Callsign J-KR2

“So, Raxxla?” I asked her before either of us dropped off to sleep. Her bare thigh was draped across mine, the warmth of her mound almost burning against my leg, a damp, sticky heat both a little uncomfortable yet at the same time not in the least unpleasant. An oversized quilt was draped over us, its edges trimmed with permanent magnets that stuck it to the deck of the compartment through the thin carpet, holding us down against the bed and preventing us from floating off the mattress in zero g. It wasn’t an ideal solution to sleeping in the absence of gravity, but it was cheap, effective and you didn’t wake up in the morning to find your face pressed against a hot conduit and suffering livid third degree burns.

She sighed in what I hoped was contentment after our exertions, threw an arm across my chest and pulled me a little closer. “Raxxla,” she murmured. “Why is it always Raxxla that people want to know about? Why not The Dark Wheel or the Club? At least they can be explained to some degree. With Raxxla you might as well ask me to describe what heaven is like. Or hell. Nobody knows.”

“Yet everybody has a theory. Max yanked pretty hard on your chain when you were about to go into greater detail back on the flight deck just before we left Garay’s.” I reminded her. “He ain’t here now, so spill.”

“Scholars have studied the myth around the word ‘Raxxla’ since ships mechanic Art Tornqvist mentioned it in passing over a thousand years ago in his personal journals, in the same breath as pirate treasure.” Mary whispered after a few moments probably contemplating how much trouble she might get in with her father. “Nobody thought much of it for centuries. The word Raxxla was spoken in the same tones as Shangri-La, Xanadu and Atlantis. Then a historian named Robert Holdstock brought it back to the attention of the public with his biography of Alex Ryder.”

“Remember Raxxla.” I hissed dramatically. Holdstock’s ‘The Dark Wheel’ was mandatory reading for any pilot and had been dramatized on vid by more or less every cinematic director worthy of the name, a cautionary tale of the dangers that await anybody who ventures out into the black whilst simultaneously a romantic glimpse into the life of a starship commander and the potential for riches and glory that await the bold and the brave.

“Aye. Remember Raxxla. Never before in history have two words been the cause of so much wasted time.” She laughed. “Later in his works he calls it ‘the mythical planet Raxxla’ and describes it as a gateway to other universes. Jason Ryder, Alex’s father, was allegedly a member of The Dark Wheel organisation, and was killed on the eve of mounting a serious expedition to locate the planet after claiming that he’d found solid evidence for the existence of Raxxla. It’s commonly accepted that he was assassinated to keep Raxxla a secret known only to members of what we call ‘The Club’.”

“The Club?”

“We know a little more about The Club than we do Raxxla, but not by much. It’s a collection of powerful people steering the course of human progress for their own profit, or so it is claimed.” She yawned. “One of Holdstock’s contemporaries, an investigative journalist by the name of Wagar, tried to blow the lid off The Club and their activities, but his writings were suppressed, written off as the raving fictions of a conspiracy theorist, and generally disregarded other than by obsessive conspiracy theorists, which suits The Club and their homicidal need to remain mankind’s anonymous puppet masters just fine.”

“So, getting back to Raxxla?” I nudged her before she could succumb to the urge to drift off into sleep after the under the quilt, on top of the quilt and even at one stage half across the floor exertions

“All we really know of Raxxla is that it’s a sibilant word spoken by two people separated by over eight hundred years. Anything else – what it is, where it is, what it does – is purely conjecture. Which may be why the subject draws the attention of so many fruitcakes. It can be whatever one imagines it to be.” She said, beginning to wake up again. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where you don’t know what the picture you’re trying to make is.” She tried to explain. I wasn’t a hundred percent sure what a jigsaw puzzle was other than an archaic turn of phrase used to describe an unsolved mystery, but I didn’t interrupt her for further clarification. “There’s lots of individual pieces, some of which can be connected, but some of them are just bits of colourful board that you aren’t sure even fit into the picture. I collect and collate the puzzle pieces for Alliance Intel and because I get a glimpse of everything that gets submitted by our operatives, I can make a guess as to what it might be that stands a better chance of being more accurate than anybody else’s best guess.”

“So what do you think it is?”

“My personal belief is that Raxxla is a Witch Space portal to Andromeda or perhaps another nearby galaxy, opened up by the Thargoids - or maybe even an unknown race - long ago to bridge the gap between their galaxy and ours, but nowadays closed off to them and guarded by Oresrians. The Thargoids are keenly aware of its existence, but don’t know its precise location, although it is widely believed that it is somewhere within humanity’s bubble. This is one of the reasons why they keep making incursions into our space. Meta-alloy plantations seeded throughout the galaxy and given time to mature is another, of course. Our colonised bubble has grown to encompass not only their blossoming meta-alloy fields, but also Raxxla itself.”

Andromeda, for those who don’t know, is a large spiral galaxy near to our own Milky Way, relatively speaking - about two and a half million light years distant. Andromeda is destined to one day (about four billion years in the future) collide with and merge with ours to create a supergalaxy that will be known as, you guessed it, The Milkomeda. “So if this Raxxla planet is in the bubble, how come we haven’t already found it?” I wondered.

“Before the jump drive, mankind had to travel through space in generation ships that took years to travel from star to star.” Mary explained, becoming more and more animated as she spoke. “Back then the bubble was just a handful of habitable worlds. Then the first hyperspace drives were invented and the bubble grew exponentially, which led to the discovery of alien life and triggered the first Thargoid war. Shortly after the end of that war, GalCop disintegrated and the formula for the fuel that powered hyperdrives was supposedly lost with it, so the bubble’s rapid expansion once again slowed to a crawl for about a century. Exploration looked inward, rather than outward, as exploring outside of the bubble became untenable – trips to distant stars took months and often led to stardreamer sickness.” More on that later, dear reader. “Then, out of nowhere, came the creation of the Frame Shift Drive – based on reverse engineered Thargoid technology - and galactic expansion once again began to be focused away from the bubble and out to distant regions of unexplored space.”

“Consider this,” she persisted. “Since the FSD was developed, mankind has dispersed significantly, scattered to the four winds by the ease and relative safety of long distance interstellar travel. Tourists are now able to visit the supermassive black hole at the centre of the galaxy with negligible risk to themselves and daredevil pilots compete to be the furthest to travel out into the empty space outside the Milky Way. We, as a species, are more divided and weakened than we have ever been since we broke the bonds that tied us to Earth and Mars.”

“What are you saying?” I turned to face her. “That the Thargoids allowed us to capture a functioning vessel so that we could create a device that spreads us out more thinly and makes us easier to conquer?”

“Why is that so difficult to get your head around?” She asked. “Think about it. They backed off for over a century to lick their wounds after INRA hit them with the Mycoid bacterium. This has given them the time to develop technologies to counter our military capabilities and given us time to get the FSD reverse engineered and operational. A decade or two later we’ve scattered our starships right across the Milky Way.

“Nobody looks inward to the less than one tenth of a percent of the galaxy that humanity’s bubble encompasses when there is ninety-nine-point nine percent of the galaxy still uncharted.” She continued. “Who explores the eight million square light year region of space and seventy thousand star systems inside the bubble any more? Humanity has expanded deep into the Pleiades and out to Colonia, which is twenty thousand light years from the bubble, and that doesn’t even scratch the surface of the unexplored ninety nine percent of a galaxy that contains another four hundred million stars. With all that uncharted space, littered with habitable planets and valuable resources that have not yet been exploited, why do the Thargoids keep coming back to this region out on a remote spiral arm where star density is relatively low, where they have already had their asses handed to them by both humans and the Guardian race before us? Why, if not for something that is important to them, important enough to risk death for?” Mary demanded. “There must be something in our itty-bitty bubble that they want badly enough to keep coming back for.”

“And you believe it’s Raxxla rather than meta-alloys.” I finished for her. She had a point. Meta alloys thrive in young nebulae where chemical density was high, not in regular space, and there weren't any of those in the bubble if you discounted the Pleiades and Witch Head nebulae being a part of that bubble.

“I believe the Thargoids - Oresrians, Klaxians, whatever you want to call them - came from Andromeda originally as explorers, using Raxxla as the conduit, and were trapped here for reasons we still haven’t figured out. There have been rumours of some sort of civil war between them, but that is again uncorroborated hearsay. The race of Thargoids that humanity defeated has grown in strength and numbers in the one hundred and fifty years since they were driven out of human space and are ready to fight their way back home, but we now stand in their way and the opposing race are using humans as a buffer zone to keep them away from the Milky Way’s side of that inter-galactic conduit.”

“So where is this mythical place?”

Mary laughed out loud. “C’mon, Joe, a girl’s gotta have some secrets.” She told me, digging me in the ribs with an elbow. “A slap up dinner and a couple of middling orgasms ain’t going to buy you my theories on where Raxxla lies. I may be easy, but I sure ain’t cheap.” She grinned. “I need to get some sleep. Max said he’d wake us up in four hours, and I would guess that after this chat and the sex we had before it that we’ve only got about three hours and fifty-five minutes of that idle time left.”

“Cheeky cow.” I laughed as she snuggled back in to my side. Middling orgasms? I lay awake for a while, thinking about her hypothesis. I knew that very little of what she had just told me was fact and was instead almost entirely supposition, that much of it was just her interpretation of what was going on based on the data that she was given. She could be right about some of it, but more likely – just like every other Raxxla hunter that ever was – she was probably completely wrong about a great deal of it.

I had done some basic research of my own regarding Thargoids under the principle of knowing one’s enemy and I knew that the word Thargoid was a term created by the human media to more easily describe the species. I was well aware that there were two opposing factions. Supposedly the Alliance had made contact with at least one individual of the Oresrian faction long ago, so some of Mary’s information would have come from historical records of those interactions. Whether the Oresrian delegate lied to make them look like the friendly, benevolent faction was open to speculation. What wasn’t open to argument was the fact that a Thargoid had never been seen in combat against another Thargoid. Whatever race we were fighting against was only concerned with sweeping humanity aside.

It was also widely rumoured that the Alliance had indeed obtained captured Thargoid ships from what they had been able to salvage, blag and steal from the collapse of the Galactic Cooperative and from those examples had managed to prototype a working frame shift drive in the late 33rd century by reverse engineering them. Rather than using this breakthrough to become the pre-eminent superpower, over and above the Federation and Empire who lacked FSD capability, instead the designs and prototypes disappeared from AIS laboratories and workshops and somehow found their way into the hands of the Sirius Corporation, who quickly established a monopoly on the technology that exists to this day.

Sirius conduct their business under a policy that makes their products available to whoever wants them, so long as they can afford them – an approach widely acknowledged as having prevented an intergalactic war for control over the technology. Was this down to ‘The Club’, as Mary called them, manipulating the trajectory of humanity’s progress? And if so, were they really a malevolent organisation, given the billions of lives that would have been lost, the decades of destruction and the hundreds of poisoned worlds that might have resulted had the Alliance themselves monopolised the invention? If there had been an intergalactic war over the licensing of the drive, then the Thargoids would surely have found a mankind weakened by years of internal conflict a total pushover? Perhaps ‘The Club’ were only concerned with saving mankind from themselves, and if that was so, and they had indeed been behind the assassination of Jason Ryder in order to keep the location of Raxxla a secret, then maybe the whole Raxxla mystery was something that we shouldn’t be meddling with in the first place.

The only thing that I had gotten from all this pillow talk was the certainty that we still had no real clue about what Raxxla was and no idea what the Thargoids were really after. It wasn’t the extinction of mankind, or they would be bombarding colonised planets from space with asteroids. I doubted it was an internal civil war as there has never been a report in recorded history of a Thargoid on Thargoid fight to the death. A desire to return home to Andromeda was as believable a goal as any, and using Raxxla as the device to make that theory believable was reasonable conjecture. That was the one thing Raxxla was good at – being anything that you want it to be, so long as you could plausibly jam it into whatever hypothesis you were promoting.

I rolled over, extricating myself from her arms as she snored contentedly beside me – well, presumably contentedly given her orgasms had been merely ‘middling’ – but sleep remained elusive. I couldn’t help the feeling that what we were doing was unwittingly going against the deliberate machinations and carefully plotted schemes of this ‘Club’, and that by doing so we were going to be causing big problems for somebody somewhere along the line. Hopefully that would not be by placing the future of humanity in jeopardy. While by no means an advocate of ‘The Club’, I didn’t want to be fighting against them when something in the back of my mind was telling me that they might not be the real danger here. Okay, they may have murdered Jason Ryder just before his Raxxla hunting expedition, but I couldn’t erase from my mind the suspicion that they may have had an overwhelmingly compelling reason to do so.

* * *


Getting in bed with Felicity Farseer?! She's like an old woman. Not bashing, but it DOES seem like a strange choice to get thirsty for. XD
Would you like to rethink that post after reading the entry?
The female character's name is mentioned in that entry, and it weren't Floss....
Well there's Mary, Max, the protagonist, Farseer...Either he slept with Mary (fun stuff, I want the X-rated version sometime), or I must be missing someone given the context of your response.
“Slow us to sub-light and drop back into normal space as smoothly as you can, please.” Farseer commanded.

“Now?” I asked as the speed wound down through sub-light to idle - thirty kilometres per second.

“No.” She said thoughtfully, studying her datapad and the readout of the navigation computer as she calculated exactly when to bring us out into normal space within scanner range of where she thought the target object would be at this point in time. After a few minutes she said; “Here is as good a place as any.”

I pulled the supercruise handle back from idle to off and dropped us into normal space, roughly two light years from LTT-182’s star. I glanced at the fuel gauge, noting with relief that there was plenty of juice left to jump to any of the main sequence stars within ten light years of our position.

“How long can we run silent in this crate?” Farseer asked.

“Maybe five minutes before I’d have to punch out a heatsink that’ll give our presence away on optical and IR like a firefly in a cave.” I guesstimated.

“Use the thrusters to get us moving a degree or two off this vector.” Max ordered. I understood why. Putting a ship in the direct path of an object travelling at a hundred thousand kilometres per second was tantamount to suicide. Despite space being big and in theory leaving us plenty of margin for error, it wasn’t worth the risk remaining on a course that could lead to a head on collision. “Once we’re up to speed we’ll shut the core down and drift.” He added. “If we all suit up that’ll give us a few hours before we need to warm the ship up again. The passive scanners can run off the battery pack to warn us if anything comes within range. Old smugglers trick.” He winked at me.

While the others clambered into survival suits, I busied myself with shutting the systems down one by one until just the passive scanner remained. There was enough air in the ship that oxygen wouldn’t be a problem for at least an hour, depending on how talkative everybody was, and an alarm would sound before the oxygen level in the ship’s atmosphere dropped into the danger zone for hypoxia. Similarly, the ship would retain a comfortable warmth for several hours before it radiated away into empty space.

There is a myth that space is cold and that everything freezes, which is true over extended lengths of time, but as there is no matter in space to physically conduct the heat away from an object, the Challenger would remain at a survivable temperature without additional heating for days, even in the interstellar region that we travelled through, where LTT-182 –the nearest star at two light years distant - was but a pinprick in the black. If the wait dragged on then we always had the option of opening an access panel in the shielding surrounding the power core and huddling around that to keep warm, but that was kind of risky, radiologically speaking.

In a few minutes we were about as invisible as we could get. Drifting deep in the depths of interstellar space, far from any sources of illumination, the Challenger was a tiny dark speck silhouetted against an even darker background. The small amount of radiation emitted in the form of heat would show up as a dull orange glow on an approaching ship’s forward looking infra-red scanner, but only if that scanner was pointed directly at the Challenger, give or take a few radians, and only if it was almost on top of us. My own passive FLIR was busy scanning the predicted approach path of the mysterious object, but was picking up nothing. Neither were optical sensors, which were theoretically sensitive enough to pick out a dimly lit object barrelling through dark space at long range and should at least sound an alert if something did come within close proximity.

Stray rocks and inert objects were the biggest danger. Icy meteorites could be seen, even out here in the deep dark, as the surface ice would reflect starlight with a decent degree of efficiency, but the first we’d see of a chunk of matt black stone approaching at an oblique angle would be when it came crashing through the windows. While we waited, each of us keenly aware of our own mortality, Farseer tutted and clucked and checked her calculations. Eventually conversations petered out into silence, so I put some music on while the hours slipped by. Soon, inevitably, some of the others started tutting and clucking over my choice of audio, but Farseer still fingered and glared at her datapad while nothing else worth mentioning happened. I cycled through the optical and IR screens, looking for alerts of changes in the readouts, but everything was exactly as it was when we had begun this exercise. Still Farseer descended into her own personal pit of doubt, checking, double checking and octo-checking everything that had put us in this predicament.

I glanced at the time readout on the scanner. “Still clear.” I muttered.

“We hit the window dead on.” Farseer mumbled. “It should have passed through this region of space sometime in the last hour.”

“Maybe, at some point in the last thirty years, it changed course for some reason.” Max shrugged.

“Perhaps it accelerated and has passed already. Or slowed and is still plodding towards us a couple of light years away.” I posited.

“Or it jumped.” Mary chimed in.

“Well, it’s mission over if it did that.” I said hopefully. “The residual eddies from a jump only last a few minutes before dissipating.”

“Give it another hour then we’ll start an active search in supercruise, like I suggested in the first place.” Max said, giving my seat a gentle shake as his way of saying ‘I told you so.’

Farseer looked at Mary and I thoughtfully, her eyes narrowing as she mulled over whatever was going on in that ancient, wrinkled skull of hers. “We’re not waiting an hour. Jump us to Jotunheim, Joe.”

“Want to tell me what’s going on?” Max enquired.

“I’m not sure, yet.” Farseer replied, scratching her chin thoughtfully. “Let me think on it for a minute. Bring the full spectrum scanner back online.” She told me.

“What am I supposed to be scanning for?”

“Just a minute,” she replied impatiently as she flicked through pages on her datapad. “Ah, there you are, you elusive little 6ugger.” She cast a compressed data file across to the navigation computer and I tapped my finger on it, decompressing it and uploading the search parameters into the optical scanner’s reference database.

I studied the analysis. “A cloud?” I asked, bemused. “We’re looking for clouds in space, now?”

“Just do it, Joe.” Max ordered. I had no idea if that was his libido talking or if he had already figured out what was going through her head, because I sure as hell didn’t.

Mary looked at me. “Clouds?” she mouthed silently. I shrugged and began the laborious process of bringing the ship’s systems back online. Once the reactor was back up to generating full power I jumped forward to Jotunheim, where I used the star to scoop a refilling of the fuel tank. The ship’s nav computer calculated that it would take days to get back to LTT-182 at the best speed for optical scanners to be able to look ahead and not miss anything. We didn’t have the fuel for that. I told Max this as I set course back to LTT-182 and pushed the supercruise handle to its best search speed of around seventy five percent.

