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Secrets of the Star Rim Empire

© 2021 R.A. Nargi

BOOK ONE: Quantum Dark

The mid-24th century is a golden age of discovery. 

Dead civilizations are strewn throughout our own and neighboring galaxies—providing a treasure trove of unfamiliar technology which borders on magic. Specialized salvage companies compete to plunder alien worlds, and celebrated xeno-archaeologists capture the imagination of society with their exploits.

No one is more famous than Sean Beck, a daring explorer whose exploits are known in every corner of the Empire.

Chapter 1

We suffer more in imagination than in reality.” —Seneca

Maybe I had fallen asleep for a few seconds. Hard to believe with all the drugs in me, but you never know. It was a weird feeling. Almost like I was out of my body—in blackness. Disconnected from everything.

I sensed a pinpoint of light. Far away. As I stared at it, the light grew larger—like I was being pulled into it.

Then all of a sudden I was back. In my bed. Sandwiched in between a slumbering blonde and a brunette. We were all naked, curled together. A pile of warm flesh. I inhaled sweet female perfume, mixed with smoky mincham incense.

The blonde I knew, of course. Lirala. My on-again, off-again girlfriend. Fiancée, if you wanted to be accurate.

The other woman had pitch black hair and dusky skin. Her body was unfashionably adorned. Gold dangles, hoops, bracelets, anklets, necklaces, rings. Every inch of her glittered. Her lips were full and sensual, her cheekbones high, and her nose straight and sharp. Beautiful, but again, not the style. Most women—like Lirala—opted for a more rounded, less severe face. The miruku look, it was called. This girl—whoever she was—was definitely not from New Torino. 

I concentrated on her and forced myself to remember. The facts started to seep back into my brain.

She was 22 years old. From Amravadi. That explained the provincial look.

Her name was Preity Kapoor.

Then it all came back to me.

Pretty.

That was how Lirala laughingly introduced her to me earlier in the evening. Pretty Kapoor. 

“No,” the girl had said shyly. “Preity. My name is Preity.”

We had all met after the Stones concert. Backstage. A private party with Mick and the boys—who actually sounded pretty good for a band that was nearly 500 years old. Of course they were simulacrums, but they could still rock. Especially Keith.

Lir had sauntered in with this girl. Her newest plaything, I figured. But it didn’t really bother me. Lirala was always happy to share. And share she did.

Mystery solved, I eased myself out of the big circular bed, careful not to disturb the sleeping women. Lir was a banshee if you woke her prematurely from sleep. Especially a ghir-induced slumber. I didn’t want to have to deal with that.

I was a little wobbly as I stood up. As I recalled, it had been a pretty sick evening and I was sure my toxies would be off the charts. But I didn’t really care. Yesterday had been my birthday, after all. Thirty-two years of progress. A milestone that had to be honored with the requisite amount of enthusiasm. And by enthusiasm I meant copious amounts of drink, drugs, and debauchery.

Mission accomplished.

In the big bathroom, in a sink carved from very expensive twiluusian halo stone, I puked. Four times in all. A surprising volume of food, drink, and chemical substances. But it worked. My head began to clear.

I always appreciated the symbolism of a good spewing.

Out with the old, in with the new. A purging of bad habits and poor decisions. A chance to begin again, as they say. 

The bio sensors did their thing. Fans whirred. Scanners scanned. And while I was still catching my breath, Mr. Jeris made his appearance.

I called him “Mr. Jeris” but he was a late-model BoDyn medical bot with zero anthro features. He was basically a mobile computer, a big hunk of plastic and servos. Property of Beck Salvage. And one of my uncle’s watchful eyes. 

Mr. Jeris announced that I should hold still, but he didn’t have to tell me. I knew the drill.

As I slumped against the bathroom wall, Mr. Jeris pressed one of his sensors into the crook of my elbow and another one against my neck.

Then he began to administer a witch’s potion of restoratives, designed to basically nullify all the hard work I’d put in destroying my mind and body over the previous twelve hours of partying. It seemed like such a waste.

But, again, part of the deal with my uncle. I was as much property of Beck Salvage as Mr. Jeris was.

“Hey,” a lightly-accented voice said from the doorway. It was the voice of the girl in my bed. Pretty. 

“Mind if I get some of that too?”

She looked a little worse for wear too, with dark circles under her eyes. But she was still beautiful—in a strange, exotic way.

“No problem.”

I instructed Mr. Jeris to treat Pretty and, after she consented to a waiver, he did so.

Soon we were both feeling much more normal. And after topping things off with some B-stim and a blast of hydria, we felt better than normal. It was Pretty’s first experience with the gas that was a staple in the medstation of every young aristocrat in New Torino. At least those who could afford it.

Grinning, she looked me up and down. “I could get used to this.”

I shrugged. “Partying can be hard work.”

“I guess so.”

“You want some moxa?”

“I should go. I basically crashed your party.”

“Nonsense. Any friend of Lirala’s is a friend of mine. And I mean that quite literally.”

Pretty looked down, a blush coloring her cheeks. “This is all pretty new to me. I hope it was okay.”

I smiled at her. “From what I can remember, more than okay. Help yourself to a robe and meet me in the dining room. I’ve got real moxa and sachan tea if you want it.”

“Should I wake Lirala?”

“Not a good idea. Let’s just say that Lir values her beauty sleep.” Privately, I pictured an enraged Lirala, kicking, punching, and ripping the jewelry from her friend’s flesh. No, you didn’t want to wake Lir up.

Fifteen minutes later, as I was leaning over the balcony, inhaling the aroma of rich Ardovan moxa, Pretty walked over wearing a borrowed robe. Her dark hair was wet from a quick shower.

“Wow, that’s some view,” she said.

I nodded and handed her a moxa. 

It was some view. Probably the best view—or one of the best in the city. My domus was on the far western edge of New Torino, on a hill that jutted a little farther west than everything else, so mostly what I saw down below was the pristine Arden river, fifty kilometers wide and 40,000 kilometers long, that ran around the equator of Anglad. Technically, the Arden was a sea, but river sounded more romantic. And when you are terraforming a planet, you can make up whatever names you want.

“How fast are we going?” Pretty asked.

It was a question just about everyone wondered about when they first encountered the floating city.

“Not too fast,” I said. “Five or six kilometers an hour.” And then, before she could ask the expected follow-up question, I said, “It takes almost a full year to make a full circle around the globe.”

“Must be nice to always have a change of scenery.” She nodded to the range of mountains to the southwest.

“To be honest, it all kind of blends together, besides the bridge cities, of course. There are a bunch of forests, jungles, and mountain ranges, and one kind-of-small desert. You don’t see much at this elevation.”

“Still, it beats living underground.”

I had heard that the winds were bad on Amravadi, but I also knew that millions of people still lived there, mostly in subterranean cities. Which wouldn’t be an option for me—no matter how good the screens were.

“What brings you to New Torino?” I asked. 

She took a sip of her moxa. “Oh, my family wanted me to see the galaxy. I’m spending a year with my aunt here. Then it’s off to Rygond and Kulah-to. Grand Tour.”

“Then back to Amravadi?”

Pretty shrugged. “Who knows? Maybe I’ll come back here. Work at my aunt’s stables.”

“Ah, that’s how you know Lirala.” 

The Windsing family have been raising champion horses for centuries, and much of their stock came from original Earth bloodlines. The only thing Lir loved more than her drugs were her horses.

“Yeah. She wants to take me under her wing.”

“May the gods help you.” I smiled at her.

“I should actually get going soon. I need to get back to my aunt’s and do some stuff. Then Lirala and I are supposed to go shopping later on. She said my look is all wrong.”

“Don’t listen to her. You look beautiful.”

She blushed again.

We didn’t say anything for a good long while. Just finished up our moxa and stared off at the river, which was covered by a rolling mist that was just starting to burn off. Flocks of black hafon noisily winged their way over the surface of the water, snatching fish that glistened in the morning light like Pretty’s jewelry.

“Does your dad live here too?” Pretty asked. “I mean, in New Torino?”

I had wondered how long it would take her to mention my father. Pretty much everyone does, sooner or later. When you’re the son of one of the most famous men in the galaxy, you really can’t get away from it. Still, I felt a tinge of disappointment. I was hoping that Pretty would be different.

“No, he doesn’t.” 

I said the words without emotion. Just stating a fact. But Pretty must have been very sensitive. Her expression immediately clouded and she began to apologize. Profusely.

“No big deal,” I said. “My father’s actually a pretty private person and we’re not that close, to be honest.”

“I’m so sorry. I can be a real dimbag.” She got up to leave, her face red.

“Hey, Pretty—”

She spun on her heel at the doorway. “It’s Preity, actually.”

“Yeah, sorry. I thought that was your nickname.”

“Only according to Lirala. I hope it doesn’t stick.”

“Anyway, I was going to say that you should hang out today. A bunch of us are going hover-skimming later.”

“I don’t know.”

“Come on. It’s much more fun than horseback riding.”

“Yeah, we don’t really do that at my aunt’s. The horses are more for show.”

“Well, it’s more fun than shopping. Seriously, think about it. We’re connected on overlay, right?”

“Yeah, Lirala did all that all last night. Is that okay?”

“Of course it’s okay.” 

Yeah, Lirala liked to share. As long as it was on her terms. 

Pretty—Preity looked down. “Well, bye. This was really fun. Tell Lirala to call me when she wakes up.”

“I hope I see you later.”

After she left, I got myself another cup of moxa and returned to the balcony. The day had started so well, but as usual, my father’s presence cast a shadow over everything. 

It was hard for most people to comprehend. My father was not just a celebrity. Sean Beck was a legend. An explorer and adventurer who braved unimaginable dangers and unearthed all sorts of ancient treasures from long long-dead civilizations. And he did it with the flair and panache of the best showman who ever lived.

Billions of people across systems far and wide knew his name and followed his exploits. And as a result, he became extremely wealthy, as did the family business, the fake-modestly-named Beck Salvage.

It was one of the greatest success stories of the past fifty years.

The only problem was that Sean Beck wasn’t the man people thought he was.

He was me.

Chapter 2

When I returned to my bedroom, Lirala was awake. She stretched, catlike, and regarded me with her large, bright eyes—looking altogether too good for this early in the day. Especially after everything she had indulged in last night.

“So, did you like your birthday present?”

“What birthday present?”

“The Pretty one.”

“As I recall, she was actually more your birthday present than mine.”

Lirala pouted. “I can’t help it if you’re so parochial.”

“Neither can I.” 

The fact was, like most everyone from my class and generation, I was a custom baby, mapped out, steered, and bioengineered to be exactly what my parents wanted. Well, what my father wanted. That extended beyond what I looked like—which was pretty much a physical replica of old Sean. It extended to my emotional and sexual disposition, decidedly too hetero and monogamous in Lir’s opinion. More than once, I had wondered what she saw in me.

Other than my dad, of course.

“I’m going to Morat Ridge,” I announced. “With Kane and Hoedi.”

“Have fun.”

“I thought you and Preity could join us.”

“Sucking dust all day long? No thanks. I’m going to get her into Taniujo. Girl needs some fixing. I have a lot of work to do.”

“Suit yourself. Maybe we’ll meet up afterwards.”

“Of course, darling.” Lirala glided towards the bathroom. “Cavershams at eight. I’ll unveil my new creation. It’ll be brilliant.”

I never made it to Cavershams. In fact, I never even made it to hover-skimming. Within the hour, I was on a shuttle heading for Beck Salvage. Not my choice, though. Never my choice.

