Book: Erebus



Erebus







This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialog are products of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 Ralph Kern

Published by Tickety Boo Press Ltd

www.ticketyboopress.co.uk

Edited by Jennifer L Carson

Cover Art by Gary Compton

Book Design by Big River Press Ltd




Erebus

by

Ralph Kern

Book Two

Sleeping Gods

Published by Tickety Boo Press Ltd



Acknowledgements

I have many people to thank for helping me to write this book.

The first goes to my long-suffering editor, Jennifer, who has shown immense patience and skill in the hard work she has put into this novel.

Caroline, who has learned the hard way about putting up with an author.

Andy, a constant reminder that in order to have a healthy mind, one needs a healthy body.

James, who really should take up a job as an agent.

Allison, who did a fine job of proofreading on horribly short notice over the holidays.

The many beta readers who test drove the novel and provided constructive critique.

The good people of the SFF Chronicles, a fantastic forum for authors both established and budding to bounce ideas off of each other.

And last, but definitely not least, the readers of Endeavour, who have been both supportive and patient.










Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.

Martin Luther King, J







Prologue

“Just what the hell is that?”

Jerry Mitchell knew the first sign of madness may well have been talking to himself, but he considered it a prerogative of being a deep-space service tender pilot to be a little crazy. After all, who else would want to spend weeks in a ship with as much volume as your average bathroom? Seeing things, though? Now that was a stage too far, even for him.

He pulled himself into his seat in the cramped cockpit of the Longhorn and played with the controls on the main view screen, trying to get what he’d glimpsed into sharp focus.

“Dammit,” he grunted. The Longhorn had moved relative to the tiny rock and the…thing had swept out of view, rotating to the other side of the potato-shaped asteroid-moon.

“Okay, not a problem.” He reached over his shoulder and felt for the harness strap. Finding it floating behind him, he clicked the fitting into place.

Wrapping his mitten-clad fingers around the joystick, he yawed the tiny craft around, hearing the bangs of the thrusters. Through the cockpit window, the bloated purple world of Akarga swept across his view, the vast gas giant’s rings set at an angle from his position. Steadily, Iwa, a captured asteroid-turned-moon, appeared in the center of his screen.

“There you are. Okay, okay, let’s go take a look.”

Jerry fired a positioning laser at the rock and squinted at the stream of numbers on his heads-up display. The HUD showed relative velocity, distance, and revolutions of the rock. Yeah, he could make the rendezvous easily enough. The main reason he had come so close to the rock was that someone back at Twilight Garden had figured that the asteroid with Akarga in the background would make a good photo opportunity. Now he’d just get a little closer than expected.

He rubbed his mittened hands together, excited to be doing something—and off schedule, too; it was a rare experience in the tightly controlled world of deep-space exploration.

The Longhorn began thrusting slowly toward Iwa. With one eye watching the numbers, Jerry grunted in satisfaction as they reached the expected values, which showed that he was on track.

“Here, I think.” The Longhorn had settled in, following in the asteroid-moon’s orbital track as it endlessly circled Akarga. Jerry fired the forward engine, bringing the ship to a halt relative to Iwa. Now he just had to wait a few minutes for the rock to rotate.

Leaning back in his seat, he began drumming his fingers, squinting at the monitor image from his small telescope. Then he saw it on the horizon of Iwa: a tall building—a tower, maybe? No, more like one of those oriental buildings…what did they call them?

Pagodas.

Jerry gave a long, low whistle. A pagoda on an asteroid orbiting a gas giant that circled Sirius, a star eight light-years from Sol. An asteroid that no one had ever visited before.

***

The flight deck recording of the Longhorn’s mission to Akarga turned off. The men and women seated around the conference table, some of the most powerful people in the Sol system, looked at each other with the piercing, glowing eyes of the Enhanced.

“Fascinating,” Patrice said finally. She had been gripped by the recording, but her face took on a troubled expression, and not just because she, the Voice of the Linked, had voluntarily vaulted herself from the rest of her people for this meeting. “However, the time stamp indicates this is from 2156. I have to ask, has this just come to your attention, or have you been sitting on this for the last forty-six years?”

The host turned from the window where he stood looking over the darkening skyline of superscrapers and regarded her with his electric-blue eyes before letting them wash across the boardroom.

The fact that these people were here by his request testified to his own political power. But like all such things, he could lose that power in a heartbeat. And being implicated in one of the greatest conspiracies in history? That could easily prove his undoing.

“Yes, Voice Patrice. I knew about this only eight years after it was discovered, the earliest I could know about it.” The volume of the murmuring from around the table rose.

Patrice’s voice rose above the others. “Keeping quiet the discovery of the first technological alien artifact is a gross violation of the Outer Space Treaty—something you can spend a long time in jail for.”

The man held his hands out and the noise subsided. “I’ve cashed in on many favors to get you into this room. I need you to hear the whole story before you start talking about arresting me.”

“You have asked me to keep this meeting private from the Link,” Patrice snapped. “I am going to struggle, in good conscience, to do so.”

The host settled into his chair and looked at her earnestly. “Let me finish my story, Voice. Then, by all means, you and everyone in this room can do with the information what you will.”

Patrice leaned back and looked at him calmly. “As you say, you’ve cashed in many favors to get us into this room. We will hear you out, but you do know this cannot be kept secret?”

“Thank you, and I know.” The host nodded at her in gratitude. “For you to understand everything I am going to tell you, I need to give you context. I am sending you another file. It is the recording from one Layton Trent’s HUD. Some of you may know him as being one of the investigators of the Io Incident of 2183.”

“The Io Incident? What has that to do with this…artifact?” one of the men at the table asked, confusion in his tone.

“As I say, my friend, context.”

And if you didn’t like the violation of the Outer Space Treaty, the host thought, you’re going to hate this next part.













PART ONE 2183 CE







Chapter 1

2183 CE—Sahelia, the Karen Cole Hospital

Murder is easy. It’s just the pull of a trigger, the thrust of a knife, or the push of a button. Yes, murder is definitely easy. It’s the getting away with it that’s hard. It’s my job to make sure bad people don’t get away with it.

I knelt down in the dust next to the charred remains of the body, the stench of burnt flesh in my nostrils. The bandits in this area couldn’t take on a combat-enhanced UN peacekeeper in a straight fight, so they’d become creative. A wire net had been thrown over Corporal Tenby, connected up to a power source they’d salvaged from some old vehicle, and they’d let it fry his armor. Then they’d cooked him, literally, with gasoline and home-brewed thermite. He would have had long minutes to realize what was happening. Sometimes it was a curse how well modern combat armor could protect you.

Death hadn’t been the end of it, either. Not by a long shot. They’d butchered Tenby. His implants had been crudely carved out of his body and his weapons stolen.

His teammate had suffered a similar fate. The final two members of his squad had been taken out in their sleep in their sparse quarters. Hopefully that was quicker than what had happened to Tenby.

“You okay, Dev?” I asked, squinting up to where my partner stood over me. Jacques Deveraux was a veteran police officer, like me. But he was newly attached to War Crimes and the brutality and callous horrors of these kinds of places.

Dev rubbed the designer stubble coating his chin, which had, in the last day, grown out a bit more than was fashionable. “Yes, it’s just different to home, you know?”

“I know.” It was indeed. This was Dev’s first field deployment for The Hague. It didn’t get much more different from the cosmopolitan streets of Paris than this. “Come on, we’ve got a job to do.” I stood up from the sandy floor and dusted my knees clean. Squinting from the brightness of the oppressive African sun, I looked over at the gutted shell of what would have been loosely called, in its heyday, a hospital.

Our liaison came out of the hospital, picking her way through the still-smoldering, blackened, rib-like spars of the single-story building, calling orders at her troops before walking over to me. Her armor’s active camouflage blended with the background, adapting as she moved. The effect was surreal, like watching a disembodied head balanced on a figure-shaped heat shimmer.

“They’re inside?” I asked, knowing the answer already but needing it confirmed.

“Yes, Inspector Trent. Everyone is accounted for. Seven staff, four patients, and the UN troops, of course.” Captain Ava Phillips’s voice had an Australian twang, the kind that made you think of beaches and surfing. She deactivated her camouflage, revealing pristine dark battle armor. I nodded and gave the ruined corpse at my feet a final look. The soldier had died a long way from home in a land that people were calling more and more to be left to its own devices.

I activated my link, requesting my boss, Captain Giselle Allard, back at The Hague. I saw her face appear on the HUD of my eye implants. “Morning, Giselle,” I said. I couldn’t keep the edge from my voice. “It’s confirmed. We’ve got fifteen here. Their kit and implants have gone, too. If it’s not all on the black market yet, it soon will be.”

“Christ, Layton, how the hell did they get the drop on these guys?” the neatly suited officer asked, her silky French accent not quite masking the cool anger of her tone. Behind her, I could see The Hague office walls.

“I’ll send you the pics. It was an ambush. Looks like they disabled the troops’ armor with some kind of contraption they jury-rigged together. I’m guessing they got the idea from the Hypernet then they torched them.”

“Okay,” she winced. “What do you need?”

“We’ll start with the basics. Do we have a forensics team in this neck of the woods?”

“Stand by.” She went quiet on me, looking down at something out of my view. “The closest we’ve got is back here, and they have a pretty full workload. Would you be happy with some local talent? I hear Cairo has some pretty decent folks.”

I mulled it over a second, trying to dredge up from memory whether I’d seen them in action. I couldn’t recall if I had. “Could they take something like this on?”

“Yeah, they’re good. I’ll make sure I get you someone who’s qualified on our forensic procedures.”

As long as they were cross-trained in FOREC, the international forensic standard, then it shouldn’t make that much difference. “Main thing I need from you guys is a review of the local satellite coverage. I want to see if we can get a track on the bandits’ movements around the time all this happened. It can’t hurt to check the local Hypernet listings, too. Have a look and see if anyone’s trying to sell weapons or technology that looks like it belongs to our victims.”

“I’ll get right on it, Layton. I’ll link you back when I have something.” Her face disappeared from my view.

Dev and I, together with Captain Phillips, walked into the smoky, gutted shell of the hospital. In the reception area a malfunctioning hologram flickered, showing a life-sized, dark-haired Karen Cole, the doctor this place was named after. She had been the second person to set foot on Eden in the Tau Ceti star system. After returning home, she had come here to “find herself” and spent months working in this hellhole before setting off thirty-five years ago on another trip to some other star. Karen Cole was an impressive woman and a living legend.

“What do we have here, Captain?”

“What you would expect.” She gestured around with her gauntleted hand. “The pharmacy is cleared out. Any portable equipment of value has been taken, and the bastards ripped the implants from the people before torching the whole place.”

Pursing my lips, we walked through the still-smoldering building. “I presume you’ve set up a perimeter? I have a forensics team coming in and don’t want anything disturbed more than it already has been.”

“Already underway, Inspector.”

I nodded at her. She was a picture of competence, her calm authority reassuring.

“This is where they were locked in.” Phillips pointed at a door that one of her troops had smashed off its heat-blackened hinges in the vain hope of finding someone alive within. As we stepped inside, I could see that the fire damage had opened up the roof, and bright sunlight streamed into the interior. Charred corpses filled the room in tangled heaps; the smell of burnt flesh was nauseating. “Ever since we confirmed there were no survivors, no one has been inside.”

Looking around the room from the door, I admired her optimism in hoping that someone had still been alive. “Good work, Captain. Let’s clear out and leave it to the forensics team.”

Phillips nodded and turned, the servos and motors of her armor quietly whirring. Together, we walked back out onto the dusty car park outside. A small chime rang in my ear, and I accepted the link. I heard Giselle’s voice. “Layton, the team from Cairo is loading up on a hypersonic bounce as we speak. They’ll be down to you in a couple of hours.”

“Good. We should hold off on contacting families until they can confirm IDs on the bodies.”

“Agreed,” Giselle responded. “How are our Australian friends taking it?”

I looked across at Phillips, her lips pressed together in a thin line, the only outward sign of her cold anger. “About as well as can be expected. When we find these guys, I suspect they are going to start regretting their choice of career real quick.”

“Yeah, well I’ve just heard. Canberra has cut Captain Phillips her orders. She has carte blanche to go after them. The Aussies are going unilateral. They want scalps and don’t care who they piss off getting them.”

Phillips had moved away from us, her head cocked in that way many people did when they listened in on their link implants.

“Yeah, looks like she’s getting the news now,” I said. “See what you can do about getting that sat-track done.”

Closing the link, I turned and walked back to our VTOL aircraft. It was sleek and black with its camouflage armor deactivated. Because of its vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, it was well suited to these kinds of third-world environments. It could come and go just about anywhere, whether from an airport or in a desert.

***

Captain Phillips had done a good job of making sure that no one could get near the hospital while Dev and I busied ourselves in the VTOL making a hell of a lot of links. We had a lot of things to sort out, everything from ensuring that the bodies would get repatriated as soon as possible to making sure that my investigation log was updated with our every action. Hopefully we would catch the bad guys who did this at some point and put them before a tribunal. Every I needed to be dotted and every T crossed.

I heard the chime of a priority link, and my boss’s ID appeared on my HUD. “What’s up, Giselle?”

“We’ve got something from the sat-track on these shits. We think we have one of them.”

Now that piqued my interest. Every inch of Earth’s surface was monitored by satellites twenty-four/seven, but it was mostly a passive thing. The satellites watched, but no one watched the watchers. Giselle had had her staff going through who had what orbiting over Sahelia at the time we knew the hospital had been torched (around two days ago) then getting warrants to access the satellite archives. An image appeared in my eyes as I accepted a request to share information from Giselle.

“We’ve managed to track the group. They used four vehicles, minibuses of some description by the look of them. Twenty bandits in total. They did what they did and then hauled ass back to Er Rahad, a town about fifteen miles due west of your current position.”

“You managed to keep them tagged?”

“Carry on watching. See the guy with the god-awful Mohawk? Keep an eye on him.” I focused on the image, the rest of the world fading from my perception. A circle appeared around the man, a strip of black hair visible on his otherwise bald head.

“They head into Er Rahad,” Giselle continued. “I’m presuming these shits have some kind of awareness of sat-tracks since they drive to the local bazaar, ditch the vehicles, and get under cover. The majority of them seem to have changed clothes, and I lose them all except for Mohawk. This guy clearly doesn’t like a hat messing with his hairdo.”

I watched as Mohawk made his way out from under the cover of a market stall, walked along a bustling street, and entered a building. “That seems to be where he’s staying for the time being. It’s some kind of boardinghouse. He’s in and out of there over the last day. Possibly he’s the group’s fixer. He’s inside now.” On the map, a ping showed his location—places like Er Rahad didn’t exactly have street names.

“Thanks, boss. We’re going to go get him.” I turned to Dev, the real world bleeding back into my awareness. “The wheels are in motion, my friend. You up for this?”

Dev looked through the VTOLs window at the smoldering wreckage of the hospital. “Damn right I am.”







Chapter 2

Er Rahad

Captain Phillips had brought with her a team of enhanced soldiers from the Australian 2nd Commando, a hardened bunch who had fought in every major conflict from the three Gulf Wars through the Second Korean and onto the Siberian Crisis. They were not a bunch to be messed with. They had a lot of skills, counter insurgency, high-tech operations, and the like, but there were still only nine of them, including the captain herself.

To make up numbers, we had met up with another contingent from the international peacekeeping force. These were from the Congolese Defense Force and were led by a Captain Otanga, a bear of a man who had a voice with a deep rumbling resonance that was felt as much as heard.

The CDF unit had a technical support element attached to it. They didn’t exactly have cutting-edge equipment, but more than enough to do this job. We were packed into the company’s armored command carrier, sweat pouring off us even though dusk was falling. They seriously needed to top up the air con on this thing.

I watched the main screen as one of Otanga’s men deftly controlled a mosquito, a tiny recon drone made up to look like its namesake. It was an odd experience; everyone and everything seemed massive on the screen. Doors were monolithic moving buildings, and the odd person still on the street, a gargantuan giant.

Flying in through an open window of the building, we saw that we were in some kind of dingy hotel bar, although, like everything in this war-torn country, that name was generous. It was a dive, low lights, lots of ugly chaps lounging around with prostitutes draped over them. Some of them were not even waiting to go somewhere private to earn their keep.

“There he is,” Otanga said, pointing at the screen. Sure enough, Mohawk was reclining in a seat, feeling the need to wear sunglasses even in the dark room. He cut an imposing figure, a vest top showing off heavily muscled arms, a bullet dangling from a necklace, and lots of scars. Back home, he’d be a total fashion victim. In a place like this, where intimidation was the main currency, he was a rich man. The mosquito settled down next to him just as a gaunt drug-ravaged woman sat up from under the table, wiping her mouth.

“He’s a classy bastard,” I muttered as he threw the hooker’s money on the floor. She scrambled to pick it up as he swiftly knocked back whatever he was drinking in a single gulp. Standing, he zipped himself up and made his way to the stairs.

“Follow him.” The mosquito lifted off and tracked Mohawk as he trudged up the steps and walked down the filthy corridor to a door. The mosquito managed to dart inside with him just before he slammed it shut.

The room was as squalid as the rest of the place: stained sheets, piles of dirty clothes, and just to complete the look, a rifle leaning against the wall, an AK-86S. The damn thing was probably a hundred years old, but they were cheap, and you could buy them almost anywhere.

Mohawk stretched his arms out and gave a gaping yawn before turning and looking straight at the mosquito. With a speed that belied his steroidal size, he slapped it out of the air. The drone spiraled to the floor, the room spinning dizzyingly on the screen before it hit the deck.

The corporal controlling the mosquito tried to get it flying again. He managed to hop it around till it was looking at Mohawk who was staring at his hand in confusion. He seemed to have realized that what he had hit was not the soft body of an insect, but something more solid. A massive knee planted itself down in front of the camera and again the view twisted sickeningly as he lifted it up between his finger and thumb. We were treated to a close-up of a bloodshot eye dilated from some kind of narcotic. Seconds later, the mosquito was under his boot heel.

We’d been made.









Chapter 3

Er Rahad

We pulled our tactical helmets on. My HUD interfaced with the opaque visor, which allowed me to see the world through the solid battle steel. Dev slid the carrier door open and jumped out. As I followed close behind, I sensed that Phillips was on our heels. Just as we jogged into view of the hotel, I saw a figure crash out of a window onto a neighboring rooftop.

“Get more mosquitos up,” I shouted into the com as we began running along the street parallel to where Mohawk was parkouring. The guy was fast and had scant regard for his own safety as he ran across the shanty-building rooftops. Phillips, behind me, was wearing military-grade battle armor and wasn’t as quick as Dev and me in our peacekeeper scout suits, which were Hague standard issue for deployment. It was still protective; it just didn’t come with all the bells and whistles that Phillips’s did.

I drew my sidearm, a Viking 20 Dual, and set it to incapacitation rounds, or incaps. I sighted toward Mohawk as he ran, my eye implants automatically interfacing with the gun. I led him with my aim and squeezed the trigger just as he vaulted over a low rooftop wall out of site. A blue flash sparked on the wall. “Damn,” I muttered; a clean miss.

My HUD tactical map showed an alley where Mohawk must have landed. Dev sprinted ahead of me to its mouth between two decrepit buildings. I heard trash bins being knocked over as I got to the dark entrance. A stream of bullets hissed by. I slammed against the wall, taking cover. Dev did the same on the other side.

“You okay?” I called to my partner.

“Yeah,” he answered, his own sidearm out and pointed down.

Swapping my gun to my left hand, I eased it round the corner and used my HUD to interface with the camera on the barrel. Mohawk was climbing over a fence at the end of the alley. “Otanga, where are your men? We were supposed to have this place locked down.”

“It’s a rabbit warren,” his voice came over my link. “I’m sending my men to head him off. The mosquito is heading for you.”

I looked back and saw Phillips running up the street, still some distance behind. Her suit was more like a personal tank than our own more agile kit.

“Let’s go,” Dev said, setting off down the alleyway. I dashed after him. Dev vaulted the fence like an Olympic athlete; I hauled myself over and crashed down on the other side. A snarling dog turned from snapping at my partner’s heels and charged at me. I scrambled back. The beast reached the end of its chain and was yanked back, barking and drooling in fury. Christ, I hate dogs. Idiot! I thought as I remembered that I was wearing scout armor. Let the bloody mutt break his teeth on my leg if it wants to. Still, I skirted it a little wider than I had to.

By the time I started running after Dev, Mohawk had charged out of the alley and turned right. Dev was hot on his heels. I heard an almighty crash behind me, and I glanced back. Phillips had decided to take the less subtle approach of charging through the fence, an easy task for someone in servo-assisted battle armor. Even the dog knew better than to give her any grief; it backed away, whimpering.

As I rounded the corner after Mohawk, he turned and gave a wild burst of gunfire at us. He hit potluck; a round smashed into my chest, knocking me on my arse. It had no chance of penetrating my peacekeeper armor, but still, it felt like someone had slammed a sledge hammer into my chest. Picking myself up, I grabbed my gun from where it had fallen and aimed it again. Too late; he had turned another corner. Dev jumped out from behind the cover of a car and sprinted after him. Wincing from the shot, I set off again.

I heard a buzz and saw the blip of a mosquito on my HUD as it raced past me. The tiny drone was equipped with a tranquilizer “bite.” As long as the operator got it to him, he should be able to take Mohawk down.

Mohawk ran up the street just as one of Otanga’s military carriers screeched to a halt in front of him. The sound of shouting came from it as soldiers began to pour out of it. Mohawk skidded to a stop and looked around. Dev stopped, bringing his gun up. Mohawk dashed for another alley, and Dev abandoned the shot. Too many troops were in the line of fire. Mohawk dashed into a dark alley. Dev and I raced after him.

As I entered the alley, I could see Dev ahead. My eye implants tried to gain a fix on where Mohawk was but drew a blank. There was a lot of crap in the alleyway—bins, crates, piles of rubbish, and the stink of stale piss. My nose twitched, and I gave a mental command, amping up the filtration system on my helmet. The wall at the other end looked too high to easily get over. We had him cornered. The mosquito hovered, its own limited sensors probing the hiding places.

“Got him?” I called.

“No. He’s in here somewhere, though,” Dev panted back.

“Fine, let’s withdraw, cover the entrances, and wait for the cav—”

A light blared in the sky, washing the darkness from the alleyway, creating a burning contrast. A loud crackle came over my link implant and my vision skewed crazily as my retinal implants fired spurious signals straight into my visual cortex. A cascade of random images and letters appeared in my vision. The outside world went black as the visor completely shut down, blinding me as it turned opaque. I ripped the helmet off my head, still dazzled by my malfunctioning HUD. I closed my eyes, trying to find the mental command to reboot my implants.

“What the fuck?” I heard Dev cry out.

Finally I managed to switch my HUD off, leaving my visual spectrum naked. It was the first time I’d seen the world without my HUD in years. It was surprising, shocking, and ironically unnatural. I had no constant feed of extra information washing into my brain, no communication windows, not even the damn clock hovering unobtrusively in the corner of my vision—nothing.

The light died…and then I saw him—Mohawk, standing by Dev, a vicious machete glinting in his right hand. And my partner was still on one knee, shaking his head, trying to clear his implants, his own helmet on the floor next to him.

Mohawk must have been a Natural; he wasn’t debilitated by the blast of light. To him, it would be no more than a flare.

Mohawk raised the machete. Dev looked up. I heard him say—not shout, not plead, just say—“No.”

Where the hell was my gun? I’d dropped it in my confusion. I reached into my harness and grabbed my extendable baton, flicking it out to full length. I took a shaky step forward…too slow…

I saw the machete swinging down in an arc of unstoppable force. I saw Dev on his knees, a man about to be executed. I saw the look on his face as he stared up to meet his fate.

The blade cleaved into my partners head with a sickening thud. Mohawk planted his foot on Dev’s shoulder and pushed, pulling his blade free with a sucking noise. The body fell to the ground.

Mohawk charged at me, crossing the distance quickly, and the bloody machete arced toward my own head. By luck, judgment, or instinct, I put the baton up. The blade sparked against it with a crackle of electricity. Mohawk dropped the machete with an agonized cry.

He clutched his stunned hand and looked at me with his bloodshot eyes, his pupils dilated and full of rage. He knew it was over. I pressed the tip of the baton into his chest. Every muscle in his body locked up as the smell of ozone infused the air. He fell to the dusty ground, rigid.

Instinct and training definitely took over. All I wanted to do was go to Dev, but I kicked the machete away, rolled Mohawk onto his front, and pulled his arms into a pair of flexicuffs.

Dev’s body was slumped into the dirt in a fetal position. I ran to him and knelt down beside him. The wound was horrendous, his head brutally cleaved. I doubted his implants could have helped with an injury of that magnitude even had they been functional. With them offline…not a chance.

Against all rational hope, I checked for a pulse. Nothing. He was gone. I saw Dev’s gun lying next to him where he had dropped it. Picking it up, I regarded it for a moment. I flicked the switch from the blue dot indicating incap rounds to the red of lethal and looked over to Mohawk, lying unconscious on the floor. A deep rage filled me. I stood and walked toward him.

“Trent.” I glanced back, but only for a moment. Phillips was in the mouth of the alley. She stood there in a black one-piece underlay suit, rifle in hand. Her armor was a splayed open statue behind her. She’d abandoned it; probably the more advanced systems were just as disabled as our implants. Even her glowing blue eyes were dulled; her HUD was off.

Those eyes flicked between Mohawk, Dev’s body, and the gun in my hand. She cocked her head, slightly.

“Layton, don’t,” she said simply. “We need him.”

Mohawk gave a groan on the floor. I wanted to kill him for what he’d just done. For what he did at the hospital. For all the other crimes he had undoubtedly committed.

I clicked the selector switch on my gun to green and lowered my arm. We had a job to do. I was a cop, not an executioner, and Phillips was right. We did need him.

***

The barbed-wire-topped blast walls and rugged but tired old buildings made the local UN base look more like a sprawling medieval castle than the military base it was. I guess that was kind of fortunate as it was called “the Keep” by the contingent running it.

I was watching Mohawk—or Beda Kumba, as it turned out he was actually called—through the observation glass. He sat in one of the interview rooms, still cuffed. One of the peacekeepers had tried to take them off earlier, but Kumba had given them such a fight, he had gotten himself stunned again for his trouble.

The holotank in the corner had CNN playing. The well-coiffured news anchor had an image of Jupiter on the screen behind him. “…It appears to have come from the Jupiter system. Two-way communication will take two hours. At the moment, we have no information as to what has caused the flare; however, it appears to have put out a substantial electro-magnetic pulse. The EM pulse is what caused the temporary disruption to services and implants. The full extent of the damage is still being assessed. Most space and aircraft are now back online and in contact, and reported casualties, for the moment, are light…”

Not light enough, I thought. The event couldn’t have come at a worse time for Dev. Even now, the young officer’s body was downstairs, preserved in cold storage in the Keep’s morgue along with the other corpses from the Karen Cole Hospital.

The last few days had been a whirlwind—losing contact with the hospital, a reconnaissance flight, the burning wreckage, getting bounced to Sahelia from The Hague, the casualties, the events of the last few hours.

And Dev…

It had only taken a couple of minutes for my HUD to reset, and I had full functionality back. On the VTOL back to the Keep, I had been in touch with a confused Giselle. She had no more information on the event than what was on the news. She had blanched when I had told what had happened to Dev. She knew him as well as I did; she’d recruited him from her old team in Paris, after all.

For now, though, we still had a job to do.

“Judge Thompsen approved the ERP,” Giselle said.

“Thompsen?” I raised an eyebrow. He was notorious among investigators for being overly diligent and tough in granting authority to use intrusive questioning techniques like event response potential mapping.

Giselle nodded. “To be honest, I don’t think he read the request with his usual thoroughness with what’s going on in space.” Her voice became softer. “I must ask, Layton. Do you want off this job?”

“Not a bloody chance.” I looked again at Kumba in the observation room.

“Protocol says you should be. Look, someone has to bring Dev home.”

“Maybe,” I said. “But this is quick time, now. When the rest of Kumba’s group realize he’s missing, they’ll move. We need to get their location out of him and go in fast.”

“Very well.” Giselle’s voice was uncharacteristically uncertain. “Do it. You know the procedure. You have to give him one more chance to answer on his own.”

“Fine.” I opened the heavy metal door and stepped into the interview room. My fists clenched to bottle down the sheer hatred I felt for the man.

“Where are your friends?” I said to him. I almost impressed myself with the calm in my voice. “You know, the ones who murdered fifteen people on a humanitarian mission.”

“Fuck you!” The ball of phlegm that he launched at me in reply only narrowly missed.

I turned and went back into the observation room, letting the door slam shut behind me. “I asked him.”

“And?” Giselle prompted.

“He declined to answer my question.” There, protocol served.

“Okay, I’m sending the warrant through now.”

I saw an envelope icon ping into existence on the corner of my visual field, showing I’d received a HUDmail. I looked over at the tech in the observation room and forwarded it onto her. “This is the warrant to ERP Kumba, if you’d be so kind as to look at it.”

She nodded and paused, probably scanning through the document before linking to The Hague to confirm the authenticator code on it.

Before long, Kumba was pinned down and having a cocktail of drugs, scopolamine, barbiturates, and various other things I couldn’t even pronounce pumped into his system. It chilled him out—a lot.

The problem with truth drugs was that, to be blunt, they were useless. Depending on the person and the cocktail, some subjects resisted the drugs outright while others became too eager to please, in which case they simply said what you wanted to hear or, frankly, just talked gibberish. None of those were of any use to us. The beauty of ERPing was that it reduced resistance while raising electrical activity in the brain. That electrical activity was what we were really interested in.

Phillips, Otanga, and I stood in the observation booth watching the tech work. When the drugs had taken hold fully, the tech clamped Kumba’s head into the boxy sensor helmet and began asking control questions. As she worked, she glanced at a monitor showing his brain activity and occasionally nodded in satisfaction.

For over an hour with one eye on the monitor, the tech asked endless questions, some as simple as what day of the week it was or his mother’s maiden name. Sometimes she asked twice. All the while, Kumba answered in a lethargic voice, a vacant smile on his face. I started on some paperwork through my HUD while the two captains with me discussed tactical options and military logistics for when we tracked down Kumba’s group. Eventually the tech stood up, went to the window, and tapped lightly on the glass before giving a thumbs-up. She was ready for the interview proper.

She had a map of Kumba’s event response potentials, the neuroelectrical activity in his brain. Whatever he might say—or in fact not say—was completely irrelevant. It was which synapses were flaring when we asked our questions that we were interested in. By a lot of technical wizardry, we could then convert that activity into answers for what we wanted to know.

I closed down the paperwork I was doing as Phillips and Otanga went silent.

“How many of you are in your group?” The tech asked in a calm, measured voice.

Mohawk stayed silent, his eyes tracking around the bare brick walls of the room with a vague look of euphoria in them. I had no doubt right now he was a happy man. I could only hope the comedown was hard on him. The answer popped up on the screen.

22

Interesting. I guess they had left a couple of guys at home.

“What weapons are your group equipped with?” A trickier question to answer. Sometimes the ERPing got verbal responses like the 22, sometimes it got images. This time, a series of weapon silhouettes appeared on the screen. Some of them looked vaguely familiar: AK86s like Mohawk had and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. It was all fairly low-tech stuff, other than a few they had probably stolen, including the four dead peacekeepers’ weapons.

“Where is your group located?” Again, the equipment interpreted the response in the best way. A satellite map appeared and focused on a small collection of buildings just north of the small town marked Er Rahad.

“Were you part of the attack on the Karen Cole Hospital?”

Yes appeared on the screen.

“Did you kill anyone at the Karen Cole Hospital?”

Yes

Phillips leaned forward in her chair, a cold but hungry look in her eyes.

“Why did you attack the hospital?”

Money

At least the guy wasn’t some fanatic; he was simply a greedy, murderous thief.







Chapter 4

Sahelia, West of Er Rahad

War Crimes Investigation at The Hague. When I’d seen the ad on the Hypernet to do a stretch in War Crimes, I’d spoken to my boss. He got all enthusiastic about it. He thought an attachment, a stint away from my then current assignment, would be good for me. “Go see the world for a couple of years, Layton. Get something on your resume that no one else has, and by the time you get back to the Met, they will practically be begging to give you your third pip.” The first part I’d liked, but I had one little problem with the second bit. I didn’t even like being an inspector that much, let alone going for further promotion. It involved far too much damn admin and not enough actual being a police officer.

War Crimes was different. I got out on the frontlines. I’d managed to stretch my two-year attachment to twice that. Now, I was desperately hoping—beyond making sure someone, somewhere, sorted my pension contributions—the Met would eventually forget about me and leave me at The Hague. It was probably wishful thinking, but so far, so good.

It was a strange business. I spent a lot of time dealing with military types as, by definition, a war crime tended to happen in a war zone. That made it a heady mix of old-fashioned policing combined with sending in the troops to do the dirty work. I didn’t get to feel too many collars. Kumba was an exception, not the rule, but enough to sate my thirst for the simple joy of tracking down some of the nastiest pieces of work on the planet. Sometimes it was nice to be a cog in the machine.

The commando team was all in position around the bandit camp, ready to go. We’d discovered a nasty surprise: a cheap but effective jammer in a building near the center, probably another design from one of the many anarchist sites on the Hypernet. It wasn’t a powerful device, but then, it didn’t exactly take a lot to disable the mosquito drones. We couldn’t simply flood the area with the little buggers and let them tranquilize the targets. We were going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.

We had flown the Australian commandos’ sleek VTOL low and slow through the mountains in the predawn darkness and landed a few miles away from the squalid collection of wooden buildings nestled in the desert. There, we had met up with Otanga’s company, who had driven to the area in their carriers. All the pieces were in place.

The plan Phillips and Otanga had come out with was, like all good ones, simple. Otanga’s men would set up an outer cordon to prevent anyone from escaping the area. The Australian team would go in and disable the jammer. Then we could tranquilize them with the mosquitoes. It certainly beat getting into a firefight with a group that had proven to be smarter, more brutal, and more resourceful than the average scumbags who operated in the area.

After Phillips had given a quick but through briefing, the eight troops hustled out, the active camouflage of their armor blending seamlessly with their surroundings. They disappeared into the night in seconds, nothing visible of them but a nearly imperceptible figure-shaped heat shimmer.

Phillips and I were in the VTOL’s tiny control suite where she could coordinate the operation. Sergeant Jones was in operational command on the ground. He was a quiet-spoken man who most definitely knew what he was doing and exuded the unflappable confidence of a career military man. Interestingly, they had a fellow Brit on the team, also on an attachment, Corporal Singh. Apparently these kinds of military units did a fair number of international exchange programs to promote new skills between allied countries.

The commandos had divided into four two-man fire teams and taken position at the cardinal compass points while Otanga’s entire company had crept in and surrounded the place a mile out.

“All Tigers and Backstop. HQ Actual. Final ROE, ladies and gents,” Phillips said. “Nonlethal force is fully authorized. Lethal force is authorized on a self-defense basis only. Any mark that makes it past Tiger, leave to Backstop.” Otanga’s team. “We have no air support besides HQ.” I’m guessing she meant the hypersonic we were in. “However, Canberra will authorize a KIS if things go wrong.”

The soldiers all gave terse acknowledgements as I glanced over at her. This was news to me. The Australians were serious. A KIS was a kinetic impact strike, basically dropping a rod of reinforced tungsten from orbit on these arseholes. The energy released would be equivalent to a tactical nuclear weapon, only without all the dirty radiation. The camp, and anyone in it, would simply cease to be. One way or another, the bandits were coming in, dead or alive.

“I will, however, consider it a personal failing if we have to go that far. Canberra doesn’t want to have to deal with the political fallout, and I want the marks alive so we can haul their asses before the tribunal. Do I have a solid copy?”

Every member of the team gave a resounding affirmative even though their instincts were probably telling them to kill every last bandit in the gang. I could sympathize. These animals were the reason Dev was currently on a slab in the Keep morgue. Part of me wanted the whole area to be KISed and be done with Sahelia. But that wasn’t what we were about. It was our job to put every last one of them before a court—make them answer for their crimes. They didn’t deserve an easy way out with a tungsten KIS.

***

Fighting wars is often much like policing: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror and exhilaration, yet the Australians sounded neither terrified nor particularly exhilarated—one of the signs of seasoned veterans.

I watched on the live tactical plot as the eight commandos crept closer and closer to the small collection of huts and vehicles in the middle of the desert settlement. The encoded transponders on their armor were the only thing giving them away. They were practically invisible on the visual spectrum and their armor cloaked them from thermal imaging, sniffers, and displacement sensors. Not that a bunch of two-bit bandits were likely to have such cutting edge tech, but they had proven fairly ingenious with what they did have.

“HQ Actual, Tiger Three. IED. Standard trip wire and grenade configuration. Disarming now.” A calm voice came over the com. Seconds later, her voice said, “Disarmed. Proceeding.”

“Roger that, Tiger Three. All Tiger teams watch for IEDs.” Phillips was warning the troops to be on the lookout for any improvised explosive device. “Tiger Two, you have one sentry eight zero meters at your eleven. Take him,” Phillips said.

“Roger.” A pause. “Tango down. Incapacitated. Proceeding.”

“Tango down, roger that.”

The Brit, Corporal Singh, had nailed the first bad guy. Score one for the home team.

The teams made their way closer to the hut emitting the jamming signal. A few more calls about booby traps being disabled came in, and a couple more bad guys were put to sleep. It was pretty slow going and, frankly, quite dull to watch. I was basically watching eight dots inching toward a building on a map.

Waiting for a lull in the coms, I whispered to Phillips, “I’m going to grab some fresh air. Do you want a coffee?” She nodded, and I stood up and stretched out. I made my way down the ramp of the hypersonic and out onto the scrubby desert floor. I walked over to Otanga’s logistics vehicle and nodded at the private who stood watch. He was young and more than a little star-struck by the smooth operators from Down Under.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

He nodded and smiled at me. I had the distinct impression he hadn’t understood me. “Two coffees, please?” I pointed at the coffee cantina before holding up two fingers. The young man poured two cups for us as I pocketed a few sugar packets.

I stood in the desert, enjoying the cool air. The stars were out in full splendor, and I could see the drifting lights of the space cities and ships in orbit, so far removed from the horrors of what was happening in this lawless hellhole.

I activated CNN on my link and took a sip of my coffee as I watched the reports coming in from the Jupiter system. They told of some kind of accident out there, but the authorities of the Jupiter Alliance were more interested in coordinating relief efforts than providing coherent reports.

Still, I envied them. There was none of the generations-long rivalries of Earth, none of the pettiness and squabbles that led to misery and despair, just striving to create a better world and life.

The dull thump of an explosion sounded in the direction of the bandit camp, the noise diminished by the distance.

I raced back to the hypersonic. “What the hell was that?”

“All Tigers, HQ Actual. Confirm status,” Phillips said, shaking her head, forestalling any more questions.

“HQ Actual, Tiger Four. We have a tripped IED.”

“Understood. Casualties?”

“No, ma’am, just a hell of a dent in my armor.”

I looked at the satellite overview. Bandits were swarming like ants over their camp, disturbed by the sound of the explosion. “HQ Actual, Tiger Four. We are in contact with four-plus Tangos.”

I could hear the distant rattle of automatic weapons fire and the thump of explosions; noise carried for miles across the desert. The shooting had started.

“Roger, Tiger Four, go loud. Draw them in.”

“Tiger Four going loud. We have incoming small-arms fire and RPGs.” Considering someone had just tried to blow him up with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and was now firing hundreds of rounds of ammunition at them, the soldier’s composure impressed me. It didn’t sound like he was even breaking a sweat.

I watched the sat images of the bandit group swarming Tiger Four’s position. Phillips directed the other Tiger units to surround them, improvising an arc now that they had been made. Before long, they were boxed in and didn’t even know it. Tiger Four were taking a hell of a pounding, but over the coms it sounded like the two soldiers were having a stroll in the park.

“Tiger Four, HQ Actual. Start falling back. Get them outside of the jammer’s range.”

“Roger that.”

Steadily the battle rolled farther away from the encampment. The bandits, though now surrounded, thought they were engaging on one side only.

Anticipating Phillips’s next order, I got on the com to Otanga. “Get your mosquitoes online. The bandit forces will be clearing the jammer radius soon.”

“Understood,” Otanga responded.

“Mosquitoes ready to go,” I called to Phillips.

“Get them up. Tell Otanga’s troops to go for targets with RPGs. They’re the only things that can do my team any harm.” I relayed her instructions to Otanga and watched a dozen new icons blink onto the map and swarm the bandits.

The rattle of gunfire echoing across the desert intensified as Tiger Four ceased withdrawal and returned fire in earnest. I could hear their voices repeating over and over, “Tango down.” Each time, incap rounds had dropped another bandit on the map.

The mosquitoes swarmed in, each one landing on a distracted combatant and injecting them with a tranquilizer bite. The few that were left were easily mopped up by Phillips’s and Otanga’s disciplined soldiers.

***

The VTOL touched down near the main building of the encampment, and Phillips, Otanga, and I walked out into the former combat zone. Twenty ugly, nasty-looking men were trussed up in cuffs, most still unconscious. The ones who had been knocked out were all on their sides in a first-aid recovery position. The Australian soldiers were clearly magnanimous souls at heart. The team’s medic was even treating the bandits’ injuries.

Phillips’s and Otanga’s troops had done their jobs well, only two fatalities. One bandit had been incapacitated as he was about to fire an RPG, and he took out both himself and his partner when he’d fallen to the floor. I didn’t feel any sympathy; he’d made his life, or in this case death, choices.

The commandos gave none of the high fives or whoops I was half expecting from a successful mission as they watched over their charges. Sergeant Jones approached and nodded at me and Otanga.

“Ma’am,” he said to Phillips.

“Good work, Mick. Any unreported injuries?”

“Thank you, ma’am. Just some cuts and bruises. Rohal is going to need some new armor. That explosion was a little too close to him for comfort, but he’s fine.”

Phillips nodded and looked over at me. “Well, we’ve bagged and tagged ’em, Layton. It’s up to you now.”

“Thank you, Captain.” I shook her hand. It was a knuckle crusher. I felt she could break every bone in my hand if she wished—a sign of her advanced combat enhancements.

She regarded the bullet scar on my chest armor and gave a slight smile. “I’d say we’re on first name terms now. Call me Ava.”

I nodded back at her. It hadn’t escaped my notice that she was an attractive woman. Maybe if we hadn’t met in some war-torn hellhole…

“See you at the tribunal, Ava.”







Chapter 5

The Hague

The War Crimes Investigation offices stood next door to the International Criminal Court on the tenth floor of a dated glass building. It was pleasant enough, although the place desperately needed a makeover, but then, that is the lot of law enforcement offices throughout history—to be consigned to old buildings.



I walked through the door and was greeted by the bustle of the office. I rubbed my chest. It was still bruised and aching from the shot. As people began to notice me, the room quieted. Giselle looked up from where she stood talking to one of the officers, excused herself, and walked over.

“Hey,” I said.

“Layton, welcome back.”

“Thanks. How’s—”

“Being taken care of,” Giselle preempted my question. “His family wanted him back in Paris. The coroner can review…Dev, just as easily there, and it saves moving the body more than we have to.”

“Okay,” I nodded.

“Listen, you did good work,” Giselle said. “Captain Phillips has written me a very long letter endorsed by a Colonel Sanderson, her commanding officer. Apparently the two of them are going to be putting you in for an award. They’ve done some digging at their end and are recommending the Australian Overseas Policing medal as appropriate. They’ve made it clear that they can only recommend it, of course. It’s up to the Australian Government House to approve it.”

“And Dev?”

“Him, too.”

“Thanks. I don’t know if his family will care, but…it might help.” I looked at the woman I had grown to admire and respect over the last four years. Her calm, measured nature helped keep us all together when things inevitably turned distressing or upsetting in our business. But now I could see she was struggling. In the couple of days I’d been gone, the woman I knew had aged ten years. Her hair, normally tightly controlled in a bun, had wisps escaping, and her piercing enhanced eyes looked tired. “It might help us all.”

“It’s not me you should thank. Besides, the Australians needed to show their electorate that they were decisive and speedy in bringing those bandits in. You two played a big part in that.”

About ninety-nine percent of the time this job was totally thankless. To actually have someone give you a pat on the back was pretty damn rare, but welcome. It was a sign that what we did meant something.

We walked through the open-plan office to my desk. We hot desked officially, which meant first come first serve, but perks of rank meant that I kept one of the best ones unofficially reserved for myself. It had a nice window to gaze out of, easy access to the vending machines, and no one behind me—something I hated. As much to get away from the subject of Dev as to get any information, I asked, “Any more news from Io?”

Giselle recapped some of the reports she’d heard. Io, the fifth moon out from Jupiter, had been struck by one of the huge Alcubierre liners that connected the worlds of the solar system. That was what had caused the explosion and spike of EM that had shut down half the system in Sol. Each one was miles long and could travel at half the speed of light. But moons were small, and space was big. I somehow doubted it was an accident.

Pictures of Io inundated the news channels, and they weren’t pretty. It looked like someone had taken a massive bite out of the moon. What looked like red-hot lava was hemorrhaging out of the wound. When I’d arrived back to civilization at Rotterdam airport, the moon was all anyone could talk about. The news shows were full of talking heads who didn’t have a clue about what had actually gone on. Stations and news feeds put up all kinds of impressive-looking graphics and holos that the studios had knocked together in short order to show the devastation.

The Io event was all people could talk about, but not with fear in their voices. That’s what happened when a disaster hit a faraway place. People got concerned, yes, but Io was a long way away. The public of Earth wasn’t scared—yet. Whether that continued to be true depended on what happened next.

“I’m just about to go into a meeting about it,” Giselle said as I lowered myself gingerly onto the seat at my desk and leaned back. The fake leather chair creaked alarmingly. “I’m expecting to find out more then. Meanwhile, Wade has asked for a case conference on the Sahelia job.”

“Great, fine. When?” I said, trying to drum some enthusiasm into my voice. It was difficult. Ahead of me was the desk Dev usually used. It was clear, of course, as office etiquette dictated. But the crowded office felt somehow empty without my keen young protégé there.

“This afternoon. For some reason, she seems a little pissed off?”

“Pissed off how? Biting and sarcastic or fuming and full of rage?” I asked.

“Biting and sarcastic.”

“That’s just normal.” I managed a smile.

“Either way, she’ll be here at 1400 hours.”

No rest for the wicked, I guess.

***

The conference room was about as advanced as War Crimes got. It had state-of-the-art communications equipment…from ten years ago. It even had a water dispenser and coffee machine.

Wade and I were seated at the table, a mass of paperwork on the touch-screen surface of the conference table. Wade was the prosecutor assigned to the Sahelia case. She was good at what she did. I’d worked with her a few times before, but I got the distinct impression that if she listed her hobbies, being argumentative would be right at the top of the list.

“I really wish you hadn’t ERPed Kumba,” she said. “The judges don’t trust it, and the juries don’t like it.”

“He wasn’t exactly falling over himself to tell us where his friends were, Becky.” I said. “Would you rather I got the information out of him some other way? I’m sure I could have gotten their location just as quickly.”

She arched an eyebrow at me. I actually liked her, but sometimes she made me feel like a school boy who wasn’t quite paying attention in class.

“I’m sure you would have. Well, what’s done is done. We’ll have to work with it. You’ll have to give a further statement justifying the ERP in more depth, though. Your single-page statement doesn’t quite cover all the necessity criteria.” Her lips curled in a frown as she gestured at the screen showing my brief account of why using one of the most intrusive questioning techniques we had at our disposal had been necessary.

“It was good enough for Judge Thompsen, and you know what he’s like.” I tried to keep the plaintive tone from my voice.

“Thomsen granted an emergency court order, having been woken up at three in the morning by a combination of strange lights in the sky and The Hague banging on his door. What you have here is not exactly enough to fight off a defense counsel who has all the time in the world to pick things apart. I don’t want to lose Kumba through some bloody technicality.” She gestured at me, sending me a document over link. “Read this; it’s the Salah case. It’s the one where they tried to nail down the principles of use of ERPing. Write a further statement and make sure you can cover everything in it. If you don’t, you’re going to have a tough time in the box.”

“I’m sure Thompsen felt very inconvenienced by the whole thing,” I said, gritting my teeth.

“Layton,” Wade said, her voice softening, “I know what happened out there. I know you think I’m being picky, but I promise, it’s because I want to ensure these bastards are nailed to the wall.

“I know, Becky,” I said, slightly mollified. I filed the document away. I was sure it would provide thrilling bedtime reading.

***

As we left the conference room, I saw Giselle waiting outside. I excused myself as Wade walked on toward the exit. She was here often enough that she often complained it was her second home and she could make her own way out.

“How’d that go?” Giselle asked as she opened the door to the conference room again and gestured me back inside. We stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window. The view was nice from up here. The office block may have been old and tired, but the gardeners still put a lot of effort into looking after the grassy square and fountains below.

I shrugged. “The usual for a meeting with Becky. I’ve come away with a to-do list as long as my arm.”

Giselle nodded and gave a distracted smile as she gazed out over the view.

“And your meeting?” I prompted.

“Do you think one of the case builders can handle the rest of the Sahelia job?” she finally asked.

I shrugged. “It’s evidence gathering now. We’re going to be spending a good long time building a solid prosecution so no one drops through the net. Mostly that’s just admin, but hey, that’s part of my job.”

“I have another one for you, an interesting one.” Interesting…a warning bell went off in the back of my mind. The I word was a curse in law enforcement, along with the Q word…never tell a cop it looks like a quiet night. I tried not to let my apprehension show on my face. “You’re the closest of the team leaders to being available. Tao is still out in Siberia digging up war graves, Libby is stuck in Mexico, and Francine is on maternity. That leaves you.”

We were perpetually short-staffed. It wasn’t unusual to juggle personnel to free people up, but still, she had a look on her face that showed this might be a bit more than that. Bottom line—I could bitch and whine and get ordered to do the job or smile and accept it. Either way, it was coming to me.

I sighed. “Okay, what have you got?”

She turned away from the window and gestured at the wall screen. A picture of the wreckage of Io appeared. A glowing, blood-red cloud leaked out of a huge hole on the surface. I was starting to get why she had that look on her face now.

“I’ve just come out of a long meeting with a lot of people who were wearing dark suits. This wasn’t an accident,” she said.

“Is that confirmed?” It didn’t surprise me. What were the odds of something going so majorly wrong? I’m no astrophysicist, but I knew not only was space big, but things moved damn fast up there. The odds must have been on par with shooting a bullet out of the sky.

“As good as. There is a whole side to this thing that the media hasn’t reported on. All major powers have fallen over themselves to slap D-notices or their equivalents on this, but that will only buy a few extra hours before the rest of the story breaks.”

I gave a low whistle. EU D-notices, American media restriction requests, Chinese information requirements—every nation had a different name for them. All of them had one goal in mind: the emergency restriction of information. They were so rarely used that I couldn’t think of when the last one was. They were never designed for censorship; the solar system was too leaky a place. The American Media Restriction Act, a whiplash reaction to a bunch of high-profile security leaks throughout the twenty-first century, had been seen as a gross violation of their Constitution and was repealed after many years of both philosophical debate and outright protest.

Ideally, the government was the people’s servant, not the other way around, but in the wake of those intelligence leaks, nations had decided on a compromise. Sometimes those in power had a need to keep secrets for reasons of security or when it wasn’t in the public’s best interest to know. The check was that governments were obligated by law to keep information restrictions to the minimum time frame possible and then explain why it was necessary, in full, to the public afterward. Besides, in the modern day, it was very difficult to keep secrets for any length of time. I was guessing this information restriction was a reaction to something unprecedented—Io.

“So why don’t we think this was an accident?”

Giselle gestured over to the table, and I lowered myself into a chair. “Watch,” she said as she played a video. The image of Io was replaced by a picture of space, the orange and white banded Jupiter in the background. I got the impression this footage was taken by some observation satellite. Suddenly, a flash of light washed out the screen. When it receded, the camera focused on the source, a huge, lumbering Alcubierre liner. It must have just arrived.

The A-drive liners were massive spacecraft, not the biggest ever built, but still, they were the size of small cities. They were mostly gantries, storage tanks, cargo containers, and carriers of smaller ships hitching lifts around the solar system. At the rear, I could see the huge ring that was the magical A-drive that enabled the ship to reach half the speed of light.

“Jupiter Control, Jupiter Control, this is Magellan A—heavy. We have arrived in Jupiter space.” This must be a recording of the actual transmissions between this Magellan and Jupiter Control.

“Good morning, Magellan. We have your transponder strength five. Welcome to Jupiter space.”

“Thank you, and good morning to you, too, Jupiter Control. We are dumping heat. I have one-three-four cargo containers, five-seven storage tanks, and one-two hitchhikers onboard and ready to disembark.”

“That’s all received. You are cleared to off-load at your convenience on receipt of instructions,” Jupiter Control responded.

Giselle fast-forwarded the footage. “All this is fairly routine stuff, or so I’m told. They have to dump the heat buildup from the transit, and as they do, they begin receiving instructions on some course corrections, etcetera. They give manifest details, custom’s information for the passengers, all that boring stuff.” We watched in quick time as the small ships hitchhiking on Magellan detached and darted off, the storage containers and tanks were ejected for cargo tenders to pick up. It wasn’t quite as routine as hopping on a short-haul flight to a nearby country on Earth, but not far off. “Now, this is where it gets interesting,” Giselle said as she slowed the footage again.

“Jupiter Control, we have completed off-loading, and all cargo is clear. We are ready to embark your cargo and passengers on their arrival,” Magellan’s coms officer said in a cheery voice.

“Your first cargo will be arriving in four-seven minutes, Magellan.”

The ship began to rotate ponderously; the massive vessels didn’t exactly turn on a dime. “Jupiter Control, standby. Our maneuvering thrusters are firing.” The voice sounded slightly unsure but still calm.

“That’s received, Magellan. You are maneuvering.”

“Jupiter Control, that’s a negative. We may have a malfunction in attitude control. We are not, repeat not, under control at the moment. We are calling pan-pan, I say again, pan-pan.”

Magellan, we have received your pan-pan. We’ll get search and rescue on standby.”

I mouthed at Giselle, “Pan-pan?”

“It means they have something wrong, but it’s not an all-out emergency like with Mayday. Basically, they’re concerned.”

The voice from Magellan came back on after a few minutes—definitely less cheery. In fact, pretty damn worried from the sound of it. “Jupiter Control, we have an uncontrolled spin-up in the A-drive. We cannot shut it down. We are going to Mayday.”

Magellan, we have—”

The voice from Jupiter Control was interrupted by a third speaker on the com, an androgynous computer voice. “Jupiter Control, the Magellan will strike Io. Begin your evacuation procedures. You have thirty minutes.”

Magellan, say again.” Now the controller sounded pretty shaky.

“That wasn’t us. We’re tracing now,” the flustered crewman from Magellan replied.

For the next few minutes, I listened to an increasingly panicked exchange between the two of them before… “Jupiter Control, we have zero control of Magellan other than coms. Our crew modules are going into the automatic ejection sequence. We are completely out of control. We cannot shut down the A-drive. Repeat: we cannot shut down the A-drive. Orientation confirmed—we are pointed straight at Io.”

Magellan, evacuation is underway on Io. I suggest you don’t interfere with ejection sequence and get out of there!”

“I’m sorry, Jupiter. We’ve done what we could.”

Giselle and I watched as the tiny crew modules, in effect self-contained escape pods, blasted away from Magellan and sped out of view.

A few minutes later, exactly half an hour after that mysterious computer voice had spoken, Magellan disappeared in a flash. The camera view changed, this time focused on the ugly, pock-marked moon of Io. It was a dirty mix of yellow and orange. I could see the gas giant Jupiter behind it, banded in reds and oranges.

A bright light bloomed out from the side of Io, washing out the view. After a few moments, the picture came back, and I saw what happens when a miles-long spacecraft crashes into a moon at half the speed of light. It quite literally looked like someone had taken a bite out of it. If I had to guess, nearly a sixth of the moon had transformed into roiling fiery clouds. I could see what looked like cracks, which must have been huge chasms, spreading around the surface. Anyone that hadn’t evacuate or been killed by the initial impact would have been shaken to pieces by earthquakes—no, moonquakes. Nothing on the surface would have survived.

***

“Alright, I suppose I’d better ask, where do War Crimes’ interests lie in this?” It had taken me a while to get over what I’d just watched. Don’t get me wrong; I’d seen some pretty grisly sights in my time, both in the Met and with War Crimes, but seeing the death of a whole world—that was new.

“That’s still under debate at some pretty high pay grades. The fact of the matter is no one knows who handles something like this. Unprecedented isn’t the word,” Giselle said. “The military doesn’t have anything to shoot at, and the intelligence services don’t have anyone to spy on. Then it becomes a question of whose military and whose intelligence service. The Jupiter Alliance has, at best, the equivalent of small-town sheriffs who are used to dealing with minor white-collar crime. They simply don’t have the skill to take on this size of job.”

I didn’t want to point out that no one has the skill to take on something like this; it had never happened before.

“The conclusion, as of me walking out of the conference link,” Giselle continued, “is that they want us onboard. We have no known terrorist organizations that would have the capability or particular will to do something like this, and no one is claiming responsibility.”

“I thought the Linked were targets of some minor acts of terrorism and demonstrations,” I cut in, thinking of the controversial hive-mind culture that dwelt in Jupiter Space.

“Yes, but the anti-Linked bloc have a capability gap. Those organizations with the will to do something like this simply don’t have the ability or resources. Besides, if that were the case, why didn’t they take out Concorde, Europa, Callisto, or any of their other major settlements?” Giselle asked.

Fair point. Anyone who wanted to damage the Linked had far better targets to go for than Io.

“That being said, we are not writing off that possibility. Bottom line: War Crimes has the skill if it’s an act of war, a terrorist act, or a criminal act. You are going to be our on-scene representative on the international and intersystem task force that’s being put together.”

I leaned back in my chair, lightly drumming my fingers on the tabletop. A thought occurred to me. “How many casualties are we looking at? The media has kept it pretty vague.”

“Eighty-seven on the moon itself. Forty-two unrecoverable deaths on Earth between two skyliners that crashed as they came in to land and hospital system shutdowns due to the EM pulse. Maybe a few more through the system, but nothing confirmed yet.”

“And Dev,” I said.

“And Dev,” she agreed.

With all my effort, I bottled down my feelings on Dev. I had to admit, as high and as horrific a number as 130 people was, it still seemed pretty low for the destruction of an entire world, and I said as much.

“Fewer than a thousand people were on the surface of Io. From what I’m told, it was a hellhole: random volcano eruptions, earthquakes, and generally what can best be described as a pretty shitty environment. It is…it was an awful place, and the only people on the surface were engineers, scientists, and technicians to service the mostly automated power-generation systems. That was Io’s main export, apparently something to do with the way it interacts with Jupiter’s magnetosphere.” I got the impression Giselle was simply reeling off something she had been told. “Means that the moon can, or at least could, be used as a major source of power generation in the Jupiter system. Anyway, part of the operating protocol was that the crews had to be near evacuation shuttles at all times. The ones that died, well, looks like they breached protocol.”

“So this could be a strike against the Jupiter system’s power infrastructure rather than the goal of mass casualties?”

Giselle shrugged. “At the moment, we only know how whoever’s done it has done it; we don’t know why or who. That’s what we have to find out.”

“And you said ‘on scene’?” I asked, though I thought I knew what was coming.

“That’s right, I did. You’re leaving tomorrow.”

“I’m…not entirely sure what value I can add to this investigation,” I said. With fifteen years of being a cop, I was used to new situations—the bizarre, nasty, and just plain strange—being thrust upon me. And with War Crimes? This job had taken me all over the world, often on short notice, but never had I thought it would take me into space. But then, whatever had happened out there was a massive part of why Dev wasn’t going to ever go home to his family again.