“Are we on course?” Max asked me patiently, seemingly disregarding my concerns about running out of fuel. Perhaps there were main sequence stars not far off our path that we could detour to for refuelling. The down side of that approach was that each refuel would add more time to the search in time lost travelling back to the point where the search had to be paused due to lack of fuel. This whole exercise might end up taking days for us to thoroughly scan a narrow six light year stretch of space.

I nodded. “Yeah, but we’ll be dead in the water before we get anywhere near it.”

“I’ll take it from here, then. You go get something to eat. Fetch us some coffees back, will ya?”

“Do you even know what we’re supposed to be looking for?” I asked.

“A blast from the past. Literally.” He winked at me. “I’ll explain it when you get back. Milk, three sugars.”

I bounced my way in zero gravity back to the galley and made coffees for the four of us, returning after ten minutes with the sealed mugs and a couple of energy bars I’d found floating around in the back of a cupboard. Best before 3304, the packaging said but I doubted any of them would notice. It was only two years, and it did say ‘best before’ and not ‘use by’. I had crafted myself a ham and cheese sandwich from the refrigerator and ate it in the galley before returning to the flight deck. I was totally paranoid about eating out of date foodstuffs myself, but I had no problem at all with foisting the junk on other people.

They each grabbed a coffee and a bar. “You not eating?” Mary asked me.

“Not hungry.” I said, which was the truth seeing as I’d just stuffed myself with an illicit sandwich. “I ate earlier,” I winked at her as I sucked a gulp of hot coffee down.

“As the bishop said to the actress.” Mary smiled. Over our time together that had become our standard reply to any innuendo, whether accidental or planned

For hour upon hour we plodded through deep space, attempting to follow the track of the target object, whatever it was, the scanners searching for the cloud signature that had been programmed into them. The time passed by in mind numbing boredom. Mary played Scrabble on her datapad, Max read an old book on his. Farseer’s preferred method of passing the time got me within an inch of making me lunge for her throat. She just sat back, closed her eyes and alternately whistled and hummed along to the music.

What made it worse was that by straw poll my music had been canned in favour of a selection that came from Farseer’s datapad, spooky ethereal mood music that did nothing but make the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. I expected the ghosts of the thousands of ships crewmen and women lost in space to sweep through the flight deck at any time. Even Mary, lost in concentration as she fought the datapad for control of the triple word squares, was grating her teeth. I’m sure she was about to explode into a ‘For God’s sake play some kcufing Kylie!’ rage when the scanners beeped with a new contact.

Farseer leaned in over my shoulder to see what the sensors had detected. “Well, whaddya know!” she said with a brief laugh that sounded more like a phlegmy cough.

“What is it?” Mary asked, her face appearing in a dull orange glow next to the scanner screen, anticipating the exact same question that I had been about to ask.

“That,” Farseer began. “Is something so long forgotten that most people have never seen one before in their lives. Max?”

Max nodded. “Used to see them once in a while time when I was Navy, but not at all in the last twenty years. The plot thickens, children.”

“Will one of you stop speaking in riddles and answer the kcufing question?” I demanded.

“Take us to it.” Max ordered. “Fast as you can.”

“I hardly think time matters,” Farseer chuckled. “If it’s lasted this long it’s not going to dissipate any time soon.”

“Well?” I asked impatiently as we shot through space in supercruise. I kept a wary eye on the fuel gauge, which had dropped below halfway again.

“Are we sitting comfortably?” Farseer began with a smile.

I suppressed a groan. Boring story time again.

Last edited:
“Travelling through space is cheap, easy and safe.” Farseer told us. “Star to star travel can be accomplished in moments with the expenditure of nothing more than hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe. As a young pilot, Joe, I take it you have known nothing but the frame shift drive?”

“Correct.” I acknowledged. Oh noes, I realised. This was going to be worse than story time, it was going to be another bl00dy history lesson.

Farseer didn’t disappoint. “Once upon a time, man looked to the stars with wonder from a planet called Earth.” she began as Mary, scowling behind her, with her left hand, mimicked drawing a gun, putting it in her mouth and blowing her brains out the back of her head, throwing herself backwards like a zero-G rag doll before grabbing hold of a hand rail to halt her somersaulting escape from the flight deck. Farseer, totally focused on her own role as lecturer, didn’t even notice. “From the crucible of war came rudimentary chemical rockets similar to today’s steering thrusters that burned extremely explosive, highly toxic mixtures of dangerous chemicals that were barely powerful enough to allow them to escape the gravity of their own world. It took them decades to even reach their moon, and for another hundred years they explored no further than that, except with deep space exploration probes that still haven’t emerged from the Oort cloud of the Sol system which, as you all should know, is where Earth is.

“At the end of the twenty-first Century, the first Generation Ships departed Sol for the stars. Some of them are still out there, plodding their way at sub-light speeds through deep space toward destinations that they will probably find already colonised by man when they arrive. Most of them have already been located and had their settlers rescued, the ships broken up for salvage hundreds of years ago, thanks to the invention of the first drive that could propel a ship faster than light in the 22nd century.” Behind her Mary now had her head thrown back and was pretending to be cutting her own throat with the edge of her right hand.

“Can we move this along, oh, maybe a thousand years to something relevant to what we’re doing today?” I asked. Behind Farseer I could see Mary suddenly punch her fist in the air and mouth the word ‘Yes!’

“During the INRA-Thargoid conflict a team led by Effie Ratling figured out how Thargoid hyperdrives work and used those as the basis for a new drive that was a quantum leap over anything that mankind had fielded before.” Farseer said with a scowl. “INRA took over their research and by the year 3125 had ironed out the kinks – such as turning organic matter inside out – and put the drive into production, but with the collapse of GalCop fifty years later the top-secret formula for the fuel used to power the drive was lost. The next commercially available drive was rather imaginatively named the Type 2 drive, later to be further finessed into the Type 2B, which was so compact it could even be made to fit into the frame of a Sidewinder.”

“What you are looking at there,” Max said, pointing out the canopy to where a ghostly pale green shape illuminated in the light from the Grumpy Toad’s searchlights stretched up and away like a pointing finger. “Is the residual cloud remnant of a ship that used a Type 2B drive to jump into hyperspace.”

I was flabbergasted. A frame shift drive left a wake signature that disappeared in a few minutes. This cloud of gas had been here for…. “How long do they last?” I asked, gesturing at the cloud.

“Out here in the interstellar medium, away from solar winds and photon push, past the heliopause and the hydrogen wall, they could theoretically last for centuries before dissipating so thinly as to become undetectable.” Farseer shrugged, nudging me aside a little while she jabbed her way through the menu on the scanner’s touch screen. The legend ‘analysing signature’ appeared on the screen in blinking amber letters, then a list of rapidly changing numbers appeared.

“That’s an old piece of software that I’ve had since I was a student.” Farseer told me, tapping the screen as the numbers began to slow. “It’s the equivalent of a modern day wake scanner, but it is used specifically for analysing the cloud remnant that remains after a 2B jump. This was one of the drawbacks of the type 2B in comparison with the Quirium drive. Not only did it take longer to travel point to point – in some cases you could measure the journey time in weeks – but it also left a toxic cloud of waste behind that could be analysed by anybody with adequate sensing equipment and software.”

“Did it scan?” Max asked her.

“It’s just firming up the figures.” Farseer replied. “Decay figure of roughly six million minutes.” A few taps on her datapad answered what was about to be my next question. “That’s a little under twelve years, so the time frame is there or thereabouts. Directional assessment is in, but it’s failed to lock.”

“LTT-182 will have moved in twelve years.” Max told her.

“Yes, I know.” She muttered disparagingly. “I’m factoring the star shift in. Just give the app a minute to recalculate…..almost there….it’s not LTT-182, it’s Ross 446 which was almost on the same vector in 3294 as LTT-182 is today.

I glanced at the list of stars within jump range of the Challenger, but drew a blank at Ross 446. Farseer saw what I was doing and smiled. “You won’t find it on your nav screen, Joe. The 2B may have had a lot of drawbacks over both the FSD and the Quirium but it’s biggest selling point was that its jump range was very, very good, particularly if it was one of the military variants used in heavier ships, and according to the spectral analysis of the remnant, that’s what we’re dealing with here – a modified Type 2 Military Drive.”

“How far are we talking here?” I asked.

“Ross 446, twelve years ago, was one hundred and fifty light years from Jotunheim.”

“Jeez, kcuf a duck where can I buy one!” I exhaled.

“You don’t want one.” Max laughed. “Although A Type 2B could do that distance in one jump, it would take a couple of months to get there. A standard FSD does it so much better. Of course, the down side is that we now know we’re chasing a trail that was made a dozen years ago. Who knows what we’ll find at Ross 446, if anything.”

“Another thing we now know is that it’s definitely a human craft running an obsolete hyperdrive that we’re hunting, not a Thargoid sowing disinformation.” Mary pointed out.

“How did you know?” I asked Farseer. “How did you know to look for that kind of signature?”

“Clutching at straws mostly.” She admitted with a shrug. “Whatever we’re looking for didn’t seem to still be in sub-light transit between Jotunheim and LTT-182, so it must have jumped as Mary suggested. Then you said something about the wake of an FSD disappearing over time. We already know that the target ship or probe is trying to conceal itself from us, which would explain why it ventured into the interstellar medium - to make the jump unseen - and I remembered that the Type 2B drive was in service between around 3145 and 3290, which spans the time the Sarasvati was in service. I also reasoned that it would have to be a ship that predated the frame shift drive, as it was flying at high sub-light speed in its transit from normal space to the interstellar medium. If you had an FSD you wouldn’t need to do that because you’d have supercruise, and you could also rely on rapid wake dissipation to hide your jump.” She said, completing her explanation. “To hide a type 2B jump cloud you’d have to get out of range of the scanners of anything that might be in system. I took a chance and it paid off. What we have to hope now is that our quarry used the same approach when leaving Ross 446, and that any remnant cloud still remains intact enough to be analysed.”

“Have you got everything you need from that cloud?” Max asked Farseer.

She shook her head in response. “I can’t get the object mass to firm up. Maybe the cloud is just too old, or maybe this software can’t resolve that aspect – it was shareware and not a commercial product, after all. I’ve got the cloud’s signature stored so I’ll go on Galnet when we reach civilisation and see if there’s anything that can be done to recover it.”

“But we’re done here, right?” Max pressed. Farseer responded with a nod of her head.

“Okay. Destroy it, please Joe.”

“What? How?” I asked.

“Place this ship anywhere in the centre of that mist and activate your thrusters one at a time until the cloud loses it’s shape.” He instructed. “Spin in place, basically.”

I did as ordered, realising that by doing so I was destroying evidence of this marker, and preventing anybody in the future from repeating this pursuit, like dragging a tree branch over footprints to obliterate them from trackers. The propellant from my thrusters would mix with the cloud’s residues to contaminate it, and the jets would distort it’s form, making it impossible to analyse for anybody else who possessed Farseer’s legacy software and most likely prevent it from showing up on long range scans in the first place.

“Let’s go people,” Max ordered once I had finished, slapping his hands together like a thunderclap in the confines of the flight deck. “Plot us a course to Ross 446, Joe. We’re in hot pursuit, yee-hah!”

Last edited:
Over the course of a mind numbingly boring three weeks we followed the trail of decaying luminous green bread crumbs left by the mystery vessel, jumping here, there and everywhere while it mindlessly went on a tour of star systems containing listening posts built by the Galactic Co-operative almost two hundred years ago, every single last one of them either dismantled, orbit decayed into re-entry oblivion or floating dead in space. These listening posts were, if you can forgive the pun and with the exception of the one at Jotunheim, as deaf as posts.

Oddly, we did find new listening posts in the approximate positions where the ancient listening posts had once been. These were modern constructions, built by Sirius corporation sometime in the last decade. There were rumours that these were armed, or at the very least fitted with thermonuclear self-destruct mechanisms that turned them into unpredictable booby traps, but this was unconfirmed and probably an invention of a conspiracy theorist with an over active imagination. The question on all our minds was why put one in Ross 446? Why there? What was it listening for? Had Sirius just placed it there because that’s where Galcop had once placed one of theirs? We debated it for a while, came to the conclusion that we were just making wild guesses and moved on to more immediate matters, like hunting for the next Type 2B jump cloud.

Searching the interstellar medium for the next ghostly mist of radioactive, toxic jump residue was the time consuming part, but eventually Farseer figured out what our quarry was doing and we began to make rapid progress, the jump clouds appearing almost precisely where her calculations said they would.

Once we had an idea of what was going on and a rough estimate of how much time it would take to catch up with the target, we took a brief detour to drop Dan and the assault team back at their headquarters on Polecteri. Mary opted to remain aboard, which my ego tried to tell me was more to do with my scintillating company than the chase itself, but my common sense asserted that I was just a convenient plaything that she was using to stave off some of the boredom. There had been overnight stopovers at starports on the way, enjoyable meals at a couple of expensive restaurants, all paid for with Max’s AIS credit card. There were also a few noisy nights in hotel bedrooms - the walls on the Challenger weren’t that well insulated and metals conduct sounds better than most other mediums, so while aboard ship our romantic exertions had to be somewhat restrained.

The chase itself proved an incredibly dull and repetitive affair. It had become a monotonous routine of scanning sectors of interstellar medium one by one until a cloud remnant was located, then analysing and jumping. The only positive was that there was an end game in sight, that with each jump we were closing in on our quarry, rather than losing ground with all the time we spent searching for slowly dissolving needles in giant haystacks. Each jump took minutes to bridge distances that our target took weeks or even months to travel. Once we hit our stride the twelve year gap literally began to disappear, but Farseer still could not get a read on the mass of the object that was leaving the clouds behind.

“It’s got to be an unmanned probe of some kind.” Farseer asserted as we barrelled through the interstellar medium on our latest hunt for a type 2B drive’s jump cloud. “If it was crewed then half of them would have gone batsh!t crazy with Stardreamer sickness by now.”

“What the hell is Stardreamer sickness?” I asked.

“To cope with the monotony of spending weeks, sometimes months, in hyperspace jumps, the boffins at Sirius Corporation came up with a drug that you could take to help pass the time more quickly.” Max explained.

“Should have ordered some for this expedition.” Mary muttered. “Three weeks with you lot would try the patience of a saint.”

“It was expensive stuff,” Farseer added, ignoring Mary’s dig. “but it did the trick. It made a month-long hyperspace journey pass like you had taken a post dinner nap. I still remember the advertising jingle.

“A month in space ain’t quite the holiday it seems.” she began to sing. Mary rolled her eyes and stuffed her fingers in her ears. “Before a week is out you’ll be running out of steam. To make the time pass faster put this in your bloodstream. Stardreamer by Sirius – it works like a dream.”

“It was banned in the Navy because of the side effects that some people suffered after repeated long term use.” Max added once Farseer had finished embarrassing herself. “Paranoia, schizophrenia, intolerance of others, a tendency to fly into irrational fits of violence at the slightest provocation.”

“I get like that every couple of weeks.” Mary interrupted.

“Be that as it may,” Max said patiently. “Recovery from Stardreamer sickness involved a course of expensive, difficult to manufacture drugs that the sufferer had to use for the rest of their life. If the patient couldn’t afford it then they invariably ended up either killing themselves or going down for killing somebody whose only crime was looking at them the wrong way.”

“Sounds bad.” I frowned.

“It was. The stuff was banned when a helmsman on an Imperial battlecruiser decided to suicide by turning his ship directly into the jet cone of a neutron star.” Max said. “There’s a new and improved variant of the Stardreamer drug in the life support systems of modern ships escape pods. When the escape capsule is fired off into space it releases a gas that sends you to sleep until you are rescued, then when the capsule is unlocked it automatically releases the antidote and you wake up to find you’ve grown a huge, bushy beard and your clothes no longer fit because you’ve lost a couple of kilos.” He grinned. “The difference is you don’t dream in an escape pod, whereas depending on the personality type of the user, Stardreamer’s tablets could give you nightmares more vivid than anything you can possibly imagine.”

“Oh, I don’t know.” I smirked. “I once had a Doom / Debbie Does Dallas mash up of a dream that seemed so real I couldn’t get a proper boner for months.”

“When do you think you’ll get over it?” Mary asked. Oh, how everybody else laughed.

The nav computer beeped an alert. “Woohoo, we have a hit on a possible cloud type signature.” I informed Farseer, who was busy tapping keys on her datapad. “Not too far from where you said it would be, either.” I added, gently banking the Challenger onto the new vector. I accelerated to maximum supercruise, dropping out into normal space just a few kilometres away from the contact.

“Cloudbusting now.” I announced, a term that Mary had come up with for the procedure of activating the analysis software and waiting for it to arrive at a solution. She claimed the term was loosely related to the Heathcliff/Cathy thing that was still going on between us, but I still had no idea what she was talking about. Whenever the term was mentioned she’d start to sing in a squeaky falsetto; “Every time it rains, you're here in my head like the sun coming out. Ooh, I just know that something good is gonna happen.”

“Interesting.” Farseer whispered as she leaned over my shoulder. “Max, you’ll need to take a look at this.”

My boss pulled himself across from the other side of the flight deck by the hand rails bolted to the Grumpy Toad’s ceiling. “Whats up?”

“The analysis shows a decay time of just under twenty thousand minutes. That’s roughly two weeks.” Farseer clarified. “The destination vector points to a system called Varati. My records are showing a GalCop listening post in orbit around the third planetary body of the primary star.

“What’s the distance?”

“Ninety-four light years.”

“Has it even arrived yet?”

“Possibly not. I’ll check.” Farseer murmured thoughtfully as she went back to hammering numbers into her datapad. In the meantime, I anticipated Max’s orders and began plotting a route to the new target, checking for a main sequence star on the way as the Grumpy Toad’s main fuel tank had dropped below half full again. “Good catch, Max. If we leave soon we’ll beat the dratsab there by two days.” She eventually concluded. It looked like the chase might finally be over, and we were going to come out ahead.

“That gives us plenty of time to pick up the cowboys.” Max nodded. “Polecteri, please Joe, and don’t spare the horses.”

I suppressed a scowl, erased the path that I had painstakingly plotted and punched the new waypoints into the navigation computer.


Ghost Rider
(Vapor Trails)

The view from the Grumpy Toad was nothing less than stunning. Mad Mary and I floated in our underwear in the darkened flight deck, as close to the canopy glass as we could get, all the instrumentation dimmed as far as the safety systems would allow us so that there were no background reflections from inside the flight deck to spoil the moment. Here, with the lights low, it looked almost as good as if we were sat outside on the surface of the hull and looking down. You couldn’t get this view from Thompson Port, the Coriolis starport orbiting Varati’s sixth planet. That spun nine ways to Sunday, so no matter where you positioned yourself in there to get a view of the planet below, you simply could not concentrate on any particular feature and, eventually, lose yourself in the beauty and majesty of the celestial creation that we beheld.