I had been summoned by my uncle. He had a job for me.

* * *

The headquarters of Beck Salvage was on Ducian Bridge, one of the bridge cities that spanned the Arden. Because Ducian was currently half a world away from New Torino, it took two hours to get there, even via the company’s supersonic shuttle. I tried to sleep, but I was still pretty wired from the moxa and B-stim still in my system, so I just stared out of the window.

I had no idea what the job was. Wallace never provided specifics until I was on the premises. Because of the threat of industrial espionage, he claimed. But I had a hard time believing that the junk we retrieved had value to anyone other than the fanatics who hired us.

My employment contract with Beck Salvage stipulated that, in addition to the handful of meetings and training sessions I needed to attend every year, I was also on-call for high-level client meetings, either face-to-face or face-to-sim. These meetings usually lasted less than an hour; it was the prep work that took longer. Even though I am a quick study and a trained actor, I usually needed to spend a day or two in the knowledge tank getting briefed before Wallace felt confident that I wouldn’t blow the gig. Hopefully this new job was more grin and grip than anything else. A surprisingly large percentage of clients just wanted to bask in my celebrity. Or my dad’s, to be more accurate.

It was late in the afternoon by the time the lift doors opened and I was ushered through the security tunnel and finally granted access to the reception area of Beck Salvage. The decor was the same ersatz old Kessig Republic look that had adorned the offices since before I was born. Big blocky furniture and trophy cases made of lacquered exotic woods dominated the room. Severe-looking artwork of geometric shapes and strong blues, blacks, and metallics decorated the walls. Even Thalatea, the corporate hostess who presided over the reception area, dressed in sharp angular suits and wore her hair styled in sleek marcelled waves.

“Good to see you sir,” she nodded. “How’s the shoulder?”

My shoulder injury was completely fictional, but it was part of this quarter’s Sean Beck narrative, so I played along.

“Almost completely back to normal. Thank you, Thalatea.”

“Mr. Beck is expecting you in the Bay Room.”

I nodded to her and walked down a dark glass corridor dotted with amber lights, past rooms of analysts and researchers that seemed less populated than I remembered. For security reasons, Wallace required the entire research department to work on premises. I wondered why the place looked so empty.

At the end of the corridor I was met by Hendrik Lim, Wallace’s second-in-command, a slight, weaselly man prone to inappropriate jokes.

“How was the party, JB? Did you get into any wáwás?” Lim was one of a handful of Beck Salvage employees who called me by my real name.

“Not quite my style,” I said. “The Stones played at the Wardley O2. It was a good show.”

“I can’t believe you even know who the Rolling Stones are.”

I shrugged. “Legends.”

“That’s debatable.”

I didn’t want to get into it with him. Lim’s taste in music ran in embarrassing directions. Viva Scar. Little Namatto. Boinchi. Stuff like that. 

“Is he expecting me?” I motioned to my uncle’s office door, which was shut.

“He is indeed. We got a good one coming up. This could be a game changer. Big.”

Yeah, right. They’re all big jobs. 

I pushed open the door and stepped into my uncle’s office. He was in the middle of a conversation on his overlay, but he motioned me to sit down.

Wallace Beck didn’t look anything like his younger brother, my father and—by virtue of some expensive genetic manipulation—me. 

My uncle was a few inches shorter than me and appeared to be in his mid-40s, although that was certainly due to some conservative cosme treatments. Wallace’s biological age was 68, three years older than my father—if my father had still been alive. My uncle’s face was thick and ruddy and his eyes deep-set. They had been balanced and his nose had been sculpted, of course, which gave him a hawkish appearance. He wore his salt and pepper hair cropped close to his skull. The overall effect was that of a military general from a bygone era. A master tactician. A trusted commander of men. And a paragon of virtue.

None of which reflected the reality of Wallace Beck.

As he finished up his overlay conversation, Wallace’s eyes darted around the room tirelessly, not resting on anything in particular. Just taking everything in. Checking for disruptions in the patterns of his surroundings. I knew from experience that my uncle was a creature of habit and everything had to be just so.

Finally he ended his conversation and turned to me. “The birthday boy. Did you get my gift?”

“I did,” I lied. There were a pile of gifts stacked up in my entrance hall. I hadn’t opened any of them. “Thank you.”

“A man can always use a new jacket. Did it fit properly?”

“I haven’t tried it on yet.”

“Well, it’s from Strain & Sons. They’ll make any modifications you need.”

I didn’t say anything. Just fixed a non-committal smile on my face.

“Good, I bet you are curious about our next job.”

I remained silent. Long ago, I had realized that it was best to just let my uncle speak until he stopped.

“Close the door, will you?”

I did so.

“This very well could be Beck Salvage’s final job.” He let the words hang there, expecting me to react.

I kept still. Eyes ahead. Interested but not giving anything away.

“The Shima have come to us,” he said. “Finally.”

I leaned back in my chair. The Shima were a humanoid race with a long history. Very wealthy and very insular. It was surprising that they would be interested in hiring Beck Salvage. “What do they want?”

“They need us to locate a particular religious object called the Kryrk, and they are willing to pay a lot for it.”

“How much is a lot?”

“Let’s just say that our fee from this one job would exceed what the company has earned from commissions over the past decade. Combined.”

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Why so much? And why us? We have no history with the Shima. No one does.”

“That’s true enough,” Wallace said. “But we do have a particular advantage in this situation. One that the Shima are willing to pay dearly for.”

“Which is?”

“The place where they believe the Kryrk is located…we’ve been there before.”

I wracked my brain. Beck Salvage normally completed a dozen jobs a year. All over the galaxy. The company had been to hundreds of different star systems. Off the top of my head I couldn’t connect any to the Shima.

“They want us to go back into the Fountain.”

His words hit me like a punch to the gut. The Fountain. That was where my father had died.

* * *

The Fountain was an astronomical anomaly. The Empire’s scientists didn’t understand its exact nature. The best description that anyone could come up with was a traversable wormhole held open by negative mass cosmic strings. But that wasn’t completely correct. It was a portal through dark space that led to the Hodierna galaxy—but only every once in a while. The last time it opened, my father headed up a seven-person mission to retrieve the Tabarroh Crystal for the Dodelan Alliance. Only six of our crew made it out alive. And my father wasn’t one of them. 

Wallace quickly controlled the situation, locking down information flow, and spiriting me to Tor-Betree spaceport where I posed as a seriously-injured Sean Beck.

And that was the beginning of a seven-year deception. 

Appearance-wise, my father and I were nearly identical—thanks to some heavy-handed DNA manipulation. Although I was biologically thirty-two years younger than him, my father underwent regular cosme treatments. To me—and the rest of the galaxy—Sean Beck was eternally thirty-something years old.

The challenge had been in aging my appearance, but my cousin Gemma was somewhat of a prodigy when it came to that sort of thing. Between her facial artistry and interminable sessions at the gym that bulked me up, I was able to pass for my father within a year. The bigger effort was learning to speak like him. 

Beyond his speech patterns and vocabulary, I basically had to learn everything he knew. At least well enough to fake it at meetings. That was a lot more difficult, of course, but Wallace seemed up for the challenge. He hired a small army of information scientists to collect and organize a mountain of data: personal history, missions, general knowledge, interpersonal relationships—basically everything needed to recreate my father’s life.

I had to learn it all. And I hated every minute of it. But I had no choice. If I didn’t cooperate with my uncle’s plans, I’d be cut off. Completely and utterly.

At first I called his bluff. From an estate standpoint, I couldn’t believe that my father wouldn’t provide for his only child. 

We had never been close, and I know that I disappointed him in just about every way a son could disappoint a father. But Sean Beck was a man of tradition. And tradition mandated that some portion—even a small portion—of the Beck empire should pass to me.

So I hired my own team of attorneys and they scoured the volumes of legal documents, both personal and corporate, and then reported the sad truth back to me. There was no provision for me in my father’s will. Upon his death his personal assets and debts would be assumed by the company. 

I also learned that the credits that appeared in my account every month were not from my father at all. It was Beck Salvage that provided me with my stipend. And my lawyers discovered that the company provided this stipend at will. That basically meant ‘at their own whim’ with no obligation to continue it. So they could stop it at any time. In addition, the company owned my domus, all my vehicles, including my ’57 Swallow XK hover-jet, my clothes, and basically everything else of value that I possessed.

When I confronted Wallace about this, he basically shrugged and said that it had been my father’s wish that I make my own way in life—just like he had.

But Wallace told me that he was sympathetic to my plight. He’d offer me an employment contract with a salary and even some ownership in the company.

All I needed to do was to pose as my father at a handful of sales meetings and press conferences a year. No missions. No follow-up. I’d be a well-paid figurehead to be trotted out when necessary.

So I agreed. I didn’t have any other options.

Chapter 3

“Everything came together very quickly,” Wallace explained. “The Shima had won an expedition through the Fountain when it next opened. Seventy-two hours ago they were informed by the Rhya that the opening was imminent and they needed to have a ship ready at Tor-Betree or they’d forfeit their position.”

“I still don’t understand how we came into the picture,” I said. “The Shima have their own ships and their own archaeologists. Why do they need us?”

“They won’t say, of course, but our people think that the Shima were either caught unaware or had some kind of internal breakdown. Our models had the Fountain re-opening in 2363 at the earliest. Maybe the Shima made the same assumption. Now they can’t get a ship there in time. That’s one hypothesis.”

“What’s the other—the internal breakdown?”

Wallace leaned back in his chair and looked out the window. “I don’t know. It’s just a rumor. Power struggles. They have a new chancellor. Qa’Ammit. He’s a hard-liner. Hates the Mayir even more than old Tanedj.”

“The Mayir? What do they have to do with this?”

“They won a slot as well. Along with the Faiurae. Stiff competition.”

I knew a fair amount about the Mayir Crusader party. They had roots going back several hundred years to the early 21st century’s neo-fascist “Greatness” movement. The Mayir had a disturbingly large number of supporters who all opposed egalitarianism and advocated the doctrine of human supremacy and the ejection of all non-human races from the Empire. For some reason that wasn’t entirely clear to me, they had singled out the Shima as their first target, claiming that they were “parasitic” and their presence within the Empire led to moral degradation.

I wondered if their presence had something to do with the fact that we were a Shima-backed expedition.

Wallace didn’t have the answers. But the Beck Salvage team had been scrambling.

“It’s between us and Allegro,” Wallace said. “We have our final presentation tomorrow morning at Tor-Betree. That’s where you come in.”

“Tomorrow morning? That’s not enough time to prep, you know that.”

“That’s what we’ve got, Jannigan. We’re leaving immediately. Piettow will run AL on the journey over. Gemma’s coming as well. She’ll make sure you look good for the meeting.”

“I can’t believe this.”

He clapped me on the shoulder. “Believe it. We get this contract, we’re set for life. It’s what your dad would have wanted.”

* * *

It was midnight before we got to Odiaatha, the spaceport orbiting Anglad. There we boarded the company’s liner and set off towards the jump point to the Endilon system. While most of the other members of the team relaxed and had a nice drink or two, I was rushed to a stateroom that had been converted into a knowledge tank. Dr. Aman Piettow was there with a few assistants who had been set up with portable AL workstations.

I looked around the crowded room. There wasn’t even a proper cradle here. “Is this going to even work?” I asked.

“We’ll be fine,” Piettow said. “Voss ran some tests already. Almost set.” 

Piettow was a tall man, a bit thin and somewhat stooped. In his mid-50s, I guessed. And he looked it. No cosme for Piettow. Not his style. The doctor was strictly a behind-the-scenes type of guy. But he knew his stuff. 

