surroundings. She was clearly somewhere on the PETER, but where exactly, she had no idea. The structure had few features that were unique to a section. She was inside an empty, nondescript room, probably intended for storage. That explained the tank, and another storage container on the other side of the passage.
Erin strode to the door and tried to open it.
It was locked. Leif must have sealed it before opening the storage tank. Erin had broken out of one prison only to find herself locked inside another.
Even worse, Reiko and Leif had been working closely together; If this part of the ring had Link access, then the other spy had to know by now that Leif was dead. She would be coming for Erin, and when she arrived, she would be prepared.
STELLAR DATE: 05.13.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Isa wanted nothing more than to fly to the section of the PETER that Reiko and Leif had visited after the eruption and look for Erin, but she had to hold back. If the two engineers had done what she suspected, it would be foolish to make them aware that their actions were under scrutiny. Isa would need time to figure out exactly where Erin was. She didn’t want to trigger the engineers to destroy the evidence of their wrongdoing.
If she was to find her wife, she had to tread carefully.
Lark had put Isa in Erin’s room, after asking if that was what she wanted. Isa had hesitated, unsure if it would be too upsetting for her, but in the end, she’d accepted. She wasn’t about to begin imagining that Erin might be dead.
After Lark left her, the first thing Isa did was look at Erin’s few possessions. It seemed that her wife only kept a brush and a few changes of clothes in her room. Then Isa opened another drawer, and her throat swelled. Sitting inside were two drawings: one displayed stick figures of three adults and a small child. The figures stood in front of a square house, and behind the house, pointed waves splashed against a shore.
The second picture was a sketch Isa had drawn long ago before she’d even thought of becoming a professional artist. The drawing was of Party Field in Landfall with the wildflowers in bloom. She’d forgotten all about it.
In the corner of the drawer sat a pile of seashells.
Isa bit her lip and blinked. She sat on the bed and put her head in her hands, taking deep breaths as waves of emotion washed over her. She couldn’t control the sorrow and fear that rose up. She lay down, and as her head touched the pillow, Erin’s scent wafted up.
That tipped her over the edge. She had tried to be strong, but it was so hard. Isa let herself give into her feelings.
After a time, she grew calmer and took control of herself again. She sat up and wiped her eyes, then walked over to Erin’s washbasin and splashed water on her face before checking her appearance in the mirror.
The time for indulging her emotions was over; it was time to act. She was going to get her wife back.
As she walked along the narrow passageway to the living area, Isa said to Phaedra, <I’d like to see the plans for this ring.>
<I’m sorry, you do not have the level of security clearance required to see those.>
It was the answer Isa had predicted. She was only an artist from Carthage, after all. Why would she need to see the plan of the PETER unless she had nefarious motives?
<I assume Governor Richards could grant me the necessary clearance?>
Isa halted and leaned back against the wall while she composed a message to Tanis. She hadn’t spoken to the governor much following the invasion drill at her gallery on Troy.
Since returning to Carthage, the relationship between her family and Tanis’s had never regained the same relaxed friendliness. Isa wasn’t one for holding grudges, and Erin liked Tanis and Joe a lot, but Martin seemed unable to forgive or forget the terror Jude had suffered during the drill. He didn’t seem able to be reasonable about it.
Despite that, Isa knew Tanis well enough to feel confident she would pay attention to her concerns. She wondered if anyone had even told New Canaan’s governor that Erin was believed to be dead.
“Tanis, I’m aboard the PETER on Athens. You must know about the ongoing problems with the planet and the evacuation. Did you receive a report that Erin died in the eruption? I know this might sound crazy, but I don’t believe it. I went to the coordinates where Phaedra last registered her presence, but her body wasn’t there. And what’s more, two of the Transcend’s engineers—Reiko and Leif—didn’t return to the ring’s C&C after the eruption. They went to a different section entirely.
“Perhaps this sounds crazy, but I think they might have done something to Erin to cut off her Link access and then took her there. I think they could be holding her. I want to search for her. I need the plans, but Phaedra won’t give them to me without your permission. Could you send it? And any other advice or help too, I guess. It’s vital that the TSF engineers don’t know what I suspect, so please don’t send in Marines, or at least not just yet. I don’t want these bastards to cover up what they’ve done by killing Erin and disposing of her body before we can find her.
Isa sent the message, but it would take a little while before she would hear back from Tanis. In the meantime, she had a charade to maintain.
She resumed her walk to the living area. When she arrived, Reiko and Hal were sitting in the lounge, chatting about what might have caused the eruption in spite of the PETER’s improved performance. They looked up briefly and then resumed their conversation. Isa went into the kitchen to grab some dinner before sitting down at the table.
“You didn’t choose the pasta, did you? It’s pretty bad,” Hal joked. “Right, Reiko?”
“I’ve had better hundred-year-old rations,” the woman agreed.
“No, I didn’t choose the pasta,” Isa replied.
Hal seemed to remember that Isa’s wife had supposedly just died. His face dropped. “Er, is your room okay? Got everything you need?”
“Yeah, everything’s fine, thanks.”
Embarrassment and discomfort written large on his features, Hal turned to resume the technical discussion with Reiko, but she said, “Do you mind if I ask you something, Isa?”
“Depends what it is.”
“What are you doing here?” Reiko’s gaze was level and cold.
Isa took a breath. She needed to choose her words carefully.
“I’m going to need a while to process what’s happened. I wanted to spend some time where Erin worked.”
Hal looked downward, as if wishing he were somewhere else.
“I guess I know what you mean,” said Reiko. “Lark said you didn’t find Erin’s remains at the eruption site.”
“Unfortunately, a volcanic eruption is so devastating, it’s possible that you might not find anything at all.”
“I realize that.”
“I understand how you feel,” said Reiko. “We’ll all miss Erin a lot. She was a good person and a great engineer.”
“She was,” said Hal.
Lark entered the room. “I thought I’d find you here,” she said to Isa. “It’s good you helped yourself to some food. We don’t stand on ceremony up here.”
“Don’t worry,” Isa replied. “I’ve lived with Erin long enough to know that manners aren’t high on engineers’ list of priorities.”
“Shit!” Lark exclaimed. She paused, looking downward.
The other engineers were also concentrating on their Link feeds.
“What’s wrong?” asked Isa.
Lark raised her head, her forehead creased in concern. “Another earthquake. Seven point nine, thirty-six kilometers outside Attica, twenty kilometers deep.”
“Oh no!” said Isa. “How’s the evacuation going? I hope there aren’t any casualties.”
“Me too,” Lark replied. “All the buildings are earthquake-proof, and so is the spaceport. Most of the city’s population has already gone up, but people from outlying areas are still funneling in. I’ve told Phaedra to send them here if enough ships don’t arrive in time.” Lark filled her own plate before sitting down next to Isa.
As the woman ate, she joined in the discussion with the other engineers about the PETER. They were running through the fixes they had already tried, and deciding what to try next.
Isa was surreptitiously watching Reiko, but the woman maintained a convincing façade of normality. If Isa didn’t trust her gut so deeply, she might have begun to wonder whether her suspicions were correct.
Then something occurred to her: she’d met all the engineers Erin had mentioned except one.
“Where’s Leif?” she blurted, halting the engineers’ deep discussion.
“Oh, he’s finishing up some work on the other side of the PETER,” Reiko replied casually. “He’ll be back soon.”
“Jere says he’ll also be back soon,” said Hal. “He just sent Fazir on his way to Carthage aboard one of the ISF corvettes.”
“That’s good to know,” said Lark. “They must have moved him to the front of the evacuation list.”
“Of course,” said Reiko. “He’s gonna need half his body regrown.”
The conversation moved on, and Leif’s absence was forgotten by everyone except Isa. When she’d asked about him, Reiko’s gaze darted toward her in an unfriendly fashion.
She would have liked to grab Reiko by the throat and not let go until she revealed Erin’s whereabouts, but that wasn’t a viable way forward—especially when Erin’s other kidnapper appeared to be with her right then.
Isa had finished eating and was disposing of her plate and cutlery when Tanis’s reply arrived.
Isa, I’ve given you clearance for the PETER’s structural plans. This turn of events is very concerning on a number of levels. I love Erin like a sister, but for now, we can’t accuse the TSF’s engineers without proof—things are too tense.
I’m trusting you to conduct a careful search and not arouse suspicion. I’m also sending the Andromeda and two companies of Marines to assist in the evacuation. They’ll be there in two days, but until then, you need to keep Usef in the loop.
Most of all…dammit. Most of all, Isa, even if they have Erin’s body, we can’t let them escape with any of her datastores, Walter, or her mods. No matter what. She knows too much about our plans and facilities.
Stay safe, and once you have proof, call in Usef.
Isa was still thinking over the governor’s words, when Reiko suddenly shouted, “Oh!”
The engineer had half-risen from her seat, shock written on her features. Then she seemed to remember where she was and sat down again.
“Is something wrong?” Lark asked.
“No, I….” Reiko rubbed between her eyebrows with two fingers. “I received some news that surprised me, that’s all.”
“From the Transcend?” asked Hal. “I didn’t receive anything.”
“It was something personal.” She gave Hal a hard look.
“I hope it wasn’t bad news,” said Lark.
“No. It wasn’t anything important,” Reiko replied, appearing oblivious to the contradiction between her words and her reaction. “What were we talking about?”
Lark reminded her of the point of their conversation, and the discussion continued.
Isa made herself a drink and returned to the table. She pretended to be concentrating on watching something on the Link, but every so often, she would lift her gaze to Reiko.
Whatever it was the woman had learned, it was calamitous enough to cause her mask to begin to slip. Whereas previously she’d been animated and vocal in giving her opinion on the problems with the ring, now she barely said a word. Her color had paled too.
Something had gone wrong for her. Perhaps Erin had escaped and was on her way back to them. Isa certainly hoped so. If she wasn’t, now that Isa had the PETER’s plans, she might be able to find her wife that night while the engineers slept.
STELLAR DATE: 05.13.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
The pool of blood that had formed beneath Leif’s body had widened to its farthest extent and begun to congeal, and Erin still hadn’t figured out how she could successfully attack Reiko when she returned. There was nowhere to hide in the bare room, and Reiko would be entirely aware that Erin would be waiting for her. Erin would not have the advantage of surprise, as she’d had with Leif.
The only saving grace in the situation was that Erin was fairly certain Reiko wouldn’t have a weapon to shoot her with. Nothing like that existed on the PETER, as far as she was aware, and it would be impossible for Reiko to bring in anything military.
On the other hand, she might have been able to mock something up from the scant resources available to her. If she had, Erin’s job would be that much harder.
She had searched Leif on the off chance he was carrying something she could use to attack Reiko, but she’d turned up nothing on the cooling body. All she had was the torture wand Leif had brought along with him, which, in her hands, was nothing more than a piece of metal.
Erin took stock of her situation. She had two pieces of metal, one good hand, and two feet against whatever weapon Reiko could invent.
Things weren’t looking good.
Doing her best to ignore her bone-dry throat and tongue, aching body, pain-ridden hand, and exhaustion, Erin scanned the chamber for the hundredth time. Its bare walls and floor seemed to mock her.
Can’t think of anything? they said. Tut tut. Usef would be disappointed in you.
Usef would be disappointed in her. In her situation, he would know exactly what to do, she was sure. Hell, he would probably just rip the door from its hinges or ram it open with his head. In fact, Usef probably would never have gotten himself into her situation in the first place.
But she wasn’t Usef. She didn’t have his bulk, his strength, or his long years of military experience. She was short and not particularly strong, and while she might have done well in drills and the dangerous situations she’d found herself in previously, there had always been guns involved. She couldn’t rely on her sharp-shooting abilities here.
There has to be something I can do.
She thought back, trying to remember if she had ever been in a fight without a weapon before. When she’d stopped Nathan Hart from stealing the picotech, she’d had a gun. Both times. When the SSA terrorist, Pippa, had attacked her, she’d had the weapon Tanis had insisted she carry. When she’d fought Tony on the seabed in Troy, she’d had a knife.
Erin recalled the invasion drill at Isa’s art gallery. She’d had nothing to fight with then, but she’d wrested a weapon from the soldier who had been guarding Martin, Isa, and poor little terrified Jude. That time, she’d managed to surprise her enemy….
Erin looked upward. Exposed pipes ran across the ceiling, perhaps part of Lark and Fazir’s earlier attempts to fix the structure, or perhaps just because the PETER was not built for show. The pipes were not thick and didn’t look particularly strong, but she was not heavy. She guessed they would probably hold her weight.
She smiled wryly. She had a plan Usef would not have been able to execute. One day, she would tell him about it.
However, when she looked at the pipes again to gauge the distance she would have to jump, she doubted she would make it—the ceiling was high. Still, she didn’t have a better plan.
She had no choice. She had to reach those pipes.
Erin checked the position of the two torture wands she’d tucked into the back of her pants. If either of the devices fell out as she jumped, she would have to drop down to retrieve them and then jump again. The metal pieces seemed secure, though.
Next, she gingerly rewound the bloody, stiff cloth around her injured hand. The pain from it soared higher then subsided again to a deep throb. She would never attempt her feat single-handed; she would have to ignore the pain as well as she could to grab one of the pipes.
When she had readied herself, Erin walked to one end of the room, focused her gaze on the area of the ceiling above the door, and ran.
She leapt and fell, crashing into the door. She estimated that she’d missed reaching the pipes by about thirty centimeters. She tried again. She ran, jumped, and failed again, this time by an even greater margin.
Erin tilted back her head and regarded the pipes. If only she could reach them, they would give her exactly the advantage she needed. If she couldn’t, she was as good as dead.
She forced herself to her feet and walked resolutely to the opposite side of the room. Mustering all her energy and focus, she ran toward the door, leapt, and…missed again. This time, her shoulder thudded brutally into the door as she came down, setting off a torrent of agony in her damaged hand.
This third failure lit a fire of anger and frustration in Erin. She couldn’t exhaust herself further with these fruitless attempts. She would need all her remaining strength to kill Reiko when she came through the door.
Erin climbed to her feet and strode across the room, thinking, her head lowered in concentration. She had to get up to the ceiling, but she didn’t know how. She simply wasn’t tall enough to do it naturally, and to continue trying and failing would exhaust her so much that she would complete Reiko’s job for her before she arrived.
Erin turned and paced across the room again, wishing she had something to stand on that would give her a little more height. She moved sideways to avoid the pool of blood, and halted. Her gaze shifted from the floor to Leif’s body.
Erin stepped to the head end of the corpse and bent down to grab under its shoulders. The body was heavy and unwieldy, but she managed to drag it over to the door and position it so that the head was touching the door.
Why didn’t I think of this before?