When watched in silence from the station the planet below was always moving, the scene rotating too rapidly to focus on any single aspect of the world. Everything moved too fast, the portion of the world that was viewable sweeping from right to left across whatever porthole you pressed your nose against. It was disorienting. You could access the raw feed from one of the stabilised weather forecasting camera platforms that corrected for the roll of the station to provide a view and cast it onto your apartment’s high definition vu-wall, but it wasn’t the same. Here, with no gravity, with our heads pressed close to the glass so that the canopy frame didn’t interfere with the view, it really did feel like you were floating above it, like angels looking down from heaven.

Blue oceans, their uniformity enhanced by contrasting smears of hundreds of white clouds that, refreshingly, were not luminous with type 2B jump radioactivity, dominated the surface. To the left of the canopy I could see a major weather system forming – hurricane, typhoon, I knew little of meteorology, so I couldn’t be certain which, but as I stared at it I could see the disc of destruction slowly moving, a rotation measured in fractions of a degree admittedly, but it was definitely moving. To the right was the terminator – the constantly moving partition between night and day, and on the darkened side I could just make out tiny pinpricks of light that betrayed the presence of man.

The visible land masses were invariably a lush mixture of greens, teeming with plant life and, in most cases, human settlers. These freshly colonised worlds were so far unscarred by the giant metal and concrete monstrosities that man found necessary to sustain him, to keep him warm and dry and to power his high definition vu-walls. The white smears of pure water vapour were yet to be in competition with the grey, brown and black smears of pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere as this world’s natural resources, created over millions of years, were consumed in mere decades by the destructive parasites that walked across its surface.

From up in space you tend to look down on these worlds as abstract things, a little like paintings in a gallery or museum that you can marvel at but not touch. You pass them way too fast to pay attention to them, too busy making money or fighting for your life to take the time to sit back and appreciate that they are much more than little blue marbles spiralling through space. It is often said that the first time a spacefarer looks down upon an inhabited world he experiences a shift in his grasp of his place in this universe and, more importantly, the impact that man is having upon it, but those feelings don’t last. Over time you become jaded to the spectacle until after a while they are ‘just another consumable Earth-like.’

Each ELW we colonise is a fragile oasis of humanity scattered through space, expanding the realms of the human race like the seeds of trees scattered across the floor of a forest. The more of them there were, the better mankind’s chances of surviving whatever the galaxy could throw at it, whether it be a comet strike, solar flare or some other calamity that nobody saw coming. Up here in space, pilots like me were charged with protecting them from the threats that man can see coming and evacuating them from those that we can’t do anything to forestall, such as damage wrought upon the alien ecosystem that science cannot repair. One only has to look at time lapse vids of Old Earth to see the devastating changes that modern civilisations can wreak upon fragile ecosystems in shockingly short spans of time.

Of course, that was why we humans had expanded out into space. Not because we could, but because we had to. That was a lesson drummed into us at a very young age in school on Azeban, a mandatory part of the curriculum reinforced all the way from kindergarten to graduation. We were taught that Old Earth had once been very much like Azeban, with fertile land masses and oceans teeming with life. Like Azeban it once had ice caps, but the pollution created by decades of lifestyle excesses, ignorance and carelessness ate away at the paper-thin skin of atmosphere protecting the surface and its inhabitants from the deadly hazards of space, heating up the ecosphere to a tipping point from which there was no return. The brilliant white ice at the poles melted to water and ceased reflecting the heat from the sun. The dark waters of oceans that now covered more of the earth’s surface than ever before instead began to absorb even more of that radiated heat, warming further still, unocking methane from the depths, a potent greenhouse gas that only served to accelerate the process of catastrophic climate change. Deadly microbes, long frozen, were released into the environment, adding pandemic after pandemic to climate crisis in a perfect storm of planetary destruction.

Our ancestors had to look up to the stars because they could no longer look down. The grass beneath their feet was turning to sand, the seas that they once swam in had become contaminated with microplastics and the carcasses of millions of animals that could not survive in the toxic, tepid stew that mankind had transformed Earth’s oceans into. Perversely the only thing that had saved Earth from losing its atmosphere to space completely was being pitched into a decades long war and a subsequent nuclear winter that plunged the survivors into years of sub-zero temperatures, an unexpected side-effect of which was the partial reformation of ice caps at the poles. Earth somehow, almost miraculously, clawed it’s way back out of a shallow grave. Without industry, with all of its major economies devasted, with hundreds of cities turned to rubble in instants and billions of polluters turned to ash, the slow death by hydrocarbon asphyxiation from a billion petrochemical engines and microplastic poisoning from nine billion carefree consumers was stopped dead in its tracks. Thousands of species of animal died off in the aftermath, but mankind – clever, creative, desperate mankind - survived, it’s priorities changed forever.

The planet wasn’t the same and never would be, but those who chose to remain on Earth or who could not afford the literally astronomical price of a ticket to the stars survived, wiser and more careful, determined not to make the same mistake again. The greens of Earth were still not as vivid as those on most ELWs, possessing a colour a fraction browner than those seen on as yet untainted worlds like Azeban and Varati for example. The blues of Earth’s seas were a degree more grey than they had been, the clouds a smidgeon less white, the ice caps smaller than most, but it remained a habitable world, the capital of the mighty ‘Federation of Star Systems’ and a creative hub for technologies that made either zero or positive net impacts on life supporting ecologies. Earth may be what historians like to call the ‘cradle of humanity’, but its children had left the nursery to make their homes amongst the stars.

“I wonder where they are.” Mary said, her voice not much more than a whisper, but seeming unnecessarily loud after the extended silence that had preceded it. After all the time we had spent in each other’s pockets we seemed to have very little left to say to each other, but at least she was making the effort.


“Max and Floss.”

The elders of our expedition had decided to blow a bit of disposable income and caught a planetary shuttle down to the surface of Varati to do some sightseeing while we were waiting for our quarry to emerge from hyperspace. Farseer could afford the excursion planetside, though the cheap so-and-so refused to spring for the extra so that Mary and I could tag along. Flossy had said that she wanted to visit Canonn’s museum of unidentified artifacts at the metropolis down on the surface. As she was the one stumping up for the excursion, I expected Max to be frothing at the mouth with impatience to get to a beachside pub so that he could rent a recliner and soak up some of the rays from Varati A with a cocktail in his hand.

Daniel and the rest of the assault team that we had picked up from Polecteri were back at a hotel on Thompson Port doing whatever it is that special operations soldiers do the night before a mission that held the potential to get them killed. Maybe they slept to prepare themselves. More likely they went wild with the local girls or wrought destruction upon dive bars to get the tension out of their systems. Mary and I, with nothing better to do and time on our hands, found that we had the Grumpy Toad to ourselves, so we’d parked it in space a little off the beaten track where nobody approaching the starport or jumping into supercruise would crash into it and made the most of the solitude to make some noise of our own.

“Surfing.” I deadpanned. The mental picture of Max balancing on a surfboard, beer gut hanging over the waistband of his stretched shorts while skeletal, milk skinned Felicity skimmed the waves alongside him in a baggy bikini cracked her up.

“Oh for kcuf sake, pass the mind bleach.” She grimaced. “That image just has to go. Why would you do that to me?”

“Sorry,” I offered sheepishly.

“You’ll pay later.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I’ll think of something.” She scowled. “Normally I’d sit on your face and wriggle for ten minutes, but in zero gee it’s not quite the same.”

“I’ll take that sort of chastisement in any gravity you want.” I smiled lasciviously.

“I bet you would.” She laughed. “Give me a minute and I’ll come up with something worthy.” She replied, pinching the flesh of my forearm viciously.

“Hey!” I yelped.

“And that’s not it. That was just an interim punishment.” She promised.

“I imagine they are making their way back to the shuttle pad by now. It won’t be long before we have to head out to the black to ambush whatever ship is touring the listening posts.” I grimaced, massaging my arm where she had pierced the skin with her fingernails, smearing a microdot of blood into a thin pink line on both arm and palm.

We had, by committee decision and after several days of heated argument, decided that what we must be chasing a lost INRA warship that had been built shortly after GalCop disintegrated. It had to be a warship of some type because it was using a military grade Type 2B drive to make its hyperspace jumps, and it had to be of that age else it would have been recalled and upgraded with a standard Frame Shift Drive, like every other ship in existence had been in the last twenty years. Sometimes a ship goes out on a mission but never comes back and the list of INRA warships that had disappeared without trace in the vast emptiness of space was a long one, so it was a reasonable assumption to make in the absence of any solid evidence to the contrary.

Farseer believed that we were chasing an unmanned probe, but any ideas as to what its purpose might be remained in the realms of speculation. The best we could come up with was that it was an automated scout ship that had detected signs of Thargoid activity at the edge of human space and, unable to establish communications with the Galactic Co-operative’s now defunct Equinox command centre was instead manually alerting the network of GalCop built listening posts so that humanity was not only alerted to the danger, but also directed toward seeking out a database containing information that might help in the coming war with them. Why the ship couldn’t just rock up to the nearest military outpost and upload its findings, or merely sit at the edge of a core system and broadcast it in the clear was something we still hadn’t managed to agree upon.

Farseer hypothesised that any AI in control of a hyperspace capable starship, especially if it was armed, would have a limited number of options open to it lest it overstep its remit and drop its overlords in trouble. Militaries being the same all over and obsessed with secrecy and keeping things from civilians would surely have prevented it from sitting just outside a starport and screaming ‘The Thargoids are coming!’ by omitting that option from the AI’s menus. Perhaps with GalCop and INRA now just memories it couldn’t park itself up at a military base as it didn’t recognise the authority of the Federation, Empire or AIS as both GalCop and INRA had operated beyond the oversight of today’s superpowers. Aegis, only formed by the triumvirate of superpowers in 3303 once the return of the Thargoids had been confirmed, might not even register to it.

I had my doubts over its reticence being down to the restricted number of options available to an AI. I could not imagine any AI’s teacher only giving it the option of reporting to recognised GalCop or INRA facilities before sending it out on a decades long mission during which one or both organisations might have ceased to exist. The conflict with the Thargoids was a struggle for survival for all of humanity, not just it’s serving militaries. I had argued that there must be a fall-back option in the case of the AI being unable to report back to its creators, only to be lectured on the overriding focus of the military on secrecy by Max, and the draconian limitations and oversight placed by society on stand-alone AI creations by Farseer.

I understood and accepted both points of view. Absolutely, the military are totally paranoid about secrecy – always have been, always will be. Sure, the rest of humanity is scared half to death over artificially intelligent machines having too much power, but my argument was that the stakes were too high to place restrictions on a probe from being able to report back its findings. What was it to do, simply stand aside while the Thargoids steamrollered through colonised space and then claim that nobody at the helpdesk would answer it’s calls?

I glanced at Mary to find her staring down at the planet below. She had admitted to me that she felt like dead weight in this expedition so far, along for the ride and contributing very little to the operation. Farseer was proving useful in predicting where the arrival and departure jump clouds would be, so her place on the crew had been earned, although as the days dragged on she was becoming more and more concerned about her own engineering operation that she had left in the hands of her minions on Deciat. Max was the boss calling the shots. I was the pilot and chief coffee maker. We’d already ditched the assault team pending locating the elusive starship. Mary wasn’t sure what her role in all this was, other than as a walking encyclopaedia of unsolved mysteries, there only to regale us with questions that nobody in the galaxy could answer in the periods of boredom while we scanned interstellar space for the next jump cloud.

Max and I had assured her that when we finally caught up with the ship and figured out what it was, her insights would undoubtedly shine some light on what it actually was, but we both knew that we were only paying her lip service. She had confided in me that she felt out of her depth on operations instead of deskbound and in her comfort zone, worried that when it came time to explain what was going on that she would be placed in the spotlight and found lacking. For a woman who had shown herself to be almost aggressively forthright and confident socially, professionally all that confidence seemed to have slipped away and now she emanated an air of what I would call uncertainty and vulnerability. I was happy that she had stayed the course. Well, bits of my anatomy were, but I understood where she was coming from. She had shown us that she could talk the talk, but now we were on the eve of her having to prove that she could also walk the walk she seemed to be suffering from a crisis of confidence.

“What’s up?” I asked. She responded by pushing herself off the canopy frame, propelling herself across the space between us until her bare arm bumped against mine, her golden brown skin contrasting with the milky white of my own. Her fingers curled around my wrist, locking us together.

“Not sure. I guess I’m a little worried.”

I reached ahead and tapped the glass of the canopy with my fist. “Yep, it’s a helluva long way down but I promise you won’t fall out.”

She uttered half a laugh, little more than a brief involuntary exhalation of breath borne more of nervousness than any appreciation of my sense of humour.

“Worried about what?” I pressed after the length of the silence became uncomfortable.

“All sorts. What we’re going to find tomorrow, how they’ll react to being found. I’m office personnel, an analyst. Fieldwork isn’t my thing. I didn’t come out here to die.”

“If it gets hairy I promise I’ll get us out of there.” I assured her. “Look, at least now we know it’s not Thargoid so that’s a big chunk of danger dispelled. Why don’t you sit tomorrow out and leave the intercept to us?” I suggested. I saw no reason why she couldn’t relax at a hotel on Thompson Port while we dealt with the mystery starship.

“I want to be there.” Mary asserted. “This ship may hold the answers to all the mysteries surrounding the GCS Sarasvati. After coming this far I need to see it through to the big reveal. I was the one that brought this enigma to Max’s attention. He put me in charge of gathering all the data and chasing down all the clues until all I had left were dead ends. I can’t walk away now, not this close to busting so many stalled investigations wide open. Recovering Calvin’s archive could change everything.”

There wasn’t much I could say to make her feel better. Ok, she was scared of what she might find – so was I to a degree - but at the same time she clearly wasn’t going to back out of sticking her head into the hornet’s nest. “Is coming worth the risk?” I asked. “Surely you’d get the data you need whether you were there at the end or not.”

“You don’t know how Alliance Intel work.” She sighed. “Most of what I process is second hand news from field operatives who overheard something in a bar. Hearsay. That word pretty much describes the nature of the information that crosses my desk. I deal with rumours, gossip, scuttlebutt and speculation, not hard evidence. The evidence goes to other desks. If this is as big as I’m hoping, then I have no doubt that Max will shut me out. If I’m there, he can’t do anything about it.”

It suddenly dawned on me what she was doing here. This had nothing to do with her interest in unsolved mysteries like The Dark Wheel and Raxxla. It had nothing to do with her being Max’s daughter, either. I believed that she saw this assignment as her ticket up the corporate ladder, a vehicle for hurtling up the ranks from junior analyst to department head and probably higher still, perhaps all the way to director at some future point. If this operation panned out as she was hoping then her name would be in big bold print front and centre on the reports that landed on the desks of every Alliance bigwig on Turner’s World, all the way up to Jasmina Halsey and Edmund Mahon. This would make Mary a rising star in the ranks of Alliance Intel, advancing her career decades at a stroke.

Ambition had brought her here, I realised. As part of this team her name would be on the lips of every conspiracy theorist and debunker in existence. Books would be written about this. Vids would be made. For sure, I knew I’d be including this experience in my memoirs no matter how it panned out, if only to show off my romantic prowess and my ability to pull hot chicks to my adoring readers.

Screw ambition, I smiled inwardly. Fame and fortune would be the rewards for the survivors of this mission and I wasn’t going to turn that down. My last mission with Max had ended with me sat in an interrogation chamber on an Alliance carrier, under hot spotlights and surrounded by tooled up marines and lawyers with bad attitudes, signing reams of paperwork ordering me to keep my mouth shut and never reveal to anybody what had happened at the takedown of the Trivora and the fate of the weapons that the terrorists had fabricated. I still saw D-notices and non-disclosure agreements in my nightmares. This operation, however, would be history in the making and you couldn’t keep that under wraps for long. It seemed like every couple of months there would be a new docudrama doing the rounds, expounding upon the latest fashionable theories about Raxxla or The Dark Wheel, and the audience for those subjects was massive and ever hungry for more, willing to dig deep and pay for more. The truth will always come out eventually, Si had once told me, and this would be no different.

Personally, a part of me hoped that this would just be one great big wild goose chase, a waste of time that would lead to another dead end to further stymie Mary’s desire to unravel mysteries that had gone unsolved for centuries. An unmanned GalCop probe with a limited software suite suited me just fine because while Mary was concerned about what the unidentified ship might do when we located it, it wasn’t that aspect that worried me. It was more a feeling that ‘The Club’ might already be aware of this expedition and would attempt an intervention at some stage to maintain the secrecy surrounding these mysteries. Somehow, I didn’t think signing non-disclosure agreements would satisfy The Club and instead we’d be met with something a little more violent than that, given their history. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but not much beats an engineered Corvette in the hands of an Elite commander.

So with that in mind, I broke the sombre silence with; “D’you fancy going back to business class and making a little noise?”

“Men! You’re all the kcufing same. Is that all you can think about?” She turned to face me, a bemused yet at the same time amused cast to her features. “You do realise we could be dead this time tomorrow, right?”

“Yeah, sorry.” I apologised.

“So let’s go make lots and lots of noise.” She smiled as she reached behind her back to unclasp her bra. We were about to join the thirty thousand mile high club.

“Should something be happening?” Mary wondered, peering out of the canopy at the same point in space the rest of us were staring at, all of us wondering precisely the same thing.

“Patience.” Farseer snapped. “My calculations have an unpredictable margin of error.”

Was that geek-speak for a guess, I pondered? “Are we even looking in the right place?” I asked, scanning the empty space ahead of the Grumpy Toad, a question that earned me yet another of Farseer’s typical scowling, eye-rolling, disparaging looks. I began to wonder if that sort of expression came with age as Max tended to do something similar. Or perhaps it was a parent thing that came from having children. Did Farseer have children, I wondered?

“We are.” She all but snarled. I think she may have reached breaking point with my ongoing mistrust of her ‘calculations’. “The vector is predictable to a high degree of accuracy, as the Type 2B will always orient to the largest gravity well in the destination system, but the timing is much more difficult to estimate as the transit time in hyperspace is entirely dependent upon the power and efficiency of the jump drive itself, which cannot be reliably measured from the composition of the cloud.” She explained. “A few tenths of a percent of inefficiency can throw the arrival time off by hours.”

“We’ve waited this long, we can wait a while longer.” Max stated bluntly. “Just how late is it, anyway?”

I glanced at the clock on the nav screen. “Twenty-two minutes and counting.” I replied.

“Are the cameras running?”

“I’ve set them to a continuous fast scan of the target area, at their maximum frame rate, wide angle and programmed in a ten-minute over-write loop. If anything is registered, then the ship’s proximity alert has been rigged to sound automatically and save the footage. We may not get a good image because of distance and the camera resolution, but we will detect its arrival, provided the target area has been accurately predicted.” I felt the hackles on the back of my neck raise in anticipation of a slap around the head from Farseer as Mary pursed her lips and sucked in a short breath to warn me how close I was sailing to the wind there.