“Layton, I don’t have a cloning facility for team leaders hidden in the basement,” she replied. It was strange for Giselle to be so short. She was normally unflappable. But then, it wasn’t just me that had lost a colleague and friend. “My orders have been cut. War Crimes is to provide an investigator for the task force, and you’re it. You’ll have some transit time to get the handover done.”

I glanced again at the image of the roiling wreckage of Io, back-dropped by the huge gas giant. I doubt whoever had destroyed the moon knew about Dev, and they wouldn’t have cared if they did. But I cared. If I went, I could bring them to justice for my friend’s death.

“I’ll get packing, then.”







Chapter 6

The Hague

My little apartment was small, modern, near the coast, and suited me. It was about as minimalist as it was possible to get—all magnolia, glass, and chrome. Most importantly, it was close to the bars and town center. It was the kind of place that was the bachelor’s lot since my father was a twinkle in his father’s eye. As soon as I entered, I emptied my duffel bag of clothes into the washer and began my homework.

I was still old-fashioned enough to actually like reading about stuff rather than just downloading information straight to my implants, but I simply didn’t have the time. I would have to direct-download as much useful information as I could.

The trick these days wasn’t filling up your memory with random, and probably contradicting, texts from the vast beast that was the Hypernet; you had to know where to get the good stuff. Some of what was on the Net was on-the-button accurate. The majority could best be described as the ramblings of buffoons.

Flopping down on my black leather sofa, I switched my retinal implants to desktop mode. The HUD opened up fully in my vision, creating a virtual office suite. I ran enquiries through the search engines, dragging and dropping Hypernet page icons that seemed useful around the room. Hovering in the air to the left were things that I would definitely download, to the right were maybes, and in the center I was working. Basically, I was looking for an idiot’s guide to Alcubierre drives and ships, getting a bit of political awareness about the Jupiter system and trying to figure out just why anyone would want to target Io.

The first was pretty easy. The Hypernet contained plenty of popular science books about A-drives, and I downloaded a couple of them. I felt my consciousness gain that knowledge, a wealth of information becoming available to me. I gained some understanding of how and why they operated. Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t be able to build an A-drive from scratch—but then, I didn’t need to. I just needed to know the general principles.

The political awareness thing was more of a problem. Most of the sources on the Net went through the filter of Earth’s political prejudices. A lot of people planet-side viewed the Linked, the main power out in Jupiter space, as a bit on the creepy side.

Linking was a technology that nearly everyone used. It followed a natural progression from Morse code through mobile telephones to the modern day. A link was a computer implanted in your brain that gave you access to the Hypernet, allowed you to talk with friends, and provided a wealth of apps. My link was chock-a-block with law enforcement tools, tactical overlays, and things to manage the other implants throughout my body, not to mention a few games, which helped me pass the time.

The Linked were different, though. They had taken the technology to the next level. They kept their links constantly open to each other. Each member of the community had free access to everyone else. Now that they were several generations down the line, they had more and more evolved a kind of hive mind. Inner-system dwellers had many slang terms for them, ranging from the mildly insulting hivers to the full-on slur, the bugs.

Until the Io incident, I hadn’t devoted much head space to them. I just considered them a bunch of peaceful space hippies that lived pretty damn far away and didn’t affect me in the slightest.

Not everyone was as ambivalent or egalitarian as me, though. Numerous organizations were deeply suspicious of them. They suggested they had motives ranging from kidnapping inner-system children to forcibly link to them to plotting a full-scale invasion of Earth. As far as I was aware, the Linked were about as antiviolent as it was possible to get—something which we Enhanced and Naturals sadly were not.

I continued my surfing and downloading into the small hours, filling my brain with all kinds of information that I might find useful on my assignment.

Eventually, I closed down my HUD and stretched out. I could hear birdsong through the open windows of my apartment, and I could see the first hints of dawn starting to stain the sky red.

Giving a yawn, I thought of my bed. There was only one thing preventing me from escaping into blissful sleep…

I still had to pack.







Chapter 7

Mediterranean Anchorage

I was still bleary-eyed from getting some shut-eye on the flight from Rotterdam. The custom’s security station scanned the passport implant on my right forearm, and the light on the arrivals gateway turned green. I walked through into the bright sunlit mall of the Mediterranean Anchorage. Everything had that fresh and airy feel of a well-maintained airport.

I wasn’t due to board my elevator car for an hour and had some time to kill. I walked over the marble floor of the mall, past tinkling fountains and beautiful plant beds to the deli. I pinged my payment across, picked up a plate, and moved down the counter. I loaded up on overpriced food. Pastas, sliced meat—all of it looked good. I took a bit of most things, creating a delicious, strange mix for myself. I turned to go find a table, sat down, and began tucking in.

A shadow fell across my table. I looked up to see an athletically built Asian male standing over me.

“Hi. Are you Layton?”

I swallowed my mouthful and said wearily, “Yeah, and you?”

“May I?” He indicated the chair opposite and, without waiting for a response, lowered himself into it, pulling off his sunglasses as he did. “Cheng Zao, MSS,” he said in a friendly tone, a smile on his face. The MSS, Ministry of State Security, Chinese intelligence. I leaned back in my chair as he continued. “I’m guessing we’ll be travel buddies up to Jupiter space. You catching the 1600 hour?”

“Do I need to bother to answer that?” I asked with a wry smile.

“Nah, just being polite. Got to keep up appearances that I happened across you is all.” His English was perfect, probably better than mine to be fair. “Personally, I think there’s a time and place to spin the bullshit, but I don’t think that’s now, especially with all that’s going on up there.”

I’m not an overly paranoid man, but I suspect the companionable approach was just that—an approach and a way to ingratiate himself with me. I’d dealt with a few intelligence types before and had long since ceased viewing their shadowy trade as having any kind of mystique. They were just guys, albeit usually with motives for speaking to you that they kept close to their chests. It was pretty obvious what was going on with Cheng, though. He’d been sent by Beijing for the same reason I’d been sent by The Hague to find out what the hell was going on in Jupiter space.

“Yeah, tell me about it. Well, pleased to meet you, Zao.” I reached out my hand, and he shook it, his grip cool and a little too firm. Heavily enhanced? Possibly, or just one of those people that liked to try and exert their authority by trying to crush your hand when shaking it.

“Sorry, excuse me,” he said. My implants registered a strange signal coming from him. “Just putting up a privacy field so we can talk a bit more freely. Old habits and all that.” Whatever field he had established was pretty sophisticated. The noise of the busy mall was subtly distorted. Everyone’s chatter away from the table was reduced to a garble. I could tell they were speaking but not what they were saying. I presumed that was all anyone would hear of our conversation, too, if they attempted to listen in. I tried to establish a link, more out of curiosity than anything else, and was rewarded by a network down error message.

“No problem,” I said, closing down the Link. “I take it you’re on this task force that’s being set up?”

“Yeah. I’m guessing half the folks heading space-side at the moment are governments or corporations doing the same thing,” Cheng replied.

“So, I presume you want a game of I’ll-show-you-mine-if-you-show-me-yours?” I asked.

“Definitely. It’s why I came to say hello, after all. I’ll start if you want?” I nodded; very magnanimous of him. “We have nothing, nada, zip. At best we have a few working theories, and that’s it.”

Well, that was short. “Pretty much the same,” I said. “All we know is someone decided to slam the Magellan into Io but at least had the common courtesy to give a bit of warning to allow most people to get off the rock first. You got any lead contenders?”

“With the means to take over an A-liner and motive to do what they did? No, we’re struggling. We’ve got eyes on a few domestic and international pressure and terrorist groups: Terra Prime, the Unlinked, folks like that. We’re watching them like hawks, and we’ve called in every bit of HUMINT we have embedded with them. Our operatives and handlers report that while these groups seem pretty happy about what’s gone on, they’re just as confused as we are.”

That pretty much tallied with the last update package I’d been sent. These groups, by and large, were formed of Hypernet warriors. They were more than happy to smack talk and issue all kinds of threats on the Net, but direct action, beyond the occasional lone-wolf bomb from their more militant members, was virtually unknown. In terms of capability, it was like them going from slingshots to nuclear weapons in one fell swoop. The intelligence agents all over the world had been having a lot of shady meetings on park benches with assets they had inside these organizations. As far as I was aware, they had come up with a big fat zero. Most of the major powers were signed up to War Crimes anyway, China included. What he was saying was nothing new to me. The problem was, while every nation had a legal obligation to share intelligence with us, I wasn’t naive enough to believe that they actually did. Cheng here was a case in point; for all of his friendly, approachable banter, so far he’d told me nothing. He was just not-so-subtly pumping me for information that other nations might have told us.

“So I’m taking it you still think the target was the Linked?” I asked.

He shrugged in response and grinned. “You capitalist pig dogs hate all good socialists, and you don’t get much more socialist than the Linked.”

“Zao, don’t you be getting all precious on me. One square mile of London has more socialists in it than all of China combined. I’m sure I read that somewhere.”

“Fair point.” Cheng gave a knowing smile. “But they are still the most…contentious faction up there.”

I heard the distorted sound of an announcement being made, and Cheng cocked his head. “They’re calling us to the gate to board. We had better get going.”

I was glad he had told me since I couldn’t make out a word through the distorted sound of his privacy field. I looked down at my overpriced meal, barely touched. You could be damn sure I was still going to file an expenses claim for it.

***

Together we walked through the mall exit toward the gate of our elevator car, chatting about nothing in particular. He was going on about having a kid that had just started school, good restaurants in Beijing, how I simply must visit. I listened, bemused. The guy was probably on commission to recruit a mole. First chance I got, I’d have to submit a report saying he’d made the approach, or it’d bite me on the arse. I made a half-hearted attempt to do the same thing to him. While War Crimes had no mandate for spying, on the miniscule chance he actually took me up on the offer, MI5, CIS, Federation Intel, or whoever the report ended up with would probably want a crack at recruiting him.

We passed through the gate and stepped onto the tram that would take us to the center of the anchorage island. As the tram swept soundlessly into the sea air, I could see the elevator cables through the clear roof canopy, stretching upward to infinity in the sky above us.

The space elevators were considered the new wonders of the world. They ferried people and cargo far into orbit, opening up space travel for everyone who wanted it. It was actually cheaper to get into space than it was to hop on a flight to America these days.

It would be the second time I’d gone up in one. Me and an ex had gone on a holiday to Haven, the counterweight station for the Mediterranean elevator, a few years back. It didn’t end up being quite as romantic as we’d hoped. Three days stuck in an elevator car going up, five days on Haven, and three days back down again was enough to test any relationship to the breaking point. And break it did. This time, however, we wouldn’t be taking three days to get up into space. I’d already been forewarned about that.

As I looked at the elevator cables getting closer, that long-ago breakup receded from my mind. It looked amazing: the black cables stretching into the blue sky out of view, clean white capsules darting up and down them, shipping vast amounts of people into orbit. Around the towering structure, sea gulls squawked and circled. It was a far more civilized way to get into space than the big, loud rockets that used to do all the heavy lifting.

The tram finally slid to a halt inside the entry gate, and again we presented our arm implants, now uploaded with our boarding cards. We had to go through another security checkpoint. One of the guards gestured over to us, and we went into a side room where we filled out some paperwork. I had a lockbox in my luggage, which I’d checked on arrival, containing a sidearm and some ammunition, as did Cheng. I sorely doubted I would be using my weapon, but better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it. Once we’d got past that bureaucracy, we walked through the entry corridor and into the elevator car proper.

To call it an elevator car was misleading; it had more the feel of an ocean liner but built vertically.

An avatar appeared in the form of a black-and-white-suited butler who even sported a waxed moustache.

“Welcome to the Mediterranean Space Elevator. We have received special dispensation for a high-speed ascent to Haven for which you are required to be seated at certain times. If you would kindly follow me.”

Cheng and I looked at each other before following the hologram of the host down the spiral staircase to a lower lounge.

The room was shaped like a doughnut, as all five decks were, with the elevator cable running through the center of the whole capsule. On this floor, all the windows were slanted downward. It was filled with people sitting in chairs, all strapped in. I was beginning to have the feeling this was going to be quite a ride.

I seated myself in the chair, and a harness wormed its way disconcertingly around me, pulling me back into the seat.

Over the next few minutes, the final stragglers took their seats and settled in. I idly flicked through the safety briefing and videos on my HUD display. I could feel that same feeling of anticipation as when I was waiting for a passenger aircraft to begin accelerating to take off.

“Please stand by for high-speed ascent. Five, four, three, two…” a voice rang out over the PA system, “…one.”

I was thrust down into my seat as the elevator car surged upward. It slid out of the anchorage, and sunlight washed through the windows. This was nothing like the sedate journey of my first trip on the elevators. They wanted to get us up into space quickly. I felt like I was on an amusement park drop tower in reverse.

As we accelerated, the anchorage’s true shape took form below us. An artificial island shaped like a starfish was lined with runways on its arms, loading decks for cargo ships lying between them. As I watched, it struck me as strangely sedate, yet bustling—contradictory, I know.

We climbed higher and higher, the anchorage shrinking below us into the clear blue Mediterranean Sea. Distant land masses came into view, all looking pure and clean, far removed from some of the places I’d ended up in. All in all, I could have picked a hell of a lot of a worse way to travel.







Chapter 8

The Space Elevator

The elevator cable was thirty-six thousand kilometers long. Cars normally climbed it at an average of five hundred kilometers per hour into geostationary orbit, meaning it took around three days to get up to Haven. The cars going up and coming down would speed up and slow down, which helped control the oscillation of the cable, basically letting it swing back and forth to avoid hitting all the stuff that was flying around in orbit.

One little mistake in the AI controlling the swinging of the elevator cable and it would smash into one of the big space cities that orbited near it. It was a scary thought for a police officer who had cut his teeth on the Bohemian streets of London, Islington. It had never happened in the fifteen years the elevator had been running, but still, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere near the equator if the cable was cut—or, for that matter, in a car ascending or coming down.

I was no rocket scientist, but even I knew that the elevator hadn’t yet made it out far enough from Earth to reach what was effectively zero gravity. There was a hell of a difference between zero-g and being in free fall. The stuff maintaining orbit below us was subject to free fall because of Earth’s gravity but maintained enough velocity to not crash into it. Basically, anything in orbit was falling around the curve of the Earth. If we were to somehow fall out of the car, we wouldn’t have any horizontal velocity and gravity would carry us straight down—a long drop to a very messy end. The only consolation was that the vacuum outside would kill us in seconds. All in all, a pretty morbid thought.

That normally sedate experience of ascending the cable had been completely thrown out of the airlock this time. The elevator car had special exemption to get us up to Haven fast. That meant it was subject to a series of surges of acceleration and deceleration far in excess of those it normally performed. It felt as if we were on a high speed lift, constantly speeding up and slowing down. It wasn’t too harsh, just unsettling. The result was that the three days it normally took to ascend was reduced to less than a day, making it by far the quickest way to get into geostationary orbit, quicker even than going on one of the few space planes that still launched from the surface.

Once the first, vicious acceleration had subsided into a cruising velocity, more or less, Cheng and I went our separate ways. The avatar guided me to a cabin, a compact affair with a single bed and en suite facilities. It would ordinarily provide sleeping accommodations for the duration of the three-day trip up to Haven. With the rapid ascent reducing that to a day, I doubted I would get the chance to use it for sleeping, but I felt the overwhelming need to shower the travel weariness off. I checked the timer to see how long I would have before the next speed change and grabbed a quick shower before my rumbling stomach reminded me that my lunch had been interrupted.

Leaving my cabin, I headed down the spiral staircase to the lower lounge where I saw Cheng and a few others seated around a table. They had definitely picked the best one, right by a downward-slanting picture window. Night had fallen over the Mediterranean, and far below, the twinkling spiderweb lights of cities were the only things visible on the distant surface. It was odd to think we had already climbed far beyond the low-Earth-orbit satellites and space cities. Some of the bigger ones could even be seen as bright lights, creeping along in their orbits far below us.

Cheng smiled and waved me over. I grabbed a coffee from the bar and headed across to them. As I got closer I could hear that their speech was subtly distorted. He must have put up another privacy field. As soon as I was within a few feet, their voices cleared up.

“Layton, take a load off.” Cheng smiled, gesturing at me to take an empty seat.

“Thanks,” I replied, sitting down.

“Let me make some introductions. Folks, this is Layton Trent from The Hague.” Cheng said, before gesturing to each of the four men and two women in turn. “Joan Vance, Combined Intelligence Service, and Doctor Dexter Frampton, her technical guy.” I shook hands with the intense-looking, fortyish redhead and the young, earnest-looking Frampton. Both of them were Americans, obviously. “Group Captain Chemmel Sihota, Indian Air-Space Force, and this is Pavel Agapov, Federation Intelligence.” Sihota looked far too young to be a group captain, either a sign of extreme competence, lots of connections, or maybe just a vanity streak and lots of cosmetic work. “And last, but not least, Sonia Drayton from Red Star.” That didn’t surprise me; the corporations were more powerful than most nations these days. They had as much right as anyone to be in on the gig. “There’re a few other folks wandering around, but they’re too uptight to sit down and have a drink with the competition.”

“We’re competing now, are we?” I asked with a smile.

“Poor choice of words, Zao,” Vance grinned, smoothly cutting in. “We’re all heading up into the big black to figure out what the hell’s going on together.”

Cheng winked. “My apologies. Old habits and all that.”

“I take it you’ve all been attached to this task force?” I asked before taking a sip of my coffee.

“We have,” Sihota said in a deep voice. “Apparently our respective commands don’t have a clue what’s been happening and believe that we can all create a greater whole than the sum of our parts.”

“Fair enough. I’m guessing everyone onboard now has been dispatched by one of the powers that be, hence the override of the elevator’s usual climb rate,” I said with a grimace. “I must admit it’s a little different than the last time I was on one of these things. It felt like we were barely moving then.”

“Yeah. And to add to our woes, the rest going up with us are mostly media,” Sihota said. We all gave looks of distaste at that.

We spent a while getting to know each other. To say the situation was bizarre was an understatement. The major powers hadn’t had a hot war between them since that particularly nasty proxy conflict in Siberia, which had finally ended a decade ago. That didn’t mean that they got on well with each other, though. The nations and corporations pumped a hell of a lot of time, effort, and money trying to get one over on each other. These guys were all professionals, though. It wasn’t anything personal between them. They were all quite happy to have a companionable drink with one another. Undoubtedly, they were hoping to pick up some snippet of useful information, but at the moment, they were content to just get a feel for each other. After all, we were all here for the same purpose.

Cheng, Vance, Sihota, Agapov, and Drayton were all clearly alpha types, something that I imagined would get pretty tiresome. Metaphors about too many chefs and not enough cooks sprang to mind. I quickly got the impression they were all go-getters. Definitely no connections had got them here. These folks had all earned their rank, despite Sihota’s apparent youth. I sent Giselle a request for information by HUDmail as we were chatting. It would be nice to know a little more about them.

Frampton was different from the others. I found him the most fascinating to talk to, and I was relieved when the others, one at a time, excused themselves for one reason or another and left us to chat over my second attempt at lunch.

He was, in his own way, as chest-beatingly patriotic as his boss Vance, but it occurred to me that out of us all, he was the only one who had some serious idea of the sheer destructive energy that Magellan would have unleashed when it struck Io.

“Basically,” Frampton said as we were eating burgers in our seats by the picture window, stars twinkling by the millions outside, “it’s relatively simple math that describes what actually occurred. A mass damn near two hundred thousand tons struck the moon at half the speed of light. The side with all the damage of the moon is essentially the exit wound. Magellan created a relatively small hole where it entered on the other side. The ship drove through the core of Io, and the sheer bow shock of its passage blasted a massive chunk of the opposite surface of Io away.”

“I get that. It’s not dissimilar to a regular, conventional bullet hitting a body. The entry wound is normally tiny. All the damage is on the other side.” I nodded.

“Yeah.” Frampton spoke around his mouthful of burger. “Although the majority of the moon is actually intact, internally it’s all churned up. Again, to take our bullet and body example, it’s the same as the hydrostatic shockwave that does the majority of the damage in the body.”

I remembered this from my firearms courses. Shooting a person normally killed someone in one or a combination of four ways: hitting something vital, which actually rarely happens; infection from the gunshot wound; blood loss from the injury; or, finally, hydrostatic shock. The bullet’s passage would create a shockwave that propagated throughout the body, pummeling the major organs. If I got what Frampton was telling me, it was the two last ways that had caused all the damage to the moon. Except instead of blood leaking out, it was the mantle material of Io, and instead of hydrostatic shock, it was moonquakes ripping through it.

“Anyway, it’ll be pretty interesting to see what the end result is. As Io continues in its orbit, it’s going to be pumping out all of its insides, its core of iron, the mantle of iron sulfide, everything. Eventually it may completely disintegrate. Jupiter’s got a small ring at the moment, but a body the size of Io tuning into debris? I think it’s going to make a ring more impressive than Saturn’s.”

“Yeah, very interesting,” I murmured. Clearly his idea of an intriguing curiosity was different from mine, which was that Io’s demise was a pretty major disaster. “The million-dollar question is why would someone do it?”

He leaned back as he chewed, pondering. I looked out of the window, letting him have a think. We were so far above Earth that I had to lean forward to see what was now a sphere with the moon rising above the curve of the Earth.

“I suspect it’s all about power generation,” he said finally. Frampton squinted out of the window. “Hey, watch.”

“Watch wh—” I started to say, following his line of sight. I saw a star streaking over the horizon. It bloomed suddenly into a huge shape, which I more sensed as an afterimage than actually saw. I instinctively grabbed the table, thinking whatever it was would strike us. “What the hell was that?”

“One of the space cities,” Frampton grinned.

“Seriously?” I manipulated my HUD, playing back the last few seconds on slow motion. I watched as the star slowly expanded, taking on the form of a vast cylinder city. It was at least five miles long and seemed to thunder silently by us.

“Jesus, that was close,” I breathed.

“Yeah, they normally time the ascents to avoid those kinds of close passes. It’s a little disconcerting. But because they sped us up…” Frampton shrugged.

“You don’t say it’s disconcerting.” I shook my head, wondering at the apparent near miss.

“Anyway…” Frampton was incredibly blasé about what seemed to be a near-death experience to me. Even though the rational side of me knew that we were safe, it still had been too close for comfort. “…Io lies well within the flux lines of Jupiter. It’s well known that lots of people were playing around with laying superconducting cable on the surface, trying to tap into it. If anyone could be successful, they would have access to the biggest generator in the solar system.”

“Maybe so, but surely the powersats are far easier. I hear Io is a right hellhole. Chances are the cable would be constantly wrecked by all the earthquakes—I mean moonquakes—and volcanoes.”

“Yeah, but a powersat would get the tiniest fraction of the sunlight out in Jupiter space as compared with the inner system. Most power in the outer system is generated by either fusion or the new antimatter reactors, which are pretty dangerous things. If they’d got the Io reactors working properly, the Jupiter Alliance would have safe, cheap, limitless energy for, well, forever.”

“So how close were people to managing it?” I leaned forward.

“Oh, years, decades probably. Even with nanotechnology, the engineering problems are—were—massive.” Frampton resumed chewing.

Years or decades? If that were the case, why attack Io now? Something about that being the motive didn’t quite ring true.

***

I retreated to my cabin for some privacy and opened a link to Giselle to check in with her. “Hey, how are things going?”

“We’re getting there,” Giselle said, a sad look on her face. “Just so you know, the coroner’s finished with Dev this evening. They’re looking at releasing his body back to his family in the next couple of days.”

“That was…quick,” I said with surprise.

“Yeah. But at least his family can lay him to rest.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” I looked out of the window at the horizon, lost in thought for a moment. Post-mortems didn’t take long these days, especially when there was no particular mystery involved about the cause of death. Apparently in the twenty-first century, a body could stay on ice for months while test after test was performed. “And the funeral?” I finally asked.

“That’s up to the family. Probably sooner rather than later, though.”

“And I’m up here. Great.” I gave a bitter response.

“Layton, everyone knows you’d be there if you could,” Giselle said quietly. “But you’re doing something positive. You’re helping to find the reason we’re burying Dev. We all know if his enhancements had been online, Kumba would never have got the drop on him.”

“On us, Giselle. Kumba got the drop on us,” I corrected her, pinching the bridge of my nose.

“Did I make a mistake sending you, Layton? Are you ready for this?”

“Yes, of course I’m ready. Dev would be the first one up here if it was the other way around.”

“Okay.” The dubious tone in Giselle’s voice was still there, but it seemed like she was working through it.

“So,” I forced a smile onto my face, and changed the subject. “What do those office imps you have slaving away in The Hague dungeon have lined up for me?”

Giselle seemed to accept me at my word and pushed on. “I’ve got a big to-do list that you need to sign off on. I’ve boiled it down for you and am sending it across now.”

A HUDmail icon appeared in my vision, and I opened it.

“Any of those bastards actually confessed yet to being at the Karen Cole Hospital?” I asked as I scanned through the headers on the file.

“Yeah, a few of them have. Most have just refused to answer any questions when they’ve been interviewed, though. Becky is fairly happy we have enough evidence to sink them, whether they squeal or not.”

“Good.” I dropped the file into a folder to work on later. “I’ll get this back to you in a few hours.”

“Yeah…good luck with that,” Giselle replied with a tone that said the work might be a little more extensive than she was making out. “By the way, it took some digging, but I’ve got you dossiers on all the folks you’ve asked for. They’ve been pretty straight with you. Cheng is MSS. He’s done some time in the People’s Army, too. Don’t get into a fight with him whatever you do. Chances are he has every combat enhancement going. Vance and Agapov are career intelligence; you probably don’t want to brawl with them either. Sihota is IASF. Smart cookie. Done some test piloting and has a list of degrees as long as my arm. Drayton is Red Star on their corporate security division.”

“Thanks, Giselle. Just out of curiosity, does Cheng have a kid?”

Giselle consulted her notes. “Not that we have on file. Why?”

“Just an honesty check.” I gave a wry smile. “He failed.”

“These spooky types and their damn smoke and mirrors.” Giselle’s voice had a note of distaste.

“Yeah,” I replied before giving a shrug and sitting back against the headboard of my cabin bunk. “What about the other thing?”

“I’m sending it as we speak.”







Chapter 9

Io

With over four hundred active volcanoes constantly spewing out iron sulphide, the whole surface of Io was covered with deep drifts of yellow, orange, and black dust. The diseased color permeated the whole moon—it looked positively ill.

Gunter Henning was trudging through the deep dust, careful to poke with his stick ahead of him to find the firmest ground. More than one engineer had plunged into an exceptionally deep drift. Fortunately, everyone had been found safe and well, but it would be a long wait for rescue, not to mention more than a little embarrassing.

Pausing for a moment in his thick radiation/armored space suit, he looked up. Far away he could see Mount Woodgate, a massive volcano that was nearly one and a half times the height of Everest back on Earth. It was having a quiet day, just the lightest of ethereal plumes shooting upward out of it, giving the dark sky a yellow hue. Arching his head back, he could see the vast ball of Jupiter looming in the sky, the giant spot facing him. The whole thing looked like a red and white striped eye staring at him. When he’d first arrived on Io, he had found it completely overbearing. Now, the bloated gas giant was merely disconcerting.

“Gunter, do you see the junction box yet?”

Henning looked around. The transponder on the junction box had died, which meant he had to rely on the good ol’ eyeball Mark I method to find it. Magnometers and metal detectors didn’t work here, partly because of the Io flux lines and partly because the moon was effectively covered in rusty iron filings. Even his implant HUD was seriously limited. Because the small population didn’t warrant the expense of compensating, Io didn’t have much of the shared computing capability needed for the Hypernet to function optimally.

He finally spotted the box, half buried in a drift. Henning made his way over to it and dusted it off with his thick lead-lined gauntlet. He could immediately see what the problem was. The casing of the junction box has somehow sprung open in the last quake. The whole thing would likely be full of dust. Looking to the left and right, he could see the cable, or what bits of it weren’t sunk into the surface. He nodded in satisfaction; they looked intact. “I’m at the junction box; should be an easy job,” he called over his com to Bill Wiseman back in the habitat.

As he pulled the casing the rest of the way open, he felt a tremor. Clutching onto the side of the box, he waited for it to subside. It was probably an aftershock from the last big quake. Mount Woodgate gave a sudden belch, an orange cloud shooting out of it before it settled down. At least the quake hadn’t set the damn volcano off again.

He pulled a small brush off his utility belt and set to work on the box. He wouldn’t be able to see the full extent of the problem until he’d got most of the dust out, but chances were it would just be a breaker. The boxes were robust, designed to be able to cope with whatever punishment the harsh moon could give, but they still required some TLC every now and again. He began to whistle tunelessly to himself as he swept the dust out of the box.

“Hey, Henning,” Bill called, “an A-liner just dropped in. Apparently it’s having some kind of bother. It’s called a pan-pan.”

“Anything major?”

“Doubt it. Something to do with their attitude control. They’re not near anything they can collide with, so no great worries.”

“Ah, fair enough,” Henning said distractedly as he brushed the last of the dust out. He moved his helmeted head closer. The switches had tripped. He flicked them back into position—no easy task with his gauntleted hands, but he’d done it many times.

Without warning, an androgynous voice blasted loud in his earphones. “Jupiter Control, this vessel will strike Io. Begin your evacuation procedures. You have thirty minutes.”

“What the fuck?” Henning exclaimed. “Bill, repeat your last.”

Henning got no answer. “Bill!”

“Gunter, standby. We’re figuring out what’s going on,” Bill finally answered.

The German engineer stood up and looked back at the rover that suddenly seemed very far away.

“Come on, Bill. I need to know if I should be heading back,” he said.

“Standby. We’re linking with Jupiter Control.”

“Screw this,” Henning murmured to himself. “Bill, I’m going to head back to the hopper.”

“Yeah, you do that.” Bill’s voice had a distracted edge to it.

In a lumbering, loping run, Henning headed for the hopper, trying his best to re-tread his footsteps that had already faded in the vibrations of the last aftershock; he didn’t want to be stuck in some drift in an emergency.

“Henning, Jupiter Control has called for evacuation. We’re all going to be lifting.”

“Bill, I’m not even close to being near a shuttle in the thirty minutes that voice was talking about.”

“You’re going to have to do the best you can. We’re going to pack into one shuttle and leave you the other one.”

Henning tripped and fell, nearly burying himself in the dust, the sound of his breathing loud in the confines of the helmet. Starting with a crawl, he managed to pick himself up and carried on bounding toward the hopper. “Okay, just lift as soon as you’re onboard. I’ll be fine.”

“I hate to leave you, man…We can try a site-to-site bounce in the shuttle to get to you?”

“And risk landing in a drift and getting stuck? No, just go,” Henning called as he finally got to the hopper and, in a single leap, reached the cabin hatch of the spiderlike vehicle and opened it. He shortchanged the pressurization of the cabin and, moving as fast as he could in his bulky suit, entered the control blister. Climbing into the chair, Henning activated the hopper with his awkward, gauntleted fingers. By the chronometer on his HUD, he had less than fifteen minutes left before the strike.

The tiny, vulnerable hopper began its lumbering, bouncing motion that was the safest way of getting around on the surface of Io. Henning turned it toward the distant lights of the habitat that he had called home for the last year.

“Henning, we’re ready to go. Good luck, man.”

“You too. Get going.”

Through the hopper’s thick clear canopy, Henning watched as a column of fire began to lift straight up from the surface—his colleagues and friends striving to reach safety.

The hopper wasn’t particularly fast, and it was crystal clear that it would get nowhere near the base before the time elapsed. Henning kept glancing at the chronometer. It ticked down far faster than was right or fair. Well before he got anywhere near the base, it ticked down to zero.

To his left, a strange, bright illumination bloomed over the horizon, almost like an aurora. It faded quickly. Then he felt it. The whole surface shifted. It was small, a matter of a few feet, but still, he clutched onto the safety handles in the control blister.

Panicked, Henning glanced around, trying to see what was going on—then he saw it. Off the right side of the blister, a huge cloud of fire swelled from below the horizon, roiling, tumultuous. Mixed in the cloud, he could see vast chunks of crustal material. The whole surface of the moon was lifting off. Then the shaking started.

Moonquakes were one thing, this was another. The whole hopper felt like it was being shaken into little pieces by the sheer violence of it. Henning gripped the handles as tightly as he could. Huge chasms began to open. Massive rocks smashed their way up into the sky. All around him, vast mountain ranges were forming or being destroyed in seconds, and lava was shooting into the sky in geysers of fire.

With what must have been near superhuman effort, Henning manipulated his HUD, finding the controls to send a total dump from his sensory implants in a burst transmission, including the cache that automatically stored the last few minutes. Everything Henning saw and heard was packaged up and sent to the fleeing shuttle, including a live feed.

Crying out in pain from the sheer ferocity of the vibrations, the last thing Henning saw was a chasm opening beneath the hopper as it plummeted nose first toward an upward surge of lava.

***

I came out of the VR recording and pinched the bridge of my nose, giving myself a moment. It was never pleasant to replay someone’s last moments, especially when it was a full immersion of their final experiences. I was just thankful that Henning hadn’t set his HUD to record his impressions, something I did as a matter of course.

I’m a fairly cynical soul at heart. I’d seen some very nasty people do some very bad things in my time, but Henning’s last moments touched me. He’d not begged his companions to try some vain rescue attempt. He’d faced things with a certain stoicism. His last thoughts were to send what he was seeing in the hope someone could use it to figure out what had happened to him, to help them find out who had murdered him…

The same person responsible for my partner’s death.

I leaned back and gazed out of the window, losing myself in thought as the car raced ever up to Haven.






Interlude

The HUD replay shut down. Outside, the superscrapers had lit up in all their glory as the evening darkness had pressed in—hundreds of buildings, miles high with screens and holos adorning them, displaying advertisements of every type.

“I think that is a suitable place to pause for a moment,” the host said. “I think it bears noting that the Henning download is still considered the best eyewitness account of what occurred on Io—”

“We’re all aware of the Henning download,” Patrice replied. “However, I am somewhat perplexed by the connection to the artifact you found around Sirius. Your position affords you a lot of patience from us, but not an inexhaustible amount. Let’s cut to the chase.”

The others in the room nodded their agreement—except one.

“Voice Patrice, you of all people should want to know what happened in the Jupiter system,” Kara Hanley of Red Star said.

“Of course I do,” Patrice said levelly. “However, all the information I have seen says that the incident is still unexplained.”

“All the information you have seen,” the host said pointedly. “If no one wishes to partake in a break, shall we press on?”







Chapter 10

Haven

“Welcome to Haven,” the station’s AI announced. “Please be careful in the zero-gravity areas until reaching the habitat ring.”

We were here, thirty-six thousand kilometers up in space where Earth was quite obviously just a small ball meandering its way through the cosmos. I’m not overly given to introspection and I’m certainly not a poetic soul, but looking down on that orb from all the way up here put things into perspective.

Nearly everyone who have ever lived and died had done so on that small sphere. The sunny, clean Hague, the hip and happening nightlife of London, the lawless, sandy mayhem of Eastern Africa. All of it was reduced to a tiny blue, green, yellow, and white sphere. Home.

Still, my philosophical mood was somewhat tempered by the fact that I felt sick as a dog. I remembered this from last time I’d been up here. In the tour guides, VRs, and holos, people in space seemed all happy, turning summersaults and generally looking like they were having a whale of a time. For me, it felt like I was going over the top of a roller coaster, the same sinking feeling as my stomach rose into my chest. Only the feeling was constant; it didn’t go away.

I gingerly crawled my way along the handholds down the brightly lit entrance tunnel, desperate to avoid the embarrassment of being stranded in the middle of it, out of reach of anything. The regular commuters were obvious, pulling or kicking their way confidently down the white access passageway, chatting away to one another. For me, it reminded me of the odd times I’d been dragged to go ice skating where I refused to leave the safety of clutching onto the barrier for dear life.

“Layton, do you need help?” Sihota’s deep voice came from behind me. Gripping the handle tightly, I brought myself to an unsteady halt and slowly turned to look at him.

“No, I’m good, thank you. Piece of cake.”

The serious air force officer smiled slightly at me. “It got me the first few times. The antinausea drugs will kick in in a few minutes. I promise you’ll soon be bouncing around like you were born up here.”

I couldn’t think of much worse right then than “bouncing around.” It was the same when I was up here with the ex. Fantasies of athletic, wild zero-gravity sex had quickly gone out of the window and into free fall.

“Besides, you won’t be in zero-g long. We’re going to be cleared straight onto the Erebus. They have a habitat ring, full gravity. It’ll be like being on Earth.”

The sooner the better as far as I was concerned. I nodded at Sihota and resumed hauling myself one unsteady hand after another down the guideline.

***

The hangar where Erebus berthed was huge. It was one of the dry dock slips that could be pressurized to allow work to be conducted in shirtsleeves. Erebus had been slated to go through one of the many interstellar gateways that were hovering between the Earth and the moon and had just completed a retrofit for that mission. Now that trip had been postponed—indefinitely.

Other than being bombarded with adverts for people to sign up with one of the colonization missions going through the gateways, I didn’t really give interstellar travel a lot of thought. The idea of leading a frontier lifestyle on some primitive world like Eden in Tau Ceti or, even worse, one of the space station colonies being set up in some of the more unfriendly star systems didn’t hold a lot of appeal for me. I was a police officer, and there simply wasn’t a lot of policing to do out in space.

Still, looking at the Erebus, I felt a certain sense of admiration for the crews of the explorer ships. What these people did was the opposite of scrabbling out a living on a barely habitable world or, worse, an asteroid city.

They went into uncharted territory, saw things that no one else had ever seen, picked their way through strange and distant star systems. I wouldn’t even make it past the expressions of interest for those crews, though; they were seriously clever guys. Apparently, Sihota had tried to sign up and got drummed out, and he probably ticked all the boxes with his academic history and military background.

Even so, most children went through a stage where if they were asked what they wanted to do when they grew up, they answered to be like Tom Hites, Harry Cosgrove, Karen Cole, or one of those other pioneers. I was no different when I was a kid. The flickering image of Karen Cole’s hologram played in my memory. Funny thing was, even though the hospital had been old and run-down even before the bandits torched it, Karen Cole was out there on the other side of one of those gateways somewhere looking very much the same. That was the strange thing about gate travel: because of the weirdness of how the gateways worked, those guys were still out in deep space and not much older than when they first set off all those years ago.

When someone traveled through a gateway, the distance in terms of light-years was the amount of time it took. If someone went to Tau Ceti, twelve light-years away, it would still take twelve years for someone watching from Earth, but an instant for the crew. The first wave explorers were literally refugees from the past when they returned—a strange thought. Some of them wanted that to escape their past, others to simply take an express trip into the future. There was even a name for these people: Skippers.

Erebus was a fairly typical explorer ship: a long, thin spine, a habitat ring around the rear third of it, and another smaller ring behind that. It was one of the latest E-ships. Helios vessels were named after famous exploration vessels of the past. A moment’s glance at the Hypernet showed it was named for the HMS Erebus, which explored the cold reaches of the Antarctic rather than the cold reaches of space as the E-ship before me was set to do. This one had an A-drive of its own. She was one of the newer models; instead of the old-fashioned ram-scoop drives, she had an antimatter torch. Even I knew that made her pretty damn fast.

Sihota had explained to me, in layman terms, that overall speed wasn’t the primary propulsive concern in space travel. Acceleration is what counted. The harder and longer something could accelerate, and decelerate for that matter, the faster it would get to its destination. Erebus could accelerate hard. Now that the A-liners had all been grounded out of nervousness of a repeat of the Magellan incident, Erebus had been retasked to be at our beck and call.

She was our ride out to Jupiter.

***

Commander Beverly Tasker was not a happy woman. It didn’t take the brains of a genius to figure that one out. But who could blame her? She’d spent months, years probably, preparing for command of an interstellar mission to the distant star Groombridge 1618. Now, she was taking us to Jupiter space, and her mission had been postponed, pretty much indefinitely, until we said so.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the commander said to us as we gathered in Erebus’s mess, “I’ll make no bones about the fact that I am not pleased. I appreciate that the events of the last week are very serious, but just so we’re all clear, I will be fighting to get my ship and mission back as soon as possible.”

Good luck with that one. The ship and crew had effectively been shanghaied by the UN for our use. Some clause in the Outer Space Treaty allowed it. I’m sure Helios Industries, who the ship belonged to, would be fighting it tooth and nail, but they had an obligation under that treaty for disaster relief. Two other explorer ships, the Gagarin and Han Xin, were also slated to assist and had been shuttling people and material back and forth between Earth and Jupiter space.

“Commander, I speak for us all when I offer my sincere thanks for the use of your ship and crew,” Vance said. “I can assure you we will release her at the soonest opportunity.”

Tasker looked at Vance, a cold expression on her face. “I’m sure you will. We have been authorized to use our A-drive as soon as we’re clear of Haven. Transit time will be two hours. Any questions?”

“I presume the command and control systems of this vessel have been thoroughly checked over? I for one don’t want to find ourselves ramming into another moon…in case whoever has done this has used some kind of virus or software worm,” Cheng inquired—quite reasonably in my opinion.

“Mr. Cheng, there are quite literally billions of lines of command code in the various systems onboard. If you’re asking if we have picked through every line to see if there’s anything that could cause a repeat of Io, then the answer is no. However, if you’re asking if we have run every self-diagnostic and test we can think of and come out with nothing to be concerned about, then yes.” I got the impression she was a bit on the defensive about someone questioning the integrity of her ship.

“Good,” Cheng said, leaning back in his chair.

“If there’s nothing else, I will be on the bridge preparing for departure.”

“I have a question,” I said, raising my hand. “What do you think happened?”

Tasker paused, looking at me with steel in her eyes before saying, “Answering that question is your job. I’m just the taxi driver.” Without waiting for any more questions, she swept out of the room.

I’ve learned that, depending on the context, between sixty and ninety percent of communication is nonverbal. Something about her slightest of pauses suggested she knew a bit more than she was letting on. I looked around the mess. The spooks in the room all had vague looks of consideration on their faces. Vance, Cheng, Agapov, and Drayton had all caught it, too.







Chapter 11

Erebus

The strange thing about the A-drive was how underwhelming it was when you were lounging around in the pristine white mess of a starship, drinking a coffee. You didn’t feel any acceleration, no noises of an engine burning—nothing. Only Tasker’s announcement over the PA system indicated we were underway.

Most of the others in the group were seated in the comfortable chairs with the glazed, unfocused looks on their faces of people reading on their HUDS. I wandered over to Frampton and tapped him on the shoulder. He gave a start, and his eyes focused on me.

“A thought’s occurred to me,” I said as I drew up a chair. “You spoke about the Magellan as if it was a bullet, right?”

“Yeah, the biggest one in history,” Frampton agreed.

“Okay, I get that. Walk me through what you think happened. I mean in terms of the A-drive.” Frampton opened his mouth and took a breath to start talking, but before he could speak, I quickly added, “And remember, I’m a pretty simple guy, so keep it in simple terms.”

Frampton nodded, and his eyes looked up as if he was searching for basic enough words to speak to me. “Right, well, keeping it simple...An A-drive essentially does two things, both of which are required for the drive to move an object. First, it creates a bubble of folded space-time around the object. Second, it stretches the space on one side of the bubble while contracting the space on the other side. This gives the appearance of the object traveling at high velocity. Imagine, if you will, an elastic band being stretched out from one end. Are you with me so far?”

“Yeah, I’m with you. You say the appearance of moving?”

“Yes, for an outside observer, that is. The object itself remains stationary; it’s space itself that is manipulated, hence the nickname warp drive. That’s why we’re feeling no acceleration now. To put it in perspective, it would take us half a year accelerating at one-g to reach our current velocity of half the speed of light. With the A-drive, we’ve reached that speed instantly. When we near our destination, the stretched space is relaxed, and we find ourselves at our destination.”

“This bubble of folded space that’s formed, is it a delicate thing? Is it robust? What?”

“Oh, it’s infinitely strong. Nothing can get through it. It’s both a by-product of the drive itself and necessary. Even a grain of dust would do immense damage to a ship at a half cee. In fact, it would just cease to be,” Frampton responded.

Now we were getting to the bit I was interested in.

“When we look at the scene of a regular shooting, one of the things we look for is the bullet itself, whether it is still in the person or has passed through and stuck in a wall somewhere. What I’m asking, Dexter, is there any way that Magellan would have survived the impact?” I asked.

“Hitting a moon at half the speed of light?” Frampton’s eyes widened. “I never even thought about it. I mean, those sorts of figures and energies…I mean, it didn’t cross my mind…. “

“Dexter, talk to me.”

Magellan…it could still be out there! Look, the bubble is infinitely strong; it could have just blasted through Io and come out the other side. The majority of the damage to the moon would come from the bow shock as it traveled through the mantle.”

“So where is Magellan now, then?”

“I don’t know, but it could be intact.” Frampton’s eyes went vague. I could tell he was looking up something on his HUD. I gave him a moment. “The energy release when Magellan struck Io was immense. It blinded every sensor looking at the event until they were able to reset. No one would have been able to monitor it as it exited Io.”

“Come on, Dexter, how do we find it? Is it going to be shooting off at half light speed, and we’re never going to catch up with it?”

“No, no. One of the problems with the A-drive, and one of the reasons we can’t go faster than light or in fact faster than about half cee, is that another by-product of the drive is the buildup of temperature within the bubble. The closer to light speed, the hotter it gets. A crewed vessel is limited to roughly a half cee. One of the gate probes can get to about three-quarters since it’s not crewed. Anyway, Magellan’s drive would be designed to cut out automatically to let that heat buildup bleed off.”

“And if it weren’t to cut out? Say if someone reprogrammed Magellan not to?”

Frampton scratched his head, frowning in thought. “I’d guess the heat buildup would reach catastrophic levels. The ship would be destroyed and the bubble would collapse in a completely uncontrolled way. We’d see that wherever it happened. Hell, we’d probably detect something like that if it occurred in Alpha Centauri.”

“Okay, assuming Magellan wasn’t set to do that, when would it cut out? Are we talking minutes, hours, days?”

“It depends. Not more than a week,” Frampton said.

I leaned back in the chair, giving a self-satisfied smile. “Well, that’s easy, then. Let’s just track along Magellan’s last known course. We know where it started; we could just extend a straight line through where Io was, and then we can find the ship itself, take a look at our “bullet.” Maybe that will give some clue.”

“I think you’re underestimating the scale of that problem.” The look on Frampton’s face showed he had come back down to Earth. So to speak. “If it’s been traveling for a week at half light speed, and bear in mind it could have dropped out at any-point before that, then it could be anywhere…” he paused while he worked something out on his HUD, “…along a line that is ninety-one billion kilometers long. That’s well outside the solar system.”

“Oh.”

Vance’s voice piped up from behind me, “I knew you weren’t just a pretty face, Layton.” I turned to look at her. “As soon as we drop out of A-drive, I’ll get in touch with Cheyenne and have the deep space arrays start looking.”

She’d obviously been listening to the whole conversation. Looking around the comfortable room, I saw they all had.

Maybe the doubts I’d expressed to Giselle about being able to add to this jaunt were unfounded.







Chapter 12

Erebus

At first, the image the ship projected for us on the mess bulkhead showed a white vista, which slowly pulsed with different hues: the thin interface of the A-drive bubble and the universe outside. In the blink of an eye, the white disappeared, and the view was replaced with a sea of stars. In the middle was the orange-and-white-banded behemoth of Jupiter.

I moved to the front of the room, linking my implants to the ship’s sensors as I did. A number of viewing menu options blinked into existence on my HUD. My HUD sensed my eye movements and selected show all. I was rewarded by a virtually incomprehensible flood of information occluding Jupiter with a cloud of graphics, texts, and symbols. Clearly, it was a busy place.

I glanced at the options list and started switching them off. I removed the satellites, minor space cities, cloud miners, and ships. That left, in theory, just the really big stuff. It was still densely packed, but at least I could make out individual things.

Everything about this place was big.

Nothing on screen gave a sense of Jupiter’s scale, but from my homework on the Jupiter Alliance, I knew it was massive. The huge gassy world accounted for nearly three-quarters of all the mass in the solar system, minus the sun, of course. Its moons were planet-scaled in their own rights. Ganymede was larger than Mercury. The four major moons—well, three now—could provide the Alliance with everything it could possibly want…as soon as they were in a position to harness them. Now they were heavily dependent on imports from the more developed inner worlds of Earth, Mars, and to a lesser extent, the asteroid belt colonies.

“There’s a lot of traffic out there,” Vance said, standing next to me, accessing her feed. I could see the vector plot of the route Erebus would take into the Jupiter system. Looking like a neon red train track, the path swept low over Jupiter and then curved around toward the huge space station, Concorde.

“That there is,” I murmured.

“You know the Pentagon analysts and AI’s reckon that if economic growth patterns continue on their current trend, the Alliance will be the dominant power in the solar system in around one hundred and fifty years,” she continue introspectively.

I looked over at Vance, trying to gauge her tone. One hundred and fifty years was a long time. In fact, one hundred and fifty years ago America was the dominant nation on the planet. The world, or universe for that matter, didn’t stay still for long these days.

“Yeah, but the JA is primarily filled with a bunch of space hippies wanting to share their innermost thoughts with us. Who says they’ll even be interested in being dominant?”

Vance gave a snort. “You really have a simplistic view of things don’t you?” She gestured at the screen. “There are just over one hundred million people currently in the Alliance. The population of the Sol system is fifteen billion, by far the vast majority on Earth. The only problem is Earth has none of the resources of this place. Earth, all of its nations, all of its population will be reduced to a planetwide favela. The real power will be out here.”

“What are you telling me here, Vance? You long for the glory days when the fine, upstanding citizens of Earth guided the solar system with a gentle and benevolent hand? Last time I checked, those days are still here.”

“But for how much longer? And can Earth stand by and just watch as others take her place as the center of the known universe?” She turned to me, a thoughtful look on her face. “Who knows? Could be another motive. Io’s destruction is going to set the JA back a ways.”

I regarded her carefully. “Are we shooting the shit, Vance, or are you trying to tell me something here?”

A grin spread across her face. “You do have a suspicious mind. No, Layton, I’m just shooting it with you.”

“All hands, prepare for half-g burn. I suggest you take your seats,” Tasker’s sullen voice came over the intercom.

I looked around and watched as one of the chairs in the mess swiveled around, and my name blinked into sight above it on my HUD. I made my way to it and sat as the others did the same. A harness flowed down over me, and the seat turned round again until it faced the same direction as all the other seats.

“Burn commencing,” Tasker said. A pressure built on my chest, like someone was pushing me into the chair. Funny things began to happen in my inner ear. Not only was my sense of balance dealing with the fact that I was in a centrifuge, now it also had to deal with being weighted by acceleration.

And I thought zero-g made me feel queasy.

***

Erebus’s antimatter torch was one hell of an engine. By the time we hit turnaround, the point where we needed to start slowing down, Jupiter was visibly growing in size. Erebus swung around, nose to tail.

I kept the image I was watching facing toward Jupiter. Despite deceleration, we were hurtling arse-backward at Jupiter. It kept growing and fast. I gripped the armrests. But when we got close, the horizon flattened out, and we swept low over Jupiter. It was like we were flying over a vast desert of reds and whites. Occasionally, we whipped by one of the huge floating collections of balloons and pipes—a flash of the cloud miners as we shot over them. That they even registered at all was a testament to their sheer size.

Before long, we started to pull away from Jupiter. The planet slowly rounded out again as we thundered into space toward Ganymede and Concorde.







Chapter 13

Concorde

The Jupiter Alliance was just that—an alliance. It was made up of a collection of around a dozen or so political entities, but by far the most significant one was the Linked, and the home of the Linked was Concorde.

“They don’t build things by halves out here, that’s for sure,” I said to Cheng as I squinted at the ring station.

Concorde was vast. It made Haven seem like a backwater station. It was a relatively normal torus station, using a rotating habitat ring to provide gravity while in the center was a docking area that remained at zero-g. Where it stopped being normal was the sheer size—and the fact that someone had taken the time to actually make it look good.

The struts between the ring and the center tapered and flared artfully. Through the huge windows on the inner side of the ring, I could see grass, lakes, and parkland. Everything about the place looked serene and gentle.

“It is beautiful,” Cheng said, looking at Concorde intently. “News VRs don’t do it justice.”

“No, they do not,” I said. “What do you think the price of real estate is if I were to come here to retire?”

“If you want to get yourself Linked? Cheap.”

“No thanks.”

“In that case, a hell of a lot more than The Hague pays you.”

I cast my eye over the place once again as we got closer, preparing to heave to. Cheng had a point—I doubted a police officer’s salary would even buy a studio flat in Concorde’s version of the rough end of town…not that the rough end of town was likely to be particularly rough here.

Erebus finally came to a halt relative to Concorde, and the huge dry-dock doors opened in the hub of the torus. The ship began to creep in. Umbilicals snaked out toward us almost organically, clamping on, drawing us into our berth.

***

Like everything in this whole place, the auditorium we had been guided to was something else, all decked with a kind of techno-Roman vibe. The central stage was surrounded by tiers of seats with stone columns thrusting through them to add to the ambience yet not block anyone’s view. The auditorium was in the habitat ring, a vast inward-facing circle of rolling hills and tasteful post-modern architecture. Every building in the place looked like it belonged in the VRs that showed off the luxurious houses of the rich and the famous. The only buildings that looked dated had been imported brick by brick. The Linked had managed to acquire a number of historically significant structures and brought them to Jupiter Space. Some of those buildings were dotted around the Concorde University campus where we now were.

I made my way down the stone steps and along a row of seats to an empty one, apologizing as I nudged by people, stepping on a few toes in the process. The whole room was full of people here because of Io—everyone from military types to scientists and lots in between.

Once everyone had settled, a prim middle-aged lady walked onto stage. Once she had taken her place before the lectern, a hologram of her, which must have measured five meters tall, burst onto the stage.

“Thank you for coming,” her voice boomed out, enunciating every syllable. “I am aware that you have all traveled from around the solar system to assist with relief efforts and the investigation into the Io incident. You must be tired, so I will keep this short. I am Patrice, the Voice of the Linked and the current chair of the Jupiter Alliance.”

I leaned forward, listening to her rich tones that resonated clearly through the hall. I had seen the closest thing the Linked had to a leader many times on VR, especially over recent days, but that didn’t show the self-assured authority that the woman presented. She was clearly used to being listened to and spoke with the confidence of someone who always knew the right answer and what to do. To be fair, that was probably the case. After all, she didn’t just have access to her own knowledge, but to every single one of the Linked who were in range of her own implants. When the Linked needed someone to represent them to the rest of the solar system, it was Voice Patrice who was that person.

“Recovery efforts are nearly complete, and all survivors from Io’s surface have been secured. Due to the nature of the incident, there have been no significant injuries.”

I guess that was her polite way of saying everyone that was affected was either dead or had got away with nothing more than bruising from some seriously high-g maneuvering in their escape from the moon and its wreckage.

“The Jupiter Alliance needs your help.” She paused and looked around the room as if she wanted to meet all of our eyes. “Whether this is a crime or an act of war, we are prepared for neither. Jupiter Alliance Security services are excellent, but as diligent and motivated as they are, they have never had to deal with as much as a murder, let alone something of this magnitude.”

I felt a wry smile twitch onto my face. Sorry, sweetheart, I thought, if you’re thinking of out-sourcing expertise here, no one has dealt with something of this magnitude before.

“We have identified three strands to this operation,” Patrice’s voice called out clearly. “The first is relief and recovery efforts. We have nearly a thousand refugees from Io alone. There are several thousand others onboard stations and ships that have been affected by Magellan’s particle cascade and the energy release from Io. Additionally, many stations in orbit of Jupiter are, even now, forced to take precautions against the debris from the destruction of the moon. This is where we are looking at the heavy-lift capability of the military and freight haulers.” She looked over at the side of the room where the majority of them sat in neatly pressed uniforms.

Other than a very abortive, short-lived attempt by some entrepreneurial souls to take up space piracy as a living, there had never been an armed conflict in space. National and corporate space military assets tended to be heavy lifters to get people into and then back out of orbit and to deliver space-to-surface laser and kinetic strikes. And of course, there were the fighter jocks like Sihota, whose job it used to be to fly up and take out those assets. Now there’s a glamorous career choice, I thought wistfully.

The Voice gave a general outline of what the relief and recovery effort would entail: repairing stations and infrastructure, shipping thousands of people around the Jupiter system to places where they would have air, food, and water, and sharing the load so that no one station would be risking its own life support. This had a second benefit; it kept witnesses and any suspects we might find separated. While Calisto, Europa, or even Concorde could potentially take the lion’s share of the refugees, we wanted them apart.

“The second strand is the investigation into this incident. We have representatives from intelligence and police services systemwide who will be tasked with finding out who did this and how. They will have our utmost support in tracking down those responsible for this crime. The final strand will be dictated by the first two: how to prevent this from happening ever again.”







Chapter 14

Concorde

I walked across the grassy campus grounds to the low building that would serve as the investigation team’s operating base. It was strange to see the horizon constantly curving upward. The artificial sun strip hanging above gave everything a radiant glow, obscuring the stars behind it.

I remembered from somewhere that Concorde was the largest single enclosed chamber in space. Sure, the moon, Mars, and even Ganymede had bigger domes, but this was by far the largest enclosed area floating around in space.

The path meandered past a small lake. In the middle of the lake sat a strange, spikey stone building almost organic in appearance. It didn’t look out of place. It was tastefully incorporated into the scene, but it was definitely an old building that had been lifted up here. Curious, I activated my HUD. The building was the Ferdinand Cheval Palace, the Ideal Palace, constructed in the nineteenth century. Lord only knew how much it had cost and what hoops they’d needed to jump through to get hold of it. Shaking my head at the sheer extravagance, I walked on.

I reached the low, glass university building we had taken over as our ops center. The glass doors swept open, and I entered the atrium. It was full of modern art and sculptures representing the research being done here. I resisted the urge to look at the HUD tags on them. I suspected I would spend far more time browsing than I already had.

A pleasant-looking Linked chap gestured over at another door from behind his desk, and I walked into the room.

The people I’d come up with were already there, looking at the blank white walls, gesturing and talking to each other.

“Hi, Layton,” Vance called over.

“Guys, are you okay?”

“Sure. I’m reviewing what we have so far. Just to let you know, the deep space arrays are examining along Magellan’s last known track,” Vance replied.

“Oh? And?” I asked.

“Nothing yet, I’m afraid. But it’s a very long line to look at.”

“Yeah, I get that.” Actually, I hadn’t, not at first. The numbers that Frampton had spouted had been just that, numbers. Ninety-one billion kilometers was thirteen times the radius of Pluto at its furthest point—in other words, a hell of a long way. Getting my head around that was going to have to be a work in progress. I changed the subject. “Alright, what do we have here?”

“At the moment, we have nearly a thousand people who have been lifted off Io and over five hundred from Magellan, not to mention a multitude of people back in Earth space and here who could potentially have accessed the liner’s systems,” Vance answered. “In other words, we have a lot of people to get through, all of whom we need to ask some rather pointed questions.”

I glanced over at the walls and synched my HUD into the room net. The walls came alive with readouts and long lists of names. It was all pretty daunting-looking, but I was used to long witness trawls in investigations.

“How far has the JAS got in the investigation at this end?”

Vance gave a snort. “They’ve had a look throughout the Jupiter Alliance, viewed the recordings, and asked a few questions. They’ve pretty much already pigeonholed anyone who’s Linked as not involved. The JAS trust them implicitly.”

“Right…and can they guarantee that they are actually trustworthy?”