Wallace had lured him away from an educational think-tank shortly after I was “hired,” and within a year Piettow had created and staffed Beck Salvage’s brand-new accelerated learning department. It was mostly to support me in my new role, so Piettow and I ended up spending a fair amount of time together.

He checked a datapad. “When was the last time you were in? April? Does that sound right?”

“I think so.”

“Okay, we’ll overlap March. Just a little. We’re only going to do high-level ambience. We don’t have time for much else. We need to get into the meat of the briefing.”

What Piettow called ‘ambience’ was topical knowledge that someone like my dad would pick up on a day-to-day basis. Some of it was work related, but a lot of it was just things like sports scores, current events, and pop culture knowledge. There was a lot of overlap with what I knew anyway, but Piettow’s data was skewed towards someone of my dad’s age, social position, and history. I didn’t give a shit about cloud polo, for example, but my dad was fascinated by it.

Instead of a cradle, I had to stretch out on the stateroom’s bed. It was comfy enough, but all the bio interfaces were a hodgepodge of fiber and cable running out of portable equipment boxes. 

“Hey, Jannigan.”

I turned to see Essida, Piettow’s young assistant, a redhead with a lot of attitude. One of my favorite people at Beck Salvage.

“They dragged you out on this fire drill too, Ness?”

“I heard it was a big deal,” she said.

“It is a big deal,” Piettow said. “And we need to get started. So, Jannigan, if you please…” He motioned to the bed.

I leaned over to Essida and whispered, “Any chance I could get some whiskey or something? I know Wallace must have some Aberlochy stashed around here somewhere.”

She laughed. “Yeah, I’m not sure that would go too well with the neurocrene cocktail you’re getting, but I’ll think about it.”

“You’re no fun.” I winked at her.

Ness finished hooking me up while some of the other techs completed the diagnostics. They all worked quickly without the usual banter or chit-chatting. Even Ness seemed much more serious than usual. I could feel the tension and sense of urgency.

One of the techs used some sort of imaging device to take my body measurements. Apparently, while I was getting facts stuffed in my brain Gemma’s team would be doing some final tailoring on the outfit they had for me.

“You ready?” Piettow asked. He had a weird look on his face.

“Let’s get it over with.”

Piettow nodded to Essida, who touched a few commands on her datapad.

“Sweet dreams,” she said.

* * *

Piettow’s AL drugs always made me feel cold. Physically cold, I mean. Back at the knowledge tank at Beck Salvage headquarters, they usually cranked the heat up in the cradle for me. Here on the liner, I had to make do with a thin blanket. Still, I didn’t have to endure being chilled for too long. I was out within a few minutes.

I wish I could describe what an AL session felt like, but other than some residual memories of flashing lights and weird low sounds, I couldn’t recall much of the process. Piettow once described it to me as akin to force-feeding someone. But instead of liquid food being pumped into my gullet, liquified knowledge was being pumped into my brain.

Honestly, it could have been anything. For all I knew, Piettow was teaching me how to fold origami—or make a soufflé. I had no idea.

When I awoke, Essida administered some more drugs, including a blast of hydria, which cleared my head immediately—and then some.

“You did great,” she said. “I think we set a new record in terms of how much info you took in.”

“How much time until the meeting?” I asked.

“Two hours or so. Gemma needs at least an hour with you, so Dr. Piettow’s just going to do some spot checks real quick.” As she started unhooking me from the sensor rig, Piettow came in and started barraging me with questions. I answered everything correctly, but I’d need to work on my delivery. It’s definitely unsettling when you say something without really grasping how you know what you are talking about.

After fifteen minutes of interrogation, he pronounced me ready to go and wished me luck. Ness walked me down the hall to another stateroom where my cousin Gemma had set up her own gear.

“Dynark’s Blood!” she exclaimed when she saw me. “What’s that jungle growing on your face? Please tell me it’s fake!” She tugged at my beard.

“Oww!”

“Ugh! Into the shower with you!” She shoved me towards the bathroom. “Let’s soften it up before I hack it off.”

“Have fun!” Ness called as I disappeared into the bathroom.

“I could use a little help in here,” I said.

“In your dreams!”

Even though Gemma said she’d need an hour to work on my appearance, she was done in forty-five minutes. I was shaved, my hair cut, stranded with a hint of gray, and styled. My skin was marked with some temporary and very subtle age spots, and some of my wrinkles were retouched—both on my face and hands. Finally, I was dressed in a very expensive suit that fit me perfectly.

When I looked in the mirror, I was staring at Sean Beck.

I hated what I saw, and looked away.

Gemma noticed my expression and smiled faintly. “I guess I did my job.”

“You certainly did.” Wallace stood in the doorway, looking me over. “Well done, honey. Did you check him against the aging projections?”

“Of course I did.”

“Terrific.” He took one last look at me and then motioned me to follow him. “We’re actually a little ahead of schedule, so we have time for a quick briefing session with Sainecourt. It’s all in your head, anyway. But it can’t hurt, right?”

“Whatever you say.”

“It just makes you look like you’re even more on top of things,” Wallace said. 

I knew what he meant. Piettow had implanted all the pertinent information into my mind during the AL session, but it was all under the surface. A briefing session would get me thinking about the mission and bring it top-of-mind.

As we walked down the hall I caught a glimpse of a spaceport wall through a porthole. 

“We docked already?” I asked.

“Yes. The Shima are coming to us. Two of them. Junior representatives of their trade council, based out of Lussix.”

“A job this big and they’re not even sending the big guns?”

“The big guns are three months away. That’s why they’re even talking to us.”

“Right.” The Shimese home world, Sekhbet, was on the far side of the galaxy, 150 light years away. Lots of hops.

Wallace led me into the liner’s conference room, finely appointed with an impressive carved lo’an table, wormcloth upholstered chairs that looked like they should be in a museum exhibit, and thick Palanese carpets that seemed to muffle all the sound in the room.

Ro Sainecourt sat at a projector at one end of the table. He looked up as I entered the room.

“There he is. Man of the hour.”

Sainecourt headed up our missions planning department and had been with the company forever. One of my dad’s trusted lieutenants. He must have been close to a hundred years old, and like Piettow, eschewed all but the most necessary bio mods. Every time I saw Sainecourt he looked older, and I wondered how much longer he’d be around. Still, he was as sharp as anyone. Sharper, really, because he had the unique ability to synthesize all the data his team collected into a straightforward, concise mission briefing.

“Let’s get into it,” he said, as he fiddled with the datapad that controlled his projector. “Executive briefing. Your eyes and ears only.”

Before I could even sit down, Sainecourt started in, peppering me with bits of information. Starting with the Kryrk.

* * *

It was a five-thousand-year-old religious artifact from Sekhbet, supposedly used by a Shimese prophet to smite an enemy kingdom by summoning a falling star that destroyed an entire continent. The word Kryrk roughly translates to “crescent” and in some of the Shimese religious texts the Kryrk is also referred to as “the crescent of the stars.” The object itself was indeed shaped like a crescent, either made of gold or a golden-colored crystal, and was “three hands long.” Shimese hands are longer than human hands, so Sainecourt’s team estimated the artifact’s size to be between 70 and 80 centimeters long.

For millennia, the Kryrk was stored in a temple on an island populated by the Shima’s caste of warrior-priests. Not much is recorded about the Kryrk until the year 1094 of the common calendar. That was the year of the Yueldian invasion.

The race is extinct today, but a thousand years ago Yueldian “Sky Reavers” terrorized the galaxy. They were an avaricious humanoid species of pirates and thieves who plundered art, valuables, and artifacts from thousands of systems. They hoarded these artifacts on their home world of Yueld somewhere in the Hodierna galaxy three billion light years from Sekhbet. Until a half century ago, the Shima had given up all hope of ever recovering the Kryrk—for the simple reason that the planet Yueld was in a solar system that had been lost among forty billion stars. But in 2306, the Fountain was discovered and everything changed for the Shima.

I had a fair amount of knowledge about the Fountain and the Rhya who guarded and controlled access to it. 

Ever since the first exploratory mission through the Fountain returned and reported that the Fountain connected to the Nymorean system and the planet Yueld, the Shima have been petitioning the Rhya for access. But the Shima weren’t the only ones who wanted the opportunity to hunt through the ruins of Yueldian cities to recover stolen artifacts. Nearly a dozen other extant species also demanded access in order to repatriate items of cultural significance that had been stolen by the Yueldian Sky Reavers.

So the Rhya instituted a lottery system, and permitted three different factions limited access to Yueld, its moons, and its space stations. But there were conditions.

First, there were strict rules about what type of craft and technology were allowed through the Fountain. The Rhya had discovered that a low-technology scavenger race—the Obaswoon—were eking out an existence on Yueld. And, for whatever reason, the Rhya wardens did not want these natives interfered with. Granted expeditions would not be allowed contact with the Obaswoon under any circumstances.

Secondly, there would be no colonization of Yueld or its moons. Each expedition was limited to no more than seven individuals—and no sims.

And perhaps the most significant limitation was the temporal nature of the Fountain itself. The anomaly that created the spatial passage between galaxies was inherently unstable. Even with their advanced technology, the Rhya could only keep the Fountain open for a hundred hours or so. And once it closed, it remained closed for a period of between seven and twelve years. 

That meant that there was a limited window to get out. If an expedition missed it, they were stuck there. For years. It hadn’t happened yet, but I could see how it might.

Since its discovery, there had been five missions through the Fountain. And Beck Salvage had been in there twice. Once on behalf of the Ly’uth and most recently for the Dodelan Alliance. That last mission—seven years ago—was the one that claimed my father’s life.

Chapter 4

Most of the actual meeting with the Shimese representatives was anticlimactic. We exchanged pleasantries, I told stories of my exploits, and then I spent a good part of the time listening to Nehenutet and Khebu-Ka reiterate how critical this mission was to their people. 

They asked a number of operational questions regarding our ship and crew, the Beck Salvage strategy, performance guarantees, and security. They also wanted to know how familiar we were with the Ambit, the planetary data system the ancient Yueldians used to catalog their plunder. Previous successful missions, including our own for the Dodelan Alliance, depended on deciphering this ancient catalog.

Wallace fielded most of those questions, and he trotted out Virgil Yates, a field data scientist who was a part of Beck Salvage’s last mission through the Fountain. Yates was a grey-haired, soft-spoken man and a friend of my father’s—and the last person to see him alive. I was frankly surprised that Yates was in the meeting because I had thought he had retired shortly after the Dodelan job, but Wallace assured the Shimese representatives that Yates was the foremost expert on the Yueldian Ambit and their best chance at locating the Kryrk.

I wrapped up with an exciting anecdote about one of “my” past missions involving an intraplanetary jumpgate that had been sabotaged by a rival salvage company. I didn’t mention Allegro by name, but everyone knew who I was talking about. Of course, Beck Salvage prevailed in the end, and the Iluuseg got their graven makara stones back—safe and sound. Another successful mission.

At the end of the meeting, the Shimese seemed pleased, although their mottled gray faces lacked eyes or what we would consider a mouth, so they were tough to read based on human standards.

“Well, sirs,” Wallace said, rising and bowing. “We know that time is short, so we eagerly await your decision. The full resources of Beck Salvage remain at your disposal and we are one hundred percent ready to deploy. On behalf of our entire operation, let me express how grateful we are for your consideration and—”

Khebu-Ka, the more senior of the two Shimese representatives, held up one long-fingered gray hand in a universal gesture of interruption.