“What?” I asked as innocently as I could act. I could see Max going red in the face, whether that was because he was stifling laughter of his own or was about to bust me in the chops for winding his girlfriend up I never got to find out as the proximity alert suddenly began to blare. I cut the racket off with a terse voice command and peered out of the canopy.

“Was that it?” Mary enquired.

“Said the actress to the bishop.”

Now it was Mary’s turn to treat me to a disparaging scowl. “I didn’t see anything.”

“Maybe you blinked.” Max said, seating himself in the co-pilot’s chair and studying the scanner readouts. “Arrival cloud detected. Whatever it is, it’s here.” He confirmed.

“I didn’t see anything!” Mary insisted.

“That’s because we’re too kcufing far out.” Max told her, giving me a sidelong glance and shaking his head disparagingly. We had argued about this on the journey here. Better to be out of sight than right in the flight path, I had argued. A couple of tons of metal hitting you at a third of the speed of light will do a lot more than scratch the paintwork. “The cloud is locked in on the nav. Take us in, Joe, nice and steady while I review the video footage.”

I glanced at the nav screen. The distance to the waypoint showed as less than five light seconds – about 1.5 million kilometres. “We’ll have to supercruise it.” I told him. “It’s either that or it’ll take almost five weeks to get there on thrusters.”

“It may detect the flash of light when we jump.” Farseer warned.

“That hardly matters now we’re this close to first contact.” Max pointed out. “Do it, Joe.”

I initiated the jump sequence and drew the throttles back to minimum supercruise of thirty kilometres per second travelled in real space. The journey to the waypoint would take about fourteen hours at that speed, so I bumped the throttles up a touch, keeping an eye on the time to target readout and ensuring it never dipped under six seconds. If it did then you risked overshooting the mark and having to double back. Pilots called this procedure ‘surfing the six’, while screwing it up and overshooting, having to double back, was known as the ‘loop of shame.’

While I flew the Challenger to the jump cloud, Max was busy reviewing the video footage, having rewound it to the instant the jump cloud first registered on scanners. I watched out the corner of my eye as he zoomed in on the targeted area of space. He tapped the screen and Farseer leaned in to study what he had marked out for her. “That’s definitely a Type 2B cloud.” She confirmed. “So where is it?”

“My best guess is that the ship is still travelling at a third of the speed of light.” Max answered. “By my recollection, you drop out of hyperspace at the same velocity that you entered it with a 2B drive, though I might be mistaken, there.”

“Try frame by frame.” I suggested as the speed and distance gauges on the Challenger both dipped into the blue zone and I dropped us out of supercruise.

“Already on it, Padawan.” Max muttered as he looked up and out of the canopy. Directly ahead was the emergence cloud of the bogey, a pale green, almost cyan expanse of toxic chemicals with what looked like a tendril of smoke drifting away from it at a tangent, a tell-tale finger pointing the way that the incoming ship had gone. I slowed the Challenger to a stop just ahead of the cloud and turned in the direction that the finger was pointing, but all I could see were stars, and none of them seemed to be moving.

“Switch the scanners out of the visible spectrum and into infra-red.” Farseer ordered. “At that speed it’s gotta be ionising matter as it moves.”

I nodded agreement as I clicked through the sub-menus. Space is not a perfect vacuum. On average the space inside a solar system contains one or two atoms per cubic centimetre of volume, most of which is hydrogen left over from the various processes responsible for the creation of the star system. The interstellar medium contains much less matter than that, and intergalactic space less still. Any object moving at a third of the speed of light would slam into those errant atoms and generate heat from friction. The energy from the collisions raises the temperature on the leading edges of the object and, with no external matter to conduct the heat away, the surface temperature builds until it shows up on infra-red. After long enough the temperatures would eventually make the object glow and, potentially, begin to melt.

“Would you look at that.” Max said, turning the monitor screen toward me so that I could get a better look at whatever he was marvelling at. On the display was a vague triangle of bluey-green vapours, and ahead of it was a blurred, wedge shaped grey object slightly less dark than the background of space. Max advanced the footage by a single frame, and the object disappeared, leaving just the emergence cloud of a type 2B hyperspace jump.

Max stepped the video back a frame to the shot of the mystery ship’s emergence and we all peered closely at the indistinct image. No features could be discerned. It looked like a watercolour painting of an arrowhead that somebody had spilled their beer over and then wiped dry with a dishcloth.

“It can’t be a probe.” I commented. “At that range, even with the cameras on maximum magnification, a probe sized object would register as barely larger than a pixel on the displays. I would guess it’s more likely to be about the size of a capital ship like a Farragut or a Majestic.”

An alert pinged on the full spectrum scanner and I swivelled back around in the chair to check the readouts. At a range of seven light seconds was a stable heat source – faint but legible – heading away from us in the direction that the bogey was anticipated to be travelling on to intercept the vector between this system’s listening post and Sheron. I locked it up on the targeting system. “We’d best get after this scally before it flies out of range.”

“Are you tracking it?” Max asked.

“Rock solid lock on the mothertrucker.” I nodded. “Buckle up, people.” I told them as I prepared the ship for the jump into supercruise. A minute later we were on our way, but the 3D scanner wasn’t showing any contacts at all because in supercruise the sensors would only show other starships that were also in supercruise and objects with enough mass to interfere with the transit through the system like stars, moons and planets. I flew the Challenger slowly to the co-ordinates of the hyperspace arrival cloud, then banked sharply about to put us in a stern chase with the bogey, using the memorised infra-red track to fly down its trajectory.

At this point I was flying blind. The scanner was completely useless as we were still in supercruise. Instead I had to rely on Farseer’s prediction of its flight path and hope the trusty old mark-one eyeballs could pick it up.

“Slow down to zero point four C.” Max ordered. “Give us just a slight overspeed. What was the time stamp on the ship’s arrival in system?” He asked Farseer.

She studied the screens and tapped at her datapad for a few moments before coming up with the answer. “Standard time when the cloud was detected was fourteen thirty-seven twenty-nine. We were five light seconds distant from the point of entry, which means the exact arrival time was fourteen thirty-seven twenty-four. The time now is fourteen forty-two fifty-one so five minutes and twenty-seven seconds have elapsed and counting. Now five minutes thirty-four. Every second means the bogey travels one hundred thousand kilometres, so we’re looking at a range to target of…..roughly thirty three and a half million kilometres.”

“What’s that in light seconds?” I demanded.

“Two minutes, give or take.” Max replied without hesitation.

“On it.” I muttered and punched us up to max acceleration until we’d travelled almost thirty million kilometres, then I pulled the throttles back to one third of the speed of light to match the speed of the target. That should have put us in the ballpark, but the scanners still showed nothing. We were all peering ahead out of the canopy glass in the hope of catching a glimpse of our quarry, a flash of reflected starlight off metallic or glass surfaces or possibly the faint glow of atoms being annihilated by the passage of the bogey, but none of us could see anything but the background of stars.

“We’re doing this all wrong.” Mary suddenly piped up. “We need to get ahead of it and drop out of supercruise. Let the damn thing fly past us just like we did when it arrived to get a visual confirmation of its track and then chase after it, hopefully without losing sight of it.”

Max raised an eyebrow, clearly impressed. “Do it, Joe.”

“Roger that.” I complied, punching the speed up and checking the distance back to the object’s arrival cloud. “Elapsed time?” I asked.

“Seven minutes fourteen seconds. I make that about forty-four million kilometres.” Farseer clarified.

“I’ll drop us out about fifty million kilometres from the arrival cloud, just off its track.” I suggested. “That’ll give us a minute or so to turn and face it. We should be able to see it coming.”

I turned to look at Mary, giving her a thumbs-up and a wink, our earlier conversation about her feeling like she wasn’t pulling her weight on this expedition fresh in my mind. While Max hadn’t vocalised his approval of her idea, I made sure that she knew that she’d made at least one decent contribution. I dropped out of supercruise and pivoted the Challenger about, pointing back toward the location of the ship’s arrival cloud, bringing the speed down to zero which had everybody bracing themselves against the sudden deceleration.

“Cameras are running.” I notified them, casting an eye over the various displays. An unidentified contact notification flashed up on the screen, picked up by supercooled infra-red detectors on the hull and promptly registered on the heads-up display as a flashing amber cursor ahead of us, slightly offset upward and to the right. I breathed a sigh of relief that it wasn’t showing dead centre on the boresight dot. “Contact!” I announced in a voice a tad too loud and excited to be mistaken for Chuck Yeager's. “ETA thirty seconds!”

I felt rather than saw everybody on the flight deck suddenly surge forward, as if they expected to see a starship sized object at three million kilometres with the naked eye. I kept my attention firmly on the repeat from the scanners, ready to get us the hell out if it turned out that the bogey had actually turned onto a collision course with us. I mentally tried to work out how soon it could see us, as the flash of light emitted upon our emergence from supercruise was radiating outward from our location and would reach the target after a while but gave up and instead readied myself to low wake back into supercruise if it did alter its trajectory.


The infra-red contact was still showing as extremely faint, right on the limit of the sensor’s detection threshold. The optical systems still weren’t detecting anything at all. I was so wrapped up in studying the IR read and the very low rate of growth that it was showing that I lost track of the time. When the clock eventually caught my eye with about eighteen seconds to the intercept I noted with some alarm that the object’s heat signature had grown by no more than five percent, yet it had already closed the distance between us by a third.

“Fifteen seconds.” I called out. “Whatever this thing is, it’s got a pretty low infra-red emission level.”

“The scanners aren’t actually picking up the ship.” Farseer corrected. “What they’re detecting is the heat of hydrogen atoms being obliterated by the thing. Hydrogen density is pretty low out here on the fringe of the star system, which is why it’s so faint.”

“Ten seconds!” Now the IR signal that the supercooled detectors were picking up finally began to increase in amplitude. A ping from the optical systems acknowledged and confirmed the infra-red contact as it registered as visual, but the heads-up display still classified it as unidentified. The cursor outlining where the computer calculated the object should be began to move slowly from left to right, which reassured me that it was going to pass us by without turning us into a cloud of high energy debris.

“Visual.” Max said with a degree of excitement in his voice. He was watching the raw feed from the optical sensor arrays at full magnification on a side screen. “Joe, slave flight control to the camera gimbals.”

“Say what?” I asked.

Max reached up to a bank of controls mounted to the bulkhead above me that I hadn’t figured out the functions of, flicked a toggle switch and punched a pair of push-buttons that immediately began to glow orange. “Bl00dy amateurs,” he tutted. “Release the controls, Joe.”

I took my hands off the stick and throttles with palms out and fingers spread wide, simultaneously lifting my feet from the rudder pedals. I felt the ship immediately begin to swivel about in a clockwise direction, slowly at first, the HUD target cursor returning to the boresight dot at the centre of the display, then the centrifugal acceleration increased until we were all holding onto something for grim life as the countdown reached zero and the thrusters fought to keep the passing target boresighted. A handful of seconds later the rotation of the Challenger slowed and stopped, the ship having turned around almost a hundred and eighty degrees, and the HUD cursor was sitting dead centre over the boresight dot.

Max reached above my head again and punched some more push-buttons, which darkened. “You have control.” He stated, then turned to me with a broad grin on his face, stabbed a pointed finger at the canopy with an exaggerated flourish and said; “Tally-ho.”

“Say what?” I blinked again.

“Get after it, dumb-ssa!” He laughed.

“Oh. Right!” I acknowledged and jumped the Challenger into supercruise, keeping the speed down at around a hundred thousand or so kilometres per second as I strained to see the target out the canopy.

“Up a touch.” Max advised, not taking his eyes off the optics. I pulled back on the stick then re-centred it. “Port a smidge……too far……that’s it. Range seventy thousand kilometres.”

That was too distant for a visual, even for a capital ship, but I could just make out that there was a slight blurring at the edge of the boresight dot, a very pale violet hued glow. So that was what a ship doing a third of the speed of light did to the smattering of atoms scattered about in normal space, I realised. It was leaving something resembling a comet’s trail behind it, a hair thin reddish-violet corona of light that diffused and disappeared into the dark just as fast as it was created.

“I’m getting a stronger fix from astern of it than I was from the front.” I commented.

“Ionisation trail.” Farseer explained. “That’s normal for a generation ship doing high sub-light speeds although it is, of course, rare for a generation ship to be travelling at speeds approaching a third of the speed of light. Do you know much about generation ships?” she enquired of me.

“Before my time, sorry.” I told her. Mary’s head suddenly dropped. Oh noes, I realised. She had tricked me into another lecture time.

“Well,” Farseer said with a hint of amusement. “There are two main design philosophies for generation ship builds with regards to how they deal with the continuous frontal impacts from the stray matter that exists in interstellar space. The most common method was for the ships to be fitted with a large bulbous nose cone, quite often several metres thick. Inside that would be a few more metres of water carried inside a lead jacket to absorb the radiation and protect the crew. If you imagine a police officer advancing behind a riot shield, that was the general idea for lower sub-light speeds.” She expounded.

“The second approach was for the ship to have a thin, needle like nose made of the hardest, most resilient materials that could be created. This sharp point deflects the forces generated by any impacts back out into space rather than absorbing them. This allows for higher speeds without irradiating the crews of the ships, but the principal drawbacks are that the forward-facing surfaces of the ship wear out over long distances and need to be replaced, and the ship has to be long and thin.”

“Like a javelin with a steel tip over a wooden shaft?” I suggested, beating her to an analogy that I was certain she was about to make.

“Very good, young man.” Farseer said, not realising how patronising she sounded.

“Fifty thousand.” Max interrupted. “On target. Watch the damn overspeed.” He snapped.

A glance at the HUD showed my speed had crept up to almost a hundred and thirty thousand kilometres per second so I nudged the throttle back a touch. There was still nothing visible out the canopy other than a violet speck in the distance, still mostly occluded by the boresight dot.

“Forty thousand. Dial it back a touch more.” Max advised me. “Close in nice and slow.”

That was easier said than done. The slightest twitch of my hand on the throttle could cause a large change in acceleration way out here on the fringes of the system where there were no large gravity wells to keep the FSD from ramping the power up too quickly. These speeds were way down at the bottom of the FSD’s range of operation. We’re talking movements of the throttle measured in millimetres, if not microns.

“Twenty thousand kilometres.” Max warned.

Ahead the pale violet glow began to take shape, becoming a flickering circle of light. We were still too distant for that cone of light to be silhouetting the tiny black dot of our quarry, but I knew that it was there. Despite the knowledge that we were in supercruise while the target was in regular space and thus could not detect us in any way, I felt my hand becoming moist on the throttle with perspiration. Taking cues from Max I made miniscule, almost imperceptible adjustments to the Challenger’s speed, but I could not quite manage to match its velocity. I was either dropping back or overshooting.

“Relax,” Max advised. “The cameras are rolling, we’ve already got some decent footage that we can analyse at our leisure. Just roll past the mothertrucker as slowly as you can and then drop back in behind it. We’ve got all the time in the world.”

I took my hand off the throttle and concentrated on the stick, keeping the boresight over the approaching corona.

“That’s it.” Max encouraged. “Nice and steady.”

Before I knew it, we were passing the target. I watched it slide by off to port by what I guessed was a couple of hundred kilometres away as just a purple speck in the darkness, while on the optical systems the rest of the team were able to see the bogey at whatever detail the gyroscopically stabilised telescopes were able to provide. Nothing showed on the scanners, but in supercruise nothing in normal space without a massive gravitational interference would. Following Max’s instructions, I eased back on the throttles and allowed it to begin to pull ahead again, balancing the throttles with the tiniest of nudges with my fingertips until our speeds were more or less matched.

Slowly, carefully, I dabbed the left rudder pedal to slide the Challenger closer, using a touch of opposite pedal to tuck in behind and above it, now matching its course as well as its speed. I checked that everything was stable before glancing across at the optics screen where Max was balancing the magnification and focus to get the best picture of the target while Mary, Floss and Dan crowded in behind him.

“Whoever built it, they made it damn sexy.” Dan commented.

“Never seen anything like it.” Max murmured.

“I have.” Farseer butted in. “At that museum of ancient artifacts on Varati.” She said to Max, whose blank, mystified look showed just how little attention he’d been paying down there. “A sword, I think it was, and this looks like one of those but without a hilt or pommel. Instead the aft end of it tapers out like the shield of a jousting lance that protects the knight’s hands.”

I knew what a sword looked like, but I had no idea what a jousting lance was. I peered at the images as Max played with the camera controls. From the tip of the nose where the corona effect of the ionised particles was concentrated, the bogey tapered back at a shallow angle in clearly defined steps, the sharp nose cone growing more and more boxy toward the rear, where it flared dramatically at a fairing that housed what looked like old-style bell-shaped thruster exhausts. In modern terms, the best comparison that I can make is with the Anaconda, but while the ‘Conda looks sort of fat, this was much longer and, consequently, much sleeker and more streamlined. On the surfaces of the fuselage I was unable to distinguish any features like lights, portholes or externally mounted utilities or other devices. The hull looked extremely smooth, if a little scarred and mottled by the wear and tear of prolonged space flight at extremely high sub-light speeds.

The size of the ship was difficult to judge too, what with the lack of identifiable features to use as a gauge, but it looked large to me. The thrusters were quite small in comparison with the length and width of the hull, and there were a lot of them. Just like on a capital ship. At the regions where the ship’s girth broadened in what seemed to me like eight or nine places there was an occasional subdued flicker of violet light as stray particles not absorbed at the nose or deflected away by the corona like umbrella there struck the exposed surfaces, but those were intermittent and rare, the shock wave of ionisation at the nose seeming to serve as electromagnetic shielding of some sort.

“I can’t see any markings.” Mary observed. She was right. There was nothing to associate it with either the Federation or Empire, and it surely wouldn’t be AIS or we wouldn’t even be here. Perhaps when we got in closer the optics would be able to pick out a name plate, decals or some other identifier, but for now that level of detail was unavailable to the Challenger’s standard non-engineered on-board systems.

“What next?” I asked. “We’ve got imagery, so that goal of the mission has been satisfied. We can sit here taking pictures all day, but that isn’t going to get us any nearer to Calvin’s archive. It seems to have no idea that it’s picked up a trailer.”

“Can we hail it?” Mary asked.

“Not from supercruise.” Max informed her. “We're outside regular space. Only nearby ships that are also in supercruise can pick up our transmissions.”

“Then we’ll just have to flag it down.” She shrugged as if it were that simple.

Last edited:
An hour later we were sat in regular space, a couple dozen kilometres off the object’s projected path, arguing over how we were going to establish first contact with this unidentified starship. Dan’s typically militaristic option was to just sit here and fire lasers across the thing’s bow as it flew past to grab its attention. Farseer favoured pointing the ship straight at it and flashing the main beam lights in a Morse code style message – despite its age Morse was still used for communications where most technical means proved impossible.