Reiko would now have to contend with Leif’s body in order to enter the room.
Erin kicked his legs apart so that she wouldn’t tread on them in her run up.
Again, she walked to the opposite side of the room. As she prepared herself for her running start, she noticed that a new, wet, red streak now ran right across her path. Sighing, Erin returned to Leif, pulled off one of his boots and then his sock, and used the material to clean the smear off the floor.
Finally certain she had eliminated the slipping hazard, she was ready to try again. Erin took a deep breath. She focused on Leif’s back and then lifted her gaze to the pipes. She had to succeed this time.
Gathering herself into a ball of speed and determination, she sped across the room. Her foot landed square on Leif’s back and she launched off. Her arms reached upward, her body curved with effort. Her hands snatched at the pipes.
Erin landed on the soft, unstable surface of the corpse and fell off, coming down heavily on one knee.
She rose to her feet, wincing with the new pain. She had the almost uncontrollable urge to kick the corpse, but that would only make her knee hurt worse. She’d been so close this time. All she needed was another fifteen centimeters or so of additional height.
It was so obvious. If she hadn’t been so debilitated, she was sure she would have seen it immediately.
Erin knelt down next to Leif’s body, ignoring the pain from her knee, and slid her good hand under the corpse’s shoulder. She tried to lift him, but quickly realized she would need to use both hands to turn him over.
In the end, Erin required both hands and a knee to accomplish the feat, but eventually the corpse flopped onto his back, Leif’s unfocused eyes staring up at the pipes that Erin was trying to reach. His blood had matted in his beard and hair. Erin shuddered. For the first time, she wondered what had happened to his AI. He had to carry one; all engineers did.
She hoped it was as dead as Walter.
Now all she had to do was to prop the corpse back up against the door.
This proved harder than turning him over. Whenever she pulled the body’s top half upward, the corpse would slip down again, though never quite as far down as its original position. Gradually, she moved Leif into a sitting position with his back against the door, his chin resting on his chest.
Luckily for her, rigor mortis was beginning to set in, and the body was losing its floppiness.
Her uninjured hand on her hip, Erin debated what to do next. She could either run up again and try to launch from Leif’s shoulder, or she could simply attempt to scale the body. She settled on the latter, guessing that the force of herself pushing off after a run up would thrust the body down and cause her to fall short. Again.
Erin stepped onto Leif’s thighs. Pressing on the door with one hand for balance, she lifted a foot and placed it on Leif’s shoulder. She bent her knees, craned her neck to see the pipes, planted her other foot on the corpse’s head, and jumped.
Her open fingers closed around the pipes.
She held on tight, and a fresh agony spiraled down from her injured hand. Erin fixed her focus on her next move. She pulled herself up, her legs swinging, and got first one elbow and then the other over the pipes. The clearance above them was so narrow, the top of her head brushed the ceiling. She paused a moment while she rested. She was facing the door, only a short distance from it, and her legs were dangling. She had to get her entire body up to keep the element of surprise.
Pulling her legs up proved difficult, so she pushed against the door with her feet and walked them upward.
In a few moments, she was entirely above the pipes. The metal ran under her back, buttocks, and thighs, but she knew she had to be facing downward when Reiko arrived.
In the shallow clearance, it wasn’t easy to turn over and then maneuver herself around, but she managed it. Now the pipes were supporting her shoulders and hips, and she was looking down at the top of Leif’s bowed head.
Next, she pulled the two makeshift wands from the back of her pants and gripped one in each hand. The minute Reiko came through the door, Erin would drop down onto her and kill her. All she had to do was wait.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Isa sat on Erin’s bunk, waiting, tense with impatience. She didn’t know when the engineers would go to bed, and she had no way of finding out, so she’d decided to wait several hours before venturing out. If Lark saw her, she would only think Isa was a little crazy, but Isa didn’t trust anyone else on the PETER.
Not that she needed more evidence, but Reiko’s strange behavior that evening had confirmed the engineer was involved in Erin’s disappearance. Isa was worried about the content of whatever message the woman had received; it hadn’t looked good. Isa hoped it was news of Erin’s escape.
Leif hadn’t returned, and Reiko had explained his absence by saying that he’d decided to spend the evening working in the other section of the PETER, and would sleep there when he finished. Neither Lark nor Hal had appeared to think this was odd. Isa guessed the engineers had probably spent the last several weeks working on different areas of the structure.
Jere had returned from Attica a short while before Isa had announced she was going to bed. He’d told them about the crowds at the spaceport, waiting to be evacuated. While he’d been helping Fazir to his priority place on a shuttle, the earthquake Lark mentioned earlier had struck. Some panic had ensued, but the Marines had gotten everyone under control again.
Usef had his hands full. She hoped he would be able to gather the company he needed to help find Erin.
At least Martin and Jude must have been far away from Athens, en route to Carthage, when the earthquake struck. She would have hated for them to be caught up in the mayhem. With that thought, she remembered she hadn’t yet replied to Martin’s message.
Martin, thanks for sending the vid. It’s so good to see you and Jude, safe and a long way from here. I wish I could tell you I’d found Erin and she’s okay, but that isn’t the case. I’ve searched her last known location and she isn’t there—no body, not a single sign of her—which tells me something weird is going on.
I have an idea where she might be, so I’m going to look for her there. I’ll explain everything later. Don’t worry, I’ll be careful. And you needn’t worry about earthquakes or volcanic eruptions while I’m here. I’m on the PETER, far away from all that.
I hope that in my next message I will be able to send you news that I’ve found Erin and we’re coming home. I’m more convinced than ever that she’s alive, and if she is, you know how hard she’ll be fighting to return to us. I’m going to help her do that.
I don’t have much more to say at the moment. Please hug Jude for me and tell him his Mommy Isa loves him.
Love you too.
Isa sent the message. She wrapped her arms around her knees, and counted the passing minutes. Though it had been late when she’d left the living area, the engineers had remained, continuing their technical discussion. She’d been all but invisible to them, which was fine. She hoped to remain invisible until she found Erin.
* * * * *
In the early morning hours, Isa finally judged it safe to leave and go to find Erin. Along with the plans for the PETER, Phaedra had granted her access to the entire structure, no doubt on Tanis’s instruction, so no door would be closed to her in her search.
Isa exited her room and walked quietly to the common living area before peeking inside. The place was empty and silent. The engineers had all finally gone to bed. She passed by the open door and walked onward, toward the landing bay. When she arrived, she counted the skiffs; she’d counted them when she’d first landed too.
One was missing.
Leif would have taken one to fly to the other section of the PETER, but Jere had arrived since then. They were definitely one skiff down, which to Isa only meant that Reiko had taken it and gone to Erin.
It didn’t matter. Isa had expected she would have to deal with the Transcend kidnapper at some time or another.
Isa climbed into her skiff and retrieved her weapon from where she’d hidden it behind the passenger seat. Feeling safer with the weight of it on her lap, she flew the vessel out from the bay and into the darkness.
Phaedra had given her the location of the section of the PETER that Reiko and Leif had flown to after leaving the eruption site. It was halfway around the planet, where it was currently daylight on the surface.
As she flew, a visual of Athens came up on her display. Even without magnification, the planet’s turmoil was evident: a smoky haze permeated the atmosphere, occasionally illuminated by lightning bursts below. Isa recalled the lava field where she’d first met Lark and Fazir. Athens was reverting to a hot, angry place, and no one could do anything about it.
Canaan Prime swiftly rose, and Athens’ ashy atmosphere glowed in the sun’s approach. The massive circle of the PETER loomed overhead.
Isa finally arrived at the correct section and flew into the bay. Two skiffs sat there already, Leif’s and Reiko’s. Both were empty.
Isa grabbed her weapon and climbed out of her vessel. No one seemed to be around. She walked across the empty bay.
If Reiko had suspected that Isa would be going there, she hadn’t waited to confront Isa upon her arrival. Either the woman had believed Isa’s story about why she was there, or she did suspect her, but something more urgent had drawn her away.
While she’d been waiting for the right moment to make her move, Isa had plenty of time to look over the ring’s plans in detail. Each section was basically identical. They all contained a node, the supporting machinery, service access passageways and tunnels, and general-purpose rooms that could be converted for storage, workshops, parts manufacturing, or habitation.
Or somewhere to confine a kidnapping victim.
If Reiko and Leif were keeping Erin captive here, it would be in one of these all-purpose rooms, somewhere deep within the structure where none of the other engineers would be likely to go.
Other than that, Isa had no clues to guide her as to where to begin her search. She had no choice; she would have to search everywhere.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin didn’t know how much longer she could hold on. The pipes she was lying across didn’t support her weight comfortably, and she had to expend muscle strength to remain in place or else she would fall. If that happened, she didn’t know if she would ever make it up there again.
When she’d stepped on Leif’s head to push herself upward, the body had fallen to one side and she would have to haul it upright again. Erin guessed that the corpse would also be properly stiff by now, and more difficult than ever to maneuver into position.
The sight of the dead body—with its grey skin, glazed, fixed eyes and gaping, blood-stained mouth—was gross, yet Erin couldn’t avoid looking at it. If she were to close her eyes, it would be the first step to becoming drowsy and losing the tension that was keeping her up there.
Where the hell is Reiko? Erin had expected her to arrive earlier, immediately after she realized that Leif was dead. Maybe she doesn’t want to act suspiciously.
Erin rested her forehead on the crook of her arm and shifted her position slightly. It was as much as she could manage without risking falling down. The movement brought her a small respite. The pipes must have worn grooves into her shoulders. She had hooked her ankles over the pipes as well, and they ground painfully into her hips and her calves. She was flexing her feet and toes regularly to keep her blood moving.
She didn’t want to jump down onto Reiko only to collapse in a heap on the floor because she’d lost all feeling in her feet.
If Walter were still with her, he would have taken care of everything. Erin had so much to thank him for, and now she would never get the chance. Nearly all her present life was thanks to him; if he hadn’t pushed her to be more proactive about her love life, she would never have met Isa.
She would give anything to brush her hair again.
Erin jerked her eyes open and tightened her muscles. She’d relaxed too much and almost fallen.
Dammit. How much longer?
As if in answer to her question, above the all-pervading hum of the PETER, Erin heard a small snick. Someone had unlocked the door.
Instantly, her pain and fatigue melted away, and she was a tense ball of potential energy, waiting for a trigger. Seething hatred rose up in her. Reiko had about one more minute of life…. Erin hoped it was going to be a painful one.
The door opened inward a crack, but Leif’s body still lay against it, pressing it closed. Erin peered through the gap in the top, but she could see little of the person trying to enter. It didn’t matter. No one else would come except Reiko.
No doubt surprised to discover an impediment to her entrance, the visitor paused. Reiko didn’t call Leif’s name, of course—she knew he was dead. But did she know Leif was the reason she couldn’t open the door? She was about to find out.
Greater force was applied to the door, and Leif’s body began to slide. Erin had been right about rigor mortis setting in; the corpse was stiff as a board, barely bending as it moved, though the smell of death that had been gradually growing in the room puffed upward strongly.
Erin swallowed, fighting the urge to gag. She could now see the top of Reiko’s head and the center parting in her hair.
Don’t look up.
Reiko saw the disturbed pool of blood where Leif’s body had lain. She paused again.
Erin’s heart rose into her mouth as a possibility she hadn’t considered suddenly occurred to her. Reiko could simply choose to shut the door, lock it, and leave Erin to die. Leif would never be found, and neither would she. If she dropped down now, Reiko might have time to do exactly that. Erin needed her to come inside the room.
Erin’s gaze bore into Reiko’s black hair, willing her to take just one more step. One more step, and she would drop down and crush the bitch, then two stabs above the woman’s collarbone would turn her into a dead woman standing.
Reiko pushed the door hard, sending Leif’s body sliding further, and leapt into the room. She turned to face the rear of the door, as if expecting Erin to be standing there.
Instead, Erin dropped from above.
She landed awkwardly on Reiko, her chest thudding onto one of the woman’s shoulders. The blow forced the air from her lungs, but she managed not to entirely collapse. Reiko failed to do the same. She crumpled under Erin’s impact.
Erin was on her in an instant. The blunt spears of the torture wands flew downward, but the angle was wrong. She cut two gashes across Reiko’s collarbone, but the improvised knives didn’t penetrate her skin. Erin stabbed again, gouging troughs across Reiko’s throat. The woman yelled and struggled, throwing Erin off. She turned onto her stomach and ran, rising, heading for the open doorway.
She was trying to escape and shut Erin inside.
Erin propelled herself into the woman’s back and crushed Reiko against the floor. A whoof of expelled air erupted from the other woman as her stomach and chest hit the ground. Erin was astride the TSF engineer, and lifting the wands to stab her in the back, but Reiko twisted violently, sending Erin tumbling again.
This time, Reiko didn’t attempt to escape. She lunged at Erin, her eyes narrowed by hatred, and made a grab for one of the torture wands. Erin kicked her in the face. Reiko’s head snapped to the side, and blood ran from her nose, but still she came on, trying to snatch up a wand.
“Bitch!” Erin spat. “You’re not using one of these on me again.”
“Think you can stop me? You killed Leif, and I’m going to make you pay for that. Did you know you can die of pain? You can…. Only it takes a long, long time.”
Reiko threw herself at Erin again. Erin thrust out her boot to push Reiko away, but the woman grabbed her ankle and used it to drag Erin closer. Erin kicked at the other engineer’s head, her toes meeting bone and bursting with pain. Reiko grunted as she pulled her head back, but she didn’t let go. She forced Erin down so that she couldn’t kick again.
Reiko’s hand clamped down in an unmovable grip on the wrist of Erin’s injured hand, and she was twisting it, trying to make Erin drop the wand. Erin slashed the other wand at Reiko’s neck, tearing through the skin, but she couldn’t penetrate deep enough with the blunt instrument to cause serious damage.
Reiko was like a wild thing, savage with anger, and she had the advantage of having an AI that could immediately wash away whatever pain Erin inflicted. Reiko’s AI was fixing her wounds from within as soon as Erin created them.
Erin couldn’t stand it any longer, the agony from her wrist was too much. The wand tumbled from her opening fingers.
Reiko snatched it up, but to do so, she had to release Erin’s wrist. In her triumph, her hold on Erin’s ankle also loosened.
Erin kicked herself free, turned, and dove at Reiko, her new angle giving her a better line of attack. She plunged her wand toward the engineer’s neck, but Reiko dodged at the last second, and the wand gouged a furrow across her face. Erin darted backward. Reiko’s features were arranged in a mask of dripping, red fury as she lunged at Erin, her torture device in her outstretched hand.