“Apparently so. They can hide stuff from each other—they call it vaulting—but other Linked will know they are doing it. If one asks another, ‘Did you blow up a moon?’ and it flags they are doing this vaulting thing, then we’d know to have a chat with them. Evidently, no one has.”

“Fair enough, I guess. So they either all are in on it or none?”

“Yes. But let’s take them at their word for the moment. If we get any evidence to the contrary, we can review that decision later. Until then, let’s operate under that assumption,” Vance said.

“I presume we’re getting a liaison from the JAS?” I asked.

“You presume right. When they arrive, I suggest the first order of the day is that we sit down and hash out a plan.”

“Sounds good to me.”

***

The next few hours of discussion, arguing, and debating were a textbook example of throwing too many chefs into a kitchen with not enough cooks—other than Frampton. He was most definitely Vance’s bagman and happy to be told what to do. Eventually, we nailed down a starting point. We were going to go through the roughly fifteen hundred people from both Io and the Magellan and assign each a priority for questioning.

That was a monumental task, but fortunately, we had some excellent AI routines we could run. We figured out criteria of what to look for in each of those people. Intelligence trawls would show whether they were linked to any questionable organizations, military and espionage connections, educational achievements with special focus on space or pilotage subjects, and that kind of thing. Within moments of feeding the AI the criteria, it had sorted everyone into three categories: a short list of reds, people who had a number of contentious markers against them; yellows, who had a few; and greens, who looked clean.

“We seem to be staggering our way to a starting point here,” Cheng said, leaning back with a sigh in his chair. The conference table we were seated around was like everything in the room: clean, modern, and tasteful, all chrome lines, glass, and graceful curves. “With ninety-two reds to look at, things are getting a bit more manageable.”

I nodded. That number was far less daunting than fifteen hundred. I looked over the list. The only downside was that they were scattered far and wide throughout the Jupiter system. Not a major problem, but it would slow things down.

“Well, folks—” I started to say as I heard the door swish open behind me. I spun my chair around. When I saw the pair who came in, my voice trailed off. The guy barely registered on my radar, thirty-something, clean-shaven, dark-haired, but fairly mediocre. The girl on the other hand—she’s what caused me to lose my train of thought. She was beautiful. Not hot, not cute, but beautiful in a classical kind of way: black shoulder-length hair, slim figure in a dark, figure-hugging suit, in her early twenties. But it was her eyes that got me; intense was the word, like laser beams.

I managed to get a grip of myself as the man spoke. “Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I am Lieutenant Adin Agir. I’m on Complex Investigations with the JAS, and my colleague is Cerise Lense.”

A stuttering chorus of hellos came from around the room. Clearly, everyone was as captivated as I was with this Cerise. Aware that I was staring, I made a determined effort to drag my eyes away from her; it was a bit unseemly for me to be ogling someone I needed to work with, especially on such an important and high-profile case.

The two of them made their way to empty seats and sat down. Vance looked around at the guys, a Cheshire-cat grin on her face. It was painfully clear she found the whole thing highly amusing. Sonia, the representative from Red Star, on the other hand, did not look pleased in the slightest.

“Welcome to Concorde University campus,” Cerise said with a radiant smile. “My role is to facilitate communication between the Linked and the investigative teams. I promise I won’t get in the way.”

Now that was the best news I’d had all day. It made the whole space-adaption-sickness thing totally worth it.

We quickly filled them in on our plan—or at least our starting points.

Sihota piped up. “We will require some kind of transport, since we have a number of witnesses scattered in near space, and we want to keep them apart rather than bring them here.”

“We understand. We will see what we can do,” Cerise responded in her calm voice.

“If I may, I’m rated and current on a number of craft. I saw a few Icarus-class shuttles in your dock,” Sihota said.

Cerise simply nodded and cocked her head slightly as if she were listening to something. A few seconds later, she spoke again. “I have requisitioned one for your use.”

“Oh...thank you.” Sihota looked slightly taken aback at the speed with which she had secured a spacecraft for our personal use. So was I, to be honest. This was the model of efficiency. I dreaded to think what the process would be for doing that in the Earth-moon system.

“It’s my pleasure.” Her smile was, again, radiant.

“That was remarkably…efficient,” Vance said.

“Yes, we don’t believe in needless bureaucracy here. If something can easily be achieved, it will be done.”

“And getting hold of a shuttle is that easy?” Sihota asked.

“Oh, I may be exaggerating a touch,” Cerise said. “I, of course, had to get it cleared and requisitioned. I merely sent the request through to the appropriate people, and they said yes. Then I had to clear it with the Consensus to ensure they were happy for Linked resources to be used in such a manner, which of course, they were, considering what has occurred.”

“And you did that just now?” Vance asked.

“As soon as you asked the question,” Cerise answered.

“But,” Vance frowned, “you got the answer back within a few seconds.”

“The Links are only limited by light-speed. As soon as I thought it, the harbormaster checked that it was okay, and the consensus poll was given Io-Incident priority for Consensus consideration. The Linked voted and approved the request.” She shrugged. “This is simply the way we do things up here.”

“Jesus,” muttered Frampton from behind Vance. “It took her longer to explain it than do it.” Vance nodded. I was beginning to see why she seemed a little wary of the Linked’s potential in the Sol system. I was also thinking how much I hated paperwork...

“It strikes me,” I said, “that if we had the same ability to hook into your—what did you call it? Consensus?—we could speed things up significantly.”

“It would,” Cerise said, “except for the fact that you are not used to it. The ability to join the Linked Consensus is not something you can simply download.”

“Could we have some kind of temporary access?” I asked.

Cerise and Lieutenant Agir exchanged a look before she said, “This isn’t about security; it’s about simple ability. You would not be used to it.”

“Try me.” I wasn’t sure who I was trying to impress, but if I’m honest with myself, it was probably the stunning Linked woman.

“Very well.”

A Link-accept icon appeared on my HUD, and giving a brief glance at the others, I accepted it. Suddenly, I heard thousands of voices and data streams flowing through my HUD and directly into my stack.

Welcome to the Consensus, Layton. A voice—Cerise’s, I think—cut through the confusing mess. I saw in my stack…me, looking perplexed but from her view.

STATION ROTATION NOMINAL / IO / I LOVE YOU CASSANDRA / ICARUS REQUISITION COMPLETE / PARTY AT 231 CAPRICORN STREET ALL INVITED / ATMOSPHERIC ADJUSTMENT IS BEING ACTIVELY MONITORED / IO / CAN ANYONE HELP ME MAKE SOME CAKES FOR THE REFUGEES

Hello? I said as if I was calling out for someone in a crowded room where no one was paying any particular attention to me.

Relax, Accept the links. Do not try to focus on anything in particular.

Easy for her to say. All around me, the voices were getting louder. Images crept in. Many of them seemed to be live feeds from linked HUDs. It was a complete montage, everything from people working in offices and control stations to people having sex.

I’M GOING FOR A RUN ANYONE JOIN ME / I LOVE IT WHEN HE DOES THAT THING / COMING IN TO DOCK SLIP 5 / IO

I blinked, trying to drive out the voices and images that were overwhelming me. It felt like my mind itself was overloaded with malware, causing pop-up after pop-up to appear.

Shut it off!

Everything ended. The room came back into sharp focus again. I looked over to Cerise, a bemused smile on her face. “Wow.”

“Do you still think it would be useful, given the fast-moving situation we find ourselves in?” she asked, not expecting an answer. “It takes months or even years of adaption.”

“Yeah…I think it’s probably best if we stay old-school on this one, Cerise.” I looked around the room to see faces that ranged from concerned through intrigued to downright amused.

“Maybe once this is over, you could come spend some time with us and get to know the Link properly at your own pace,” Cerise said.

“Yeah, I’ll…er…I’ll think about it.”

“Right, if you’re done trying to impress?” Vance said sarcastically.

I scowled but nodded.

“I would suggest that we retire for the evening. Tomorrow, first thing, I will do a round-robin and drop off the investigators at their assigned stations,” Sihota cut in before Vance—or more likely, I—could say anything that would compromise the working relationship with our new partners.

There were murmurs of ascent and some small talk about grabbing a good night’s sleep. Me? I was going to head to the nearest bar.

***

“It was her eyes…” I knew I was slurring, but then, so was Cheng. In fact, we were all pretty drunk. “They’re so intense.”

The club we had found ourselves in was on the Concorde University campus, and like student bars since time immemorial, the drinks were cheap and flowed freely. Despite Sihota’s insistence that he was going to leave after one drink, he was still out with us for what was turning into a night on the town, along with Frampton, who was engaging a young lady in what was clearly a deep and meaningful debate in the corner.

“I know. What I would give to romance her,” Cheng said as he knocked back his pint of lager.

“I would think Mrs. Cheng would have something to say about that,” Agapov said, the twinkle in his eye breaking through his normally humorless facade.

“When the cat’s away, the mouse will play. I mean, when the mouse is away and the cat’s at home…Fuck it, you know what I mean,” Cheng slurred.

“How about your kid?” I couldn’t help myself. “Won’t your family be disappointed if you go native and run off to Jupiter?”

“I’m sure they’d get over it,” Cheng said smoothly.

I took another swig of my drink. The world seemed mellow despite the pumping songs that were smashing out of the speakers. It felt like the first time I’d been able to relax, if only slightly, since I was sent to Sahelia. Who knew how long it would be before we got another opportunity to chill out.

“I tell you what, boys and girls,” I nodded at Vance and Sonia before gesturing at Frampton with my half-empty pint, “we must be in a weird alternative universe where the science geek is showing us how it’s done.”

“Don’t you be dissing my science geek,” Vance grinned. “Up here, the ladies value intellectual capacity, not you throwbacks who look like they’re about to cry when Linked up.”

“Throwback my arse, and what can I say? I’m a sensitive soul at heart,” I grumbled, leaning onto the high, round table. I swirled my pint in the glass, foaming up the head again. I had long learned that being defensive didn’t work with this kind of banter. It was far better to just roll with the punches.

“Don’t take it personally,” Vance chuckled. “Maybe one day you’ll find yourself a nice provincial girl out here somewhere. I hear the asteroid cities are always looking out for new DNA.”

“I’m sure they are, and prime DNA it is,” I said. The thought of spending my twilight years in zero gravity was not appealing to me in the slightest, nice provincial girl or not.

“Assuming, of course, that whatever we find out here doesn’t start an intersystem war.”

We all gave a theatrical drunken hush at Vance. Job talk had been banned for the night.

Vance held up her hands in mock surrender. “Just saying, is all.”

“All I’ll say is anyone who is hung over better be prepared to clean up their mess when I’m shipping you around Jupiter space,” Sihota said.

I gave a silent groan. The thought of going back into zero-g was already making me feel queasy. Either that or the booze was doing its job. I guess I just had to hope that the Sobex pills I had in my wash bag would do the job of calming things down.

My heart sank, though, when I saw Agapov head to the bar with his stated aim being to load up on shots.

***

I meandered my way down the gravel path, floating orbs of light illuminating my way. They looked so damn pretty, kind of like little floating moons—that’s right, moons. Night lay over the station. The sun strip was off, and extraneous lights were dimmed. Overhead, I could now see the stars winking through the transparent roof of the ring. No matter how hard I tried, the ability to travel in a straight line eluded me. The path probably had some kind of capability to twist and turn on its own, and some JAS agent was controlling it for kicks. I stumbled to a halt and squinted at my HUD, which was trying to guide me back to my room in one of the student accommodation blocks. It was the ultimate beer autopilot, but it relied on the person using it to be able to walk straight.

Spotting a bench, I slumped down in it. The world spun by me, both figuratively and literally since I was in a big spinning space station, which probably didn’t help matters. I leaned back and looked up. Through the clear roof, I watched the lights of spacecraft coming from and going to the central hub of the station. Concorde was a busy place.

I was feeling a little philosophical as the stars wheeled past the opposite rim. My life had certainly taken some strange twists and turns. A week ago I was in some god-awful desert, and now I was here, millions of miles away from home.

Humanity was an odd beast. We could make amazing things like Concorde and the space elevators, but the same species was just as capable of butchering a load of hospital staff and patients for little more than a few drugs and some implants for sale on the black market.

With a sigh, I hauled myself up, focusing on the little blue line that my HUD projected to lead me straight back to my block. And bed.







Chapter 15

Jupiter Space

Fortunately, the Sobex did its job, and I wasn’t feeling too bad. In fact, Agapov looked a lot worse than me, which I found a sweet kind of justice. We had ascended the spoke elevator to the center of the station and back into zero-g. In anticipation, I’d taken a double dose of antinausea drugs to go with the Sobex, and I was feeling quite chipper.

Sihota met us in the docking bay, gripping a handle on the Icarus to support himself. The sleek-looking shuttle was my idea of what a spacecraft should look like. The cockpit and seating area in the back were small but comfortable and could hold eight people. The crewed areas were enclosed in a sleek fuselage that looked more like it belonged on a fighter plane. It even had wings that allowed it to handle Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

“Morning,” Sihota said. “This is the ST-180 Icarus shuttle. It is one of the most common crew transfer vehicles in the solar system, which is why I’m checked out on it.” Sihota rattled off a series of specifications. The man took his job as the pilot seriously—enough to inflict a preflight briefing on us. I wasn’t quite sure why he felt we needed to know all this stuff, but at least he was knowledgeable, which gave a certain confidence in his ability.

Toward the end of the monolog, I was stifling a yawn. Finally, he let us board. Cheng called shotgun for copilot’s seat, and I sat in the second row with Vance. The others packed in behind with Frampton drawing the short straw of sitting next to Agapov. Karma, I guess. We had had to go find Frampton in that young lady’s room this morning, and he’d had a beaming grin on his face ever since. Even the thought of being in zero-g next to the queasy-looking Agapov wasn’t putting a dampener on his jubilant mood. I hadn’t quite had the heart to tell him that his performance with his new Linked friend had probably been visible to half the station—if she’d decided to share.

Sihota continued with his speech as we settled. “If we have a depressurization, a mask will drop down from above. Make sure you put that on first, and it will provide air. Under your seats are canisters of air dye. Spray that, and it will flow toward the hole. Nano-patches are stowed under there as well. If you can get at the breach, slap one of them on the rupture. That should hold until we make the nearest port.”

Sihota carried on in this vein for a while, speaking clearly as he flicked his way through the start-up procedure. Fans whirred, beeps started beeping, and the other machines hummed, doing their thing.

“Hatches closing,” Sihota called as they slammed shut with a sucking noise.

With hisses of gas thrusters, the Icarus moved toward the shuttle bay door at one end of the cavernous, slowly rotating hangar. It dilated open, and we drifted through into the red-lit airlock. Sihota was chattering constantly to Concorde Control in the incomprehensible technical language of pilots throughout the ages.

After a few moments, the imposing outer doors opened, and Sihota pushed the Icarus out into space. I slaved my HUD to what Sihota was seeing and was dazzled by an array of lines and numbers hovering in the cockpit window, mapping local space. To me, it was as impenetrable as his communications with traffic control.

“Shortly, I will activate our main drive,” Sihota called out. “You will feel it pressing you back into the seat. Ready?”

We gave our assents, and a rumble began from somewhere behind. I felt a pressure on my chest building. The Icarus wheeled sharply, and I watched the spiraling stars through the cockpit window while the rumble from behind intensified. We were heading to our first destination.

***

“My God!” I couldn’t help but murmur as I squinted over Cheng’s shoulder at the wreckage ahead.

We weren’t going to get too close to the cooling corpse of Io, and for that I was glad. The gaping wound on the surface had violently spewed out chunks of the moon, leaving behind a cloud of red-hot gas nearly obscuring it. Io still rotated, looking like a Catherine wheel, spreading flame-colored wreckage in every direction. Even stranger was that it smashed through a trail of its own debris and gasses left on previous orbits. The effect was like a holotank representation of its orbital track, only the trail the moon followed was its own rocky flesh and lava lifeblood.

“This is why we’re here, people,” Vance said in an awed tone.

“Can you imagine if this had happened to Earth?” Agapov had recovered enough over the journey to at least take part in the conversation now.

“Yeah, I’d rather not,” I said. I looked over my shoulder at Frampton. “So, is it going to come apart completely?”

“No one knows,” he replied with a shrug. “I don’t think anyone has managed to model this yet. I suspect whatever happens, Jupiter will have one hell of a new ring system. Io itself, though? It may disintegrate or it may keep enough integrity to hold together. In a few million years, it may even reform into another moon even if it were to come apart.”

I saw a small bright flash on the surface; it must have been huge to be visible from this range. “What was that?”

“Probably an antimatter bottle failing. The storage silos were widely dispersed and about as hardened as it’s possible to make them. Still, they need constant power, which they’re not getting anymore. They’ve been steadily popping since the strike,” Sihota said.

“So not only is the place falling apart on its own, antimatter is exploding all over the place,” Cheng said.

“There can’t be too many of them left. Sure, they can take a direct hit from a bunker-buster bomb, possibly even a low-yield nuke, but without power, they’re running on internal batteries. They’re only designed to last until they can be hooked back up to a power source or fired off into space,” Frampton replied.

“Christ, even grams of that stuff are worth millions of dollars,” said Vance.

“Yeah,” I thought out loud. “Maybe someone was tempted to try and get it, especially now when the moon is off limits, and the bottles are easy pickings.”

Another flash bloomed near the edge of the punished moon. It seemed to be on one of the massive eggshell-like pieces of crust floating above the surface. The whole chunk wobbled, a testament to the sheer power of the explosion.

“Yeah, but who would risk going to get it? The containment could go offline at any time, and that’s assuming you could get through all that debris. I doubt anyone would be stupid enough to make the attempt, no matter how greedy,” Frampton said.

I carried on watching the intermittently sparking wreckage of the moon. I was horrified by the devastation, yet it had a strange beauty to it.







Chapter 16

Calisto

Calisto looked a lot like Earth’s moon would if Earth’s moon had a dusting of glittering frost. The whole surface looked brutally punished with impact craters everywhere, big and small, most overlapping.

“That doesn’t exactly look like the kind of place I would want to live,” I murmured as I looked over the surface of one of the most densely populated places in Jupiter space.

“This is one of the oldest surfaces in the solar system here, Layton. It’s not as if this has happened overnight. You’re looking at billions of years of damage, all preserved,” Frampton called from the back.

“Still…” I knew I had a dubious look on my face.

“Calisto is actually a lot more conducive to life than pretty much anywhere in Jupiter space, other than Europa. It’s far enough out and has a decent enough ionosphere that it doesn’t get too much radiation from Jupiter. Plus it has a lot of water. They even found some microbial life here, the same as in Europa’s ocean, Pansemnia. It either evolved here and then scattered onto Europa via an impact or vice versa. Maybe it even came from somewhere else, a comet, for example.”

I vaguely remembered learning that at school. Despite the bookmakers laying the odds down that if life was going to be found anywhere other than Earth in the Sol system, it would be on Mars, it was actually out here that it had first been discovered. That was about where the excitement stopped, though, other than for a few microbiologists. The microbes were about as low down on the evolutionary scale as it was possible to go. It certainly didn’t fill me with a sense of wonder.

“Calisto Control, Icarus 513. Requesting landing instructions for Arcas City,” Sihota cut in as he cocked his head to listen to the reply. More graphics appeared on the cockpit window. I hoped they made sense to him.

“Agapov? How are you back there?” Sihota called over his shoulder with a rare grin.

“Don’t you worry about me,” he said with a sullen tone. He was a hero in my eyes for keeping it down.

With a stomach-wrenching lurch, the Icarus nosed down and plummeted toward the grey, cratered surface. I gripped my seat and groaned. I wasn’t the only one. A few moments later, Sihota pulled the nose up, and I couldn’t see the surface of Calisto anymore, just the looming gas giant that it orbited. It was almost worse not being able to see the moon getting closer.

The rumbling behind us grew angrier, and our pilot kept up a steady stream of chatter on the radio. Finally, Sihota announced, “We will be down in ten seconds.”

I crushed the seat arms with my grip, feeling the push on my back intensify before I felt a slight, anticlimactic thud. We were down. Through the cockpit window I saw the outer doors of the landing pad shut. It felt a little like being inside a giant mouth.

***

Our stay on Calisto wasn’t a long one. We climbed out of the Icarus, and I found myself in an umbilical tube on the landing pad of Arcas City.

I looked around in wonder at the landing pad, which was situated in a large chamber that, like pretty much any structure on Calisto, was built within one of the many impact craters. This was just one of the smaller ones that surrounded Arcas City. Even so, the cavernous hangar was over a kilometer across and filled with dozens of spacecraft, service vehicles, and long, transparent umbilical tubes connecting to the walls of the crater.

While Sihota was talking to a gum-chewing tech in the entry way, I bounced a couple of times, playfully testing the low gravity, which was only a tenth that of Earth’s…until I ricocheted my head off the top of the tube. The tube was soft and gave, but even so, I decided it was best to stop before I made a total fool of myself.

Frampton and Vance had grabbed their duffle bags and made their way along the tube toward the wall. I turned and looked at Sihota and the tech with a raised eyebrow.

The tech grinned at me and said, “Turnaround will take about an hour. If you go to the wall and catch the circumference tram a quarter clockwise, there’s an observation tower you can go up. It shows off Arcas City quite well, if I do say so myself.”

“Go on, Layton, take the others with you while I get the Icarus prepped for the next leg.” Sihota inclined his head in the direction of the tube.

I didn’t need to be told twice.

***

We were standing in the lift as it shot up the side of the tall tower toward the peak. The vista opened up in front of us—Arcas City in all of its splendor.

I opened up my HUD link and a wealth of tourist information unobtrusively appeared in my vision as I looked over the crater city. It was vast, sixty kilometers wide with a clear dome over the crater. The buildings twinkled away, mostly at the crater’s edges, while the interior contained vast tracts of farmland, lakes, and forests. In the middle of the crater was another cluster of buildings encrusting a dome of rock.

On the other side lay another crater, smaller than Arcas City but still about forty kilometers in diameter. Inside, it was raw and grey, but around the edges, another transparent cover was growing from the outside in.

More information appeared on my HUD. Even as we watched, billions of nanobots were creating that cover. It had incredible tensile strength. Like Concorde, the space elevators, and the gas miners, it was a product of the nano-industrial revolution. Nothing on this scale could have even been attempted before the advent of nanoscale engineering. Still, forty kilometers was a good distance to cover, and it would take years to complete. But when it was finished, they would have the land area to sustain population growth for decades. And by the time it had been filled, I was sure another crater city would be complete.

At some point, most of the refugees would find themselves here, but for the time being, they were in the temporary relief facilities scattered around the JA.

The people here were more “regular” than the Linked. Many of them were even Naturals. As far as the Jupiter Alliance went, Calisto was the bread basket. It complemented Europa with its unlimited reserves of water and Ganymede with its metal-rich makeup. The three of them formed the triumvirate of worlds that would grant the Alliance independence from the inner systems.

It was rapidly becoming obvious to me that if someone truly wanted to harm the Jupiter Alliance, they would have struck one of these worlds or Concorde, the administrative center. They were the locations that were indispensable. The loss of Io was an inconvenience. But the loss of one of the other three Galilean moons or Concorde may well have been fatal for the Jupiter Alliance.







Chapter 17

Hibernia

Sihota was taking Cheng and me to our destination next, and if I thought the ride into Calisto was rough, it had nothing on the journey to Hibernia, one of the gas miners speeding through the upper reaches of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

The view as we approached Jupiter reminded me of the journey we had taken in Erebus—dizzyingly fast, nearly suicidal. The massive sphere of the planet flattened out as we approached through massive, wispy clouds and moon-sized thunderheads. I was both disappointed and relieved that our course wouldn’t take us near the Great Red Spot, the most distinctive storm in the Sol system. The spot itself had waxed and waned over the last couple of hundred years, at one point nearly disappearing, but for the last few decades it had returned with a vengeance. Even the hardy gas miners avoided that maelstrom.

Through the cockpit window, I could see a steadily growing speck. Before long, the Hibernia’s shape and true scale became distinct. It was huge. Not as big as Concorde, but where that station was clean lines and grace, this facility looked like a wing-shaped floating chemical factory that stretched left and right out of view.

“This is Hibernia,” Sihota called out. “Basically, its job is to dip into Jupiter’s atmosphere when it’s at perigee and suck up a load of hydrogen and helium. It continues its orbit, and then, when it’s at apogee, the furthest point from Jupiter it orbits, the station will shoot cargo balloons at a capture station before continuing back around.”

The Icarus crept closer and closer to the station. I couldn’t even see where we would dock on the damn thing at first, it was that complicated an arrangement of pipes and modules. Finally, I could make out a rectangle of clear, white light. Our rate of closure had slowed to what felt like a walking pace. Finally, we nudged our way inside.

***

The Hibernia was about as far removed from the cosmopolitan space city of Concorde or the sedentary agricultural nature of Arcas City as it was possible to be. The habitable sections of the station were cramped and labyrinthine, all long twisting passages, pipes, and low lighting. The living quarters were built around the machinery, not the other way around. This was a working station, where the comforts of humanity were not the primary concern. Nevertheless, because the gas miners ran with a skeleton crew, they had plenty of spare life-support capacity to keep a good portion of the refugees.

Melissa Gant, the guide who was showing me and Cheng to our temporary quarters, spouted tedious facts about the station, clearly proud of the place and completely ignoring our dubious faces. It didn’t help that the whole station was in free fall around Jupiter. We were in zero-g again, this time with no respite other than the brief periods of thrust when Hibernia sped up to compensate for the drag of Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“Currently, we have nearly a hundred refugees onboard,” Gant was saying as she pushed herself gracefully down the dark, pipe-filled corridor. “That’s not a problem for our life support in the slightest. The stations were designed to act as redoubts in case of a major catastrophe in one of the space cities. We share the load up here.” She beamed proudly.

“I’m sure,” Cheng said, hauling himself only slightly less gracefully after her. “I presume you have set aside some facilities for our use?” Cheng had switched into G-man mode. His normal levity had all but disappeared, replaced with an authoritative voice.

“Yes, we have set aside an office in the emergency shelter for you to use,” Gant replied. “There is full integration with the Jupiter net here and the Hypernet back on Earth, subject to normal time delays, of course.” We finally reached a set of doors, and she waved her hand, opening them. “These will be your quarters. Sorry, they’re a touch Spartan, but I’m sure you appreciate we don’t have much spare room at the moment.”

I poked my head in. It seemed we were sharing. I could see two bunks, well, alcoves, like two graves next to each other or against the wall, depending which way you looked at them. Without a word, I tossed my backpack toward one, which contained all I needed for what I hoped would be a relatively short stay. Cheng did the same with his own backpack, and Gant led us back out.

Gant droned on with the small talk about Hibernia. I let it wash over me. Anything I needed to know, I could get over Link. Instead, I was thinking about the people billeted around the station. This lot had all come off Io itself. Vance and Frampton were going to be speaking to the people off Magellan at Arcas City, and Agapov and Sihota would be questioning others from Magellan over on Europa. Drayton was going to be coordinating with the other investigation teams...and Cerise, the lucky girl, back at Concorde.

“And these will be your offices,” Gant said. The slight smile on her face told me a lot about what kind of environment was awaiting us. Sure enough, upon the door’s opening I could see that we had an empty room with a table and a couple of chairs bolted to the deck. “I’m sorry we can’t be more hospitable. We have another store room down the corridor that’s empty, which you can also use if you wish. Just say if you want any more furniture brought up, and we’ll try to oblige.”

“We’ll use one as our office and the other as an interview room. Can you see if you can square away getting it fitted out like this one?” I asked.

“Sure, we should be able to sort that out for you. I’ll get right on it.”

“Thank you, Ms. Gant,” I said to the enthusiastic lady.







Chapter 18

Hibernia

“So Lana,” I said, reading her bio off of my HUD. “You were on Io for—what? Six months? At…let me see…Danube Planum? Prior to the incident?”

“That’s right,” Lana Shaftsbury replied. She was a small lady in her early thirties, and she regarded me with a mixture of fear and confusion flickering across her face. I didn’t think I was that scary, but then, I wasn’t sitting on her side of the table. I smiled at her to calm her down. The VRs tended to have us cops shouting and swearing at suspects and witnesses. In real life, we got far better results by building a rapport and keeping them talking.

“And what was your job down there?” Lana opened her mouth to reply. I held up my palm and gave her another smile, preempting what I suspected would be an in-depth explanation that would mean nothing to me. “And remember, Lana, I’m just a police officer. Give me the basics.”

“Well, my doctorate is in Io volcanism. My job was to record and monitor a volcano at the northern end of the Danube called Pele. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the solar system. We’re trying to get an insight into the structure of the moon. Well, we were…” She tailed off. Clearly, she realized that all her work for the last few years was gone.

“Thanks for that, Lana,” I smiled encouragingly. “I need you to walk me through the events leading up to the evacuation—your thoughts, what you felt, anything suspicious you might have seen, things like that.”

Lana pursed her lips. Perhaps I’d presented myself as little too friendly for she evidently felt she could challenge me. “Mr. Trent, can you tell me why I’m being asked these questions by a police officer? Am I under arrest? Do I need a lawyer?”

“Not at all. If anything, you’re a witness. We want to understand what happened down there. Why it happened. That’s why we’re speaking to all the survivors.”

“Okay…” She still wore a suspicious look on her face. “The Danube research station was quite small. There are…were only twenty of us researchers there, but we had a couple of engineers and a pilot to hop us around.”

I nodded at her, inviting her to continue. All this I knew already.

“I was just working in the lab, looking at some data from a recent eruption, when Pete, my line manager, linked me and told me that we were going to evac stations. We normally have an evac drill once a week since Io is so active that we have to be ready to go at a moment’s notice. Anyway, I saved my work and walked over to the shuttle.”

“You walked over?” I asked. “You didn’t run?”

“Yes, I just thought it was a practice drill,” Lana replied, “nothing special. You know, like when you’re back on Earth, and you have to do fire drills every few weeks.”

“Okay, go on.”

“We got into the shuttle and waited. I was a bit annoyed because those drills always seemed to interrupt me at important times. Anyway, I was just sitting in my prescribed seat waiting to be released from the drill when, next thing I know, the shuttle takes off. I was completely surprised. We all were.”

“I can appreciate that.” I nodded encouragingly at her to keep her speech flowing. “What next?”

“As we were climbing away from the surface, I could see a bright flash of light through the window. I wondered what it was; I even wondered if one of the antimatter bottles had popped over at one of the power station prototypes. Then I saw the massive plume of debris spraying out of a huge hole in the side of the moon. I didn’t know what to make of it. None of us had ever seen anything like it. I thought maybe an asteroid or comet had struck Io, but we didn’t understand why we hadn’t had much warning. They would have seen something that could do that much damage months beforehand. Only later were we told about the Magellan.”

I knew this, too. A common theme we were finding was that a lot of people were surprised when they had found themselves actually being blasted up into space. I hadn’t wanted to start with the reasons why Lana here was on our red list, but now she was relaxing; it was time dig into her past.

“So, Lana,” I got up off the chair, making like the interview was over, and pushed myself off toward the watercooler in the corner. I got us both a drinking bulb before returning to my seat. I was definitely getting better at this zero-g maneuvering. “You went to MIT, I understand?”

“Yes, I’ve been there since my undergrad days, other than field work, of course.”

“It’s nice in Boston. I went there on a conference once. Years ago, mind, but I thought it was a lovely city.”

“Yes, it is,” she said agreeably.

“Lots to do, and I thought New York was the city that never sleeps. It’s got nothing on you guys up in Boston.”

Lana gave a snort. “I wish I’d had time to enjoy it.”

I took a drink from my bulb and then said in a calm, carefully measured voice. “So are you going to tell me about the Unlinked?”

“What?” she said, dropping the bulb. It just hung in the air, spinning gently. Beads of water trickled out of the straw like a watery Catherine wheel.

“In your second year at MIT, you signed up with a proscribed organization, the Unlinked. Why?”

Lana gave a sharp intake of breath and her eyes widened. “How did you know about that?”

“We’re the police; of course we know about that,” I said, putting on a blasé manner. I wanted to give her the impression we knew more than we were letting on. I leaned in a little closer and let my tone become firmer. “Tell me about them.”

“What’s there to tell?” She glanced nervously about the room. “Are you sure I don’t need a lawyer?”

“One of the biggest acts of terrorism in history has just occurred, and you are a significant witness. The destruction of an entire moon! You want a lawyer?” I shrugged and took another sip. “Fine, we’ll get you one as soon as is practicable. Of course, you’ll be in isolation until then. Might be a while as it will likely mean bringing in one of the few in the Jupiter Alliance or lifting one up from the inner system. Meanwhile, I will simply apply for an ERP and get the information I want, anyway. It’s your call.”

Lana had gone back to looking completely scared. Her face was drawn and pale, and her bottom lip tremored every so often. “They weren’t anything. They were just a silly group protesting against the growing Linked movement. I was with them for all of a few weeks. They were just technophobic racists, and the whole concept of being Linked didn’t seem that bad to me.”

“So why did you join them?” I pressed.

“For personal reasons,” she said firmly, looking into my eyes. She managed to hold my gaze for a couple of seconds, and then dropped her eyes.

“Come on, Lana. I need more than that.”

“Okay, fine. I’d met a guy. He took me to a few meetings with him, and then we split up. That was it. I was never really in the Unlinked. I just liked a guy in them.”

“Right, now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me about who was in those meetings…”

***

“Ten down and jack shit so far.” I was trying to stretch out, but it just wasn’t as easy or satisfying when floating around. The cramps were even worse. You used a lot of muscles moving around in zero-g that you didn’t under gravity, and when those cramps came on, you had to find something to brace against to stretch them out. I’d had to float over to the wall—bulkheads, or whatever they were damn well called—and stretch myself out an ignoble number of times. Cheng, of course, was fine and casually playing catch with himself with ball all he’d found somewhere. I suspect he had spent some substantial time in zero-g. That or his implants that Giselle had alluded to were a lot of help.

“My group have pretty much been nonstarters,” he replied, catching his bouncing ball again. He was ambidextrous, favoring neither right nor left hand, using whichever happened to be closer to the ball.

I looked back at the wall screen containing the list of twelve other reds we wanted to question, trying to divine some meaning from the litany of names. Giving up, I rubbed my eyes, dry from the recycled air in the dehumidified compartment.

“I reckon Vance and Frampton are the ones who are going to hit pay dirt with the Magellan passengers and crew,” Cheng said, the ball still ricocheting disconcertingly around the room.

“Maybe,” I said. I gave a sigh and crawled into the chair. I set my HUD to desktop mode and let it unfold virtually in front of me. “Next up for me is…Phillip Prince, technical support at a station at the base of some mountain, Gish Bar Mons, which is situated to the south of a collection of craters called the Gish Bar Patera. Why can’t they make these place names out here straightforward to remember?”

Cheng gave a shrug between bounces of his ball. “Why make life easy? So tell me about Phillip.”

I scanned over the information. “Mechanical engineering degree from Olympus, Mars. He’s a spacer through and through. A few brushes with the law, all relatively minor. Low-level assaults, yadda, yadda, yadda. Here we go. He’s red-flagged; he was part of the service team for the QAR just before she went pirate.”

The QAR, or Queen Anne’s Revenge, was not her original name. In fact, the crew never even called her that. That was just what she was known as in the media circles, nicknamed after Black Beard’s ship. She was actually a light freighter named, rather inauspiciously, the Hare. The crew had rigged her out with some primitive weapons, and she spent a very short career preying on the asteroid cities. Unfortunately for the crew, the perceived glamour of the pirate life was far outstripped by the practicalities. They discovered that the small amount of cargo they had managed to steal simply didn’t have a market anywhere. I suspect they spent far too much time playing VR games and not enough time thinking about the law of supply and demand. Their short-lived buccaneering days came to an abrupt end when a corporate ship hunted them down. The crew were now all serving very long sentences in a prison somewhere.

“Prince have any links to the crew?” Cheng asked.

“Nah, it was just a standard service contract, nothing more nefarious than he happened to be one of the last people to do some maintenance on the QAR.”

“Bah,” Cheng said. “Not our man.”

“I doubt it, but on the red list he is, so questioned he will be.”







Chapter 19

Hibernia

“I still don’t see what the Hare has to do with Io,” Prince moaned. “I was just the spanner who serviced the engine on the damn ship.”

“I’m sure that you can appreciate that we are obligated to ask these questions, Phillip. We would be remiss if we didn’t,” I said.

“It’s just I’ve been asked over and over again, and the investigators were happy I wasn’t involved,” Prince responded. The man was a product of the low gravity environment of Mars: pale and lanky. His face was glistening with perspiration, and he had the slightest of trembles to him. He didn’t look happy to be here at all, which was understandable, but not to the extent he was showing.

“Okay, Phillip. Did any of the others at Gish Bar station know about your involvement with the Hare?”

“No. Well, maybe a couple of them, but they just assumed it was what it was: me giving the engine on the ship a once-over as part of her standard servicing schedule.”

“Were you close to your colleagues at the station? I mean, the others were mostly academics, weren’t they?” I asked. “You were the only tech and pilot.”

“Well, I wasn’t a pilot as such. I was just checked out to fly the EV, the escape vehicle, if we were called to evacuate. I knew enough to get us up if that’s what you mean. I couldn’t exactly fly the shuttle much beyond that. But yeah, it was a bit lonely sometimes, I guess.”

I leaned back in my chair. I didn’t really know where to take the questioning of Prince further. I didn’t get the impression he was involved with anything too bad, but something was niggling me about how uncomfortable he looked. “So who were you friends with?”

“No one at the station. Sometimes we did a little trading with another station. I was friends with one of them.” Prince was doing his hardest to avoid eye contact, looking at everything but me.

I casually manipulated my HUD as I asked, “So what did you use to trade, Phillip?”

“Nothing much.” He was really squirming now. “You know—parts, consumables, stuff like that.”

Bollocks. He wouldn’t be looking nearly so awkward if it were just spare parts. “Phillip. I don’t think you’re telling me the whole truth here.”

“No, I am!” he exclaimed.

“What were you trading?” I pressed, making my voice firmer and authoritative.

“Just stuff,” he said. I swear he was about to cry.

“Tell me what,” I said as I leaned forward and said more gently, “and I’ll do what I can for you, Phillip.”

“Moonshine, alright? Fucking moonshine. Booze is banned on Io. There are too many opportunities for something to go wrong,” he said miserably.

I pursed my lips. Booze. He probably had a still and was the local fence—not exactly the crime of the century. Suddenly, I wasn’t quite so interested, but still, I needed to bring this to a wrap rather than just boot him out. “Who did you fence to, Phillip?”

“His name was Josh. I just knew him as that.” His eyes were darting around the low-lit room like he was looking for an escape. I’d let him sweat for a while then cut him loose and send the interview over to the JAS. They could do what they wanted with him, which would probably be a slap on the wrist and a firm telling off.

“What station was he from?”

“He never said. Told me he couldn’t.”

No worries on that front. I typed Josh and Joshua into my HUD virtual desktop. That was interesting. Nothing came up on any station’s manifest. “Josh, you say?”

“Yeah.”

“Did you ever go to his station?” I asked.

“No, he always came to ours. Look, why don’t you ask him these things?”

I looked through the data on my HUD at him, a little surprised. The data in my field of automatically whisked off to the side to get out of my line of sight as I focused on Prince. “Do you know where he is now?”

“Yes, of course. He’s down in the billets. He was at our station when it…it happened. We had the spare room, and he couldn’t get home in time, so he came with us.”

Now that was interesting. We had a man who was not listed on any of the manifests, a man who was apparently downstairs. I quickly scanned through the list of people on Prince’s shuttle. Sure enough, onboard was an eleventh man, Joshua Smith.

“You’re right, I think we do need to talk to him, Phillip,” I said as I leaned forward. “But first, you’ll tell me everything you know about this Joshua.”

If this Joshua had to invent a name, it could have been more original than Smith.







Chapter 20

Hibernia

Cheng and I decided to double-team our mysterious Mr. Smith. We had led him up from the cramped billets to our interview room. He was a forty-something balding guy, and he knew he’d been made.

On entering the room, I gestured at him to take the seat and, with practiced ease, he kicked himself into it. Cheng took up position at the back of the room while I gripped onto a convenient handle and lowered myself into a seat in front of him.

Smith looked at me without blinking, only breaking eye contact to gaze coolly at Cheng before looking back at me, a stark contrast to the nervous Prince. “I can’t tell you what you want to know.”

“Fine.” I leaned back and regarded Smith. He was calm, composed, and I doubted power plays and nonverbal dominance techniques would rattle him. “So, what can you tell me? Let’s start with what you were doing on Io. After all, you weren’t supposed to be there.”

He just smiled back and said nothing.

“We have evidence of an unregistered base near Gish Bar Mons and that you were a member of the complement there. I would suggest whoever runs you is not going to be happy that you breached security to go get tanked at your neighbor’s place.”

“They would be even more unhappy if I started talking,” Smith said with a shrug. “And their unhappiness would be far more…unhappy than yours.”

What the hell? I thought to myself. This guy had clearly watched too many VRs. He was talking like something out of a movie. We had trawled every database we could think of and had not found a single thing about Smith. Whoever he was had been expunged everywhere. We couldn’t even find when he had come out here.

“Okay. Let’s cut the bullshit. How do we get you to tell us what we want to know, which is who you are and what you were doing on Io?”

“Get me back to Earth, and we’ll talk about it,” Smith said calmly. “Someone will be in touch on arrival.”

“No.” Cheng gripped the edge of the table and loomed over Smith, a slight smile on his face. “No. they won’t.”

Cheng and I glanced at each other. That was our cue. As we’d agreed, upon Smith making his first demand, we left the room without another word. Let him stew on that!

***

I was looking at the satellite images from Cerise that I had superimposed on the wall of our “office,” trying to divine some meaning from them. There wasn’t much to interpret. Io didn’t have the twenty-four/seven sat coverage that the more heavily populated worlds of the Sol system had. I watched again as the satellite-trawl clip showed the hopper mysteriously appearing in the middle of nowhere on a satellite pass, heading toward Gish Bar Station.

The boxy surface shuttle crept across the landscape toward the base as the clip’s focus point drifted across the screen. Eventually the hopper disappeared from view. What I was looking at was the sole mistake Smith appeared to have made in the last six months. He had mistimed his travel from wherever he had come from to go get his booze shipment and flown right under one of the satellites.

We had examined his vector with a fine-toothed comb. We could see nothing—no bases, no stations, no sign of any settlement. Wherever he had come from was hidden. I had the analysis software running a search down to the pixel for any possible origin points, but it came up empty.

“So who the hell would set up a secret base on that hellhole?” I asked rhetorically.

Cheng gave a shrug. “I’m sure there are assets all throughout Sol that governments and corporations don’t want anyone to know about.”

I gave him a pointed look before asking, “Any of—”

“No,” he said with finality.

Not that he would tell me. “We need something to go back in there with something solid to squeeze him with.”

“We know our friend here comes from the Gish Bar region,” Cheng said. I could practically hear the cogs whirring in his mind over the sound of the circulation fans. “But that’s too general. We need to nail it down.”

“We could take a punt,” I said. I examined the clip again. I overlaid it on a larger scale map and gestured with my finger along the line the hopper had taken. I could see a wealth of rather wordy Latin-sounding names but nothing that sprung out near the vector. Other than one thing—an inactive volcano called Eston Mons, which was right along the line. It was better than nothing.

***

“We’ve decided we will continue questioning you here,” I said. Cheng and I had resumed our places, him hanging onto the back wall, me on the seat. I took a deep breath. This was it—the gamble. Neither Cheng nor I had turned up any evidence of anything interesting at Eston Mons. But Smith didn’t know that. And I had that itch in corner of my mind again. I could be wrong…but something told me I wasn’t. I let out my pent-up breath slowly, then asked the question. “What was going on at the Eston Mons facility?”

Smith leaned back and looked at me. I got the impression he was trying to read what I knew just as hard as Cheng and I were trying to read him. That was good; it showed me I was in the right ballpark. “Look, Joshua, whatever you were doing there is gone. It’s currently in chunks floating around in space, presumably with all of your friends.”

That bit at least we knew was true. Nothing had lifted from that region other than the Gish Bar shuttle. It was either a one-man facility or everyone else who had been inside was dead. I decided to take a guess that it wasn’t just Smith stationed there; there were others, too, people that he gave a damn about. It paid off. For the first time, I saw the man give a pained look.

“I can’t tell you,” Smith said weakly.

“Are you afraid of someone? We can protect you.”

“This isn’t a VR. I’m not being fucking threatened.” Smith’s voice became resolute. At least he realized now he wasn’t in a movie. People had died over whatever he had been involved in.

Cheng cut in, casually waving a hand my direction. “My friend here is from the police.” Cheng pushed off the wall and glided over to the table directly across from Smith. His voice got deeper and softer. “I am not. I don’t care if you feel threatened by anyone else. But know this: we have some very deep, dark holes that I can put you in where you will never see the light of day again. And that, Mr. Smith, is not a threat; it is simply the certain consequence of noncooperation.” Cheng maneuvered smoothly around the table and did a fine impression of squatting down in zero-g, uncomfortably close to Smith. With his mouth near Smith’s ear, he said in a dark voice, “Now tell us, what were you doing there?”

Smith pulled back and turned to looked at him. If a man could be said to be staring daggers, it was him. “Fuck you.”

Cheng straightened up and let himself float. “Just so we’re clear,” Cheng said, his voice suddenly conversational, casual, almost pleasant. It sent a cool tingle down my spine. “That offer extends to every one of your family we can find. And I promise…I’ll find them all.”

That cool tingle turned to ice. I didn’t have a problem with sending Smith down a dark hole—but his whole family? That left my skin crawling. I didn’t know how he managed it, but Smith kept his granite face firm and unbreakable. He wasn’t going to crumble—I’d have bet on that...

And I would have lost.

Smith closed his eyes and the breath went out of him, deflating his defiance. “We found something,” he said, his voice faltering. “Something under the surface….”







Chapter 21

Hibernia

“Well…shit,” I said, feeling a little overwhelmed. We were back in the office. I was gently spinning around the dark room—a habit I had discovered that, while not as satisfying as pacing back and forth, scratched the same itch.

“Shit indeed,” Cheng replied.

Smith’s story sounded like something from a VR. It was a long, rambling tale of a Red Star seismic survey having detected strange readings from under the surface of Io near Eston Mons. When someone had taken a look, they found an artifact there. Smith claimed to be on the periphery at the Eston Mons facility, little more than a lab tech. Everything was compartmentalized to hell. Whatever this artifact was or did, he didn’t have a clue. He just knew it was there.

“You think Drayton knows?” Cheng asked.

“I don’t know,” I said with a shrug. Sonia Drayton was the team’s Red Star rep, and everything was compartmentalized at the base, but… “It’s a fair assumption. I guess Red Star could have sent her up cold so it looks like she’s a legitimate part of the investigation. Plausible deniability and all that jazz. But we have to assume she’s playing us.”

“Agreed.” Cheng rubbed his eyes before glancing at me. I couldn’t help but view Cheng in a different way. He was back to his “casual” self, yet I had just had a stark impression of how rough he could play when called upon to do so. “Have you sent the investigation log over to her yet?”

I shook my head and gave a silent thanks that I hadn’t. The Red Star representative didn’t know what we knew at the moment. We cached what we were doing and sent files over every few hours. In our enthusiasm to question Smith, I hadn’t sent it since before questioning Prince. It was bad standard procedure, but it wound up working in our favor after what we had discovered.

“We need to keep it from her,” Cheng said.

I nodded. “Fingers crossed she hasn’t figured out what we know from our request for those Io sat-tracks. I’ll update the log that we’ve spent the last few hours debriefing the interviews we’ve done. She’ll hopefully think we’ve been slacking off, but at least she won’t know what we’ve found.” I turned another circle, hesitating to speak my next question, but it needed to be done. “Cheng, I have to ask, do you know anything about this?”

“No, but to be expected. Any one of the Big Five’s security budgets is probably higher than the EU and ours combined,” Cheng said.

That, at least, was true. The Big Five corporates had vast resources to bring to bear, including more employees than some nations had population.

My link began to ping, and I saw Vance’s ID show on my HUD. I glanced at Cheng, who gave a nod; it was coming over to him at the same time. “You taking it?” he asked.

I nodded. “Vance, how are you?”

“We have something,” Vance said without preamble. Cheng and I looked at each other.

“That’s good. I presume it’s significant stuff?”

“Could be. I’m not going to say over link, but I’m going to ask Sihota to pick you up and bring you back. We may need Cheng’s skills. You got anything there?”

I looked at Cheng who gave a slight shake of his head. I was in agreement. “No, we’ve had a long chat this morning. We think the people here on Hibernia are a dead end. We’re happy to come back.”

Vance gave a pause. She would know the one thing we wouldn’t do is assume that no one knew anything. “Okay. I’ll see you back at Arcas City.”

“See you there. Hey, Vance? You uploaded your investigation logs yet?”

“Yes, of course.”

Damn her thoroughness, but I styled it out. “Good. We’ll have a look on the way over.”

***

“Who is that?” Sihota asked as the resigned-looking Smith buckled into one of the seats of the Icarus.

“He’s someone we need to talk to back at Concorde,” I said, shaking my head to forestall any other questions.

“Very well.” Sihota took our hint. “Prepare for departure.”

Before long, Sihota took the Icarus back out into space, burning hard for the distant moon of Calisto.







Chapter 22

Calisto

If Arcas City looked good from outside, inside it was spectacular. It looked like an old Mediterranean town: white buildings with sills full of flowers and covered by flat roofs, blended tastefully into a modern city with the tall high-rise buildings hugging the side of the crater. The old-town neighborhoods were raised above the crater floor, clustered around the crater wall, encircling the agricultural fields and grassy parkland that stretched for kilometers. All this lay in stark contrast to the vista overhead. Through the dome over us, Jupiter loomed above as though it might crash down on us.

“Who is that?” Vance repeated Sihota’s question, pointing at Smith, who was with Cheng walking a few meters ahead.

I gave a slight shake of my head. There would be time enough to fill her in later. Right now, I was curious about how much she knew. “What’s been happening on Io, Vance?”

She looked at me blankly for a moment before facing forward, and we continued walking down the quaint cobbled street toward the building Frampton and she had been using. “I’m guessing your trip was a little more productive than you made out.”

“You could say that,” I said, my voice still low. “So you going to tell me what you know about this Io incident or not?” We’d found out one of our number was probably a mole. Time to see if anyone else was.

“As far as I’m concerned, what happened to the damn moon is what we’re here to find out,” Vance said, a frown creasing her forehead. “But that’s not what you’re asking, is it?”

“No, Joan, it’s not. What I’m asking is, does the CIS know what had been going down on that moon?”

“Layton, I don’t have a damn clue.” Vance grabbed my arm, slowing us down. “Now stop playing games. What did you find?”

I quickly summed up Smith’s story of something under the surface to her. She stopped, watching Smith and Cheng moving ahead.

“An artifact? What kind of artifact?” she whispered.

“He either doesn’t know or isn’t telling us. It gets better. The Eston Mons base? It’s Red Star.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? Drayton?” she hissed, grabbing my upper arm firmly. “She’s been playing us?”

I shrugged. “She could be legit or she could be a plant.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if she knew jack shit. If the corporates work anything like us, they could be giving her the mushroom treatment: keeping her in the dark and feeding her on shit. Their whole operation could be completely compartmentalized.” We resumed walking toward Vance’s building. “An artifact?”

“That’s what he said.”

“Yes, but whose? We have a log of every mission that’s ever gone there, which, before the research stations got set up, was not very many.”

“All he knows is that it was buried deep. The Eston Mons base was a long way underground, buried in a piece of relatively stable bedrock.”

We had reached the doorway of the large office building that Cheng and Smith had already gone through. Vance stopped. “I’ve been in this game for more years than I care to count,” she said thoughtfully, “and that means I’m not overly given to grand conspiracy theories.” Vance glanced around before dropping her voice even lower and leaning toward me. “But he’s talking about an alien artifact here, isn’t he?”

I took a deep breath. It was one thing to think it, quite another to say it. I didn’t want to sound like I was nuts. “He certainly seems to think so…if he’s not giving us a load of crap, that is.”

“What did he tell you about it?”

“Not much.” I shrugged again. “Just that it’s old, very old, and big. He doesn’t think it’s human, but no one has expressly said that to him. He was just a lab rat. He customized computer programs for the lab equipment. He never even saw what samples went in the equipment for analysis.”

“Clearly, we need to ask him a few more pointed questions.”

“You think?” I said a little more sarcastically than I intended. “This isn’t something Cheng or I expected when he started singing to us. Our interview plan didn’t exactly cover ancient alien artifacts.”

“You two did well to get as far as you did,” Vance smiled. “What gave you the link?”

“Some fellow was cooking up moonshine in a neighboring base. Smith went on booze runs and got caught in the base during the incident.”

“Glad to see their operational security didn’t extended to the crew getting shitfaced.” Vance shook her head in mock dismay. “Although, I’m saying that like our guys have never gone on booze cruises either. The stories I could tell you about Tijuana...”

The door slid open as we approached, and we walked into the modern interior of the local JAS station. Vance nodded to the young JAS officer staffing the front desk and then led me into the room that had been reserved for her and Frampton.

I saw Frampton at another desk with the thousand-yard stare of someone deeply engrossed in their implants.

“Hey, Dexter,” I called over to him. “Wake up.”

He gave a grunt, and his eyes snapped into focus. He squinted over at me. “Hello, Layton. Yeah, I’m good, thanks. Yourself?”

I gave a bemused glance at Vance, who simply shook her head in mock dismay. “I’m fine, Dexter.”

“People,” Cheng called as he entered the room. The others nodded in greeting at him. “I’ve lodged our guest in the custody suite. He should be safe there until we can put him through the ringer properly.”

“Good, Cheng, you’re here.” She sat down at an empty desk. “We better show you what we have.” She gestured at me and Cheng. A link request popped up in my periphery, and I accepted it. Around me, the room changed from a quaint but clean environment to one with images and charts plastered on every wall.

“While I was interviewing subjects from Magellan, I asked Dexter to run checks on everyone. Deep background, identity checks, biometrics—everything he could think of.”

“And something came up?” I said, already knowing the answer. Vance had asked us back for a reason.

“Yes. Obviously, security is fairly tight to even get on an elevator, but it is not exhaustive. It has gaps, and beyond a set of warning parameters, the security AIs are generally not too inquisitive.” Vance gestured at the screen and an image of a man appeared on it. The text on the bottom right identified the image as coming from the Port America space elevator. “Describe that man to me, Trent.”

“Okay,” I said, playing along with Vance’s game. “Male, obviously. Caucasian. Difficult to get a gauge on height from this angle, but let’s say around…six foot. Athletic build, short dark hair, sunglasses obscuring the eyes. Looks mid-to-late thirties, but then age has always been difficult.”

“And weight?” Vance asked.

“Difficult to gauge, but I’d say eighty kilos.”

“You really need to stop flicking between imperial and metric, Trent,” Vance said. “What would be your upper limit on him?”

“Yeah, well, different units for different things, Vance,” I said before answering her question. “But I don’t know. Not above eighty-five even if he’s nothing but muscle.”

Vance gave a grin and looked at Dexter, who took over. “Someone’s weight is pretty important on a spacecraft, obviously. They have to know it pretty accurately, which is why you put all your belongings onto a conveyer belt and go through that security scanner, which also, as it happens, is a set of scales.”

Frampton gestured at the screen again and a video image played. The man could be seen going to the security checkpoint. He placed his belongings into a little tray that went through a scanner and walked through the archway. At the moment he entered it, Frampton paused the clip and a data set of numbers appeared on the screen.

“Now this is the raw information from the security scanner. It shows fairly standard implants—HUD, a cortical stack, medical regulation, link—all the usual stuff. Now look at the weight.”

“Shit, he must really have been eating some pies,” I said. His weight came in at ninety-eight kilos.

“Quite,” Vance said. “That is Xander Frain. Two weeks ago he went for a medical checkup and his weight was seventy-seven kilos.”

I gave a low whistle. “That’s quite a gain.”

“Yes, it most certainly is. How much does Cheng weigh, do you think?”

I looked at Cheng, who responded with a bemused look. “Seventy or so?”

“A good guess. That’s what I would say, too, if I didn’t know what I know. And how much do you weigh?”

“Ninety,” Cheng said with a wry grin. Light had dawned for him.

“And why is that?” Vance asked.

“Because I have enhanced combat augmentations, subdermal armor plating, servo-assisted muscles and joints. I also have a set of electronic warfare packages and some weapon systems I’m not going to discuss,” Cheng said.

I contemplated that thought. I go to the gym a fair bit, and hoisting a twenty-kilo dumbbell was quite a chunk of weight. Cheng and Frain had the equivalent of one of them integrated into their bodies.

“So our friend here, Xander Frain,” I said, gesturing at the image of the dark-haired man on the screen, “is combat enhanced?”

Frain isn’t, but whoever that is, is,” Frampton called from his desk.

“You’ve lost me.”

“Frain is a contract AI consultant living in New York,” Vance said, taking over from Frampton. “He had bagged himself a six-month posting here at Arcas City working for Aerodyne. His story checks out. Based on this information, I requested our NYPD contacts search his apartment with a nano-level authorization.”

“Don’t keep us in suspense here,” I said.

“His bathtub was full of organic residue,” Vance said.

“So is mine,” I said. Not that I had any particularly gross habits, I just assumed my DNA filled the damn thing.

“Yes, but not that shows someone put you in the bath, filled it with water, and introduced nano-disassemblers that, once they’d done their job, shut themselves down. Someone quite literally pulled the plug on Frain,” Vance said.

I gave a slight look of distaste. That sounded pretty gruesome. They had liquidated the poor guy.

“That technology, as highly illegal as it is, is not completely unknown in wet work to dispose of bodies,” Vance finished.

“Nice.” I’d heard rumors of such technology but never heard of it actually being used. It suggested an advanced capability. “Besides his weight, didn’t the elevator security checks pick up anything?”

“They wouldn’t necessarily with me,” Cheng said. “As it happens, I declared my enhancements—or most of them, anyway—to customs. I can operate in stealth mode, though. It would defeat most standard scans. If he had a similar capability, he could breeze past. Quite literally, the only thing that would give him away would be his weight. That’s impossible to mask.”

“That seems pretty damn lax to me. Surely an AI could be programmed to make a guestimate of weight from someone’s size and then flag up any discrepancies if it falls out of acceptable boundaries?”

“Oh, they do, but they’re not great. Modern covert augmentations are designed to fall just inside the standard customs weight tolerances. After all, different people could weigh different amounts based on their size. An exceptionally muscular person who is nevertheless slight of build could weigh more than a chubby person who is fat.”

“Okay, makes sense,” I said before moving on. “Is there any apartment CCTV or holo at Frain’s place?”

Vance called back to Frampton over her shoulder. “Dexter?”

Frampton made a few gestures, and a CCTV clip from the apartment lobby appeared on the large wall screen. “Watch.”

A palatial lobby appeared. It was a long rectangular room full of plants and modern art but no people. I saw the outer doors slide open. No one came through. Moments later, one of the elevator doors opened up and then closed.

“Sensor ghosting is a fairly mature technology,” Cheng said. “If he has a decent e-warfare package, he could literally overwrite the recording as he moved. He wouldn’t even have to think about it; he could just let his package do the work.”

“Spooky.” The effect was like a poltergeist walking through the lobby. Doors opening without anyone actually opening them

“That it is,” Vance said with a smile.

“Okay, if that isn’t Frain,” I asked the obvious question, pointing back at the image of the man from the elevator on screen, “who the hell is he?”

“That’s the million-dollar question. Shall we go ask him?” Vance said.