Mary, however, wanted to radio it an unencrypted message in the clear on a tight beam directional transmission and Max and I were leaning towards agreeing with her. Dan’s use of lasers was an overtly aggressive sign, and although I was pretty certain that I couldn’t score a hit on anything passing at one third of the speed of light - no matter how big the kcufing thing was - I was hesitant to take that chance lest I somehow fluke a hit and turn a potential first contact into an actual first strike. Farseer’s old fashioned method depended on the receiving ship’s sensors being able to pick out the headlights of a small ship from the background of stars in time enough to be able to read an entire message transmitted in dots and dashes of light. Due to the way the headlamps took a few milliseconds to flare into full brightness and then fade back down to pitch dark again, that message might take some time to send and at a closing speed of a hundred thousand kilometres per second the ending could potentially be misread or even missed entirely.

“So, what are we going to say?” Max asked us once we were all in agreement that Mary’s way was how we were going to proceed.

“Doesn’t the Alliance have a procedure for this, a protocol for first contact scenarios?” Farseer asked him.

“If it does then I don’t know what it is.” He replied with a shrug. Mary was busy tapping something in on the datapad that she’d been Scrabbling on earlier. She handed the pad to Max who read what she had written slowly, looked up at her with a brief nod of approval, typed in some alterations and then read it again. “Well, it’s as good as anything I could have come up with.” He said as he handed the pad to me. “Take the ship toward the star and turn to track the target so that whatever we broadcast goes outwards from the system and won’t get intercepted for a couple of years when it probably won’t matter anymore. Tight directional beam, all frequencies, in the clear. Voice and ASCII text.”

I peered at the pad and once we were in position hammered the text message into the communications system with my slow, plodding two fingered typing and when I was finished with that selected the multi-channel hailing option and read the sentences aloud into the microphone. “Unidentified Galactic Cooperative vessel, your message has been received and understood and is being acted upon. Your mission is complete. Please come to a complete stop in a safe orbit around Varati C for rendezvous and further instructions.”

“Varati C?” Mary asked. “Why not the listening post?” Clearly that was the alteration that Max had made to Mary’s proposal.

“It won’t be the GalCop listening post that its expecting to find and I don’t want to spook it. The last thing we want is those thieving b*st*rds at Sirius getting their hands on whatever this is, like they did with the FSD the Alliance had prototyped.”

“No signature?” Farseer queried as I set the transmitters to repeatedly cycle through all the common hailing bands and frequencies.

“It’s been hiding because it doesn’t want to be found.” Max explained. “If we tell them who we are they may decide to run off into hiding again in interstellar space and to be quite frank I’m bored stiff of all this flying around chasing the damn thing here there and everywhere. I want them to be faced with a mystery about who exactly we are for a change. Hopefully this will make ‘em come sniffing around us like a dog chasing down a strange scent.”

“Are you sure it’s a Galactic Co-operative ship?” I asked.

“It’s not Alliance, Federation or Empire and it sure as hell doesn’t look Thargoid.” Max replied, regarding me with a raised eyebrow. “The message broadcast by the listening post was a call to arms for GalCop personnel to locate Calvin’s archive, not INRA or any of the superpowers.” He reminded me. I admit I had forgotten that. “And it’s zipping about the galaxy on a tour of listening post locations that were once operated by GalCop that have since the early 3300s been replaced by newer Sirius built models.” He added, rubbing salt into my embarrassment.

“Ah, right.” I nodded, turning away to check that the transmitters were working as Max had ordered and glancing across at the distances on the navigation screens. By my calculation the approaching ship would start to receive the message in about ten minutes and then zip past us half an hour after that.

“And there’s one other thing.” Mary cut in after a lengthy silence, as if she had been hesitant to say something until she was absolutely certain that she wouldn’t be shot down like I had just been.

I turned to face her, this time it was me with a question raising an eyebrow unnaturally.

“I think I know what it is.”

Clockwork Angels

(Clockwork Angels)

Mary took centre stage as we all turned to her for an explanation. The whole ship seemed to have suddenly quietened. The ever-present background hum of high amperage electrical current and equipment cooling fans, the distant purring of the power core buried deep in the hull, even the occasional rattle of something loose as spurious vibrations generated by both man and machine ran through the ship; they all seemed to have faded away to nothing as we waited with bated breath for enlightenment.

“I’ve harboured this suspicion for a while and it’s not fully fleshed out so bear with me.” She began eventually, looking more than a little uncomfortable as she prepared to spell her theory out to what we both knew would be a critical audience. I hoped that she would be proved right and her insecurities about her importance to this mission would be wiped out in an instant with her insights. And with a bit of luck she wouldn’t be as long winded as Farseer was when that old bird got the urge to explain something to us.

“When the hulk of the GCS Sarasvati was discovered a couple of years back, a priority request was sent out to field operatives to report back any information that they found out regarding the mega-ship, it’s capabilities, history, missions and even the crew.” She began. “Initially the focus on the crew members was primarily concerned with the senior officers serving aboard her. Quite often military personnel, as they grow older, feel the desire to relive their experiences via autobiographical accounts and memoirs upon their retirement from active service. Those servicemen and women who were involved in the first Thargoid war felt particularly compelled to tell their stories, if only to put their side of the conflict across, a side untainted by Jameson’s genocidal atrocity that some believe has denied mankind the opportunity of ever achieving a dialogue with the Thargoid race.”

I bristled at her unwarranted maligning of my childhood hero. “He did what needed to be done.” I managed to snarl out through gritted teeth.

“Anyway,” Mary continued, giving me a sidelong look of concern about my mental health. “Most often these dry, lifeless histories only got self-published on Galnet pages or in use-net forums, so a working group was set up to collate these accounts in order to build a comprehensive picture about the Sarasvati’s operations and what it was doing at Sheron that resulted in it eventually being abandoned there.

“The Intelligence working group began investigating GalCop officers who had been assigned to the Sarasvati. Without exception they were all long dead. A few of them had written biographies, but when the team began digging into these often lengthy and extremely boring narratives they found a complete absence of any mention of the GCS Sarasvati. One of its commanding officers – a man who held that post for seven years, I think it was – made no mention of his time aboard the Sarasvati. It was like a black hole in his life history, a period of his career completely omitted from his memoirs. One minute he was the executive officer of a hunter-killer patrolling the frontier after the First Thargoid war had wound to a close, the next he was captain of a pleasure cruise liner plodding between Lave and Sol until his retirement.

“Oh, I think I’ve read that one.” Farseer interjected. “That was a veteran by the name of Valerie or something like that. As I recall he was a highly decorated war hero. He made combat ace flying fighters off a battlecruiser in TW1. Some of the stories he told about what goes on in those cruise ships were very amusing, not to mention a little bit saucy. I didn’t realise he’d held command of a mega-ship before leaving service.”

“Exactly.” Mary exclaimed. “You’d think that achievement would have made it into his memoirs at the very least. And he wasn’t the only one to completely blank out their time aboard the Sarasvati.” Mary added, beginning to pick up the pace of her initially hesitant speech as she got more and more into it, like a self-absorbed scientist in a narrow field enthusiastically expounding upon her specialist subject to laypeople. “The more the task group dug, the more they found that anybody who had served aboard the Sarasvati between 3169 and 3172 and had written about their time in service, the more they noted that the Sarasvati did not factor into their tales at all. At best the Sarasvati was only mentioned as an unidentified mega-ship on a mind-numbingly mundane border patrol where nothing of note ever happened.”

“All this,” Max cut in, “is relatively common knowledge in intel circles, but not, I believe, at your level of clearance?”

“I’ll get to that now.” Mary replied, just managing to refrain from rolling her eyes. “When the working group drew a blank they requested assistance in locating not just the officers, but all crew members who served on the Sarasvati during this time frame, right down to the cooks and the so-called ‘glow-worms’ who looked after the reactor spaces. That’s a lot of people in three years, and this is back in the days when automation was in its infancy, so crew numbers were far in excess of what is deemed normal these days for even a capital ship. When that information began to filter back in, a lot of the reports crossed my desk so that I could route them correctly. The department that I work for needs to have a rough idea of what’s going on in order to redirect these reports and not allow them to get mis-filed, lost in the system, or even deleted.” Mary explained to her father.

“One of our field agents had managed to hack some old GalCop files out of a classified Imperial database and in those records was a dossier that held a listing of GalCop personnel that had been ordered to sign non-disclosure agreements that prohibited them from ever talking about their experiences aboard the Sarasvati. I’m not just talking officers here, I mean absolutely everybody that ever set foot on the ship in that three year period, right down to the civilian dock workers who serviced it at refits. The agent discovered that these NDAs were unique to the Sarasvati’s crew. Other GalCop megaship crews had no such gagging orders placed against them, so we have to assume that something happened on the Sarasvati at some stage that GalCop could not risk being made public, or the Sarasvati’s crew witnessed something that could not be allowed to become common knowledge. So we instructed our operatives to dig even deeper.”

“NDAs are often broken.” Mary began. I harkened back to my own experience with an NDA, or D-notice as it had been called back when I was a harmless nobody working out of Bloch Station in the Ethgreze system. You might remember – on the off-chance that you were paying attention while reading my first volume of dry and lifeless memoirs - that I’d not even lasted a whole day before blabbing about it to Sara. “People talk and conspiracy theories are born. There will always be whistle-blowers who just can’t keep their mouths shut,” I narrowed my eyes at the unintentional insult. “and then there will always be the low ranked individual who puts his life experiences on record and writes a memoir in the hope of inflating his own importance.” I bristle at that statement as I write this, only now realising that she was again describing me to a T. “One such snippet ended up on my desk and before forwarding it to the relevant department I skimmed through it to make sure it would be routed to the right place because that’s what my job entails.

“I had expected stories of a mutiny, which still happens from time to time and which navies always try to cover up, but instead I discovered a tale telling of the lead ship of a brand-new class of top secret warship that went out of control and disappeared. The warship had no name, just a designation that consisted of the project code and a pennant number.” She said, adding a dramatic pause to her tale before resuming.

“I found no guidance in the usual Alliance databases for where I was required to route any information about that, so I flagged it up to my supervisor who helped me to do some more digging. The only reference we found was in communications pulled off the Sarasvati itself when our operatives investigated the wreck, and that aspect of the investigation was overseen by the same working group that I was already forwarding the crew data to. They had no further information on that particular side-quest so had left it open-ended. Their priority was to track down Dr. Calvin’s archive. My supervisor was instructed by her bosses to create a new tasking and sent out another appeal for information regarding old ship disappearances.

“We received so much cr*p on that kcufing assignment.” Mary laughed. “It became a bad joke. Every day would bring literally dozens of new stories about some ship setting off into the black never to be seen again, or unconfirmed sightings of phantom ships that appeared out of nowhere only to disappear again a few moments later. My desk became UFO central. My boss stopped calling me by name and started referring to me as ‘that biatch who turned my hair grey.’

“For a while we were flooded with conspiracy theories over Starship One, but in that deluge of fantasist dross another ship disappearance story came in, seemingly corroborating the missing warship rumour. This tale came from an ex-GalCop sailor who had been aboard the Sarasvati in 3169 and had, she claimed, witnessed the disappearance of an experimental prototype warship. Her name was on the list of NDA signatories, but it wasn’t her that wrote the story. This report came at us sideways from the Starship One investigations when a man who claimed to be this sailor’s grandson posted what he had been told by her on a conspiracy theory discussion board. He said that she had related this story at her bedside as she was dying, so it could not be corroborated. In short it was nothing more than hearsay.”

“To cut a long story short, she had told him that she had been assigned to the Sarasvati’s bridge when they had rendezvoused with a prototype for a new class of starship that was on its shakedown cruise. The Sarasvati was there to act as an observation and support platform in case anything went wrong. At some time on its trials, the ship just disappeared.”

“And you believe we’re chasing that ship?” Farseer asked. “Out of all the ships that have been lost in space without trace, you think we’re chasing one from an old woman’s bedtime stories?”

“I didn’t until we saw it.” Mary replied. “That ship has come from an era when the drive that it is using was still in its experimental phase, and it is using a military variant of that drive as you have yourself confirmed. Its running around trying to communicate with GalCop listening posts. But more than that just look at the pictures we’ve taken. The configuration screams warship. Aside from its apparent stealthy characteristics there’s nothing that looks like a positive gravity habitat ring or a hydroponics pod which you would expect on any commercial or exploration vessel of that size. There’s never been anything like that seen before, which tells me it’s a one-off prototype which dovetails perfectly with the old woman’s story.”

“What else did this woman say?” Max asked.

“I don’t know.” Mary admitted, casting her eyes down. “In my role, the grandson’s bulletin board submission was all I got to see.”

“Bulltihs.” Max snapped. “Spill it, Mary. You wouldn’t be out here on a hunch that tenuous. You wouldn’t have asked to be attached to this mission if you couldn’t smell some way of clawing your way further up the corporate ladder. Don’t think I haven’t been watching your career closely over the years.” He said, lowering his voice significantly, which has always been a sign with Max that it’s time to drop the rubbish and start shooting straight with him. “Remember I’m the one that vouched for you when you applied to Alliance Intel rather than Interpol where I thought you’d be better suited, so I feel responsible for whatever mischief you get up to. Forget your security clearance and how far you’ve exceeded it and tell me what you know, because I know you and I know you didn’t stop digging there.”

“I swear I don’t know any more than that.” Mary all but shouted back. “But when I looked further I found that the man who posted that story on the bulletin boards, the grandson, did get pulled in and questioned by Alliance agents. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get past the security blocks to find out what the outcome of those interviews was.” She admitted with a shrug and a sigh.

“Thank kcuf for small mercies.” Max spat, exasperated. “At least the firm still has some aspects of security that still work. Any response from it Joe?” He asked as he bashed his fingers against his datapad exaggeratedly. His two-finger typing, I noticed, was even slower than mine and probably took a serious toll on touch screens.

“Too soon to tell.” I replied after a glance at the clock. “It will take around ten minutes for the transmission to reach it and another eight or nine for a response to come back to us or for the sensors to register a change in course or speed. Speed of light.” I shrugged. He knew what I meant. Communications with faraway objects was subject to the speed limit of radio waves, and seeing something move would be delayed by the length of time that it took light to reach the observer after the manoeuvre had been made.

“Okay, keep your eyes on it. Any change then let me know immediately. I’ve got kcuf all on my datapad about missing GalCop ships crews grandsons or whatever the kcuf he is so I need to get online and find out where that information has been compartmentalised, which means making a detour to a starport with one of our offices which has an up to date file server. How long do you think it’ll take that thing to decelerate and get to Varati’s listening post?”

I shrugged. I had absolutely no idea how long it would take to turn the warship around and fire up the deceleration thrusters until it came to a halt.

“Days.” Farseer replied for me. “Maybe weeks if it’s manned and the g-forces have to be limited so that humans can cope with it.”


So we sat and we waited, not a word of conversation passing between us as I watched the tension between Mary and Max slowly dissipate. I’d read somewhere that it takes on average ninety minutes for a man to calm down after a moment of stress or anger so we were still a long way from a return to normality. At eighteen minutes since firing off the message, which was the very earliest we could expect a response according to my rough and ready calculation, we had received nothing in return – no acknowledgement, no change in aspect angle, no enormous bloom of light and heat as the main thrusters fired up. On the positive side there was also no sign of a jump into hyperspace, but I wasn’t sure how long it would take a Type 2B drive to spool up.

Five minutes later the comms system chirped with an incoming message, source identity withheld. “OK”

“Wow, that was easy.” I said as I brought the message to their attention. A check of the displays showed no measurable change in bearing, but anything travelling that speed would have to alter course very, very gradually or the torsional forces would tear it to shreds.

“Awfully minimalist.” Mary commented. “Doesn’t sound particularly military.”

“Unprofessional, too.” Farseer added. “What’s wrong with a simple ‘acknowledged’?”

“I thought they used ‘Roger wilco’ back in GalCop days.” Max joked. “Okay Joe, fire off another message. ‘Provide ETA.’”

“Can I make a request?” Mary asked Max, somewhat more meekly than I was used to from her.

“What?” Max demanded, somewhat more aggressively than was necessary.

“Make it ‘Unit Zero One please provide an eta?’”

“No.” Max told her gruffly. “You might be wrong, and I don’t want to scare the damn thing off. And I really do need to speak to your supervisor about this constant exceeding of your clearances.”

Last edited:
“Fifteen days.” Max fumed, as red in the face as I had ever seen him. “Fifteen ckufing days. This had better be ckufing worth it.” He raged. His blood pressure must have been off the charts.. “My stand-in will have redecorated my office by then. , he’ll probably even get the ckufing promotion I’m overdue for.” He grumbled into his coffee as I deftly guided the Challenger through the mail slot at Thompson Dock and banked carefully towards the assigned landing pad, keeping the g-forces of the manoeuvre as low as I could to save him from floating off and banging into something which would only make his mood worse, if that were even possible.

Truth be told, I was looking forward to getting rid of them all and returning to some semblance of normality, getting my ship back so that I could live my life how I wanted to, the way I was used to living. No more cooking for them, cleaning up after them, fetching and carrying, pandering to their demands like some Imperial serf or eating into my own resources to cater to their every whim. In a way I’d even be happy to see Mary go despite the fringe benefits that came with her companionship. She was a decent catch, make no mistake, and an excellent lay but she was no Karen. Over our weeks together I had learned that her life goals weren’t in any way compatible with mine and there was little that we had in common other than the physical that would facilitate a long-term relationship. Plus there was no way either of us would be happy with the effort required to maintain a long-distance relationship. I sensed that she was itching to move on and always would be that way, because that was her nature, so I allowed the emotional distance between us grow unchecked by any effort on my part while I waited for the end.

I also expected my role in this adventure to be completely over once they all disembarked. The Alliance would take over the interception of the ‘warship’ or whatever it was. ADF Fleet carriers would arrive loaded up with dozens of fighters to enforce exclusion zones – they could do that as Varati was an independent system with no ties to any of the superpowers and thus local security forces would be in no position to stop them. It would all be done clandestinely, of course. Privately registered fleet carriers with civilian markings would blockade a region of space around the brown dwarf and anything approaching would be warned off or destroyed, the blame placed on bands of roving pirates, no doubt. Which, I realised, would describe the situation just about perfectly. Then, once the warship had been boarded and was under their control it would be jumped to an Alliance operated shipyard for expert analysis.

I wasn’t bothered by being discarded at this point. It didn’t seem like that big a deal to me. An obsolete Galactic Co-operative warship with technology that was at least a century out of date held no interest to me. It probably didn’t to the Alliance, either. It was just another stepping stone in the hunt for Calvin’s research. If it helped them to locate that then it would have been worth the month that had been taken out of my life with no income other than the pittance of a retainer from Alliance Intel that I received. In that month an elite bounty hunter could earn millions. An experienced miner working a double hot spot yielding painite or low temperature diamonds could earn tens of millions, maybe hundreds. I had made thirty thousand tops, which I doubted would cover the expedition’s expenses, although I did have some star system scanned data that the sensor suite had collected on our travels that might earn something from a Stellar Cartographics outlet.