“You have misunderstood us, friend Wallace,” he said. “We desire to award Beck Salvage the contract. Your firm shall recover the Kryrk for us.”

Wallace’s face lit up in surprise. Mine too, I imagined. It appeared that Allegro was out of the picture.

“Well, that’s superb,” Wallace said. “Simply superb!”

“We have transmitted the amended contract to your legal department as per your previous instruction,” Khebu-Ka said.

Wallace paused for a moment. “Amended?”

“Ah, yes, some minor changes to the terms. And we thought it would be fair to increase the fee given that the eminent Sean Beck will be captaining the mission himself.”

I felt like the wind had just been knocked out of me. “What?”

Wallace was much quicker than me. He smiled politely and said, “Sean doesn’t do much field work himself—since the shoulder injury. He’s much more valuable directing the mission from our control center—”

As my uncle was speaking, I noticed a flash of movement in my peripheral vision. The second Shimese representative lunged right at me as if he wanted to rip me limb from limb, which—given his two-and-a-quarter meter height and four sinewy arms—might be entirely possible.

As Nehenutet plowed into me, my ornate wormcloth chair tipped backwards and I somersaulted back. Acting purely on instinct, I rolled into a combat crouch, my heart threatening to pound right out of my chest.

My would-be assailant untangled himself from my chair and stepped away. His shoulders were heaving and he was making a labored huffing sound. It took me a moment to figure out that Nehenutet was laughing. At me. 

“Esteemed Captain Beck,” he wheezed. “I am impressed. If you perform such effortless acrobatics with an injured kafat, you must be truly formidable when you are healthy.”

“Forgive the dramatics,” Khebu-Ka said, turning to Wallace. “But it is clear that your leader is more than capable. He will captain our expedition. A condition that is non-negotiable. We want only the best. This is too important for us to settle for anything less.”

* * *

“No,” I said, five minutes later in my uncle’s stateroom. “A big, unequivocal no.”

“They won’t accept ‘no’ from us,” Wallace said. “You were there. You heard it with your own ears.”

“Then we don’t do it. They can hire Allegro for all I care.”

“That’s the problem, Jannigan. You don’t care.”

I took a step back. “What is that supposed to mean?”

“Ever since your father died, I’ve tried to look out for you. I gave you a job. I made sure that you never had to compromise your lifestyle—since obviously that’s what’s most important to you.”

Whoah. Where was this coming from?

“That’s not fair,” I growled. “I played ball from day one. I’ve been to countless meetings. Learned all sorts of meaningless shit. And basically have lived one big gigantic lie for the past seven years. All for you and this company. There is no way I’m going to go into dark space—where my father fucking died by the way. Do you even know what you’re asking?”

“Yes, I do know what I’m asking! I know it very well!” He turned his back on me and stormed to the window, fuming in anger.

The room was quiet for a good amount of time. I sat down on the bed and tried to figure out how I could get off this liner and get back to my normal life on New Torino.

But when Wallace turned to look at me again, all the fight had left him.

“Jannigan, listen to me. There’s a reason we need this contract.”

“Yeah, so you can buy another villa on the Southern Ocaro.”

“Will you stop for a second? Just stop for a second, please.”

I didn’t say anything.

He took a deep breath and sat down. “Remember when I first told you about this opportunity? I said that this could be the company’s final job.”

I nodded.

“Well, we’re done. Either way. Beck Salvage is shutting down in thirty days. We can either go out on top, set for life. Us, our kids, our grandkids, probably for five generations. No one has to worry about anything.”

“Yeah?”

“Or we go out on the bottom. The company declares bankruptcy. Mashigino liquidates our assets. The office. This liner. The other ships in the fleet. Our equipment. You and I walk away with nothing. And that goes double for all the hundred or so folks who work for us.”

I shook my head. “Bankrupt? That doesn’t make sense. The company’s doing great. Just this year, we won half a dozen contracts. I was in the room, so I know—”

He cut me off. “That was us treading water. Small stuff. Didn’t really make a dent.”

“Dent? A dent in what?”

My uncle slumped down in his seat and he cupped his face in his hands. I expected him to burst into tears. But he didn’t. He took another deep breath and pulled his sorry ass together. Then he launched into a long explanation of how my father had made a very poor business decision before he died. And no one really recognized the significance of that decision at the time. It seemed like minor thing. An attempt to diversify by getting in bed with the Maltheusii. It started out as a small stake in Dessidia.

I knew what Wallace was talking about—partially thanks to Piettow’s mental force-feeding and partially because everyone knew about Dessidia. It was a major terraforming project on the moon of Harpallene. And it had been going on since I was a little kid. When it was done, Dessidia was supposed to be the most incredible resort in the entire galaxy. But they had encountered a lot of problems—including messing up the moon’s orbit. The latest news was that the whole moon might need to be destroyed before it crashed into Harpallene. The government was getting involved.

“That doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Why would my dad invest in a resort? That’s not his style at all.”

“He got some bad advice,” Wallace said quietly. “From me.”

A surge of anger coursed through me. “You messed up, you fix it.”

“That’s what I’m trying to do, Jannigan. Don’t you understand? I’m trying to fix it for all of us. For you. Gemma. Condy. All the Becks. And everyone else who has been loyal to this company. They shouldn’t suffer because of my stupid mistake. I just need your help.” He moved towards me and sat down on the bed next to me.

“Jannigan, it’s one job. A hundred hours. You wouldn’t even have to leave the ship. We get paid whether we find the thing or not. Larrow has run the numbers. With the Shima’s money we can be out of Dessidia free and clear.” He put his hand on my shoulder and I looked into his haunted eyes. Either Wallace Beck was the best actor in the world, or he was a man on the edge of losing it all.

“Jannigan, will you do it?”

* * *

An hour later I was in my own stateroom, all alone, cursing myself for being such an idiot.

I needed to talk to someone, but I knew I couldn’t tell Kane about what was going on. Ditto for Lir. Especially Lir. She was not the most empathetic person in the world. When it came to having fun, gossiping, and living on the edge, Lir was your girl. But any hint of anything negative or not going well, or Dynark forbid any sort of misfortune you had to deal with, and Lady Lirala Windsing would absolutely and unapologetically not be there for you. Her brutal honesty was refreshing on the one hand, but sad on the other. But it was what it was.

I shut my eyes and asked for the room’s lights to be dimmed and the temperature knocked down a few degrees. I was so wired from my conversation with Wallace, I didn’t think I could fall asleep—even with pharmaceutical assistance and even though I had not slept since the night of my birthday. But after a while I began to fall into that no man’s land between being awake and being asleep. And I felt myself thinking of Preity Kapoor.

I figured that it was around noon standard galactic time. Even if she and Lir had hit it hard last night, there was a chance that she might be conscious.

What the hell. I activated my overlay and focused on Preity, trying to make a comm-connect. As I interfaced with the room’s AV system, I almost chickened out and aborted the video call, but before I could, Preity’s face appeared in the overlay. At least I hoped it was Preity. She looked different. Her hair was shorter and blonde, twisted into the current style of Terpsichore curls. And all her jewelry was gone.

“Preity?”

“Jannigan, hey. We missed you last night.”

“Yeah, sorry. I got called in for work.”

“So, what do you think?” She fluffed her hair and pouted for me.

“I recognize Lir’s handiwork for sure.”

“Do you like it?”

“Absolutely.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. “You look really nice.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not sure I like it, but we’ll see. It’s new, at least. And change is good, isn’t it?”

“Yes, definitely. I’m all for change. I have been steadfastly for change all my life.” I smiled.

She rolled her eyes at my attempt at humor. “Well, you want to talk to Lir? I can go see if she’s awake.”

“Uh, no. That’s okay.” 

I was kind of caught off guard by the fact that Preity was over at the Windsing estate and I felt a surprising pang of jealousy—although I couldn’t really tell you who exactly I was jealous of. Things got kind of strange around Lir, that was for sure.

“I was actually calling for you,” I said. “To apologize,” 

“Apologize? For what?”

“I was being weird when you asked me about my dad.”

“What? No.” She made a face. “I was the one who was being weird. I should have respected your privacy.”

“Privacy is overrated. Anyway, sorry.” I tried to change the subject. “So did you guys end up at Cavershams last night?”

“Yeah, it was pretty wild.”

“Did you go in the mausoleum? With the tingle vines?” Cavershams was an ancient monastery that had been turned into a private club a few years ago. It had all sorts of crypts and secret rooms filled with various pleasures of the flesh. Lir was the unofficial Dark Princess of Cavershams and liked to lord it over all her friends there—especially the new ones.

“Not something I’ve ever experienced before, I have to say.”

Even on the overlay I could see Preity blush a bit.

“Definitely some acquired tastes.”

“That is for sure.”

“But, hey, change is good. New is good.”

“Dwarves and bots are good.” She smiled.

“And dwarf bots. Don’t forget the dwarf bots.”

“How could I?”

We ended up talking for over two hours. Joking around. Telling each other about our lives. I heard about Preity’s childhood on Amravadi and her six older sisters, who she was very close with. All except for the middle one, Sarika, who sounded like a bitch. It was definitely a different culture than ours. Much more traditional and family-oriented. Their society was even more rigid than ours on Anglad. And the Amravadians were definitely more connected to traditions and the past. Even the way past back on Earth.

I told her about my own childhood. Being the only kid in the house. Living on six different worlds before I was fourteen. My mom passing away during my first year at Highton.

Preity was a good listener; a skill not shared by any of my friends—even Kane. But even still I glossed over the past seven years. I didn’t mention my dad’s death at all. Just told her that we had kind of a strained relationship and that I didn’t see him much.

“But you work together, don’t you?”

“Not really. I mean, I work for the company. Beck Salvage. But we don’t really work together.” I changed the subject and asked how it was going at her aunt’s ranch. So we ended up talking about horses for a while.

“You want to see them?” Preity asked. “When you get back, I mean?”

“Sure.” I definitely did not want to see any horses. I was not really a big fan of them and, besides, I was all horsed out from Lirala. But I wouldn’t mind seeing Preity again. She was so easy to talk to, I felt that we had known each other all our lives.

“So when do you get back?” she asked.

“I’m not really sure. I’m waiting on something here. And then it will be a few days after that. But I’ll be in touch.”

She smiled at me. “Bye, then.”

“Bye.”

Chapter 5

I tried to nap again, but my mind was racing. Maybe I dozed off, or maybe not. At some point I got the call that the Rhya had announced the opening of the Fountain. 

It would be another eight or ten hours before any non-Rhya ships were allowed through, but the clock was now officially ticking and everyone began to scramble. First on the agenda was the crew briefing. 

I rode with Hendrik Lim and Goard, who was one of his ops guys, through the access tunnels of Tor-Betree. We skirted the public terminal and drove past the massive freight warehouses to the private hangars. I had actually never been to Beck Salvage’s hangars before, since I was never involved with an actual mission before. Despite myself, I was curious.

As I exited the coach, I got a lung-full of that typical deep spaceport smell: stale air, ozone, and the faint chemical odor from the scrubbers. The gravity was a little off here as well, I could tell.

We walked down a wide access hall cluttered with repair modules. The hall ended in a door that led to the hangar’s entrance. Security was very tight and we all needed to be scanned before being allowed in.

We walked through the door into a wide, cavernous space that was buzzing with activity. A half-dozen short-range orbiters stood parked by the bay doors, but one was clearly the focus of all the preparation. It was surrounded by flight prep workers, buzzing around like bees in a hive, adjusting power couplings, loading in equipment crates, and scanning every square centimeter of the hull. 