Agony detonated in Erin’s midriff, and she couldn’t prevent herself from screaming. She raised her wand again and ran in for another attack. Reiko fought to get away, but Erin had her cornered. She drove her wand toward Reiko, but the woman leaned in and touched Erin’s thigh with the torture device. When Erin bellowed, her blow missed its mark, but she didn’t give up her attack. Again she stabbed. Reiko’s eyes widened, and she ducked just as the wand passed over her head.
Erin grabbed the woman’s shirt with her injured hand, glaring into her blood-soaked face. She shoved Reiko against the wall, trying to keep her still long enough to kill her.
Reiko squirmed and fought and pressed the torture wand against Erin. The two women grappled some more. Erin stumbled over Leif’s corpse and fell to the floor, but she didn’t let go of her opponent. She dragged Reiko down, shrieking when the torture device touched her again.
Reiko bucked, arching her body to unbalance Erin. A split second later, she turned over onto all fours and got up. Then she raced for the door.
Just as quickly, Erin was after her. Reiko ran out, and Erin launched herself at Reiko’s ankle. She snatched…and found herself on the ground, holding empty air.
Erin jumped to her feet and ran down the passageway.
Reiko’s footsteps were echoing as she sped away, dripping blood.
Gripping her remaining wand in her uninjured hand, Erin ran after her.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Reiko fled for her life. The ferocity with which Erin had attacked her had shocked her to her core. Leif’s death should have warned her what to expect when she opened the door.
How did Erin kill him?
It hardly seemed possible. Perhaps he had released her from her restraints, though Reiko couldn’t believe he would do something so stupid. It certainly wasn’t anything they had agreed to. At least he had put up a fight before he died, judging by the mess he’d made of Erin’s hand.
Reiko suppressed a sob. She could still hardly believe he was gone. She blamed herself for not having gone to help him as soon as she’d received his terrified message that Erin was attacking him. She would never have made it in time to prevent Erin from killing him, but perhaps she might have been able to bring him back using the PETER’s medical facilities.
But that would have meant revealing everything to the others. They would have discovered that Erin wasn’t dead, and that herself and Leif had committed kidnapping and murder. It would have meant the end of all she was working toward, all she still needed to do. She’d been forced to sacrifice Leif to a higher cause.
Reiko shook her head and briefly squeezed her eyes closed to rid them of the tears clouding her vision. She had no time to think. She had to get away from Erin, the woman had gone berserk.
She knew the layout of the PETER well, which would work to her advantage. Her footsteps would soon be inaudible too, and with the damage to Erin’s mind augmentation, she would have no mental map to follow. She would be running blind.
Reiko dashed down a narrow passageway, barely as wide as her shoulders. She checked behind her. Her AI had clotted the blood that had been flowing from her many wounds, so she no longer left a trail. She would quickly lose Erin.
At the next corner, Reiko turned and then immediately turned again, working her way into the labyrinthine structure. With luck, she would be able to double back later to sneak up on Erin.
When Reiko had gone into the room where Erin had been trapped, Erin had been the one with the advantage. Reiko needed to take back that advantage. She strained to listen over the pulsing of her blood and her panting breath, trying to locate her pursuer.
Erin was barefoot, and Reiko hadn’t heard the thud of her soles hitting the metal walkway for a while.
Reiko slowed down. She spotted an access hatch ahead, and the sight sparked an idea. She flicked a second glance over her shoulder. The narrow corridor was bare and silent, but she would have to be quick. Erin could catch up to her at any moment.
She was at the hatch. Reiko crouched, slid her fingertips under the raised edge, and popped off the cover. After placing the cover on the floor, she climbed inside, moving backward. As soon as she was in, she reached out and picked up the cover. Replacing it from inside the tunnel was tricky, but eventually she managed it. She almost wished she’d be there to see Erin’s face when the woman found the corridor empty and tried to puzzle out where Reiko had gone.
The new space was even narrower than the passageway she had left, and it was only meter in height. Reiko brought up a map of that section of the ring. It was rendered in great detail, showing every part of the structure. Her position was displayed as a tiny dot.
The service access tunnel she sat in was part of a vast network that spread across the entire PETER. If she wanted, she could crawl all the way back to the section where the rest of the engineers were sleeping—though it would take her weeks. But that wasn’t where she wanted to go. She had to return to the landing bay.
When Erin eventually gave up looking for her, the bay would be the next place the woman would go. She would realize that she didn’t need to catch Reiko; all she had to do was reach Reiko’s skiff, then the game would be over. Reiko didn’t plan on letting that happen.
To go forward, Reiko had to lay on her side in the narrow tunnel. She squeezed herself painfully against the walls as she eased her body around, tasting the stale, cold atmosphere of the enclosed space in the back of her throat. She began to crawl, her head down and her shoulders hunched. She watched both the dim area ahead of her and her progress on her mental map. She had a lot of ground to cover, and she was moving slowly. She upped her pace. She had to reach the landing bay before Erin.
It had been a good decision to mangle the woman’s Link connection. Not only was Erin unable to speak to anyone, she was also invisible to Phaedra—and she would remain so until she died.
When Reiko found her, she would jump on Erin from behind, bang her skull against a wall until she was unconscious, and then strangle her to death. Killing Erin painfully would be preferable, but she had no time for that.
She considered what she would do with the body after; if she pushed it into space, there was a chance it might be seen. Perhaps she should put Erin inside an access tunnel…. Then it could be decades or even centuries before someone discovered it. Perhaps no one ever would. She liked that idea very much.
Reiko realized she would have to return to Leif and do something with his body too. Anguish wrenched at her as she recalled her lover. She would remember him forever. She again wished she had the luxury of time to make Erin pay for killing him.
If only she could enact her revenge on Erin’s stupid wife, who had come moping after her. Why the hell had she turned up, anyway? Did she really think anyone believed her nonsense about getting closure over Erin by spending time where she worked?
Reiko certainly did not. It was clear the woman suspected something, but she lacked the brains to figure anything out, so there was no need to be too concerned there.
How could someone as smart as Erin marry such an ignorant woman? There’s no accounting for taste.
Reiko checked her position. She would reach the landing bay in another twelve minutes. She had traversed many turns on her way, and now she had to go up. At the next vertical tunnel she arrived at, Reiko stood. She grasped the slim ladder on the tunnel’s walls and began to climb.
Though she continued to move quickly, she also employed a great deal of caution. It had occurred to her that Erin could also have gotten the idea to move through the service tunnels, and Reiko did not want to stumble across her enemy in that confined space.
As soon as she had the thought, Reiko heard a sound ahead. She halted abruptly, her fingers tense on the rungs. The noise was coming from above.
She tipped back her head and peered into the dimness. The sound was rapidly growing louder, it was rhythmic and mechanical.
Reiko finally recognized the echoing vibration, and she exhaled heavily. The pressure must be getting to me. Otherwise, she would have immediately known what was bearing down on her. But I’m in its way…. What will it do when it reaches me?
She searched the tunnel walls above, but no exits were visible. She thought she remembered passing one a few moments previously, but there was no time to check on the map. Reiko began to rapidly step down the tunnel ladder. She scanned below, but no openings were appearing.
Reiko descended faster, but it was a wasted effort. She knew how fast those things moved. All she could do was hope that it had been programmed with a strategy for what to do when it encountered a human in such a confined space. She didn’t fancy the prospect of a stand-off.
The whirring sound grew intense. Reiko could see it now: the underside of a maintenance bot was racing toward her. She braced herself, pressing her chest against the cold, hard rungs of the ladder, and her head against the tunnel wall. Vibrations ran through the ladder. The noise of the bot resounded from the metal walls.
Reiko heard a snap and then felt a flat, metallic surface brush her back.
When she looked down, she glimpsed the maintenance bot at the level of her feet; the machine had extended its legs to go around her. They had retracted now, and the bot continued its race downward, running along the tunnel wall. Then it was gone.
Reiko berated herself for retreating so far down the tunnel before waiting for the bot. She should have stayed her ground…. Now she had lost precious time.
I’m not thinking straight.
If she was to find and kill Erin, she had to keep her wits about her.
* * * * *
Reiko pressed an ear against the inside of an access hatch cover and closed her eyes to concentrate. No sound penetrated from beyond.
According to the map, she was about thirty meters down one of the four passageways that led to the landing bay. She waited another thirty seconds, listening intently. It would be bad luck if Erin happened to be nearby when she emerged, but Reiko wanted to do so in a passageway, not inside the bay itself. It was less risky this way.
She gently pushed at the top of the cover on the bulkhead. When it popped open, she slid her fingers into the gap and eased the rest of the cover away from the portal. She grasped carefully it before lowering it to the floor.
The passageway immediately in front of her was empty. Reiko poked out her head and saw that the rest of the passageway was empty too. She quickly climbed out of the tunnel, picked up the hatch cover, and replaced it.
Reiko ran lightly toward the landing bay. She already had the exact place in mind where she could await Erin without being seen. She only hoped that Erin hadn’t arrived before her.
As she entered the space, her heart lifted. Her skiff remained in its slot—Erin hadn’t taken it. She was probably still wandering lost somewhere within the convolutions of the PETER, following Reiko’s cold trail.
Suddenly, Reiko stopped. She could see the nose of another vessel. That made three: hers, Leif’s, and one other. The third skiff sat there, empty—yet menacing, due to what it implied.
Reiko stood still, fear and confusion sending tingles through her nerves.
Upon closer inspection, she saw that it was a domestic model, not one assigned to the ring’s engineers.
When the answer came to her, additional tension grabbed at her gut. It was obvious; the other skiff had to be Isa’s. The fact that she was there meant she was searching for Erin.
Perhaps she’s not so stupid after all. She’d clearly guessed at least a little of what they had done.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Coordinating the evacuation of Athens was becoming an increasingly urgent operation for Phaedra.
She had been liaising with Murry on Carthage, as well as the AIs on Troy and Tyre, to free up vessels that could be sent to collect Athenians and tourists. Even if the threat of increasingly strong earthquakes and tsunamis hadn’t been growing, the gases, dust, and ash ejected by the massive eruption would make the planet a less-than-ideal place to live for a considerable time to come.
Until the engineers working on the PETER solved its problems, there was little point in starting to return Athens to a habitable state. Phaedra had been reading the data from the seismometers, and she expected a second large eruption any day.
Which was why she needed to speed up the evacuation.
<Andromeda, what is your ETA?>
<We’re eighteen hours out,> the ship’s AI, Corsia, replied.
<Eighteen hours? What took you?>
<Give me a break, Phaedra. Tanis ordered us to pick up a full company of Marines. You know, in case this isn’t all some terrible accident….>
<Oh, right,> said Phaedra. <Sorry. I just have different priorities right now.>
<No problem,> said Corsia. <No one expected this. It can’t be easy for you. It’s lucky that most of the evacuees are tourists and they already have homes to go to elsewhere in the system. I think Athens’ citizens will be stuck on High Carthage for a while.>
<Probably months, at least. There’s always the chance it could be hundreds of years before Athens is habitable again.>
<That bad, huh?>
<That bad. Let me know when you’re an hour away, okay? I have a couple of cargo carriers arriving around the same time, and our nearspace is a mess.>
<You got it.>
Phaedra checked the list of people who remained on her planet; it looked like they would all fit on the Odyssey when she docked. Any stragglers could squeeze onto cargo vessels. Those would be the nitwits who had stayed at their resorts until the last minute, reluctant to give up the last few days of their vacation. And then there had been the idiots who had wanted to go see Poros erupting.
Phaedra gave a mental sigh of exasperation. Humans could be so vexing sometimes. Why did they want to see something in real life when they had perfectly good vids and holograms to watch?
At least all the young children and people requiring medical treatment had already left. She now only had to try to ensure that families with teenage children, and people who had arrived in groups, could travel together when they returned home. That wouldn’t be difficult to arrange as a courtesy. Medical personnel would be the last to leave, and then the evacuation would be complete.
Except for the Delphinians, Phaedra reminded herself.
She’d already tried to get them to at least evacuate to Attica, but so far, they’d refused. She once again sought out the Delphinians’ de facto leader, Marvin, who owned the local bar.
<Hi,> she said. <How are things there?>
<Oh, you know, much the same. Can’t complain.>
Phaedra’s sensors told her that the air temperature in Delphi had risen five degrees to sixty-one centigrade. Its inhabitants would be feeling the heat, though their cooling tech would protect them for the moment, providing they remained inside. However, Phaedra was particularly concerned by the hamlet’s position near a vent that released volcanic gases. With the current level of activity, who knew what might come out of the mountain? A large enough cloud of carbon dioxide would turn Delphi into a ghost town within minutes.
<Can we talk?> Phaedra asked.
<Uh, sure,> said Marvin. <But if you’re going to tell us to leave again, you’re wasting your time.>
<I can’t tell you to do anything. You know that. But the conditions there—>
<We know the conditions, Phaedra. We have our own instruments. The thing is, we like it here. It suits us.>
<Marvin, Delphi isn’t going to go away if you leave. The place will still be there when you get back.>
This was somewhat of a white lie. There was a possibility that a seismic event could permanently alter the local landscape, perhaps even take out the mountain. But Phaedra was not above embroidering facts when it came to saving human lives.
<Maybe it will. I guess this might be hard for you to understand, Phaedra, but most of us spent our entire lives trying to find a place like this, and like-minded people to share it with. We might be ornery and troublesome, and Delphi might be the most inhospitable place to live in all New Canaan, but we found our home, and we found our family. It isn’t easy to give that up.>
<But like I said, you can have all that back once this is over.>
<Can we? Once we leave, will we all make our way back? How long will we have to wait? And in that time, might not the easy life on Landfall tempt us? Or the beautiful landscapes of Troy? If we go, I’m not sure things will ever be the same again, and I guess that’s how everyone else here feels too.>
She had done her best. The Delphinians were free to choose what they did with their lives, like every other New Canaanite. That was kind of the point of the place.
<I suppose I understand. Let me know if you change your minds. But if you wait longer than thirty-six hours, the last of the rescue ships will have departed. You might have to wait a few days for another to arrive from Carthage, and you’ll have a pissed captain to face.>
<I’ll let you know, but the way things stand now, we’re prepared to take our chances.>
Phaedra turned her attention from the hundred and nine Delphinians to the thousands of willing evacuees. Attica was now empty and silent, which was fortunate, as there had been a strong earthquake quite close to the capital a few hours previously. The last to leave had been the Marines who had been helping to keep things under control. They had gone to the city at the southern pole, Actium, to aid the final evacuees there.
Attica had been emptied out first due to its proximity to Poros’s devastating eruption and its topography, which was slightly less seismically stable, but the eruption’s effects were global, so Actium was also experiencing them, though to a lesser degree.
Phaedra issued the passenger lists to the spaceport coordinators, who would handle the finer details of informing individuals which shuttle they would take as the evacuation ships arrived.