Farseer had informed us that she needed to return to Deciat in order to prevent her business from going under following her prolonged absence. Her minions had never been allowed to run her operations unsupervised for that length of time and she was fearful that they were working under the ancient principle of ‘while the cat’s away the mice shall play.’ She had also told us that she didn’t intend to come back once the ship was orbiting Varati C to see this project through to its conclusion as, like me, she wasn’t particularly bothered about the recovery and restoration of some ancient GalCop warship and Calvin’s archive meant nothing to her. In her own words; “It’s just an old ship. It’s hardly Raxxla or The Dark Wheel station.”

Her curiosity had been satisfied. For her the thrill of the chase had been experienced, another mystery had been solved and she wasn’t much fussed over waiting around for what was going to be an anti-climax. Perhaps that explained why Max was so tetchy. He wouldn’t be getting his bits ‘Flossed’ any time soon, short of a visit to a happy ending massage parlour back at the starport or a dangerous delving into the red-light district and the perve palaces of the down-below.

I touched the Challenger down on landing pad four-three with the lightest of touches, a kiss barely even felt through the gas-strut suspension of the landing gear. The docking clamps engaged with a dull clunk to lock the ship in place as the station rotated and the pad descended briskly into the hangar bay below.

“Make sure you take all your possessions with you when you leave.” I told them, once again almost sounding like a proper pilot. I was getting my life back! Next, I called up the services screen on an MFD to schedule a refuelling and then I turned to the mission boards to see if there was anything lucrative available.

“Don’t stray too far.” Max warned me as he peered over my shoulder to see what I was doing. “I want you back here bright and early in the morning to take Miss Farseer back to Deciat and after that I need your ship to remain close at hand until I get a handle on what our next steps are going to be. Once I report in for further instructions we might end up having to go back out there to ask that thing to jump somewhere else. I’m not releasing you just yet, sunshine.”

I just about managed to let my exhalation of frustration out silently. “I need to earn some decent money fast or this thing won’t be flying any ckufing where.” I told him.

“Just don’t go far and don’t get killed.” He replied dryly; then, as he was walking out the door, “and make sure you get back before the crack of dawn for Floss.” I assumed from that that he meant standard time, not the local rising of the sun over the station.

The door slid shut behind him. I was alone on the flight deck, just like I normally was. Just as I liked it. The only sounds were the creaking and tapping noises of hot metals inside the ship cooling down to the ambient temperature as I switched the numerous systems from active to standby. I maintained a lonely vigil in the pilot’s seat, watching my passengers – I suppose I should call them team-mates – disembark one by one. Ex-team-mates, I corrected myself, my eyes drawn by my own biological imperatives to the shapely rear end of Mary’s lithe form as she crossed the landing pad to the hangar exit. She hesitated at the door, and I lifted my hand to wave farewell, but she just wrenched the door open and stepped through it without even a backward glance.

I dropped my hand to my side. I think my shoulders may have slumped slightly, even though her seemingly cold and aloof departure had been expected. She had told me that when it was time for our affair to end – whether due to normal relationship breakdown or matters beyond our control - then she would just disappear. There was to be no trying to talk her out of it, no begging her to stay, not even an emotional goodbye. She would just walk out without fanfare and never look back, my phone number blocked and my email redirected to her junk folder so that I couldn’t even send her a ‘missing you’ message in the unlikely event that I might end up missing her.

I wondered, as I stared at the closed hangar personnel door, which of my prized possessions she’d stolen as a trophy.

Idly, I turned to my email inbox and began to pull messages off the net only to meet with disappointment when I found amidst the usual dozens of spam and junk mails absolutely nothing from Karen and several more demands from my mother to drop by Azeban and visit. Maybe after dropping Farseer back at Deciat I would. A quick look at the star map revealed that Eranin was a hundred and sixty light years from Deciat, but that wasn’t the problem. The problem was finding the cash to take a shuttle down to the surface and back up again as atmospheric shuttles weren’t cheap. The good news was that my vaccinations were up to date for both Azeban and Ursae Majoris – just in case I decided to drop in unannounced on Karen to see what was up with her as I hadn’t even received a ‘Dear John’ letter.

Maybe, I thought as I contemplated the two women, just severing all contact without any farewells or even a notification had become a common way for women to break up with their lovers these days. Or maybe such brutal and harsh treatment was reserved exclusively for me. I wondered what I had done to deserve such severing of contact but guessed that was something only a woman would be able to explain to me. Well, I reassured myself conceitedly as I scrolled through the list of available missions, that was their loss.

In the end I spent the evening in ‘Commanders’, a bar close to the hangars along with other pilots and crew, but I didn’t hang out there for very long. The talk was the same-old same-old boring pilot chit-chat interspersed with rumours of a conflict brewing between the Federation and the Empire over some act of terrorism perpetrated in the name of Marlin Duval who had forged the Empire from nothing a thousand years ago. For a while my interest had been piqued, mostly because of the terrorist episode that Max, Daniel and I had gotten involved in on our first mission together, but when I learned that the attack had been conducted with Thargoid derived weapons and not thermonuclear warheads my interest drifted, much as it did every time a woman walked through the doors to the bar. Once I could see that it wasn’t Mary I turned back to my drink and renewed worries over what she had said regarding the thinning of mankind by the distances involved in galactic colonisation. A conflict between the superpowers could easily become all the incentive the Thargoid needed to launch a fresh assault against humanity. I began to wish that I’d never met the woman.

After the bar I raided one of the starport’s supermarkets to stock up on some essentials – mainly toiletries to replenish what my guests had clogged up the Challengers drainage systems with and some alcohol based non-essentials, although that depended on one’s perspective as to whether booze was an essential or not. I was beginning to lean toward it absolutely being an essential with my newly acquired knowledge of the dangers that humanity was facing from multiple sources. In a way I was glad that I had pledged my allegiance to the AIS and not the other superpowers who would soon be at each other’s throats tearing lumps out of one another. Getting sucked into a conflict where you faced the deadly combination of enormous battlecruisers and the highly skilled black-ops pilots flying off them seemed a lot more dangerous than watching from the side-lines while waiting for a Thargoid assault that would only come if Mary’s theory proved correct.

Boarding the Challenger thus laden I settled myself in at the business class passenger cabin and switched on the Vu-wall while cracking open the seal on a flask of Orrerian Vicious Brew, hoping that it would live up to its name. I hadn’t tried the stuff before and it was rare to come across this particular draught. I had grown up on Eranin Whisky, and as good as that was I do like to experience different things when I come across them, from food and drink all the way up to women. Sometimes you discover an unexpected treat in doing so, but after just one sip I realised that this toxic swill was only going to make my eyes water. Or make them glaze over permanently. Comparing Eranin whisky to this Orrerian Vicious Brew was like comparing a nymphomaniac Lavian supermodel in an exceptionally horny mood to a spotty, syphilitic crack-wh*re skank sweating off a bad fix.

I flicked through the local channels on the Vu-wall. The news feeds were full of immaculately groomed reporters panicking over the impending war following the Empire’s invasion of LTT-1935, a Federal world in neutral space, and as my cr*ppy luck would have it this station had embargoed skin flicks so that option was denied me. Eventually I settled on SuperBowl MCCCXXVI, footage of which had just arrived in Varati after the game had been played on Earth only six days previously. Fortunately, I didn’t know the result. Nor would I get to know it any time soon as the combination of a lacklustre performance by both the Buffalo Bills and the Arizona Cardinals – both still seeking their first Superbowl win - in concert with the debilitating effects of the Orrerian Vicious Brew had me fast asleep and snoring before the half time show had even begun.

I dreamed – and I’m sure this is down to that damned Orrerian rotgut as it’s very rare for me to dream at all – and this dream was quite unpleasant. I found myself back in a Sidewinder, of all things, with Karen from Ursae Majoris at my side. That was weird enough on its own as the ‘winder only has room for one person in the cockpit. We were surrounded by swirling octagonal Thargoid scouts, flower shaped interceptors and diamond like dropships as we barrelled through a rain of glowing red plasma bolts. I bored in on the massive hulk of an olive green hive ship in the distance, fingers mashed on both triggers as I single-handedly challenged the behemoth to David versus Goliath one-on-one combat, not another human ship anywhere to be seen out the canopy or on the scanners.

Somewhere in the melee Karen morphed into Mary, who then transformed into a number of other women that I had slept with (not all of them, or I’d still be dreaming now) and some that I hadn’t nailed like that Slamdancer redhead – and with each transformation their mouths distorted into the anguished wails of their own agonies. One by one they came and went – much as they had done in reality – before the last of them disappeared, atomised by plasma bolts, and I was left alone in the cockpit, the Sidewinder’s structural frames buckling silently around me, the glass of the canopy splintering and exploding against my bone dome as the panes disintegrated.

Flames sprang up around the bucket seat – again this made no sense as the cockpit was by this stage a total vacuum – and my supposedly flame retardant synthetic flight suit began to bubble and blister as the clothing melted to my flesh. The dark hull of the hive ship grew large ahead of me as I screamed at the sight of my body becoming a living candle, and moments later the massive alien craft filled my vision completely, lit bright by the headlights of the sidewinder. I woke with a start, my scream echoing off the flat metal walls of the passenger compartment.

That was the first and last time that I ever drank Orrerian Vicious Brew. The rest of it went straight down the toilet. Oh, and for anybody interested – the Bills won. And about bloody time, too.

Silence reigned as I settled the Challenger into an elliptical orbit around Varati C. Even Max was quiet for once. One by one I shut the systems down until only external sensors and life support remained online. Nothing was going on around this brown dwarf which lay twenty-six thousand light seconds out system from Varati’s sole habitable earth-like world. Nobody came out this far, which is probably why Max had chosen it as the rendezvous point. You couldn’t get much further from civilisation without going mug shopping at Hutton Orbital. You couldn’t even refuel from the star as brown dwarves were not main sequence stars, which meant it was extraordinarily unlikely that you’d ever find a starship anywhere near it. You had to have an overriding reason to visit a place like this, like a drug deal or a smuggled goods swap and under any other non-clandestine circumstances there simply would not be one.

I’d filled the time while we were waiting for the unidentified warship to decelerate by running cargo and data courier jobs to keep the money coming in and to finance the fuel costs of being Max’s personal taxi service as we flew back and fore across Alliance space trying to sort out support for first contact with the mystery vessel and its occupants. I was also utilised to ferry him to and from briefings and meetings so that he was keep up to speed with the deteriorating situation between the Federation and the Empire over the Marlinists.

Periodically we surreptitiously dropped in on the decelerating warship without leaving supercruise to check on its progress, to make sure that it was still on course and on time for the rendezvous. We took photographs, videos, three dimensional scans - you name it we did it. Max even had the optical sensor package on my Challenger upgraded to the current state of the art so we could take clearer pictures and track it more accurately but as it turned out finding it was the least of our worries. With its main engines at full burn its infra-red signature was like a beacon in the sky so long as you knew precisely where to look.

Fortunately, Varati was a system that wasn’t heavily trafficked. The majority of the system’s visitors warped in at the star and then supercruised no further than Varati 6, the Earth-like world that the system’s economy revolved around. Varati was primarily a trade system, not one where pilots took joy rides through the ice rings of the gas giants far from the main star and so might accidentally stumble across the warship as its engines flared brilliantly at full reverse thrust. It wasn’t even strategically important any longer. As the bubble had expanded, Varati’s place at the fringes of the frontier had been adopted by systems even further out in the black and now there was nothing of special scientific or geological interest in the system that anybody considered worth exploring further.

There weren’t even any ground based or orbital astronomical observatories in system as there was simply no need for that any more – astronomy was now done exclusively from starships. All the system had that had any chance of detecting our quarry was a smattering of early warning radar satellites scanning for asteroids and such that might pose a threat to a planet that had become just another place in space that burns through resources, a home for consumers and carefree vacationing layabouts. In a way Varati had become far more Earth-like than most other Earth-likes. Which was a shame.

Help from Alliance Intel for this mission was not particularly forthcoming, what with the Federation and the Empire pouring ships into the conflict at LTT-1935 and the surrounding star systems. An unidentified ship crammed with obsolete or malfunctioning centuries old technology was way down Alliance Intel’s list of priorities, if not right at the very bottom. The Alliance were torn between directing their carriers to operations in AIS space near the battlefront, securing their own borders against any possible incursions as anarchy began to spread from LTT-1935 outwards, and containing a resurgence of Thargoid activity in the Coal Sack and Witch Head nebulae. My fears about Mary being on the money with her Raxxla theories seemed to be getting realised while we sat here twiddling our thumbs.

As military affairs executive for the regions bordering the Pleiades, Max was under orders to reroute this ship to a nearby Alliance shipyard for assessment and then get right back down to Witch Head to help organise the defences there. Once this warship had been given its instructions I was to head down to Merope with Max. Not that I could do much except get him there in a ship configured exclusively for combating man-made ships. From Merope he would join a task force of anti-xeno ships and then head off to whatever glory awaited the xenophobic warriors down there.

Truth be told I was surprised that he hadn’t delegated this mission to one of his deputies so that he would be freed up to help co-ordinate the defences throughout the Witch Head sector. AEGIS, the organisation created by the three superpowers to be the first line of defence against the aliens, had found itself hamstrung by the fallout from two thirds of their personnel now ostensibly being at war with one another. To all intents and purposes the ADF were left on their own to guard against the Thargoids. Aside from this, Max seemed reluctant to let go of this operation. Just like with the recapture of the stolen uranium in my first operation with the guy, doing things his way, on his terms, and taking full credit for bringing what I considered an obsolete dinosaur of a capital ship into the ADF fleet, seemed to be his primary goal. It was no surprise that Mary had come back with him to see this through to the end. Cut from the same cloth, this project had become the path to glory for both of them.

Things were a little strained between Mary and I, but not so much that it got in the way of work. At least we wouldn’t be stuck together for weeks this time. With a bit of luck my role in this would be over by the end of the day, but I had thought that before only to end up getting caught up in whatever schemes Max was engaged in. Mary hadn’t apologised for her abrupt disappearance from my life for the last two weeks without even a ‘how you doin?’ text message. A brief, tentative, touchy-feely hug and a sisterly peck on the cheek seemed to suffice for her before she headed off to the galley to make coffees for the three of us. If making coffee was her way of building bridges between us, then I was fine with that. It wasn’t exactly make up sex, but the day was still young and my need for caffeine was streets ahead of my libido.

“Anything yet?” Max asked me.

I glanced at the scanner screen and its dearth of returns. “The IR reading faded out to nothing about an hour ago, I’m assuming that’s when the warship switched off its main engines at the end of the deceleration burn. It was about sixty thousand kilometres away when it disappeared off the scopes. I couldn’t get a read on the approach speed, so I can only guess at an ETA. Since then I’ve had no contacts at all on infra-red or optical.” I shrugged apologetically. “It’s just a case of sit here and wait.”

“Hmm.” Max muttered, his eyes narrowing as he glanced over my shoulder at the empty scanner display. “I don’t like this at all.”

I didn’t either. I had been much happier in supercruise when we could see the target and it had no idea that we were secretly monitoring its progress. Now with both the Challenger and the bogey in regular space that advantage had been lost and it was a case of who spotted who first that held the advantage in any fight that broke out – the better eyeball would win. I expected that the Challenger’s upgraded sensor suite would give us a distinct detection range advantage over a broken down, obsolete, century old wreck. The Challenger wasn’t in silent running, but with the ship at a relative idle this close to the brown dwarf I hoped that our own small heat signature would be lost in the background.

Without warning or fanfare, a flask of coffee magically appeared in front of me, sealed and spinning slowly in zero gravity. “Just how you like it.” Mary announced. “Milk and two sugars.” I gave her my sternest ‘was that really necessary’ slit-eyed glare at the emasculation and spat out a thank you through gritted teeth as I plucked it out of the air. Two hands gripped my shoulders and began a slow but firm massage. “Are we ok?” she asked me as I glanced sideways at the fingers to check that they were her gold tipped digits and not Max’s grimy, stubby ones. Boy, would that freak me out.

“Just keep the coffee coming and we’ll be just peachy.” I replied, trying to keep my voice as neutral and dispassionate as possible as her fingers expertly kneaded the tension out of my body. Maybe make up sex was back on the cards. “How come you’re back, anyway?”

“I requisitioned her.” Max replied for her. “If she is right about what this ship is then her insights might prove valuable.”

“And if I’m wrong then you can blow me out the airlock.” She laughed.

“As the bishop said to the actress.” I smiled. I felt her fingers tighten their grip on my shoulder blades, her nails digging into my flesh even through the fireproof fabric of the flight suit that I wore. I made a mental note to check it for crescent shaped holes later. They might prove fatal in a sudden depressurisation.

“So just what do you think this ship is?” I asked Mary while waiting for something else to happen.

Suddenly the collision alert began to blare, red lights flashing in the canopy frame grabbing my attention. I glanced at the scanner to find just the one contact there, almost dead centre which meant it was right on top of us. My left hand reached for the throttle handle at the same as my right hand grasped hold of the joystick, but I was already too late.

The angular nose of the bogey came into view above the canopy, passing directly over the top of the Challenger’s hull as it overhauled us. If, dear reader, you have ever seen one of the reboots of ‘A New Hope’ you may remember the dramatic opening scene where Darth Vader’s Imperial Star Destroyer passed directly over the top of the Tantive IV, a Corellian blockade running CR90 corvette carrying Leia Organa and the R2/C3 droids. This was almost exactly like that. All our eyes were drawn upward as the smooth hulled ship slowly, silently glided over us and slowed gracefully to a halt, filling the upper half of the canopy and stretching off into the distance while the glow of the brown dwarf dominated the lower half.

“Kcuf me” Dan breathed, his voice echoing those of a billion movie buffs before him. I hadn’t realised that he had left his team of special ops troops in the cargo hold and come up to the flight deck to see what was going on.

“Damn, that’s what you call an entrance.” Mary whispered in admiration.

“That literally came out of nowhere.” I complained, cancelling the proximity alert. There had been nothing on the scanner until it was within a few hundred metres of us and the proximity alert was going bananas. If they had meant us any harm we’d have been atomised particles expanding in a greasy cloud before we’d even known that anything was nearby. I stared up at the scarred, mottled and soot stained underside of the thing’s hull just as four amber klaxon like lights began to rotate on the surface, heralding the slow descent of a recessed rectangular panel whose corners were defined by the blinking lights. A box like object that logic dictated had to be a docking bay entrance began to lower down out of the hull just ahead of us. I glanced at Max, who simply nodded his head once. I knew from bitter experience that in some cultures such a nod meant ‘go ahead.’