“That’s the Spiridion Arrow,” Lim said. “Our newest addition to the fleet.”

I recognized it as a Barnes PV-3200 Barracuda-class survey vessel. Top of the line. Very expensive. Which made me think of what Wallace had told me about the company’s finances. How were they able to afford this?

“The briefing room is this way,” Lim said. We walked towards the back of the hangar, through another security cordon, and into an office that had been converted into a conference room, where a dozen or more people all seemed to be speaking at once. I saw Wallace, Yates, Sainecourt and some other members of Sainecourt’s team. Towards the back of the room sat four bored-looking individuals that I had never seen before. They were a motley group, for sure. Three males, and one female. One of the males was a Plargond—a stocky nonhuman who stood less than a meter tall and had bulbous features and gray skin. These four were most likely my fellow crew members.

Wallace caught a glimpse of me and beckoned me into the room. “Attention everyone!” he shouted. “Let’s have some quiet. Captain Beck is here, so we’d like to get started in a second.”

Most folks on the team turned to acknowledge me with a respectful smile or a nod, but the four crew members just glared. I decided to take the bull by the horns and strode over to the head of the table. 

“How about some introductions?” I asked Wallace.

“Absolutely. Mr. Sainecourt, what’s your ETA?”

“Less than a minute.”

“Splendid.” He clapped for attention. “Everyone, this is Jannigan Beck. He’ll be captaining the Spiridion Arrow—as far as the Shima are concerned. But, in reality, he’s more of an observer.”

“Don’t you mean a waste of space?” 

The genius behind that quip was a balding man with a bushy brown beard. Based on his somewhat prominent nose and his swarthy complexion, I’d bet he’d never set foot in a cosme parlor. In fact, from the looks of them, I’d bet none of them had.

Wallace pointed at the guy and told me that he was Hap Galish, the pilot. 

“Seriously,” Galish said. “I thought this mission was a big deal. Why did we have to lose Khaor and Ymirandora?”

“We’ll get into that in a second,” Wallace said. He continued with the introductions, gesturing to the Plargond. “Providing security is Xooth.”

“Hattah-hattah-hattah!” Xooth said. 

I wasn’t sure if he was speaking his native language or just screwing with me.

“Our engineer is the esteemed Mr. Obarral.” 

“It’s just Obarral. Like Madonna. Or Anasia.” He was a heavyset human, but from what I could see, he was completely hairless. Yet he had intelligent-looking eyes and a hint of a smile on his face. “I am your servant, sir.” He bowed formally.

“You know Virgil Yates. Our resident expert on the Ambit.”

He smiled at me.

Wallace continued. “Finally, we have Ana-Zhi Agrada. Normally she captains the Arrow, but during this mission she’ll be acting as your first mate.”

The woman looked like she’d be a good person to have on your side in a bar fight. She was tall and solid-looking, and probably weighed more than I did. I’d guess that she was twice my age, although maybe a life of hard living had aged her prematurely. Ana-Zhi Agrada looked me up and down, but didn’t even deign to insult me.

“Who are we missing?” I had counted six crew members including myself. We were allowed a crew of seven.

“We’ve agreed to allow the Shima to place one of their staff on the crew. She’s a human named Chiraine Portelle. They plucked her out of Marlington University. Probably knows more about the Yueldian culture than anyone else alive.”

“Another waste of space,” Galish said. “We don’t need a cultural anthropologist. We need someone who can work with Xooth to keep Yates from croaking while he runs the Raker. Like Ymirandora.”

“Dr. Porter is a data scientist first and foremost. Studying nonhuman cultures is her hobby.”

“I don’t care if this chick’s hobby is blowing Lumandrians. I’d rather work with someone I know.”

Wallace said “If Dr. Portelle doesn’t show up before launch in t-minus three hours, we’ll bring Ymirandora in. She hasn’t left Tor-Betree and she’s standing by.”

“If I know Dora, she’s most likely soaking in a neddi moss bath right now,” Obarral said. “Jealous.”

“Well, then,” Ana-Zhi said. “Makes me wonder. If the Shima’s girl doesn’t show, do we have to take junior?” 

“What do you mean?” Wallace asked.

“I know that was part of the deal and all, but how would they know if he was on board or not? It’s not like we’ll be beaming reports back from dark space.”

Wallace shook his head. “Everything about this mission will be recorded and documented for the Shima’s review.” He pointed towards me. “Which means once we step outside the doors of this room, he’s not Jannigan Beck. He’s Sean Beck.”

“No offense, sonny boy,” Ana-Zhi said. “You might look like your papa, but you ain’t him. Not even close.”

“You’re right,” I said, feeling a flush of anger. “And I’m glad about that. But, listen. You do your job. And I’ll do mine—”

“Sitting on your ass,” Galish murmured.

“Steer clear of me, and we’ll do just fine,” I said, locking eyes with Ana-Zhi Agrada.

She didn’t say anything at first, but then her thin lips formed a half smile. “Aye aye, Captain.”

* * *

There was a fair amount of overlap between this crew briefing and the briefing I was given before the meeting with the Shima. But now Sainecourt was spending more time explaining the nature of the Ambit and how we intended to use it to locate the Kryrk.

Apparently the Ambit was a primitive analogue to our own H-mesh, a series of connected data networks used for communication and the storage of information. Its range was limited to the planet Yueld and the moons and space stations that orbited Yueld. 

Once it was discovered, the Ambit easily yielded its secrets. Several missions had tapped directly into the network and archived it into their ship’s databases. Over the years, researchers—including Chiraine Portelle—had combed through reconstructions of the Ambit, searching for references to certain artifacts, and in many cases, discovering their specific locations. But there was a problem.

Even though the Ambit was still somewhat functional—nearly 700 years after the fall of the Yueldian civilization—parts of it had broken down. Over time vast nodes of the network had become disconnected. And the data scientists believed that those disconnected nodes held valuable information. Such as the location of the Kryrk.

The Shima, through Dr. Portelle’s work, had discovered a clue to a previously undiscovered node—A782—which seemed promising. We would begin our mission by finding the node and, using an RK-11 “Raker” data slicer, extract and parse the data. With any luck, that would lead us to where the Kryrk had been stored away over a thousand years ago.

“So you’re saying if the flunky doesn’t show, the gig’s off?” Galish asked.

“Not at all,” Wallace said. “It is my understanding that the Shima will then provide us with their research and we will proceed. It’s not their preferred option, but we all know that this opportunity came about rather suddenly.”

Galish was about to ask another question when the meeting was abruptly interrupted by one of our security officers bursting into the room with a panicked look on his face.

The Spiridion Arrow had been sabotaged.

* * *

I didn’t learn all the details for another half hour, but it didn’t look good. Someone had smuggled in a particularly nasty pathogenic scidatium which spread to all the ship’s systems, destroying the programming, controls, data, everything. It would take a week to replace everything. And we didn’t have a week. We had an hour.

We were screwed.

Or were we?

I looked down at the row of ships in the front of the hangar. They were all part of Beck Salvage’s fleet. “Why don’t we just take one of those?”

Wallace shook his head. “Those vessels haven’t been vetted by the Rhya. They won’t allow—”

“They’ll allow the Freya,” Ana-Zhi said.

“The Freya?” Yates shook his head. “No. It’s too old. And it’s not properly outfitted.”

I recognized the name. The Freya was the ship my dad was on during his last mission seven years ago. Yates was right. It was an old Mako-class that Beck Salvage had bought from a mining company. One of Beck Salvage’s first big purchases. The Freya was easily as old as me.

Wallace leaned back against a bulkhead, lost in thought. I actually felt sorry for him. He had fucked up badly and everything he and my dad had built was about to come crumbling down. Then he gets one shot at pulling it out of the fire, one very long shot, and now this happens. 

I turned to him. “Let’s give it a try.”

My uncle looked shocked. So did Ana-Zhi Agrada.

“How much time do we have?” I asked.

Wallace checked his datapad. “Sixty-seven minutes.”

“Let’s get going then!”

* * *

The Rhya moved quickly. Maybe they even knew about the sabotage before we did. It’s hard to know with a species so far above you on the technological scale. Within fifteen minutes, six of them swarmed the Freya, presumably checking the ship for technology compliance. The Rhya looked like glowing translucent eels—about a meter and a half long. They floated in the air, as if they were swimming in some invisible ether. 

No one knew much about the Rhya, other than they pretty much left the Empire alone. They appeared content to observe our civilization. The most involvement we had with them began when the Fountain was discovered. Immediately, the Rhya stepped into their role as caretakers and imposed the rules the Empire had to follow in order to be allowed access to the Fountain.

While the Rhya did their thing, an army of mechanics and other workers raced to prep the Freya. They loaded in crates of supplies, weapons, support vehicles, electronics, and—most importantly—a rack of state-of-the-art exosuits. Hendrik Lim saw me checking them out and walked over with a big shit-eating grin on his face.

“You can thank me for those,” he said. “Top of the line Welkin B series.”

“I didn’t think these were out yet.”

“They’re not. But I play chuiwan with Dalen Moch, their CFO, so we’re getting early access.”

“Nice.”

Exosuits were miracles of technology and Welkin led the pack in terms of miniaturization, power usage, and even nano features. On exploration and salvage missions, exosuits were easily the most important piece of gear on a ship. If things went wrong, these suits could basically keep you alive. Even the older models had a long-term emergency hibernation mode.

Lim bragged that the new B series had a lighter exoskeleton, three-phase crystal metallic fiber mesh, and an even more powerful magtouch system.

“Good to know.” I tried to drift away, but he kept droning on and on about the suit’s specs. Fortunately, the Shima’s scientist showed up.

“I need someone to load in my equipment,” she huffed.

Dr. Chiraine Portelle appeared to be my age or even a few years younger, although she dressed and had her hair styled more formally—like an older woman. She had striking light green eyes and red hair, although not the bold red hue that Essida favored. It was more natural—as were her features. Likewise Chiraine Portelle’s full lips and aquiline nose seemed untouched by any cosme procedures.

“I’m Sean Beck, captain of the expedition.”

If she recognized the name, she didn’t show it. “Good for you, Captain. Can I get someone to load me in?”

Ana-Zhi had witnessed the exchange and smirked at me.

The next hour went by in a blur, and I honestly didn’t think we’d be able to make it. Especially since the Shimese representatives decided to pay us a last-minute visit to inspect our preparations. I had to do some improvising around the choice of the Freya as our ship, but they seemed satisfied. We almost lost Chiraine again, when they took her to the conference room for what I assumed was a private last-minute meeting.

But then the klaxon sounded, and she hurried on board and I turned to follow her.

“Sean,” my uncle called. 

I turned.

“Godspeed, brother!” And then he silently mouthed the words thank you.

* * *

As the hatch closed beyond me, I got my first good look at the interior of the Freya. The main hold area was a hodgepodge of metal panels, pipes, ducting, cables, and displays. It looked like it had been scavenged from a dozen other ships and then thrown together in a weekend.

“What a dump,” I muttered.

“Agreed,” Chiraine said. “I’d be surprised if it doesn’t fall apart the second it hits open space.”

“Don’t you worry. The Freya has stood the test of time.” Ana-Zhi patted an oversized junction box. Someone with zero artistic talent had painted a grinning clown face on it—along with the words ARE WE HAVING FUN YET? 

Ana-Zhi said, “She may not be the most comfortable ride in the fleet, but we’re not going far. And, besides, she’s sturdy enough to hold up for three days.”