“I think we should,” I nodded. “While we’re at it, maybe he can shed some light on the Eston Mons facility. It’s likely the target of this attack.”

“My thoughts exactly,” Vance agreed. “He’s on Concorde right now on Drayton’s list, awaiting interview.”

“Now that is a coincidence,” Cheng said, the faintest hint of menace escaping through his normally cheery facade. “I think we need to stop those two getting together. They may have a bit of a falling out.”







Chapter 23

Concorde

“Hey, Giselle. I hope things are going well with the Sahelia job. We’re picking our way through a few dozen leads at the moment. Maybe at some point in the next hundred years or so, we will see some light at the end of the tunnel.” I finished recording and fired off the message to Earth. It was an amateurish tactic, but maybe Drayton, or whoever was monitoring our coms, would think we had nothing and not be too worried.

Sihota smoothly brought the Icarus into the landing dock of Concorde, and we disembarked. Cheng had Smith in a viselike grip, which I suspected was firmer than a pair of handcuffs. We had taken him back to the brightly lit campus and put him in a holding cell. Now we stood in the middle of the quad and looked at each other.

“We need to decide how we’re going to play this,” I said, squinting from the bright lights of the false sun strip above us. “Both at once or one then the other?”

“I would suggest Frain first. We know where Drayton is. Frain is out of our control at the moment,” Vance replied.

I watched as a flock of birds took off in a dark, chirping cloud from the top of one of the buildings. They were so at home here. They didn’t care they were flying around in a big spinning metal doughnut.

“He could be a handful. I certainly would be,” Cheng said as a statement of fact more than a boast.

I looked at the slightly built man. It hadn’t really occurred to me just how dangerous he was. He could probably take on an entire squad and barely break a sweat. “We better get some help then,” I said.

***

The temporary buildings that had been set up for the contingent of people offloaded from Magellan were basic but comfortable. The low structures were divided into small rooms, each with their own en suite. They were a far cry from some of the horrendous temporary accommodations I’d stayed in over the years, that was for sure.

“To be clear, we are going for shock and awe here. Alpha Team under me will be the arrest team. Bravo will be support. They will pursue and engage if he gets through us,” Cheng said, briefing the team of twenty heavily armed JAS officers. They wore near-military-grade, dark-blue armor, all hard shell, and they had twin-mode carbines capable of putting an elephant down. All of us had a map of the building block where Frain was projected in our HUDs, marked with our positions. “Frain will be called for his turn to be questioned, and at the moment he leaves the billet, we surround him and arrest him on suspicion of multiple murders. Ladies and gentlemen, I can’t emphasize enough how dangerous this subject is. If he chooses to fight, then don’t think twice about opening up—no demands, no callouts, just put him down. Incaps first. If they don’t work, go to kill shots. I want everyone back and safe, am I clear?”

The JAS agents looked at each other uncomfortably. Beyond training, they probably had never had cause to even look at the kit they were wearing, and now they were being called on to use it against someone who was probably a one-man army.

Cheng was going to take tactical lead with me sticking to his hip. I had donned my scout armor. I hadn’t even had time to sort out the bullet mark on the chest plate from Sahelia, or that’s what I’d told myself. Part of me felt that the scar on the breast plate was like a medal of honor in memory of Dev.

I couldn’t see Frain getting around us all, but then, I’d never had cause to take on someone who was as enhanced as we suspected Frain was. We had dug through his past as much as we could and got nothing. The only thing we had to go on was to assume that he had similar capabilities to Cheng, which, he assured us modestly, would make him one tough customer.

My attention snapped back as Cheng finished his briefing. “Any questions?” he asked. The JAS officers shook their heads. Some shifted nervously. “Very well. Load up.”







Chapter 24

Concorde

We spent the afternoon driving unmarked civilian cars full of JAS officers, one at a time, onto the parking lot next to the billet. Hopefully, it wouldn’t spook Frain if he saw an electric vehicle arrive every hour or so, but that made an uncomfortably long wait for the first unit, which had to sit for four hours behind tinted windows.

Finally, everyone was ready, and we all listened in as Vance linked to the billet. “Hello, Mr. Frain? It’s your turn next. If you would go to the parking lot, someone will pick you up and bring you over to the investigation building.”

The deep voice on the other end agreed. I looked at the three other JAS officers in the car with me. They all looked nervous. Latana McDonagh, who I was seated next to, turned out to be a ten-year veteran of the force. The only problem being that the most she’d had to deal with in her career were a few low-level assaults.

“You good, McDonagh?” I asked.

She swallowed and gave a nod. It was sometimes easy to forget that ninety percent of people in the solar system hadn’t even seen a fight, let alone had to face a cybernetically enhanced killing machine. “The door is opening,” she croaked.

For the first time, I saw Xander Frain in the flesh. He didn’t exactly cut an intimidating figure, dressed in a simple black tee shirt and blue denim jeans. Not for the first time when dealing with suspects who had done some bad things, I surprised myself with the utter lack of emotion I felt toward him. It was like I couldn’t associate them with the crime they had committed. Should I feel rage at Frain for the death of Dev and hundreds of innocent people? Fear of what his enhancements were capable of? Joy at him being apprehended? I felt none of these emotions other than a sense of weariness and the hope that we didn’t screw up.

He crossed the lot toward Cheng’s car. Cheng stood outside of it, waving casually. Once Frain reached the middle of all the JAS vehicles, Cheng’s voice came over the link. “Go.”

I could feel the adrenaline surging through my system. My HUD sensed I was going into fight-or-flight mode, and tactical options sprang up unobtrusively onto the display. If I wasn’t so focused, I would have been bemused by the big blinking Call Emergency Services? icon appearing in my vision. I should’ve switched the distress mode off.

Twenty officers and I rushed out of the cars, all pointing carbines at Frain. I closed on Frain’s position, my weapon aiming straight for his center of mass. I saw Cheng walk into the center of the circle created by the officers and me. There was a pregnant pause as Frain did a full three-sixty. He looked utterly calm, calculating, even. I could see him weighing the odds. He turned back to Cheng, staring at him for one tense moment. A facsimile of a disarming smile spread slowly across his face. He held his hands out in front of him, palms together. Apparently, he knew the drill.

In one smooth move, Cheng slid a pair of handcuffs onto his wrists.

“Subject secure,” I said over the link.

“Confirmed, secure,” Vance responded.

Together, Cheng with a firm grip on Frain, we walked back to the waiting car.

***

The cell we put Frain in was as secure a one as we could find, helped by a couple of officers covering him with weapons at all times. We walked back into the office, giving each other a verbal pat on the back, and found Vance, Drayton, and Frampton seated in there.

Drayton looked over at us and smiled. “Well done. I was expecting more of a fight from him.”

We all looked at each other. It was Vance who finally said, “So, Sonia, when were you going to tell us about the Eston Mons base?”

“What?” she said, the smile frozen on her face. Without changing in the slightest, it had gone from genuine to forced. “What base?”

“Red Star had a secret facility on Io,” Vance said, enunciating every syllable. “When were you going to tell us?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” The smile was finally slipping from her face as she looked from one of us to the other.

I crossed the cluttered room full of interfaces. I stopped in front of Drayton and looked at her closely, trying to divine whether she was telling the truth or not. “We have a survivor from the Eston Mons facility. He’s cooperating, and so will you,” I said.

To her credit, Drayton knew how it worked. She wasn’t going to beg. She nodded at me. “To the cells?”

“To the cells.”

They were getting pretty full now.







Chapter 25

Concorde

“We’ve found her,” Frampton called out as he entered the office, a wide grin on his face. “Two light-days out. That puts her well beyond the heliopause.”

“You found who and what?” I asked. I was a touch distracted, watching Cheng and Vance question Drayton.

Magellan. I asked a friend to do a full trawl on the deep space arrays’ sensor data.” He was practically dribbling with excitement. “Four days after the Io incident, an anomalous emission of exotic particles was picked up. That’s the signature of an A-drive bubble collapsing. It just got uploaded to the array systems cache for later review. They probably thought it was a malfunctioning gateship. My buddy at Cheyenne dug it out. Magellan is out there and intact!”

I gave a self-satisfied grin as I watched Frampton put up the data from Cheyenne on the wall screen. I knew the place was one of the hubs for the various radar and sensor systems that helped keep a grip on all the traffic floating around Sol. As for Frampton, I swear, the guy had a talent for the dramatic. The image first showed the sun before it started to zoom out. Quickly, the orbits of the inner planets, Venus, Mars, and Earth, appeared and shrank down. Then the outer planets, even Pluto’s massive orbit reduced in size to a small circle. Finally a blinking dot appeared, far beyond even that distant world.

“Wow…that looks a long way away.”

“Oh yeah, it is. Other than the Oort cloud prospectors and gateships heading out-system, there’s no reason for anyone or anything to be out that far. The timing’s about right, and so is the course.”

“So what are we going to do about it?” I asked.

“Sihota has already requested that the Gagarin go take a look for us and see if they can pull anything off the ship’s command and control systems. They will be leaving within the hour.”

“Good,” I said.

***

I went back to doing what I was doing, watching the show.

“We know about the Eston Mons facility,” Vance told Drayton. “We even know it’s a Red Star operation. What we want to know is, why would someone want to blow up a whole moon to take it out?”

Drayton was at the table, her elbows on the desk, looking as composed as could be. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Cheng walked around and squatted down next to her, his eyes locked on hers. “Sonia, we have a survivor. He’s talking. He knows that someone from Red Star has been assigned to make sure this mess is cleaned up. That someone is you.”

She turned to face Cheng and simply shrugged. “Get me back to Montreal. I want my lawyer.”

“You know what I can do to you, Sonia. Don’t you?”

“I said I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Drayton was becoming more irritable than composed now.

Cheng nodded and stood up. “Like that, is it? No problems. Share this link with me, and then if you still decide you don’t want to tell me after I’ve asked so nicely, so be it.”

I saw Drayton and Cheng look at each other, and both of them seemed to lose focus, taking on the demeanor of someone who was watching a full VR on their HUD. I saw Drayton give a start. She shuddered, even let out a horrified-sounding yelp. This seemed to go on forever, but when I checked the time, only a couple of minutes had gone by.

They snapped back, focusing on each other again. Drayton’s demeanor had changed again. She looked scared and defeated.

“I feel personally insulted, Sonia. You infiltrated us, pretended to be one of us. That upsets me, and I would enjoy the opportunity to…vent my frustrations,” Cheng said in a voice terrifying in its calmness. “So, Sonia, you can go back to Montreal—if you help us…Or you can come with me.”

“Okay.” She spoke quietly, her voice tremulous. She was clearly horrified by what she had seen. “I’ll give you a HUD file.”

The file appeared immediately on the holodisplay in front of me. From the movement of his eyes, Cheng was already looking at it. I glanced back at Drayton. She sat in the chair, hunched and pale, her eyes lowered. I dreaded to think whatever the hell it was Cheng had shown her. I resolved to find out just what the hell he was up to. His interrogation style was starting to worry me.

But first…the HUD file.







Chapter 26

Io

“Standby for hard drop. Ten seconds,” the authoritative, disembodied voice called. Sonia Drayton sat with four men and one other woman locked into harnesses in the cramped covert-drop pod. From the outside, it looked like little more than a regular cargo pallet, dozens of which had been offloaded from the A-drive liner and put aboard the cargo tender.

Drayton stared vacantly at the man opposite her, a Joshua Rosenberg, some kind of programming technician. They had become very familiar with each other over the last few days, having spent the majority of that time forced to look at each other.

The countdown reached zero, and a loud bang reverberated through the pod as the explosive bolts released the pod from the tender. Its solid booster fired, jarring the occupants and setting them on a course for Eston Mons.

Drayton watched the limited feed from outside as the pallet fell toward Io, firing its engine in bursts. The sections of the pallet’s hull she could see had gone from a bright white to pitch black as the adaptive camouflage engaged. It would change as the craft got closer to Io, taking on the same dirty yellow color as that moon. She watched the extinct volcano (or as extinct as a volcano got on Io) grow larger and larger. The crater, at first a dark speck, grew to fill her view. They were on the bull’s-eye, perfectly placed to land where they wanted to inside the black hole atop the mountain. The pallet had passed the rim of the crater before Sonia felt the shudder of the landing engine firing, slowing them with horrendous force.

With a spine-jarring jolt, the pallet came to a halt. The door opened up, and a heavily armed guard entered the cabin. His gaze lingered on each of the six people, checking their faces. Finally, he said, “Welcome to Eston Mons. If you’d like to come with me, please.”

***

“This thing is truly unbelievable,” Drayton said. “The briefing packages I saw back in Montreal were threadbare to say the least.”

Drayton and the operations director, Al Delaney, sat in his office, which, like everything in the scratched-together base, was bare bones. The base itself wasn’t what she was fixated on, though, not by a long shot. No, her attention was riveted on the gently spinning hologram that projected from Delaney’s desk.

“Aye, that it is,” Delaney responded. “We have barely even scratched the surface, and already what we’ve found will—well, you’ll see for yourself soon enough.”

Drayton took a long sip on her coffee and placed it down gently on the desk. She had spent the last week harnessed into the cargo pallet and was still used to zero-g; her habits had not quite adapted yet.

“So it’s operational? It actually works? I read your report, the parts that weren’t redacted, anyway. That thing’s thousands of years old at least,” Drayton said, her eyes tracking over the hologrammatic image.

The thing wasn’t fully visible on the holo; it hadn’t been fully explored yet. It was just too large for the hundred or so personnel of the Eston Mons facility to investigate in its entirety. Even the drones and robots, of which scores had been deployed, had found no end to it. If the shape extended as it appeared to, its main core looked like a massive underground spike driving deep into the heart of Io. It was three miles across at its highest point, which itself was a mile below the base of the volcano. The cables that extended from the artifact were just as impressive. Once they had known what they were looking for, they had found them all over the planet, enveloping it like a vast net, buried beneath millennia of dust and sulphur that Io’s volcanoes constantly pumped out.

Just inside the top of the spike nestled the containers and umbilicals that made up the Eston Mons facility. Its spiderlike configuration was spread through what appeared to have been the original habitable sections of the artifact.

“Indeed it does work. In fact, it’s remarkably well preserved, even considering the environment. But then, you knew that from back home. After all, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To watch the big moment?”

Drayton leaned forward, the spinning hologram making her eyes gleam. “That’s exactly why I’m here.”

***

Together, they walked through the long, pressurized umbilical tubes, which connected the far-flung cargo pallets that made up the Eston Mons facility. The clear plastic allowed her to see the epic scale of the artifact. Its corridors, galleries, and rooms were massive. The maintenance crew had spent a long time putting up flood-lights, but still there were swathes of the sections humans hadn’t populated that were dark, such was the scale. It was obvious that the place hadn’t been constructed by human hands. The architecture was too strange. The corridors looked like they were ribbed and gothic, full of strange buttresses and alcoves.

Before long, they arrived at the forward operating cabin, nestled inside the part of the artifact that had really captured their interest.

“It took us a long time to learn the basics of the operating system,” Delaney said, his breath emerging as a cloud in the chill, dark room illuminated only by the instruments and computer displays. “The AI we brought for the task had a hard time interfacing with it, but once it did, it was remarkably easy to manipulate.”

“It surprises me that they didn’t have tighter software security, whoever they were,” Drayton murmured as she looked through the window at the towering machine hunkered at the center of a mile-wide chamber.

“We know nothing about them, full stop. Maybe security wasn’t an issue. Maybe they had a utopian vision. Maybe they were all insect-like drones. In fact, considering the architecture of the place, that’s the leading theory at the moment. This place bears more of a resemblance to an inverted termite mound than anything human. But still, we know nothing firm about them, not even what they looked like. There’s no personal information on the systems we’ve breached, no cultural artifacts at all throughout the explored sections—nothing. Either they simply didn’t have them or it’s all been cleared away.”

“None of the reports mentioned bodies?” Drayton asked.

Delaney shook his head. “Again, no signs. There is some residual organic matter, but it could be their equivalent of black mold. As far as I’ve been informed, none of the bio-reformers at any of the research labs has had any luck at all with forensic reconstruction.”

“That’s what I hear, too.” Drayton was confident that was indeed the truth. Everything about this project was need to know, and she needed to know it all to give a full report to her employer…her true employer.

“Thank you for your candor, if indeed you are being candid.” The smile on Delaney’s face was wry. He walked over to the technicians, who sat chattering indecipherably to one another in their own technobabble.

“At least your guys have figured out the important stuff,” Drayton called over to him.

“Maybe, but without context—”

“Al, just switch the damn machine on.”

***

Hours dragged by before the techs were ready. Despite what she was about to witness, she had to admit, this part was pretty damn dull.

Finally one of the techs called out to Delaney, “Sir, we’re ready to go on your mark.”

Drayton started awake, the boredom and fatigue washing out of her system in an instant. She stood up and walked to the window to watch an epic moment on this epic machine. Through her feet, she felt a vibration. Here, the artifact was shaped like an old Chinese pagoda, right in the center of the room. Leading into the pagoda at its base was a gaping black hole that a skyliner could fly through. It could have hidden anything within.

“By all means.” Delaney waved his hand for them to proceed.

More chatter came from the techs. Drayton saw the probe ease forward on spiderlike legs. The ingenious device had an arachnid-like appearance. It could deploy small servitor drones and had a sample-return module situated at the rear like an arachnid’s abdomen. Because no one knew what to expect, the drone was engineered to cope with just about any environment imaginable.

The probe crawled up the ramp to the machine and into the gateway. Sickly green lights pulsed down rhythmically along the flank of the Pagoda, getting faster and faster until they blurred into a solid line. Then the pulses stopped.

The probe had disappeared.

“It worked.” Delaney looked at Drayton, jubilance on his face. “It fucking worked!”

The techs high-fived each other as giddy as school children. Drayton smiled. Her boss would be very interested in this. The alien artifact was, as they suspected, a gateway.

And it actually worked.

***

“Shit,” I said, rather unoriginally, as I came to the end of Dayton’s briefing package.

“Shit, indeed,” Vance agreed, a deeply contemplative look on her face.

When Endeavour had returned from Tau Ceti all those years ago, there had been a massive resurgence in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. That had inevitably faded when nothing had been found. But Red Star had found something—and in Earth’s own backyard.







Chapter 27

Concorde

“I’m not saying you don’t get fucking results,” I snarled, leaning over the table looking Cheng straight in his slightly glowing eyes. “What I’m questioning is your bloody methods. You may not have realized this, but it’s my job to stop that kind of shit from happening.”

“Last time I checked, The Hague had no authority over MSS methods, or me for that matter,” Cheng growled.

“Task force agreements state that if we managed to find someone, they are to be heard at The Hague tribunal. I don’t want to find myself next to them in the defendant’s dock for torturing information out of anyone,” I replied. I was fuming. Call me old-fashioned, but I had the firm opinion that torture was a no go, even the “soft kinds” Cheng had employed.

“Boys, calm down,” Vance interjected. I could tell she was forcing the soothing tone into her speech. “Look, both of you have a point. We need that information, but we can’t go unilaterally ripping it out of anyone, if for no other reason than it might invalidate any evidence we glean.”

I sat back in my chair at the campus HQ, trying my hardest not to look like a sullen teenager. Cheng regarded me coldly for a moment before letting his customary twinkle sneak back into his eyes. This was a man who would do what it took and be able to sleep soundly afterward.

“Guys,” Frampton nervously interjected, “we still have the small matter of an alien facility, which looks like it’s a damn gateway. Can you argue about methods later?”

Yes, we did have an alien facility, and I imagined we would indeed argue about it later. For the moment, I filed my anger.

The “incident” was looking like someone had decided to blow up the damn moon to destroy the artifact—which led to the question of why. It was easily the most important discovery since the development of our own gateways. Drayton didn’t look like she had a clue past being sent there to watch the probe being deployed into the pagoda. If it worked anything like gateways and gateships, then that probe was still on its way to wherever it was going. We needed to find out who wanted the artifact gone and why.

“I take it Han Xin’s had no luck picking through Io’s rubble?” I asked, putting aside Cheng’s and my ethical debate, a little reluctantly, for the moment. As soon as we had watched Drayton’s download, we had reassigned the other explorer ship we had in the Jupiter system to examine the debris of the moon for any surviving wreckage from the artifact.

“None,” Frampton said sadly. I bet the fellow would have loved to have gotten his paws on it. “Magellan came in on almost the exact opposite side of the moon to the Eston Mons facility. When the ship blew through, it obliterated that whole region. It could be that was the intention in the first place.”

We had reviewed every piece of information that Drayton had sent us. We found no suggestion of any destination for where the probe might be heading and no cultural information about whoever built it. Nothing.

“So, what are we going to do about this?” Cheng said, regarding the spinning hologram of the alien spike driven into the heart of Io.

“Not to sound cliché, but people have killed for this,” I said. “We have to go one way or the other. Full disclosure on open channels or…”

“Or we wait to see what we actually have here,” Vance finished.

We all looked at each other; I could practically see the cogs whirring. Some of them were undoubtedly considering how they could keep the information for their own governments. The silence was getting pretty awkward—like a kind of verbal Mexican stand-off, every person waiting to see what the others had to say.

“So,” I buckled, “has anyone ever seen anything like this before?”

“No.” Frampton seemed as relieved to break the impasse as I was. “Or at least to our knowledge.” Vance rolled her eyes but let him continue. “I mean, of course, there were the Tau Ceti reports from the Endeavour mission that suggested that there may once have been some kind of advanced technological civilization there, but nothing physical was ever found, just hints in the geological processes of the planet.”

“And rumor has it that the same crew is currently exploring another star system that may have extant intelligence,” Sihota said. “Although, that information has mostly been garnered through scuttlebutt. Attempts to corroborate suggest that the life they found may be intelligent but not advanced.”

“So not ancient aliens capable of building an interstellar gateway, then,” I said rhetorically. “Maybe we should ask Frain what his take on all this is.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Vance said.

At that moment, a group-link request appeared. It was Cerise. “Hello. Does anyone know a Connie Miles?”

Wearily, we looked at each other. Connie Miles was a news correspondent and famously incisive talking head for Earth-Wide News. In other words, trouble. With a dubious tone, I said, “Hi, Cerise. Yeah, I’ve heard of her. What does she want?”

“She’s requesting an interview with the investigation team.”

“Give her my compliments, but tell her we’re a little busy right now,” I replied.

“I thought you would say that and already told her you were.” She smiled. Damn that smile.

“And?” I asked.

“She said she has authority from the Jupiter Alliance press office. They’ve told her she can have access for some questions.”

I looked around the room. Just about everyone’s eyes were rolling.

“Can you run the request through the JAS press office again, please? Seriously, we’re not in the right place now for this.”

“Layton, even Voice Patrice has spoken on the Linked Consensus for the need to have some information coming out of the investigation teams. The decision has been made,” Cerise announced firmly.

“Okay. I’ll get back to you in five.” I closed down the link. “I guess the damn media was going to catch up with us eventually.”

“Yeah.” Vance’s tone was uncharacteristically pensive. “Looks like we’re going to have to throw someone to the wolves.”

“Well-volunteered, Vance.” I grinned.

“Ha. I don’t think so, Trent. My bosses wouldn’t take kindly to me appearing in the news.”

“Cheng?”

“Same deal, I’m afraid.”

“Sihota?” I knew my voice was taking on a slightly pleading tone.

“So far, I’ve just been the designated driver,” he shrugged. “They will just request another interview if they’re not satisfied.”

“Come on, Dexter.” I smiled in my most winning way. “Big moment to appear on VR?”

“He definitely isn’t,” Vance cut in just as Frampton opened his mouth. He closed it again with a disappointed look on his face. “Stop trying to worm out of it. You know you’re the only one of our team who can do it. Us spooky types aren’t going to, that’s for damn sure.”

“Great.”







Chapter 28

Concorde

“Relax, Inspector, I’m not going to throw you any lowballs.” Connie was seated across from me, trying to be reassuring. Unfortunately for me, I still had the feeling I was a mouse being played with by a cat.

We were in the university’s small VR studio where presumably the students put together presentations. I was sitting on a chair in the center of small round stage, surrounded by cameras, microphones, and the other claptrap needed to create a VR holo talk show.

“Look, I really need to get back to work soon. Can we please get this over with?” I was squirming in my seat. Truth be told, it wasn’t just that I didn’t want to do the interview; I considered it a waste of time. I could be putting Frain through the ringer.

“Sure.” She glanced at a timer counting down on the wall to her left. “We’ll be going live in thirty seconds. Have you had a chance to go over your question sheet?”

“What question sheet?” I asked, confused.

“The one I sent to your HUDmail.”

Goddamn it! I quickly opened up my mailbox and saw nothing of the sort in there. I tried to keep on top of my HUDmail, but I was falling behind with all the work going on. Still… “I didn’t get any emails from you…” I trailed off. I remembered I had been spammed by loads of emails from Earth-Wide News after subscribing to their newsletter years ago and assigned them to my autoblock. I just had time to open up my junk folder on my HUD where I saw a closed envelope icon blinking in my field of view from Connie Miles, EWN. Great.

“It’s too late now. Don’t worry. There’s nothing too complicated in there. Five seconds.”

I watched as the counter went to zero. I straightened myself up and crossed my legs, trying to appear relaxed and confident.

“Good evening. This is Connie Miles from EWN with a live report from Jupiter space,” she said smoothly in a stage voice that was richer and more cultured than her norm. “I’m currently in the Io incident investigation team’s headquarters at Concorde University. With me tonight is Inspector Layton Trent, formerly of The Hague War Crimes Investigation division, now attached to the system task force. Thank you for taking the time to be interviewed tonight.”

“That’s my pleasure, Connie.” I smiled falsely at her.

“As you are undoubtedly more aware of than most, a lot of people are concerned about what has been dubbed the Io Incident. An attack of this kind, and we are clear from the Magellan recordings that it was an attack, is completely unprecedented. Can you tell us the current state of your investigation?”

“We arrived a few days ago, and we’re already making some significant strides, Connie,” I said, trying to sound a hell of a lot more comfortable than I felt. “The primary focus of our investigation to this point has been interviewing the survivors from Io and the Magellan—”

“And can you tell me what these ‘significant strides’ are?” she interrupted.

“I’m sure you’ll understand that, for operational reasons, I can’t. It’s too early in the investigation to let out any sensitive information that we have, but the people back home and in space can rest assured that we are making progress.” What the hell was the point in me being here? She must know that I couldn’t tell her jack!

“Completely understood, Inspector. Something I’m sure we’re all very interested to know, though, is, Why Io?”

“There are a number of theories on that one,” not that I’m going to be able to tell you any of the leading ones at the moment. And no way was I going to talk about whatever the hell had been down there. “All of which are just that, theories. I don’t think it would be helpful for me to discuss any of them at the moment.”

“Are there any leading ideas about who has done this?”

“Connie, I’m not going to name names or organizations that may have responsibility in this incident. It’s too early. It would be irresponsible of me to start rumors before all the facts are in. What I will say is that the JAS has agreed that The Hague will have jurisdiction in trialing any defendants, whether it is the work of individuals or a group.”

“And if it were to be a nation-state?” The reporter leaned forward, a wolfish look in her eyes.

“Well, that is why we have representatives of many countries on the teams. Resolving that question would be one for governments, not the judiciary.”

“I’m sure you understand the thrust of the question, Inspector. If a nation were responsible, what actions would be taken against them?”

I was beginning to get an inkling of EWN’s editorial agenda; Connie was pursuing it doggedly. I knew what she wanted to hear, but I’d be damned if I was going to actually say it. “Connie, the primary focus for my team is finding those responsible.”

“Would punitive action would be taken? Do you think we could be looking at the first strike in a war?” she asked, not giving me any time to fully answer the first question.

“I’m afraid that is a little beyond my pay grade,” I said as firmly as I could, trying not to stare daggers at the reporter.

“Sources indicate,” she said, moving on smoothly, “that you currently have several people in custody. Can you tell us anything about their involvement?”

How the hell did she know that? Things were a little too leaky in the docking port and on campus for my taste, but it wasn’t as if we could extraordinarily rendition people around Jupiter space.

“We have a number of people assisting us with our enquiries. As soon as I complete this interview, I will be returning to work and asking them questions. Let me emphasize that they are assisting us in our investigation.” That should cover it in case they turned out to be dud leads; although, I doubted it.

“Very well. Now I want to discuss…”

It was a long hour.

***

“Well done,” Vance grinned at me. I was back in the operations center, feeling like I’d gone a few rounds with a prize fighter. “Have you considered a career in politics? I think you managed the full hour without actually saying a single damn thing she didn’t know already.”

I grunted an affirmative. “Yeah, she was pretty pissed off about that after the end of the interview.”

“You do have that effect on people.” Vance gave a wink.

“Next time,” I scowled at her, “it’s your bloody turn.”







Chapter 29

Concorde

Frain’s impassive face loomed large on the monitor. He didn’t seem to give a damn he was in custody, flanked by two officers armed with rather large guns and nervous dispositions. The room he was in would have made minimalist look cluttered. A single chair was situated in the middle of the whitewashed room. As long as I had been watching him, he hadn’t moved a single damned millimeter.

I looked at my HUD, comparing pictures of the real Frain to this imposter in front of us. They were identical in every way. Maybe some of the crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes were different, but that could just as well have been my imagination.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I looked over and saw Vance next to me.

“Why do you ask?”

“I know what happened in Sahelia,” she said simply. I shouldn’t have been surprised.

“I won’t let it affect anything, Vance.” And I was telling the truth. The best way of getting revenge for Dev would be to do as damn good a job as possible, not take meaningless and temporary revenge by punching Frain in the face or something equally unproductive.

“Very well,” Vance nodded.

Cheng and I weren’t exactly bosom buddies at the moment, but we were still the best lineup to go in and have a chat with Frain. Both of us had the most face time in investigative interviewing, or in Cheng’s case, something a little firmer than mere questioning.

Automatically, we took up positions in front of him, me to his right, Cheng to his left, far enough apart that when he looked at one of us, the other was out of view. It was a cheap psychological trick, but it usually worked.

“I know you’re not Xander Frain. I know that Xander Frain is dead. So, why don’t you tell me your real name?” I began.

Frain’s head swung round slowly, and he fixed me with his eyes. I could practically see the tactical software weighing me, measuring me, and clearly finding me wanting. His head swung back to dead ahead. “My name is Xander Frain.”

“Okay, Xander.” I regarded the cool customer in front of me, who seemed intent on continuing his game. “What brought you to the Jupiter system?”

“I’m an AI software consultant. I specialize in Turing-level intelligence, and I’m here for work.”

“I think you misunderstand us,” Cheng said in a harsh tone. “As my colleague here has already explained, we know you are an imposter, and we know you had something to do with the Io Incident. We also know that you have a great many enhancements and augmentations. Now, please stop wasting our time and start answering our questions.”

Frain’s head had turned to Cheng and remained locked on him. Cheng looked back, his twinkly-eye mode well and truly switched off in favor of a cold, hard look.

“A composite combat chassis with servo-assists—a fairly standard weapon and e-warfare package. I think, Major Cheng Zao, that you are long overdue for an upgrade,” Frain said, a wolfish grin creeping onto his face. Of more interest to me was why he’d suddenly changed his tune. Why was he tipping his hand, showing his knowledge and his capabilities?

“I do fine with what the People have gifted me with. I do thank you for your concern, though,” Cheng retorted, his voice still calm. “After all, you are the one in custody. Me? I can walk out of here anytime.”

“And you,” I continued, taking over, “cannot. Now is probably a good time to remind you that you are under arrest. You have the right to legal representation if that is deemed practicable—which at this stage it’s not. Oh,” I said, snapping my fingers as if I’d just remembered, “and anything said in this room can be used in court.”

“Thank you for reminding me of my rights, Inspector Trent.”

“Why did you do it? Let’s cut the bullshit; let’s cut the song and dance. Just tell us.” The surge of anger I felt came from nowhere. I just wanted him to admit it, to tell me why. This man was involved up to his neck. How else would he get enhancements enough to sneer at the top-grade equipment Cheng had?

Frain turned his head to the front of the room again, giving every impression he was going to ignore us.

“Like that, is it? Fine,” I said, quickly quashing the unprofessional rage that had threatened to overwhelm me. The heavy door slid open. I made a point not to look at the people entering the room. “You failed, you know. There is a survivor, and we have him.”

The guards, their weapons trained on Frain, took a step back as Cheng stepped around and took hold of the prisoner’s handcuffed wrists. He pulled them toward a metal fastener on the table. With a click, Frain’s hands were locked into position.

Frain folded his fingers together and looked dead ahead, no expression on his face, as Agapov stepped into view behind him and applied a hypo to his neck. With a hiss, the ERPing drugs were shot into his body. Frain gave a slight shudder and closed his eyes. Unlike with Kumba back in Sahelia, Frain’s face took on an appearance of Zen-like calm. Agapov lowered the sensor helmet over his head.

“We’re going to be asking you a few questions, Xander,” I said. The long list of ERP control questions blinked onto my HUD. I began. “What color is grass?”

***

“So you’re telling me you got nothing?” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. It had been an exhausting few hours, first asking the hundreds of control questions and then questioning him about Io itself. We were back in the observation room, looking over the results of the interrogation—the rather disappointing results.

“Oh, we got something,” Vance growled. “White noise. Evidently our mysterious Mr. Frain either has major psychiatric issues that somehow caused some serious misreads or he’s somehow spoofed the system.”

“You ever heard of anyone managing to fool ERPing?” I asked, glancing at Frain on the monitor. As I watched, he gave the briefest sign of frailty, massaging his temples with his cuffed hands before adopting a composed posture, his hands clasped on the table. “Because I haven’t.”

“No, never.” Vance indicated the screen. “It was all going swimmingly through the control questions. We got the ERP resolution the system needed as you asked them.”

“So what went wrong?” I asked.

“Look at his response to Are you responsible for the destruction of Io?

On the screen was nothing but static.

“Or how about, Are you working alone?

Same result—nothing but flickering across the display.

“It’s time to try my way,” Cheng said icily as he looked at Frain on the monitor.

“Seriously, Zao? I mean, you think a guy who can defeat an ERPing is going to be phased if you put him on the rack?” I snapped sarcastically. “Get real.”

“Mind your attitude, Trent,” Cheng growled, “or—”

“Or you’ll what?” I stood and looked at him, the anger bubbling over within me at getting nothing out of Frain.

“If you two don’t play nice and stop your bickering, I’ll make a formal request that your respective commands relieve you both,” Vance said loudly. “Remember how far we’ve come. We have someone in custody. We’re not going to blow this now.”

She was right; I knew it. I was just frustrated, and I wanted answers straight away—answers from the man sitting in the next room, the man responsible for Dev’s death. Real life doesn’t work that way, though. I held my hands up in surrender. “Apologies. I get cranky when I’m tired.”

Cheng nodded. “Don’t we all. Apology accepted and returned.”

“Good. Let’s keep this civilized, people,” Vance said.

I looked over at our Linked liaison, who stood in the corner regarding us with calm eyes, and opted to change the subject. “Cerise, did Voice Patrice send the authorization through?”

“The Consensus,” she gently corrected, “has sent the authorization through. The standard forty-eight hour intersystem detention period has been extended to seventy-two hours. If we need longer, we’ll have to go back to the Consensus. They didn’t ask too many questions for the extension this time, but rest assured, they will if we want to go up to ninety-six hours.”

“Fair enough.” I gave a yawn. It had been a very long day full of roller coasters of adrenaline. As soon as we had Frain in custody, Cerise had gone back to the Consensus to extend Frain’s detention for questioning. We had to justify it, of course. We couldn’t just detain someone indefinitely, that would be kidnapping, but things like the lengthy light-speed-imposed delays and the NYPD deep background checks meant we needed time.

“I’ve got combined intelligence services seeing what they can dig up based on Frain’s DNA samples,” Vance said. Clearly, she had set the argument of moments ago aside. “We’re waiting for them to send back anything they dig up. Considering his enhancements allow him to ghost sensors, chances are he’s had a full DNA remap. I’m betting he shows up as Frain.”

“Here’s hoping we catch a break and we get an easy answer as to just who is in our holding room,” I said. Without a little luck, we might be staring at a dead end; we’d need to find another avenue.

“Agreed. I doubt just hammering him with questions—” Vance started.

“Will work,” I finished. “He’s too cool a customer. We need to go in with solid information to challenge him on.”

“Agreed,” Cheng nodded. “I say we go get some downtime. It’ll give Frain a chance to simmer for a while, and then we can hit him when Earth has turned around our requests.

I raised an eyebrow at Cheng.

“I don’t mean literally…yet.” Cheng’s eyes twinkled mischievously.

I gave a weary nod. Something about Frain’s cool, collected demeanor told me he wasn’t going to buckle easily. We would need solid information on him before he would give anything up.

***

I was lying on my bed in my tiny dorm room, watching Giselle on my HUD as we reviewed the state of the Sahelia case. She was bemoaning the fact that Wade had given the team an endless stream of witness statements and further evidence to gather. She wanted every little thing in place to ensure that the animals we had in custody for the massacre would be nailed to the wall.

She looked tired, and I realized that she was managing both the case and the War Crimes department as a whole. Maybe it would be good for her; it would mean the department would know she still could handle a complex investigation and hadn’t lost herself in admin. When she came to the end of her update, she yawned, wished me well, and then clicked off.

I flicked on a HUD game for a bit, something simple to occupy my mind and chill out. My latest vice was some mind-numbingly addictive load of nonsense where I had to build a colony on a harsh world through all kinds of adversity. I switched it off in disgust after half my population got wiped out by a rampaging horde of predatory xenos and vowed never to play it again. That promise would last until the following night. Damn, these HUD apps were the opium of the masses these days.

Before long, I drifted off to sleep…

***

…only to be woken by the urgent ping of my link. Groggily, I activated it, and Vance’s face appeared.

“Trent, we have a big fucking problem. Frain’s out. We have five casualties so far. Some of them are in a pretty bad way.”

Shit. “On my way. Rally point?”

“HQ.”

I rolled out of bed and flung open the wardrobe. I tugged on my scout armor. New tactical options appeared in my HUD as it interfaced with my implants. Integrity, power, and camouflage options all flashed on. Finally securing the Velcro straps, I pulled out a small lockbox and held my hand on the lid. It analyzed my biometrics and sprang open. I pulled out my pistol and four magazines. Letting my firearms training take over, I cleared and loaded the gun. Pocketing the magazines and tucking the weapon into my thigh holster, I charged out of the room and down the hallway.

***

“How the fuck did he get out?” I asked as I burst into the room. A JAS tactical team was loading for bear, and Cheng was in black combat armor that shimmered as he moved, a sign the active camouflage was booting up. Vance was finishing suiting up, too, getting ready to join the hunt.

“Take a look,” Vance said as she tied back her hair and glanced at the display. I looked over. Frain sat in the same room we had interviewed him in, the two JAS officers still looking over him. I barely saw the motion when it came. His clasped hands went from resting on the table to lancing out into one of the officers. The officer flew back into the wall so hard he left a dent in it. The other managed to get his weapon up about halfway before Frain touched him with the palms of his hands. The guard shook like he was being electrocuted and dropped to the floor. Frain stood from a half crouch and went to one of the fallen officers. He knelt down and pulled something out of the man’s pocket. A moment later, Frain’s cuffs were on the floor, and he walked toward the door like he had all the time in the world. It slid open, and he sauntered through.

“Who opened the door for him?” I demanded.

“No one,” Cheng said. He cleared a carbine from the arms locker and passed it to me. “His e-warfare package clearly had the capability to open it at any fucking time.”

“And no one thought of this?” I said, taking the weapon and making it ready. I knew playing the blame game was useless, but I couldn’t help myself. Were we a bunch of complete fucking amateurs here?

“There’s no way he should’ve been able to crack it. I wouldn’t have been able to,” Cheng retorted.

We all loaded up, and Vance barked orders to Frampton and Sihota. “Stay here and coordinate with Cerise.”

With that, the tactical team all rolled out.

***

“Last known position is on the pathway leading to the Chandrasky building,” Cerise announced over the link. “His e-warfare package defeated our internal security. He’s ghosting through the cams and sniffers now. We have mosquitoes up and about, but they’re even less sophisticated than internal security sensors. He’ll likely just walk past them.”

Great. He was pulling off the same trick he had used in New York. We would have to look for him the old-fashioned way.

We made our way down the crunching gravel path toward the Chandrasky building, some kind of science block. The security officers glanced around nervously.

“We never managed to get a deep scan on Frain’s implants,” Cheng murmured. “He’s exhibited a hell of a lot of advanced technology.”

“But you can take him, right?” I asked.

Cheng turned his head and gave a gallows grin. “I guess we find out.”

“Contact. Team Three has engaged. Two hundred meters spinward of the Chandrasky building,” Cerise announced. Team Three had already been deployed and were a bit ahead of us.

“Let’s move,” Cheng barked.







Chapter 30

Concorde

The coms chatter from Team Three had gone from nervous to desperate pretty damn quick—they were getting their arses kicked. They were holding Frain up but paying a heavy price for it.

I ran flat out at a dead run past the art-deco-spired university building with Cheng, Vance, and the JAS team. We slowed when we neared the fracas to recoup our breath for confronting Frain. Ahead, I could see one of the thick spokes of the station torus connecting the habitat ring to the central docking hub.

“Their implants are showing they’re all alive, thank God. Most are unconscious, though,” Cerise called. “He doesn’t seem particularly interested in killing anyone—he’s even making efforts not to.” That was interesting, especially since he had a lot of blood on his hands already. You’d think a few JAS officers on his conscience would be no problem for him.

He was on us before we realized it—he was that fast. The first shot knocked Vance onto her back. I skidded behind a stone bench and glanced her way. She was lying on the grass, groaning, electricity crackling over her armor. The camouflage malfunctioned, flashing through all kinds of strange colors.

I could see the JAS officers around me, taking what cover they could. Cheng dived behind the next bench over.

“You spot him?” I called to Cheng.

“Negative,” he said, dropping into military speak. “He must have got hold of some active camouflage armor.” He ducked his head as a round struck his bench. “Probably off one of the disabled officers. He’s not showing visually, and he’s still ghosting sensors. Vance, are you okay?”

“I think so,” she groaned in reply. “Got me in the chest plate. Armor going mad. Must have hit me with a disrupter round.”

Dammit. Chances were she was out for the count unless she wanted to shed her armor and brave this fight exposed.

I saw one of the JAS officers bob his head over the trash bin that he was using as cover. The incap round struck him. Fortunately, the blast merely grazed his helmet, causing his armor to lock up, and he fell to his side, frozen in the same half crouch he had been in.

“He has us pinned down,” I called.

“No shit. He can’t be far ahead, though,” Cheng called back.

A tactical map popped up in my HUD with the JAS officers and us highlighted and tagged. “Hester, Rikard. Stand and provide cover on my mark,” Cheng called. “Mark!”

“What the fu-” I started to say. Too late to stop them. They stood up, but within a second, they were down again, blue lightning crackling over their armor.

I watched on the HUD as a small circle appeared around a copse of trees on the map, twenty meters ahead of us.

“He’s in that area. I triangulated off those two,” Cheng said.

“Bastard,” I muttered under my breath, staring daggers at him. But the move had given us Frain’s position, and the men were still breathing.

“All units. On my mark, raise saturation fire into that zone. Visual will be hard but not impossible. Look for a shimmer. Ready?” Cheng called out.

A reluctant chorus of ascent came from the other JAS officers; it hadn’t been lost on them how disposable they were to Cheng. I knew some of the JAS officers were Linked. I didn’t know what the effect of seeing and feeling their fellow Consensus members go down was, but considering my own brief glimpse into the Link, it probably wasn’t good.

“Mark!”

All of us rose as one, the booms, crackles, and zips of our dozen weapons discharging into the tight zone Cheng had identified. Around me, I could see the JAS officers dropping one after another, electricity arcing over them.

Someone scored a lucky hit. Behind a white marble statue mingled among the trees, a figure appeared, blue electricity crackling over it. The camouflage shorted out, but he was still standing. Round after round slammed into the armor-clad figure, staggering him, his armor rippling and sparking away. With what must have been superhuman effort, he took aim on a JAS agent and fired, knocking him down, but the JAS agent had dropped Frain to a knee under the return barrage. Finally Frain slumped to the ground, still arcing blue.

Cautiously, Cheng, the three remaining JAS officers, and I edged toward the figure, weapons trained on him.

“This is just JAS armor. How the hell did it withstand all of that?” one of the officers panted.

“It didn’t; this was all him. His combat enhancements must have withstood the shots,” Cheng said as he knelt down next to Frain. He unclipped and cast aside the helmet, revealing Frain’s sweat-streaked face.

“Warning: de-spin protocols activated,” an androgynous voice called over the link. I looked around; the others had gotten the same message. A loud klaxon, sounding like an old air-raid siren, began whooping, and I felt a rumbling from the floor.

“Cerise, what the hell is going on?” I called.

“My God, the emergency de-spin has been activated on Concorde,” her panicked voice answered. “We’ll lose gravity.”

The rumbling became more intense. I’d never been in an earthquake before, but from Henning’s sensory download of his last moments on Io, I knew this was what it felt like. The whole torus was grinding to a halt. The only thing keeping us glued to the floor was the centrifugal force created by the spinning of the habitat ring—and that was coming to a stop.

“Prepare for zero gravity. Three minutes,” the AI voice called.

Erebus’s antimatter reactor is spiking,” Cerise said, her voice sounding even more panicked. “I think she is preparing to launch.”

Cheng and I looked at each other, then down at Frain just as his eyes opened. He sprang up. He grabbed Cheng by his neck and flung him like a rag doll into the statue. Cheng smashed it off its plinth.

I was so close that the only thing I could do was sweep my carbine around like a club. Frain caught it deftly in his hand. He looked at me and, in that fraction of a second, gave the slightest twitch of his lips into the hint of a grin. Twisting the gun, he snapped it out of my hand and grabbed me by the neck with his other hand. Lifting me off the floor, he flung me into the two closest JAS agents, sending us all to the floor in a tangle of arms and legs.

I heard the sound of a shot being fired and looked up through my smashed visor in a daze to see that the last standing officer had managed to fire at Frain. He shuddered but didn’t go down. He threw my gun straight at her, knocking her off her feet.

Suddenly, Cheng swooped in, the two combat-enhanced men exchanging punches and kicks nearly too fast to follow. Cheng’s moves were a graceful ballet of attacks; Frain’s were skilled and crisp with a titanic power behind his strikes.

For the briefest of moments, it looked like Cheng was getting the better of Frain, countering a kick and a punch, turning and executing a neat throw, rolling Frain over his back…only for Frain to land on his feet and pull the same move, slamming Cheng to the floor. Frain smoothly planted one knee on Cheng’s arm and cranked up on it in an effort to break it.

I shook off my daze and jumped up. I felt light on my feet. Either I was high on adrenaline or the deceleration protocol was starting to take effect. I launched at Frain, encircling his neck with my arm and punched down repeatedly on the back of his exposed head, aiming for the nerve cluster behind his ear. I might as well have been slamming my fist into a wall for all the effect it had. I did the only thing I could think of and hooked my gauntleted fingers into Frain’s eye socket. Instead of the soft and squidgy ball I expected, it was like a marble in there. Cheng stood up, his left hand hanging limply at his side. Frain twisted and spun me around. I felt like I was riding a bucking bronco.

Frain snapped his leg out in a side kick. It struck Cheng in the chin, lifting him at least his own body height off the floor. Cheng’s now limp body drifted to the ground surreally in the decreasing gravity.

Reaching over his shoulder, Frain grasped my hand and dragged me over his head. Again, I found myself flying, this time almost sedately, to the path, raising a cloud of gravel as I struck and skidded along the ground. I coughed and sputtered against the fog of stones immersing me.

Standing amid our downed, broken, and frozen bodies, Frain looked around. He’d won, and we all knew it.

“Warning: deceleration will be complete in sixty seconds. Secure for zero gravity,” the AI’s voice called.

I shakily stood myself up. Frain’s intense gaze fell on me. “Don’t,” he said simply.

Reaching to my thigh holster, I fumbled for my sidearm. So quickly I could barely follow, he swept closer and gripped my hand in a viselike grip. He pulled the sidearm out of my fingers and threw it away. In the low gravity, it arched out of sight.

“I said don’t. I have no interest in killing anyone I don’t have to,” Frain said before letting that slight twitch of a grin reach his face again. “And you—I don’t have to.”

“Thirty seconds,” the AI called.

“Where the fuck do you think you’re going to go?” I rasped, my throat raw from breathing in gravel. “You can’t even get to the spoke elevator. There will be a hundred officers there. You can’t beat them all.” I felt so light on my feet now that one jump could have sent me soaring like a bird.

Frain let the hint of a grin bloom across his face as he turned toward the elevator spoke building and, after two or three bounding steps, launched himself in the air.

“Zero gravity. Warning. Zero gravity.”

I watched Frain fly toward the spoke. He would impact just under the transparent roof canopy. I felt myself lift off the ground. I fumbled for anything I could hold on to.

“Frain’s heading to the spoke elevator shaft,” I shouted.

“We’ve got bigger problems,” Cerise replied. “Erebus has performed an emergency decouple on her moorings. She just has the airlock gangway left.”

Another voice cut across us—Frain’s. “I would suggest you open the docking bay door. I have control of Erebus now. Please don’t make me activate her A-drive in the hangar. I doubt it would be healthy for Concorde.”

Flopping uselessly in the zero-gravity environment, I managed to turn and see Frain’s receding body.

“What the hell do you mean you have control of Erebus?” I said.

“Just clear the hangar and open the bay doors. I’ve gained full remote control of the drive system now and can activate it at any time.”

That’s why the bastard had been so calm in the interrogation room. He hadn’t been doing nothing; he’d been working on his bloody escape plan!

“Do not open that bay door,” I shouted.

“We have to,” Cerise replied, her voice sharp with panic.

“He’s bluffing!” My mind was whirling through our brief conversation and the fact that Frain had only knocked out the JAS officers, that he hadn’t killed me. “You’re no murderer, Frain. You won’t do it.”

“Wrong, Trent. I said I don’t kill anyone I don’t have to.”

I made my HUD zoom in on Frain as he struck the spoke. I could see him ripping open a service hatch and disappearing inside.

“Open the bay door. All officers and task force components, stand down. Allow Frain through,” Cerise said.

I managed to catch myself on the branch of a nearby tree and hugged myself to it. All around me, I could see debris rising from the surface of Concorde. From one lake, a huge bubble of water drifted upward.

A few minutes later, I heard Cerise’s subdued voice.

Erebus is departing. Frain’s aboard.”

“Fuck!” I exclaimed. I looked up through the canopy and could see the long spine of Erebus nosing out of the docking bay.

“It gets worse,” she said. “Drayton is gone, too.”

“What do you mean gone?” I demanded in disbelief. Couldn’t it get any worse?

“She must have slipped out in the confusion.”

“Well, where the hell is she?”

“Checking,” Cerise paused briefly. “Security playback shows that she got to one of the other spoke elevators. She…she’s onboard Erebus.”

I continued watching Erebus push out of the bay, its habitat ring sliding into view and, finally, the engines. Slowly at first but picking up speed, the huge ship sailed out into space.







Chapter 31

Concorde

The coms network was chaos at first. I realized the snippets of information I could pick out as people called for rescue or with frantic questions about what was going on were only half the conversation; the rest would be occurring over the Link.

Rapidly, the network calmed down as the Linked wrestled themselves into some kind of order. It must have been traumatic for them as a whole, every individual firing queries and distress into the Consensus, but once the initial panic was over, they acted with decisiveness.

Erebus hit Han Xin as soon as she cleared Concorde. Her drive’s been taken out,” Cerise briefed me over link. “Erebus herself has gone to A–Drive, heading in-system.”

I was riding down back to our base in one of the search-and-rescue flyers, which had been dispatched to scoop up anyone trapped floating about in the weightless interior of the vast space station. Before they could even think about spinning the torus back up, they had to rescue anyone who had been stranded in midair. Not only people, but livestock and anything valuable had to be grabbed as well. It was a massive operation and wouldn’t be completed anytime soon.

“Hit with what? I didn’t think Erebus had any weapons,” I said, more than slightly puzzled.

“She doesn’t. But what she does have is an array of probes and drones that double as decent KIs, not to mention a number of high-powered communications and sensor lasers. That’s what Erebus used on Han Xin’s A-drive ring. The damage is bad, but no casualties, thankfully. Han Xin’s going nowhere fast, though.”

I looked over at Cheng, strapped down next to me. He didn’t look good; he hadn’t regained consciousness. We had locked down his combat armor for use as an impromptu backboard. It was battered and had savage dents in the composite plating. And that’s just what Frain had done with his fists.

“Any indication where Erebus is heading?” I asked.

“Best we can tell, into the Earth-moon system. We’ve let them know, but our communication with Earth won’t arrive until half an hour before Erebus herself gets there.”

We landed on campus, and I climbed out of the search-and-rescue craft. The SAR craft quickly lifted with the squirt of gas jets, undoubtedly to pick up more stranded people.

I crawled along the hastily assembled guide ropes into the command center while the medical techs saw to Cheng, Vance, and the other injured JAS officers.

“Earth is going to be pretty damn nervous with Frain heading toward them,” I said to Cerise and Frampton, both of whom were strapped into their chairs. Not for the first time, I cursed the light-speed barrier that stopped instantaneous communications.

“No shit,” Vance said. “I’ve sent the Pentagon a message telling them to do what they can. There are a lot of assets around that can take out Erebus. But that’s if she stops. If Frain’s just mad…If he barrels into Earth…” she let the sentences go unfinished.

“He isn’t mad,” I said as I strapped myself into one of the seats. “He’s heading back to Earth to do something, but I doubt it’s to wipe it out.”

“Nonetheless,” Vance said, “I doubt anyone’s going to risk it and give him even half a chance.”

I heard another figure enter the room. It was Sihota. “What a mess,” he said grimly. “How long until they get there?”

“Forty minutes,” Vance answered, then added a little sullenly, “And another fifty-two after that before we find out just what the hell happened. I’ve requested a full feed.”

***

We watched the holotank in silence as Erebus burst into the Earth-moon system, immediately firing her antimatter torch in a maneuver that would have damn near crushed her crew.

There wasn’t a huge amount of firepower in space, just kinetic strikers for precision-bombing military targets on Earth or to blast away any rogue asteroids that looked like they would get close to anything important. There were some laser installations to take out missiles and a few drop-down fighters and landing craft to deliver soldiers anywhere on the Earth at short notice. The problem was very few of them were anywhere near the Lagrange point where Erebus had dropped out of A-drive.

Wildly spiraling as it locked on one target after another, Erebus’s communications laser lanced out time and again, taking out the kinetic strikers streaking toward Erebus, each striker flaring in a flash of white.

“She’s rolling hard; means any lasers that are hitting her aren’t getting the chance to focus on any single spot,” Frampton murmured.

As I watched the avatars in the holotank, Erebus swung around, aiming straight at a collection of blinking lights, and, with a surge of her antimatter engine, accelerated toward them.

“What are they?” I asked.

Frampton squinted. “They’re the gate arrays. Clever.”

“Shit,” Vance muttered.

I cocked an eyebrow at Frampton.

“If he goes near them, no one is going to risk destroying them,” he said in answer to my unspoken question. “Lead time to establish a gateway is decades. They have to ship the other end to its destination star the slow way.”

Erebus’s thrusters and engines fired in a complex sequence. She carried on evading as she spun end to end, slowing relative to the array of gates, which were floating between the Earth and moon. As she closed, the assault on Erebus slowed and then stopped.

It was timed perfectly. Erebus decelerated furiously as she slid toward the gateway, the thrust vectoring on the engine firing in a complicated fashion with lances of blue-hot flame, careful to avoid damaging the gates themselves.

“She’s—she’s not slowing down fast enough,” Frampton stuttered, his eyebrows crossed. “If they don’t…Oh, hell.”

Erebus slid straight into one of the gateways. Her maneuver was spot-on; the huge ship had scored a perfect hole in one.

And then she vanished it a flash of light.

The room froze in silence for a few brief seconds. “He didn’t?” I breathed.

Frampton tuned out, the look of someone furiously accessing information setting across his face. He snapped out of it a moment later.

“He did,” Frampton said in disbelief and then looked at me. “He’s gone!”

“Gone where?” Vance demanded.

“It looks like...Shit,” Frampton whispered. “Sirius—he’s going to Sirius.”

“What…why?” I stuttered. It was not the most eloquent I’ve ever been in my life.







Chapter 32

Concorde

I grunted and shifted myself shakily in the white plastic hospital chair in Cheng’s room, keeping a firm grip on the bulb of water in my hands and keeping my foot wrapped around the chair leg so I wouldn’t float free. I was thoroughly pissed off. Not only had Frain and Drayton slipped through our fingers, but the zero gravity had meant I had barely been able to eat and sleep for the last two days. The only plus side was I had become very adept at getting myself around in the weightless conditions. Practice makes perfect.

They would be starting the process of spinning up Concorde soon, slowly at first to let all the debris floating around her cavernous interiors settle. Once the station was rotating again, the long process of reestablishing normality would begin.

I gave a hacking cough. My lungs were absolutely full of crap. The infirmary was full of people with respiratory problems, and it had taken hours to make sure everyone got breathing masks. No wonder most spacers were clean freaks. Although all the soil and rubbish in the air made breathing a chore, the air wasn’t exactly toxic—yet—but it made my lungs feel like they had when my school friends and I had tried cigarettes we had scored off the local drug dealer—a mistake I had chosen not to repeat, thankfully for my then future career choice.

“They’re still investigating,” I said. I wanted to keep him in the loop; it was the only thing I could think to do for him. “But the intrusion worm had been sent wirelessly into Concorde’s command and control system at—get this—1257 hours, when Frain was in our holding cell.”

“How?” Cheng coughed.

“It was a sophisticated e-warfare hack. It passed through Concorde’s firewalls like they didn’t exist. He got complete control of the system.”

Cheng didn’t respond at first. Man, but he was a sorry state: One arm snapped—he actually had dents in his chest from the blows that Frain had given him. His subdermal combat armor had taken a hell of a fender bending. But his neck was the real worry. The final kick Frain had given him had caused something the doctor called an atlanto-occipital dislocation—or more simply, an internal decapitation. His neck had been so badly broken, it had snapped in two.

Cheng opened up one eye and grimaced. I was told that he wasn’t in any pain, but he must have been frustrated not being able to move a single muscle below his chin, not to mention scared of what that would mean for his future. He would be dead right now except for his combat enhancements and the life-support machines he was hooked up to. They were doing everything they could to keep him alive—regulating his heartbeat, breathing for him, and doing what they could to repair the damage. His odds of ever regaining control of his body were roughly fifty percent. I didn’t like the odds.

All this, I thought as I looked at Cheng, was just that much more harm that Frain had caused on his rampage. That he was responsible for the Io attack, I knew. The whys still eluded me, but the questions played on my mind. If Frain had been a callous murderer, why wasn’t I dead right now along with a dozen JAS agents? He had only done Cheng such horrendous harm because the MSS agent was the only one who could truly stand in Frain’s way.

Erebus?” he croaked.

I shook my head, then realized he couldn’t move his to see me. “We don’t know. He could have taken control of her the same way he did Concorde, but until we can get a systems forensic team onboard…” I let the sentence go unfinished. That wasn’t going to be happening any time soon.

Cheng gave a snorting grunt, his eyes open, staring at the ceiling.

Cerise’s face appeared on my HUD. “Gagarin is back. She’s inbound to dock now.”

“Thanks, Cerise,” I replied.

“Trent,” Cheng coughed, an odd hacking noise. “Layton. Have you decided?”