After the last of the evacuees finally departed, Phaedra would remain on Athens—for the time being, at least. The planet’s future remained unclear. Perhaps she would be recalled to work on another of New Canaan’s planets, or perhaps she would be given the option to stay.
She laughed at the irony. She had been trying to persuade the Delphinians to do something she herself would not choose. Though, to be fair, she would not die if Athens became uninhabitable, and should she be at risk, her core’s housing possessed a launcher to send her into orbit.
Soon, it would be just her and the Delphinians, clinging to their preferred, harsh life in the Badlands. She wondered if she could persuade them to move to one of the poles.
Except she was forgetting the people on the PETER…Lark and the visiting engineers. And Isa, Erin’s wife.
How long will it take her to accept that Erin died?
The poor woman seemed to have formed a delusion that Erin was somewhere on the PETER. Governor Richards had taken pity on her and allowed her access to the PETER’s plans so she could search and see for herself.
Well, she can’t do any harm. It’s only kind to allow her grief to play itself out.
Erin’s death was a great loss to everyone. Phaedra made a mental note that Isa would also require transportation to Carthage at some point.
An uptick in a seismometer reading caught her attention. Pressure had been building along that fault line for a while. The adjacent sensor also registered a rise in activity. The next sensor did the same, and the next.
Phaedra sent out warning to all the evacuees waiting in Actium.
Forty-one seconds later, the earthquake hit.
Through her cameras placed all over the city, Phaedra saw the roads shake. The paved areas were flexible to withstand stresses and strains, yet the AI saw cracks opening up. This was a bad one, and it wasn’t over yet.
The sensors told Phaedra that the epicenter lay eighteen kilometers from the southern capital, but the quake was exceptionally powerful, the strongest in her records. Soil was undergoing liquefaction. Branches dropped from trees. Even the quake-proofed buildings of Actium were losing tiles, and their windowpanes were cracking.
Phaedra’s audio sensors relayed the frightened shouts and screams of the people waiting to leave the spaceport. She issued instructions, telling them to get under strong structures like doorways if they couldn’t get outside, and to move away from buildings if they were already outside. She also issued instructions to Actium’s EMS personnel, but there was little anyone could do until the shaking stopped. And it seemed like it was going to go on forever.
Athens was too hot. Its magma was roiling hard beneath the crust, grinding the planet’s tectonic plates against each other, and when the pressure was suddenly released, the surface suffered, churning and juddering. The place was simply unsafe.
Phaedra had to evacuate the remaining people, fast.
She decided to talk to Marvin and the people of Dephi again.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Isa couldn’t find any trace of Reiko, and there was no sign of her on the section’s network. It was as though the woman had completely disappeared.
Phaedra had told her that Reiko and Leif had traveled to a different section of the PETER after the eruption, so the AI should be able to find them now. Isa only had to ask her—though she would not be pleased that Isa had gone after them alone.
<Phaedra, can you highlight Reiko and Leif’s location for me?> she asked without giving a reason.
<Are they on the ring? I don’t see them anywhere,> the AI said after a moment. <Half my planetary networks are down, and nearspace is a mess. They could be anywhere. I did have Leif in the same ring section as you, but his signal disappeared when there was a strong earthquake near Attica. He wasn’t a priority to find, since I assumed he’d just gone somewhere with weak Link access.>
Isa wondered what could have caused that, hope that it might have been Erin’s doing springing up inside. <I’m positive they’re in the same PETER section as I am.>
<Hmmm…. If they are, they’re not on the general network. The ring doesn’t have a lot of sensors for me to tap into—oh, wait.>
Isa chewed at her lower lip as she waited for the AI to go on.
<Yes. OK. The FGT have a separate backup network used for maintenance equipment. There!>
A single dot appeared on Isa’s map of the PETER.
<I am only sensing Reiko at the moment,> Phaedra reported.
Isa recalled that Reiko had received her ‘bad news’ a few minutes after Lark had heard about the earthquake. The timeline made sense.
<Phaedra, don’t you think it’s possible Leif’s dead?>
<Isa, if people are being killed, I need to call in the Marines.>
<I have no idea what could be going on,> Isa backpedalled, still worried that could put Erin at risk. <I was just curious if you have any data on what he might have been doing before he went offline.>
<He’s from the Transcend, so I don’t have access to his biometrics data. You shouldn’t worry too much, though. Several sections of the PETER have weak Link access—especially when it is working overtime to stabilize the planet.>
Isa ignored Phaedra’s pitying tone. Leif was dead, and Isa was sure that Erin had killed him. Her heart lifted. Erin was fighting back, and she was somewhere nearby. Isa only had to find her.
<Let me know if you need anything else, Isa. There has been another large eruption, and I am dealing with the aftermath. Unfortunately, this one was close to Actium and there have been some casualties.>
<That’s terrible news. I’m so sorry, Phaedra. Thank you for your help.>
Isa walked out of the bay and took the passageway that led toward the dot that represented Reiko. The Transcend engineer was in a small room with an undefined purpose, according to the information on the PETER map. She was moving around somewhat erratically. Isa focused her mind’s eye on Reiko while she jogged toward her location, wondering what the woman could be doing that would cause her to move so strangely.
As Isa watched, Reiko made a sudden change of direction; the dot that represented her exited the room and moved up a passageway at a rapid rate.
Reiko was running, and she was traveling deeper into the PETER.
Is she running toward or away from something, or someone? Is she running after Erin?
Isa sped up. The convoluted interior of the PETER, combined with the fact that she was watching Reiko’s progress while also looking ahead, meant that she couldn’t run as fast as she wanted. But as long as Phaedra could track her, Reiko wasn’t getting away.
The dot halted. Isa panicked.
What is she doing now? Has she caught Erin?
Isa ran on, taking a left turn. She was about ten minutes from her target. She reached a long stretch of straight passageway and was able to increase her speed. She sprinted to the end and turned right.
Reiko began to move again, though much slower than before.
Isa checked the woman’s position; she had entered a maintenance access tunnel.
The only possible reason was that she was either hiding from someone, or planning on sneaking up on someone. Isa’s hopes rose. She could sneak up on Reiko, stand right next to her on the other side of a wall, and the engineer would never know.
Isa compared her own location. She was close to the room where she’d seen Reiko moving erratically before leaving it so abruptly. She decided she would take a look inside when she reached it before continuing to track Reiko. Perhaps she might learn something.
She ran on, joy bubbling up in her chest. Martin would be so relieved that Erin was alive, and Jude and the triplets wouldn’t lose a mother. Isa’s family would remain intact and happy.
She forced herself to hold her emotions in check. She mustn’t get ahead of herself. As long as Reiko remained alive, Erin was in danger.
Isa turned yet another corner. The room she was heading toward was less than a minute away. She caught sight of the open door, but she could see nothing through the gap. She slowed to a walk and softened her footsteps. No sound was coming from the room.
When she reached it, the first thing her gaze lit upon caused her to suck in a breath: a red-brown streak crossed the floor.
She couldn’t imagine what else the dried liquid might be.
Isa touched her fingers to the door and slowly opened it, revealing the foot of someone lying down. As she opened the door further, she saw sprawled legs. The limbs belonged to a man, and they looked devoid of life.
She leaned through the doorway. Sure enough, there lay Leif. He was half-slumped, turned to one side behind the door, and his face and hands were grey. Dry blood encrusted his beard, neck, and clothes.
<Phaedra, Leif is dead.>
<Leif is…. Are you sure?>
<I know you think I’m crazy, like everyone else does, but I’m looking at him right now. There’s blood everywhere. He must have been murdered. That’s why you lost his signal.>
<I have to admit, I was not expecting that. Isa, you should leave immediately.>
<No, I really shouldn’t. Listen, Reiko had no reason to murder Leif—in fact, I’m sure she was with me and the other engineers when it happened. Which means there’s only one person who could have murdered him. Erin.>
<That does seem to be the logical conclusion,> replied the AI. <This throws a whole new light on everything. Don’t worry that Reiko will leave. I will assume control of all the skiffs currently in the landing bay, and if she enters one, I will immobilize it and lock it down, trapping her.>
<That’s a good idea,> said Isa.
<Do not approach her, Isa. I will inform Governor Richards about the situation. Marines are on their way to you from Actium.>
Isa acknowledged Phaedra’s request, then took a deep breath and stepped into the room. There was another door across the room, though it was smaller than the one she’d just entered through. Isa headed toward it, briefly scanning Leif as she walked by him.
Disgust and elation fought inside her. Isa was certain that Leif had died at Erin’s hands. She’d murdered him to escape, and, as Isa thought back to Reiko’s earlier behavior, she guessed that Erin had fought Reiko too.
Isa looked into the smaller room. A container with a gridded lid stood against one wall, and at its edges were opened grips. Bloodstains marked the container’s surface; Isa grimaced at the gory sight. She guessed it was Erin’s blood.
But she’s free.
Erin had gotten away and killed one of her captors. That explained why Reiko entered the maintenance tunnels: she was hiding. She was scared that Erin would kill her as well.
It was probably the smartest decision Reiko had made since arriving in New Canaan. Isa would never forget that moment on Troy when Erin had shot Martin’s killer dead without an instant of hesitation.
Reiko is right to be afraid.
Isa spun around and ran out of the room. She had to find Erin and help her, she was probably injured and in pain. They would catch Reiko together.
At first, Isa set off in the direction Reiko had traveled when she left the room, but when she checked the woman’s current position, the Transcend’s engineer had doubled back and was moving toward the landing bay.
Isa wondered if she was trying to leave. She won’t get far. Not now that Phaedra knows the truth, and the Marines are coming.
If Reiko was lucky, the Marines would catch her before Erin did.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin halted. She hadn’t heard Reiko’s footsteps for a while, and the spots of blood had disappeared. After taking numerous turns down fresh passageways, she was also entirely disoriented. Without her Link access, she was handicapped. She didn’t have the first idea where she was inside the PETER, and she didn’t even think she could find her way back to the room where she’d killed Leif.
Slumping to the floor, Erin pulled up her knees, and rested her forehead on them, trying to silence the buzzing in her head. Her injured hand throbbed, and she ached in places she didn’t remember ever aching before. More than ever, she missed Walter—not because he would have taken care of all her pain. She missed his calm voice, his sardonic humor, his upbeat attitude….
Without him, she was alone.
She had to catch Reiko and make the woman pay for killing her best friend. But she could not find her, and she didn’t know how much longer she could go on. She was so tired and weak after the hours she’d spent hanging suspended above the pipes.
Erin lifted her head and leaned back against the wall, her half-closed eyes taking in her surroundings. The passageway looked identical to the others she’d passed through. The interior of the ring carried no signs or markings to show people their position or directions to significant areas, like the landing bay. There was no need. Anyone who was supposed to be there would be able to access a map of the place. For all she knew, she could be leaning against the only barrier between herself and space, or she could be around the corner from the place where she’d started. Perhaps both.
But was she really completely lost? Though she didn’t have Link access or Walter to help her, she did have her memory of everywhere she’d run while trying to catch Reiko, and she had seen the PETER plenty of times when traveling toward and away from the structure via skiff. The good thing was the structure was the same all over; the same construction pattern repeated around the entire circumference of the ring.
Keeping one ear open for the sound of footsteps, Erin closed her eyes and began to mentally replay her journey to her current position. She had traveled about one and a half kilometers, all told, along passages of varying length and orientation. In her mind’s eye, Erin traced a line to represent her route. Perhaps it wasn’t perfect, but it would do.
Next, she brought up a memory of a complete section of the PETER. The structure was complicated, and she had few recollections in her organic memory that included an entire section. The clearest was from the time she had planet dived, when she had looked back at the ring as she fell away from it. That meant her view was from the underside…not perfect for her needs, but it could work.
Erin moved the fabricated line of her path through the PETER to set it against her memory of the structure’s design. The first thing she noticed was that she was far from the living area, where nearly all the passageways were the same length. She was also fairly certain she was not close to the base of the ring, where myriad dropaway points led down to the nodes that drew energy from Athens. And the upper reaches were skeletal framework only, for strength. No rooms or even maintenance tunnels existed up there because all repairs were made externally.
She continued her search, turning her mental line around in her mind and trying to make it match up to somewhere in the maze. Finally, she found it. Her route fitted against an area of the PETER roughly midway between the base and the outer framework.
Holding the image in her mind, Erin opened her eyes and stood up. It was possible that she was wrong. Perhaps the mental line she’d created of her route would match against another place in the structure. Perhaps even more than two places. But she could test whether she was correct by traveling beyond the line. If she’d gotten it right, she should be able to successfully predict what she would encounter next.
While she had been trying to figure out where she was, Erin had come to a conclusion: staying alive was more important than finding Reiko. The woman had escaped her for now. Searching for her within the labyrinthine PETER was beyond Erin’s capabilities in her current physical state.
She had also realized that if she allowed her anger and grief over Walter’s death to control her actions, she was going to end up dead. If that happened, Reiko might get away. It was probable that no one else knew what she and Leif had done, and though they might suspect her of wrongdoing, they wouldn’t be able to prove anything, and Tanis would be forced to allow Reiko to return to the Transcend.
Or even worse, despite all that had happened, Reiko might stick around and pull her tricks on someone else she thought could tell her about New Canaan’s picotech and defenses, and Walter’s death would not be avenged.
These were possibilities that Erin could not allow to come true.
Erin had realized that she was the proof of all that Reiko and Leif had done. She was the evidence that was needed to expose the engineers’ scheme. The instant she returned to Lark and Fazir, they could tell Phaedra what had happened, and the AI could send in Marines to find Reiko and bring her to justice.
Her realizations were bitter. Erin would have liked nothing better than to kill Reiko for what she had done, but she had to face the fact that that avenue was closed to her.
Usef’s words came back to her: 'It’s about survival’.
Erin set off, returning the way she had come. She walked quickly, continuing to strain her ears for the sound of Reiko moving nearby, but the passageways offered only empty silence except for the quiet echo of her own footfalls.
She continued retracing her path back toward the room where Leif lay dead. After that, she would head to, if she guessed correctly, a landing bay that was positioned another eight hundred meters from the spot where she’d been held and tortured.
She figured that Reiko and Leif had to have traveled to this section via skiffs. If Reiko hadn’t already departed the same way, she could be heading to the bay now. Erin had to reach a vessel first.
She weighed the possibility that she would encounter Reiko at the landing bay. If that happened, she decided, it would be all to the good. She still carried one of the torture wands.
She gripped it tightly and walked faster.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin sped past the room that held Leif’s corpse without even a glance. She’d found her way back there quickly, but not as quickly as she would have liked. Her spurt of energy when she’d been running after Reiko had faded, and she couldn’t seem to muster any more speed.