“Is she?” Obarral asked. “Is she really? Because, pardon me, I didn’t really have enough time to check her out thoroughly.”

A moment later the starway track kicked in and I felt the ship moving. The towing mechanism pulled us through the launch bays and then began to rotate the Freya into takeoff position.

Ana-Zhi barked orders into a comm unit and Galish confirmed that they were almost ready for takeoff.

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Chiraine said.

“You may want to sit down and strap in, missy,” Ana-Zhi said to Chiraine. “If I recall correctly, the inertial dampening on this rig tends to cycle a bit during liftoff. I wouldn’t want you to lose an eyelash.”

Xooth, Yates, and Obarral were already reclining in stained old high-backed flight seats, hooked into acceleration straps. Chiraine looked at one of the remaining seats dubiously. “I’m really afraid I’ll stick to it and won’t be able to get out.”

Ana-Zhi strode over, and in one quick motion jabbed her finger at the other woman’s chest, knocking Chiraine back into the seat. “I said, sit down!” 

Then she shot me a look. “Captain, this way please.”

She marched me down the access corridor towards the bridge. There Galish sat in the pilot’s seat, running through the final launch sequence. “Everything looks good.”

“Really?” she asked. “Because I hear the thermal dispersers rattling like a banshee. Don’t you hear that?”

Ana-Zhi sighed and eased herself onto the bench behind him and patted the seat next to her. As I sat down beside her, she asked “You fly?”

“Nothing like this. I’ve got a Swallow hover-jet.”

“Of course you do,” she smirked. “What year?”

“’57. The XK.”

“Respectable.”

“And sometimes me and my friends go out on quad-jumpers and skimmers. Just messing around.”

“Well, let’s just hope you never have to fly this thing. It’s a damn sight less maneuverable than a skimmer. Pushing around a hundred and sixty thousand k’s through atmosphere with an old Kiyoshi R-drive is not for the faint of heart.”

“Believe me, I have no desire to take the wheel. I’m just doing this for my uncle. If it was up to me, I’d be back in New Torino right now.”

She fixed me with a hard look, but didn’t say anything.

“Okay, clear!” Galish announced.

“Take us out,” Ana-Zhi said.

He keyed the thrusters and we slowly eased away from the space station, running on interval power. As Ana-Zhi had warned, there was a brief lurch and hiccup in the IDS and I was pressed against my seat. But then the wonky component kicked in and everything went back to normal. 

It took a good hour to get over to the Fountain and get in position. The Rhya had very specific instructions and navigation vectors which they transmitted directly to us.

Up close, the Fountain didn’t look anything like a fountain at all. It was a massive ringed structure, kind of like a Kreider-Johnston torus—bristling with solar mirrors, sensor arrays, and navigational beam turrets. The center of it was an open space crackling with blue energy and a miasma of light.

We joined a small flotilla of craft waiting to enter. Most of them were the odd, organically-shaped vessels of the Rhya. These were research vessels, freighters, and wardships that the Rhya used to provide aid to the Obaswoon. But in front of us was the crimson-colored Lamprey-class scout of the Mayir, with its sharp angles and bat-like stabilizers. Beyond it was the Faiurae cutter, glossy and swooped in appearance. They must be looking over at our floating junk pile and laughing their asses off.

“It might be another couple of hours until we get through this queue,” Ana-Zhi. “You might want to get Dr. Port-a-Potty set up with her gear so we can get to work once we get through.”

I was about to tell her to do it herself, but I decided not to. It would help with the pretense if I were to order the crew about.

Back in the main hold area I found Chiraine struggling with some equipment crates. The other crew members seemed to be ignoring her.

“Need some help?” 

“Does it look like I need help?” she huffed. “I don’t even know where I’m supposed to set up.”

I had spotted an engineering bay on the way to the bridge. It seemed as good a place as any. I grabbed a crate and called to Yates, “Help us get set up. On the double. We won’t have much time once we break atmosphere.”

He raised one eyebrow questioningly, but didn’t complain. Between the two of us we got Chiraine’s gear moved into the bay, and Yates stayed to helped her assemble the system.

Chapter 6

Two hours later, it was our turn to go through the Fountain. I’m not sure what I had expected, but the sensation was unbelievable. 

First we passed through what looked like some sort of electro-charged plasma cloud—with bolts of energy spidering around the hull of the Freya. The interior lights blinked out for a second, as did the artificial gravity. I felt myself strain gently against the seat’s acceleration straps and then, suddenly, my entire world collapsed in on itself. 

It was a million times more trippy than the most intense substance Lirala ever got into. Lights, objects, everything around me stretched out until the bridge was a mass of colored strings. The strings blurred and pulsed—and then it was like I was looking into a gigantic bubble swelling outwards.

The ship shuddered and just like that, things were back to normal. Except there was a big green planet in front of us. Yueld. Home world of the legendary Sky Reavers. And, hopefully, the location of the Kryrk.

No one said anything for a few moments. Everyone must have felt as disoriented as me. But Ana-Zhi seemed to recover quickly. She started the ship’s diagnostics and told Galish to steer us away from the other craft emerging from the Fountain.

Then Ana-Zhi took me aside. “You know I’m not keen on this charade. Not keen at all. We don’t have much time to begin with and dicking around like this for the benefit of some Shimese stoolie doesn’t strike me as a particularly efficient use of that time.”

“Yeah, well, you’re a Beck Salvage employee—same as me—”

“I get your point, junior. But I beg to differ about the ‘same as me’ part.”

I took a step closer to her and tried to appear menacing. “We’re both under orders,” I said. “This is the way it’s going to be.”

She put a hand on each of my shoulders. Maybe she meant it to be a friendly gesture, or maybe she was getting ready to knee me in the groin. “What I’m saying is, you and I need to work together. For appearances’ sake. Obviously I run this show. But it can’t look that way to the stoolie. Therefore, our brains need to be on the same wavelength.” She moved her head towards mine until our foreheads were touching. It was extremely uncomfortable. “Get it?”

I stepped back. “Yeah, sure. That’s what I was going to say. We need to work together.”

“Good boy.” She patted my cheek. “Now why don’t we have a little briefing with the stoolie.”

“Chiraine,” I said. “Her name’s Chiraine. Use it.”

Ana-Zhi started to retort, but the Freya jolted suddenly and began to rumble and shake as we hit the atmosphere.

“Galish, make sure no one’s sniffing up our butt.”

“Yes ma’am.”

“And run us along the equator. But not too low.” She turned to me. “If that’s okay with you, Captain.”

I didn’t say anything. Just turned on my heel and led the way to the engineering bay.

Chiraine was there, hunched over a datapad. “I can’t believe this junk pile’s ancient geo-pos system actually works, but I’m getting data.”

“Like I said, she’s old but she works.” Ana-Zhi crossed her arms.

“What do you have for us, Chiraine?” I asked.

She called up an animated map on her screen. “We need to get to Roan Andessa. Here.”

“No can do,” Yates said. He had been lurking in the doorway.

“That’s where the node we have to tap is located,” Chiraine said.

“Well, then, that’s going to be a problem.”

I wanted to ask why, but I thought it might look bad if the captain was the guy asking the dumb questions.

Luckily, Chiraine pressed him and Yates explained that the city of Roan Andessa had been colonized by the Obaswoon. And the Rhya didn’t want more advanced civilizations having contact with the Obaswoon. During previous missions, the Beck Salvage team had seen Rhya wardships and security drones patrolling the city’s ground perimeter and airspace. The area was completely restricted.

“It’s impossible to fly in or even go by ground,” Yates said.

“I never said anything about flying in—or driving in.” Chiraine accessed a new screen on her datapad. “We come in from below the city.”

“I didn’t see any tunnel boring equipment on the manifest, did you, Galish?” Ana-Zhi said. 

“There’s a natural tunnel,” Chiraine said. “According to this.” She mirrored her datapad to the engineering bay’s wall display, and an image filled the screen. It looked like an old, hand-drawn map.

“What are we looking at?” I asked.

“A seventh-century survey map showing the mesa where the city of Roan Andessa was to be built. At the time of this map it wasn’t much more than a fortress.”

“How did you even get that information onboard?” Ana-Zhi asked. “It’s not something the Rhya would allow.”

Chiraine shrugged. “I smuggled it on board. In one of these.” She reached over to a compact interface box with a small glass orb set in a depression along one side.

I had never seen any piece of gear like that. It looked hand-made. “What is that thing?”

“Biklode resonator,” Chiraine said as if it were obvious.

“Yeah, that doesn’t help.”

She removed the glassy orb from the resonator and held it up. It was the size of my fingertip and the inside of the orb swirled like a cloudy sky. 

“This is a biklode. A high-density data storage unit. Uses crystalline maps. Highly shielded and very secure. I have all my research on it.”

“Clever,” Ana-Zhi said.

“Yeah, well. No one wants to disappoint the Shima. This is a pretty high stakes venture.”

“Tell me more about the map.” I stepped closer to get a better look.

Chiraine enlarged the image and highlighted an area on the map. “This is labelled ‘the Well of Forever’ in the Yueldian language. It’s an actual well or pit and it was a deeply-significant religious site. According to my research, the early Yueldians used to throw criminals and heretics into this well.”

“I’m not following,” I said.

“The Well of Forever connects with this.” The display changed to a machine-generated readout. “An EMR scan of the mesa. See here? This is a lava tube. It forms a natural shaft. Straight down. And this thing at the bottom. It’s a cave.”

“What are we talking about, size-wise?” I asked. I was trying to make sense of Chiraine’s various charts and maps and scans.

“The EMR shows the mesa to be 625 meters high. Shaft itself runs 590 meters. That’s not bad.”

Yates shook his head. “It doesn’t matter how high the mesa is. There’s no way to get to that cave entrance. If it even exists.”

“Why’s that?”

“The local megafauna,” Yates said. “Cthulians. Nearly wiped out the 2322 mission.”

I wracked my brain for any knowledge of cthulian. Luckily Piettow had implanted something about the creatures. I closed my eyes and recalled what I knew.

Cthulians were gigantic swamp-dwelling bipedal carnivores. Vaguely humanoid in shape but with a squid-like head from which sprouted a mass of tentacles. Their appearance was reptilian, with a thick scaly skin, heavily-muscled limbs ending in three-toed claws, and vestigial appendages that resembled small wings emerging from their shoulder area. Stretched to their full height, cthulians reached around 100 meters—although apparently they rarely stood straight up on their hind limbs. 

“Yeah,” I said. “We don’t want to mess with hundred meter tall giants.”

“Really, Captain?” Ana-Zhi Agrada taunted. “These cthulians are only a class 6 hazard. If there’s no other way into the city, I’m not sure we have a choice. At least according to the mission protocols.”

“You ran mission protocols on this?” I hadn’t pegged her for a by-the-book kind of person. Especially one who would throw protocols back in my face.

“Just doing my job, Captain. It turns out that the chance of us encountering a cthulian is less than twenty percent. Apparently there’s not a large population of the beasties. So what do you say?”

Both Chiraine and Yates looked at me expectantly.

“I need to think about this for a bit.”

“Don’t take too long,” Ana-Zhi said. “The Mayir and Faiurae are bound to notice if we hang around Roan Andessa.”

“As will our Rhya friends,” Yates said.

I walked over to the main hold to consult with Xooth and Obarral, but only the little Plargond was around. He was stretched out on a bench, dozing, but snapped awake when I walked close to him.

“Where’s Obarral?”

“Infirmary. Checking supplies. I think he thinks you will get injured soon. Wants to be ready. Not good to have dead captain, right?”