Floating in the zero-g of the clean, white room, I looked out of the window at the once beautiful vista of Concorde. In a way, it still was. The gentle upsweep of the habitat ring was now filled with strange clouds. Soil still floated around, and huge bubbles of water that were once lakes and streams stretched and shimmered. The light streaking through the debris created dusty beams. I realized I had come to a decision.

“I have.” I turned and looked at the equally shattered wreckage of Cheng. All of this ruin—Io, Concorde, Cheng, and Dev—had been caused by one man. Just what he was, I didn’t know. A criminal? A terrorist? A soldier? “I’m going.”

“Who would’ve thought,” Cheng croaked. “Layton Trent, space explorer.”

Yes indeed. That had been all we had been able to think and talk about for the last two days. Finally, authorization for a pursuit had come through—volunteers only. I had done a hell of a lot of soul-searching before putting my name down. Crossing Sol was one thing, following Frain to Sirius, quite another.

“We’ll find him, Zao.”

“Good. Wish I could come.” Cheng sighed then gave a slight cough. That twinkle appeared in his eye, the one he could switch on and off. I got the impression he had done it for my benefit. “Then maybe by the time you get back, I’ll be back in my dancing shoes. We can go out, paint the town red. Joke about all this.”

“You can count on it. I’ll see you in sixteen years. Maybe bring your kid along. He’ll be old enough by then.”

“My kid,” Cheng coughed. “I doubt I’ll have one now.”

I hadn’t liked what Cheng had done, but within his own moral structure, he felt he was doing the right thing. I couldn’t find the anger within me anymore for his actions or his little lie.

“I’ll be seeing you, Zao.”

Cheng closed his eyes, clearly exhausted. His breathing became regular as he drifted off to sleep.

***

Erebus and Gagarin weren’t built off the same plans, but explorer ships tended to be much of a muchness—a long spine, a habitat ring somewhere near the back next to the A-drive. Like Erebus, Gagarin was modern enough to have an antimatter torch and a nano-fabricator.

We were lucky. When we had dispatched Gagarin to go look for Magellan, her flight plan had meant that she had dropped out of A-drive every couple of hours for up-to-date positioning fixes from the deep space arrays. She had been just over a day out when we recalled her. It was clear to us that Magellan was the lesser of our leads. We needed to get through the gate and fast, and the Gagarin was the only available ship in range. The Magellan would have to wait for another team.

“Captain,” I nodded at the unnecessarily prematurely balding man in front of me. I was eternally grateful to be off Concorde and aboard the spinning habitat ring of the sleek ship.

“Welcome aboard, ladies and gentlemen,” Captain Arkady Vasily said with a smile and a thick Russian accent. He seemed far friendlier than Tasker had. “Interesting times, no?”

“Only if you mean in the sense of the old Chinese curse,” Vance replied testily. She was as bruised as I was.

“Quite,” Captain Vasily said with a nod. “We have a solution. We’re heading straight to the Earth-moon system. As you can imagine, they are going—how do you say?—ballistic back there.”

Yeah, we had all had an ear-bashing over the last couple of days. Fortunately for us, the “keep them on the job” crowd had won out against the “string them up” faction. Just barely, though.

“The Interstellar List has been polled. We will be picking up an attachment of soldiers on our way through,” the captain said, dropping his smile. “We won’t be too tightly packed, though. I’m going to off-load all nonessential crew. They didn’t sign up for Sirius.”

My stomach gave a little nervous lurch as he said it. None of us had signed up for a sixteen-year round trip at the start of this—assuming we survived whatever the hell Frain could come up with on the other side. Some analytical part of me thought the only reason I was going along with it was because it hadn’t really settled in yet. Everything had moved so damned fast.

“While we’re picking them up, I think we have a few questions for Red Star. Don’t you, people?” Vance asked.

That was for damn sure.







Chapter 33

Gagarin

“Ms. Hanley,” I nodded at the powerful woman in front of me.

Vance had introduced us all. We had set up Gagarin’s mess as a virtual conference room. We had some pointed questions for Kara Hanley, but that didn’t necessarily mean that we could afford to piss her off.

“Ladies and gentlemen, call me Kara, please. This is my head of legal, Grant Jonas,” she said in a flippant manner. To be fair to her, by all accounts, the CEO of Red Star was a very nice woman. She was a philanthropist and spent half of her Christmas Day spooning out dinners to orphans. The thought did occur to me, however, that she was one of the true powers of Earth. Each of the massive corporations, Red Star, Helios, and many others, held as much sway as a nation-state. She could quite easily click her fingers and I would find myself on welfare for the rest of my natural life.

“Kara,” Vance started, gazing at the middle-aged matriarch in front of her, “we have subjects we didn’t want to discuss over open link or conventional communications, hence the request for this holoconference once we got into Earth orbit and laser-link range.”

“I must admit, I have been waiting on your call,” Hanley said from her office. Behind her was the picturesque skyline of Montreal, dozens of miles-tall superscrapers visible, stretching into the red sunset-lit sky. It looked like a window in the hull of Gagarin’s mess. “I presume this meeting has something to do with Io?”

“Your presumption is correct,” Vance said, leaning back in her chair. “Let me cut to the chase. We know about your Eston Mons facility. We have a survivor from there.”

“Eston Mons? Remind me? We have a lot of facilities in Jupiter space,” she said. She was pumping us. I knew it, my colleagues knew it, and she knew that we knew it.

“Your secret facility on Io. The one where you found some kind of alien artifact,” I prompted. Then I couldn’t help myself. “Ring any bells?”

Her man Jonas gave a cough and leaned forward. Their side of the conference room froze.

“Oh…that facility,” she finally said a minute later, the conference unfreezing.

“Yes, that facility. That place is the reason why Io is currently smashed to smithereens and at least eighty-seven people who were on that rock are dead, not to mention many others caught in the EM radiation pulse from the explosion as Magellan hit. Whatever was going on there has a causal link to the emergency de-spin of Concorde and many related injuries of civilians and personnel aboard. Oh, and not to mention the incident at the gate arrays,” I said.

“The test firing of the space-defense network, you mean?” she asked with a wry grin. That was the cover-up line that had been issued. I didn’t know whether it would hold water; Sol is a leaky place. Thankfully, the Io Incident itself provided a decent cover story. After all, the public would want reassurance that Earth’s defenses would prevent anything similar happening there. The de-spin incident? That was just a malfunction that was being investigated as far as it had been put out to the public. Apparently the Linked command had been doing a hell of a lot of unprecedented vaulting from the Consensus.

“I’m sure Mr. Jonas here can remind you of your obligations under the Outer Space Treaty as amended in 2145,” I continued, gesturing to her unflappable sidekick before starting to quote from the legalese that I had set up and ready on my HUD. “Article VI is the relevant one. It states, ‘Parties to the Treaty shall bear international responsibility for national activities in outer or interstellar space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, whether such activities are carried on by governmental agencies or nongovernmental entities.’” I looked at Ms. Hanley. “That’s you, by the way. And for assuring that ‘national activities are carried out in conformity with the provisions set forth in the present Treaty,’ Subsection C continues, ‘any governmental agencies or nongovernmental entities bear a binding obligation to declare the finding of any life, signs of intelligence, or artifacts to the state parties of the treaty.’”

“I am well aware of the relevant legislation,” Jonas said with a slick smile.

“So you are also aware that covering up a major archaeological find would leave Red Star vulnerable to some pretty harsh sanctions?”

“Red Star is a vast organization. No one person can know every little nuance of our business,” Jonas said, his oily demeanor not slipping for a second.

“Grant,” Hanley held her hand up to Jonas, “you are quite correct; however, to clarify, we considered that we had an obligation to give full disclosure of just what we had found, which, of course, is impossible until we could figure out exactly what it was we had.”

I could see the loophole they were going to try to exploit here; it was the same one we were using for not providing full disclosure of the same artifact to all and sundry. She was telling us she was going to let us know—but only after they had extracted every advantage they possibly could out of whatever the hell it was.

“The courts can decide later whether you fulfilled your obligations or not,” Vance took over. “Right now we have a fugitive on the run who is responsible for the destruction of the artifact and the moon it was on. We need to know why.”

Hanley leaned back in her chair. She steepled her fingers, and a considering look drew her face tight. She pursed her lips, then looked at Jonas, and nodded.

“Red Star is willing to fully cooperate and disclose what we know,” Jonas said smoothly. “We would consider that the fulfillment of our obligations under the OST. The question is, would you?”

The double-talk was obvious. They wanted a deal. Red Star would cop to what they knew if they got immunity from prosecution for any breaches of the treaty.

“We’ll have to get back to you on that one. Perhaps while we’re ruminating about that, you can start by telling us about Sonia Drayton?” Vance said. “Let’s call it an act of good faith.”

“Sonia Drayton?” Hanley replied, the flicker of confusion that broke through her mask was just that, a flicker. She covered it up quickly. “She’s with you. I understand she was the Red Star operative we assigned to the task force.”

“She was,” I took over again. “That was before she decided to run off with our chief suspect.”

“I see,” Hanley pursed her lips. “That is…interesting. Grant?”

“What can I say?” Jonas said then cleared his throat, a confused look on his face. It just might have been genuine. “Drayton’s a fixer. She’s been corporate all her working life. She spent her first few years on the Helios graduate-entry scheme. Our HR department headhunted her after spotting her at a futurology symposium where she postulated some ideas that fit in with work Red Star was doing at the time. She’s worked through various departments. High corporate loyalty, hence her assignment on oversight of the Eston Mons facility. She was destined to go places.”

“Well, it seems she had a better offer from somewhere,” I said. “Well, that or—” I began.

“Inspector, that find was the mother lode. Why would we ever want to destroy it?” Hanley asked, her voice hard. “If that’s what you’re implying.”

“Not at all,” I smiled. “Yet. Perhaps when you send up the information on the facility, Drayton’s full dossier wouldn’t go amiss either.”

Hanley’s eyes were locked on me. She wasn’t a happy woman. She gave the slightest of nods.

“Right,” Vance said, standing up. “I think I have some calls to make pertaining to your full disclosure and legal obligations.”

***

The bridge looked dull to me: a central holotank surrounded by chairs where her crew members worked, manipulating consoles and controls that would appear only to them. Captain Vasily generously allowed me to slave my HUD to his briefly, and the bridge came alive.

The torrent of information was unbelievable. The plain surfaces of the bridge became awash with information. Status displays and readouts of every description were everywhere. God knows how the crew managed to interpret it, but I guess that was why they were the dashing crew of an explorer vessel and I was a cop. In the end, I shut down the link, contenting myself with the image in the holotank.

Gagarin shot toward the rendezvous over Earth. She was going to loop around our home, picking up her new cargo, a detachment of soldiers, all of whom were on the Interstellar List. This was a list of highly trained volunteer troops from treaty nations who had committed to undertake interstellar missions at a moment’s notice even though such missions would probably skip them forward decades into the future.

I watched on the holotank as two sleek, deadly looking assault shuttles rose up to meet us. Each of those Hawk-class shuttles was armed to the teeth and had been configured for “opposed space boarding” operations. They were what we were going to use to take back Erebus. They spun deftly, thrusters firing, and clamped onto Gagarin. I heard the faintest of thumps reverberate through the hull.

“Layton?” Captain Vasily called, looking at me through the holotank. “Would you care to come greet our new crew members?”

“Of course.”

***

“Fancy seeing you here,” Ava Phillips said, the slightest of smiles on her face.

“You, too,” I replied. She looked as good as ever, and I noticed new rank slides on her fatigues. Someone had decided to give her a well-deserved promotion to major. “And nice shiny new crowns, by the way.”

“Finally.” She gave a dismissive wave of her hand. “I passed the board a year ago and have been left hanging ever since. After Sahelia, someone thought they should rubber-stamp it. Not that I get to enjoy the position, of course. You’ve roped me into another job, one involving aliens and conspiracies at that.”

“Ha,” I snorted. “Well, Major, you volunteered for the list. Don’t you be blaming me. Why the hell you would put your name down in the first place anyway is beyond me.”

“Ha,” she scoffed back at me with a casual shrug. “I just wanted the three weeks continuation training in orbit every year. Who knew they would actually send me anywhere? Anyway, maybe us lonely old spinsters and lifelong bachelors appreciate that we are going to get paid, what? Sixteen years’ salary?”

“Yup, sixteen,” I nodded, my stomach giving another lurch.

“Sixteen years’ salary for a few days’ work.”

She was both right and wrong. If this job went smoothly, subjectively for us, we would be simply nipping through the gateway, boarding Erebus, apprehending Frain and Drayton, and then coming home, this time with a bunch of commandos. Each and every one should be a match for Frain, and we had ten.

The problem was that the gateways didn’t work quite that simply. We would fly into one and be digitized. Then, by some process to do with quantum physics, which was best described as magic by a layman like me, the gate would literally beam us as information to the other end of the gateway eight light-years away. The problem was that information could only be transmitted at light speed, so objectively, we would be gone for sixteen years, there and back.

“Yeah—speaking of which, I think I need to transfer my meager savings into a high-interest account. I here compound interest is akin to magic,” I replied.

“A good idea.” She smiled warmly at me before taking a serious look. “How have you been, after Sahelia?”

“I’m fine,” I responded.

“It’s always hard losing someone on a job.”

“Yeah. First time for me,” I said.

“If you need to talk about it, Layton…”

“Thanks, Ava, but I’m good.” I didn’t want to talk about it. I just wanted to find Frain and figure out why.

“Right,” Major Phillips nodded, her concerned tone slipping into a more authoritative voice. “Anyway, to business. I need you to send any data you’ve acquired on what you think this Frain’s capabilities are. I’ll also need you to send HUD playbacks from anyone involved in engaging with him. I want to know what we’re dealing with here and—”

With a mental command, I brought up the file I had ready. A flashing envelope of a HUDmail appeared in my view, and I sent it over to her. “Already got it here for you.”

“You are the picture of efficiency,” Phillips said, nodding at me and accepting the transfer.

“We’ve managed to squeeze Red Star for more information,” I said. “The briefing docket you had included a HUD download from Drayton, right?”

“That’s right.”

“It turned out she was holding out on us. We’ve just received the rest. Want to watch it with us?”







Chapter 34

Io

“So, what now?” Drayton asked Delaney. They were still seated in the forward operating cabin at Eston Mons. The buzz centered around the transit of the probe through the gate had receded into the murmur of scientists and technicians analyzing the readings they had picked up from the gate’s activation.

“What do you mean?” Delaney said distractedly, poring over the sensor data that had come in as the probe had flashed away. “Oh, we need to compile the sensor readings from the transit and see what we can learn from this.”

The probe that they sent through had a return module and servitor robot. Once it arrived at its destination, it would gather sensor data, and if possible, the servitor would activate the other end of the gateway and send the return module back through the gate. The problem was that, without knowing where the other end was—or if it still existed, for that matter—they would have no way of knowing when it would return. If the other end was five light-years away, it would take ten years for it to come home.

“The readings spiked in some different ways from our gateways,” Delaney murmured. “The sub-atomic positioning arrays, for example, seem to have worked much faster than ours.”

“Are we going to be looking at incremental developments or seed changes from this?”

“Sonia,” Delaney said testily, finally stopping examining his readouts and looking at her, “we sent the probe through five minutes ago. At least let me look at the damn readings.”

“Okay, okay,” Drayton said, holding her hands up in mock surrender. “I’ll go file the initial report to Ms. Hanley.”

“You do that,” Delaney said, turning back to his readouts.

***

“Drayton, come back to the ops, now.” Delaney looked nearly frantic on Drayton’s HUD. Without anything more, he cut the Link.

Groaning, Drayton swung her legs off the uncomfortable bunk where she had been writing her log for the bosses back home. She pulled on her boots and started walking in the low gravity of Io down the umbilical tubes toward the ops cabin.

“What’s up?” she asked Delaney, who was talking animatedly with his technicians.

“Look,” he said, waving his hand vaguely at the plate window up front, the alien pagoda a hulking outline in the darkness beyond.

Stepping forward, she looked down at it and started in shock. The return module was lying on the human-installed mesh decking just outside the gate entrance. It was surrounded by a swirling mist from the atmospheric differential of where it had come from and where it now was.

“Talk to me,” Drayton said, turning to look at Delaney. “Is this a malfunction or what?”

“No, not at all. It went through, gathered the first load of data, then returned.”

“The other end of the gateway can’t be far away, then,” Drayton said.

“Oh, I think it is,” Delaney said, standing from the console he was hunched over.

“It has to be nearby if it returned so quickly. In system, hell, probably in the Jupiter system,” Drayton said. Delaney just ignored her and carried on reading his console. Finally, Drayton walked over and looked at the clip that was playing on the screen.

“Is that what I think it is?” she asked, shock evident in her voice.

Delaney rubbed his chin. “As far as we can tell, yes. Sensor readings are all what we would expect in that…environment.”

Drayton looked again as the playback looped. The probe arrived at the other end in a bright flash, a low golden light, not enough to see detail. The flood light on the front of the probe lanced out. From what they could see, the probe was in a cavernous chamber. As the camera played around, it revealed a vast metallic-colored dome. It looked ancient, abandoned, the only light coming from above. Behind the probe was another pagoda, similar to what lay in front of them, light still pulsing along its flanks.

The probe’s camera panned upward to reveal a large rent in the dome, the source of the light.

Beyond was a swirling spiral of red and gold glowing matter. The matter would only actually move over epochs, yet the eye played tricks and filled in the movement, making it seem like they were watching a spinning whirlpool with a black speck at the center.

“A black hole?” Drayton leaned toward the image. “There isn’t one anywhere even close to Sol.”

“None that we know about,” Delaney added. “Definitely none that are in the process of devouring a substantial amount of matter like this one is.”

“So where the hell is it?” Drayton asked.

Delaney gave a shrug. “Thousands of light-years away. At least.”

“Oh shit,” Drayton said realizing the full implications.

“That’s right,” Delaney grinned. “That gateway not only goes farther than any of ours, but it does it faster than light.”

“Oh shit,” Drayton repeated.







Chapter 35

Gagarin

“This could change, well, everything.” Frampton practically hopped around the mess as he vibrated with excitement after watching the HUD upload from Hanley.

Drayton had known what she was doing when she held back the little detail that they had discovered a faster-than-light gateway. She’d fed us just enough information to keep us off her back and ensure we kept her on Concorde rather than shipping her back to Earth…or worse, sending her with Cheng.

Sihota was somewhat more somber than Frampton upon the recently released revelations. “It may well do. The balance of power everywhere would change overnight and not in a predictable way.

“Agreed,” Vance cut in. “Interstellar commerce, as fledgling as it is, for example. Even the Alpha Centauri research stations are an eight-year round trip at the moment. For the systems that are actually worth trading with, it’s even longer.”

“Yes, but…” Frampton started.

“Don’t get excited. The technology might not even be replicable. Red Star hasn’t got a clue as to how it worked, just that it did.” Sihota tried, unsuccessfully, to bring him down a peg.

“Look,” said Frampton, gesturing at something in his HUD. I hadn’t bothered to slave mine to his. He was far more interested in raw data than in the general overview that I wanted, and his sparkling displays of graphs and numbers just confused me. “The basic principle is the same; it’s just half the components don’t seem to be there. The hardware is advanced, probably more so than ours, but we will be able to replicate it. It’s just a question of when. This isn’t magic; we only have to find the missing chunk.”

“Yes, an important chunk…the chunk that accounts for the FTL travel. Look, we are not scientists. It’s not our job to figure this thing out,” Vance responded testily. “We only need to find out why Frain has gone to great lengths to destroy something so valuable.”

I was idly flicking through the contents summary of the data file. As I did so, it occurred to me that people weren’t asking the right questions…There was one big glaring gap.

“Folks, this is all very interesting. Whoever built this thing is easily as advanced as we are,” I said. “So where the hell are they?”

Everyone just looked at me blankly. They were so caught up on the hardware, they had forgotten that basic question.

“They had a star-spanning society. The only thing that is left now is some damn pagoda on a moon that’s now in bits. Oh, and presumably some derelict station circling a black hole Lord-knows-how-many light-years away.”

“It might not be the only artifact,” Sihota replied after a moment’s thought. “Think about it. Frain took Erebus to a system that even backwater systems would call backwater. So why Sirius? There’s not much there.”

Sihota began tapping away on an invisible console that would be in his HUD. The lights in the mess dimmed, and a hologram of Erebus’s final approach to the gate arrays appeared floating above the mess table. We watched again as Erebus raced toward the gateways, turned front to back, and then decelerated hard yet carefully to ensure its antimatter torch didn’t destroy any of the thirty or so gateways floating in the Lagrange point.

“There, look. Frain could have easily entered Tau Ceti, in fact, more easily than Sirius.” We watched as the explorer ship slid into the shoal of gates, sweeping by several. “Delta Pavonis—another decent and easier target. Both have relatively high colonial populations for him to run to. There’s a couple more gates he passes, not as viable as bolt holes, but with a lot more in them than Sirius has. Instead, he’s gone to extra effort to enter that gate. Why?”

I pulled up the Sirius system on my HUD. It had various corporate and university interests within. It was apparently a fascinating place for science, but the only world that was even remotely habitable was an ice-covered rock, which by all reports, though beautiful, was not exactly an easy place to live. The system had only around five thousand people in a couple of dozen ships, stations, and one small settlement on that ice world. In terms of total population, the system measured about the same as a village.

“So you think these guys found something out there?” I asked.

“Well, he must have some reason for going there,” Sihota said with a shrug. “He didn’t just skip into the first gate that he could have.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” Captain Vasily interrupted, entering the mess, “my orders have finally been signed off. Her owners aren’t exactly pleased, but I’ve been told they have come to an understanding with the treaty nations. Gagarin is to pursue Erebus.

About damn time.







Chapter 36

Gagarin

“Layton, you don’t have to do this,” Giselle said earnestly, her face appearing in my HUD.

“Yeah, I do,” I said. “Look, I want to. I need to.”

“But sixteen years—assuming you even survive the experience,” she pressed.

Why the hell was I doing it? For Dev? Would he even have wanted me to go to these lengths? Was it to complete a job? I love my work but not enough to sacrifice sixteen years. I suspected it was as much about fulfilling that pervasive childhood fantasy of being a star traveler as anything else.

”Hell, Giselle, I’ve never managed my teenage fantasy of being a gigolo to a stream of rich, beautiful women.” I smiled as Giselle rolled her eyes theatrically. “I might as well do the other one of exploring the stars.”

“Great,” Giselle muttered. “You’re finally showing your true self. A kid trapped in an adult’s body.”

I grinned and shrugged before growing serious again. “My decision is already made. It’s not as if I have to break the bad news to my wife and kids. I don’t have any. It’s only a matter of time before you boot me back to the Met, Giselle. Then what? I’ll be back juggling annual leave requests and performance figures. I can’t tell you everything about this job, but it’s big. It matters.”

“Every job matters. To someone,” Giselle said.

“Maybe, but there are scales of importance. Don’t try to talk me out of this. I’m going.”

“Very well,” she said resignedly.

“You mind packing up my stuff? Claim what you want, let the guys in the office take whatever, and put the rest in storage.”

“Layton, you have a settee, a bed, and a coffee maker. I don’t think it will be too onerous to take care of that for you,” Giselle smiled. Yeah, I was somewhat minimalist.

“What I want to know is, who the hell is going to pay my salary?” I asked, changing the subject. Hey, these things matter.

“Damned if I know,” Giselle shrugged. “I’m in talks to add you to the Interstellar List. But unless you want to hang around for the next three months while I sort it out…”

“Well, that wouldn’t exactly be a hot pursuit, now, would it?” I said with a smile before turning serious. “I trust you to sort it. I have a request, too. I know Dev had a kid brother. He’s just started school. Assuming you manage to sort my salary, put…say…a quarter of it into a trust fund for him, between now and eighteen.”

“Layton, you don’t have to do that.”

“No, I don’t, but I want to.”

“I’m sure Dev’s family would appreciate that,” Giselle said. If I didn’t know the cool woman so well, I would have thought she was about to get emotional on me with the way her voice cracked.

“Anyway, one more thing,” I said, quickly moving on. “Pull everything you can about the research that’s going on in Sirius. You’re looking for anything anomalous.”

“You’ve been hanging out with those geeks too much. Anomalous?” Giselle rolled the word around her mouth and then asked, “Just what am I looking for?”

“I don’t know. Everyone who is in Sirius should pretty much have a reason for being there. Sure, there are a few families, but you’re looking for, well, I don’t know, clandestine research? Corporate machinations?”

“You don’t know what you’re asking me to look for, do you?”

“Not a damn clue,” I replied with a grin.

***

“What do you mean you’re going away? You are away. It’s not as if you come home nearly often enough as it is.”

“I know, Mother, and I’m sorry.” The ethereal holograms of my parents were sitting on a couch in the corner of the mess. I didn’t know how much I could, or should, tell my parents, but I wasn’t going to leave without at least saying something. I looked at the aged couple. They had done everything they could to ensure I had a good life, got a decent upbringing, and knew the difference between right and wrong. Now, the sense of duty they had instilled in me was what was taking me away from them.

I was going, and I wouldn’t be home for a long, long time.

“Son, you never bothered to tell us before when you’ve been posted. You telling us now worries me,” my dad said.

I glanced across at Vance, who stood in the corner of the room. She looked thoughtful for a moment and then shrugged, seemingly to herself. A second later, a text appeared on my HUD. Tell them, just not everything.

I nodded back at her, a silent thanks.

“I’ve been offered a job. It’s consulting in another star system. I can’t tell you just where, but I’ll be gone for a few years.”

My mother gave a gasp and looked at my father. “How many years?”

“I can’t tell you exactly. Between fifteen and twenty.”

“Fifteen to twenty years!”

“Moira,” my dad said, clasping his arm around his wife, my mother. “I’m sure you’ve thought this through, and you are doing what’s right, but that is a long time, Son.”

“It is. But it’s also something I have to do, Dad. Look, it won’t be forever. You’ll still be around by the time I get back, and I’ll have one hell of a VR image collection to show you.” I tried to smile but knew that I had failed to be convincing.

“Are you coming home before you leave? I’ll put on a roast, get your aunt and uncle down.” My mother was on the verge of tears.

“I’d love to, Mother, but I can’t. The ship is leaving soon. It’s not as if I can just catch the next flight. It’ll be years before I get another chance.”

“Layton, this isn’t fair.”

“Moira,” my dad admonished, “this must be hard enough for him, too.”

“It is, Dad.” I could hear my voice cracking. My mother was so damn upset. No son liked to see that.

“Just make sure you look after yourself. Please,” he said, wrapping his arm around my mother.

“I will. Look, I’m sorry. I have to go. A few other people need to use the room to contact their families. I’m sorry I couldn’t give you more warning.”

“I don’t suppose you can HUDmail us?” my mother asked.

“No. By the time any message gets to Earth, I’ll be nearly home anyway.” I realized that was the wrong answer as soon as I said it. They didn’t care about that. They just wanted me to get in touch as soon as I was able. “But tell you what, if I can, I will, even if the message gets home only a few weeks before me.”

“Okay. Just try.”

“I love you guys.”

“We love you, too, Son.”

“Laters, Gaters.” I blew a kiss and cut the Link, watching their holograms disappear. My eyes felt prickly. I hadn’t cried in years. I blinked a few times and took a deep breath.

I felt a firm hand grip my shoulder and looked up to see Vance, a look of understanding on her face. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I will be. It’s hard, you know?”

“I know. I’ve got to tell my daughter the same thing.”

I didn’t even know she had a daughter, and my look obviously said as much.

“She’s just finished college and has just started her first job, something as far removed from Company business as I could steer her. She has a nice young man to look after her. She barely even gets in touch anymore. Sound familiar?”

I smiled back. “Yeah, it does. What are you going to tell her?”

“The same as you. She knows what I do for a living—not that she approves. She’s one of those bleeding-heart-liberal types. I’m going to tell her I have an attachment.”

“Ha.” I gave an affectionate scoff. The mental image of a frustrated Vance dealing with what she probably perceived to be lefty nonsense over the dinner table struck me as amusing.

“Anyway, Layton, move your ass. It’s my turn.”

***

“I am sorry.” Agapov looked it. The surly Federation agent had told us that he couldn’t come with us. Now we were saying our goodbyes in the airlock of Gagarin.

“It’s okay,” Vance replied, surprising me again with her soft demeanor. “It’s a hell of an ask.”

Agapov nodded, unable to meet our eyes. Since he had made it clear he wasn’t making the jump, his surly manner had changed and become more withdrawn; he was tortured by his decision. The choice to hunt Frain and Drayton had lost out to the more instinctive drive to return to his wife and young son.

“Pavel,” I said with a strained and probably obviously false levity, “you’re still on the team. We need someone to stay here and do the hard work while we’re gallivanting around the galaxy. I’ve got my people at The Hague looking into clues back here. Coordinate with them; you can still play an important part in this.”

He nodded, his jaw clenched tight. I knew the feeling. Sometimes, I had not been able to join my team when they faced a shitty situation. It was heart breaking. The desire to stay with your team, to have their backs through thick and thin, always burned deep and hot. But this man had a family, and that, to him, was more important. I couldn’t blame him. After all, why had we signed up to this line of work if not to protect our loved ones?

“Besides, we need someone to apply the thumbscrews to Rosenberg, or Smith, or whatever we’re calling him today,” I said about our informant from the Hibernia station. “One of us is the best person for the job.”

“Yes,” he growled and glared over at Rosenberg. “Rest assured, he will tell me everything.”

“Yeah…” I frowned slightly. I glanced at the silent Rosenberg, drifting a small distance away under one of Major Phillips’s troops. “Just…don’t actually use thumbscrews.”

For the first time in days, Agapov grinned. He drifted forward and slapped my back, sending us both spinning around the entry to the airlock. “Fear not, my friend. I will resist the temptation.”

“See you in a few years.”

“And you.”

The rest of the team said their goodbyes before Agapov led Rosenberg into the lock. It slammed shut with a sense of finality.







Chapter 37

Gagarin

Gagarin slowed as it approached the swarm of gateways at the Lagrange point. This was the hub of humanity’s fledging interstellar society. From daring explorers to colonists, everyone who wanted to go to another star came through here.

“Magnificent, isn’t it?” Frampton’s eyes were positively glowing, whether from the reflection of the holograms, his HUD set to bright, or simple enthusiasm, I didn’t know. I suspected the latter.

I watched on the holotank as Gagarin entered the swarm of gates, each one a giant lattice of gleaming girders and equipment modules, ready to catapult whatever was flown into them across the light-years. Except catapult was the wrong word. I was getting nervous.

“You know, I read somewhere that these damn things kill you. They just create a copy of you at the other end,” I said, my dry throat making my voice croak a little.

“I guess they do,” Frampton said distractedly.

I half grunted a scoff. He had the therapeutic manner of a slop bucket beside a counselor’s couch—this wasn’t what I’d wanted to hear.

“Oh, um,” he stuttered as he turned and focused on me. “I wouldn’t worry about it.”

“Are you kidding me?” I was unable to contain a nervous laugh.

“No, seriously. There was a congressional hearing back in…oh, 2110ish, I think it was, just before the first gate was used. They had everyone there for it: scientists, priests, ministers, rabbis, imams—the works. They spent the best part of a year kicking it around the table. Eventually they figured that God would merely transport your soul into the new body at the other end.”

Yeah, I had heard about that. Undoubtedly their view was assisted by some massive donations Helios Heavy Industries, the creators of the original gates, had made to their respective faiths. At least I hadn’t seen the pope do a papal visit to the Tau Ceti colony yet.

“That’s…reassuring,” I said. “And for those of us who are, at best, agnostic?”

Frampton merely shrugged.

“So if we go through the gateway now, it’ll take eight years for the signal to get to Sirius. What happens if the gateway’s not there at the other end? You know, if it’s been destroyed somehow.”

“In that case, we’d simply disappear,” Frampton said matter-of-factly. I probably had a look of horror on my face from his response. “But the system has so much redundancy in it, I doubt that would ever happen. Each gateway is incredibly robust. It can self-repair from near-catastrophic damage. Even if it couldn’t, the original Von Neumann gateships always build a spare gateway, which will instantly take over. And if both get wiped out somehow, a neighboring star will dispatch a VN gateship to put the system back in the network. The whole system is built on redundancy upon redundancy.”

“Okay, but what—”

“Look,” he interrupted my constant questions, changing the topic and pointing at one gateway that seemed somehow bigger yet less advanced than the rest. It was all girders and big, boxy clusters of equipment as opposed to the smooth and modern lines of the others. “That one was the first: the Tau Ceti Gateway. That’s the one Endeavour first traveled through.”

“Uh huh.” The sheer historical weight of the massive artifact sweeping by was lost on me. I knew it had a place in history on par with Endeavour, Sputnik, Apollo 11, the original Zheng He Mars ship, or Trident, the first ship to Jupiter, but it just didn’t feel real at the moment. My awe and respect for the history and significance of this gate was a little lost under a few concerns about self-preservation.

“They are amazing pieces of technology.” Frampton had moved to the large display window, resting his hand on the screen in a curiously childlike pose.

“So I gather.” I was feeling queasy now that the time was getting close.

“I mean, the scanners in them can instantly map everything—every atom, which direction they’re going in. You know, if you start moving your hand, for example, as we pass through the gate, it will even map the electrical impulses and muscle movements that you are making. When we come out the other end, you will carry on making that movement.”

“Great.” I probably still wasn’t sounding convinced, but it was too late to back out now.

“Of course, to get such resolution, it quite literally has to rip you apart.”

“Will you shut the hell up!” My heart was beating so fast that my HUD was flashing a blinking red heart warning in the corner of my field of vision. Much more of Frampton’s reassurances and I would have to order my medical implants to regulate my body functions.

“And it will transform all that information into quantum information that is sent from this gateway to the destination instantly.”

“Hold on,” I said, gripping onto that piece of information. I blurted out the obvious question. “If it sends it instantly, why don’t we travel instantly?”

“And then it will reassemble it again instantly. What?” Frampton said, finally responding to me. “Oh. Well, it can send the data instantly, but it’s all garbled up. When it arrives, it’s just a mess.”

And to think, I thought that asking questions would chill me out. Big mistake, that was.

“I didn’t cover more than the basics of gate theory at college, but what I do know is that the problem with quantum communication is something called decoherence. The information is all messed up, encoded, they call it. So they have to rectify it. To do that, the gate has to send the key to put it all back together again, and that is done the old-fashioned way. Basically, they fire a communications laser at the receiving gate. That’s what limits us to light speed.”

I watched Gagarin slide closer to the gaping lattice entrance of the Sirius Gateway.

“So that alien gate seems to work roughly the same way as ours?”

“Seems to,” Frampton said. “There are some differences. Quite a lot of the technology seems to be substantially better than ours in terms of scanning. Red Star hasn’t managed to find the power source, though, or a transmission medium they use to rectify the data, but we know there’s no laser.”

“So how do you think they’re doing it? How have they managed to lick this garbling problem?”

“Beats me. I’m a CIS analyst with a major in physics. I don’t exactly keep abreast of this stuff,” Frampton said dismissively. “Magic? Certainly seems that way. The Io facility was just a great big scanner and quantum encoder. It shouldn’t even work since it seems to be missing half the components it needs. They didn’t manage to explore the whole of the facility, but that stuff should be pretty obvious.”

I thought back to Drayton’s HUD playback. Clearly it had worked, however they had managed to get around the problems.

Gagarin was closing on the Sirius Gateway, lining up with the opening of the structure. Lights were pulsating in sequence, guiding us. I watched on the holotank as our ship eased backward until it was completely enveloped in the crisscross of girders, beams, and boxes.

We were ready to go. We had all said our goodbyes. This was it. There would be no long countdown; we were as good to go as we could be.

“Everyone, please take a seat. We are preparing for transit,” Captain Vasily called over open the link.

I seated myself in one of the mess chairs and, probably rather redundantly, strapped myself in. Frampton had given a wry grin at this but knew enough to keep quiet.

I could feel warmth on my skin. It wasn’t uncomfortable, more like the feeling of being out in the sun on a hot day. It started to build, and the room seemed to brighten.

“I never expected to feel it,” Frampton said. I looked over at him and saw that his hands were gripping his seat arms so hard that his knuckles were whitening. Glad I wasn’t the only one feeling a bit on the nervous side.

The heat and light grew. My skin started to prickle. It felt like it was building to a crescendo. The world was being whitewashed, the pleasant warmth moving through discomfort into pain and then on to agony.

Just as the light turned blinding and the pain became unbearable, it snapped off—just ended, like someone had flicked a switch. I blinked and looked around and saw that Frampton, Vance, and Sihota were doing the same, questioning looks on their faces.

“What happened?” I asked. The pain left no traces; it was simply gone. I didn’t even know if I had imagined it—some kind of psychosomatic reaction to the thought that the gateway was shattering me into my component atoms? “Why didn’t it work?”

“God, that was awful,” Vance breathed.

“All hands, this is the bridge,” Vasily called out over the Link. “We have successfully transited into the Sirius star system. We are here.”




Interlude

“Frain,” Voice Patrice said coldly. “A name that would be scribed on the Linked Consensus if it wasn’t vaulted. A man responsible for the Two Great Cacophonies: when Io was destroyed and the de-spin of Concorde when every member of the Link cried out at once in fear. However, we want our children to be able to sleep at night, so we keep the name Frain locked away. It took us years to repair the damage that man caused.”

“It goes to show,” the host smiled, “even the Linked’s vaunted egalitarianism and openness falls down when it comes to the Io Incident. A true accomplishment, Voice, that the secret has held for as long as it has.”

“And it seems you are not the only one who has violated the OST.” The Voice of the Linked looked pointedly at Kara Hanley.

“Voice, the fact I am here should tell you I’ve made my peace with whatever action the good people in this room choose to take.” Hanley looked around the table. “I may have been granted immunity for assisting the authorities, but the scandal will sink Red Star if it’s revealed. And I personally will undoubtedly be the sacrificial lamb in an effort to stave off the wolves.”

“Yes, about that…” Patrice glanced at President Lance Hopkins, the current chair of the Treaty nations. “It seems the Linked are the only ones not informed on the discovery of this artifact?”

“There is much hidden in the archives,” Hopkins said offhandedly. “The trick is knowing when we can release it…for the good of all humanity, of course.”

“And I assure you, you are not the only one left out,” one of the other power players in the room growled.

The host held his hands out. “As you can see, there is plenty of blame to go around this room.”

“So it seems,” Patrice said. “Congratulations, deft maneuvering. You have built up some powerful allies just by telling this Trent’s story.

“Thank you,” the host smiled again.

“More importantly, though—” Patrice said in a measured tone, “and do not get me wrong, you will have questions to answer on this silence—why would anyone destroy such a significant artifact?”

“Oh, the story isn’t over yet.” The host glanced at the two figures standing in shadows at the edge of the room. One of them nodded an encouragement to him. “Let us continue Trent’s tale, shall we?”













PART TWO 2192 CE







Chapter 38

Gagarin

“Now this is a surprise—two starships in four days,” the hologram of the petite Korean lady from Sangam Consolidated said. “And to what do we owe the pleasure?”

Gagarin had pulled out of the Sirius gate and was drifting away from it slowly but steadily while we figured out just where the hell Erebus had gone.

The system was a vast, sparsely populated expanse, and Erebus was nowhere to be seen. The closest thing to a capital it had was the ice world colony called, rather optimistically, Twilight Garden. The rest of the population was scattered around various stations and ships cruising around, researching the binary star system.

“Good morning, Sirius Gate Control.” Vasily exchanged a look with Vance on the bridge. It was clear he was uncomfortable with subterfuge, but nonetheless, he dropped straight into our cover story. We didn’t want to panic the system by telling them a one-man weapon of mass destruction was wandering around their system. “Nothing too glamorous, I’m afraid. We are currently tasked with an exploration charter with a multisystem remit. Our ongoing destination is Ross 780. Some of the crew have friends and family in Sirius, and we’ve been allowed to make a minor detour due to a private welfare issue.”

“Oh?” The lady looked puzzled, and no wonder; a minor diversion just to drop in and see friends would objectively add years to any round trip. “Is it something I can help with?”

“That’s a negative.” Vasily gave a weak laugh. This guy couldn’t even tell a white lie. I could see Phillips standing in the corner of the bridge rolling her piercing electric-blue eyes. “As I say, it’s a private matter, and the bosses are keen to keep it that way.”

“Very well.” The lady gave a shrug. The look on her face suggested that she was already generating some gossip for what must have been a small-town-community mentality. “If you decide we can provide any assistance, please ask.”

“You say another ship came through?” Vasily asked. It wasn’t exactly a perfect segue.

“Yes,” she said, the puzzled look returning. “Her transponder code said she was a Helios ship, Erebus. The captain just passed the customary compliments and went straight to A-drive. They were in quite the hurry.”

“Well, that sounds rude,” Vasily said. “It’s always nice to say hello to a fellow explorer ship. What was her last heading?”

“Captain Vasily, you mind telling us what is going on?” The controller looked straight at the captain, locking onto him with her eyes like they were targeting computers.

“Standby,” he replied hopelessly, his reserves of slyness well and truly used up. He looked at Vance, the de facto spokesperson. She gave a sigh and stepped forward into the communication ring to address the Sirius controller.

“Good morning. Joan Vance, United States Combined Intelligence Service here. I apologize for the caginess; however, we have a somewhat sensitive matter to take care of. There is some concern that one of the crew of Erebus has committed a criminal act, and we have been given orders to follow and apprehend him.” Vance was a smooth operator.

“Okay, the truth at last. Thank you for that.” The woman’s brow furrowed. “And may I ask what the nature of this criminal act is?”

“I’m afraid not. I’m sure you would appreciate a certain amount of discretion if you were in this suspect’s position. After all, one is innocent until proven guilty. So if you could please just furnish us with Erebus’s last known heading, we would be obliged. I am transmitting an OST authorization code for that information.”

“This isn’t Sol, Joan,” the woman replied testily. Her eyes unfocused briefly, probably reading the OST authorization, before she snapped back to attention. She was obviously annoyed that we weren’t telling her the whole story. “We don’t have the same sensor coverage. The best I can tell you is she went to A-drive headed toward Sirius B. Probably Twilight Garden. That’s where the majority of the Sirius infrastructure is.”

“Thank you, Sirius Control. Rest assured, we will tell you what we can, when we can,” Vance smiled.

A tight nod came in response. “We don’t want any trouble here. We may be from many organizations, but we are one small community.”

“Understood. Out.”

***

Gagarin slammed back into normal space a few million miles away from the glistening midnight-blue world of Twilight Garden and fired her antimatter torch, sliding her into orbit.

The planet was renowned for being one of the prettier in the vicinity of Sol. If and when interstellar tourism ever took off in star systems that offered nothing more than a glorious vista, it would definitely find itself on the Hypernet travel review sites.

Twilight Garden orbited Sirius B, which, as I was quickly reading on my HUD, was dead. It certainly didn’t look that way. It still shone like a star, but it was a white dwarf little more than the size of Earth, and no new nuclear processes were occurring within. Sirius B was a corpse where the body hadn’t cooled yet. That would still take another billion years.

Its companion, Sirius A, was just as young as B, and young, my HUD informed me, meant a few hundred million years. But whereas its companion was effectively stillborn, Sirius A was going strong, the brightest star in Earth’s sky—other than the sun, of course.

Twilight Garden wasn’t the only world that circled one of the twin stars. A few gas giants and rocky terrestrials kept the capital world company. The reason for the rather fetching name was because most of Twilight Garden’s light came from either the much dimmer B or the distant A, creating a near-perpetual state of dusk.

“There is no sign of Erebus in orbit. Unless she’s somehow managed to stay on the opposite side of the planet from us, she’s somewhere else,” Vasily called from where he was standing behind one of his bridge crew, looking down at a console that, to my HUD, was blank. I didn’t bother to slave into the ship’s systems. I most likely wouldn’t be able to follow what was on there.

“Any sign of exotic particles from an A-drive?” Frampton asked.

“No,” Vasily shook his head, and his voice got clipped. “I’m no amateur, thank you.”

The lies at the gateway had gotten to him. The formerly friendly looking man was looking distinctly annoyed with the imposters on his bridge. It would only be a matter of time before he shooed us away if we weren’t careful.

“Captain,” I said in an effort to placate him, “no one is calling you an amateur. We’re all here because we care about this job.”

“Hmmm,” he grunted. “Let us contact Twilight Garden again. Dana, if you please.”

***

“Surely the damn system can’t be that big.” I knew a whiney tone had infected my voice, but I didn’t care.

We had the twisting representation of the Sirius system up on the holotank. We may as well have been running divining rods over it for all the joy we were having. Sure, Twilight Garden may be a good place to start, having the only planet-based facilities, but Erebus couldn’t land, and she wasn’t in orbit.

“Could she have done a switch back to the gate? Gone on somewhere else?” Phillips asked.

“No,” Vasily shook his head. “I took the liberty of requesting the gate logs. No one has transited out in months.”

“Frain does have a sophisticated e-warfare package. Is it possible for him to have doctored the logs?” I asked.

“From what you’ve told me, sure, he can override the gate, but Frain’s a blunt instrument. He would leave signs. Notwithstanding that, Sirius Control would surely have told us,” Vasily said after a moment’s consideration.

“Right, then. The way I see it,” Phillips gestured at the holotank, “we deploy probes to track her down. Then we just pick a good spot to wait and settle in. Either here, since this is the most populated place, or at the gate, in case he makes another break for it. Option three is we go to ground and see if he comes out of whatever hidey-hole he’s parked in.”

“May I suggest a compromise?” Captain Vasily said after another pause. “Blockade the gates with one of your assault shuttles, then I take Gagarin for a look around the system.”

“Our Hawks can’t support any kind of long-term mission. A few days in a cramped environment is about all we can get out of them and their life support,” Phillips pointed out.

“Yes, but our landers, they are designed for long-term missions. If we deploy lander and assault shuttle together, they can mate up. If Erebus makes a run for the gate, the Hawk can break and intercept,” Vasily pressed.

“Can one of your shuttles handle Erebus if she comes blowing through?” I asked. “I mean, you guys look pretty mean decked out in one of those shuttles, but she did manage to disable another ship that was a hell of a lot bigger than one of those things,” I said.

“Possibly…” Phillips looked thoughtful. “As you say, they’re mean and designed for opposed boarding, but nothing is for certain. I’m more concerned about what happens if we get Erebus to heave to and accept boarding. If I split my team in half, taking and securing a starship becomes a bit trickier.”

“What about simply disabling the gate?” I mused. “Prevent him from leaving full stop?”

“No,” Vasily said firmly. “We are not to be messing around with the gates themselves. If his e-warfare package is as good as you say it is, even if we switch them off, he will simply switch them back on again. It would only be a matter of time before he defeats the firewalls or interlocks. And I tell you one thing, we are not screwing with the gates physically. We’re not going to risk we break something we can’t put back together again. Then we are all trapped here until we can get a new one online.”

“Okay,” I nodded. A reasonable point, but another idea was growing. “We don’t mess with the gate, but Frain doesn’t have to know that. Ava, can your shuttle target the gates with missiles, guns, or whatever else they have onboard? If Frain appears to make a run for it, we simply tell him that we’ll blow them away.”

“I happen to agree with the captain on this one about fooling around with the gate. At some point, I want to go home and cash in the huge paycheck that’ll be waiting for me.” Then she broke into a big smile. “But my guys play a mean game of poker, mate. They know how to bluff.”

I hoped they were as good as she said; we’d need a better bluff than the one Vasily delivered at Twilight Garden to fool Frain. “That’s the important thing.”

“Good plan. That’ll at least give us a trip wire at the gate,” Vance said. “Let’s just hope he doesn’t call our bluff.”







Chapter 39

Gagarin

We dropped off the lander, shuttle, and four troops, giving them the rather catchy call sign of Blockade, and then we set to work A-driving around the Sirius system, sniffing for signs of Erebus and deploying probes as we went.

Sirius was a sparsely populated system, yet we still had a hell of a lot of space to cover. Sirius A had a respectable-sized asteroid belt, one decent gas giant, a bunch of smaller ones, and a few other rocky worlds. Sirius B had a number of scorched ciders tumbling around in close orbit, burnt rocks left over from when the star had swollen into a red giant before shrinking to its current size. Twilight Garden and a gas giant circled farther out.

What there wasn’t, though, was the slightest whisper of Erebus. She had disappeared.

***

“If Frain had a reason for coming here, what is it? Any clues?” I asked of Sihota.

We were jogging around Gagarin’s habitat ring, burning off some excess energy. Since the troops had embarked, they had pretty much monopolized the ship’s gym. There wasn’t any time when you could go in there, day or night, when some heavily combat-enhanced soldier wasn’t doing exercises that made you wince, whether that be bench pressing a crushing amount of weight or engaged in a brutal sparring match—hence the reason I had taken to jogging.

“No, but I still think this destination wasn’t random,” Sihota panted. “He’s been too deliberate, too in control. He had a reason for coming here beyond simple escape. If that was what he wanted, it would have been far easier to go to ground in Sol. Here? Well, you’ve seen this place. Earth has superscrapers with more people in them than this whole system.”

“Call me old-fashioned, but I’m still an advocate of getting down to Twilight Garden and asking some of the locals. There has got to be the Sirius equivalent of a shoeshine down there,” I wheezed.

“A shoeshine?” Sihota said without looking at me, continuing running powerfully.

“Yeah, someone with their ear to the ground who knows what’s going on around here.”

“You know Vance’s take on that,” he said, and indeed I did—minimal contact with the locals. But that policy had been decided when we thought Erebus would be sitting in plain sight, waiting for us.

“We’re just sitting on our arses in the mess, enjoying Vasily’s hospitality while Gagarin searches high and low.”

Sihota gave me a level look, pointedly wiped the sweat from his face, and picked up the pace. I pushed harder to keep up with him. “You know what I’m saying. Look, it can’t hurt. Let’s get down there and see what we can see. Gagarin can continue looking and pick us up in a couple of days.”

“And if they find Erebus while we’re stuck on the planet?” Sihota came to a halt and looked at me.

“Then we miss the party,” I shrugged. “Don’t get me wrong; it’ll piss me off having come all this way and not getting in on the final act, but it’s not as if we’re making a massive amount of progress at the moment, is it?”

Sihota smiled at me. “Well, I guess we should see what all the fuss is about with the place. I’ve always wanted to visit Twilight Garden.”

***

“We’re trying to keep this whole damn mess on the down low, and you want to go on shore leave?” Vance scoffed. Frampton was trying to look very busy doing whatever he was doing with Gagarin’s sensor officer, but still, the smart arse had a smirk on his face.

“As much as I love hanging around with you guys in a glorified tin can,” I replied, “we are not actually accomplishing anything here. We’ve been waiting around for a week. Why not head planet-side and shake down the locals for any ideas? This is their manor, after all.”

“Be that as it may, we don’t want to start a mad panic.”

“No, we do not, but how do you think it looks having a strange ship hovering above their capital (and I use that term loosely)? We are giving them nothing but the vaguest of information, and that’s what’s going to panic them as much as learning the truth of some planet-destroying fugitive wandering around their system.”

“Soon they will get an update from Sol,” Vasily cut in. “We may have kept wraps on the fact that Erebus went through the gate unscheduled at the Sol end, but they are going to be putting things together. They aren’t stupid; they will know that Io is destroyed and that two ships have arrived here—and one of those, she is chasing the other.”

“Okay.” Vance threw her hands up. “Head down. See what you can find out. Just don’t start a damn riot.”







Chapter 40

Twilight Garden

“Twilight Garden, Gagarin. Orca 12 heavy, on approach. May we have a landing pad, please?” Sihota said into the com.

I overheard the chatter on the radio responding to Sihota’s request and saw a blinking approach path appear in the cockpit. It looked like a neon ladder extending toward the planet. With just us two aboard, I was riding shot-gun and was very much enjoying my front-seat view.

As we slid into orbit around Twilight Garden, I watched the dim light of the twin stars paint the world’s craggy grey rocks with soft shadows and its white glacial ice sheets with a gentle twinkle. We dipped into the thin atmosphere and were buffeted about as a flickering flame encased us. Before long, though, we were flying smoothly through the indigo sky of the dusky world.

“I’m just going to trim the lander up. The atmosphere is so thin that we are going to need a combination of lifting surface and raw engine power.” Sihota ran his hands over the controls.

“You’re the expert,” I said, craning my head to look down at the rock and ice far below. Relentless glaciers had left long claw marks across the grey stone of the landscape like the glacial scarring of Earth.

“Do you want a go?”

“Want a go? As in flying?” I replied with more than a touch of incredulity that I’d be allowed to pilot the airliner-sized Orca-class heavy lander.

“Yes, as in flying,” Sihota smiled.

I slaved my HUD to the lander’s pilot mode and looked around. It was all readouts and buttons and whatnot. “Okay, but this looks awfully complicated.”

“Don’t worry about it, Layton,” Sihota smiled. “I’m here if anything goes wrong.”

“If you’re sure…” I thought I should ask him to be sure he was serious, because to me it was the best idea ever!

“Twilight Control,” Sihota said in response. “I have one trainee aboard. We are going to go for a slight deviation from flight plan for instructional purposes.”

“Roger that. Orca 12 heavy. We have you on flight following.”

“Right, see that stick in front of you? We use that to control what we call attitude. That’s the direction you are pointing. Although pilots can control a lander through direct HUD interface, most of us still prefer to use that control when in atmosphere rather than autopilot. Take that in your right hand and the thrust lever in your left.” I followed his prompting and wrapped my hands around the stick and throttle. “Now you have control.”

I remained rigid, rocketing along at a ridiculous speed, miles above the surface of some strange glistening ice planet, not wanting to move a muscle.

“Go on, have a bit of a play; turn us. Move the stick to the left and then pull up on it.”

Gingerly, I pushed the stick over and watched as the horizon tilted in front of us and pulled back. The lander turned back again, and the distant glittering mountains sailed across my view.

“And now the other way. That’s it. Pushing the stick up and down will pitch you, that is, move the nose toward the sky or ground.”

As I did, the shuttle started to shake. I looked over at Sihota. “Don’t worry about the yaw; I’ll take care of it. You just leave the peddles beneath your feet alone.”

I nodded and pushed the stick forward and felt my stomach begin to rise into my chest. I felt that sickening feeling I got on a roller coaster or in free fall. For some reason, it was easier when you controlled it yourself. We started to race toward the ground, and I hauled back on the stick in a reflex response. I could feel myself being pressed back into my seat, and the dark, starry sky filled the view in front of me.

“Easy does it. We don’t want to go back into orbit. Start taking us in lower again. Let’s head toward that ice sheet over there.” Sihota pointed at a white expanse to our right.

Nosing us over toward the sparkling sheet, I pushed the throttle wide open and raced toward it.

“That’s it. Take us lower. I’ve set a minimum safe altitude, so don’t worry; you can’t crash us. The lander will automatically level out when it gets to five hundred meters and not let you go below that.”

I took us lower and lower, the grey rock turning to blue-tinged ice sheets below us. I could see why Twilight Garden was considered one of the beauty spots in explored space. The crystalline mountains and valleys were pure ice rather than the snowy expanses of the Earth’s poles. Some of the glaciers were even somewhat transparent, revealing dark masses of mountains beneath them.

“You know, once this might have been habitable for humans with a little terraforming,” Sihota said quietly as we swept into a valley. I pulled back on the throttle, slowing us down so we could take in the vista. I was getting into it now. We weaved through a valley, sparkling mountains passing us on both sides. “But it was never meant to be. Sirius B was doomed from the moment it was born. In its death throes, it swelled up into a red giant and melted all the ice here into huge seas that refroze when the sun shrank. This is what we’re left with.”

“So”—I gestured out of the cockpit at the mountains before quickly gripping the stick again. I was still nervous about crashing us, despite the fact that it was apparently impossible—“how did the seas become mountains?”

“I don’t know. I’m guessing they are subject to the same geological process as simple rock. Remember, all this happened a hundred million years ago,” he said before sighing. “The greatest regret of my life is not qualifying to crew on an explorer ship. To see these sorts of things for the first time…I find it sad that my first journey out of Sol is hunting down a fugitive.”

“You and me both, but hey, at least we get to see it.”

Sihota smiled. “That we did.” He gave a wistful sigh as he looked across Twilight Garden, then said, “I suppose we had best get back to it. I have control.” He didn’t bother with the controls, just sat back and let his implants do the work. “Twilight Garden, we are coming in for our approach. ETA: fifteen minutes.”

He put the lander into a hard turn and opened the throttle. We raced over the glittering landscape, glaciers and mountains flashing by. Before long, a bright beam of light was visible lancing into the sky in the far distance.

Twilight City’s landing beacon.







Chapter 41

Twilight Garden

Twilight City was a misnomer. It would have barely qualified as a town on Earth; in fact, village would have been more appropriate. It was nestled under a large inflatable dome. It wasn’t a rigid one like on Calisto, but rather made of clear plastic that showed off the glittering stars beyond. Small buildings filled it, many of them prefabs, but they had been here long enough that the occupants had placed brick facades over them, making them look like cottages and houses, not just the temporary accommodations they originally were.

While it wasn’t a capital as such (Sirius had no central government in the system to speak of), this was where the scientists who worked in the system kept their families and came for R&R. Twilight City was an oasis of humanity and normality far from home. What Sirius did have in lieu of a capital was a central administrator, and right now, the look on her face showed that she was not happy with us at all.

“Yes, I know we are all sponsored by the corporations here, but rest assured, we are all our own women and men; we have to be out here. We will not see Sirius turned into a playground for industrial espionage, corporate machinations, or national fallouts.” Lynn Langdon thumped her metal desk to emphasize her points as she made them. “And the sheer discourtesy you have shown since arriving is unforgivable—hanging in orbit, not deigning to tell us the full story. Completely unacceptable!”

“Ms. Langdon—” I tried to say.

Mrs. Langdon! And I have heard something very disturbing from the ship that’s assigned to watch over the gates. Apparently you have dispatched a warship to hover there.”

“It’s not a warship—” I tried to say.

“Does it not have guns? Does it not have missiles? In my book, that makes it a goddamn warship!”

“Mrs. Langdon, allow me to interject a moment and start from the start,” I finally managed to say.

Langdon carried on glaring at me with steely grey eyes and a hard line to her clenched jaw. Suddenly, she gave a sigh. It was like the anger was deflating out of her. She leaned back in her creaking faux-leather office chair and opened her hands. “Go on, then. Dazzle me.”

I paused for a moment, gazing out of the window at the tiny village square beyond. Talk about rustic; I could even see a damn goat chewing on the grass out there. “A lot of this you’re going to find out on the next scheduled update from Sol.” I leaned forward. “But not all. I am going to tell you things that haven’t even been released on the news nets back home yet—I mean by the time we left, that is.

“But first, Twilight Control showed Erebus in system, several AU out. She briefly dropped out of A-drive, and less than an hour later, about the shortest time her A-drive could cycle, she was gone again. Didn’t she speak to you at all? Launch any landers? Records show that she didn’t, but I want to be sure...”

“No, they did not,” Langdon said. “They were frankly even more discourteous than Gagarin has been. Not a single transmission nor a single lander launch.”

I exchange a glance with Sihota. “You’re right; that is rude.”

“Very,” Langdon glared at me.

“And no one tried to communicate with Erebus?”

“Of course we did. When an unscheduled starship appears in system, we aren’t going to just sit here and do nothing.”

“But no response?”

“Nothing. Now, I’ve answered enough of your questions. Are you going to tell me just what the hell is going on?”

I took a deep breath and told her the story, starting with Magellan through to Io and Concorde before finishing with Frain’s run through the gate. The only thing I left out was the alien artifact. Langdon’s face moved from anger to shock to fear in equal measures. She was still not a happy woman, but she was beginning to understand our reticence.

“So this Xander Frain or whoever he—”

“We don’t know who he actually is. As disrespectful as it is to the real Frain, we need to call him something, and that’s as good a name as any at the moment.”