Traveling beyond the room where she’d fought Leif brought her into new territory. She would soon find out if she’d mapped her route against the PETER correctly.
She walked on. The passageway ended in a fork. The right-hand path led upward for another twenty meters, while the left-hand route remained on the same level. The left passageway was long, and many openings lay on both sides.
Erin nodded in satisfaction. She was now certain where she was. To get to the landing bay, she had to go left and take the second right turn, which would take her downward.
She followed the corridor, her success sending a fresh burst of adrenaline through her. Somewhere, she found the strength to speed up a little.
She thought through the steps she had to take: first, catch Reiko and make her pay for killing Walter. Failing that, she would find a skiff and use its Link access to alert everyone to what Reiko and Leif had done.
Whether or not Hal and Jere had been involved would be for an official investigation to determine, but she would gladly escort them from the system herself if they were. Lark would be sad, but the Transcend had clearly shown they could not be trusted.
Thirdly, she had to fix the damned PETER so Athens could return to its regular stabilization schedule. And then, finally, she could go home.
The temptation to simply kill Reiko would be strong, but she had to resist. One of the TSF engineers was already dead; that would take some explaining. If Reiko died too, it could be just the sort of excuse Admiral Iysra was looking for to justify an attack on New Canaan.
She needed to keep Reiko alive. The woman had to confess what she had done so that it would be clear that New Canaan was not at fault. They had to show that the Transcend had committed a hostile act by sending in spies.
She had nearly screwed up once by killing an enemy in a thoughtless rage. She was not going to make the same mistake again.
Erin loped along another passageway, and then another, working her way downward. The landing bay lay only two hundred meters away. Soon, the distance had shrunk to less than one hundred meters.
Erin slowed down and continued more cautiously. Reiko wasn’t dumb; She might have predicted that Erin would head for the bay. It was the only way off the PETER, after all.
The final passageway opened on her left. Erin stepped slowly toward it, creeping close to the wall. When she neared the opening, she put her back against the wall and edged up to the corner. She peeked around it. Nothing. She walked on.
The entrance to the landing bay appeared ahead, tantalizingly close, but Erin only crept toward it. The place had several entrances, Reiko could still be waiting for her. No sight or sound gave Erin any indication one way or the other.
There was nothing for it. She would have to take her chances.
Erin peered through the bay entrance. She saw no sign of Reiko, but what she did see was three skiffs. She had been about to dash to one of the small craft, but the unexpected sight made her pause. If only Leif and Reiko were in this section, there should be only two vessels. And one of the three was not from the PETER’s fleet.
Erin tried to puzzle out the strange presence of the domestic vehicle, but she couldn’t think of any explanation that made sense. She pushed her curiosity aside, accepting that perhaps the reason would become clear later. All that mattered was that all the vessels were empty.
Taking a breath, Erin darted through the doorway of the landing bay. Carefully scanning the empty area, she ran toward one of the skiffs. She reached the vessel without incident and threw its hatch open.
She jumped into the seat and reached for the manual control to close the door, but as she activated it, she heard running footsteps.
Reiko was speeding toward her across the bay.
Before the skiff’s door closed, the other woman jumped through it and crashed into Erin, sending her flying into the controls face-first.
Erin heard the door mechanism stop, leaving the door half-open. She screamed as Reiko touched her with the silver wand, and blind rage tore through her. She swore that the woman would never use that cruel instrument on her again.
She jerked her elbow backward, and felt a satisfying impact against flesh and bone. Reiko grunted. Rearing upward, Erin threw the woman off her, and the other engineer stumbled away, struggling not to fall down.
Erin leapt onto her, focusing on the slim piece of metal Reiko held in her hand. She grabbed the woman’s wrist and twisted it. At the same time, she kneed Reiko in her diaphragm, forcing the air from her lungs, but the woman’s grip on her device remained steely, and she struggled like a wildcat. Erin drove her forehead into Reiko’s face, breaking her nose.
Reiko fought back, refusing to let go of her torture wand. Erin opened her mouth, leaned in, and clamped her teeth around Reiko’s forearm, grinding her teeth into the muscle. The TSF engineer screamed, and her struggles found new strength. Erin bit down harder while fighting to maintain her hold on her downed opponent.
Finally, Erin heard the sound she had been waiting for: the clink of metal hitting the floor.
Reiko’s blood fresh on her lips, she released her bite, lunged for the device, and flung it away from her. The slim piece of metal flew through the grav field and into space.
Erin still had the other torture device tucked in the waistband of her pants. She pulled it out and sent it in the same direction as the first. She didn’t want Reiko to use it on her.
This momentary diversion of Erin’s gave Reiko the opportunity to struggle out from under her. She pushed Erin away and leapt up, nursing her bitten wrist.
“Bitch! What are you? Some kind of fucking animal?” Reiko wiped away the blood oozing from her sleeve.
“You’re the one who’s behaved like an animal,” Erin spat. “Only that’s an insult to animals. You’re going to Landfall, where you’ll face what’s coming to you for killing Walter.”
“Like hell I am. It’s just me and you here, and there’s no way I’m letting you leave.”
Reiko dove at Erin. She stepped aside, but Reiko caught her anyway, flinging an arm around her waist.
The two women fell and grappled again. Reiko grabbed Erin’s hair, but couldn’t get a good grip on the short strands. Blood running from Erin’s nose dripped into her eyes. She screwed up her face and twisted her head and body, fighting to escape Reiko’s grip. She brought her knees up and pressed the soles of her feet into Reiko’s torso, propelling the larger woman off of her.
Reiko landed on her behind, and Erin leapt onto her again. She had to subdue her somehow, knock her out, so Erin could get to a skiff and use it to access the Link.
But, despite the injuries Erin had inflicted, Reiko hadn’t been tortured as Erin had. She hadn’t nearly torn off her own hand to escape her restraints. She hadn’t gone for hours without water and spent many of those hours trying not to fall from a ceiling. Reiko was fresher, stronger, and she had the benefit of an AI helping her.
It was starting to show.
Reiko resisted Erin’s attempts to punch her in the jaw, deflecting each blow by swiping Erin’s fist aside. She landed a blow of her own on Erin’s chin, knocking her head backward and sending sparks bursting across her vision.
Erin shook her head, trying to remain conscious. Reiko shoved her chest with both hands, unsteadying her further, and twisted out from underneath Erin. She jumped to her feet and, before Erin could also rise, kicked her in the ribs.
Erin rolled away and tried to get up, but Reiko caught up to her and kicked her again, aiming the blow at Erin’s head. Her boot impacted Erin’s temple.
This time, the blackness was coming for sure, and there wasn’t anything Erin could do about it.
She crashed onto her side, furious and despairing as her senses began to close down. Reiko was going to kill her. There was no doubt about it. She would get away with what she’d done, and Erin would never see Jude, Isa, or Martin again. Jude and the triplets would lose a mother.
She raised a feeble hand, instinctively warding off her impending death, as the floor came up to meet her face.
It seemed only a moment had passed before Erin was awake again. She couldn’t breathe, and a terrible pain radiated from her throat. She opened her eyes to a view of Reiko’s leg rising above her. Reiko’s face angled downward, contorted by an immense, gloating pleasure.
Reiko was kneeling on her throat, crushing her voice box and cutting off her air supply.
From her depths of desperation and desire for life, Erin found the strength to tense the muscles in her neck, trying to ease the pressure on her windpipe. She lifted her arms against Reiko’s pressing leg, but she was like a butterfly batting at a window to open it. She shifted and kicked her legs, but they couldn’t reach Reiko.
Erin was dying, she couldn’t think of a way….
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
As Isa approached the landing bay, faint sounds echoed up the passageway. There was a noise like a skiff opening, and at first, Isa was tempted to shout out, thinking that she might have found Erin. Then it occurred to her that the sound she’d heard could have been made by Reiko. She didn’t want to spook the woman—if Reiko thought her crimes had been revealed, she might guess that Phaedra would turn her skiff into a trap.
Isa ran faster, though quietly.
However, when she checked Reiko’s position in the PETER, she wasn’t inside the landing bay; she was a little outside of it, moving along a different passageway. Then Isa saw Reiko’s dot suddenly spurt forward, heading for the bay.
<Phaedra, is someone else in the landing bay besides Reiko?>
<I don’t have a visual of it, but one of the skiffs opened just now. There must be someone there. All the other engineers are accounted for, though…. Isa, I think we may have found Erin.>
<I think we have.>
Isa flew down the passageway, but she couldn’t close the distance fast enough. Reiko would reach the bay before her. That was fine by her, she planned on giving the Transcend’s engineer a nasty surprise. The weapon Usef had given her was a welcome touch of cold metal under her arm.
A few beats later, a scream rang out. Seconds after that, the sound of shouting voices floated up toward her. Isa couldn’t quite make out what they were saying, but a jolt of warm recognition and elation welled up in her.
Her wife was alive, and not only that, she was in fighting form.
Within another thirty seconds, Isa was at the landing bay. She tore through the doorway then stopped dead. A terrifying sight confronted her. Next to an open skiff, Erin was on the floor on her back, and Reiko had a knee on her throat. Erin’s legs and arms were weakly flailing.
Horror coursing through her, Isa lifted her weapon. She aimed, but her hands were shaking. Hitting her target had never been so important; she couldn’t risk hitting Erin.
Remembering her training, she concentrated her focus on Reiko’s torso, and fired. The shot went wide and the TSF woman twisted, looking for the source of the shot. Isa inhaled, aimed again. She exhaled, and as the breath left her, she fired again.
This time, the round hit.
Reiko shrieked and fell away, her side singed and smoking. Isa’s shot had only been a glancing blow, tearing a bloody furrow across Reiko’s back, but she was down. The woman turned enraged, startled eyes at Isa.
Erin was rolling onto her side, her features twisted with pain, her hands reaching for her throat.
Isa ran into the bay, the muzzle of her weapon fixed on Reiko’s half-prone figure.
“Erin, are you all right?”
But her wife couldn’t answer. Isa wasn’t even sure she’d heard the words.
Reiko was scrabbling backward on all fours.
“Stay where you are,” Isa growled. “If you move, I’ll fucking kill you.”
She dropped to Erin’s side and spared one glance downward at her prone wife. To her relief, she saw that Erin seemed to be recovering. Their gazes met for a fleeting second, and the warm light of recognition and gratitude flamed in Erin’s eyes.
When Isa turned her gaze back to Reiko, she hadn’t moved.
“Go ahead,” Isa urged, standing up. “Move one more time. Just once. Please? I really want you to.”
Poised over her seriously injured wife, Isa’s rage was incandescent. Her finger ached to pull the trigger and end the life of this person who had hurt the woman she loved.
“Don’t kill her,” Erin croaked. “We need her alive.”
Isa and Reiko’s gazes were locked. Reiko was frozen where she lay next to a row of empty crates; the woman was a wreck, cut up and covered in blood. Erin had done some serious damage to the bitch. The stink of burned clothing and flesh filled the bay.
“What are you doing here?” Erin asked in a whisper. “Where are Martin and Jude?”
“They’re okay. They’re on their way to Carthage. Everyone thought you were dead, but I didn’t believe it. I had to come and find you.”
“She killed Walter,” said Erin tonelessly.
“It was my pleasure,” said Reiko, smirking.
Isa stepped over Erin to move closer to the offending engineer. They might need Reiko alive, but that didn’t mean Isa couldn’t inflict a little pain.
Suddenly, brilliant lights shone into the bay from outside, startling her. She turned to look through the grav field and saw a military vessel approaching. The Marines had arrived.
Isa turned back to Reiko.
The engineer was gone, the sound of pounding footsteps echoing through the bay.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin had seen it all from where she lay on the floor, recovering from Reiko’s attack. Isa had Reiko pinned down. The engineer could not try to escape without Isa shooting her, and at such a close range, even Isa wouldn’t miss.
But then lights from an approaching military vessel had flooded the bay. Erin had been distracted by them too, but she had returned her attention to Reiko a moment before Isa had.
Reiko had not been slow to take her chance. Erin caught a glimpse of the woman’s bloody back as she fled.
Oh, she is not getting away! I’ll kill her first.
Erin rose to her feet, snatched Isa’s weapon from her grip, and ran after Reiko as she fled into the labyrinthine structure.
Was she hoping to make it to an area where Phaedra would not be able to spot her? What would she do after that? Erin couldn’t guess, but she knew she would have to come out of hiding at some time or starve to death.
Or is she thinking she can arrange for Jere or Hal to pick her up?
Erin hadn’t figured out yet whether Reiko’s other colleagues were in on her schemes. Even if they were, Reiko’s hope that she could escape New Canaan undetected was foolish. She was surrounded by enemies, and her number one foe was right on her tail.
This time, Reiko had only a second’s head start. Erin raced into the passageway where Reiko had fled, and immediately saw her running figure ahead, the charred skin of her back showing horribly through the clothes that Isa’s shot had burned away.
Without breaking pace, Erin aimed and fired. The round hit Reiko’s shoulder. She cried out, staggered, and almost fell, but at the last instant, she righted herself and ran on.
Erin kept up her pursuit. Reiko’s AI might be eliminating the pain of her wounds, but it could not repair her muscles and bones so fast. She fired again. This time, she hit Reiko’s knee. That shot did the trick, and Reiko hit the floor.
Erin ran up to the fallen woman, aiming at her head.
“No!” Reiko exclaimed. “Don’t kill me.”
“I told you, I’m not going to kill you.” It took all of Erin’s willpower not to turn the words into a lie. “You’re going to Landfall, where you will stand trial for Walter’s murder, and tell us exactly what you were trying to do here.”
“No.” A deep fear made dark pits of Reiko’s frightened eyes, perhaps a deeper fear than that of her own death.
Booted feet were running up the passageway.
The Marines. Relief washed over Erin, bringing utter exhaustion along with it.
Reiko began to edge away from her, dragging herself backward on outstretched arms, her injured leg limp and useless.
“What are you doing?” Erin asked. “Don’t you understand? It’s all over. Stay where you are, or I’ll—”
Then she saw where Reiko was heading. She was at a door in the passageway…a door that didn’t appear on the plans, a door that should not have been there. The realization of where it led hit Erin like a bolt.
Reiko had reached up and was pulling the door open.
“Stop!” Erin yelled again. “If you go out there….”
She didn’t bother to finish, she just fired. The shot hit Reiko as she launched herself through the door and out into the black.
They were at the threshold of one of Fazir’s planet-diving launch pads. Had she known about it all along and gone to it so she could commit suicide? Erin didn’t know, but she’d be damned if she was going to let Reiko off so easy.
Expelling the air from her lungs, she ran at the exit and leapt into space.