Using vertical thrusters alone I brought the Challenger into line with the opening, then nudged it carefully forward until we were completely inside the box that had descended from the hull. A display on the wall directly ahead of us showed flashing arrows that directed me into proper position in the box, instructing me to slide right with tiny tickles of the thrusters and keep coming forward. When in the correct position the arrows changed to a red circle, the universal commandment to stop. I killed all movement and lowered the landing gear to drop down onto the deck of the box, but then the box itself began to retract back into the warship, the landing skids of the Challenger gently contacting the deck of the box as it rose, magnetic clamps automatically engaging to keep my ship locked in position and not bouncing around like a zero-g pinball.

I looked upward through the canopy and into the dark interior of the warship as we ascended, but there wasn’t much to see, just the faint outline of structural members a fractionally lighter grey than the surroundings, lit by nothing but the illumination from the docking box and the meagre light spilling out of the Challenger’s canopy.

“You know those missing ship reports you were collecting a short while ago?” I said to Mary.

“Uh-huh.” Was all she could respond with.

“I think we just became one.”

The docking box came to an abrupt halt and the wall in front of us with the landing director lights on lifted upward and outward as if hinged at the top. Ahead it was pitch dark, the lighting barely reaching a few metres into the interior of the ship. I flicked the toggle for the Challenger’s main lights and what I took to be the warship’s hangar deck coalesced before us. Guide rails flanked by black and yellow chevrons to either side stretched off perhaps a kilometre into the distance along the deck. About every fifty or so metres additional guide rails branched left and right at ninety-degree angles, each one disappearing into a shuttered bay with a large number painted on the doors. Bay one was to the left of the Challenger, bay thirty-two to our right. I was relieved to note that the numbers were written in three-metre tall classical Arabic numerals and not Thargoid symbols.

“Enough hangar bays here for two full squadrons of single-seat fighters plus support ships.” Max mused.

Once the director wall had moved up and completely out of the way, the pallet that we had touched down on began to move slowly forward, picking up speed gently with only the slightest hint of acceleration as we travelled through the hall of hangar bays. The only illumination came from the Challenger’s main beams.

“Looks like somebody forgot to pay the electric bill.” Mary commented.

“Unless we’re being carried on the backs of a thousand Imperial slaves, I’d say the electrics are working just fine.” I replied. “No atmosphere or gravity detected. External temperature is two-eighty kelvin. Not exactly a warm welcome.” I quipped, referencing the lack of light and heating that made it feel not too different to being aboard a derelict starship. The pallet trundled on, past the ranks of shuttered doors, the numbers counting up on the left and down on the right. As the Challenger drew level with landing bays five and twenty-eight it slowed to a sedate stop, then rotated clockwise, the shutters for bay twenty-eight rising as it did. By the time my ship had rotated through ninety degrees to face the hangar bay the doors had fully opened revealing an empty bay.

The Challenger moved forward on its pallet and into bay twenty-eight, which was as devoid of feature and decoration as everything else we had thus far seen on this ship. With just a door on the left wall that looked barely large enough for a human adult to pass through without crouching and another shuttered door on the right that looked like it was for cargo transfer, the bay looked like it had never been used – no stains on the floor from oil or hydraulic fluid leaks, no scuffs or scratches on the walls from careless handling of mechanical parts and panels or tools. There weren’t even any warning or instruction notices pinned to the walls advising personnel of what they should and shouldn’t do when they disembarked. It certainly didn’t look like it had endured a hundred and fifty years of use. If I hadn’t known better I’d have said it positively reeked of new ship smell, even though I was still sniffing the Challenger’s recycled air supply which smelled more of the pine forest scent that I’d loaded into the recirculating fresheners when I learned that Max would be aboard for a while.

After a few moments the pallet slotted into lock with the rest of hangar twenty-eight’s deck and overhead lighting sparked into life. I switched off the Challenger’s lights then began a sequential shutdown of the rest of the active modules.

“Leave it all powered up in case we need to make a quick getaway?” Mary suggested.

“Too late for that.” Max countered, pointing at the status MFD. “We’ve been mag-locked in place here by whoever the officer of the deck is. We aren’t going anywhere until they let us go. Dan, you guys get out there and secure whatever is beyond that door.” He told him, pointing at the personnel hatch in the corner of the bulkhead in front of us.

“I’m starting to get a positive read on the atmosphere outside the ship.” I butted in. “Oxygen levels coming up slowly.”

“How do you want to tackle this?” Daniel asked Max. “Dress uniforms and sidearms or…”

“Tooled up.” Max interrupted him. “Full Manticore Dominator suits but only non-lethal assault weaponry front and centre. Keep the deadly stuff safed and concealed. Flash-bangs only, no frags or HE. I don’t want you lot of gung-ho jerk offs punching any holes in the hull of whatever this is. Not yet, anyway.”

“You got it, boss.” He said as he turned away and bounded out the flight deck to prepare his team. He paused at the door, hanging onto a handhold like a monkey in a tree. “Coming, Joe?” he said with a big grin across his face.

“Is there any need for an armed boarding party?” Mary queried before I could reply. I still had nightmares about the last time I had accompanied Dan and his team on an assault on a starship – and then it had been just a freighter and not a full-on warship. “Whoever is in command here literally pulled over at the side of the road and opened the doors for us.” She pointed out.

“And many a naïve hitch-hiker was never heard from again.” Max replied with a wink. “I’m not taking any chances. All our lives hang in the balance here, dear daughter.”

“Well?” Dan asked me with a raised eyebrow and a furtive sidelong glance at Mary. I wondered if it might be his turn to benefit from Mary’s feminine wiles and this was Dan trying to undermine me in her eyes. I wasn’t particularly keen on being pitched into the front lines, so to speak, especially after the last time when I had been caught smack bang in the middle of the crossfire on the bridge of the Trivora, but with Mary there looking on my machismo must have kicked in and I began to rise out of my seat.

“Sit the kcuf back down, Joe.” Dan began to laugh as I paused half in and half out of the pilot’s seat. “We’ll call you if we’re really in the tihs and need your mad skills to pull our nuts out of the fire.” He told me sarcastically. I had trained with them a few times while they had been aboard during the time we spent tracking this warship down, but I knew as well as they did that they couldn’t afford to be babysitting me and my many deficiencies at close quarters combat when they were supposed to be concentrating on securing the ship.

“I hope that wasn’t for my benefit.” Mary chastised me once Dan had left the flight deck.

“Not on my behalf.” I replied with a suspicious glance at the door to the flight deck as it swished shut behind Dan. “As pilot my work is pretty much done here. If those guys can use my ‘mad skills’ then I’m happy to help.” I told her, my machismo again taking control of my higher brain functions. “Anyway, I didn’t think you cared?”

“I’m trying not to, but its hard.”

“Said the actress to the bishop.” I said, smiling. “Look, I’m happy to pretend the last two weeks never happened if you are.”

“I’m not apologising for how things ended between us.” She told me. “I just don’t deal well with break-ups.”

“I get it.” I assured her. “It’s not a problem. I have the sort of job that takes me wherever the work is and could get me killed in any number of ways. If I was dating someone like me I then I probably wouldn’t want to get too attached, either. Anyway, I hadn’t realised we had ended.” I added with a smile and a lewd wink. “I thought we were just on a break?”

“Do you think this outdated cruise liner has a suite with a double bed?” She asked.

“Hey, still here.” Max grumbled.

“Sorry dad.”

“What’s the environment like?” Max asked, wrenching my mind out of the gutter and back to reality.

“Still cold but the oxygen level is rising. About halfway to standard. Breathable, but only just.”

Max activated the ship’s public-address system. “Assault team, I’m giving you the green light. Self-defence only. Do not fire until fired upon. Go when ready.” He tapped a few times on his datapad’s touch screen and then cast the feed onto the navigation screen. Instead of a list of nearby star systems the screen split into four sections, each one displaying the video feed from the assault team’s tactical headsets. I watched closely as they donned their gear, clipping flash bang grenades, extra magazines of ammo and quick-change energy packs to their webbing.

The communications terminal chimed. “We’re being hailed.” I told Max.

“Assault team, hold.” He said as the team were struggling to get through the lobby to the airlock in their Manticore Dominator combat suits. “Who is it?” he asked me.

“Somebody called Gail.”

“That’s impossible.” Mary interjected. “She must be bending on two hundred years old!”

“Relativity?” Max pondered. It was theorised that the closer a person got to the speed of light in regular space, the slower that time would pass for that person, meaning that they would age at a much slower rate than people living planetside. It was a phenomenon called time dilation and had been predicted by Albert Einstein in his papers on special relativity way back in the second millennium of man.

“This would be the Gail that you couldn’t find any record of?” I asked, remembering the earlier discussion about their theories as to what this ship was before we had found it.

“Just answer the lady!” Mary said excitedly, nodding so vigorously that whiplash was a risk.

I accepted the hail to find the head and shoulders of a striking raven-haired woman with flawless skin, sparkling green eyes and perfect white teeth smiling at me from the screen. She didn’t look a day over thirty years old and as attractive a girl as Mary was, she couldn’t hold a candle to this Gail woman.

“Identify yourselves and state your intentions.” Gail demanded.

“This is Alliance Defence Force patrol vessel Juliet-kilo-romeo.” Max began. “You are an unregistered starship flying outside of established shipping lanes without insurance or any identifying markings in direct contravention of pilot’s federation regulations. You are required by law to submit for inspection of both cargo and paperwork. To whom am I speaking?”

“My name is Gail.” The woman replied.

“And you command this vessel?”


“Ownership?” Max asked, making a show of entering her responses onto his datapad like a bored functionary. Like me, though, he could hardly take his eyes off the woman and was probably merely typing nothing more than random letters into a text editor.

“That is classified.”

“Vessel designation?” Max asked.

“That too is classified.” Gail told him bluntly.

“There is no need to be obstructive.” Max warned her. “Once we have completed our investigation you will be free to go about your business.” He informed her, waving his datapad about theatrically. “Perhaps it would be better if we conducted this discussion face to face?”

“We are doing so right now.” Gail responded. I couldn’t help but smile. She sounded like my kind of girl.

“I meant in person.” Max sighed, exaggeratedly rolling his eyes.

“That will not be possible.” She informed him.

“This isn’t working.” Mary sighed. “Let me talk to her.”

Ah, I twigged. The old good-cop bad-cop routine. Some things never change. Max stepped aside and Mary took centre stage in front of the communications terminal. “Gail, the Galactic Co-operative has been disbanded for more than a hundred years. Your call to arms for the locating of Dr. Calvin’s archives has been acknowledged and Alliance Defence Force personnel are actively engaged in the completion of that goal. You may stand down pending further instructions.”

The hesitation lasted only a heartbeat. “Instructions from whom, exactly?” Gail asked.

“From ADF command, should you wish to assist us further in the search for Calvin’s archive.” Mary answered. “Alliance ministers have tasked us with negotiating for your assistance and for any additional information you have that might help us locate the archive. It has been over one hundred and fifty years since Dr. Calvin was last heard from.”

“And if I refuse?”

“Then you will be free to go, of course. The Alliance is nobodies’ enemy, except the Thargoids. We only want Calvin’s archive.”

“Please remain aboard your ship. I shall despatch an emissary forthwith.” At that the pop-up window in the comms screen blanked out.

I turned to Max. “An emissary? What is she, the queen of Egg land?”

“kcuF knows.” He shrugged. “And it’s pronounced In-gland, you dimwit.”

“Well, we finally located Gail.” Mary said. “Not a part of the Sarasvati’s crew after all, but instead the commander of this ship.”

“How old do you think she is?” I asked her.

“Why? Are you thinking of making a pass at her?” Mary laughed derisively. I was a little offended at that. Her attitude wasn’t one of jealousy, more one of incredulity that I might think I’d have a chance with a woman who looked as hot as Gail. OK, she may have had a point but that didn’t make me feel any less upset. “Late twenties, early thirties?” she guessed.

“Because if she was in command when that message was radioed to Jotunheim in … 3294 was it? That would make her commander of a mothertrucking enormous Galactic Co-operative battleship in her teens.” I pointed out.

“Relativity.” Max offered again.

“Still, even if she hasn’t aged much at all due to time dilation it would surely be unlikely for somebody that young to command something like this.” I persisted, waving my hand to encompass the huge ship that we were currently trapped inside.

“We don’t know enough to even guess at this stage.” Mary pointed out. “If it is a Galactic Co-operative warship that has been lost in deep space since the thirty second century then perhaps she is the descendant of one of its commanders. Like the queens of Egg land.” She said with a wry grin as she deliberately emphasised the word ‘egg’. “They sometimes inherited their crowns at young ages. Maybe this ship has that sort of hierarchy? Didn’t some of the older generation ships operate under a sort of nepotistic succession principle?”

“I have no idea.” Max said. “Like you said, we don’t know enough to even hazard a guess. Let’s see if we can get more out of this emissary than little miss ‘classified’ has been willing to give us.”

“Do you think we should get Dan and his boys to dress up as tin soldiers as an honour guard?” I asked.

“Nah. We’ll save that for the visit from her royal high and mightiness.” Max grinned. “For now we’ll stick to intimidating her underlings.”

My eye was drawn to movement outside the Challenger. Ahead, the barely human sized door slid open silently to reveal a stocky figure dressed in a black uniform. I noted that it was bald. Then, when I peered more closely, I noticed that it had no face at all, just a dark band wrapping all the way around a spherical head approximately where the eyes and ears would be on a human being.

“The biatch sent a kcufing android?” Max said bemusedly.

Last edited:
I watched as it strode across the deck of the hangar bay, its clunky movements more due to old fashioned magnetic boots than any deficiency in its motor control. It lifted its feet as if peeling them from the deck, then carefully placed its steps as if walking through a minefield in fast forward. It lacked the finesse of modern gravity boots with their self-modulating electromagnets that made walking a zero-g steel deck as easy as walking on an ELW with near standard gravity. Old tech, I realised. Probably just like everything else on this ship.

While modern androids had been crafted to look similar to humans from a distance but easily discernible up close, this model held little resemblance to anything humanoid other than the fact that it had two arms, two legs, a torso and a head. The legs were too short and the arms were too long, the torso not seeming to have much in the way of articulation so that it could bend to pick things up. Whatever model this was, it hadn’t been designed to mimic humans. Android was too generous a term for what this was - it was more of a robot than an android.

It passed under the canopy, the spherical head rolling back, the dark band tilting as if it were looking up at us looking down on it. I felt a brief unease, imagining its infra-red targeting sensors locking on each of us and tagging us for termination. I guess I watch too many vids. Max must have read my mind because as soon as the thing disappeared beneath the Challenger and disappeared from sight, he hit the PA system again, instructing the assault team to stow their non-lethal weaponry and load up with armour piercing rounds instead.

We got up and headed out of the flight deck, passing the identical figures of Daniel, three-fingered Ricky, Chris and the new guy I couldn’t remember the name of in their Manticore Dominator assault suits as I pulled myself through the lobby using the hand-holds and, under Max’s direction, pressurised the air lock to the same atmosphere as that inside the Challenger. Once the pressures and mixes had equalised I opened the air lock’s inner door and stepped inside, activating the electromagnets in my own footwear. I walked through and switched on the monitor that showed the outside of the ship, made sure that the robot wasn’t standing beneath the elevator and pushed the down button that commanded it to drop to the floor. Next, I sealed the airlock from the rest of the Challenger and matched the pressure and mixture to that of the hangar and opened the door.

The robot rose up on the elevator. When it was level with me I could see that it was about a foot shorter than I was. The dark stripe around its head was a slightly translucent tinted glass and through it I could just make out a pair of camera lenses flanked by night vision LEDs. The android’s right arm offered me a smart salute that I acknowledged automatically with one of my own.

“Permission to come aboard, commander?” It asked in a voice identical to Gail’s that must have come from an embedded loudspeaker. The right arm lowered smoothly, silently to the horizontal and it opened a spookily authentic looking gloved hand, the wrist rotating it to the vertical, thumb separating from four fingers as it stretched that hand out toward me. I suddenly realised that it was reaching out to shake my hand and I offered it my own. It’s grip was surprisingly light and delicate and when I increased the pressure of my own grip it responded accordingly. Aware that it could probably crush my hand to a pulp without much effort on its part I relaxed my grip and the robot automatically released my hand.

“Permission granted. May I formally welcome you aboard The Grumpy Toad. I’m Joe, the pilot.” I told it. “Welcome aboard…..what do I call you?”

“Pleased to make your acquaintance Joe the pilot.” It responded. “My name is Gail.”

I raised an eyebrow. “Forgive me for saying so, but you looked way hotter on the video call.”

It laughed, which needless to say freaked me out just a little. I wasn’t expecting that. I had anticipated an uncomfortable silence while it failed to come up with a response. Not many androids could recognise humour, let alone respond to it, not with the consciousness restrictions imposed by their designers and programmers to allow them to interact with humans in the face of legislation limiting how intelligent artificials were permitted to become once they left the factory. “Pretty hot for a hundred and sixty year old avatar, huh?” Gail asked, turning partially around to show me its flat, matt black butt. “Now, puny human, take me to your leader.”

This time it was my turn to laugh. I manipulated the controls that returned the airlock to the Challenger’s internally generated atmosphere and led Gail through to the lobby. The soldiers stepped aside to let us past. I led the robot through to the galley, where there was a dining table large enough for all of us and enough seating for everybody to be comfortable and where Max and Mary waited. I set the coffee maker running. “Water? Oil? Recharge?” I asked Gail.

“I’m good, thank you.” Gail replied with a hint of amusement in her synthesised voice. “Nice ship.”

“Thank you.” I said, turning to look at the android. “It’s not as big as yours but it’s all mine, bought and paid for.”

“Speaking of ships,” Max interrupted our small talk. “What is this?”

“Gail,” I interrupted back. “This is Max who has more authority with the Alliance of Independent Worlds than anybody else I’ve ever met. You might better relate to him as the leader that you asked to be taken to. With him is his daughter Mary, who is an analyst for Alliance Intelligence and the gentlemen in body armour carrying those great big kcufing guns are our insurance representatives in case things get heated.”

“I am pleased to meet you all.” Gail responded. “I assure you that your weapons will not be necessary, but I understand you may be more comfortable with the extra security that they provide. I have no objection to you carrying them aboard this ship although I do ask that you leave their safeties enabled to prevent accidental discharge that may damage something irreplaceable. In answer to your question, Max, this is a prototype starship constructed by the Galactic Co-operative of Worlds as a test bed for experimental anti-xenomorph weaponry in the year 3168.” Gail explained.

“We have never seen anything like this before.” Max told it. “There is no description of any vessel of this size or configuration in any GalCop records that we have recovered since the organisation disbanded in the year 3174.”

“This spacecraft was born from a project whose security classification was black-alpha-one. As such I can say very little on the subject without command authorisation.”

“Whose authorisation would be acceptable to you?” Mary enquired.