“Injured? Me? What are you talking about?” It took me a few minutes to realize that this was an example of Plargondian humor. Ha ha.

“I need your opinion on something.”

“Yes?”

I explained about our need to access the node in Roan Andessa, and Chiraine’s idea to use a lava tube to covertly enter the city. Xooth nodded but didn’t say anything. Then I told him about the cthulian hazard, and brought up Ana-Zhi Agrada’s mission protocols.

“We not use those!” he cackled. “Stupid.”

“The protocols?”

“I have own protocols!” He jabbed at his head.

Yeah, think for yourself. I get it. “What do you think of the plan overall?”

“Could work. If caves are clear. Six hundred meters you say? We take sled. Shoot straight up like a yastnod.”

I wasn’t sure what a yastnod was, but the idea of taking a sled made sense—depending on what we had on board. I knew that a good-sized hover-sled could haul a couple of crew members plus whatever equipment was needed. And if its z-field generator was tuned properly, there was no reason the sled couldn’t ascend 600 meters.

“Wear exosuits to be sure, but no problem. I think.”

“So you think we should do it?”

“That’s why we here, right? Find Kryrk. Get rich. Then spend more time sleeping, okay?”

* * *

I found Ana-Zhi Agrada in her quarters and told her that I had made a decision. We would send a team to explore the lava tube and enter the city through this Well of Forever that Chiraine had located.

“Well done, Captain. Exactly the decision I would have made. Now have you given some thought about who should go?”

I hadn’t, but it seemed pretty straightforward. “Yates, obviously. Xooth as well. Just in case there’s any trouble. Chiraine, so she can lead them to the node.”

“You started off well enough with Yates and Xooth,” she said. “But the princess isn’t allowed in the field. She’s too valuable.”

“How will we find the node, then?”

“She can brief Yates on the location. He’s studied the city data as well and can get to where he needs to go. We’ll also want to send Galish to drive the sled because I’m ninety-eight percent sure that Yates would wrap it around a stalactite or something.”

“Agreed.”

“That just leaves one more slot. Supervisory in nature.” Ana-Zhi stared right into my eyes.

“Me?”

She barked out a laugh. “No, not you! As far as I’m concerned you’re as much a princess as Chiraine. No, you’re staying right here. I’m going myself. I’ll run the mission and keep the boys out of trouble. Like I usually do.”

That was fine with me. I didn’t sign up for anything beyond hanging out on the ship for three days and acting like I was in charge.

“If we wipe, Obarral can get you back home to your Uncle Wallace.”

“What do you mean wipe?” That must be some spacer lingo that I wasn’t familiar with.

“I meant if we don’t come back, Obarral will be your ticket out of here. But let’s not dwell on that unfortunate possibility.” She looked up at a nav display which displayed the Freya’s position on the planet. “It looks like we’re almost there.”

We returned to the bridge and I watched as Ana-Zhi activated the Freya’s lower hull cameras and sensors. The bridge’s main display split, showing various angles of what we were flying over. But it was fairly disappointing. You couldn’t see much beyond a sea of swirling mist, occasionally punctuated by a jungle-covered mesa or rocky peak. 

Yueld was a swamp planet, mostly unsuitable for habitation by anything other than cthulians and the creatures they preyed upon. Despite this, the ancient Yueldians had managed to eke out a civilization with cities and farms built on the vast stone mesas that rose out of the swamp. They also colonized both of Yueld’s moons and built an orbiting fortress.

“Coming up on Roan Andessa,” Hap Galish announced.

“Any sign of the Faiurae? Or Mayir for that matter?”

“A couple of Rhya wardships and a freighter, but other than that, the area’s looking pretty clear. One or the other of our opponents are probably loading up the Kryrk right now, while we prepare to go on this wild goose chase.”

That was an odd thing to say. Even as a joke. “What makes you think that the Faiurae and Mayir are after the Kryrk as well?”

He smirked at me. “What are you, stoned? Of course they’re after the Kryrk.”

I searched my mind for the mission competitive analysis that would certainly have been implanted as part of my briefing, but came up blank. Piettow must have messed up. Maybe with all the frantic, last-minute prep, the competitive analysis was accidentally left out of the package.

I glanced at both Galish and Ana-Zhi. “Tell me about it.”

“We don’t have time now,” Ana-Zhi snapped. “We’re about to go in.” Turning to Galish, she asked, “Did anyone bother to check the ion lances? If not, this might be a real short trip.”

* * *

As we descended into the mist, most of the crew—except for Xooth—huddled in the bridge. On the other side of the ship, the Plargond was manning our single gun turret.

“Slowly,” Ana-Zhi told Galish. “I don’t want any surprises.” 

You couldn’t see anything outside of the portholes except for swirling water vapor which caught the shafts of light from the Freya’s spotlights.

Ana-Zhi turned to Yates, who had his eyes locked on a scanner display.

“Anything?” she asked.

“Plenty of lifeforms down there, but I’m not picking up anything as large as a cthulian.”

That was a relief.

“What about you, missy? You find this cave of yours yet?”

Chiraine was studying her own datapad which was linked to the ship’s EMR array. “Not yet, but according to the topographics, it’s right at the base of the mesa, southwest quadrant.”

All of a sudden Yates called out. “Something coming in fast. And it’s big!”

“Image it! Xooth, you seeing anything on your scope?”

“No lady!” His voice sounded frantic through the comm. “Not yet!”

“Keep your eyes locked on it!” Ana-Zhi shouted. “Yates?”

“Two hundred meters and closing. Way too fast for a cthulian. And the image isn’t making sense.”

“Obarral, tell me that the proximity plates are charged.”

“Of course they are, darling.”

“Good, then everyone. Prepare for impact!”

What?! 

I didn’t have time to do anything but grab onto an acceleration strap. Then the ship jolted, a warning klaxon sounded, and the lights dimmed—just for a second—as the hull’s proximity plates discharged a cloud of energized particles into the mist. The ship lurched again, but the guidance system quickly righted the Freya.

“Calm down everyone, we scared it away,” Yates said.

“What was that thing?” I asked.

He peered at his datapad. “Based on the size and rate of movement, the match I’m getting is a K’Lortai Dragon.”

“Here?” 

That didn’t make sense. K’Lortai were winged saurians from the planet Gilaa. And while they were large creatures, they weren’t big enough to knock a Mako-class ship around.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a stowaway,” Ana-Zhi said. “Wasn’t there a Gilaan mission in ’39?”

“Yeah, there was,” Galish said. “Maybe they smuggled in some eggs or something.”

“Well, it must like its new home to have grown so big. Too bad it’s not going to last. I can’t see the Rhya allowing a non-native species to—”

“Excuse me!” Chiraine called. “I found it!”

Chapter 7

The cave was right where Chiraine had said it would be: at the base of the mesa, set into the cliff wall only about thirty meters from the bottom. Ana-Zhi directed the optical scanners towards the cave’s location and an enhanced image came up on the bridge’s main display screen.

“At least it’s not flooded,” Galish said. 

The mouth of the cave was fairly wide, but not wide enough for the Freya to fly in. That was for sure.

“Anyplace to set down?” Ana-Zhi asked.

“Not seeing anything yet. We may have to do a hot launch.”

“Oh goody.” 

She started to call for folks to suit up, but I jumped in and began ordering the crew around. Ana-Zhi smirked at me when Chiraine wasn’t looking.

“Obarral, take the con,” I said.

Chiraine asked, “You did change your mind about going, didn’t you? Because I really think I need to be part of the incursion team.”

“No, on both counts,” I said. “I’ll be running the op remotely. And I could use your help.”

“Besides,” Ana-Zhi said. “The Captain flies for shit.”

“Here we go. A spot for a picnic.” Obarral had found a place to set down the Freya.

It didn’t take long for Xooth, Yates, Ana-Zhi, and Galish to suit up and prep the sled. They weren’t taking much gear besides the Raker and some weapons.

After running some environmental scans, Obarral gave them the all-clear and the team propelled the sled out of the launch bay. Chiraine and I watched as the small utility craft launched a half dozen micro drones ahead of them and then disappeared into the darkness of the cave mouth.

After a few fumbles I figured out how to change the comm display to the sled’s POV video feed and we watched as the sled rose up into the lava tube, flanked by a formation of the micro drones.

“So far, so good.” The shaft seemed to be plenty big enough for the sled, with a few dozen meters of clearance around it. 

We had decided to run silent for as long as we could, since we didn’t know whether or not the Rhya—or Faiurae or Mayir for that matter—were monitoring for chatter.

Technically we weren’t prohibited from exploring a lava tube beneath Roan Andessa. It was the city itself—and the Obaswoon—that we needed to keep away from.

It took less than two minutes—even moving cautiously—to get to the top of the shaft. But then it looked like there was a problem.

“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” I asked.

Chiraine nodded. “Someone blocked the Well of Forever.”

“Yeah, that’s not good.”

“The map is seventeen hundred years old. A lot could have happened since then.”

“Right, like someone erecting a building where this Well used to be.”

“I doubt that. It was a religious site.”

All of a sudden the display turned completely white for a second. My heart jumped. What was going on? 

Then the cameras adjusted and the image returned to more or less to normal, but it looked like Xooth was using a plasma cutting torch at the blocked exit.

They had to position the sled so it wouldn’t get hit by the falling debris, but after several minutes they had been able to create an opening large enough for the sled.

I watched, fascinated, as the team emerged into the twilight of a ruined plaza.

“That’s Tarkoja,” Chiraine said. 

I wasn’t prepared for how destroyed the place looked. Especially since Roan Andessa was supposed to be inhabited. Buildings had collapsed and were covered by thick vines and blankets of moss. There were tumbled statues and towers everywhere. Huge broken pillars looked like fallen tree trunks.

Then I got my first glimpse of the Obaswoon. It was tough to see them clearly in the gloom, but they appeared to be pale-skinned humanoids, dressed in loose-fitting handmade garments. They had some sort of weapons that looked like impulse rifles but obviously were not. 

There weren’t that many Obaswoon on the plaza. The few that I could see were pushing handcarts or driving animals down the street. I caught a few glimpses of ramshackle stalls where people were selling stuff. The Obaswoon looked curiously at the sled, as it rose up above their heads, but didn’t appear to be alarmed by the presence of our team. Maybe the Obaswoon thought that Ana-Zhi and the team were Rhya wardens.

Yates finally seemed to get a fix on the destination and the sled wove its way through the stone temples and collapsed buildings. 

“It’s remarkable to see Roan Andessa for real,” Chiraine said. “Everything I know about it was from centuries-old records.”

“Is it what you expected?”

“I’m not sure what I expected.”

We watched as the sled continued through the ruined city, hovering over a section that looked even more destroyed. Maybe from an earthquake.

“That’s it!” Chiraine said. “They’re at the location of A782.”

The camera panned around, showing a partially-destroyed tower that once was a work of art. It had all sorts of carvings and ornamentation. Almost like an Incan temple from Earth.

The sled landed near the temple and we watched as Yates deployed the Riker, a small, stocky robot with various appendages that allowed it to climb into position. The Riker propelled itself up the side of the tower and then froze in place. Hopefully it had fixed on its target and was now pulling in the data image.

I turned to Chiraine. “So you really think that once you get the data for this node, you can reconstruct the Ambit?”

Chiraine made a face. “Not the entire Ambit, obviously. But, based on my research, I do believe that A782 will lead us to the location of the Kryrk. In fact, the—”

She suddenly gasped. “Oh my god!”