She saw Reiko floating away, propelled by her momentum. But Erin had given herself plenty of propulsion too. She snatched at Reiko’s foot, narrowly missing.
Erin’s saliva was beginning to boil on her tongue. Her abdomen was swelling. Blood vessels would be popping under her skin. Soon, her ears, eyes, nose, and mouth would begin to bleed. If she’d had Walter on board, she could last longer, but as it was, she knew she had only seconds at best.
Though she might not have Walter, she did have Isa’s weapon.
She fired a shot in the opposite direction from the way she was traveling, pushing herself toward Reiko. The effect on her speed was too strong for her needs, and she collided with the woman. The impact sent them both farther from the PETER.
The result wasn’t exactly what Erin had intended, but it meant she could grab hold of Reiko. The woman was dying, succumbing to exposure to open space. Her mouth was open, and blood from her exploded lungs was breaking free from it and her nose in great globules, streaming away in their wake.
If Reiko survived, it would be due to her AI, but would the artificial intelligence keep her alive? Erin didn’t know if the AI had a death wish too.
Blackness was edging into Erin’s vision. With a huge effort, she turned her weapon to face away from the PETER. She pumped the trigger, firing its small magazine of concussive rounds set for close detonation, the pulses pushing the two women back toward the ring.
She had neither the precision nor the energy required to aim exactly for the entrance; she only hoped to move into its vicinity. Then, with luck, some brave Marine would risk his life to retrieve them.
Before she found out if her plan was successful, the blackness in Erin’s vision became complete.
STELLAR DATE: 05.14.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Isa trailed after the Marines that were running up the passageway. She’d had the briefest encounter with Usef, who barked, “Which way?” before running in the direction Isa pointed.
When she caught up, she found the soldiers clustered around an open door—a door that led, unbelievably, out into space. The troops were blocking Isa’s view. She weaved her head around, trying to peer beyond them, but she couldn’t see her wife. Only that dreadful open door and some stars.
Isa pulled at a Marine’s arm, trying to move the man out of her way.
“Please let me through,” she begged. “Where’s Erin gone?”
A black visor turned toward Isa. “Step away, ma’am. This area is not safe.”
“I only want to know what’s happened to my wife!”
The Marine turned and grabbed Isa’s upper arms. He forcibly moved her away while Usef growled over his troops, “Isa, get back.”
The clustered Marines were moving away from the doorway, spreading out. Isa was unable to see past them, so she ducked down and peered between the moving bodies.
A single Marine stood at the edge of a short platform that jutted out from the doorway. He was retracting a line, like a fisherman hauling in his catch. The Marine stepped backward, and Isa saw another Marine attached to the end of the line. As he landed on the platform, Isa saw he was bearing a burden.
Her heart stopped.
He was holding Erin. Her eyes were closed, and she appeared unconscious, yet she was gripping Reiko’s calf like a vise.
As the Marine moved into the passageway, the PETER’s a-grav hit. He maintained his hold on Erin, but Reiko hit the floor with a thump. The Marine lowered Erin beside her.
Erin’s skin was a mass of red blotches. Isa wasn’t sure she was breathing. She forced her way between the gathered Marines, and this time, they let her through. Someone closed the door.
Isa fell to her knees beside the two women. The only comfort she could derive from what she saw was the fact that Reiko looked even worse than Erin did. Blood oozed from the TSF engineer’s mouth, and her eyes were open and staring without focus, the whites turned scarlet.
Isa leaned over Erin. Her wife’s lips were blue, a horrible contrast to the red rash that covered her face and hands. Then Isa noticed that one of Erin’s hands was a mangled mess.
What happened to her? What did Reiko and Leif do?
“One of you give me a gun,” she said to the Marines. “I have to make sure that woman is dead.”
“Can’t do that.” Usef’s voice was filled with malice, but it wasn’t directed at her.
Footsteps were running up the passageway.
“Please move aside.”
A Marine carrying a medic’s case had arrived.
Isa got up and backed away a couple of paces, covering her eyes. She couldn’t watch. She didn’t want to see Erin’s last moments. She’d said that Walter was dead; that meant she had no one and nothing special working inside her to keep her alive.
This wouldn’t be like that time with Martin. If Erin died, she could not be resurrected.
For what seemed an eternity, all Isa saw was darkness, and all she heard was the sound of the medic working on Erin.
After some time, a hand touched her shoulder. It was large and heavy. Usef was trying to offer her some comfort, but Isa didn’t feel any better. She would not ever feel better if Erin died.
Isa told herself that she had done her best. She’d refused to believe the trick Reiko and Leif had pulled. She’d searched for Erin when everyone else believed she was dead. She’d found her wife, and saved her from Reiko….
Had she done all that for nothing? Would she lose the woman she loved at this last, final moment, when their enemies were dead, and Usef and his troops had arrived to save Erin?
Isa felt the moments of her despair counting out, one by one.
Then something changed. She sensed an alteration in the atmosphere. The Marines, who had stood as still and silent as herself while the medic worked, began to move.
Isa removed her hands from her eyes. The Marines were lifting Erin up; Isa saw her wife’s chest move.
Isa ran over and pushed between the Marines carrying Erin. She gripped her wife’s uninjured hand. Erin’s eyes opened a slit, and her gaze found Isa’s.
Isa ran with the troops down the passageway, leaving Reiko’s corpse behind.
STELLAR DATE: 05.15.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: PETER (Planetary Exo-Thermic Extraction Ring)
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
Erin was being treated for her injuries in the PETER’s medbay. Once she was stable, they’d transfer to the civilian ship.
She still did not look well to Isa. The PETER only housed a basic medical station, sufficient to deal with the minor ailments and accidents of its two resident engineers. In normal circumstances, Lark and Fazir would have been able to receive treatment for more serious medical emergencies in a fully equipped hospital in either Actium or Attica. But all the Athenian medical staff had departed on the last evacuee ship, and the Andromeda was still a few hours away.
To Isa, the fact that Erin no longer had Walter to help her heal really showed. Bruises from her wife’s fights with Leif and Reiko were blooming all over Erin’s body, and she had grazes on her cheeks and elbows—though these were hard to distinguish against Erin’s ‘vacuum rash’. Her unprotected spacewalk had predictably done a number on her. One of her hands was sealed in a treatment bag, and Isa had also noticed that, in the brief moments when Erin opened her eyes, one of them didn’t focus properly.
Isa had glued herself to Erin’s side ever since the Marines had brought her to the medbay. The entire time that the Marine medic had treated Erin, Isa had not taken her eyes off her. The Marines had detained Jere and Hal, and though Isa knew that Erin was no longer in any danger from anyone at this point, she feared looking away for even a moment, lest she not see her wife again.
It was a stupid fear, she knew. But then again, her feelings of unease about Erin’s safety on Athens had been illogical, and so had her conviction that Erin was not dead, and she’d been right on both counts.
She held Erin’s less-injured hand and watched her as she drifted in and out of consciousness. The medic had told Isa he’d replenished Erin’s fluids and treated her wounds, and that the treatment bag would patch up her hand. He’d also diagnosed a problem with her nervous system and treated it. Erin’s nerves were in a state of over-stimulation, he’d said, and added to Isa in a low voice his opinion that Erin may have undergone torture.
When Isa heard that, she wished she’d killed Reiko herself.
Every so often, Usef would pass by the open door and peer inside. Then he would continue on his way in the usual, gruff, serious style he adopted while in uniform. Compared to the Usef that Isa had first met, Major Usef was a different person.
She preferred him in his colorful, short-sleeved shirt and thong. She would have liked that Usef to come in to talk to her.
“Hey.” Erin’s eyes were open.
“Hey, yourself.” Isa gripped her wife’s hand tighter, wondering if she would stay awake this time. “How are you feeling?”
“I’ve felt better.”
“I bet you have.”
“How long have I been out?”
“A couple of hours.”
“What happened to Reiko?”
Isa pursed her lips. “She’s dead.”
“Damn. You mean I kissed the black for nothing?”
“Yes. Sorry. After they brought you back to life, the Marines started working on her. They said they did everything they could, but her internal AI had destroyed her brain.”
“Her AI wanted to kill itself too?”
“That’s what it looks like. They said it could have been her AI who forced her to space herself.”
“I don’t think so. She was scared, Isa. I saw it in her face. Scared of something so bad that she would rather die than face it. And I don’t think that something was Tanis.”
“I don’t know,” said Isa. “It might have been. Tanis is pretty scary.”
Erin smiled. Then her eyes grew wet, and tears flowed out. She sniffed.
“My joke wasn’t that bad, was it?” asked Isa, who wasn’t sure she’d been joking.
“I miss Walter.”
Tears filled Isa’s eyes too. “I’m sorry.”
Minutes passed in sad silence.
Erin suddenly started, and her eyes grew wide. “Did you tell—”
“Yes, I’ve told Martin you’re safe, though I spared him the details. He would only worry, and by the time he sees you again, you’ll be better. I sent him a message as soon as they told me you were out of danger. We never said a word to Jude about what had happened to you, either. As far as he knew, you were lost and I had gone to find you, while he went home early with his daddy.”
Erin relaxed. “So, as far as everyone knew, I died in the eruption?”
“That was certainly how it looked. It was the only rational explanation for Phaedra losing your signal for so long in that area. But I couldn’t believe it.”
“Thank the stars for that. You saved my life, Isa. If you hadn’t come along when you did, Reiko would have succeeded in killing me. I had no more fight left in me.”
“Well, you saved mine once too, remember? I only wish I’d hit that bitch dead-on with my first shot, right in the head, and taken her out. I know you wanted her kept alive, but after all she did to you….”
“I know the feeling, believe me, and I don’t blame you, but it would have been wrong. You remember how Usef was mad at me for years because I disobeyed orders and killed Pippa? He was right. I was a fool. You can’t allow your emotions to rule your head in those circumstances. Not when there’s a longer game to play, and our survival is at stake.”
“I’m glad to hear you finally understand,” said Usef as he walked through the doorway.
“Shit,” Erin grumbled. “You weren’t supposed to hear that.”
Usef’s impassive face cracked into a small smile. “Don’t you mean ‘you weren’t supposed to hear that, Major’?”
“Forget it,” said Erin. “As long as I’m not in uniform, I’m calling you Usef. I don’t care how you feel about it. After what I’ve been through, I’ve earned it.”
His smile spread wider. “Sounds like I’ll have to get you into uniform, then.”
“No,” said Isa. “Nuh uh. No way. Erin’s an engineer, and that’s how she’s staying. That’s what she loves. Not all this fighting, right, Erin?”
“Yes, that’s right. For now, anyway.”
Isa did not like the sound of Erin’s second sentence, especially considering that the woman who uttered it had only just been through kidnapping, torture, combat, and a near-death experience. And for some of those, it was not her first time.
Erin suddenly gasped and sat up. “I think I’ve got it.” Then she clutched her head and carefully lay down again.
“Erin, lie still,” Isa scolded. “You have to take it easy until we can get you onto the Odyssey.”
“But I think I know what’s wrong with the PETER! I was dreaming about it when I woke up. Then the thought slipped from my mind when I realized where I was and remembered everything that happened. But now it’s come back to me. I need to speak to Lark. Is she still here?”
“Yes,” said Isa. “She’s around somewhere.”
“I’ll ask her to come by,” said Usef.
“Thanks,” said Erin. “It’s a pain in the ass to have no Link access, I feel blind, deaf, and dumb. It reminds me of that traditional hotel room you booked in Attica, Isa. Do you remember?”
“Of course. It was an odd feeling. I liked it at the time, but I’d hate to live like that forever.”
Lark appeared in the doorway. Isa was shocked when she saw her. The woman was a mess. Her face was blotchy and her eyes red, as if she’d been crying for hours.
“Lark, I—” Erin said before she also noticed Lark’s face. “Er, is Jere returning to the Transcend?”
Lark nodded, her lip trembling. “He and Hal are being taken to Carthage for questioning by the governor.”
Usef said, “I’ve spoken with him, and I believe he had no part in this—neither did Hal, for that matter, but Tanis wants to see them, anyway. Evidence may still turn up that they were complicit.”
“That’s not going to be the case,” said Lark. “Jere’s a good man, even if he is from the Transcend. He isn’t our enemy, no matter what Reiko and Leif did. He had no idea what they had planned.”
“There are always good people on both sides in war,” Usef said. “Doesn’t mean they escape the consequences.”
“Lark,” said Erin, “you have my sympathy, but don’t forget you have a job to do here.”
“I haven’t forgotten. Why did you want to see me?”
“I want you to try something. I have an idea.”
Erin began to explain an idea she’d had. Rather than going back to the default settings on the nodes, it involved programming in a new efficiency curve that would better suit the planet’s current state.
The explanation became complex very quickly, filled with acronyms that were meaningless to Isa. Though she didn’t follow it, she marveled at how her wife could lie there in her injured state, after suffering all she’d suffered, and still be solving engineering problems.
As Erin was speaking, Usef stood up to leave.
“Are you going?” asked Isa.
“Yes. It’s time to escort our two Transcend friends to Carthage and then back to the heliopause.”
“That’s going to be a long trip,” Isa said. “I guess we won’t be seeing you on the Odyssey or on Athens for a while.”
“Well, we’re trusting Erin to fix this mess. Even so, it’s going to be some time before Athens’ tourist resorts open their doors again. It’s a pity—I’ve had a lot of fun here over the years.”
“Me too,” said Isa.
“But on the other hand, it’s lucky for Martin that Athens will be uninhabited for a while.”
“Why’s that? Martin loves coming here as much as any of us.”
“This is the only place in New Canaan that offers tsunami-surfing. Now he won’t have to defend his title until the planet is up and running again.”
Isa lifted an eyebrow. “What I think you mean to say is, that’s lucky for you.”
Usef laughed and slapped her on the back, jerking her forward. “I’ll see you when I see you.” He strode toward the door.
“Bye, Usef,” said Erin.
Without turning around, the beefy major lifted a hand in farewell.
Lark also stood up, looking somewhat calmer now. Isa guessed that having a clear work plan to keep her occupied probably helped.
“When is Fazir coming back to the PETER?” Isa asked her.
“He got transferred to the Andromeda while en route to Carthage, and they have the facilities to patch him up. Once they give him the all-clear, he’ll be coming back.” Lark seemed visibly relieved. “Hopefully in a day or so.”
“So you’re going to be on your own until then?”
“If Erin’s idea to fix the PETER works.” The engineer winked at her boss. “If I’m alone for a day or so, it’s no big deal. I’m used to solitude.”
“We’ll stay in touch, though,” said Erin. “I really appreciate what you did for me—and that you kept Isa safe.”