“Regardless,” she waved dismissively before continuing, “this Frain and Sonia Drayton, why did they destroy Io? And more importantly to me, what do they want with us?”

“We don’t know,” Sihota said from where he was seated cross-legged, the picture of calm. Despite the fact we had kept the artifact on the down low, it was an honest answer. “Maybe they came here for someone or maybe something. Either way, it’s not a logical place for them to hide. There must be something that has brought them here.”

“No, it’s not.” Langdon stood up and walked to the window. She appeared to be regarding the village beyond before giving a deep sigh and turning back to us. “A logical place to hide, that is. There are five thousand people in this system, only two thousand of them involved with the actual research that goes on here. The rest are families and support services. Take me, for example. I’m just a former head teacher who found a job helping to run this village. My husband is the one who is actually the reason we’re here. Bottom line—we are a small community and not one overly given to conflict. Yes, we may all have been sponsored by various corporations, but their machinations are far from here.”

“Mrs. Langdon, I have access to the public records, but perhaps you can tell us what research actually goes on here?” I asked. The Hypernet connection here was slow. For someone who was used to Sol’s superfast universal link connections, it was like being hamstrung, and I was running out of patience running the kind of casual queries I could have done quickly at home.

“Stellar research,” she said. “There are two stars in this system: one is the picture of health, one is a corpse. There is a lot of science that can be done in relation to that, but nothing that can be weaponized or used to obtain any kind of financial advantage in the short term. Everything here is about deep-future research. That’s why there is so little investment in the place. No one wants to bother with that kind of thing beyond the absolute minimum.”

“Why did Sirius B die?” I asked, the word weaponized prompting a thought.

“The star was destined to upon formation. There is nothing nefarious in that, if that’s what you’re thinking. There are many examples out there of similar stars.” She gestured vaguely upward. “It will continue shining for a billion years yet. In fact, my husband is more interested in one of its other properties for his research: the fact that it’s one of the densest objects in local space. Originally it was around five times the mass of our sun. While it has shed a lot of that matter, it’s still managed to pack itself into an object the size of Earth. To say it’s massive is an understatement. He’s conducting research into this, something called gravitational red shift.”

“And what is…never mind.” I filed it away. I didn’t think I was onto any kind of winner with that line of questioning, and frankly, it would have probably given me a headache. “So have you found anything out here that’s out of the ordinary?”

“What do you mean by out of the ordinary, Mr. Trent? We are in a star system far from home; not much is ordinary here.”

“I mean anything not from Sol, if you follow.”

“Alien, you mean?” She laughed like she couldn’t believe I’d asked such a stupid question. At least she wasn’t hopping mad anymore. “Please tell me you’re not one of those damn Dogonites or whatever they call themselves.”

“I don’t think so,” I said hesitantly, glancing at Sihota, who just shrugged. “And just who, or what, is a Dogonite?”

“Some kind of cult. They’re mostly screened out prior to coming here, but the odd one slips through. And by odd, I mean very odd.” She pursed her lips in distaste. “They believe that aliens from Sirius C visited an African tribe, the Dogons, thousands of years ago and told them they had come from here.”

“I didn’t think there was a Sirius C.” All the Sirius stars were starting to get jumbled up for me. I was used to one star in the middle of a star system, where it damn well should be.

“No, there’s not. Don’t get me wrong; we don’t preclude the possibility there might be a brown dwarf out there somewhere that has somehow managed to escape detection. They’re still discovering Pluto-sized planetoids around Sol, after all. But nothing that would be or has ever been home to any of these Dogons. Anyway, when these cultists manage to sneak in, they want to start looking for it.”

“And I’m guessing they don’t exactly get a warm reception.”

“No, they don’t. Anyway, in relation to your question about anyone finding anything alien? No. There are always rumors, of course, but never anything substantiated.”

“Any particularly sticky rumors? Ones that just won’t go away?”

“Oh, please.” The feisty lady rolled her eyes. She was getting on my nerves now with her constant attitude. “What do you want to hear? People who go EVA claim to see strange lights every now and again. They probably messed up the air mixes for their spacesuits.

“A probe jockey claims to have come across a floating chunk of gold but could never find it again. Probably a spectrometer malfunction. One of our support pilots began harping on about some alien pagoda he’d found on an asteroid a few years ago. Probably dodgy hooch. None of it is particularly compelling or convincing stuff.”

“Yes, you’re right.” I managed not to change my facial expression. “Well, Mrs. Langdon, we need to report back to our ship. I can only apologize for our reticence in speaking to you frankly when we first arrived. As you can probably imagine, we were hoping to get this all done with the minimum of fuss, and we still hope to.”

“One thing we agree on, but I’m sure you will appreciate that we don’t do secrets here. Everything we’ve discussed, I will be putting into the public sphere.”

“Mrs. Langdon,” I stood and smiled at her, “I would expect nothing less.”







Chapter 42

Twilight Garden

“I know you’re the police man here, but I just don’t see the value in not bringing her in on it,” Sihota said, sipping a pint of whatever the hell the bartender had given us.

“There are a couple of reasons. One: she would think we were just as mad as those Dogonites or whatever. Two: we gain nothing by doing that when she doesn’t even believe it.”

We were nestled into an alcove of the pub. It was quite fetchingly laid out. Someone had gone to a lot of effort to make it look like something you would find in any village in England. Even the gravity on Twilight Garden wasn’t too far off from Earth’s.

“It just strikes me that we could have cut through a lot of chaff.”

“Let’s see what we can open-source before we start giving the game away.” I took a pull of my own pint and then winced. I’d never liked real ales, and this one tasted like it had been fermented in a sewer. Still, needs must…

I brought up some old newsfeeds on my HUD, playing around with various search queries about pilots and pagodas. Twilight Garden’s Hypernet had more on it than I might have expected in such an isolated place, but the slow system meant I still had a lot of digging to do before I found an old forum dated nearly forty years ago. It seemed pilots on long-range missions, where they were subject to the limitations of light speed communication, had still preferred to use the old text format. So, like in Sol, a lot of rubbish filled the local Hypernet.

“Here—got something.” I opened up a link to Sihota and sent it across to him.

Lonerider, 21:34, 20th June—Found something out past Akarga, guys. Something big. Watch this space.

Flyingmissy, 23:40, 20th June—What? One of those gold asteroids you were chattering about?

Lonerider, 01:03, 21st June—LOL, you mock me. This is finally my ticket to the big time, baby. I’ll be slurping champagne off the bodies of naked supermodels with what I’ll earn from this.

I must admit, I liked this fellow’s ambition.

Flyingmissy, 02:04, 21st June—So come on, share. What do you have?

Wannaberockstar, 02:12, 21st June—He’s got jack shit!!! LR is always talking about the next big thing.

Lonerider, 02:47, 21st June—I’m going to have to get back to you guys. Gonna be going EVA shortly.

“And that’s it?” Sihota frowned.

“That’s it,” I said.

“I must say, Layton, it’s very thin.”

“Maybe so, but bear in mind that this fellow posted prodigiously before this. I mean, you couldn’t shut him up.” I scrolled through his previous and rather boring posts. They covered every topic from the latest VRs to moaning about his salary.

“Well, that’s not uncommon for pilots and crew far out in a system. It’s not as if they can easily have a two-way chat with someone. A lot of the pilots here are shipping around scientists and servicing satellites and probes light-minutes or -hours away from the nearest company. They don’t have A-drives, so they’re out for weeks at a time on their own with not a lot to do.

“But after this conversation thread, our friend Lonerider here hasn’t had a single post.”

“Now, that is a bit more interesting.” Sihota took a sip on his beer, wincing at the taste. “Nothing at all?”

“Nope,” I said, feeling a little self-satisfied.

“Got an ID on Lonerider?”

“No.” I had checked. The forum profiles were all anonymized. A tech forensic expert (or hacker, for that matter) could get his personal details, but that was beyond my skills. However…“The general thrust of conversation suggests he was actually on a flight at this time, yes?”

“Yes. And we have a date and time stamp and a rough location. There should be records,” Sihota nodded.

“See? You would make a better cop than I would make a pilot.” I grinned at my new apprentice. “Shall we pop over to Twilight Control? See if we can dig anything up? You might have to be the one to ask the questions; you know all the right lingo, after all.”

***

“Give them what they’re after,” Mrs. Langdon said in her typical pissed-off manner.

“Er, sure,” the harassed-looking controller said. “Flight records from February 2156. That’s a hell of a long time ago.”

“Indeed it is. I presume that you didn’t have deep-space tracking back then either?” Sihota said.

“No, our records go off of filed flight plans and then are updated with the actual flight data when the ship does an upload during flight and upon its return. It’s not the most accurate when on mission, but most pilots don’t deviate too much from their flight plans. After all, they don’t want to be lost out there if something goes wrong.”

“Can you pull the data for us?”

“Okay, here we go.”

A list of five missions appeared on the old-fashioned display in the controller’s small office. Each entry contained an outline of what the pilots were doing out there. Mostly, as Langdon had said, it was things like servicing science platforms or shipping around scientists.

“Are any of those going out beyond Akarga?” Sihota squinted at the screen.

“No, none of them are over that way,” the controller answered. “That’s a fair way out.”

“Interesting. We have some information suggesting some kind of flight out there around that time,” I said.

“You can see for yourself.” The controller gave a helpless wave of his hands. “None of them are.”

“Could this information be wrong?” I asked.

“No. Pilots’ lives depend on this information. We’re very accurate with it, even back then.”

Maybe the forum was just the work of some mischievous arsehole. Lord knows, the Hypernet was awash with them back home, and I could see no reason to suspect any differently out here.

“Just another thing I want to try. Can you show the launch records and cross-reference them with landings? That should show just what was up in space at that time,” Sihota said. Now that’s why I wanted him in on this.

“Give me a moment. I’ll have to compile the lists,” the controller said.

“Take your time,” Sihota said and wandered over to the water cooler in the corner. He drew some cups, offering them around.

“Got it. Now, that is interesting,” the controller said thoughtfully.

“We have six ships in the air, not counting the three deep-system science cutters that were in Sirius at the time. The Longhorn was out in the big black but isn’t showing a flight record. Someone would have been in serious trouble had this omission been discovered.”

“What type of ship was the Longhorn?” Sihota asked.

“She’s a Cuttlefish-class, single-crewed, long-range service tender. Her job was to refit or replace any science platforms. She’s still in service, actually. They built those old Cuttlefish to last.”

“So if she’s a service tender, I’m guessing she was servicing something,” Sihota mused. “Pull the maintenance schedules of anything you have that, at the time, was out past Akarga.”

“Checking.” He tapped away at the old-fashioned console in front of him—it actually had physical buttons. I tried not to shake my head. “There were three science and observation platforms out there in need of minor repair or servicing around that time. Chances are they would have done them in one flight rather than send three separate sorties out. Just a second.” This fellow was really getting into the groove, doing the lateral thinking for us. “Yeah, the schedules are all reset at around the same time. Whatever repairs were undertaken were done on that one flight.”

So someone had redacted the data on the flight of the Longhorn—and pretty badly. It stank of an amateur flushing the data rather than a pro doing a proper whitewash. Whoever had done it had left verifiable trails.

“So who was flying the Longhorn then?” I asked.

“Checking,” the controller said. “A Jerry Mitchell.”

“I don’t suppose we’re lucky enough that he’s still around?”

“No, he rotated back to Earth in November of that year. That was actually before his contract was up. Most pilots do five-year stints or so. He seems to have cut his short at four years.”

All totaled, a four-year stint here translated into twenty years away from friends and family. “So I’m guessing most of the pilots are Skippers?”

“Yeah, and the tech staff. There’s no reason on record for Jerry skipping. Could be anything—family problems, financial worries, or maybe he just was one of those that wanted to see the future,” the controller said with a shrug.

“Fair enough. What about any of his peers? Any of them still around?”

“Checking.” I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at the turn of phrase the controller used at every given opportunity. “Yes, there’s one who decided to stay, Ronnie Heaton. Another deep-system tender pilot.”

“Would they have known each other?”

“Probably. The flying fraternity was even smaller back then than it is now. Some of them even came through on the original Sirius expedition and stayed behind. The pilots were and still are pretty tight.”

“Just one more thing,” Sihota said. “You say ships do a data dump at the end of the flight? Can you access the Longhorn’s flight recorder?”

“Checking,” the controller said, prompting me to grind my teeth. “Dammit, this is such bad practice!”

“What is?” Sihota said as he sipped on his water.

“Look.” The controller gestured at the old screen, which showed an error message. “The Longhorn’s flight data has been corrupted. Looks like someone has tried to delete it.”

“Can you recover it?” Sihota asked.

“I can try the archives. No guarantees, though. If it’s in there, who knows what header the file will have.”

Sihota frowned and nodded. “Still, if you would be so good?” he said, moving up next to the controller.

The controller looked back at Mrs. Langdon. She pursed her lips before giving a nod.

“So,” I said to Mrs. Langdon, “does Ronnie Heaton live round here?”

“Yes, down the way,” Langdon said. A frown crossed her face that wasn’t directed at us for once. “There is a bit of a problem with that, though.”

“Of course there is,” I said in an exasperated tone that I couldn’t help. “And just what is that problem?”

“Watch your attitude, Trent,” she glowered. “I can take you to him but…you’ll see.”

***

Twilight City was modeled on an English village with its facades, meandering streets, unexpected byways, and old stone walls hewn from the dark rock of Twilight Garden. Little streams flowed and bubbled away, circulated by pumps. And I certainly had to watch where I stepped; livestock wandered freely. Fortunately, tiny robots went around gathering the “offerings” they left, presumably for reclamation, but they did take their time getting to it.

“Here it is.” Langdon opened a squeaking metal gate and led us down the overgrown path to the door of the cottage. At some point it must have been beautiful, but the ill-maintained facade had crumbled away in places, revealing the prefab structure beneath.

“Ronnie?” she called as she knocked on the door. No answer came from within. “He doesn’t really have many visitors other than a couple of his neighbors who help look after him.”

The door handle opened beneath her hand. “No one locks their front doors here.”

We stepped into the dark interior. It smelled stale—not unclean as such, just as if it hadn’t been aired in a while. It was a smell that was somewhat familiar to me.

“Ronnie?” Langdon called. “It’s me, Julie. I’ve bought some friends.”

We walked down the short hallway and entered the lounge, where I found the problem and the source of the stale smell. Ronnie sat in a chair wired up. A total cerebral immersion unit, a type that was obsolete with true HUD technology, was strapped to his head. His eyes had that open but vacant look of someone deeply immersed. The glint of his dilated pupils showed his eye implants were on full display. He was so far gone, he’d even wired himself up with a drip-feed. I knew under the blanket, which was spread over his lap, he would have taken care of his other “plumbing” needs. The man was a total VR addict.

“We’ll have to bring him down gently,” Langdon said, her voice soft and full of sympathy, for a change.

“How did he get so far gone?” I asked softly, regarding the wizened old man before me.

“His wife,” Langdon said. “She died a few years ago. She was doing a passenger run out to an observatory around A. A flare that no one had spotted building erupted and irradiated them. They were dead by the time a rescue boat got to them. Ever since, he’s kept himself wired. Best we can tell, he’s just constantly replaying memories of her.”

“Why the hell haven’t you put him into rehab?”

“Look at Twilight Garden, Trent. Does it look like we’re flush with therapists?”

“Send him home, then!” I said putting a hard edge on my incredulous voice to emphasize my shock at why such a basic thing hadn’t happened.

“This is his home,” Langdon replied with a sad look on her face. She moved to the old console next to him and slowly drew her finger down the touch screen display. It would ease him out of the VR gently so as to not shock his system.

He became more agitated, beginning to move for the first time, his hands clutching blindly for the console, probably trying to drop himself back into the VR. Langdon gently pushed his hands away, and he started to moan, his flailing getting firmer.

“Shhhh, easy. Calm down, Ronnie, just calm down,” Langdon cooed.

“Stop. Fuck off. Fuck off! Put me back,” his voice was croaky and panicked.

“We just need to speak to you a moment, Ronnie,” I said as soothingly as I could.

“Fuck off!” he shouted desperately, clutching for the console.

“Ronnie,” I tried, speaking calmly but firmly, “we won’t disturb you long. We just need to talk to you about someone.”

“Who are you?” he blinked at me, his eyes bloodshot under the HUD implants.

“My name is Layton Trent. I’m a police officer.”

“No, no! Fuck off. Don’t take her away,” he sobbed, recoiling back into his chair. “Please, this is all I have.”

I exchanged a look over my shoulder with Sihota behind me. Slowly, so as not to panic him, I knelt down next to him. “I’m not going to take her away from you, Ronnie, I promise. I just want to talk to you about someone, a Jerry Mitchell.”

“Jerry?” he blinked. “What do you want with Jerry? He’s gone, hasn’t he? Yes, I’m sure he has.”

“Yes, Ronnie, but we need to talk about one of his flights about thirty-five years ago.” I kept my tone soothing and calm.

“Thirty-five years ago?” the confusion of my statement eclipsing his confusion of finding himself back in the real world.

“Yes, on 15 February 2156. He was flying a servicing mission out past Akarga. He said he found something out there. Do you remember?”

“Jerry found something.” I realized he was just repeating me, rolling the sentence round his mouth as his VR-addiction-addled brain struggled to catch up. “He found something, he said. That’s right.”

“What did he find out there?”

“He found…” He pressed his eyes together, massaging his temples. “He said he found an object. That it was artificial, that it was alien.”

“Did he say anything more about it, Ronnie?” I pressed.

“Yes. When he came back, he was ranting on about some kind of alien pyramid he had found on a moon.” He squeezed his eyes tight shut. “Was it a pyramid? I can’t remember...”

A chill ran down my spine. “What moon was this? A moon of Akarga?

“Yes. I think so.” Ronnie leaned over and reached for the console. I gently pushed his hand away. It was boney and cold. I left mine laying on his a moment to warm it.

“Which one was it, Ronnie? Which moon?”

“Can I go back in? Please,” he sobbed. “Just let me go back to her.”

“Not yet, Ronnie. I still need your help,” I told him. “Which moon?”

“I don’t…a smaller one. The captured-asteroid one.”

“The small one?” I looked up at Sihota.

“Iwa,” he said quietly.

“Was it Iwa, Ronnie?”

“Yes, yes, that sounds familiar. Can I go back in? Please,” he whispered. His bloodshot eyes were wide and staring around the room.

“In a minute.” I squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Did anyone go look?”

“No, no. I don’t think so. A few days later, he started joking that he was just bullshitting. That he had strung us all along. After that, he never mentioned it. Then he went home. Back to Earth, I mean.”

“Okay, thank you, Ronnie. Just one more thing. This pyramid—”

“No, no-no-no,” Ronnie shook his head frantically. “It wasn’t a pyramid. Pagoda—that’s what he said it was—a pagoda.”

“Thanks, Ronnie.” I patted his arm and stood up. “We’ll let you go back in now.”

“Thank you.” He breathed a sigh of relief and, with a trembling hand, reached across to the console.

***

“You’ve fucking left him like that? For how bloody long?” I was fuming as I stormed up the path, and it was Langdon’s turn to be on the defensive.

“I told you, we don’t have any therapists here. He’s too far gone,” she said miserably.

“So much for this being a perfect little community,” I scoffed.

“Don’t you think we know it’s bad? Have you ever dealt with a VR addict?”

I thought back to a job in London while I was still a young probationary constable. I remembered walking into a stinking, disgusting apartment, finding a VR-addict mother who had let her two children, one a toddler and the other a baby, die of starvation in squalor and filth, all because she was wired up pretty much twenty-four/seven to some immersive online game. They were the first dead children I had seen, but, sadly, not the last. “Yes, and it’s tragic—for everyone involved. But the one thing I am sure about is they can’t be left to just rot,” I said more gently.

“So tell me, what are we supposed to do? You have seen what he’s like when we pull him out of it. He’s happiest replaying memories of his dead wife.”

I’m sure he is, I thought. VR addiction was insidious. Our HUDs, implants, computing technology—all were steps along the road to that sickness but were necessary to function in modern society. Some people just fell into it; others made conscious decisions to immerse themselves. It was a horrible catch twenty-two situation, and some people simply couldn’t balance their lives enough to be able to cope with the technology.

“Listen,” I said, my anger abating. From my Met days, I knew just how frustrating addicts were, no matter what their poison of choice was, whether it was drugs or technological. “Gagarin probably has updated therapy schemes and things like that in her archives. I’ll get them sent down to you. Just please, help him. Otherwise, someone’s going to go in that house one day and find him dead. No one deserves to die alone like that.”

“I’ll get you a link for the doctor. Perhaps you can forward the files to him, and we can see if he can sort something out?” Mrs. Langdon suggested.

“That’ll be the first thing I do.”







Chapter 43

Twilight Garden

“What do we know about this Akarga?” I asked as we walked back along the faux-gas-lantern-lit shale path to our hotel.

“It’s a large gas giant. Would have been even bigger a long time ago, but much of the atmosphere has boiled off. Twenty moons, none of which have been extensively surveyed, ranging from tiny babies like Iwa all the way up to something the size of Mercury,” Sihota replied as his footsteps crunched on the path.

“How come it hasn’t been surveyed?” It seemed weird to me; people had been here for nearly sixty years, after all.

“The Sirius exploration mission has always been about astronomical research into the twin stars. Planetary research, beyond this place,” Sihota gestured around, encompassing the small bubble-covered village, “is virtually nonexistent. No one has any particular desire to mine the place, especially when you look at how easy it is in the Tau Ceti system, so they simply haven’t bothered.”

“Fair enough.” We walked on in silence past a couple more cottages before I spoke again. “Someone has redacted, in a pretty piss poor way, the flight data for the Longhorn. Considering Jerry left pretty much as soon as he could after that last repair run, I suspect someone paid him off to “forget” what he saw out there.”

“Not a bad supposition. It fits the evidence.”

“See?” I slapped the pilot on his back. “We’ll make a cop of you yet.”

“Really? You gunning for a job swap?” Sihota said with a rare grin.

“Hell, no.” I thought back to the complicated cockpit. “I can barely tie my shoelaces, let alone fly a ship.”

“Small steps, my friend, small steps.” His momentary levity slipped from his face. “So if he got bought off, then, by extension…”

“Someone paid him off, yes. And that someone would have to be in a position to make that offer thirty or so years ago. Let’s have a look.” I paused on the grass-bordered path, opened my HUD, and began running a search. “The original gate was sponsored by Universities Consolidated. Does that ring any bells?”

“Yes. They are a venture capitalist outfit, contrary to what the name indicates. They fund gateways to systems that have some kind of deep scientific interest that may be a little more long term than the quick wins the corporations tend go for. As I recall, they did so with technical and financial assistance from Red Star. Red Star’s motivations were a little more pragmatic, though. They were attempting to have the first interstellar starship return to Sol, and Sirius was a good target destination.”

“Red Star again?” I asked.

Sihota nodded. “They lost the race. The Endeavour Tau Ceti expedition returned a few months earlier than the Sirius mission.”

“Okay,” I said. “Following that, a number of corporations decided to throw research missions through, right?”

“Again, not unusual. Once the gateway has been set up, that’s the majority of the cost taken care of.”

“So,” I said as we climbed over a low sty and walked through a small meadow, “where’s the motive to actually set up a gateway, then? Why not just wait until your rival does it, takes on the outlay, and then just go through?”

“You sound like the interview panel on my Helios assessment, Layton, which, I might add, I dipped,” Sihota said with a sad smile. “That is a combination of things. The original draft of the Outer Space Treaty said that no nation or entity could claim ownership of a celestial object. However, when the gateways were created, the entity that built each one effectively had de facto ownership of the destination as they were the only people who could get there.”

“So they had to open them up to everyone to use?” I asked.

“That’s right. It was decided in what’s now called the Lagrange Accord that ownership had to be negated. The best way to do so was to legislate that a gateway had to be open to anyone who could pay a fair toll. This led to a second problem; it removed the impetus to be the first to set up a gate. What the Accord decided was that whoever funded a given gate would have a year and a day of exclusive use to give them a head start and a few quick wins from the system. That and the toll they could demand would likely go a long way toward recouping the set-up costs.”

“But they wouldn’t even be able to get back to Earth in a year and a day.” I said.

“No, but they would be the first in a position to return with any prizes,” Sihota said. “Whether that be astronomical data, biologicals, or simply the latest pet. Of course, this was all just in the early days. The gates are currently being propagated through the local galactic neighborhood by means of Von Neumann gateships. That’s why passage through the gates has become all but free.”

This I knew about. The first VN gateship was launched to great fanfare when I was still at school. They were to herald in a new age for humankind, and so we did lots of projects on the subject. They were clever robots that launched to a target star and built a gateway in situ and five “daughter” gateships, which would then spread to five neighboring stars. Rinse and repeat. But all this came much later than the original gates that were set up by the corporations and governments.

“Clever, I guess.” The economics of building gateways had never really crossed my mind. The sad truth was that there needed to be a financial imperative to go to the stars. “So Universities Consolidated and Red Star were the first through, but a year and a day later, every man and his dog could make the trip. It was the rest of the Big Five—Helios, Shen Kong, Paracola, and Zvesda—who followed with a few smaller concerns.”

“Yes, once the initial gold rush had settled down,” Sihota said, “Helios put the largest contingent here, although that term is strictly relative. They weren’t that interested in the place. It was more an expedition of a few hundred people.”

We finally got to the tiny hotel, well, boardinghouse would be more accurate, and let ourselves in. It wasn’t locked, which was somewhat disconcerting for a city boy like me, but I doubt anyone would want my change of clothes and wash bag, which was about all I had bought along.

“Any of those major corps would have the funds to make the kind of offer that would make a Skipper rethink his lifestyle and head back to Earth,” Sihota continued as he seated himself in one of the arm chairs in the small, quaint lounge.

“Goddamn it, I wish I could just link the office and ask them to run a check. This light speed barrier is inconvenient, to say the least. Sixteen years to get a reply is just…it’s just…” I trailed off. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach.

“Are you okay?” Sihota asked.

“Eight years have gone by, haven’t they?” I murmured. This talk had begun to crystallize in my mind just how far—and how long—I had come. I’d known in theory, but in my gut? It was just hitting me.

“Sit down, Layton,” he said. Standing back up, he gently guided me by the arm into the seat he had vacated.

“Shit.” I felt woozy and leaned back into the chair. The blood rushed to my head. A warning on my HUD showed my pulse was racing.

“Easy. It’s to be expected.”

“Everyone’s going to be eight years older. Sixteen, by the time we get back.” That fact was hitting me like sledgehammer.

“You’re having a discontinuity attack. It’ll pass,” he said, his voice calm and soothing. “Your emotions have caught up with where…when we are. It’s common in star travel.”

“In that case, why the fuck are you so calm?” I snapped.

Sihota smiled. “Either it hasn’t hit me yet or, psychologically, I was prepared for it. After all, I wanted to be a star traveler, a Skipper. Maybe I’ve come to peace with it already, or maybe I’m going to get hit tomorrow. Just breathe.”

“Why the hell did I even come along? It’s not like I can offer anything. I’m just a cop!” The rational side of me knew I was whinging now, but still, I couldn’t help myself.

“Layton, everyone who goes through the gate gets assessed as to whether they can cope with it. Most who do have years of training and preparation. They get their affairs in order. As far as I’m aware, we are unique, blasting through a gateway with just a few days' notice, no preparation, nothing. No wonder you’re feeling put out.”

“Everyone back home will have moved on and gotten older. Me? I’m still the same. What the hell can I bring to this mission? I don’t even know why I’m here!”

“We needed you to come with us,” Sihota said calmly, trying to placate me. “Look, I’m a pilot, a damn good one, too. But chasing a criminal, terrorist, or whatever Frain is? That’s what you, Vance, and Major Phillips are for. Hell, you and I wouldn’t even be standing on this rock and have uncovered the Mitchell lead if you hadn’t pushed to get us down here. The rest of us? We are just here to help you do it. Vance is probably going through the same thing you are.”

“Not Dexter?” I gave a weak smile.

“Frampton,” he said with a grin, “is probably loving every second of this.”







Chapter 44

Twilight Garden

When I finished up with my ignoble wobble, Sihota suggested we grab a couple of hours rest while we waited for Gagarin to return. My good intentions to sleep it off didn’t quite work, though. I just lay on my creaky wooden bed in the tiny boardinghouse room and ruminated.

I’d always been pretty chill, able to roll with the punches, sometimes literally. To actually have a freak-out was pretty rare for me. The fact I had one alarmed me almost as much as the reason why.

Sixteen years for me—how long we’d actually be gone for. Sixteen years ago, subjectively, I had just finished university and had rolled up fresh faced for my first day at New Hendon, the training school for the Metropolitan Police, in an affluent, leafy part of London. For everyone back on Earth, that was now twenty-four years ago. If I were to turn around and go back through the gate right now, by the time I got back, that event would be thirty-two years in the past—that was almost my entire lifetime.

I’d known it rationally, but, as Sihota said, I’d only just processed it. To everyone I knew, I’d be a distant memory, that guy from way back when who’d disappeared on short notice. I wondered where they thought I had gone, what they thought had happened to me.

“Shit,” I murmured. I had completely forgotten my promise to my parents to send a message as soon as I could.

As I lay in bed, I opened up a HUDmail and began striving for some words. “Hey, Mother, Dad. Just getting settled in. Things are pretty good here. Life is a little basic, if you get my meaning.” I opened up a video feed and let it play around the sparsely appointed room, capturing the faux-wood desk, small holocube, and nondescript photo murals on the wall of green Earth scenes. “But it is nice to go back to basics. Anyway, just keeping my promise. I have to go back to work. Laters, Gaters,” I signed off with my customary goodbye to them.

I dragged myself into the shower, letting the warm water of another world flow over my body. That was the other weird thing. I’d shared the same casual childhood dream of many to travel to the stars, but I had never actually believed that one day I would be here on some icy rock circling a star that wasn’t our sun. And definitely not having a shower trillions of miles from home in a boardinghouse that wouldn’t look out of place in some country village.

Shutting down the shower, I hit dry. Drops of water ran off my body under the high powered fan. I got out, wincing when the mirror showed me the angry blue bruises that were still fading from my run-in with Frain.

With a groan, I pulled on a top and trousers, threw the few things I’d bought into my bag, and went across the hall to grab Sihota, who looked a hell of a lot better-rested than I felt. We checked out and started walking down one of the wooded boardwalks to the landing pad.

“I’ve done some more digging,” Sihota said once we were away from the other occasional pedestrians. “Out of the Big Five and UC, only three would have been in the position to make Jerry Mitchell any kind of offer: Universities Consolidated, Red Star, and Helios. The rest of them only had small survey teams in, certainly no expeditions big enough to have anything in the way of senior management with them, and definitely no one with the authority to cut a check big enough to shut up Mitchell for life.”

“Well, Red Star hasn’t exactly dazzled us with their moral compass recently,” I replied, rolling the thought around in my head. “Though, they said they gave us everything they had on the Io artifact. You don’t suppose they forgot to tell us they found a second artifact?”

“Maybe. If we take Red Star on face value, though, that leaves UC and Helios. Helios are still the golden boys and girls. Other than the odd blip, they’re purer than Caesar’s wife and pride themselves on being very ethically conscious.”

“And Universities Consolidated?” I asked.

“UC is a little more flexible in their practices, shall we say. Ultimately, though, by definition they have a lot of younger, more idealistic student types hovering around who tend to object to corporate shenanigans.”

“Shenanigans?” I smiled at Sihota, the oddness of the word coming out of his mouth amusing me.

“A Vanceism, I suspect.”

“Okay…We don’t have anything to challenge Red Star or UC with, though. Besides, even if they have staff here, they’re not likely to be the same bunch thirty or forty years later.”

Sihota nodded. “I doubt it.”

“Okay, let’s file figuring out who we can talk to under our to-do list and get space-side. We need to take a look at Iwa. Hopefully, Mrs. Langdon will have dug out the flight recorder by the time we get back, too.”







Chapter 45

Gagarin

Gagarin, we are on approach,” Sihota said.

“Roger that,” Vasily’s voice came over the link. “Sending the docking solution through now.”

The cockpit canopy lit up with a graphic that looked like a neon track leading to the bright star that was Gagarin hovering in high orbit around Twilight Garden. I heard and felt the rumble of the engines firing on automatic, pushing us toward the ship. Before long, the star morphed into Gagarin, and not long after, we were swooping along past her habitat ring toward the lock on the spine of the huge explorer ship. With a final thump, we clamped onto the docking port. Sihota glanced around at the cockpit and gave a final grunt of satisfaction. We were back to our adopted home.

***

“Akarga?” Vasily asked, confusion crossing his face. “The charts say there’s nothing there.”

“Unless you have a lead from one of your probes, that’s the best guess we have for the moment,” I said, having just filled them in on our chat with Ronnie.

I looked around the crowded bridge. Major Phillips cocked her head while Vance simply nodded.

“It can’t hurt to take a look. It’s all we have,” Vance said.

“Very well, I am merely the,—how do you say—designated driver?” Vasily gave a wry grin.

“There is every chance Frain will try to defend himself if he’s there,” Sihota said. “Are your preparations complete?”

“As completed as they can be.” The grin slipped from Vasily’s face. He wasn’t happy at the prospect that Frain might shoot back. Frankly, I couldn’t blame him. “The nano-factory has gone into overtime producing kinetic slugs for the rail launcher, and our coms lasers have been amplified as far as they can be. We have some teeth, but we aren’t one of your combat shuttles. For God’s sake, try talking before you get us into a shooting match.”

“My Hawk will give us an advantage there, Captain,” Phillips said, her surfer-girl look a contrast to her words. “She’s accurate enough to conduct surgical strikes against Erebus’s hull, but her S2S missiles can do some serious damage, so no worries.”

Vasily muttered something in Russian while shaking his head. I only caught the no worries somewhere in the middle. “Just remember,” Vasily said, switching back to English, “there is every chance that Erebus’s crew is still alive over there. Captain Tasker may be a hard-ass, but she’s also a friend and good captain. She’ll take care of her people. Not to mention, I presume Helios will want their ship back in one piece.”

“No one wants to see anyone get hurt. Frain and Drayton are on the run. If we show that they can’t get away, hopefully they’ll roll over,” I said, sticking with my theory that Frain wasn’t a total lunatic. Still, my stomach knotted; I was betting a lot of lives on that.

“Be that as it may,” Vasily said firmly, “I am not going to jeopardize this ship.”

“And no one wants you to.” I held my hand out in what I hoped was a placating manner. “I think we can talk him down.”

Vasily grunted. “Heat dump will be complete in thirty minutes, then we will be ready to move. Get into the survival suits. If that bastard holes us, we will lose the ability to breathe very fast.”

I didn’t need much more incentive than that.

***

Sitting around the mess table in an uncomfortable survival suit waiting to go into a battle felt surreal. Sure, I’d done my share of sit-and-wait in my scout suit on Earth, but I was suited up to do battle in outer space—really outer space.

Vasily didn’t want the distraction of people getting under his feet, so he’d ordered the bridge cleared. The only two people allowed to speak directly to him were Group Captain Sihota, who was in the mess with us, and Major Phillips, who was in the Hawk ready to deploy.

We all watched a full tactical display hovering over the table and the walls, which were slaved to our HUDs, showing a glorious panoramic view of space from the ship’s sensors. Sihota and Frampton had set it up so we could monitor every aspect and moment of any engagement and what was happening on the bridge.

“We will be coming out of A-drive in ten seconds,” I heard Vasily call. “Three, two, one.”

The walls cleared to show an image of surrounding space. The huge, dark-purple gas giant Akarga loomed in view, magnificent rings spread like a halo around her.

“Begin emergency vent of the coolant, Dana. I want A-drive back ASAP.”

The display showed bright, burning geysers erupt out of the heat dumps on the side of the Gagarin, and she began twisting in a random evasive pattern, her engine firing hard. Frampton had already told me it wasn’t worth trying to be stealthy dropping out of A-drive. The deluge of exotic particles that would be shooting out when the Alcubierre bubble collapsed would give our position away from halfway across the system.

I felt myself being pushed around by the acceleration of the ship as we jinked randomly to make it harder for Erebus to hit us with any of her weapons as we raced toward the nearest rocky moon, Kakogan, our cover.

“Anything on actives, Dana?”

“Negative. Nothing transmitting or accelerating.”

“Understood. When we go round the back end of Kakogan, Dana, shut down all emissions. Nothing but passives, please.”

“Active transmission!” Dana suddenly called. “Kakogan polar orbit.”

“What do we have?” Vasily asked, the view of the bridge showed him leaning forward in his seat.

“Opticals are focusing. I have nothing big visible. Wait, I’m looking at…a satellite or small probe. It’s not on the system shipping manifest.”

“He’s here,” Sihota said. “He’s laid tripwires. Captain, I would suggest taking it out.”

Frain had been doing what we had, laying down a series of probes, satellites, and beacons to give him an improvised early-warning system.

“Agreed. Dana, find it and burn it down.”

“Searching…got it. Firing,” the engineer who was now our impromptu weapons officer called excitedly as she fired the laser.

A red line extended out toward the icon hovering above Kakogan. The laser wasn’t designed as a weapon, but it sure as hell would double as one when its output was ratcheted up. A small spark flared in the holotank where the satellite had been.

“We have some kind of flare. We must have ignited a fuel tank. The transmission has ceased,” Dana called.

“Good work. We will be out of view of the rest of the Akarga system in five minutes,” Vasily’s voice calmly emanated from the com.

The grey crater-punished moon, Kakogan, grew on the display at a sickening speed as we swept around the back of it, relative to the gas giant and its retinue of moons. When we were out of view, the most brutal push yet came as the engine fired hard for a few moments, and Gagarin catapulted out from behind the moon deeper into the Akarga system, only now she emitted nothing. No blue-hot plume of our engine and no radar pulses. We were running silent; even the exterior lights were off. Hopefully, we were now on a totally different vector to what Erebus would be expecting, making it hard for them to spot us visually or thermally.

“Any more trip wires?” Vasily asked.

“Negative. We seem clear,” Dana responded, still exuberant about her first “kill.”

“All hands, we are in play and making to slingshot around Aisu in seventy-two minutes.”

Gagarin was now drifting completely unpowered toward our next milestone—the sand-colored moon Aisu. We figured that Frain would have to assume that we knew where he was. He would be looking for us to make direct approach to Iwa. We were, hopefully, going to fool him by using the gravity of another large moon to slingshot in from a direction he wasn’t expecting.

“I’m going to make a coffee,” Sihota declared calmly, unbuckling himself from his seat. “Anyone want one?”

“Yeah, white with two, please,” Frampton called without even looking up from the feeds he was reviewing.

I couldn’t help but give a bemused smile. Space combat was a hell of a lot more chilled than I expected it to be.

***

“Closing on Aisu. Ten minutes until slingshot.”

Gagarin was racing toward the small yellow moon that she would loop around at a frightening speed. I hoped that Captain Vasily’s numbers were on the button. We didn’t want to use our engines at all for the next maneuver if we could help it. Even the incredible heat of our antimatter engine would have cooled by the time we swung around Aisu. We would be invisible to everything but sight.

“Any signs of trip wires?” Captain Vasily called.

“Negative. But I wouldn’t expect to spot it unless it’s transmitting,” Dana replied, a bit more calmly than the last round. “I think if there is one, it has missed us.”

“Very well,” Vasily replied. “Continue without emitting.”

We shot around the planet, looping around toward Akarga itself. We would skim close enough to travel between the rings and the gargantuan world, keeping as much cover between us and where we thought Erebus was as we could. Iwa was on the other side and, as long as Frain hadn’t spotted us, Gagarin would appear right on top of him.

We were making up the rules of space combat as we went along, here. There had been only two engagements between large spaceships in history, and one of those was Erebus taking a chunk out of Han Xin’s A-drive as she blasted out of the Jupiter system. The other was the tracking down of the Queen Anne’s Revenge, where the wannabe pirate ship had capitulated pretty much as soon as the Paracola Corporation vessel had fired a warning kinetic impactor across her bow.

Sihota and Phillips had alluded to a couple of off-the-book engagements that had occurred when nations had fought terrorist organizations in space, but this was the first time that two explorer ships were going head-to-head. One way or another, the Erebus and the Gagarin were going to be making history here—and not in a good way.

It was going to come down to whichever side spotted the other first. Whoever did that could knock their opponent out before a battle began. That’s why we were working so hard to spring on Erebus from out of the blue, or in this case, black. If she were indeed around Iwa, we had an advantage. We would have only a small area of space to search to find her, but Erebus would have to track everywhere at once with the only way to spot us being visually—a difficult proposition in the vastness of space.

Gagarin shot toward Akarga. From our perspective, the vast planetary rings were at an angle because of the tilted orbit of Aisu. The rings grew wider and wider on the wall screen as we raced forward, appearing solid, like a wall. We shot into the gap between the inner ring and the vast deep-purple bulk of Akarga. It was imposing, beautiful. Once again, I was reminded that I was a long way from home.

“Iwa will be in view in forty seconds. Come about ready for a burn and get the sensors positioned ready. I want to see what we can see. All hands, secure for maneuvering.”

We all buckled ourselves in. With a series of bangs, the thrusters spun Gagarin around so the antimatter torch was pointed ahead of us. On the screens and holo, I could see the tiny rock of Iwa drift into view from behind the huge gas giant.

“Searching,” Dana said as one of the wall displays focused in on the craggy rock that was the captured asteroid. It was tiny in the cosmic scale of things, barely a hundred miles long. Frampton had told me it was a moon only because it had wandered into orbit around Akarga millions of years ago and decided to stay.

“This is where it gets interesting,” Sihota murmured. “If we get the drop on Erebus here, we’ve won.”

“I’ve got an exhaust plume coming just above the surface of Iwa!” Dana practically shouted. “It’s small, probably a lander.”

“We’ve got him!” Vance gave a wolfish grin then thumbed the com. “Take him out.”

“Clear the channel,” Vasily barked. “Everything from the mess comes through the group captain! And no, I am not going to preemptively shoot someone out of the sky when I have no idea who they are. Dana, plot the course. See if the heading of the lander can clue us in on where Erebus is.”

“The lander’s skimming low. Wait…I have her—I have Erebus! She’s orbiting out from the other side of Iwa.”

The image zoomed, and Erebus sprang into view. We were far enough out that she appeared little more than a toy, her long spine stretching from bottom left to top right on the screen, broadside on.

“What’s the ETA of that lander to rendezvous with Erebus?” Vasily asked.

“Twelve minutes. It’s really hauling ass.”

“It’s got to be Frain or Drayton,” I said. “We got very lucky here.”

“It’s a hell of coincidence,” Vance replied, “and I don’t like them. But if it is Frain aboard the lander and not Erebus, then that ship isn’t going to go to A-drive. We can target the shuttle and end this here and now.”

“But if it is Frain, he’s vulnerable,” I pointed out. “We can push him to surrender. Remember, he might be our only shot at finding who’s behind the attack on Io.”

Erebus was steadily getting bigger in the display. She was still tens of thousands of kilometers away, but Gagarin’s primary large aperture telescope was pretty damn powerful.

“We have a chance for a first strike here. We need to decide fast. Dana,” Sihota called to the bridge, “do you think you can hit the A-drive ring and knock out her ability to escape?”

“I think…yes. Yes, I can,” she said decisively.

“Do it. Then call for her surrender.” He glanced around the table, and we all nodded, Vance somewhat reluctantly.

“Targeting. Firing.”

On the display, a red spot appeared on the smaller ring near the aft of the long explorer ship. I could see the A-drive shielding begin to slough away as the laser dug through, striving to get to the delicate machinery beneath.

“She’s maneuvering. Keeping focus,” Dana called out.

Ponderously, Erebus began to spin, trying to move her wounded side away from us. Suddenly, something popped in the ring. A spray of debris erupted out of the hole where the laser had been focused.

“Got her!” Dana’s words pitched up with excitement.

“Open a channel,” Vasily said, his voice thick with tension. “Erebus, this is Gagarin. We have crippled your ability to escape. Signal your surrender and prepare for boarding. Our next attack will target your lander.”

“Captain, she’s firing KIs!”

The display highlighted the stream of impactors that Erebus was pumping out of her launch rails at us. We weren’t the only ones who had prepared for battle.

“Target those KIs! Burn them down! All hands brace for maneuvering. Full burn and random jinking.”

I gripped the armrests on my chair as an immense weight crushed down on my chest. Gagarin was firing her engine hard, trying to evade the spread of KIs that bore down on us. One after another, they flared and disappeared from the display. Dana was doing a good job of shooting them out of the sky, but there were a hell of a lot of them.

“They’re adjusting course. Those KIs have maneuvering capability.”

This fight was moving awfully fast, now. Each of those KIs was homing in on us no matter the violent firing of our engine or our twisting, random jinks.

“Dammit, keep burning them. If any of them gets within twenty seconds of us, go to A-drive.”

“Temperature rise on the spine. We’re getting a thermal spike that’s dragging across us, Captain. She’s hitting us with a laser.”

“Fire our KIs—as many as you have on the rail. Let’s get that laser doing something else.”

A series of thumps resonated through Gagarin’s hull as she fired her own impactors along the probe launch rail. They sped down the electromagnetic coils and streaked toward Erebus.

“The laser’s off our hull, Captain. They’re targeting our KIs.” I could see on the display that our own impactors were popping like firecrackers as Erebus swatted them out of space. “That lander is moving to dock with Erebus.”

Whoever was in the lander was a deft pilot. Despite the fact that Erebus was twisting and turning, the sleek craft raced toward the docking port, firing a breaking thrust at the last possible moment. Erebus ceased moving just long enough for the lander to clamp on.

“Fuck me,” Sihota swore—the one and only time I’d ever heard him do so. “That’s some coordination.”

I was just as concerned that each of the KIs that were closing on us was being popped closer and closer to Gagarin, each providing a distraction for the next closest.

“She’s not being distracted by our KIs.” Dana was sounding panicked. “She’s got her laser back on us. It’s on our bridge now!”

“Keep evading,” Vasily barked. “Major, can you do something about those KIs?”

“I’ll do what I can,” Phillips replied calmly.

I heard another loud thump as Phillips’s Hawk launched. It barely cleared to a safe distance before firing the engine. The assault shuttle raced toward the slowly thinning cloud of deadly projectiles heading our way.

Shit, I thought. Things had moved so fast that we had neglected to use Phillips and her Hawk earlier—the one thing that could tip the balance in our favor.

“Something weird is going on Iwa,” Frampton said loudly, looking at the sensor readings from the moon. “There’s a high intensity energy emission coming from it. It’s off the charts across the spectrum. From what I can make out, it’s registering like a gateway scanning array.”

“Another spread of KIs coming in. Temperature rising on the habitat ring over the bridge. It’s burning through!” Dana was practically screaming.

“Go to A-drive. Now!”

The weight I was feeling slamming into me from all sides as we maneuvered suddenly ceased. Alarm klaxons began whooping.

“Are we out of there?” I asked and then realized that the displays were showing a piercing white beam of energy shooting up from the surface and striking Erebus. The starship disappeared, leaving nothing but KIs coming at us. Phillips was thinning the barrage with the Hawk’s cannon…but it was going to be too little, too late. My hands clenched in a white-knuckled grip on the arms of the seat again.

Then without warning, one after another, the KIs flared and popped out of existence, leaving nothing behind. Erebus and all her projectiles had just disappeared.

“What the hell just happened?” I asked into the sudden calm. I noticed that the feed from the bridge had gone dark.

“I don’t know. Captain?” Sihota called over the klaxons.

“Da?” The voice at the other end was strangely calm.

“Can you shut off the klaxons?”

The mess fell silent, other than the lingering noise still ringing in my ears as if I were suffering from tinnitus. “Any idea what just happened?”

“No,” Vasily mumbled. “All munitions seem to be gone. I can’t see Erebus.”

Sihota looked at me, his brows crossing at the odd sound of Vasily’s voice. “Are you okay?”

“We have…” he said slowly, hesitantly. “We have taken casualties.”

All of us around the table stared at each other for a moment, then scrambled to unbuckle ourselves.

***

The bridge was a decompressed mess. Anything not fastened down had been sucked out through two, half-meter-in-diameter holes, one facing the other across the compartment. Between them was where Dana was sitting facing the central bridge holotank—or half of her was. Her torso was missing where the beam had passed through her, the wound cauterized by the sheer heat.

I could see Captain Vasily and the other bridge crew moving around in their survival suits in a slow daze, securing the bridge, working around the horrifically mutilated corpse. Their priority was getting functionality back to the wounded ship.

“Are you okay?” I put my hand on Vasily’s shoulder.

He paused and looked at me. His gaze piercing through both sets of visors, both anguish and rage present in equal measure.

“That bastard. He best be fucking dead, because if he’s not, I’ll make it slow and painful for him.”







Chapter 46

Gagarin

We were hovering over the craggy dark rock of Iwa, licking our wounds. After Dana’s body was placed in one of the ship’s sample freezers, Captain Vasily’s crew busied themselves plugging the holes in the bridge. Mourning would wait; the repairs would not.

“There is definitely an installation down there,” Frampton said. He’d spent the last hour analyzing whatever the hell had happened to Erebus. “It’s small. I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the complement is, but I doubt it would be many.”

“Is there anyone left?” I looked over his shoulder at the mess-table display, which showed a topographical map of Iwa. In the center of the map was an ash-grey dome with a spike emerging from the apex.

“Well, they have power and heat—I can get that much from our sensors—but they do seem to have built it with stealth in mind. There’s just not a hell of a lot visible.” He squinted at the display.

“That thing protruding out the top of the dome,” I said, pointing at it as I leaned in closer. “Bring up an image of the pagoda from Io.”

In my HUD, an image of the pagoda appeared. The top, where it poked out of the peak of the grey, stonelike dome, looked identical to what had been on Io.

“They have found another.” Frampton’s eyes gleamed. “I don’t think Erebus has been destroyed. This must be another mode of the gateway to transport a starship. She must have gone through the alien gate. We can follow her!”

“Hold your horses,” Vance said, holding up one hand. “We don’t know where that thing leads. Hell, we don’t even know if we would survive going through.”

“Not to mention that we don’t know if we can even activate it,” Sihota cut in.

“I say we load up the ute and go find out,” Phillips said from where she was leaning against the wall.

“The ute?” Frampton looked perplexed.

“The Hawk,” Phillips clarified for the bewildered-looking Frampton. “Let me lead my troops down and have a look-see.”

“I’m—I’m sure you and your troops are very smart,” Frampton said hesitantly. He seemed to be trying to be diplomatic, probably because he didn’t want to piss off the combat-enhanced soldier. “But it’s probably not going to be as easy as just flicking a switch.”

“Right you are, there.” Phillips gave a slight smile; I could already tell what she was going to say next. “That’s why you’ll be coming along.”

“Oh,” Frampton gulped. “Okay.”

“Don’t sweat it,” I said. It was time to start earning my oxygen on the ship again. “I’ll come look after you, if there’s room for another, that is?”

“We’ll squeeze you in,” Phillips nodded. “Suit up, boys and girls, ; I want to be heading dirt-side in twenty mikes.”

“Mikes?” Frampton swallowed.

“Minutes,” Phillips called back, amusement and exasperation present in equal measures in her voice as she swept out of the room.

The irony wasn’t lost on me; Frampton, so cavalier about being shredded into his component subatomic particles and beamed across the galaxy, was a hell of a lot more nervous at the prospect of getting his hands dirty, old-school style.







Chapter 47

Iwa

“We don’t know what’s down there,” Phillips briefed over the link. I was in the passenger bay of the Hawk with six heavily armored troopers. They were intimidating in their battle armor, looking solid, indestructible—more like walking tanks than people. “Frampton and Trent, stay behind us. We’ve trained extensively together for low-gravity operations, and if either of you tries any heroics, it’s likely you’ll screw our tactics. Understood?”

“Understood,” I said. Frampton merely nodded, his head nearly hidden behind the helmet visor that covered his face.

“For the rest of you, ladies and gents, I want a standard secure opposed breach against Entry Alpha.” A rudimentary plan of the small base appeared in my HUD. A blinking light flashed at a point on the dome’s pressure hull where we would be entering. “I want it quick and neat with no loss of atmosphere.”

“We’ve got a targeting radar trying to acquire us,” the pilot at the front called calmly. Sihota had volunteered to sit in the copilot’s seat, citing that he knew enough about flying a Hawk to at least be able to get us back aloft if things went south. This gave Phillips an extra woman on her team while still giving us the ability to escape from Iwa quickly.

“What have we got?” Phillips replied.

“Zulu band search-and-attack radar. pretty outdated. Normally, they’re linked to a Snapdragon chemical laser automated defense installation.”

“At your discretion, pilot.”

“Roger. Stealth mode is absorbing emissions for the moment.”

I slaved my HUD to the forward view, watching Iwa get bigger as we hurtled toward the grey, cratered rock.

“They’ve acquired us. Switching to reflective,” the pilot said. The parts of the lander I could see through the portholes and displays from inside flicked, almost instantly from being a matte black to a highly reflective mirror. “Chaff, chaff, chaff, and two decoys away.”

The Hawk fired out packets of silver streamers, and small decoy drones popped out of the sides with slight thumps. The pilot zigzagged the shuttle, rocking us in our seats.

I heard a loud bang from the left side of the shuttle.

“The Snapdragon has just popped a decoy. Deploying replacement.” Another thump came through the hull as a replacement drone shot out of its bay. “I have the Zulu captured. Viper S2S away.”

A rumble emanated from beneath my feet, and I watched on the HUD as a missile raced ahead of the Hawk at an acceleration that no manned craft could match. It streaked toward the moon, disappearing quickly. A few seconds later, a fireball flared on Iwa a few miles from the dome of the base.

“Zulu is down. Snapdragon is still active and has gone to blind fire mode. It’s tagging us but not maintaining lock. We’ll be under it in ten seconds…Mark.”

From what I could translate from the military jargon, the pilot was saying we had knocked out the laser’s eyes and it was randomly shooting at us, hoping to get in a lucky hit. The asteroid-moon ballooned in my view, the Hawk streaking toward it at a ridiculous velocity. At the last possible moment, the pilot fired retro-rockets, leveling us out, and began threading us through a valley on the surface.

“We’re below the Snapdragon engagement floor. Thirty seconds to landing. Positions.”

“Everyone get ready. Quick and smooth,” Phillips called. The lights in the cabin switched to a hellish red.

The Hawk was racing over the surface now. The rocky mountains on either side were little more than a blur. Ahead, the dome rose up from the horizon of Iwa.

“Retros. Brace.”

I was flung forward against my harness as the Hawk fired her breaking rockets again, slowing us savagely. We landed so hard that for a moment I thought we’d crashed. These military types didn’t mess about when it came to hard and fast landings. The ramp dropped silently, raising a cloud of dust and exposing us to the vacuum of space on the tiny rock.

“Ramp down. Go, go, go,” Phillips called, and the troops shot out of the shuttle, the thrusters on their suits squirting jets of gas. As they left the confines of the passenger bay, their figures shimmered and disappeared from view as the camouflage of their armor kicked in. After a couple of seconds, my implants, using an encryption key Phillips gave me, interfaced with the troops’ tactical network. The soldiers reappeared on my HUD, and I was once again able to see them. Being invisible to the enemy was good; being invisible to friends was very bad.

Following them at a far slower pace with Frampton in tow, I touched down on the surface of Iwa, the sound of my breathing loud in my ears. The gravity was so low that my landing and the movement of the people around me created clouds of dust. Moving was so effortless that I felt as if I could jump off into space. Thankfully, the antinausea tablets I’d taken were keeping my formerly rogue stomach in check. Or I was getting used to being in zero-g. Either way, I was relieved; I didn’t fancy puking in the suit.

The skyline was dominated by a rising Akarga, looming vast on the mountainous horizon, its rings at a slight angle. I paused, looking at the vista. Everything seemed so much crisper than on Earth. I realized that was because Iwa had no atmosphere. I shook my head to myself; my days of feeling collars on the streets of London seemed a lifetime ago.

“Get that breach lock established.” Phillips’s voice refocused my attention, and I zoomed my HUD onto where the assault team was working against the base of the grey dome.

In seconds, they erected a flimsy-looking frame against the dome. The dark fabric inside inflated suddenly. The shaped charges inside of the frame had blown out a chunk of the dome wall, and the atmosphere within had rushed out, filling the makeshift airlock.

“One and Two, on me,” Phillips called.

Three armored figures moved inside the inflated airlock and sealed it up. After a few moments, they signaled that they were inside.

By the time Frampton and I reached the breach lock, everyone else was in, and it was our turn. I pulled the flaps open, and we stepped inside. When I tugged them shut, the strip on the inner side of the airtight fabric turned from red to green to show that we had an adequate seal. It was pretty simple. On the small console within the breach lock were two buttons. I pressed the one labeled pressurize. The fabric went taut, and we opened the second flap, moving through to the next chamber, where the surface of the dome was visible. I stepped through the hole the shaped explosive charge had made in it, careful to avoid the jagged edges, and finally entered the inside of the facility.

Inside, a corridor followed the curve of the dome. Flashing red lights washed over soldiers standing watch to either side, sighting their lethal-looking SAR60 assault rifles down the passage.

“No welcome party so far,” Phillips linked over to me. “Atmosphere is good. The breach lock is holding.”

I wasn’t about to pop my visor just yet with the only thing between me and a total vacuum being the rather delicate-looking boarding contraption.

“Let’s move,” she said. “Clockwise. Call it if you see a direction marker or functional console.”

We started moving around the circumference corridor. The place looked old. The odd bits of equipment we passed were anachronistic. Hardly surprising if it had been built decades ago. Chances are even then they would have found it tough to ship in new gear without anyone noticing. Whoever had been here would have had to make do with what they could scrounge.

Coming to a ladder, one of the troops spotted a stenciled sign on the wall saying OPS with an arrow pointing upward. The troops ignored the ladder and jumped up easily between their enhanced suits and the low gravity to the next deck.

“Clear,” one of them said over the com.

“Push out,” Phillips called.

We followed after the troops, finding ourselves in another corridor. A door off of it led deeper inside the dome.

“Stack up. Dynamic entry. Quick and neat.” The well-drilled troops formed a queue on either side of the door. “Breach!”

One of the troops hit the hatch console, and they flowed in far more rapidly than seemed possible given their heavily armored forms.

“Clear. No contact. This is the ops center.”

“Roger. Coming in.”

Together, we moved inside the ops center, leaving a couple of the troops outside to cover the corridor. It was just as low tech as the rest of the base. Everything was worn and old: a couple of banks of consoles, an old-style holotank, and a picture window ahead. It overlooked a large central chamber, and in the middle, the base of the pagoda rested, driven through the floor, while the apex disappeared into the roof of the dome. It looked ancient, imposing. Lights blinked up and down the flowing lines of its length. It looked like nothing a human mind could conceive.

But down at the base was something that did look like it was built by humans—something that looked a hell of a lot like a bomb.







Chapter 48

Iwa

We elected to stay in the ops center viewing gallery overlooking the pagoda. One of the troops, who had apparently drawn a hell of a short straw in his career at some point and attended an EOD course for explosive ordnance disposal, went down to it, spooling a cable behind him. With the amount of EM that was flashing around the place, it was probably completely redundant, but Sergeant Jamal was taking no chances. All of our communications would go through that wire to prevent any chances of our coms setting off the device.

“Approaching device.” Jamal was keeping a commentary going the whole way down as we followed on our HUDs. On entering the central dome area, he walked up the metal grid pathway toward the pagoda, which towered above him, pulsing a sickly green light. Every few meters, he waved his sensor wand around, checking for any telltale signs of proximity triggers. I had seen that type of device used by EOD teams before. It could detect booby traps, proximity radars, sniffers, and that kind of thing. They had saved many a life.