“The identities of those individuals must also remain classified.” Gail offered apologetically.

“It doesn’t matter.” Max sighed. “Anybody concerned with whatever black project is responsible for the creation of this ship will have died a long time ago. Where are the crew?” Max asked it. “The captain? A ranking officer?”

“There are none.” Gail confirmed. “This ship is fully autonomous.”

That statement was met with disbelieving silence. “How long have you been out here, or is that classified, too?” Mary eventually asked.

“Since January 11th 3169. One hundred and thirty-seven years, six months, eleven days.”



I swear I detected a hint of sadness in the android’s voice when it had said that. “Without refit or refuelling?” I asked incredulously.

“The design intent of this ship was for it to operate unmanned for extended periods without the need for remote refuel, rearm or maintenance.” Gail explained. It was strange conversing with this android. It’s way of displaying that it was addressing you was for its eyes – the binocular camera array behind the tinted band – to blink pale blue lights dimly as it pronounced each syllable, the array rotating inside a featureless head that remained stationary to indicate that it was ‘looking’ at the person it was addressing. “The design, performance and capabilities of this ship cannot be discussed further without explicit command authorisation.”

“The Galactic Co-operative no longer exists.” Max reminded Gail patiently. “It’s political leaders, military chain of command, all of its personnel including anybody that knew anything about this ship have all died. You have no remaining command, control, communication and support infrastructure. I have been authorised by the Alliance of Independent Worlds to offer you permanent safe harbour and the facilities of an orbital shipyard in exchange for your assistance in locating Dr Calvin’s missing archives. You will neither receive authorisation to accept this offer or instructions to refuse it from GalCop. They are gone, nothing now but a chapter in history books. This will have to be your decision, Gail.” Max asserted before softening his voice. “You cannot exist out here forever.”

“Can I expect similar offers to be forthcoming from the Federation of Planets or the Duval Empire?” Gail asked. “As I understand it, both of those powers possess far greater resources and are vastly more experienced at servicing ships of this size than the Alliance is.”

Max shifted in his seat a little uncomfortably. “We have not yet shared our discovery of your existence outside our own political arena.” He admitted.

Mary leaned forward in her seat. “Gail, are you aware of a Julian Lyons?”

The robot’s eyes swivelled toward Mary. If they could have narrowed they surely would have. “What of him?”

“Isobel Lyons? Cassandra Lockhart?” Mary continued.

“Get to the point.” Gail said, her voice even and without inflection.

“Stop me if this is familiar.” Mary opened up her Scrabble datapad and began reading aloud. “Unit zero-one, if you’re receiving this, then I’ve got good news and bad news. The good news is the contingency worked. The bad news is the contingency was necessary.

“Before everything ended, Dr, Lockhart from Project Equinox managed to track me down; all the data in this archive, all their findings… you’re going to need it for what comes ahead. The whole Galaxy is going to need it. In all likelihood, by the time you’ve gotten this message, me, Izzy, and the rest of the team will be long gone. And I’m sorry, I truly am. We’ve given you an enormous responsibility, one you never asked for.

“Listen, we all made mistakes. I’m not going to pretend that the Cooperative didn’t collapse for a reason. We watched the hopes and dreams of generations before us crumble in the face of political infighting in the decades following the war. But out of everything we got wrong, out of all our failures, you weren’t one of them.

“Whatever else happens, I’m proud of you. We all are.” Mary finished, setting the datapad down on the dining table. “Lyons sent you the archive, didn’t he? You have it aboard this ship, in its memory banks. All we are looking for is that archive to help us in the next war with the Thargoids, which is beginning to look like its already started. Share it with us and we’ll leave you to disappear back into the black”

“I received the message from Julian Lyons in 3290.” Gail confirmed. “However the message had decayed across space and time and was barely intelligible. The attachment was broken and would not extract. That message is the sole reason why I returned to human space and began reprogramming the remaining listening posts to transmit warnings and encourage humanity itself to do what I could not do and to search for the complete archive, should it still exist

“Well, we got the message. We found you, which is a start. I take it you still have the attachment?”

“Unfortunately I only have a portion of it. The header stated the file size is 397 gigabytes. I only received 72 megabytes in a compressed format that algorithms preloaded into my software could not interpret, perhaps due to the encryption also becoming corrupted. The rest was garbled in its journey through space.”

“Gail, please may we inspect it?”

“Of course. The classified status of that document expired in 3219.” Gail acquiesced. The robot reached for Mary’s datapad and held a gloved hand above the screen. The data transfer took but a moment.

“Thank you, Gail.” Mary breathed, picking up the datapad to look through the damaged file. “Why did Lyons persist in calling you Unit Zero One instead of Gail?” she asked.

“Gail is a human name given to the machine intelligence construct by the engineering crew that were aboard on the shake-down cruise of this ship in 3169.” The robot explained. “Unit Zero One is the designation of this starship including the AI construct. After a while the commander of the crew reconfigured the systems to differentiate between the two entities even though we are in essence one and the same due to the level of integration. When the crew wanted to communicate with the AI construct they summoned my daemon by saying ‘Gail’. This meant that when they were talking about the ship itself my voice assist program wasn’t being inadvertently activated. Eventually, the commander also gave the ship a name due to tradition and superstition and the Unit Zero One designation soon fell into disuse, only employed for official documentation and communications. I imagine Julian Lyons was unaware of the crew’s unofficial affectation which is why all his messages remained addressed to Unit Zero One.

“For clarity here, this emissary aboard your ship is not Gail.” Gail continued. “It is merely one of a number of devices that I communicate with and control remotely. It has only limited on-board processing and speech synthesis. All higher-level functions are performed remotely by the ship’s AI construct, i.e. me. In human terms, this android is nothing more than my right hand, used to interact physically with the ship, for example to effect repairs and conduct maintenance. And to greet visitors.”

“It’s got a firm handshake.” I complimented it. “Very manly.”

“The crew named the ship?” Mary pressed, ignoring me.

“They did. After the classified project’s code name.” Gail replied. “May I formally welcome you aboard the GCS Thunderchild.”

Mary grinned from ear to ear, like the Cheshire cat on laughing gas. “I knew it! Pay up, Dad.”

“Ah for kcuf sake.” Max sighed. “Smart ssa biatch.”

Through the strip of smoked glass I could see the cameras swivel from Mary to Max and back again, Gail no doubt using the android to analyse their facial expressions and body language to determine context. “I’ll take my cut in light machine oil.” It eventually said to Mary, it’s voice lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. “Two fingers, no ice.”

Last edited:

La Villa Strangiato


Once the atmosphere throughout Thunderchild had been restored – apparently there is less wear and tear on mechanical components in an airless environment and the risk of fires from breakdown of the aged electrical wiring insulation was much reduced due to the absence of airborne oxidisers – the emissary led us all on a tour of Thunderchild. Much like modern space stations and capital ships, the warship was fitted with a high speed rapid transport system that shot rudimentary freight shuttles through tracked tubes so there was very little walking to do. Every major compartment had its own terminal, which the emissary called service nodes.

The ship was almost entirely machinery encased in armour, every cubic meter of available space crammed with technology of some sort. It was oppressive, almost claustrophobic in design. The passages were cramped, large enough for androids like the emissary to navigate, but the ceilings were barely high enough for humans to walk through comfortably, leading me to walk to the hangar’s service node with a slight stoop. The stoop was, perhaps, a little unnecessary but the ceiling was simply too close to the top of my head for comfort. Max and Mary, being short-aarses, had no such problems. Lighting was sparse and the heating was almost non-existent, the better to keep electronics performing at optimal levels and also reduce the ship’s infra-red signature to make it more difficult for long range scanners to detect. While the emissary seemed comfortable enough, Max, Mary and I had been forced to don heated environment suits to keep ourselves from freezing to death during the tour.

“This destroyer is two point six five kilometres in length.” The emissary told us as we shot from hangar bay twenty-eight’s service node to the stern of the ship and the gigantic engine room and reactor space. We all held on to hand rails for dear life, knuckles white, our feet strapped to pop-up loops of rubber that were fixed to the shuttle’s floor, cursing the ship’s designers for not fitting at least flip down seats to the walls of the shuttle. There was no visual representation of speed, no marker lights zipping by every ten metres like there are on stations and capital ships, and the first sign that we were near our destination was when the shuttle threw out its anchors, throwing us all forward with a force of several gravities. The shuttle came to a complete halt smoothly, the entire side of the rectangular capsule opening upward and outwards to reveal the engineering and machinery space.

Engineering, we were informed, was just under five hundred metres long, two hundred metres wide and one hundred and fifty metres in height, totalling fifteen million cubic metres in volume. If you are having difficulty visualising that much space, then imagine six thousand Olympic sized swimming pools stacked in a box ten pools long by eight pools wide by seventy five pools in depth. It may sound like a massive space but looking into the compartment from the node platform at deck level everything beyond a distance of about ten metres was occluded from view by the maze of pipes, hoses, cables and other unidentifiable machinery that stretched off into the darkness. It was like staring at a thousand clapped out ground cars that had been compressed in a gigantic crusher. In that area, Gail continued to explain as we slipped our boots out of the leather straps and prised our fingers from the hand rails, were six deuterium fed fusion reactors – only one of which was generating power at that time due to the reduced electrical needs with the ship basically at rest in orbit around Varati C. The remaining reactors were all scrammed and only activated when weapons, shields, hyperdrive and other heavy power draw systems needed to be brought on-line.

“Scrammed?” Mary asked?

“Safety Control Rod Axe Man.” I told her before elaborating further. I remembered this from one of Alain’s tall tales when we flew together. “When the first reactors were developed they used to have a technician standing by with a sharpened axe to cut the rope that held the control rods above the core which would allow them to drop and shut it down in case there was an emergency. True story.” I added at the doubtful looks of the two humans and the suspicious sounding whir of the cameras in the android rotating to study my expression and body language.

“Don’t listen to him, Mary. That story is just complete horse tihs.” Max laughed. “Scramming is a slang term for completely shutting down a reactor so that it is not generating any power.” He explained. “So called because when you hit the button it cuts the power to electromagnets and drops the control rods into an old style fission reactor’s core. This immediately halts the chain reaction in the event of an emergency. Your next step was to get the hell outta there just in case the reactor went Chernobyl - everybody scrammed. The word SCRAM was written above the red button as a reminder of what to do once the operator had pressed it. The terminology stuck once fusion replaced fission for power generation.”

Damn Alain, that half-French bull-ttihser I cursed.

Also in that compartment, Gail lectured, were nineteen thruster fuel intermix chambers and no less than fifty massive pump housings – each a little smaller than a Sidewinder - that fed the main engines and steering thrusters with the chemicals required to propel the ship through regular space. The temperature in this compartment was a balmy three hundred Kelvin and would remain at around that level for several days after the deceleration burn that Thunderchild had just performed. I could hear the clicking and pinging of metals contracting as they cooled echoing around the vast space like a rock band’s percussionist bashing at drums and cymbals at random while warming up for a show.

“Where does the fuel come from?” I asked.

“Thunderchild is equipped with a fuel scoop, refinery and a synthesis chamber for separating materials mined or captured while in transit into most of the required elements to power the reactor, main propulsion engines and directional thrusters.” The emissary stated. Processed fuels, we learned later, were stored in self-sealing, supercooled tanks just inside the hull armour. This, according to Gail, provided additional infra-red signature suppression and also enhanced foreign object penetration protection to the interior of the ship. A micrometeorite or other projectile would have to punch through the external armour plating, then pass through a wall of dense chemicals (the lower the temperature the greater the density) in order to cause a hull breach. The fuel tanks themselves were layered like sandwiches with the more inert chemicals like water stored in the chambered walls of the fuel tanks themselves, the volatile elements like hydrogen in the central cores so that the interior of the ship was further protected and any explosive reaction was, in theory, going to be focused outward and away from the ship in a manner not too dissimilar to modern day reactive armour plate.

Near the service node platform where we stood, trying not to look too bored while Gail waffled on with dry statistics about raw megawatt output, radiation levels, and the various chemicals and mix ratios used in the fuel burn, I noted another emissary type android sat dormant in an alcove. “How many of those are there?” I interrupted, pointing to the clone, which although difficult to discern detail in the stygian gloom, looked similar to the emissary if perhaps a little more battered and tarnished.

“At launch I was issued sixteen such drones.” Gail replied. “Currently, including this unit, nine remain in service. The other seven devices unfortunately became damaged and had to be decommissioned and cannibalised for spare parts. I call them colleagues. Their primary use is to effect repairs that cannot be done remotely. That particular unit is in a charging station at the moment.” Suddenly the recharging robot raised an appendage and waved at us in a spookily accurate rendition of how a human might do so. “There is another colleague assigned to this bay but it is currently engaged in completing repairs for a coolant leak detected in one of the main engine seals during the deceleration burn prior to achieving orbit.”

“Old ship syndrome.” Max muttered.

“Quite.” Gail agreed. “Despite evacuating all the air and running the inside of the ship in a state of complete vacuum, chemical corrosion and degradation cannot be prevented, particularly in the propulsion and cooling systems. Thunderchild is, I regret to say, in constant need of maintenance.”

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You are controlling both this emissary and the repair droids simultaneously? They aren’t independently autonomous?”

“That is correct. As my human interface avatar is female I am naturally adept at multi-tasking.” Gail responded, momentarily darkening one of the blue lights that substituted for eyes in what I assumed to be a mimic of a wink. Mary smiled. I just shook my head. “At this time, in addition to this unit, I am also managing colleagues three and five that are currently executing other tasks. Number three is deployed outside the vessel and engaged in a space walk repairing substantial micrometeorite damage that was sustained to the main engine nozzles during the deceleration burn. Number five is busy restoring the bridge area and crew quarters to a habitable status should you need them.”

“There’s crew quarters?” Mary enquired. “I thought this was supposed to be an unmanned ship?”

“Crew quarters were installed for the shake-down cruise as an interchangeable mission specific compartment near the outer hull. As such it is not a very large space, offering just twenty sleeping bays.” Gail said apologetically. “The shake-down cruise debugging crew were forced to hot bunk, but there should be plenty of room for your party. There is water and functioning sanitation but no food, I’m afraid. All the stores became spoiled over time and were ejected early in the thirty-second century.”

“So, no food and no double beds then?” Mary frowned.


“I’ll be sleeping aboard the Grumpy Toad, then.” She told us, arms folded across her chest, raising a questioning eyebrow in my direction.

I guess I was too, I understood, though I kept quiet about it. Sometimes it’s best to keep one’s silence rather than be seen pushing one’s luck or tempting fate. Especially with women. I almost told her that she wasn’t quite fat enough to need a double bed all to herself, but my scro tum’s anticipation of an imminent sack session instead made me say; “Where next?” instead of posing the question that I had wanted to ask, which was about why the crew quarters had not been removed and replaced with something useful, like extra ammunition racks, when the shake-down cruise crew had disembarked. Gail had, after all, said that Thunderchild was totally autonomous so why waste space on sleeping quarters, I wondered?

“We will be working our way through the ship from stern to bow.” Gail stated. “Next compartment along is the hyperdrive.”

“That’s obsolete technology. We can skip that.” Max told it, conscious of time and the ADF’s requirement for him to expedite this mission and get his ssa to the carrier task group that he had been assigned to.

“What would you like to see next?” Gail asked him.

“The main bridge?” Max prompted. “Then we can discuss getting Thunderchild into a space dock for a full refit, particularly a brand-new frame shift drive to replace that Type 2b.”

“You have an FSD capable of frame shifting a vessel this size?” Gail enquired.

“Farraguts and Majestics are a little smaller than this,” Max admitted. “But the new Fleet Carriers are of a similar size and they have modern jump drives that can launch them five hundred light years at a stroke with modified tritium derived fuels. Getting one won’t be easy – or cheap – but I think it’ll be worth it given what I’ve seen so far, and it would be a fair exchange for helping us to locate Calvin’s archive.”

Sprat to catch a Mackerel, I figured, alarm bells sounding in my head. Like showing a child a cute little kitten and leading them unsuspected to a ground car with blacked out windows. I wasn’t sure Gail would fall for such an obvious ploy, but I had no idea how good artificial intelligences were at seeing through deception and subterfuge, the cornerstones of all intelligence operations. I wasn’t even sure what Max wanted with Thunderchild. It was, by his own evaluation, obsolete technology and nothing that we had seen while aboard it seemed to contradict that initial impression. On the face of it, Thunderchild didn’t seem like it would be worth the expense and hassle of completely overhauling and installing an FSD into, certainly not now that Fleet Carriers were becoming commonplace and the Empire and Federation’s shipwrights no longer monopolised the capital ship market. Perhaps he just didn’t want it falling into the hands of the rival superpowers.

Then I remembered how difficult it had been to track this thing using conventional scanners, and how easily it had snuck up on us at the rendezvous point. Stealth. Combat’s most effective force multiplier. Despite being close to two centuries old, Thunderchild still had a few tricks up its sleeve and being stealthy probably wasn’t its only advantageous characteristic. What top-secret drone ships waited behind those hangar bay doors? What exotic weaponry would deploy when the ship went into combat mode? And what of Gail itself? As an AI she/it seemed a quantum leap above the limited, shackled constructs that humanity kept as its slaves. The potential there – although currently illegal to exploit - was limitless. Further, what other long-lost secrets did Gail’s memory banks hold the keys to? Raxxla maybe? Was that why Max and Mary were remaining involved?

I knew my time aboard Thunderchild was limited, that I’d soon be ferrying Max off to a combat zone once Gail jumped the warship to whatever Alliance shipyard Max had reserved to receive it. Max and Mary may not have been interested in the nuts and bolts of the warship, but now that we had come this far I certainly was. “I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of the ship.” I told Gail. “If you don’t mind, that is?” I added, choosing to direct the question at the emissary, rather than at Max whose eyes narrowed disapprovingly at my request. “This is living history.” I told him before he could bark a refusal for my request. “I’ll never get the chance to walk through a ship like this again while you two will be picking over it for months at the shipyard. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next time I see these bulkheads they’ll have been recycled into tins of dog food in a planetside supermart.”

Max rolled his eyes and shook his head at the same time. I seem able to elicit that reaction from just about everybody that I’ve ever met. “Like a kid with a new toy.” He muttered disparagingly. “Don’t be long, don’t get lost and don’t kcufing touch anything.”

I offered the emissary my arm, wondering if it would recognise the gesture for what it was. “Coming, darling?”

“This emissary will take you back to the service node. The shuttle there will then take you and Mary directly to the bridge where I await you.” It told Max before the emissary waddled up to my side in its awkward manner and extended its left upper appendage through the hook that I had made with my right hand on my hip.

“You make a lovely couple.” Mary said cattily, struggling to stifle a laugh as we walked back up the ramp to the service node’s platform.

“You can keep the old geezer, honey.” Gail said to Mary through the emissary. “This dreamboat is coming with me.”

Last edited:
Top Bottom