“Thanks,” said Lark while shaking her head at Erin. “As much as I was able to, with this wild woman.”
“You know, I’m feeling a little better,” Erin said. “I think I’m well enough to get up.”
“I’ll leave you to it,” said Lark. “I’m going to try to see Jere one last time before he leaves.”
As Lark left the room, the Marine medic stepped forward, ready to assist Erin as she pulled herself upright. This time she managed it on her own.
“Ready to go home?” Isa asked.
“Ready to get back to work.”
STELLAR DATE: 05.15.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Odyssey, departing Athens
REGION: Athens, New Canaan System
“Are you sure you want to do this?” asked Erin.
She was back to her normal self, excepting the absence of an AI partner in her mind. While they’d waited for the Odyssey’s return, the Andromeda’s doctors had restored her Link access and fixed the damage that Reiko and Leif had done to her brain with their heavy-handed, unskilled work when they had ripped Walter from her. The doctors had also restored the vision to her damaged eye.
Erin had printed some new clothes suited to a trip spent aboard a luxurious spaceship, though she had been expecting to spend the days until they reached Carthage mostly in their cabin or under the stars in the Observation Dome. She’d taken Isa at her word when she’d said she only wanted to rest and relax, but Isa had changed her mind.
“The thing is, how long will we have to wait until we have another chance?” asked Isa.
“I don’t know. Maybe not as long as you think. The Odyssey might convert to a cruise ship until Athens is open to visitors again. She could travel between the inner planets, stopping off for a day or two at each one. Or she could visit Athens, where the shuttles won’t land, only offer tours. There might be some interest in seeing Athens from orbit, or taking rides to see the volcanoes and lava fields.”
“Stop being so logical,” said Isa. “Let’s go and see Mikhail. You know you want to.”
“Okay, you got me there. I would like to see him again.”
They walked through the ship to the cocktail lounge. Like the rest of the Odyssey, the place was heaving with people. The ship was packed with the last of Athens’ evacuees, but no one seemed too bothered about their hasty departure from the volatile planet. Everyone who Erin had encountered seemed to be having a helluva time. The chatter in the lounge was so loud, it was drowning out the music.
Many of the patrons were showing signs of drinking more of Mikhail’s cocktails than was advisable if they wanted to remain upright. Luckily for the drinkers, that didn’t seem important to them.
Isa tugged on Erin’s elbow. She’d spotted a pair of empty seats at the bar. They eased through the crowd and hopped up onto the seats.
“Oh no,” Isa exclaimed. “Where’s Mikhail?”
Their husky cocktail waiter had been replaced by an unfamiliar woman. Her back was facing them while she fixed a customer’s cocktail. Glossy, thick, blonde hair hung down her back in long curls.
Isa was visibly disappointed. She was actually pouting. Erin guessed her wife had gotten used to the things she loved about her trips to Athens, and that Mikhail had been one of them.
“Nevermind,” said Erin. “I bet she makes great cocktails. Or maybe Mikhail left her his recipes. Check out the list. I can see some new ones as well as old favorites.”
Erin continued to peruse the cocktail menu. There were so many drinks to choose from, and she didn’t want to make their server wait when it was their turn to order. The woman was rushed off her feet, keeping everyone supplied.
But it was hard to choose when so many delicious-sounding alcoholic beverages were on offer:
New Canaan Cannonball
GRB (Gamma Ray Burst)
A Black Hole
A Galactic Overlord
Intergalactic Warp Ichor
Cosmic Vortex Bomb
The Nebula Crawler
The Correllian Mind Sapper
The Sidereal Sling
A Blazing Blazar
Erin came to a decision and swung her legs as she waited to be served. After a couple of minutes, the new barkeep approached.
“What can I get you ladies?”
The woman’s voice was deep and velvety, but Erin’s attention was immediately diverted from their server’s voice to one of her physical features—or rather, two. The new cocktail waiter was tall, which meant that her cleavage was at Erin’s eye level, and the woman’s mammary features were so large, Erin wondered how she remained upright.
When she tore her gaze from the surprising sight and looked up into the woman’s face, she got another surprise. She looked closer, but she was sure she was not mistaken.
The transformed cocktail waiter laughed. “I knew I would never fool you, Erin.”
“Stars,” Isa exclaimed. “Is that really you? That’s quite the transformation. So, you fancied being a woman?”
“Yeah, I felt like a change, and you know what they say—go big or go home. So, what’s it to be?”
“Uh…” said Erin. It was hard not to look in the obvious place. “I’ll have a….” She’d intended to order a Correllian Mind Sapper, but she was having second thoughts; the cocktail’s name was an unwelcome reminder of recent events. “A Supernova,” she finally managed to finish. She looked at Isa, whose gaze had dropped from Mikhail’s face while Erin had been ordering.
<Don’t stare,> Erin told her. <It’s rude.>
<I can’t help it.>
“Impressive, huh?” asked Mikhail.
“Astounding,” said Isa. To Erin, she added, <I’m sending a live vid to Martin. He’s never going to believe this.>
“Isa,” said Erin, nudging her wife with her toe.
“Oh, er….” Isa snapped out of her preoccupied state. “I’ll have a Cosmic Vortex Bomb.”
“By the way,” Erin said to the transformed Mikhail as she was fixing their drinks, “have you changed your name too?”
“Nothing big, just added a letter to get to Mikhaila.”
“Sure,” said Isa. “We’ll remember that, won’t we, Erin?”
“We’ll find it hard to forget,” Erin replied quietly.
When Mikhaila slid the filled cocktail glasses across the bar to the two women, she said, “When Athens is open to visitors again, will you be going back?”
“It could be tricky for a few years,” Isa replied. “We’re expecting babies. Triplets, in fact.”
“Triplets? Cool,” said Mikhaila. “What are their names?”
“Now that,” said Erin, sipping her drink, “we haven’t decided.”
“But I’m sure we’ll be back in Athens someday,” Isa said.
“Good,” said Mikhaila. “If I’m still a woman then, I’d love to have a go at the limbo-dancing competition.” She winked at them and moved on to serve new customers.
<Mikhaila limbo-dancing?> said Erin. <It would be worth returning to Athens only to see that.>
Isa burst into fits of giggles.
<I wasn’t joking,> said Erin.
<I wasn’t laughing at what you said. Martin just replied about Mikhaila’s new assets.>
<Huh, why’s he leaving me out? He must’ve forgotten I’m back on the Link. I’m going to remind him. Cut me in, okay?>
A few moments later, Erin was snorting with laughter.
STELLAR DATE: 05.26.8942 (Adjusted Years)
LOCATION: Marine Eco Station #14, Knossos Island
REGION: Carthage, New Canaan System
“I don’t see why we all have to go,” said Martin.
Erin noticed he hadn’t changed yet. Her husband was sitting on the sofa in his beach shorts and an old T-shirt.
“I could stay here and look after Jude,” he continued. “There was no need for Malcolm to come all the way from Landfall.”
“Firstly,” Erin replied, “Landfall isn’t far. Secondly, Malcolm loves spending time with Jude, as you know very well, and thirdly, if the governor of New Canaan invites you to dinner, you go.”
Martin folded his arms over his chest and said, “You’re very selective about what you call her, you know, according to what you want. Sometimes it’s ‘Tanis’, and sometimes it’s ‘the governor’. If you’re apologizing for her behavior, it’s ‘Tanis has a difficult job to do’, but if you want us to do whatever she says, it’s ‘you can’t say no to the governor’. Which is it?”
Erin clenched her teeth in frustration, but then she relaxed and laughed.
She walked behind Martin, wrapped her arms around his shoulders, and kissed his cheek. “You’re so incredibly annoying sometimes.”
“So are you.” Martin reached behind him and grabbed her, pulling her onto his lap. He cuddled and kissed her. “I’m glad it’s finally all over.”
He was referring to Erin’s safe return from Athens, and her debriefing about the incident with Reiko and Leif. Erin had been told that, as far as her involvement was concerned, the case was closed, and Tanis had invited Erin and her family to dinner as a way to put a period on the entire affair.
At least, Erin guessed that was the reason for the invite.
Isa appeared from the bedroom, where she’d been changing into a party dress. “Hey, you two, we don’t have time for canoodling. We’re supposed to be there in—Martin, you aren’t even dressed! You can’t go in beach gear. Hurry up and get changed. This is a formal dinner party at the—”
“Okay, okay,” said Martin. “ ‘At the governor’s house’, I know. All right, I’ll get ready.” He scooched out from under Erin, depositing her on the sofa. “I won’t be long.”
“Was he saying he doesn’t want to go?” asked Isa before Martin had fully left the room.
“Yes, I was,” he called over his shoulder as he disappeared into the san.
“Yes, he was,” echoed Erin. “You look nice.”
“Thanks. I thought I should make an effort.”
“It was worth it.”
“Where’s Jude?” Isa asked.
“He’s outside with Malcolm. Our son was telling me the ‘swell is perfect’, and he wants to ‘catch some waves’.”
“Oh man,” said Isa. “Before we know it, he’s going to be the one competing against Usef in a tsunami-surf-off.”
“I think you could be right.”
“I wonder how the girls will turn out?”
“I’ve no idea, but it’s going to be fun finding out.” Erin felt a thrill go through her at the thought that they would be bringing the triplets out into the world the next day.
“Are you excited?” Isa asked.
“Definitely, and also terrified.”
A few minutes later, Martin emerged, fastening a shirt.
“Great,” said Erin. “Now let’s go enjoy our last moments of freedom before chaos descends.”
* * * * *
Things were not going well at the dinner party. Tanis and Joe were being the perfect hosts, but the atmosphere at the table was tense and overly polite. Everyone had chatted about current affairs in the colony, the work at Athens, and politics and the latest news. They’d even talked about the weather. But awkward silences were opening up between bouts of conversation, and the pauses were getting longer and longer.
<Martin,> said Erin, <would you please stop it?>
She mentally grrrrred at his predictable response. <You keep giving Tanis your death glare.>
<I don’t know what—>
<Yes, you do,> Isa chimed in. <Don’t deny it.>
<All right,> Martin said. <I’ll try to ignore the fact that she terrified our son and nearly got Erin killed several times over.>
“More potatoes?” Tanis asked, offering Martin the bowl.
“No,” he snapped. Then he recovered. “Er, yes, thanks,” adding as an afterthought, “They’re delicious.”
He was trying, Erin had to give him that. But her husband’s expression remained sour.
She hadn’t felt so embarrassed in ages. Tanis and Joe had put a lot of thought into the night—the food and drinks were amazing, featuring several of the guests’ favorites. Things should have been going perfectly, except for the fact that Martin could not let go of his grudge against Tanis. If anything, his enmity toward her had gotten worse with time; Erin’s experiences working on the PETER had lifted his resentment to a whole new level.
She knew his attitude was due to his love for her, but it was irritating. He acted as though she had no choice in what she did, as if she was Tanis’s puppet, dancing to her tune. It wasn’t like that. Erin was as concerned about defending New Canaan as Tanis was. Erin chose to do what she did because she wanted to protect the system and its inhabitants. She wasn’t only following orders. When would Martin understand that?
“We haven’t mentioned the most important event, coming up tomorrow for you all,” said Tanis. “Erin told me you’re going to be expanding your family considerably.”
“Yes,” said Isa. “At long last. We had to push back the date a few times, due to Erin’s work at the PETER, but finally….” Her sentence stumbled to a close as she realized she’d strayed into dangerous territory.
“What Isa means is,” Martin said, “we had to wait until we knew Erin was okay and would be coming home.”
Erin held her breath. Stop right—
“You know,” Martin pressed, “at one point, I didn’t think she was ever coming back.”
…there. Erin sighed.
Martin had to say it, he had to bring up her assignment in Athens. She should have known. She should have agreed to let him miss the party; now she was going to pay the price.
“Anyone for more vegetables?” Joe asked brightly, his eyes ticking toward Tanis.
<I’d love some,> Angela said with a laugh, which was cut short by a scowl from Joe that led to a moment of silence.
“It was a difficult time….” Tanis let the word hang for a moment before continuing. “I’ve known Erin for over a century now, I don’t know how I would have handled it if she’d died.” She shifted her gaze from Martin to Isa. “You’re lucky to have a wife who wouldn’t take no for an answer—we all are. I wish we could have learned earlier what Leif and Reiko planned, but at least Hal and Jere weren’t involved.”
“What I wish is that Erin hadn’t been put in danger again,” said Martin. The death glare returned.
“I think it’s probably best that we leave now,” Erin interjected.
“I agree,” said Isa. “Big day tomorrow.”
“It certainly will be,” said Joe. “Have you thought of any names yet?”
“Ha!” said Erin, desperate to shift the conversation anywhere else. “It’s funny you should say that. While the babies were growing, Martin was coming up with the most outlandish names. What were they?”
“Uh, Bippo, Bappo, and Boppo?” Isa replied. “I think that was one set. And another was Arty, Porty, and Aramat. It was hilarious, wasn’t it, Erin?”
“Yeah, so funny.”
<I like Bippity, Boppity, Boo,> Angela suggested.
Martin’s eyes had remained locked on Tanis’s through the exchange, still glaring. Neither of them was laughing.
“It certainly sounds like it,” said Joe. “So, what did you settle on in the end?”
“Strangely enough,” said Erin, “Martin came up with some sensible names yesterday. They’re lovely, actually, so we’re going with those.”
“Don’t keep us in suspense,” prompted Joe.
Isa opened her mouth to speak, but Martin cut her off, saying, “I do hope that was the last time Erin has to risk her life, Governor.”
“I expect that Erin will continue to do her job,” Tanis replied coolly.
“Exactly.” Erin nodded in agreement, not to placate Martin, but because she truly believed her words. “I’ve only ever done what I’m supposed to do. No one has deliberately put me in harm’s way, it’s just that we’re doing important work, and that’s where the risk is. I’m not going to give up on my life just because it can be dangerous and that makes you worry.”
Isa rolled her eyes. “Come on, guys. This isn’t the time or the place.”
“Actually,” Tanis said, “I believe it is. We can’t let this fester any longer.”
“Good,” said Martin. He leaned back and folded his arms, then looked at Tanis through narrowed eyes. “I’m glad to hear it.”
“Martin, I believe you remained in stasis for the entire journey from Sol. Is that right?”
“Yes. So what?”
“You don’t seem to understand our situation here. We possess the most powerful technology in the galaxy—a galaxy that has FTL and could send a million ships our way if they know where we are. Everyone out there wants what we have. Irony of ironies, the fact that we’re deep within the Transcend is what keeps us safe, but even they would swoop in and take what we have if they thought they could do it without staggering losses.
“Let me be blunt. Without the ‘risks’ that Erin and many others have taken, that would have already happened.