“It’s definitely an IED. It’s fairly sophisticated but has clearly been put together with standard parts you’d find laying around a ship.” Sergeant Jamal edged in close to the large cylinder with a small boxy object attached to the side. “Looks to me like a plug-and-play drone communications module,” Jamal murmured, still calm. He waved his wand over the box. “Hell of a lot of current going through this thing. I would suggest it’s radio- or timer-controlled, from first glance. Moving to the main device now.”

The image swept to the main cylinder. It was completely featureless. It looked like an oxygen tank with glowing blue bands around it.

“Interesting. Lots of power pulsing through this thing as well.” The image panned around the device as Jamal circled it to where it abutted the base of the pagoda. Spotting some writing on the side, the image zoomed in on that section of the device. “I’ve got a serial number on this thing. Can one of you run it through the computers, see if it pops out with anything?”

“Go with the number,” Vance called. She’d stayed on the Gagarin and was communicating through a laser-coms array that one of the troops had set up on the surface and wired through to the base.

“Alpha, one, three, niner, Kilo, Kilo, four.”

“Checking.” After a short delay, Vance’s voice came back with something no one wanted to hear: “Oh, shit.”

We exchanged looks through our visors.

“What have you got?” Phillips said.

“It’s a magnetic containment bottle. It’s rated for antimatter, up to a gram’s worth.”

“That doesn’t sound like a lot,” one of the troops whispered.

“Yeah, well, I think you need to reconsider what you consider a lot,” Vance said irritably. “I was on a task force looking at what would happen if any antimatter fell into terrorist hands and they decided to weaponize it. One gram of antimatter annihilating one gram of normal matter would create a destructive force equal to a fifty-kiloton nuclear warhead. That’s around three times bigger than the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima.”

“Oh,” the troop muttered.

“Oh-in-fucking-deed,” Vance replied in her testy manner. “I doubt that what you have down there will vaporize Iwa, but it would leave nothing but a big crater on that entire hemisphere if it explodes.”

“Ma’am,” Jamal called up, “I’ve got an anti-tamper device here. It’s as simple as can be. If the drone control module is messed with, it’ll just cut power and this thing will pop. The auxiliary power feed on the antimatter bottle is wrecked, so we can’t just power it from an alternative source. I can’t see a work-around.”

“So if we try to defuse it, it’ll blow?” Phillips asked.

“Yes, Ma’am.”

“Solution?”

“Ordinarily I’d say a bomb box and controlled detonation, but…” Jamal’s voice trailed off. A bomb box wasn’t going to contain an antimatter explosion—not by a long shot. “We could try moving and spacing it.”

“No,” Sihota cut across the com. “That drone control module is likely to contain accelerometers. Frain would have thought of that and set it to cut power and blow if we move it from where he wants it.”

So we were stuck with the bomb.

“Frain’s got some serious balls if he’s drawn it from Erebus’s power plant,” Frampton said. “It’s not exactly the easiest stuff to work with.”

“Ladies and gents”—I was thinking the problem through as I was speaking—“the good sergeant down there has already said that this thing is wired up to a probe communications module. Would I be right in saying that you think that makes it link- or radio-controlled?”

“Yes. That’s right,” Frampton answered.

“And considering there is no crew here and Erebus has gone through the gate, then there doesn’t appear to be anyone left to activate the bomb.”

“Well…yes.”

“But the question remains; why would he have put it in place if he didn’t intend to activate it? I’m getting the impression taking a gram of antimatter is no simple task.”

“So what are you saying?” Vance asked.

“What I’m saying is that his original intention may have been to blow this rock out of the sky just after he slipped through the gate. But he changed his mind. Why?”

“Captain Vasily is still working up an analysis on Erebus after the battle. Maybe we managed to take out her transmitter. Maybe it’s still on a time delay and could blow at any moment.”

“Yeah, could be.” That was an uncomfortable thought. But surely he would have set it to explode seconds after he went through rather than leaving it as a booby trap. Everything so far told me that Frain was cold and calculating. He didn’t have a problem with killing anyone, but he didn’t go out of his way to do it. In fact, I would go so far as to say a few times on Concorde, it would have been easier for him if he had just killed some of the JAS officers. No, he hadn’t set this up as a trap. “I’m going to go out on a limb here and say I think we’ve caught a break here. His original intention to blow this device has been scuttled. Let’s stick with plan A. Let’s power up this thing and follow him.”

Silence fell across the observation gallery and coms network.

“How much of a limb are you willing to go out on?” Vance finally said.







Chapter 49

Iwa

“You know,” Frampton mused, “it’s been bothering me since we got the Io disclosure that only half of the necessary hardware for a gateway is built into these pagoda things.”

“Dexter,” I said in exasperation, “now is not the time. I just want to know what button to press and bloody well press it.”

Things had moved fast during the last day. The troops had gone EVA and knocked out the Snapdragon laser. As was standard, the laser was hidden a mile away from its “eyes”—the radar station—which explained why the Hawk hadn’t disabled the laser itself with its Viper space-to-space missile. It had turned out to be an automated defense platform, or ADP, designed to knock out any approaching ship. Fortunately for us, Snapdragons were old technology, dating back decades before our leaving Sol. It had none of the self-defense capability of a modern ADP. A newer Spartan-class would have been equipped with all kinds of antipersonnel sentry devices. The troops thoroughly searched the base, and the food and recycling equipment suggested that the facility had only recently been abandoned.

Frampton and I were in the laboratory annex to the viewing gallery. It was full of work stations and digital whiteboards. The Post-it notes attached to every surface showed that it had been built in the pre-HUD days. To say it was quaint was an understatement. The problem was, as far as we could tell, every single damned console had been purged of all data. Reclaiming any of it would take a full IT forensic team days to sift through, and the chances of recovering much? Minimal. We didn’t have the expertise, the equipment, or the time. Every moment we delayed was a moment Frain could flee farther.

Fortunately—or, more accurately, suspiciously—the operating systems all looked in order, and activating the gateway didn’t seem especially complicated. Frampton was looking at a symbol on one of the whiteboards, head cocked to one side. It was two circles, one much larger than the other and a dotted line between them drawn in marker pen. I could see some scribbled equations covering it that may as well have been hieroglyphics to me.

“Dexter,” I said sharply to cut through his daze of concentration, “just show me what to do, then clear out. We can’t afford to delay any longer.”

“Okay.” Frampton gave a little shake of his head. “The operating system looks like it’s pretty simple. I’ll set it to the point just prior to power-up, and then you can take over.”

***

Christ, I hoped that I was right that the bomb wasn’t set to go off the moment someone switched on this contraption. My instincts said not. After all, Erebus had used it when she went through, and that hadn’t blown Iwa into a cloud of rubble.

A small shuttlepod from Gagarin waited at the lock nearest me. It was preprogrammed with a fast-burn solution to get me off this rock quickly and back to Gagarin. In theory, I needed only to press a couple of buttons in the base, run—or the Iwa equivalent of running—to the pod, press a couple more buttons, and then enjoy the ride.

I had my feet hooked under some convenient hoops on the floor in front of a console looking out of the bay window of the viewing gallery. Frampton had set it to power up the pagoda. Again, the thought that this was suspiciously easy plagued the back of my mind. It was as if someone wanted us to do it. But if this were a trap, at least it would only take me out…and forever imprison Frain and Drayton on the other side of the alien gate—a small consolation, at least.

I looked at the artifact looming from floor to ceiling in the dark belly of the cavern with my hand resting on the console, waiting for Gagarin to call. If I’d felt isolated and far from home before, it was nothing to being alone in that room waiting to punch in a sequence that I hoped wouldn’t blow me up. The artifact, ancient and alien, made me feel small, insignificant. It was a cold feeling gnawing in the center of my gut. For all we knew, the artifact could have been floating around out here during the time of the dinosaurs, before mankind ever drew breath. I shook my head and took a deep breath. I needed to get a good solid grip.

As far as Frampton could tell, the artifact had two modes—some kind of personal transport, where someone could simply walk into it, and a mode for transporting ships in orbit of Iwa. That was the mode Frampton thought he had figured out.

Gagarin is in position,” Captain Vasily called over the laser link. “Layton, you are a go at your discretion.”

I looked at the large view screen in front of me, a graphic of the artifact on display. I tapped the touch screen. It flickered back on for me to input the targeting coordinates into a waiting field.

“Okay, give me your coordinates.”

Captain Vasily fed me a long string of numbers, telling me when to swap from azimuth to altitude. I entered them, prodding the touch screen with my suited index finger.

“Target locked,” I said once I had input all the numbers. “Beginning power-up.”

This was the nerve-racking bit. Was that bomb set to explode as soon as any juice went through it? Sergeant Jamal didn’t think so. He said it was likely wired to a simple remote control. I just hoped that no suicidal zealot was around in some secret chamber that the troops had missed to activate it.

I touched the screen and a bar graph appeared, showing bars creeping upward.

Fusion tokomak active. Capacitor charge time: twenty minutes. Commit? blinked onto the screen.

“Guys, one more button to press. Are we good to go?” I said, my hand trembling. If it was going to pop, this was what would do it.

“Go,” Vasily said without hesitation.

Without another thought, I pressed the screen.

Committed. I read the blinking word off the display. “Right, I’m hauling arse.”

I unhooked my feet from the loops and turned to the door. Another screen caught my eye as I did. It showed a graphic of Akarga with pulsating red light in the center that hadn’t been up a moment before, but I didn’t have time to ponder it. I moved as fast as I could, that mix of dragging and loping that seemed to be the quickest way of getting around on this rock. I was thankful I’d had a lot of practice back on Concorde.

I jumped down the ladder well, pushing myself down on the rungs to speed my slow drop, and hauled myself to the lock. Two minutes had gone by according to the chronograph in my HUD.

The inner door of the airlock had been left open for me. I slid in, slapped the close button, and it rumbled shut. I lifted the safety guard on the emergency decompress and hit the button. The door opened slowly at first to equalize the pressure inside. If it didn’t, I would shoot out with the air and find myself in close orbit around Iwa, unable to get back to the surface until I either hit a mountain or Iwa’s insignificant gravity clawed me back into a dusty heap after a few days. By then, Gagarin would be gone, and I would die of asphyxiation or, if I could manage to get back to the base, have a long wait for rescue. The pressure in the chamber reached zero, and the door slammed open.

One of the troops had laid a guide rope leading from the lock to the shuttlepod, and I pulled myself along it as fast as I could in my bulky suit. I got to the small spacecraft with fifteen minutes left on the clock. The pod was little more than a pressurized bubble and an engine. I climbed in and sealed the hatch. I strapped myself into the seat of the single-man pod and hit the button labeled execute. It was a poor choice of word, indeed.

The engine was already primed to go, and within seconds, I felt myself being crushed back into the seat as the craft climbed hard on a column of fire. Above, I could see the Gagarin, tiny but growing fast.

“Layton, we have you off the surface. Ten minutes on the clock. ETA four minutes.”

I could only grunt in reply. I felt like an elephant was sitting on my chest under the horrendous acceleration the pod had been programmed to perform.

The autopilot spun nose to tail, and Iwa rolled dizzyingly into view. Squinting through the pain, I could see the dome receding. At first, so gradually that I wasn’t sure if I were imagining it, I could see a light start to grow in the center where the tip of the pagoda breached the dome.

“Ac...” I coughed, struggling to get the word out through the brutal acceleration I was being subjected to. “Activity. Dome.”

“We’ve got it, Layton,” Vasily said. “Don’t worry about it; just enjoy the ride.”

The pod was decelerating hard, matching speed with Gagarin for docking, and before long, the motion slowed and eased as it maneuvered into dock.

With a loud thump, the boat latched onto Gagarin. Before I was on my feet, the hatch sprang open, and Phillips hauled me bodily out of the seat.

“Come on, Layton. No time to be a layabout,” she said. She was unbelievably strong, manipulating me with ease. “I’m going to get you to the habitat ring. If there’s any nasty radiation from that thing, you’re going to be best off in there.”

I nodded in reply, and she hauled me deftly into the spinal corridor cart elevator. Gripping the rail, she set it off toward the more protected ring section.

Two minutes went by before we got to the habitat ring. I shambled after Phillips toward the mess section, still adjusting to my centrifuge-induced weight. The mess was a quarter of the way around the ring from our position, and we made it in good time despite my now feeble legs.

“Database dump has been completed. The blockade over at the gate will have all data up to this point,” I heard Frampton say as we entered the mess and I buckled my aching body into my seat. “I’ll keep piping through sensor readings as we get them.” That would at least mean that the lander and assault shuttle would have a record of everything we had found.

“Thirty seconds,” Vasily called.

“Layton, well done,” Vance said distractedly, watching the image of the Iwa dome. The tip was unmistakably bright now. It looked like it was barely containing the energy within.

“Thanks. At least it hasn’t sparked off the antimatter,” I said.

“Ten seconds.”

“Whose bright idea was it to follow Frain through an alien stargate, anyway?” Vance muttered.

The tip of the pagoda flared and everything in the room brightened. Other than that, it felt nothing like a human gate. It was far, far more painful.

Every fiber in my body erupted with a burning agony. My muscles cramped, and my throat opened to scream—but it died there. Just as quickly as it started, the pain was gone, like a switch had been thrown. No gentle gradient, it just stopped. One after another, the external images on the walls blinked back into existence.

Outside, I could see a golden whirlpool in space, a swirling load of burning matter being drawn into the dark center, and out of that center, a piercing beam of light lanced toward the stars. Even with my sketchy knowledge of astrophysics, I knew what it was. We had found ourselves next one of the most voracious eaters of matter in the galaxy—a black hole.




Interlude

The people in the room were not easily shocked. Many were over a hundred years old, yet violence was still new to many of them. But that wasn’t what had given them pause.

Another FTL gate?” Patrice breathed. “And it is functional?”

“We’ll get to that,” the host said grimly.

“This technology…” Patrice breathed, “…would change everything.”

“That it would,” the host agreed. “But there is a problem.”

“A problem?”

“Perhaps we should continue…”

“Yes, yes,” Patrice said. “We must see more.”







Chapter 50

Gagarin

“We think it’s a black hole called V4641 Sagittarius, also known as Sagi,” Captain Vasily said. “From what we can see of the local stars through all the dust that is swirling about out here, that is. That would put us over one thousand six hundred light-years out from Sol. To say we are a long way from home is an understatement.”

More detail was resolving on the screens and holotank. The source of the golden light was a star orbiting close to the hole, being ripped to shreds. The blazing debris that had been wrenched from its surface had created something the captain had called an accretion disk. In a way, it was beautiful to see, a star being stripped of matter, the gasses swirling into a flat golden whirlpool.

Gagarin had found itself orbiting a grey, meteorite-punished moon that circled a vast gas giant, the biggest we’d yet encountered. It was shrouded in streaks of red and golden clouds, dimly illuminated by the tortured star and silent maelstrom of the black hole.

The moon we were above looked the twin of Earth’s, yet that was not the most interesting thing about this rock. The telescopes revealed the ragged remains of a city on the surface embedded in one of the craters. It reminded me of Arcas City on Calisto, only much bigger and containing oddly shaped structures. The buildings had strange, twisted lines in some places and bulbous protrusions. Just from looking at it, it was obvious they weren’t designed by a human mind. Still, what was similar was that building a city in a crater made sense. Why build walls when half of the work was already done for you?

“Any sign of Erebus?” I asked.

“Yes.” Vasily nodded his head. On the screen, an image of a bright blue-hot flare appeared. “We have an antimatter plume. Eighteen million kilometers out and accelerating at one-g.”

“Christ, he’s not giving up, is he?” I muttered.

Nyet, he is not.” Vasily’s tone was low and dangerous. The friendly man I met when we embarked had long since disappeared beneath a cold hatred for what Frain had done to his crew and ship. “He’s heading straight toward the black hole or, more accurately, this.”

The screen flashed and showed another dark world barreling through the cloud of the accretion disk. It left a wake that filled with golden matter.

“That’s pretty damn close to the event horizon of the hole,” Frampton said, his attention glued to one of the wall screens that scrolled a bunch of incomprehensible numbers. “Why the hell would he want to go there?”

“That we don’t know yet,” Vasily said, his blue eyes reflecting the multicolored vista of space he stared at.

“What do we know about it?” I asked. To me, it just looked like a black sphere back-dropped by the accretion disk.

“It’s a dwarf planet, barely a thousand kilometers in diameter.” Vasily shrugged helplessly. “It’s skimming the event horizon of Sagi. It’s balanced somewhat precariously. I must say, unless we’ve had the extraordinary luck to happen upon a world about to be devoured, I am somewhat suspicious of it being there.”

“Everything he’s done has led to this place,” I said. “Whatever he wants, it’s on that rock.”

“Then, if for no other reason than for Dana,” Vasily growled, “I want to stop him from getting there. I don’t intend to fuck around. We will drop out of A-drive right on top of them. The cascade as the bubble collapses will atomize them.”

“Captain,” Sihota said calmly, “we have to consider the possibility that we may find ourselves in a first contact situation out here. We know the remains of a city are below us on that moon. If there is any kind of extant intelligence here, it won’t reflect well on humanity if the first thing they see is us slaughtering our kindred.”

Vasily stood up from his seat, the anger sparking in his eyes. His mouth opened and closed a few times.

“There’s another point,” I said, trying to match Sihota’s soothing tone. “We’ve seen no sign of him off-loading Erebus’s crew, not to mention that he might have people from Iwa onboard. Trust me, you don’t want their deaths on your conscience, even if you can live with killing Frain and Drayton.”

“Goddamn it!” He slammed his fist down on the console in front of him, then turned to face us again. “I’m a scientist, an explorer, not a soldier. We were supposed to leave all this shit behind.”

“Captain, I’ve seen the horrible things people do to one another. My job—all our jobs,” I said quietly as I gestured at the remainder of the investigators and Phillips, “is to do something about it. But you, as you say, are an explorer. We’re supposed to keep this kind of thing away from you to keep you doing what you should be doing, making the universe a better place. We’ve failed in that duty. I’m sorry that you, Dana, and the rest of your crew were dragged into this. Yes, we need to stop Frain, but we can’t just take the easy route here. We need to bring him in alive if possible; we can’t just kill everyone on that ship for revenge against one man.”

“Dammit!” Vasily nearly shouted. He went silent for a few moments, squeezing the bridge of his nose. Finally he looked over at the crewman at the navigation station and then said more quietly, “We will do it your way. Prepare a solution to intercept Erebus. Make sure we don’t wipe them out, though.”

“Thank you, Captain,” I said. It would have been so easy to succumb to the desire for revenge. After all, the chain of events Frain had started was responsible for my partner’s death. It would have been easy—but wrong. He needed to have his arse hauled before the tribunal. Only there could justice be meted out for Dev’s family.

“There is another consideration,” Vasily said after a pause. “I need to get you all home, too. I will drop a lander with crew to see if they can get that stargate working again.”

Yes, that would be nice. The torn-up wreckage of this star system was not where I wanted to spend my retirement.

“I’m guessing its operative. The probe Red Star sent through managed to get back home,” Frampton added. “And the servitor robots attached to the probe were only uploaded with the specifications of the Io artifact. That suggests it should be the same command and control system.”

“It will be a miracle if anything is easy on this damn mission,” Vance muttered.







Chapter 51

Gagarin

I had learned lots of things when I’d downloaded the idiot’s guide to A-drives into my implants. One of those was that it only had a limited ability to match speeds. At the velocities we had been playing around with, even those of planetary bodies, it wasn’t an issue. However, Erebus had been accelerating hard for the last two days.

Our plan was to speed up enough for the A-drive to be able to match our velocities. I understood the general principle. The A-drive stretched out space behind us and contracted it in front. By controlling how much we relaxed that stretch, we would control our velocity when we came out of the Alcubierre bubble. The problem was that if we tried to exit at too high a speed in comparison to how fast we entered, we would be torn in two by the space-time stress. I was really beginning to long for the days of just running after thieves and shoplifters down Islington Upper Street. Instead, here I was in a starship, racing toward the most destructive force in the universe at full burn, chasing down a cybernetically enhanced killing machine while worrying about whether the laws of physics would rip me to shreds.

So now we were accelerating even harder after Erebus. We were up to one-and-a-half-g, and that made moving around extremely tiring. Oddly, Erebus wasn’t accelerating as hard as she could. I was thankful for that, but it did puzzle us.

“Could the antimatter Frain siphoned off for the bomb account for Erebus’s loss of acceleration?” Sihota asked.

“She has around a kilogram’s worth aboard.” Frampton squinted with effort. I could sympathize; I was getting a neck ache trying to hold my head up and maintain eye contact during any kind of conversation. “If he’s cut his acceleration by that much, he would have had to draw a lot more than the gram or so he used for the bomb.”

“How does that limit his acceleration?” Vance asked.

“It doesn’t necessarily,” Frampton shrugged. “But if he’s drawn a substantial amount of it for other purposes, then he’s only got a limited amount left for fuel, and he’ll need to be as efficient as possible with it.”

“Let’s quit mincing words. You think he’s made a shitload more antimatter bombs, don’t you?” I asked.

“Well, that’s definitely one possibility,” Frampton replied.

Great. Add a load of some of the most lethal weapons that humans could possibly devise to our long list of troubles.

“That will make things…interesting.” Sihota was, at times, the master of understatement.

“The question is, what will he do with them?” I asked, not really even wanting to think about the possibilities.

“My money is on his having loaded them into the tips of a bunch of kinetic impactors to vaporize us with,” Phillips said. She wasn’t even bothered by the g-force she was being subjected to. She was still wandering around while the rest of us had resigned ourselves to sitting at every opportunity in the mess, now reconfigured for high-g burn with the seats moved to the former wall.

“I don’t think so,” Sihota said.

“Oh?” she raised an eyebrow.

“A kinetic impactor will destroy—or at least heavily damage—the ship whether it’s loaded with antimatter or cotton wool,” Sihota said. “No, if he’s weaponized his antimatter stocks, he’s done it for another reason.”

I grunted. “I’ll just add it to our long list of questions to ask him.”

“I would just rather those questions weren’t answered by an antimatter KI,” Phillips replied.

***

“Have you realized that every one of them has been around a gas giant?”

I was lying back at a forty-five degree angle in my chair, trying to catch some rest. We had another day before we matched speed with Erebus, but Frampton evidently wasn’t interested in sleep, and this wasn’t the first question he’d tossed my way. Lifting one heavy eyelid, I gave up trying to doze and looked at Frampton. While he sometimes left me behind, this time I kept up. “You’re referring to the alien gateways.”

“Yeah. Io is…was in close orbit around Jupiter, Iwa orbited Akarga, and this gateway circles…whatever we’re going to call it. There must be some kind of link.”

I yawned and stretched my leaden arms. “It would make sense that it is somehow important…hold on.” I struggled up straight as a thought occurred to me—something I had seen. Where was it now? In all the confusion and events of the last few weeks, things were blurring into one big mess.

“I was thinking that they powered the gateway the same way that the Jupiter Alliance was using Io for power generation, by tapping into the flux lines. But then the Akarga-Iwa relationship is different—no flux lines.”

“Uh huh,” I murmured. I had given up trying to remember and was now rewinding my HUD on superfast. I saw us going backward through the alien gateway with a flash of light, back into orbit of Iwa. From there, I retreated into the shuttlepod and landed on the rocky surface. I escaped back into the station and streaked through the corridors of the old station. Finally I found myself in the control gallery on Iwa. There it was—the image of Akarga with a blinking light at the center that had appeared only after I’d activated the gateway.

“Here, does this mean anything to you?” I linked the image over to Frampton.

“Hmmm,” Frampton hummed to himself, processing what he was seeing. “It suggests that when the Iwa machine activated, some kind of activity occurred inside Akarga.”

“Okay, but what kind of activity?” The g-force was so heavy that it was even hard to talk, and I was slurring my words.

Frampton tried to shrug, giving an odd jerky motion. “I don’t know. Without going to look, who can say?”

“You said Red Star had only found half the components a gateway needed to actually work in the Io artifact. Maybe the rest is sunk deep inside Jupiter.”

“That is a ridiculous…” Frampton started to reply. “But, maybe you have something there. Something’s obviously going on in the bowels of the gas giants—something that seems to be connected to the FTL gate.”

“Does that give you any clue as to what makes the FTL gate work?” Sihota called from across the room where he was keeping as comfortable as possible while we were under thrust.

“No, but whatever it is must solve the decoherence problem. After all, FTL per se—”

“Isn’t the issue,” Sihota interrupted, finishing for him. “Making sense of the information at the other end of the gateway is.”

“Exactly.” Frampton gave a smile. “Whatever the aliens’ means of rectification are, it can either make sense of the scrambled information on receipt of it or send it already rectified.”

“The fact that the activity is at the sending end”—I knew I was making up my own terms here, but hopefully they made sense to these two highly intelligent people—“suggests that they’re rectifying it at source.”

“Good point,” Frampton nodded. “I think when we get home, somehow someone’s going to have to go down into Jupiter to take a look.”

“Sign me on as a volunteer for that one,” Sihota’s deep voice responded.

“It’d be a hell of a mission,” Frampton smiled. “Crushing pressures, horrendous weather conditions. Count me in, too.”

I rolled my eyes. And here I was thinking I’d grown as a person. Frampton had gone from being a timid geek to an intrepid explorer of an environment that would make Io seem like a holiday resort. The two of them chatted away about their hypothetical mission into the heart of Jupiter. I closed my eyes and reclined again. For now, I just wanted to try and get some rest before we had to face our nemesis.







Chapter 52

Gagarin

“All hands, standby to go to A-drive,” Captain Vasily called out over the com, his voice hungry with anticipation. This was it. We were shooting after Erebus at a ridiculous velocity. The gap was still growing—she had been accelerating for longer than us after all—but now we were close enough to her speed to be able to match it when we dropped out of A-drive.

Our course gave me an uneasy feeling in my stomach; Gagarin was pointed directly at the black spot at the heart of the golden accretion disk. We would always have the ability to turn around and go to A-drive, but if Erebus, with her damaged A-drive, didn’t slow down soon, she would be committed to slamming into the event horizon of the black hole—and from that, there was no coming back. Whatever the hell Frain was up to, I suspected it would be revealed soon.

“Are you okay, Layton?” Phillips asked on a private link.

I was seated in the dark passenger bay of the Hawk. We weren’t going to make the same mistake this time as we made at Iwa. As soon as we dropped out of the Alcubierre bubble, the Hawk would launch, and we would try our damnedest to board Erebus.

“Sure.” I looked up the bay toward the back of her seat, smiling to myself. I felt the same anticipation as when I was a young police officer enjoying the thrill of the chase. “Never been better.”

“You don’t have to come. We’ll be moving fast and hard. This won’t be like Concorde. If any of my guys get to Frain, we’re going to take him down.”

“I know, Ava.” I believed her. These troops were a different breed than Cheng. Sure, from what I had seen of him, he was lethal, but then his enhancements were mostly about intelligence gathering and self-defense. These men and women were soldiers. Their bodies had been stripped down and rebuilt with one purpose: to fight and win. “There’s a lot more to this than we know. I want the chance to talk Frain, and Drayton, too, down, or at least to figure out why he’s smashed through everything in his way to get here.”

“I’ll try to give you that chance, Layton, but I’m not going to mess around, and I’m not going to risk my soldiers. If we get the chance to take him out, we will.”

“And if I get the chance to stop anyone else getting hurt? I will, too,” I said.

“Ha.” Phillips gave a low chuckle. “You bleeding-heart liberals.”

“You know me; I’m very right on.” I began to feel somewhat ballsy, the anticipation of combat causing adrenaline and testosterone to flood my system. “You know, if you don’t have anyone back home…”

“Layton, don’t go there. I would destroy you. Go find yourself a nice girl, one that couldn’t crush you when she’s having a bad day.”

Well, that told me.

“We are go. Brace for hard maneuvering,” Vasily’s voice cut through.

***

We slammed out of A-drive less than a minute later. It was far rougher than normal, the stress of matching velocities jarring me hard. I heard the shuttle groaning as horrendous forces tortured it.

Gagarin fired her engine at full burn, and I saw the black hole and accretion disk sluing to one side. My tactical feed showed Erebus high and to our left (or port, as the nautical types would say), her plume of blue-hot plasma creating a trail thousands of kilometers long. We began a zigzagging evasive pattern; no sense giving Frain an easy target.

“Xander Frain, cut your acceleration and prepare for boarding or we will open fire.” Vasily’s voice was a snarl. He was itching to get his pound of flesh.

Gagarin.” I almost started at the sound of Frain responding. For some reason, I hadn’t expected Frain to want to talk. To hear his calm voice again was shocking. “You shouldn’t have followed us.”

“After you murdered one of my crew and all those people on Io? You seriously thought we would just give up?” Vasily gave a scoffing laugh. “Heave to and prepare to be boarded.”

A loud thump reverberated through the hull of the Hawk, and it dropped away from the docking port. The pilot maneuvered to keep Gagarin between us and Erebus, ready to spring out when needed.

“No, I guess not.” His voice was so calm it was frightening. “Abandon ship, Gagarin. I will recover all your crew. I promise.”

“You have got to be fucking joking,” Vasily barked.

I could see Gagarin had turned again, the plume from her antimatter drive creating a corkscrew of blue hot plasma thousands of kilometers long. I knew the plan; we were fighting for the blind spot, away from the majority of Erebus’s laser mounts and kinetic rails. We couldn’t clear them all, they studded the hull, but we could get into a position where we could train more of ours on her than she could on us.

“Not at all,” Frain replied.

I watched as Vasily fired a KI from the launch rail. It streaked toward Erebus and flashed across her flank.

“The next one won’t be a warning shot. Cut your burn!” Vasily called.

“Captain, let me try,” I sent across the link.

“Layton, clear the channel.”

“Inspector Layton Trent,” Frain said. “You are a long way from your jurisdiction now. I would have thought you would have given up after Concorde.”

“Yeah.” I glanced out of the cockpit window. The accretion disk was filling the view—a place thousands of light-years from home. “What can I say? I take my job seriously.”

I heard a slew of angry Russian, then Vasily bellowed, “Trent, I said clear the goddamn channel!”

“Just one chance, Captain, then we do it your way.” I barreled on without waiting for a reply. “You’re clearly not insane, Xander. You have a reason for coming here, and the fact that you even know about this place means you have access to a lot of resources.”

Frain’s image blinked onto my HUD. It was getting crowded in my view, the tactical display, his face, and the view outside the Hawk all competing for my attention. I saw his head give a slight incline, as if he was prompting me to carry on.

“Tell us why. Why could coming here be worth killing the original Frain and blowing up a damn moon with the people on it? What you did at Concorde and what you did to Gagarin’s crew—or what you didn’t do…”

“That”—Frain gave his slight smile that I remembered from Concorde—“is need-to-know information.”

Gagarin began thrusting in a corkscrew, battling to keep to that near blind-spot on Erebus even as she rotated and twisted to prevent us getting there. She wasn’t making any serious maneuvers, though, and still held to her general course. Either Frain had a death wish, or he thought we weren’t a threat.

“We’re here, a thousand light-years from home, and you’re asking us to surrender our ship and accept that you will save us all from falling into a black hole—and you want us to do that on faith? I think everyone out here has a need to know at this point. You may be a killer, but you damn well have a reason for all those deaths on your hands.” For the first time, I saw a flash of pain and regret cross his face. Just as quickly, it disappeared. But it was there, and that was a crack I could exploit. “Talk to me, Xander. Help me understand what is happening here.”

“Talk to you?” The slight smile reappeared. “So you can listen? Then what will be the next stage? Empathy? Then rapport, then influence, and finally you will move toward behavior change? Aren’t you assuming something here, Trent?”

Shit, this guy knew at least as much about those old textbook negotiation theories as I did; that was exactly the model that I was trying to use. “And what’s that?”

“That any of this is open to negotiation,” Frain said as his image disappeared from my HUD.

“Laser strike! He’s attacking. Return fire,” Vasily roared.

A spread of KIs pumped out of Gagarin’s launch tubes at Erebus. Frain’s ship instantly cut her acceleration. The limited guidance systems on the impactors tried to compensate for the course change, but only three succeeded. One after another, they flared as Erebus’s laser burned them.

Gagarin turned ponderously. She fired her laser, trying to take out her foe’s laser emplacements. Erebus’s engine reignited, and she charged forward again, dropping a spread of KIs as she did.

“Take out those KIs,” Phillips said with maddening calm to the pilot. The Hawk sprang from behind the cover of Gagarin. We raced toward the still-distant swarm of projectiles that were already flaring under Gagarin’s laser. It was a game of attrition. The KIs were decoys for the lasers. While Gagarin and Erebus had to fend off each other’s impactors, they couldn’t turn the focus of their lasers onto the opposing ship. Except this time, we would use an advantage that would shift the odds in our favor.

“Guns, guns, guns,” the pilot called. I felt a rumble through my seat as the Gatling cannon under the Hawk fired. The tactical display showed a stream of projectiles spraying toward the KIs. After long seconds, bright flashes erupted among the flares of the strikes from Gagarin’s laser. It looked like a fireworks display. Yeah, we were definitely doing better this time around.

“Hawk, we have an attack on our firewalls,” Vasily’s g-strained voice called out. “He’s trying to hack into our systems.”

Gagarin, roger that. Can you do something about the laser emplacements while we try for a hard dock?” Phillips asked.

“Focusing fire,” Vasily answered. "Keep those KIs off us while we do.”

The pilot redoubled her efforts. I felt and heard the rumbling drone of the Hawk’s heavy projectile cannon firing again and again. Ahead of us, the long stream of energy that was Erebus’s antimatter torch became a distinct streak across the heavens to the naked eye rather than just another star. We were getting closer.

“We’re getting a laser strike. Hull temperature rising. Evading,” the pilot called. The view spun dizzyingly as we corkscrewed, fighting to shrug off the laser lock. I heard a bang, and the shuttle shuddered. Gripping my seat arms, I closed my eyes, waiting for the inevitable.

“They’ve nicked the port engine,” the pilot called, excitement finally creeping into her tone. “Diagnosing…Coolant system is damaged. We’re still in play, though.”

I was slammed back into my seat as the Hawk accelerated at Erebus again, the tail of her blaring antimatter stream above us. My HUD automatically compensated so it wouldn’t literally blind me when I looked at it. If we flew into that, we would be nothing more than a brief ember, our component atoms dissipating to the stars.

“How’re those firewalls, Captain?” Phillips asked.

“Major, he has some good software. He’s burning through them like they barely exist.”

“Just get those emplacements down ASAP.”

A spread of KIs raced past us, streaming toward Erebus, some of them going up in flares. I didn’t believe for a second that they would actually strike Erebus, but that wasn’t the point—keeping the lasers busy was. That would give the Hawk its chance.

“Got ’em!” Vasily called.

A ragged crater opened in Erebus’s flank equipment module from a laser strike. One of the laser emplacements was gone; we had our path to Erebus.

“Roger that. Pilot, go for hard dock at best speed,” Phillips shouted, her voice straining under the wild maneuvers the pilot was pulling off. The pilot began to smooth out the ride, going from a roller-coaster-like corkscrew to burning hard straight at the ship.

“He’s through the firewall protecting our weapons,” Vasily called. “We’ve lost them. We’re putting all processing power into fighting his incursion toward our propulsion software. You’re on your own.”

Erebus was a distinct shape now, a black line at the head of the vast plume that was her torch. She was still racing toward the black hole. I could have sworn the damn accretion disk was filling more of my view.

“I’m showing an e-warfare incursion into our control systems,” the pilot called.

“Shut down the radio. Go to the coms laser for our link to Gagarin,” Phillips replied curtly.

The enemy ship loomed larger and larger now. The Hawk slowed to match speed, and the crushing weight of our high-g burn eased as we closed. We swept over the habitat ring, streaking along the ship’s long spine, and glided closer to the docking slips.

Erebus has four Orca-class heavy shuttles listed on her manifest,” the pilot said. “I’m only seeing two.”

“Roger that,” Phillips responded. “We’ll worry about it later. Go for a hard dock on the spine itself.”

A magnetic grapple fired out and slammed into Erebus’s hull. Slowly and steadily, we reeled in closer and closer. With a thud, the Hawk mated onto the spinal corridor just aft of the lander ports. The vibrations of our shuttle stopped, replaced by a different, lesser shudder transferred to us by Erebus. Her acceleration had me feeling like I was resting on my back.

“Go for cut,” Phillips barked. Her voice had changed tempo. Long gone was the calm demeanor; now she was spurring us on with the mere power and presence of her voice.

From the bottom of the deck came a fizzing noise, and then the belly hatch popped open. One of the soldiers pulled a rickety-looking stepladder from what was now underneath the lock, and the first troops, rifles in hand, climbed into the hatch as if the floor had become a wall.

“Ma’am, active camouflage is failing,” Sergeant Jamal called.

I watched as their armored suits tried to cloak themselves. Instead, ripples of colors washed over them, making their grey battle armor even more visible.

“Analyze,” Phillips said.

Sergeant Jamal stood still for a moment, undoubtedly looking at his suit’s sensor readings on his HUD.

“Looks like they’ve laced the atmosphere with antistealth air dye, Captain,” Jamal replied. Great. Frain had anticipated boarding and that we would have battle armor with active camouflage capability. He had countered it by seeding the ship’s atmosphere with particles whose specific purpose was to cause stealth technology to malfunction. Even rumor of that kind of technology was top secret. Always more questions on this damn mission.

“Okay, mates. This is the hand we’ve been dealt,” Phillips said pragmatically. “It changes nothing. Shut down active camouflage. Let’s move out.”

One after another, the troopers pulled themselves inside the ship. I struggled out of my seat, and after the last one had gone through, I climbed up the steps. Under the lock, I could see the heat-warped edges of Erebus’s hull, still glowing from the plasma torch that the hatch mechanism had used to slice its way through. Careful to avoid the sharp and red-hot edges, I slipped inside.

Finally—we were in.







Chapter 53

Erebus

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I exclaimed as I looked down the seemingly bottomless pit of the spinal corridor. It hadn’t occurred to me before that when Erebus was under thrust, the whole damn spinal corridor turned into a seemingly bottomless shaft—a shaft we would have to descend to get to the habitat section of the ship.

“Is the lift working?” Phillips called over to one of the troops as she stood with her rifle pointed down into the corridor.

The soldier fiddled with the controls for a few moments. “Negative. They’ve locked it out from below. We can’t override it from up here.”

“We’re two hundred meters from the habitat ring, and we’re going to have to do this the fancy way, people.” Phillips grinned through her visor as she extended a cable from a compartment on her chest plate. “Sergeant, drop a couple of mozzies. Let’s see what they can see while we’re heading down.”

Sergeant Jamal knelt down in his bulky armor, placing a small carry case on the deck, and opened it. Embedded in the soft foam within were some tiny mosquito drones, similar to the ones that we used back in Sahelia and Concorde. I’m sure that they were far more advanced than the ones used by the Congolese Defense Force or, for that matter, the JAS. Security investment for them hadn’t exactly been a priority. Two of the drones lifted off and darted down the shaft.

“Layton, you have a choice here. We can fit you into a cas-evac sling and carry you down or…” She gestured at the ladder that ran the length of the spinal corridor.

I interpreted that as I could either be dangled off one of the troops or go under my own steam down a ladder where the slightest slip would see me falling all the way down the goddamn corridor. Neither option seemed especially great.

“I’ll take the ladder, thanks.” It seemed like the lesser of two evils for me. At least this way I’d have control of my own destiny.

Phillips shrugged as she continued preparing her rappelling set. “Right.”

When all six troops and I were ready, we surrounded the shaft and put index fingers to thumbs, signaling okay. The soldiers launched, bouncing down the corridor wall as I started climbing down, one rung after another.

“Getting interference on the mosquito link,” Jamal said as we made our way down the corridor, the troops pulling ahead of me. “Losing the link. It’s down.”

“Not surprising,” I said as I paused a moment, trying to avoid looking down. “Frain’s e-warfare package strikes me as the bleeding edge of the cutting edge.”

“Yeah, I got that, too,” Jamal replied.

“We knew we could be going in blind. We do this the old—” Phillips’s voice was cut off by the sound of something zipping by us. The hint of blue told me it was a disrupter round. “Suppressing fire, three by three, incaps. Go.”

The six troops reorganized themselves. In a bizarre yet graceful movement, they twisted themselves upside down, heads toward the habitat ring. Three sighted their guns down it and began firing, slow and steady. The other three used the covering fire to do another few bounces down the shaft.

“Cover,” one of the lower troops called out between the zip of incap rounds.

“Moving,” Phillips barked in response, and the three higher ones, including her, bounded down the shaft, threading between the other three.

“Cover,” she shouted, once they were in position. They began firing down the shaft, forcing the heads down of whoever was shooting at us.

“Moving,” one of the top three roared as they soared down the corridor. Phillips’s fire team discharged their weapons down the shaft. A moment later, they’d overtaken the lower fire team and the process repeated, taking the troops closer to the habitat ring. The speed of their descent took them farther and farther ahead of me. Blue sparks zipped up the corridor in sporadic bursts of return fire, but our fire teams kept anyone from getting an accurate bead on us.

But it wasn’t enough—one of the rounds ripped through the rappel cable of a trooper. The heavily armored man made a desperate grab for purchase in the shaft, briefly gripping a protruding striplight before the weight of his armor pulled him off.

With a long scream, he plummeted down the shaft. His figure seemed to disappear into infinity as he fell. After a few seconds, the scream cut off abruptly. Not even his armor would have saved him from a fall like that. His broken body would be in the engineering spaces of the ship far aft.

“Mike...Motherfuckers,” Phillips murmured over the com, the one allowance she made to her distress at losing one of her team. “All call signs, maintain suppressing fire. We still have a job to do.”

The troops kept up their steady rate of fire, not succumbing to wild and wasteful sprays of ammunition in meaningless demonstrations of rage. They would avenge their fallen comrade only by keeping focus.

The troops were well ahead of me now. A deluge of blue streaks whipped by them, each one capable of damaging even their advanced armor. As we closed on our destination, the torrent of fire coming at us slowed.

I could see the troops had just about reached the point in the shaft where the habitat ring access tunnels met the spinal corridor.

“I have sight on the ring access port. No Tangos,” one of the troops called.

“Push, push, push,” Phillips shouted.

The five remaining troops flooded in through the access tunnel to the ring and took up covering positions.

“They’ve backed off. Layton, get your arse down here.”

“On my way.” I reached the small ledge that circled the shaft corridor by the access tunnel and eased my way around it. It was a hell of a drop down to the engineering spaces—and the fallen soldier. I shimmied around carefully.

With a sigh of relief, I got to the access tunnel and, for the first time in an eternity, felt like I was on firm ground. The tunnel was fifty meters long, linking the spinal corridor with the habitat ring. Like the spine, it would normally be in zero-g, but Frain clearly had places he wanted to be, and the thrust of the engine glued us to the “floor.”

“Let’s move. We don’t have long before we reach turnaround to rendezvous with that planet,” I said as I drew my handgun and checked that it was on incap rounds.

“Sergeant, take two and secure any hostages, call sign Team Two. Simmons and Trent, on me. We’re going for the bridge.”

Like a choreographed dance troupe, the troops swept round the corner. The sergeant’s team swept counterclockwise toward the living spaces while we headed in the other direction toward the bridge.

The corridor was familiar but now tilted ninety degrees to when I was last aboard. Rather than a gentle curve upward, it now arced round to the right. From some of the hatches, which were now on the floor and ceiling, ladders had been extended so people could get up and down while Erebus was under thrust.

“Wait,” I called to the two soldiers ahead. They paused and knelt down, not looking back at me, keeping their focus on where the threat would come from. “There are a lot of these hatches with ladders in them…too many.”

“Go on,” Phillips encouraged me along my train of thought.

“That suggests to me that either the hostages have free reign to wander about, or…”

“Or they’re not hostages.”

It made sense. The shooting up the shaft had obviously come from more than one person.

Suddenly up ahead, figures darted across the passage and behind open hatches, corridor ribs, and whatever cover they could find.

Then they opened fire on us.







Chapter 54

Erebus

“Contact front!” Phillips shouted as she brought her rifle to bear and returned fire with smooth, disciplined single shots. The distinctive blue sparks of incap rounds zipped both ways through the passage.

“Major, Team Two, we are engaging five plus,” I heard Sergeant Jamal call over the com.

I pressed a button, and a hatch in the floor opened. I hunkered down behind it as the zip-thud of rounds hit. “We’re engaging, too.”

“Roger that,” Jamal responded.

I peeked around the cover. The combatants shooting at us had on some kind of armor that, though not as impressive as Phillips’s team’s rigs, looked sufficient to block antipersonnel rounds. Both sides were stuck using incaps; armor-piercing rounds would blow bloody great holes in their ship. Thank God my instincts about Frain not being insane were so far holding true. Both sides being restricted to incaps balanced things a bit, though, because they could do more than just stop people; they could disable battle armor, too.

“Simmons, fire and maneuver. Let’s push them back. Ready?” Phillips said.

“Ready.”

“Go!”

In the same way they had in the shaft, the two of them pushed down the corridor, one providing covering fire while the other advanced on the enemy. This was where we would see whether quality would beat quantity. We just had to hope that quantity, in this case, wasn’t a quality all on its own.

One of our rounds struck an enemy combatant. The armor sparked and the fighter shook as if being electrocuted before falling to the deck. Score one for the good guys. The other combatants answered with a wild torrent of incoming incaps streaking down the corridor. It told me that we weren’t facing disciplined soldiers here; they were trigger-happy as hell. The response may have been undisciplined, but in the slim confines of the corridor, it made life for us even more difficult.

In a short lull, I darted for the next open hatch. Something slammed into my leg, and it went numb. In a stumbling fall, I managed to get behind the next open hatch cover and looked down to see what damage had been caused.

Fortunately, my suit wasn’t one of the powered affairs the soldiers were using, so I wasn’t immobilized from the incap round. Even better, it had protected me from the worst of the round’s effect. Still, it felt like I had one hell of a dead leg.

“Took a hit; still in play,” I growled at Phillips.

“Roger that. Secure their casualty as we push forward.”

I waited until they had pushed a little farther ahead and around the curve of the corridor and, in a limping jog, went to the prone figure on the floor. Kneeling down, I placed my gun aside and turned the body. I lifted the visor and saw the face for the first time.

I didn’t know her name, but I recognized her from when I was last aboard. She was one of the crew of Erebus.

She groaned, her eyes rolling beneath her closed lids. “You’re okay. You’ve been hit with an incap round. You’ll be fine in a couple of hours,” I tried to reassure her, not that she would likely be able to hear. The fact that she had formerly been an enemy had ceded to the fact that now she was a casualty, and I had a duty of care to her.

She moaned in response; the round had struck her helmet. That really would have hurt if my leg was anything to go by. I moved her onto her side, placing her in to the recovery position, and, finding the power pack on the back of her armor, ripped it out. She’d be locked in the suit when she woke up and out of the game.

The armor was pristine, no scratches or dings on the smooth grey finish. It had probably just come out of the onboard nano-factory along with their weapons. Frain hadn’t just been making ship-to-ship hardware; he’d been busy fortifying Erebus.

“Shit, Simmons is hit,” Phillips’s voice cut across the com.

I grabbed my gun and hobbled round the corridor past another couple of bodies, pulling power packs as I went. One of them hadn’t been so fortunate. He had had his visor open and a round had struck him straight in the eye, blasting a gory pit into his face. I checked for a pulse, but it had hit in one of the few places where an incap round was lethal. Unlucky bastard.

A hot anger surged through me. This incomprehensible quest of Frain had cost so many lives, but in the space of a few minutes, I had seen it take two people—two people with mothers and fathers, maybe wives, husbands, or children, who would never see them again. Two people I knew and had worked with, people like Dev. This had to stop. I shook my head, refocusing. I took a deep breath and let the anger wash out of me. If I wanted to help stop this, I had to get back into the game. I stood and hobbled down the corridor.

“Coming up from behind,” I called to Phillips so she wasn’t taken by surprise as I approached her. She was on one knee, firing shots down the corridor while return fire flashed back at us.

“They managed to focus fire on Simmons. He’s down,” she said. “His vitals are showing alive but out cold. I’ll need you to provide cover fire for my advance.”

“Okay…” I took a deep breath I looked down the hallway: only a couple left, firing back from the cover of the curve in the passage. Erebus only had twenty-two crew, although we didn’t know how many they had picked up from Iwa. The missing landers suggested they had offloaded some, but how many and where?

“Ready…now!”

Darting my head around my cover, my HUD tactical software sighted down the corridor, seeking a threat. A combatant peered out from behind the open hatch, and I squeezed the trigger, just missing.

“Just keep firing; keep them down. Moving.” Phillips sprang up and ran a short distance down the corridor to the hatch. She hunkered behind it for a beat and then reached over, wrenched the combatant over the cover, and threw their body toward me as if it weighed nothing.

The armored person slammed into the deck next to me. I dragged our assailant round the bend, keeping my gun trained on the face plate. I didn’t want this person to be getting any ideas.

“Got a conscious one,” I told her.

“I’ve taken out the other,” Phillips called back. “We’re clear.”

I gave a sigh of relief.

Flicking up the visor on the prisoner’s helmet, I kept my gun trained on the scared-looking man’s face within. “I think we have some things to talk about.”

“Team Two, status?” Phillips called.

There was no response but the crackling of static over my com.







Chapter 55

Erebus

“Get out of him what you can, then knock him out,” Phillips said coldly over the private channel. “We can’t be far off turnaround, and those firewalls will be smashed through soon.”

“How many combatants are there?” I didn’t recognize the scared-looking man. He looked older than most of the crew of Erebus, more withered, like he’d spent a long time in a low gravity environment. I guessed he was from the Iwa facility.

“From the kicking you’ve just given us, I can tell you there’s only one you need to worry about,” he said as his eyes darted to Phillips’s imposing figure looming over him. “Darren went down hard. Is he okay?”

I figured he meant the poor fellow back down the hallway. “No, I’m afraid he’s not.”

“Goddamn it.” I watched as a slight wobble came over his bottom lip. It would have been almost comedic if a dead man hadn’t been involved.

“You’re from Iwa, the alien research outpost?”

“Yes. Why the hell did you have to kill him?”

“We’re very sorry about that.” And I was. This whole affair had been a horrific waste of life. “But the man and woman who have taken this ship are mass murderers. Now, why are you here in this system? It wasn’t just for you to get away.”

“Still no response from Team Two,” Phillips whispered over the private link. I nodded in response.

“No, it wasn’t,” the man said.

“Then why?”

“Major, Trent.” Frain’s face appeared in my HUD, interrupting us. His head was poking out of the collar of his combat armor, hair matted with sweat. A glint of chrome from his subdermal combat chassis was visible beneath a bloody graze on his forehead. He looked like he had been in the wars. “I have your troops here.”

I glanced up at Phillips from where I knelt awkwardly, favoring my numb leg.

“Mr. Frain, would you be so kind as to oblige me with their status?” Phillips said, not letting any tension slip into her voice.

The view swept round. It was from someone’s HUD rather than the ship’s cameras. I saw Sergeant Jamal, looking to be in an even worse state than Frain, but at least conscious. He was on his knees, hands clasped behind his head. The view swept to another who was lying on the floor but otherwise seemed okay, probably incapacitated. The third, though, his armor had been cut open. I could see one of the armored figures working on him, giving him first aid. The man stopped, turned, and with his visor open, shook his head.

“One is alive and conscious, one is incapacitated. The other, as you can see…well, I’m sorry.” He gestured at the wound on his forehead. “He offered no choice. By my count, that means the two of you are alone now. I have superior numbers and now hostages. Gagarin’s firewalls are nearly breached. Surrender and no one else has to be harmed.”

“Confirm status of the firewalls,” I whispered into my com.

“Minutes,” Captain Vasily’s voice crackled over our coms, bouncing through the Hawk’s laser link. “We’ve put everything into keeping the helm and propulsion intact, but the intrusion is damn good. We can only slow it, not stop it.”

“Cut the com with Frain,” I said firmly, standing up. Phillips turned, flicking her visor open and looked at me, the question clear in her piercing blue eyes. “Now!” She gave the slightest of nods. My HUD showed Phillips had switched us to a private channel.

“He’s delaying us. Whatever he’s up to is coming to a head soon,” I said.

“He has my men,” she growled, a dangerous look on her face.

“I know, Ava.” I took a deep breath; I was going out on another limb here. “But if we open coms, he may threaten them if we don’t cede to his demands. I don’t think he’ll kill them indiscriminately, but if he feels he has to make us comply, he will. If we remove the option to communicate, there will be no point. It removes the threat to them.”

“If you’re wrong…”

“I’m not,” I interrupted in my firmest voice, showing a confidence that I wasn’t sure I felt.

“Let me finish, Trent. If you’re wrong, I’ll throw you out the airlock myself.”

“Yeah, well, I best not be, then.”

“Frain,” Phillips flicked the general com’s channel back on. “We’re not negotiating. We’re closing down coms, and don’t bother using the ship’s PA system; we’ll ignore you. Out.” I looked at her, and she gave the slightest of nods. “Let’s get to the bridge before he does.”

Pushing my visor down, I drew my gun and fired an incap round into the man from Iwa. Phillips was already striding down the corridor. I limped painfully after her.







Chapter 56

Erebus

It was a race, and we knew it. Fortunately we were a hell of a lot closer to the bridge than Frain was. My leg had gone from numb to having the worst pins and needles I could imagine. It was so painful that if I could have hacked it off, I would have given serious consideration to it. I thought back with sympathy to the woman who had been shot to the helmet; she would be in agony for days. I concentrated on putting one foot in front of the spasming other. Left, right, left, right.

“We’re here.” Phillips held her left hand up, stopping me in my painful tracks. I looked up at the bridge access hatch, a ladder extending from under it, and sighed. This was it. If we took the bridge, we took Erebus.

“Ready?”

“Yeah, sure,” I lied. Phillips raced up the ladder like a monkey and pulled the manual release on the hatch. It sprang open, and in a split second, she was through. I pushed myself hard to keep up with her, ignoring the shin splints knifing through my leg. Through the hatch, I could see her aim her rifle at someone out of sight. “Get your hands up.”

I heard running as I pulled myself up and rolled onto the bridge. I slammed the hatch shut and looked frantically for some kind of lock. Erebus wasn’t a warship; she was an explorer. The bridge didn’t have a single antiboarding security measure in place. I climbed to my feet, sighting my handgun at the hatch, and looked around.

Drayton stood next to Captain Tasker with her hands up, but it was the view on the holotank that made me gasp. We were a hell of a lot closer to the black hole. Space around us had taken on the golden glow of the accretion disk. We were within it now, still racing forward. I saw a graphics box highlighting a dark spec; that world was our destination.

“Layton,” Drayton said with a desperate pleading in her eyes, “you have to let us finish what we came here for. Please, just stand down.”

“Keep your hands up,” Phillips barked at Tasker.

“Get off my fucking bridge,” she snarled, slowly moving away from Drayton. I glanced at the furious captain as I trained my gun on the hatch.

“That is not going to hap—” That was all I got out before the hatch slammed open. A figure erupted through it with armor crackling and sparking, brutally damaged. I fired. The shot ricocheted off the figure’s thigh guard and sizzled into a seat.

Frain moved at incredible speed, slamming into Phillips as a wild shot sprang from her rifle, sparking off the wall. The two figures pirouetted almost gracefully, and Phillips crashed into the wall, denting it. I fired off another round. A spark glanced off Frain’s plated shoulder, and he glared at me. That’s all he got before Phillips was on him again.

Both were deceptively agile in their battle armor: two highly trained fighters colliding with thunderous force. Phillips pulled off a crisp roundhouse kick to Frain’s head. He blocked it, and without pausing, she dropped, a spinning sweep taking Frain’s legs from under him. He crashed to the deck. He rolled onto his feet and punched her in the chest. She reeled back, and he got in a spinning kick to her head. Phillips tumbled from the blow, smashing into the wall.

I sighted him again, the tactical mode in my HUD barely able to keep up. I saw a blue spark zip by me. I turned and reflexively fired a round. Tasker took the round her in the chest. Her gun dropped, and she spasmed, falling to the floor as the incap round took effect.

I spun back around to get a bead on Frain. He and Phillips were locked in melee, punches and kicks flashing between them. Frain grabbed Phillips’s arm, pulled her over his shoulder, and slammed her halfway through a bridge console. Without pause, she kneed him straight in the face, staggering him.

“Stop!” I heard someone shout. Only then did I realize I’d lost track of Drayton. She stood there, her red hair frazzled, her eyes desperate, and her arms waving to get attention. “Please stop!” But the two battling figures just ignored her, the detritus of the console around them as they locked together, falling to the floor. Both tried to pin each other like professional cage fighters.

I aimed again and fired just as Frain got on top of her. He grunted but ignored it. He didn’t even have to shake it off. Drayton ran toward another console.

I trained my gun on her. “Don’t fucking move.”

“Turnaround,” she gasped.

I wasn’t falling for that one. “I said stop!”

“No, you asshole, we’re nearly at turnaround!”

Somehow Phillips had got back on top of Frain and was raining punches down on him. He was blocking most, but some slipped through. With what must have been superhuman effort, he jerked his hips upward, sending her flying off him.

“Trent, the goddamn firewall’s nearly breached. Can you stop it?” Vasily’s voice cut through the confusion, distorted by the low-bandwidth communications we were using.

I bounded over to Drayton and grabbed her by the scruff of her collar, hauling her away from the console.

“It’s now or never, Trent!” Vasily shouted.

I wrenched Drayton’s head around roughly so she had to look at me. “Stop the incursion!”

She shook her head with a jerk. She was scared. I wasn’t getting through. From the other side of the bridge, the sound of the fighting combatants became even more intense.

“Vasily, how?” I shouted, finally giving up with Drayton.

“Air-gap the master coms panel. It should force it into autodiagnostic mode.”

My eyes darted around the room. On one wall, I could see a number of panels, each titled something—COM, PROP, POW—that kind of thing. “Air-gap?”

“Shoot the damn thing if you have to,” Vasily shouted over the com.

That I could do. I moved my gun away from Drayton, aimed it at the panel, and fired at the one labeled COM. A wisp of smoke raised from it.

“You’ve done it,” Vasily shouted. “The incursions stopped!”

“No!” Drayton screamed. I heard an almighty crash and saw Phillips’s armored figure slam into the deck. Frain had her arm twisted behind her. She carried on writhing, but she wasn’t getting away.

“Plan B.” Frain’s voice was pained. His face, already battered from the punishment it had received from the other troops, was a bloody mess now. The silver-colored subdermal armor gleamed fearsomely through his battle-damaged face. “Drop the gun, Trent.”

“Don’t do it,” Phillips gasped in pain through her smashed visor.

“Xander, you know I can’t do that.” I wasn’t sure what the hell I could do, but my options were awfully limited.

“Xander, deployment is 200 seconds. After that, we aren’t going to be able to hit the target.” Drayton said.

“Got it; prep the warheads.” He carried on looking at me. The one eye that wasn’t totally wrecked was worryingly calm.

“Drayton, don’t move. I’m not shitting you. You go near anything that even looks like it activates a goddamn warhead, I’m putting a round in you.”

“You’ve not exactly left us much choice here,” Frain said earnestly. “We need to complete our mission.”

“Two minutes. Trent, let’s just talk about this—but after,” Drayton shouted.

“Talk about what? Blowing Gagarin away? Not a fucking chance,” I said sarcastically.

“We don’t want to blow away Gagarin. That planet is our target.”

“Are you insane? I’m not going to let you blow away a bloody planet, either,” I scoffed.

“We don’t have time to explain.” For the first time, a tone of earnestness was cutting through Frain’s calm. “If we don’t fire now, we will miss our target. Everything will be for nothing.”