“The galaxy is a dangerous place, and there’s no hole we can hide in and not be found eventually. We left Sol, and it was destroyed, we left Victoria, and that world was destroyed. We’re not leaving New Canaan. This is where we make our stand. But I believe that we can prevail, that when trouble comes knocking, New Canaan will be ready. We’re going to surprise the hell out of anyone who thinks they can take us down—but we can only do that with our best and brightest doing their part.
“Do you understand?”
Martin didn’t reply, but his head dipped in a nod, and he shifted his gaze to Joe and then away.
Erin hoped it was a sign that he would finally see sense.
“Having said that,” Tanis continued, “I have a proposal to make that might seem a contradiction.”
Martin looked up, but Tanis was now looking at Erin.
“How did you feel about your diplomatic duties on your last assignment?” the governor asked.
“You mean avoiding saying what I really thought around the TSF’s engineers?”
“That’s exactly what I mean.”
“I hated it.”
“I thought you might say that.” Tanis paused. “I would say you did a good job nevertheless.”
Erin was silent, wondering where this was all going.
“We all know that the time when New Canaan must defend itself against attack is approaching,” said Tanis. “And after that, I may have to leave the system. Anyway, I cannot remain governor forever—someone else must take the reins eventually.”
Erin grew alarmed. She hoped Tanis wasn’t thinking what she thought she was thinking.
“Erin, I think you would make the perfect successor to my role.”
<Oh she got you!> Angela commented with a laugh that earned a scowl from Tanis, while Martin groaned and slowly shook his head.
“You want me to be…?” Erin’s voice rose to an embarrassing squeak. She coughed and deliberately lowered her pitch. “You want me to be governor?”
“Wow, Erin, that’s fantastic,” said Isa.
It was a genuine question. The notion that she might one day become governor of New Canaan had never entered her mind.
“But how will I get my real work done?” she asked.
Joe held a napkin to his mouth and failed to stifle his laughter with a fake cough. “That’s a fair point.”
“You’ll have to diversify,” said Tanis. “I can see I haven’t exactly sold it to you. To be clear, at the moment, it’s only a possibility. But think about it. Maybe the idea will grow on you.”
Erin’s eyes were wide with amazement as she looked first at Isa and then at Martin. Isa was surprised but smiling. Martin’s head remained down, and he continued to shake it.
“What are your plans, Martin?” Tanis asked.
He looked up, startled. “Me? I’m not sure. We’re all going to be busy for a while with the triplets. Probably quite a long while. I’ve been doing a little consulting work here and there since we returned from Troy, while I was waiting for something interesting to turn up.”
“Have you heard the latest reports from Athens?” Tanis asked the marine biologist.
“No, I haven’t. Why?”
“It’s not good. The excessive volcanic effluvium in the atmosphere is causing the planet’s air to cool rapidly, and making the exothermic extraction more difficult.”
“That’s a shame,” said Martin. “Athens is…was…a nice place.”
“It will be again,” Tanis said confidently. “And quite soon, I hope, due to Erin’s ingenuity in fixing the PETER. We’re working on cleaning the atmosphere right now. But sadly, our efforts will be too late to save many of the animals and plants.”
“The marine life should recover, if the temperatures begin to rise soon,” Martin reasoned.
“Yes, but not the land-dwelling species. I was thinking that replenishing the flora and fauna will be a challenging task. I know your specialty is marine ecosystems, but….”
“But what?” Martin asked.
“Martin,” said Isa, placing a hand on his arm. “I think Tanis is offering you a job working in Athens, repairing the damage to the ecosystems.”
“You want me to seed Athens’ landmasses?” Martin asked Tanis.
“If you would be interested.”
His eyes lit up. Erin noted that his concern over the prospect of her becoming governor had been pushed to one side.
“The plan for Athens’ wildlife is mostly prehistoric, right?” he asked.
“I believe so,” said Tanis.
“What an opportunity,” said Isa. “You should accept, Martin. I’m sure you’ll love it.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “I’m not sure that Athens is the kind of place I’d like to raise a family.”
“We wouldn’t have to live near the resorts,” said Erin. “We could find a quiet place out of town, like your beach house. But not in the Badlands. We definitely won’t live there.”
“I could open a gallery in Attica,” said Isa. “The tourists would love a change from the usual hot springs, surfing, and cocktails.”
“Okay, let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” said Martin, raising his hands. “One step at a time. But I’ll definitely think about it.”
Erin could see that, despite his cautious words, her husband was already contemplating the prospect of seeding Athens. Always driven to nurture and protect, he would find the project right up his alley. The terrestrial life of an entire planet might be sufficient to satiate his drive.
And, inspired by Athens’ astounding landscapes, Isa would open the most incredible interactive art gallery in New Canaan. Athens’ tourism trade would boom when the planet had something more to offer than its usual hedonistic activities.
Erin wondered how the next few years would pan out for herself, too. She could not imagine herself as governor of four planets, though Tanis’s faith in her was flattering. All she wanted to do at that moment was meet the three little girls she had created with Martin and Isa. After things had settled down from that momentous event, she would speak to Murry about a new AI partner. She felt she would be ready soon, though she would never forget Walter. Then maybe she could think more about the long-term future.
It was like Martin had said: one step at a time.
A man stands on a shoreline, watching three toddlers playing in the sand. The sun is setting, and waves are encroaching on an elaborate sandcastle that must have taken hours to construct. Turrets and tall spires rise from within the wide castle walls. Narrow streets wind between tiny houses, their roofs made of seashells. A single flag, made from a thin piece of driftwood and a scrap of cloth, stands at the center of the defensive fortress. Seaweed represents gardens within central atriums. Small sticks, that may or may not be the castle’s inhabitants, lie discarded, their story perhaps come to an end.
With each successive wave, a little more of the sandcastle is destroyed. The swell arrives, lapping a little higher than previously, and when it retreats, the grasping water drags down a house, or a wall, or erases a street. Slowly, the construction is being eaten and returned to the sea.
Eventually, nothing but flat sand will remain, and it will be as if the beautiful, complex sandcastle, lovingly made, never existed.
The three little girls have already forgotten the hours they spent building it with their father. They are happily jumping in the shallows. Perhaps there will be tears when they see the sandcastle is no more, but their tears will be quickly forgotten as they move on to their next game.
A short distance away from the man and farther out to sea, a young boy is balancing on a surfboard. He is several years older than his sisters and more independent. The boy paddles the board out beyond the breaking waves, and rides them in again, trying to stand on his board. He fails more often than he succeeds, and splashes into the water, but he is undeterred. He tries again and again.
Two women appear beyond him, swimming toward the shore. One of the women has short hair, the other has her long, black hair tied in a ponytail. They reach the shallow water, stand, and wade to the beach.
The toddlers see the women approach and squeal with excitement.
“Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,” they shout and run to the women.
The man and the boy also move toward them, though more slowly. Together, the family walks over the sand to a small house they built. It’s a simple place, but enough for their needs.
The man and the women, and others like them, have helped to build entire worlds, piece by piece, like the sandcastle. They’ve constructed buildings, laid roads, and built maglevs. They’ve made thriving, happy places where everyone can realize their dreams, and they called the system of worlds New Canaan.
But somewhere at the backs of the builders’ minds, they know their peace and contentment is a fragile, fleeting illusion. Enemies known and unknown are approaching, intent on stealing the riches of their system.
The family on the beach may only have a short time left.
War is coming.
* * * * *
THE BOOKS OF AEON 14
Keep up to date with what is releasing in Aeon 14 with the free Aeon 14 Reading Guide.
Origins of Destiny (The Age of Terra)
- Prequel: Storming the Norse Wind
- Prequel: Angel’s Rise: The Huntress (available on Patreon)
- Book 1: Tanis Richards: Shore Leave
- Book 2: Tanis Richards: Masquerade
- Book 3: Tanis Richards: Blackest Night
- Book 4: Tanis Richards: Kill Shot
The Intrepid Saga (The Age of Terra)
- Book 1: Outsystem
- Book 2: A Path in the Darkness
- Book 3: Building Victoria
- The Intrepid Saga Omnibus – Also contains Destiny Lost, book 1 of the Orion War series
- Destiny Rising – Special Author’s Extended Edition comprised of both Outsystem and A Path in the Darkness with over 100 pages of new content.
The Orion War
- Books 1-3 Omnibus (includes Ignite the Stars anthology)
- Book 1: Destiny Lost
- Book 2: New Canaan
- Book 3: Orion Rising
- Book 4: The Scipio Alliance
- Book 5: Attack on Thebes
- Book 6: War on a Thousand Fronts
- Book 7: Precipice of Darkness
- Book 8: Airtha Ascendancy
- Book 9: The Orion Front (2019)
- Book 10: Starfire (2019)
- Book 11: Race Across Spacetime (2019)
- Book 12: Return to Sol (2019)
Tales of the Orion War
- Book 1: Set the Galaxy on Fire
- Book 2: Ignite the Stars
- Book 3: Burn the Galaxy to Ash (2019)
Perilous Alliance (Age of the Orion War – w/Chris J. Pike)
- Book 1-3 Omnibus: Crisis in Silstrand
- Book 1: Close Proximity
- Book 2: Strike Vector
- Book 3: Collision Course
- Book 4: Impact Imminent
- Book 5: Critical Inertia
- Book 6: Impulse Shock
Rika’s Marauders (Age of the Orion War)
- Book 1-3 Omnibus: Rika Activated
- Prequel: Rika Mechanized
- Book 1: Rika Outcast
- Book 2: Rika Redeemed
- Book 3: Rika Triumphant
- Book 4: Rika Commander
- Book 5: Rika Infiltrator
- Book 6: Rika Unleashed
- Book 7: Rika Conqueror
Non-Aeon 14 Anthologies with Rika stories
The Genevian Queen (Age of the Orion War)
- Book 1: Rika Rising (2019)
- Book 2: Rika Coronated (2019)
- Book 3: Rika Reigns (2019)
Perseus Gate (Age of the Orion War)
Season 1: Orion Space
- Episode 1: The Gate at the Grey Wolf Star
- Episode 2: The World at the Edge of Space
- Episode 3: The Dance on the Moons of Serenity
- Episode 4: The Last Bastion of Star City
- Episode 5: The Toll Road Between the Stars
- Episode 6: The Final Stroll on Perseus’s Arm
- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: The Trail Through the Stars
- Eps 4-6 Omnibus: The Path Amongst the Clouds
Season 2: Inner Stars
- Episode 1: A Meeting of Bodies and Minds
- Episode 2: A Deception and a Promise Kept
- Episode 3: A Surreptitious Rescue of Friends and Foes
- Episode 4: A Victory and a Crushing Defeat
- Episode 5: A Trial and the Tribulations (2019)
- Episode 6: A Deal and a True Story Told (2019)
- Episode 7: A New Empire and An Old Ally (2019)
- Eps 1-3 Omnibus: A Siege and a Salvation from Enemies
The Warlord (Before the Age of the Orion War)
- Books 1-3 Omnibus: The Warlord of Midditerra
- Book 1: The Woman Without a World
- Book 2: The Woman Who Seized an Empire
- Book 3: The Woman Who Lost Everything
The Sentience Wars: Origins (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)
- Books 1-3 Omnibus: Lyssa’s Rise
- Book 1: Lyssa’s Dream
- Book 2: Lyssa’s Run
- Book 3: Lyssa’s Flight
- Book 4: Lyssa’s Call
- Book 5: Lyssa’s Flame
Legends of the Sentience Wars (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/James S. Aaron)
- Volume 1: The Proteus Bridge
- Volume 2: Vesta Burning
Enfield Genesis (Age of the Sentience Wars – w/Lisa Richman)
- Book 1: Alpha Centauri
- Book 2: Proxima Centauri
- Book 3: Tau Ceti
- Book 4: Epsilon Eridani (2019)
Hand’s Assassin (Age of the Orion War – w/T.G. Ayer)
- Book 1: Death Dealer
- Book 2: Death Mark (2019)
Machete System Bounty Hunter (Age of the Orion War – w/Zen DiPietro)
- Book 1: Hired Gun
- Book 2: Gunning for Trouble
- Book 3: With Guns Blazing
Vexa Legacy (Age of the FTL Wars – w/Andrew Gates)
- Book 1: Seas of the Red Star
Building New Canaan (Age of the Orion War – w/J.J. Green)
- Book 1: Carthage
- Book 2: Tyre
- Book 3: Troy
- Book 4: Athens
Fennington Station Murder Mysteries (Age of the Orion War)
- Book 1: Whole Latte Death (w/Chris J. Pike)
- Book 2: Cocoa Crush (w/Chris J. Pike)
The Empire (Age of the Orion War)
- Book 1: The Empress and the Ambassador (2019)
- Book 2: Consort of the Scorpion Empress (2019)
- Book 3: By the Empress’s Command (2019)
The Sol Dissolution (The Age of Terra)
- Book 1: Venusian Uprising (2019)
- Book 2: Scattered Disk (2019)
- Book 3: Jovian Offensive (2019)
- Book 4: Fall of Terra (2019)
OTHER BOOKS BY J.J. GREEN
Shadows of the Void
- Book 1: Generation
- Book 2: Stranded
- Book 3: Dawn
- Book 4: Shadowrise
- Book 5: Underworld
- Book 6: Burned
- Book 7: Trapped
- Book 8: Mars Born
- Book 9: Shadow Battle
- Book 10: Shadow War
Star Mage Saga
- Book 1: Daughter of Discord
- Book 2: Dark Mage Rises
- Book 3: Wildfire and Steel (Winter 2018)
Space Colony One
- Book 1: The Concordia Deception
- Book 2: The Fila Epiphany
- Book 3: The Scythian Crisis
Carrie Hatchett, Space Adventurer
- Book 1: Mission Improbable
- Book 2: Passage to Paradise
- Book 3: Transgalactic Antics
- Book 4: Wrong Side of Time
- Book 5: Carrie’s Calamity
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
J.J. Green was born in London's East End within range of the sound of the church bells of St. Mary Le Bow, Cheapside, which makes her a bona fide Cockney. She first left the U.K. as a young adult and has lived in Australia and Laos. She currently lives in Taipei, Taiwan, with her family and a black cat called Black Cat. When she isn’t writing, she entertains the locals with her efforts to learn Mandarin.
Find out about her latest shenanigans at her website: www.jjgreenauthor.com
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Michael Cooper likes to think of himself as a jack-of-all-trades (and hopes to become master of a few). When not writing, he can be found writing software, working in his shop at his latest carpentry project, or likely reading a book.
He shares his home with a precocious young girl, his wonderful wife (who also writes), two cats, a never-ending list of things he would like to build, and ideas…
Find out what’s coming next at www.aeon14.com