“Everything?” I said, acid souring my voice as I remembered the price Frain had exacted to get this far. “You mean killing all those people on Io and everything else you’ve done since?”

“Yes.”

“Boarding party, you are riding damn close to the point of no return. Evacuate now,” Captain Vasily said.

On the displays, the planet was a speck now—a speck that was growing fast.

I saw Phillips lift one leg, jamming it against the wrecked console. With all her might she kicked out. Frain and Phillips slammed into the control junctions behind them. Sparks and wisps of smoke erupted around them.

“Warning: command and control compromised. Main engine cut off,” an androgynous voice announced.

I flew upward and smashed into the ceiling. The debris from the fighting bounced all around me. We were back in zero-g. My gun floated by. With a firm grip on a ceiling stanchion, I reached out and grabbed it.

As I did so, Drayton clawed for a console, blood dripping into the air from a gash in her head. Phillips and Frain scrabbled for purchase on anything they could get their hands on.

“The main engine is in automatic shutdown mode,” Drayton called out.

“Get us turned around,” Frain shouted. “Then reignite.”

“We can’t. The main linkages are down on the helm. We need to get off. Now!”

“No!” he shouted. “Warheads?”

“Still ready and operable.”

“Then fire!” Frain pressed.

Steadying myself with one hand as I floated, I aimed the gun through the swirling debris at Drayton. “Don’t you dare, Drayton. Don’t you fucking dare.”

“If I don’t,” Drayton said softly, the blood bubbling from the gash had created a halo of red drops. “Everyone dies.”

My HUD fed me targeting data, a crosshairs superimposed on Drayton’s chest. “Move away from the console, or I will shoot you.”

“Layton, I wish I had time to explain, but I don’t,” Frain said in a calm voice. “We need—”

“Frain, shut the hell up,” I barked out. Weeks of frustration was focused on this moment. “I’m sick and tired of this. We’ve won. I’m not going to let you fire off your warheads just to smash some rock to bits.”

“It’s not a rock,” Frain shouted, cutting through my anger. “On that world is a race that wants to kill everyone and destroy everything—Earth, Mars, the JA, and every world we’ve colonized.”

Kill everyone? What the hell was he talking about? I paused for a moment, my thoughts racing. Surely if there was something like that out here, Vance, Cheng, or someone would know...

Wouldn’t they?

But then, nations weren’t the true powers anymore, were they? There were bigger players with far more influence than mere countries, players whose business it was to explore space and find out what was out here. Frain could be a tool of the corporates. What if they knew something the governments didn’t? All throughout this mission, I’d had the feeling there was more going on than we could see.

And if these aliens were that much of a threat…

“They seem remarkably passive right now,” I said, momentarily glancing at one of the wall screens where the black disc of the world was blooming larger and larger against the golden glow of space.

“Because they’re not ready. Our one chance—our only chance—of stopping them is now, at this moment.”

“And how do you know this?” I asked.

“I don’t have time to explain,” Frain said softly. “I get that you’re confused. I would be in your situation, but quite literally everything depends on what you decide in the next few seconds. That world, if you’re right, is just a rock. It’ll make no difference to anyone if it’s destroyed. If I’m right, it’ll make every difference to everyone. All you have to do is let us. Once that’s done, we’ll surrender to you.”

“Why should I believe you? What if there’s some kind of innocent alien race or something down there? Why should I let you destroy them?”

“Layton, you said it yourself; I’m clearly not insane. I haven’t killed anyone I didn’t have to. Trust me.”

I looked at him, a small window in my HUD showing the image from my gun camera trained on Drayton. He looked a mess, yet his one good eye was looking at me earnestly, almost begging. It was disconcerting.

Why put this on me? Why did I have to make this choice? I needed time to think, to weigh up the evidence. A spark of anger flared inside me. Why was I even considering this madness? “I’m not going to allow this!”

“Please, Trent.” Frain looked at me intently.

I glanced at Phillips. She was braced against the wall, ready to pounce back into the fight. The only thing stopping her? This strange exchange.

“Layton, decide,” Drayton said, her hand hovering over the console.

The heat of anger and the cold ice of dread warred within me. What if this threat they were talking about were real? Would they really have put together this operation if they weren’t already sure? And what was the consequence? A dead world destroyed?

You’re clearly not insane, Xander. You have a reason for coming here, and the fact that you even know about this place means you have access to a lot of resources. The words I’d spoken less than an hour ago resonated in my mind. I felt something click. Frain wasn’t mad. Cold? Yes. Calculating? Yes. But mad?

No.

Knowing that, could I gamble with humanity? Whatever was going on here was far bigger than just Frain having gone on a rampage. I have no interest in killing anyone I don’t have to, Frain had said. And you—I don’t have to. He’d killed people—a lot of people—but every one of them had been to get here.

You may be a killer, but you damn well have a reason for all those deaths on your hands. In my mind, I could still see the flash of pain and regret across his face as I had said those words to him.

As fast as these thoughts raced through my mind, time was running out. I had to decide. Now. Bomb the planet? Become complicit in his crimes, maybe even in the genocide of an entire sentient species? Or, if he were right, save everyone from this mysterious race he said threatened us?

If he were right, save everyone…

If…

Everyone

“Do it,” I said quietly.

Drayton’s hand met the console. A rippling series of thumps reverberated through the hull of Erebus.

“Boarding party,” Vasily’s voice piped over the HUD, “we have a series of launches. I’ve got dozens of KIs ripple-firing. Report!”

“I know, Gagarin,” I said, feeling strangely deflated. “I know.”

***

“If we don’t get off within fifteen minutes, no one is getting off. We won’t have the delta-v to fight Sagi,” Drayton said. “And not long after that, we’ll slip into the event horizon."

“We’re not having him back onboard Gagarin. He’ll try for control again,” Phillips said plainly.

“One problem at a time,” I answered her. “Drayton, what are we facing now?”

“We’ve been burning for so long toward Sagi, if we don’t maneuver or get off now, we’re going to be trapped in its gravity well!” Drayton said.

That was a serious problem. “Why the hell were you cutting it so fine?”

“We had to get in quickly before they had chance to respond.”

The mysterious “them” again. Fine. I knew when to argue and when to move. If we were falling into a damn black hole, now was time to move.

It was a hundred meters to the nearest access tunnel, and two hundred meters up the shaft to the Hawk, all through zero-g with injured. And there were more hurt people down in the ring. Worse yet, the Hawk could only take 10 or so.

We weren’t going to make it.

“We need to get as many off as we can,” Frain said quietly. I guessed that he had done the same math as I just had. It was impossible to save everyone. In a stronger voice, he spoke, his voice resonating through the PA system. “All hands, abandon ship.”

Drayton reached for Tasker’s drifting body and awkwardly maneuvered her to the hatch. After the briefest of pauses, I launched myself unsteadily and helped her. The irony of the situation didn’t elude me. Suddenly, we were all working together to escape the ship.

“Major, start with those in the ring. Go!” I cried out to Phillips. “You, too, Frain.”

Frain looked at the console for a moment and then expertly pushed himself off and swept over, grabbing Tasker in one hand from Drayton, ricocheted of a wall, and disappeared down the hatch.

“Hawk, Team One. Prepare for casualties and evac,” Phillips said.

“Team One, Hawk. Roger that, but we’re going to have to lift soon or we won’t be able to pull away.”

“I hear you,” she answered, “but we have people to get off.”

“The landers?” I asked Drayton. We needed more ways to get people off than just the Hawk.

“One lander took damage in the battle, but the other is ready to fly,” she responded.

“Sounds like a ticket out of here to me.” I glanced at the holotank. The dark heart of the accretion disk was visible, a circle of blackness more like a marble than a hole.

Drayton nodded and then spoke into her com. “Anyone who can fly a lander, get to Quest and start preflighting.”

I was the last one to the hatch, and just before I went through it, I gave a final look at the holodisplay. I watched the strange planet hovering there on the edge of the event horizon grow larger. It was a distinct circle eclipsing the golden glow of the accretion disk behind. A graphic showed the cloud of KIs streaking toward the world. To one side I could see Gagarin, her engine firing in a long plume, striving to escape the gravity of the black hole.

And every moment, she was pulling away from us.







Chapter 57

Erebus

“I just need to know, can she fly?” Drayton asked. She cocked her head, listening to her implant. “Okay, we’re gathering up casualties and coming down to you.”

“What’s the word?” I asked.

Quest, the lander, is being preflighted, but she’s going to have to lift soon. She doesn’t have the delta-v of the Hawk.”

“Everything about this investigation has been touch and go,” I sighed, a sense of pragmatism washing over me. That lander was going to be the only way off this ship for a lot of people.

We were carrying the poor crew member who had been hit in the head between us, kicking off the walls as we did so. It was strange. Weightless didn’t mean massless, and it took lots of effort to redirect her momentum.

“Trent, thank you for helping to get these people off. They were trying to ki—”

“Sonia, later. And while you’re thanking me, you sure as hell are going to tell me what’s been going on.”

“Trent? Go private,” I heard Vasily say over my com. I glanced at Drayton, dropping my visor with my free hand, forestalling any response.

“Go ahead.”

“If Frain thinks he’s getting onboard my ship, he’s got another thing coming.”

Goddamn it, this was getting even more complicated by the second. “Captain, if he surrenders, we have to take him.”

“No fucking chance. Even if I wanted to take on the murdering bastard—which I don’t—he has the ability to sequester the ship’s systems from onboard, just like on Concorde. There is no way we will be able to protect against him.”

Reaching the access tunnel, I swung the limp body around and pushed my boots against the wall. It took far more effort than it should have to stop her momentum. Even more so because my bloody leg was still in agony. Stopping the motion with yet another jar to my leg, I began manhandling her down into the tunnel. This was taking too long. We had at least a dozen people who were unconscious.

“Captain—”

“Trent. He. Is. Not. Coming. Aboard,” Vasily barked.

I watched as Frain swept with agile grace the other way up the tunnel, presumably for a second person. He gave a slight nod as he flew by, concentrating instead on getting his crew out. A thought occurred to me—I wasn’t even sure we could stop Frain from coming if we wanted to. I flicked up my visor. “Come on, let’s get this lug to the lander.”

I’d deal with the Frain problem later.

***

Quest has to go—now!” the pilot transmitted. “We’re cutting it to the bone as it is.”

Quest was large, more than capable of taking everyone onboard and then some, but getting everyone aboard didn’t matter if the shuttle couldn’t fight its way out of Sagi’s gravitational well. I had given the man I was dragging to another, and I watched as they made it down the spinal corridor into Quest. They were the last two in.

“Go,” Phillips barked. “We’ll take the Hawk.”

Together, we watched the hatch rumble shut and heard the thunk of the heavy shuttle disengaging.

“You have four minutes to get in the Hawk and get gone,” Vasily announced, “or you won’t have the delta-v to pull out for a rendezvous.”

Yeah, well, there was a problem with that—we still had at least half a dozen back in the habitat ring and no chance in hell that we would get them out in time. I looked at Phillips, and she gazed back.

“I know, Layton. But they made their choice,” she said softly.

Gritting my teeth, I nodded. Don’t get me wrong; had I felt we could have rescued them, I would have, but we couldn’t. Damn Frain’s fool quest.

We pushed back toward the Hawk. Frain was by the hatch, shoving someone through. Within, I could see Sergeant Jamal guiding the body into the passenger cabin.

“Hawk’s ready to go,” the pilot announced. “Get onboard and haul ass about it.”

“You have your orders from Vasily?” I asked Phillips over the private link.

Phillips paused for a moment. “Yeah. Frain doesn’t get onboard Gagarin.”

“If he fights, we might not be able to stop him.”

“If he gets onboard, we might not be able to stop him, either,” she growled.

“Yeah, but we have alternatives. Look, let’s just get the bus rolling and sort it out en route. If need-be, we can lock him down in the Hawk until we get back to Earth.”

I saw Phillips’s eyes narrow. She was considering it. Fighting with Frain in the cramped confines of the assault shuttle would not be any good for anyone.

“Look, let’s just sort it out later. Vasily won’t turn us away.”

“Okay.” She flipped her visor up. “Everyone saddle up. Now!”

With one last look down the spinal corridor at the poor doomed souls still in the habitat ring, we pulled ourselves into the lander…

Along with Frain.







Chapter 58

Hawk

“Buckle in. This is going to be a hard burn.”

The strange golden view outside began to spin as the Hawk twisted toward the engine plume of Gagarin, which was still racing away from us. Gagarin would have to cut thrust at some point to allow us to board, and there was some math that went into the optimal time to do that, which I would leave to the professionals.

Once again, I felt the engines kick in, and I was smashed back into the seat. I watched out of the window as I saw the ballistic Erebus fall away from us toward the dark sphere of the hole. The engines on the Hawk were working hard to arrest our descent into oblivion after Erebus—and not doing a very good job of it.

Gagarin, Hawk. We have twelve onboard. Requesting optimal docking solution.”

Vasily’s face appeared on my HUD, interrupting the pilot. “Is he aboard?”

“Yes, Captain. We need to—” the pilot began.

“Space him. He is not getting on my ship.”

The atmosphere in the passenger bay became even tenser. Sergeant Jamal and Phillips looked like coiled tigers ready to launch at the slightest provocation.

“Captain,” I began, cutting across the pilot, “you know we can’t do that. Killing someone in combat is one thing; cold-blooded murder is another. We have to bring him back to answer for what he’s done.”

“If that man comes aboard, then he will subvert the ship. Simple. He is not getting anywhere near. And frankly, I’m none too happy with you, either. I’m tracking the over one hundred KIs inbound on that planet.”

“Yeah, that I get.” I cut the com and linked the pilot. “How long have we got before we reach decision point?”

“Minutes.” The pilot’s voice was tense. “We’re falling deeper into Sagi’s gravity well every second. I’m redlining the engines, but they’re not in great shape after that hit coming in.

“Just keep us moving,” Phillips interjected.

“Captain, please.” Vasily was a good man; I knew it. I just had to get through to him. “If you don’t give us the docking solution, twelve people are going to die onboard this thing. Too many have already.” The faces of Dana, the trooper, Mike, the man from the corridor, and those we were forced to leave behind flashed through my mind.

“I understand your concerns, Captain,” Frain broke into the private coms channel. It didn’t surprise me in the slightest he was able to. “You have my word that I will not attempt to subvert your ship.”

“Layton, I ca—”

A loud bang reverberated through the hull. “Goddamn it! Coolant system has just popped. We’re losing engine two. I’m going to have to throttle down,” the pilot barked.

I felt the pressure easing on my chest, but the ride was getting rougher.

“You keep your pedal to the metal, pilot,” Phillips shouted out.

“Hawk, what’s your situation? We’re showing debris coming from one of your engines.” Captain Vasily’s voice had gone from angry to concerned.

“We’ve got a malfunction in engine two. We’re losing it. It must have taken more damage than we thou—”

A loud crash cut him off. It sounded as if a demolition ball had slammed into the side of the shuttle. The view through the cockpit window started to spiral.

“The engine’s gone. Gagarin, you’re going to have to come get us,” the pilot shouted, fear in her voice.

“I’m sorry—” the captain murmured.

“Vasily, don’t do this,” I virtually shouted. “You’ll kill everyone on this ship.”

“You don’t understand. We can’t.”

“Can’t or won’t?” Phillips demanded.

“Can’t, dammit. The conventional drive won’t give us the delta-v to head in to get you, and we don’t have the precision on the A-drive. We stand as much chance of landing over the event horizon as not, and that’s if we don’t wipe you out when the A-drive bubble collapses.”

Our remaining engine was definitely running rough now. “Gagarin, we only have engine one. With our current cut thrust, we have less than sixty seconds before we reach the point of no return.”

“We can’t even yaw round in sixty seconds,” Vasily said. “I’m sorry.”

“Then we can’t make it out of the gravitational well,” the pilot almost whispered.

I felt the pressure easing on my chest. What the hell did we do now? I looked out the window, the malevolent black heart of the golden accretion disk just sitting there—the thing that would kill us.

“There is an option,” Tasker coughed. I looked across at her, strapped into the seat. I guessed that she had come round a while ago. “Erebus.”

Erebus is just as fucked as we are,” Phillips scoffed.

“No, you don’t understand. She has everything we need, an A-drive, a nano-fabricator. If we can repair her, we might just be able to escape.”

“But nothing escapes a black hole; even I know that,” I said.

Tasker gave a harsh laugh. “Last time I checked, no one had actually tried to use an A-drive to get out of one.”

“Yeah, but that thing is going to eat us up in a couple of hours.” I waved my hand toward the stern of the shuttle. “Are you telling me you can repair the A-drive in that time?”

“Trent”—she gave a bitter laugh—“you’re going to learn a thing or two about space-time. Probably more than you ever wanted to know. Get us back and don’t mess around. The clock is ticking.”

“Hawk,” Captain Vasily’s voice was getting quicker, like he was on a cocktail of helium and amphetamines. “We are getting to safety. We will stand fast for as long as we still have a coms link.”

Once again, the view spiraled as the assault shuttle came around to limp back toward Erebus on its remaining engine. Already the ship was little more than a dot.

We had so nearly gotten away.







Chapter 59

Erebus

Tasker got the habitat ring spinning, and we were back up to about one-third-g, which at least allowed us to work—something we needed to do damn fast.

One of Erebus’s engineers had hauled himself to the aft after telling us that the engine could only be fired manually now that Phillips and Frain’s fight had trashed the bridge. Still, the holotank was functional, though I wasn’t liking what it showed. On the screen was a wireframe image of a funnel. A blinking blue light, Erebus, was trickling down the side. I didn’t need Frampton to explain what it meant.

“We’re going to get a lot closer before we have the chance to get away, and the antimatter torch will only give us a little time,” Tasker murmured. I could tell she was working furiously, hands moving about like she was dancing as she manipulated her HUD’s virtual console. “And we are going to have to do this before we get spaghettified.”

“Spaghettified?” I mouthed at Phillips, who simply shrugged. I got the impression that Sagi wasn’t going to force-feed us pasta.

“Laser link with Gagarin is back up,” one of the techs called out. An image of our ship from the perspective of Gagarin washed across a screen wall. Erebus was back-dropped by thick golden clouds and glowing a dim red.

Erebus, Gagarin.” the voice was speeding up even more. I would have found it comedic if I didn’t know what it meant. “We estimate—”

“Buffer their coms and clear it up,” Tasker growled at Frain, who simply nodded and began his own dance.

Erebus, Gagarin.” The voice slowed to normal, and I recognized it as Captain Vasily’s. “We estimate eighteen minutes, your time, before we can’t maintain communications anymore. We are going to have a lot more time than you because of the dilation. We’re using it to crunch numbers. We will send our best escape solution to you. If you can fire any parts requests over to us, we can shoot them into Sagi after you.”

“Roger that. We haven’t had the chance to fabricate replacement parts after you took a chunk out of our A-drive. I’ll upload what we need,” Tasker said as she manipulated her console.

There was a delay of many seconds and then, “We have the component list. It’ll take us a few days.”

It dawned on me what Tasker had meant as we were plunging down toward the event horizon. Gagarin, and the rest of the universe, for that matter, was speeding up. Or we were slowing down. Whichever way you looked at it, they would have as long as they needed to make us replacement parts. The bottleneck was that we would not have long to actually fix the damn A-drive if they could get them to us.

“Everyone left, get out and start stripping out the damaged components. I don’t care if you’ve never done it. Buddy up and use your damn HUDs to walk you through it. Expect a care package shortly.” Tasker gave out the repair orders for her ship in short order. I was beginning to like the woman. She may have been a total hard-ass, but she was a competent one.

The graphic of Erebus began to spin, pointing us back toward the edge of the hole. I felt pressure build as the torch activated. Out of all the rides I had taken on this crazy journey since Sahelia, this was without a doubt the wildest. To escape, we were going to have to keep our orbit as wide as possible.

The forces we were going to be subjected to would be harsh, and I decided I was better off sitting. I found a chair and seated myself in it next to the battle-damaged Frain. Might as well get two birds with one stone. “So, Xander, seeing as we’re plunging ass-backward into a black hole thousands of light-years from home, fancy telling me just what the hell I’m doing here?”

He turned and looked at me. For some reason, in that moment, he seemed human, vulnerable. He gave a smile, but on his chrome-glinting, half-destroyed face, it was a sad reminder of his tenuous humanity.

“Victor.”

I blinked. “What?”

“My name is Victor. Victor Talbot. Frain was just my cover.”

“I can’t say I’m please to meet you, Victor.”

“Everything I’ve done, everything the people who sent me have done, Layton, was for the greater good.”

“Yeah, many of my predecessors in War Crimes had to deal with that line. Bottom line: you’ve killed a lot of people. At least tell me why, dammit. We’ve chased your arse half-way across the galaxy, and there is the very real prospect we’re both going to die in the next couple of hours. I don’t know what the fuck spaghettfication is, but if that’s the way I’m going to go, at least let me die knowing!”

Frain nodded. He was silent for a few moments before he spoke. “The gravity of Sagi will begin acting on the part of your body closest to Sagi more than the part furthest away. That’s how acute the gravitational forces here are. You will be quite literally pulled apart. Don’t worry. I imagine the ship will break up long before that, although I would suggest you leave your visor open just in case you survive the disintegration of Erebus.” He flashed me a wry grin.

“Yeah, well, thanks for that.” It was strange; I think I’d been through so much that not even the prospect of such a gruesome end was particularly raising my blood pressure. That, or it hadn’t quite sunk in yet. I watched as the graphic of Erebus slowly crept down the wireframe funnel of Sagi. “And not exactly what I meant.”

Frain looked forward, focusing on the holotank. “I don’t know everything, Layton. What I do know is that what happens here decides humanity’s future.”

I still couldn’t get my head around that thought. “What do you mean?” I prompted.

“What I mean is that the things living here, in this place, are going to make us, humans, extinct.”

“No one lives here! The place is a tomb,” I said incredulously. “There are some ruins and the remains of a gateway network but no one left to threaten anyone.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Layton. They’re still here, and they know about us. They have since Helios first tested the FTL gateway in Sirius decades ago.”

“Since Helios first tested the gate? You mean Helios started all this?”

Frain leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes. He’d clearly let something slip that he wasn’t supposed to.

“Look, Victor, you’ve seen this place. There is no one left. Whoever they were—whatever they were—they’re gone. You, Helios, killed those people and dragged us here for nothing.”

“No!” Frain’s…no, Talbot’s normally calm face was now angry, a scary sight when he literally glinted at me. “The intelligence all pointed to one thing. Someone from this system—from that planet, or whatever the hell it is orbiting Sagi—is the home base of something that’s going to kill us all.”

“So why not tell anyone? Why all the secrecy?”

“I don’t know!” Talbot held his hands up in frustration. “Maybe someone felt that knowing the sword of Damocles hung over humanity would panic people. Maybe telling would somehow speed things up.”

“Panic people? More than the destruction of a bloody moon?”

“You know what I know now. I had orders to destroy the FTL gateway network and Io. I was then told that I needed to speed up phase two of the operation—a first strike here, at Sagi.”

“And just how were you going to conduct a first strike?”

“If we were alone, then use Erebus the same way that Magellan was used. When you destroyed our A-drive, my only choices were to either commandeer Gagarin and use her to strike or drop every speck of antimatter I could on that world and hope that would be enough to do the job.”

I had to admire him; Talbot was relentless, a one-man weapon of mass destruction dispatched to end this alleged threat.

“And presumably Erebus and her crew…?” I gestured with my hand.

“Were always tasked with this job. She was at my disposal the whole time.”

Erebus…an E-ship…a Helios ship.

“Watch,” Talbot said.

He offered to link his HUD with mine to share what he was seeing. I was reluctant but finally decided, what the hell; I was likely dead anyway.

The KIs were sweeping toward the world, separated in a long line so the world’s very rotation would create an even spread. They were moving a lot faster in space than I expected them to. As we fell deeper toward Sagi, time was slowing more and more for us; thus, the missiles seeming to move faster. Then each of the blinking dots multiplied. There must have been hundreds bearing down on the small planet.

“We configured them as MIRVs,” Talbot said quietly. “Each KI will split into several missiles, each equipped with an antimatter warhead.”

A blinding light bloomed from the surface; the first KI had struck. Then the second. Then the third. A staccato of antimatter explosions smashed the world brutally. Within moments, nowhere on the surface of the planet would be unaffected by the horrendous power of the antimatter explosions.

Talbot leaned back and closed his eyes. “It’s done.”







Chapter 60

Erebus

“Those KIs back at Iwa,” Talbot said.

“What?” I was now little more than a fifth wheel, watching the bridge crew frantically working away. I could hear the coms chatter of the work pods in the golden space outside, desperately ripping the damaged components out of the A-drive.

“The KIs we fired at Gagarin, I ordered them to self-destruct,” Talbot said quietly. He was staring across the bridge at the holotank. “Just before we escaped through the FTL gateway. You were right; I never wanted to kill anyone.”

“Yeah, that didn’t help Dev, though,” I muttered.

“Who’s Dev?”

“A young cop who died a long way from home who just wanted to help people,” I said quietly. “Let’s just say the EM pulse from Io’s destruction came at a bad time and leave it at that.”

“I’m sor—”

Erebus.” Captain Vasily’s image appeared on the screen, interrupting him. Christ, he had a beard; only five minutes ago he’d been clean shaven. It must have been weeks for him. “The care package is underway. It’s at high burn and should catch up with you in less than two minutes your time.”

“We have less than three minutes left on the link,” the tech said.

Three minutes. Not much time. Like Frain, I had a mission, and it occurred to me that being stuck here didn’t need to stop me from completing it. Three minutes was long enough. I cached up everything that had happened and had been stored in my implants: every log, the total video recording of what I had seen and heard, including Frain’s, or Talbot’s, final confession.

“Can I send a message back to Gagarin?” I asked. “You know, for if we don’t make it?”

Tasker shrugged. “I don’t see why not. Even if we get out of this, God knows how much time will have gone by.” She switched on the general channel. “All crew, you may record a message for linking to Gagarin. Just be quick about it.”

I looked at Talbot. He knew what I was going to do, and he either didn’t care, or he wanted me to. Hell, even there and then, he could have killed me with a single blow. Our eyes met, and he gave the slightest nod before finishing his sentence from earlier. “I’m sorry.”

I just nodded back. It wasn’t my place to accept his apology, but I did acknowledge it.

Erebus gave a long echoing groan, and I looked up uneasily. The very ship itself was moaning in pain from the horrific gravitational differential between sections. Sagi was literally trying to pull us apart.

We didn’t have long.

I glanced around one last time, making sure I captured everyone on the bridge: Major Ava Phillips standing a couple of meters behind Victor Talbot, a Zen-like calm over her face. Captain Beverly Tasker and the other bridge crew of Erebus desperately working, fighting to the end to save her ship and us. Sonia Drayton, pale, afraid. Maybe this last image would be seen by their families back home. Maybe it wouldn’t. Erebus would be frozen in time on the edge of a black hole just as her namesake had been frozen in the ice of the arctic. I had no idea if we would ever escape our hell or if we would just disappear like the crew of the original HMS Erebus so many centuries ago.

On my HUD, I clicked send. Everything I knew, everything I had experienced since the start of this mess, was fired along the laser link back toward Gagarin and then home.

***

The crew of Gagarin waited for months, watching as Erebus slipped deeper and deeper into the space-time pit created by Sagi’s massive gravity well.

They had soaked up every bit of data that the trapped ship could send. Communications from Erebus slowed; every word drawn out, lasting minutes and then hours. Finally, there were no more words, simply static. Slowly, Erebus froze, becoming trapped in the amber of the black hole’s accretion disk before gradually fading out of sight. Even if the ship survived—even if the plan succeeded—it wouldn’t escape Sagi for hundreds of years.

As Erebus slowly sank into the black hole, Gagarin dispatched probes to the small dark world. Every inch of the planet was scarred and pockmarked. Vast craters rent the surface. Whatever had been there, whatever Frain had spoken about, must have been reduced to dust—if ever it had been there.

Finally, alone, Gagarin turned and headed for the FTL gateway. The crews that both Erebus and Gagarin had dropped to get the FTL active had long since signaled that it was back online and functional. As the FTL gate powered up, as the beam of light lanced out of the pagoda, at the point of commitment to the gateway, the sensors of the Gagarin heard it.

A radar pulse of incredible power burst forth from the dark world circling the black hole.

Something was still down there.













PART THREE 2202 CE







Chapter 61

Earth, San Diego

Curt Paskett’s mind-eye was filled with a cascade of data. He could access everything about the vast organization that was Helios simply by wishing it.

But some things were still done the old fashioned way.

“The second-quarter fiscal report is still showing a downward trend across the powersat industry. We need to get some traction in the antimatter sector, or we’re going to fall out of the top five providers.” Chad Struber, the chief operating officer of Helios, grimaced.

None of this was new to Paskett. But hearing it articulated somehow helped him process it. He stood up from his imposing leather chair and walked to what he called his Wall of Memory, hands behind his back. There hadn’t been many new additions to it in recent years. Somehow the newer things he, and Helios of course, had championed didn’t hold a torch to the glory days of his youth. Ha, youth. I was older physically then than I am now! he scoffed to himself. He looked at the small model of Endeavour. She looked quaint, modular, a direct descendent of the first spacecraft like the Apollo craft, Zheng He, and Trident, which had tentatively pushed out from Earth centuries ago. He still burned with pride that Endeavour was out there, even now on a quest, which the crew didn’t know the half of. And his old friend Marcus Caison, of course.

Framed in the corner was the quote that had driven Endeavour’s first forays into space, the Fermi Paradox: If aliens exist, where are they? Except now, he knew the answer—or at least, part of it…

…and wished to God that he didn’t.

“Curt?”

“Sorry, Chad, just thinking.” Paskett snapped to. “Get downstairs and work up some options. It’s about time we start considering downscaling the sats anyway. They’re vestige—”

“Curt? Sorry to disturb you.” A hologram of Kailee Somers, Paskett’s PA, appeared in the center of the room.

“What’s up, Kailee?” Paskett asked.

“There are some people here to see you. They say it’s urgent.”

“Do they, now?” Paskett turned and looked at Chad, raising one eyebrow. Kailee was a formidable woman and took her job of controlling access to him very seriously. If someone uninvited even got her to the stage where she would bother bringing this to his attention, it probably really was urgent. Still, psychology 101 had to be played. “Sit them down. I’m just in with Chad. We’ll be done in thirty minutes.”

“Sorry, they say it has to be now. And they want to see Chad, too,” she said, an apologetic look on her face.

Paskett flicked his piercing, electric-blue augmented eyes back to Kailee’s hologram, and he gave a nod. “Very well.”

“Time to pay the piper?” Chad asked, standing up and straightening his tie.

“I think it may well be. Ready?”

“We knew it would be any time now.”

Paskett nodded. Chad took up a position next to Paskett’s desk as a knock came at the door. Before either man could answer, it opened, and four figures pushed past Kailee. She glanced apprehensively between the visitors and Paskett. He waved his hand for her to close the door, which she did hastily.

Two of the visitors he knew. After all, he’d been briefed who would be coming for them. The other two in uniform he presumed were the muscle.

“Colonel Cheng, Joan Vance?” Paskett nodded at them. “And your friends are?”

“They signed in. Your secretary has their details,” Cheng said as he entered the room and stepped down the two steps into the office proper.

“For God’s sake, don’t let Kailee hear you call her a secretary,” Paskett smiled.

“How about business before banter?” Vance said coldly. “Chad Struber, you are under arrest for conspiracy to murder 168 people in the Io Incident of 2183, which includes personnel on Io, personnel in an unregistered base, and other collateral damage. You’ll also be booked in for felony criminal damage to Concorde and, just for icing on the cake, defrauding Sarin Space Insurance to the tune of one hundred and seventy billion dollars pertaining to the alleged theft of the Erebus explorer ship. And those are just the highlights; there are quite a few other matters to deal with, too. I’m sure my friends here,” she gestured at the two officers, “can read you your rights on the way downstairs.”

“Well, best get going, then,” Chad said. The officers exchanged looks. They clearly hadn’t expected this amount of compliance.

“Ms. Kinsella will send one of her legal team down to the station. Would you be so kind as to let Kailee know where you’re going on the way out?” Paskett asked of the officers who were moving to flank Chad.

“That they will,” Vance said as the three people walked out the doors. “But I think we need to have a little chat, too.”

“Of course.” Paskett gestured over to the couches in one corner of the room. “Drinks?”

“Thank you, but no,” Vance said, settling into one of the sofas and crossing her legs. “I presume you know what this is about?”

“Me?” Paskett lowered himself into the opposite seat. “No. Well, not other than what you said you were locking up Chad for.”

“What do you know about the Io Incident, Mr. Paskett?” Vance asked.

“Why don’t you tell me what you think you know about it? And call me Curt.”

“I think Mr. Paskett is just fine.”

“Fair enough.” Paskett leaned back, opening his hands in a supplicating gesture. “So tell me.”

“I know that someone—who, as far as we’ve managed to trace up the ladder, was one Chad Struber from Heavy Helios Industries—activated some kind of off-the-books operation,” Vance began. “He recruited a medically retired veteran of the Siberian War from the U.S. Army, a former special forces soldier from the First Special Forces Operations Detachment—Delta, a.k.a., Delta Force, named Captain Victor Talbot. We knew him throughout the incident as the identity he assumed, Xander Frain.”

“Go on.” Paskett gestured with his hand.

“Struber paid a not inconsiderable sum of money to put Talbot back together again. After Siberia, there wasn’t much left of him after he’d stood a little too close to a grenade. Struber also upgraded Talbot’s already formidable enhancements to the best money could buy—and a few that money couldn’t—then dispatched him to hijack an A-drive liner. He slammed that liner into Io, destroying the moon and an alien artifact. He then boarded Erebus, which already had Struber’s handpicked crew aboard, and escaped to Sirius. Somewhere along the way, Struber persuaded his former protégé, who had taken a position as a Red Star senior troubleshooter, to act as a double agent. In the process of their escape, my friend, then Major Cheng, sustained substantial injuries. With me so far?”

“So far. And I’m glad to see you’ve recovered, Colonel.”

“Thank you.” Cheng’s eyes were hard, none of his old twinkle present. “It only took years of grueling therapy…oh, and some rather painful surgery.”

“Wonders of modern medical science,” Paskett nodded. “Sorry, go on.”

“From Sirius, Talbot took Erebus to a secret facility on a moon of Akarga. That secret facility, it turns out, was authorized to be created and staffed by…can you guess?”

“Would that be Chad?”

“Bravo. Well, this is where it gets even more interesting because that facility contained another alien artifact, only this one was a fully active FTL stargate. Talbot used it to flee to Sagi, a star system that, as far as we can gather, is sixteen hundred light-years away. It contains a black hole, and Talbot seemed rather intent on destroying a planet there. That’s where things get a little sketchy. Erebus, and the people still aboard her, including Talbot, an Interstellar List special forces team—”

“And a friend of mine, Layton Trent,” Cheng interrupted.

“—and Layton Trent were last seen plunging into that black hole,” Vance continued. “Luckily, a good portion of the surviving crew from the Erebus returned last year with the Gagarin and are quite willing to testify that one Chad Struber authorized everything. There was also a confession sent from Erebus before she was lost, from Talbot, implicating Helios. Unfortunately, the last act of rebellion from one of the survivors that Gagarin recovered was to detonate a booby trap Talbot had set in the alien gateway facility on Iwa, vaporizing it.”

“A great story.” Paskett reclined back in his seat. “And do you have any idea why Chad would have ordered this…rampage?”

“Not a clue. That’s where you come in. Time to tell us what’s going on.”

Paskett stood and walked back to the Wall of Memory. His eyes glanced over the models of the powersats, Endeavour, and other space hardware. He didn’t even linger as he usually did on the picture of the Endeavour Twelve, the first men and women to travel to another star. Instead, his gaze came to rest on his quote. The quote.

He knew this day had been coming for a long while. He turned around to face them. “It is indeed time. Time for you to see for yourselves; time to come with me.”







Chapter 62

Earth, San Diego

The glass elevator car raced down the side of Helios Tower. Three occupants silently watched the darkening vista of San Diego against a band of pink along the horizon until the car plunged underground, heading deep beneath the surface.

“We may not have enough to arrest your ass yet, but there’s only so much screwing around we’re going to take, Paskett,” Vance said coldly.

“You want your answers, you’ll get them.” Paskett looked at her, his electric-blue eyes boring through her. “But some things have to be seen to be believed.”

The car slowed to a halt and the doors opened. The corridor beyond was industrial, full of pipes and dull metal panels, far away from the cosmopolitan glory of the rest of the superscraper. A hovering spherical drone zipped up to them, menacing prongs pushing out of the surface. As it hummed in place, a laser light swept in a horizontal line down across Paskett’s face.

Satisfied, it turned to the others.

“It will need to take a blood sample. Don’t worry. You’ll just feel a nick,” Paskett reassured them.

“What is this shit?” Vance barked.

“Where we’re going is of the highest security. The air in the vault is laced with nano-dissemblers. Unless your DNA is logged into the system, they will quite literally pull you to pieces. I suggest you let the sentry take a sample.”

“Weaponized nanotech is illegal, Paskett, and not just a little bit. You could go down for a long time for this alone,” Vance said, presenting her forearm to the drone.

“You mean the U.S. government has never used it?”

Vance just scowled.

The drone swiftly jabbed a needle into each of them, turned, and darted away into a nook.

“We can continue,” Paskett said.

“Right,” Vance murmured, rubbing her arm where the sentry had pricked her.

Their footfall echoed along the corridor as they made their way to an imposing solid metal door. It slid open almost soundlessly, belying its heavy appearance.

“Welcome to the vault,” Paskett said as he marched in. “In here is the most valuable substance on the planet.”

The room was small, all metal and pipes save for a view screen taking up the far wall. Before it, lodged in the center of the room with a railing around it, was a single cube of opaque material a meter square, just transparent enough to see a piercing light within.

“And what are we looking at?” Cheng’s eyes were twinkling again, only this time from the light within the cube.

“Project Oracle…the future.”

Cheng rested his hands on the railing surrounding the…thing. “I think you better start talking.”

“Thirty-five years ago, Helios found an application for three pieces of technology: the measurement of eigenstate particles, hypostate materials, and long-burn antimatter torches. All were key to Project Oracle.”

“Sounds fascinating, Paskett. But what does that mean?” Cheng crossed his arms, turned, and leaned up against the rail, looking at Paskett with a fixed stare.

Paskett suppressed a smile. It was the same look Cheng had used when he’d interrogated the people on Hibernia Station. Instead, he went on. “The measurement of eigenstate particles means that we can observe quantum interactions across vast distances. The problem is they are garbled; we can send nothing but static. We call it decoherence. Still, this had its uses. It allowed the gateway network to be established, for example…with suitable engineering behind it, of course.”

“Of course.”

“The second piece of technology,” Paskett continued, “hypostate materials, was only brought about by nanotech. We could create a supersolid-state frame to place our quantum-entangled particles in. This freezes them, if you will, curing the decoherence problem.”

“I may be being a little slow here. Do you mean that you can communicate faster than light?” Vance asked.

“Ha,” Paskett said, reaching out across the rail and caressing the surface of the cube. It was smooth and cold to his touch, despite the glow, and it felt…almost as if it were humming, though it made no sound his augmented ear could pick up. “We thought bigger than that. Even with Helios resources, we could only create one of these. This single cube is valued at over fifteen percent of the net value of Helios. Countries have smaller GDPs than that. No, it couldn’t just be used to chat with one of the colonies. It had to be put to better use.”

“Oh, and what’s that?”

“The third piece of technology was a long-burn antimatter torch,” Paskett continued, ignoring Vance’s question. He would not rush this; it was too important. And he’d failed so many times before. “We could burn an engine at two-g for six months. I’ll do the math for you. That takes us up to light speed. Well, just below anyway.”

“This is all very fascinating, Mr. Paskett, but can you please get to the point?” Vance asked. She looked older than she had in Trent’s file. Maybe it was just the stern look furrowing her face. Or maybe it was the events. God knows all this sometimes made him feel old again. He went on with his script. He’d prepared for this moment for a long time.

“Something at that speed, for instance, a starship, is subject to relativistic effects. Time passes a lot slower for it than for us. Yet something quantum-entangled remains in real-time communication with its bonded particle. Assuming the decoherence problem is solved, we can actually communicate with whoever has the other end of our entangled particle. Move our particle a little to the left, that means one thing, a little to the right, another…”

“And you can transmit to it.” Cheng turned to face the cube again, spreading his hands out as he held the rail.

“Exactly. This cube contains one half of a quantum-entangled pairing. The other half was mounted on a probe and sent on a relativistic loop to return to the solar system. It came…or rather comes home—I struggle with the tense—one thousand years from our perspective in the future. Subjectively, a mere ten years for the Oracle probe.”

“Jesus,” Vance exclaimed. “This thing can see into the future?”

“Yes. The ultimate inside knowledge. The probe, Oracle, had every sensor we could pack into it. We could use it to see what the solar system looked like in a thousand years. We could use that information to invest for what we needed when we needed it to give Helios the edge. That’s why it was such a secret. If anyone else got wind of it, they could do the same. Only what we found, well, do you want to know what it shows?”

“I think,” Cheng said, turning to look at Paskett, “you know we no longer have that choice, do we?”

“Oh, you have a choice. You can say no. You’ve arrested Chad. Hell, you’ll probably arrest me. I know what will happen if you go down that route. I’ll never see the light of day again, but you’ll never get in here again, either. You’ll never know why all this is necessary.”

“Show us,” Vance said.

Paskett gestured at the screen, which blazed to life. A starry vista was visible.

“Welcome to circa 3150 CE. The future,” Paskett said. He knew he couldn’t keep the bitterness from his voice even if he’d tried. “Want to see Earth?” They didn’t; they really didn’t.

Cheng hesitated long enough to raise an eyebrow. “Yes,” he said.

The image flicked to that of a world, cracks of fire spread across it, stretching from the day side to the night side. No blue or green remained. Earth looked as lifeless as the moon. Sparkling around it was a ring like that of Saturn’s, a vast halo.

“My God, is that…?” Cheng whispered.

“Yes.”

“And the ring?”

“The debris of space cities. The elevators.” Paskett shrugged. “Bodies. Here’s Mars.” A cloud of tightly packed rubble appeared, glowing from a fire deep within. “Perhaps you would like to see Jupiter?”

The screen changed to a shape like an American football, streams of red gas wisping from it.

“What the hell happened?” Vance breathed; she was leaning on the rail.

“We didn’t know, at first. We got these images but no context. But then we got a message from this guy, who I’m sure we’d all agree is rather handsome.” Paskett’s forced attempt at humor fell flat, even in his ears.

Paskett’s face appeared on the screen. He began speaking. “We know you’re watching. This is you, Curt. I’m gone now. This message has been left in a time capsule, hidden to await the return of Project Oracle.” Paskett—the here and now Paskett—paused the image to give Vance and Cheng time to digest.

“I’m not sure what I’ve been smoking here,” Vance said, regarding the still image, “but that’s you, from a thousand years in the future?”

“Yes.” Paskett unfroze the clip.

“If you are getting this, Oracle has seen what has happened here. I know you’re wondering what caused such…devastation. Sol and the whole of human space—an empire that stretched twenty-five light-years in every direction—is gone.”

The other Paskett leaned back in his chair, gazing at them. “They are, were, a Sleeping Ones race—or their remnants, anyway—a term that only means something to you when Endeavour returns from the Mizar and Alcor system. The Sleeping Ones comprise many races throughout the galaxy that have evolved beyond the mere physical. Once a race joins the Sleeping Ones, they hide. The race that did this was on a planet orbiting the black hole, Sagi. Most of the Sleeping Ones are harmless. Don’t get me wrong; they would defend themselves with overwhelming might, depending on the race that evolved into them, but by and large, they would stop at simple defense.

“The Sagi race was different. It colonized much of the galaxy thousands if not millions of years ago. They mastered FTL gateways, seeding them, like the ones on Io, Iwa, and dozens of other places in the territory now claimed by humanity. They expanded prodigiously like we did with our gate network. Then, like every race, they simply evolved. Their empire shriveled and contracted to one place—Sagi.

“There their race went in a new direction, becoming introspective, creating their own reality within the vast supercomputer that orbited the black hole. They thought big, you see. Those black holes are rents in the universe. Properly manipulated, black holes could eventually be used to colonize the very substructure of space-time itself. They wouldn’t just live to the end of the universe…they’d live beyond.

“But the Sagi race may have made a mistake. Or perhaps it was intentional; we simply don’t know. They left a Watcher—something to protect Sagi. This Watcher was activated when we first tested the Iwa FTL gateway. Unfortunately, that’s a fixed point now. It happened before the Oracle project was activated. If I could, I would simply tell you not to succumb to the temptation to use the FTL gateway. But that is not an option anymore. By the time you watch this, it would have already happened.”

“The Watcher attacked human space in 2320. We tried reasoning with it, fighting it, retreating from it. Nothing worked. Your first thought may be, ‘We will simply build a fleet and kick its ass.’” The other Paskett gave a sorrowful smile. “It won’t work. The Watcher is as far beyond us as we are beyond Neanderthals. It simply smashed everything we could throw at it.”

Vance and Cheng were paying rapt attention, their eyes riveted on the image, their pupils large and dark, just like Paskett had done the first time. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes as he listened. He’d watched it enough that he could have given the speech himself…and perhaps he would in the future—his future.

“And so we find ourselves here.” Paskett mouthed the words with the other Paskett. Yes, he, too, found himself here at his own crossroads, just as the other Paskett had once upon a time. Paskett pursed his lips as the image droned on. “It’s your turn to try something new. You can change the future. We know that much.” The other Paskett leaned forward in the view. “How do we know that? Because my time-line is at least the twentieth time we’ve been round this loop. Oh, I don’t know whether the first Paskett who bothered to count the loops and leave a time capsule was actually the first; he was merely the first to start the count. You are Paskett number twenty-one.

“Attached is a file that shows everything we have tried to stop the Watcher. It’s your turn to try something different. It’s up to you. I’d start by destroying the FTL gateways. One of them is on Io; another is on Iwa in Sirius. Or maybe you could try taking the fight to the enemy.”

The image paused again, and Paskett looked at those in the room. Vance, ashen-faced, Cheng, leaning forward, thinking, processing what he was seeing.

“So,” said Paskett, “you know I took that advice. We attacked the Watcher before it was ready to strike us.”

“And we tried to stop you,” Vance murmured. “Why didn’t you tell us? We could have helped.”

“No, you wouldn’t have. That was tried on several…previous loops. We saw that on the attachment. It was comprehensively fucked up every time we tried to get someone else involved,” Paskett said as firmly as he could, perhaps a little too much so. He sounded angry, and he couldn’t afford to be angry—this was too important. With a determined effort, he put on his most professional voice. “We had to try a different take, striking them in secret before a dozen nations got involved, tugging things one way or another. In one version, sharing the information paralyzed the world into indecision. I couldn’t tell you how many times the file says I’ve been arrested for breaching the OST and the problem was simply ignored. I assure you, spreading the word was my first instinct, but the file proves that wasn’t the way. This time, we went the other way. No grand fleet would be constructed, no diplomatic overtures. A quick, clean surgical strike. Destroy the Watcher with an A-drive assault or, failing that, an antimatter bombardment.”

“So what now?” Cheng asked, turning from the screen at last. “Have you stopped them? Or just fired the first shots in a war?”

“You misunderstand, Mr. Cheng. It won’t be a war. The word war implies we are going to be able fight them. No, it will be an extinction event as inevitable as when an asteroid struck the Earth during the time of the dinosaurs.”

“The question still stands,” Cheng said.

“Honestly? No, Colonel, I don’t think we’ve stopped them. That final EM pulse Gagarin registered suggests the Watcher is still…alive. I just think we’ve brought ourselves some time while it repairs the damage Talbot inflicted.”

“And what do we do with that time?” Vance asked.

That was the question, wasn’t it? Each Paskett had tried something different, and now he was running out of ideas. They needed to know more. “We need to build up our capabilities, learn more about the Watcher. Learn to stop it.”

“And you are going to do that on your own?” Cheng looked at Paskett.

“I will have to.” Paskett waved at the Oracle screen. “The attachme—”

“Told you what would happen at the start if you sought help. Things are different this time. You have shown the Watcher humanity can strike it,” Cheng said earnestly. “Let me be clear, Paskett. You’ve played us for decades. I don’t like that, but I understand your reticence, based on the intelligence you had. But now you need allies.”

Paskett went up to the man. The surgeries had been good. Only a faint line or two showed at Cheng’s hairline. His nose was different from the images Paskett had watched, but other than that, he looked the same. Paskett looked straight into Cheng’s brown eyes. “Why do you think I’m speaking to you?” Paskett looked over to Vance. “To both of you?”

Vance shook her head. “We’re middle-ranking officers from two different nations. You need true power players to guarantee humanity’s survival.”

Paskett lowered himself onto a bench at the side of the room. He felt very weary again. His face was that of a man in his midforties, yet the weight of responsibility aged his features. This was too much for one man. He gave a deep sigh. “It’s been a relief to tell someone after all these years.”

“Yes.” Vance leaned on the railing surrounding the Oracle block. “But if we are going to do something about this mess, we will need players on the team.”

“And those players need resources,” Cheng added.

Paskett closed his eyes briefly before opening them and looking at Vance. “Yes, I guess we do.”







Chapter 63

Earth, San Diego

“You—you’re responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, for the Two Great Cacophonies,” Patrice said. There was no venom; it was a statement of fact.

“Yes.” The host, Paskett, looked again at Vance and Cheng, who had been seated quietly in the corner while the others were watching Trent’s testimony.

“It is…unforgivable,” Patrice said. “You must answer for it.”

“Yes, it is.” Paskett looked around the table. “And yes, I will. I promise that once we confirm that this situation is dealt with—that we are safe, that humanity is no longer under threat by this Watcher–then I will turn myself in.”

Paskett stood, walked to the window, and gazed out. “I have called you here because I have done what I can. I have given us time. Time to come out with a longer-term solution.” Paskett turned and looked at them. “I need your help for that. From all of you.”

The people in the room looked at each other. Some were the heads of nations, others were the chief officers of the vast corporations that, if anything, held even more power, both in-system and out. Yes, it was a testament to Curt Paskett’s standing that he could get them all together.

But now? They were being asked to ensure humanity’s continued survival against a threat that was millions of years old—and millions of years more advanced.





Epilogue

2334 CE

The dark world circling Sagi balanced precariously on the cusp of a black hole. This was not by accident or misfortune, but by design. Over long years, the craters left by Talbot’s bombardment flattened and faded.

That was when the work started. Slowly, the dust and metal that covered the shattered surface of the world began to reform. In the wake of the world that circled Sagi endlessly, a black cloud formed, a black contrail following in its orbit, stretching to millions of kilometers. The diameter of the planet shrank as a significant portion of its mass spewed away, unveiling a glowing sphere of crystal, lightning coursing through it.

Defying the intense gravity of the black hole, the tail of the cloud twisted and turned to stream toward the distant planet where the FTL gateway lay waiting. As the cloud approached, a beam of light shot from the top of the tower, striking the front of the mass. When light met dark, a pulsing flash flared, swallowing the darkness.

***

Something strange.

But what?

Consensus unclear.

The Linked explorer ship Unity was far from home in the AD Leonis star system. The crew felt no need for any of the pretensions of normal communication that their peers on Concorde subscribed to. Instead, they spoke as one single voice, all together, all the time.

The world they were orbiting, Sheehan’s Hope, had a small colony of Enhanced on it, and it was their last stop before pressing out to explore the stars of the gateway network beyond.

The bridge crew were reclined on their seats, eyes closed, the information from the ship’s sensors fed directly into their minds. It was a sedate environment; not even the strangeness of what they were seeing caused a physical reaction in them.

Receiving communication from Sheehan’s Hope.

Unity, are you seeing this as well?” The communication from the fledgling colony went directly into the Linked crew’s collective mind.

Yes, we are observing the anomaly. Is this a phenomenon sighted before? the Unity answered, quite literally. None of the Linked had to speak; the ship processed the crew’s thoughts and spoke in a single voice for them all.

“Negative, Unity,” the worried voice said. “I mean, we see some pretty weird stuff, but that’s to be expected from AD Leonis. It flares constantly. But this is definitely new.”

Whatever it was occluded the stars across a sweeping expanse of space. The source of it seemed to be the gas giant Renoir, fifth planet out from the star.

In a fashion typical of the Linked, Unity’s consensus decided what they would do quickly.

Sheehan’s Hope. We are going to investigate. Going to A-drive.

“Roger that, Unity. Be careful.”

Unity’s A-drive activated and the ship shot toward Renoir at half the speed of light. Minutes later, it crashed out of the Alcubierre bubble back into normal space.

The cloud eclipsing Renoir was vast, taking up half of the sky. Unity was a large ship, but suddenly it seemed small and insignificant compared to what lay ahead.

LAT activated. Resolving images.

Even the Linked crew were shocked by what they saw from the large aperture telescope. The cloud wasn’t composed of gas or particles—it was made up of ships…thousands, even millions, of ships. The vast majority were insect-like craft smaller than work pods, but interspersed through the cloud were much bigger craft, the largest of them dark, spherical behemoths that would dwarf any human vessel.

Sheehan’s Hope, Unity. First Contact Situation. Standby but monitor.

Something’s jamming the signal.

Go to laser link.

With deceptive speed, the cloud front surged, enshrouding Unity and blocking out the light of AD Leonis, the stars, and the ship’s laser link.

Laser link blocked. No response to First Contact Protocol greeting. Retreat? Yes, retreat.

Ponderously, the ship began to turn. Dumping heat frantically, Unity strived to get her A-drive back to operational temperature.

The ships, drones, or robots—whatever they were—had paused briefly, completely surrounding Unity in a bubble, leaving a small void around the vulnerable ship within. The pause was brief—then the cloud swarmed Unity.

Within seconds, the huge explorer ship and her crew were pulled to pieces by innumerable drones. The parts, both hull and human, were efficiently conveyed back to the larger lumbering vessels. Hungrily, they absorbed the material, and moments later, they excreted even more drones.

As one, the dark cloud descended next on Sheehan’s Hope, a world a mere sixteen light-years from Sol, so very far—and yet much too close—to Earth.

The Watcher was coming.




Author’s Note

I hope you enjoyed reading Erebus, a sidequel to Endeavour, as much as I enjoyed writing it. This has been a different take for me, wanting to explore people who aren’t necessarily the top-of-their-game operators that the crew of Endeavour were yet are nevertheless thrust into the Sleeping Gods universe.

One of the things I’ve tried to do is incorporate elements of my day job as a police officer into the story. There are long tracts of procedural stuff that has to be done and frustrations with bureaucracy. I’ve tried not to bog things down too much with all that, but I did want to give an impression of what future police might face.

It’s been enjoyable combining my two passions: policing and sci-fi. I’ve wanted to throw a few tropes out of the window; for example, cops don’t go around growling at each other melodramatically all day like the TV would have you believe. We have a slightly warped sense of humor (which I have definitely had to reign in a touch!), but most of all, we have a certain idealistic nature tempered by a touch of cynicism, which seems to be common across the board—and is something I doubt will change in the next twenty years or, indeed, the next two hundred. Sure, we can be grumpy, prompted by the occasional bad guy wanting to do bad things to us. And yes, we can seem arrogant at times. Because we don’t have all day to make a decision, sometimes we just have to quickly weigh up facts, hope for the best, and say, “Things are going to happen this way, and I don’t have time to explain why.” These are some of the characteristics that I have instilled in the main character, and I hope any colleagues reading this will feel I have done our profession justice.

Once again, I have tried to use existing or potential technologies and apply them to what I consider a fast-paced thriller. I firmly believe that one day soon, humanity will start to augment themselves—and not just the simple contact lenses, prosthetics and medical devices we have now, but elective enhancements. For example, it seems logical that rather than carrying around a cumbersome mobile phone, we will simply implant them in our bodies along with countless other apps.

There are countless stories about space combat, from WW2 in space such as Star Wars to the massive Dreadnaughts of David Weber’s Honorverse. All of them are great to read or watch, but I wanted to try something a little different. Even in modern fighter-plane combat, the winner of an encounter tends to be the person who “sees” the other first. I figure that the vast distances and the “geography” of space would give lots of opportunities for competing ships to jockey for that first-look position—slingshotting around planets, coming at an opponent from an unexpected direction. So in Erebus, I’ve played with this to offer something a little bit different than the norm.

Sadly, sometimes the pace of research outstrips the pace of writing a novel. An error in the book is that the black hole, Sagi, is actually now believed to be much farther away than the 1600 light-years originally thought. While I could have made up a new black hole, Sagi originally filled my requirements for the overall story arc. It was about the right distance away and was a devourer (which means it would provide a beautiful back drop for the final scenes). As much as it galls me to say as someone who prides himself on being as accurate as he can be with speculative fiction, sometimes one has to shrug and accept that dramatic license has to prevail.

Anyway, once again, I hope you enjoyed this book, and I’m setting to work on the third in the Sleeping Gods universe: working title—Endings.

I also have another project on the go, which is more of a contemporary thriller/mystery. Fear not. It will still entail a lot of sci-fi elements—I think you’ll all like it. And don’t worry; I won’t let it delay Endings!

Please leave a review (positive and constructive negative ones are always welcome) and feel free to add me on Facebook for updates or email me with any questions.

Email: [email protected]


Table of Contents

Acknowledgements

Prologue

PART ONE 2183 CE

Chapter 1

2183 CE—Sahelia, the Karen Cole Hospital

Chapter 2

Er Rahad

Chapter 3

Er Rahad

Chapter 4

Sahelia, West of Er Rahad

Chapter 5

The Hague

Chapter 6

The Hague

Chapter 7

Mediterranean Anchorage

Chapter 8

The Space Elevator

Chapter 9

Io

Interlude

Chapter 10

Haven

Chapter 11

Erebus

Chapter 12

Erebus

Chapter 13

Concorde

Chapter 14

Concorde

Chapter 15

Jupiter Space

Chapter 16

Calisto

Chapter 17

Hibernia

Chapter 18

Hibernia

Chapter 19

Hibernia

Chapter 20

Hibernia

Chapter 21

Hibernia

Chapter 22

Calisto

Chapter 23

Concorde

Chapter 24

Concorde

Chapter 25

Concorde

Chapter 26

Io

Chapter 27

Concorde

Chapter 28

Concorde

Chapter 29

Concorde

Chapter 30

Concorde

Chapter 31

Concorde

Chapter 32

Concorde

Chapter 33

Gagarin

Chapter 34

Io

Chapter 35

Gagarin

Chapter 36

Gagarin

Chapter 37

Gagarin

Interlude

PART TWO 2192 CE

Chapter 38

Gagarin

Chapter 39

Gagarin

Chapter 40

Twilight Garden

Chapter 41

Twilight Garden

Chapter 42

Twilight Garden

Chapter 43

Twilight Garden

Chapter 44

Twilight Garden

Chapter 45

Gagarin

Chapter 46

Gagarin

Chapter 47

Iwa

Chapter 48

Iwa

Chapter 49

Iwa

Interlude

Chapter 50

Gagarin

Chapter 51

Gagarin

Chapter 52

Gagarin

Chapter 53

Erebus

Chapter 54

Erebus

Chapter 55

Erebus

Chapter 56

Erebus

Chapter 57

Erebus

Chapter 58

Hawk

Chapter 59

Erebus

Chapter 60

Erebus

PART THREE 2202 CE

Chapter 61

Earth, San Diego

Chapter 62

Earth, San Diego

Chapter 63

Earth, San Diego

Epilogue

2334 CE

Author’s Note


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