I turned back to the display. Galish was on the ground, clutching at his arm.

“What happened?”

“I think he was shot!”

On the display we saw Ana-Zhi race over to Galish, while Xooth fired his shard slinger into the shadows.

This was definitely worth breaking radio silence for. I punched at the transmission button on the comm unit and yelled into the microphone. “Team, report!”

There was a slight delay, but then Ana-Zhi responded.

“Man hit! Don’t get your panties in a bunch. Armor absorbed most of it. Prep the MedBed anyway, just to be sure there’s not a fracture.”

I saw them load Hap Galish on the sled and then it lurched and set off at maximum speed—which was probably not much more than 30 KPH. Was Galish freaking dead?

“Keep an eye on this!” I barked to Chiraine, then ran towards the bridge, calling for Obarral. He met me in the corridor, having heard Ana-Zhi Agrada’s message.

“This way!” He led me towards the infirmary, where he cleared off and powered up the ancient MedBed. Then the two of us moved the gurney down the corridor to the launch bay.

“Do stay here until they come through that airlock,” Obarral said. “They’re going to come in hot!”

* * *

Hap Galish had been shot in the arm, but he was fine. We got him on the MedBed and it did its thing. Even though it was old technology, it managed to clean, disinfect, and seal the wound without any issues.

“He’s lucky that it just grazed him,” Ana-Zhi said. 

She had reported that an Obaswoon came out of nowhere and shot at them with a primitive projectile rifle. Thankfully, the Obaswoon was either a poor shot or the weapon wasn’t very accurate. Xooth had returned fire and disabled the attacker. Then they had made their escape.

Back at her workstation Chiraine was hard at work integrating the data that Yates had brought back. She said it might take her a few hours, so we decided to find a place to set down for the night—someplace safer than the bottom of a swamp inhabited by megafauna.

According to Ana-Zhi, there was a relatively quiet mesa that they had used as a camping spot during the last mission. She checked her logs and found the coordinates and then we flew up through the mist and headed towards it. Thankfully there were no cthulians or K’Lortai Dragons waiting for us.

Ana-Zhi took over pilot’s duties while Galish recovered in his cabin. I sat down beside her and stared out into the darkness.

“At least the Rhya didn’t blast us out of the sky,” I said.

“Not their style.”

There was an awkward silence for a while, that I was determined to break.

“So you knew my father?”

“Yeah, of course. Everyone did. What, he never mentioned me to you?”

“Should he have?” I asked.

“I’m just messing with you, kid.”

“So, what did you think about him?” I asked.

“Honestly?”

“Sure.”

“He was a horse’s ass.”

I burst out laughing. That wasn’t the response I expected. Most people—especially Beck Salvage employees—viewed my father as some sort of god.

Ana-Zhi continued. “He was arrogant, stuck-up, and thought he knew everything.”

“That sounds about right.”

“He was also the best damn captain I ever flew with.”

That was also unexpected. I took a deep breath. “Were you there when he, um, died…?”

She turned and looked right at me with her steely eyes. “Are you sure you want to be having this conversation?”

“I want to know. I want to hear about it from someone who was there.”

“Then talk to Yates. He was the last one to see your father alive. I was pretty messed up. Half dead and barely conscious in the infirmary for the whole time.”

“Yates has always been pretty vague about the whole thing,” I said.

“I don’t blame him. Why are you even asking about this?”

“Because I never got a straight answer. From Yates. From my uncle. From anyone.”

Ana-Zhi rubbed her eyes. I really noticed her lack of cosme in the bridge’s harsh lights.

“It wasn’t here on Yueld,” she said. “You don’t have to worry about that.”

“Yeah, I know. It was on Bandala, right where you found the Tabarroh Crystal.”

“Where your father found the Tabarroh Crystal. He figured out where it was hidden. He braved the scrubbers and a million other things. That place was a deathtrap and we had no business in there. Not for the biggest bounty in the universe. It just wasn’t worth it.”

“What…?” I trailed off. It was hard to get the words out.

Ana-Zhi looked down. “Sometimes you just run out of luck. That’s what happened with Sean. He didn’t do anything wrong. He just couldn’t outrun the security bots. In the end, he sacrificed himself to save Yates. And the Tabarroh Crystal.” She looked away, out into the darkness. “Story time’s over. Okay?”

* * *

Chiraine’s analysis took longer than she thought. Way longer. By the time I went to bed for the night, she was still at it.

I found her, early the next morning, asleep at her workstation.

“Hey.” I touched her shoulder lightly, but she jumped anyway.

“What the hell!” She squinted at me through sleep-swollen eyes.

“You fell asleep.”

“I know.”

“You want some moxa?”

“I’d kill for some.”

“Coming right up.”

Apparently the Rhya didn’t have any problem with limiting hospitality technology. The Freya’s galley was state-of-the-art and fully stocked. With the good stuff. No powdered moxa for us.

I returned to Chiraine bearing a hot, steaming mug—which I placed down before her. “Here you go.”

She took a sip, inhaling the rich aroma. “Where’d you get that?”

“Tastes like Ardovan, doesn’t it?”

“Sure does.”

“Courtesy of Beck Salvage.”

“I’m impressed.” She took another sip. “Doubly impressed.”

“So, it looks like you pulled an all-nighter.”

“I did.”

“And you found the Kryrk?” I asked.

Chiraine leaned back in her seat, cupping the moxa mug for warmth.

“Yes and no.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that, technically, there were no records of it in A782.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. That was the entire foundation of our mission. “Technically?”

“No records at all,” she said. “But, I was able to trace back another broken node. One we had never been able to locate before. A419.”

She seemed pleased with herself, but I felt like we had hit a dead end.

“So we have to go back into Roan Andessa? Galish is not going to be happy about that.”

“No. A419 isn’t on Yueld.”

“What?”

“It’s on Taullae.”

* * *

Taullae was one of Yueld’s moons. The larger one. And unlike the swamp planet, Taullae had hardly any water on it. It was a dusty wasteland. At least on the surface. Underground were vast vertical mine shafts. They were all dead now, but at one time they held huge veins of tagax. At least that’s what Piettow had implanted in my brain.

The moon was inhabited by Batalarians, an extremely long-lived race of non-humans who had been enslaved by the Yueldians and forced to work the mines. I had thought that most of them died out over the years, but when we arrived, some six hours after leaving Yueld, we discovered an active settlement near one of the poles.

“This is Maridu,” Yates said. “Old mining town. Didn’t think anyone was still living here.”

Ana-Zhi took us low, past the grid of mine heads, over the settlement. It was a sparse-looking town made up of a few dozen small blocky buildings the same rust-red color as the dirt. None of the buildings were taller than two stories and they appeared to be fairly low-tech, with only a few solar arrays and some rudimentary communication antennae. We saw a few Batalarians out and about, but they didn’t seem too concerned about us. And luckily, they didn’t shoot at us.

“Are they friendly?” I asked.

“Hard to tell without landing and looking in their eyes,” Ana-Zhi said. “Right, Hap?”

“I’d like them to get a good look at a frag popper,” Galish grunted.

Beyond the town was a landing strip with some rusty-red outbuildings and a scattered collection of wheeled land-vehicles. Lots of tracks ran from the landing strip out to the land beyond, connecting the town, the landing strip, and all the mine heads.

I didn’t see any sign of the Rhya wardens up here, so I wondered if the locals were being monitored in any way. I asked Ana-Zhi about it and she thought it was odd as well.

“They should have at least one wardship up here. Or a supply vessel.”

“Unless they were here and left already,” Galish said.

“Someone’s been trying their hand at some mining recently, it looks like,” Ana-Zhi said.

“Good luck with that,” Yates said. “These mines have been tapped out for centuries.”

“There’s always scraps left,” Ana-Zhi said. She banked the Freya around and flew over Maridu again.

“We might as well put down and save the fuel.” She turned to me and said, “Why don’t you check with Chiraine so we can figure out where we’re supposed to be going?”

I bristled at being an errand boy, but I was curious about Chiraine’s progress. Despite myself, I had to admit that I was getting caught up in the mission.

When I left her a few hours ago, Chiraine had been deep in her analysis of the new node, trying to locate the position of A419.

“We’re not seeing much on the flyby in the way of technology,” I told her. “But Maridu seems to be populated. And someone is still using that landing strip.”

“It’s got to be here—in this quadrant. I know that.” She was nervously running her finger along the resonator, almost caressing the orb-shaped biklode.

“But you can’t pinpoint it exactly, like you did the last one? We need coordinates.”

She looked up at me. “It took me two years—almost three—to pinpoint A782. The nodes are different, of course, but a complete recreation of this part of the Ambit isn’t something I can do on the fly.”

“You need Yates to help?”

“There’s only one thing I need right now.” She handed me her empty mug. “More moxa.”

Between fetching drinks and reporting back and forth between Ana-Zhi and Chiraine, a thought came to me. I returned to the bridge, but found it unattended. It turned out everyone except Chiraine was in the galley, having lunch.

“So I have an idea,” I said, sitting down at the table.

“Dynark help us,” Ana-Zhi said, munching on a piece of sunshine toast. “The newbie has an idea.”

“No, let the captain talk,” Yates said.

“What if we just take the Riker into that town? The place isn’t that big. Surely it would be able to find this new node.”

“What are you proposing, mon capitaine? That we go house to house?” Obarral asked.

“Or just walk down the street.”

Galish shook his head. “Bad idea. We don’t know anything about the Batalarians and I’m not inclined to get shot at again.”

“You’ve got ceramlar body armor, don’t you?” I asked.

“I’ll tell you what, big boy. Yates’ll teach you how to run the Riker and you go in there. How about that?”

Before I could answer, Chiraine rushed into the room. She was out of breath. “Come quick!”

“You okay?” I asked. “What’s going on?”

“There’s someone at the door.”

Chapter 8

All of us followed Chiraine  as she rushed across the ship to the launch bay. Off in one corner was the man door and airlock.

“I heard banging from in here and I looked out that window there,” she said. “I think he’s still out there.”

We crowded around a porthole. Outside was a human male leaning against some sort of mechanized cart. He wore dusty clothes and a wide-brimmed hat, which was tilted down shading his grizzled face.

“What the hell?” Ana-Zhi muttered.

“That’s impossible!” Galish said.

He was right. There weren’t supposed to be any humans in this system.

“You want me to kill?” Xooth said. “I shoot with ion lance. Sizzle good!”

“Hang on,” Ana-Zhi said. She pointed at me. “Captain, let’s go back to the bridge and see if we can communicate with this schmuff. The rest of you, strap on a sidearm and wait by a comm station.”

“You’re not thinking of letting him in, are you?” Chiraine asked.

Ana-Zhi gave her a withering look, then motioned me towards the corridor. She looked back at the rest of the crew. “What are you all waiting for, people? Let’s go. Arm up.”

Back at the bridge, Ana-Zhi activated the hull cameras near the launch bay.

“Could he be from the Mayir expedition?” I asked.

“That’s as good a guess as any. But then, where the hell is his ship? We would have seen it. The Rhya would never allow a full-size cloaking device through the Fountain.”

She steered one of the cameras towards the man and zoomed in on his face. He was a tall rangy man who looked to be in his fifties, with bright blue eyes and lots of squint lines etched into his sunburnt skin. His face was lean and angular, all hard planes, with a few scars. The biggest ran from the edge of his nose diagonally down towards the corner of his mouth.

“Not someone you want to meet in a dark alley,” I muttered.

“Speak for yourself,” Ana-Zhi said. She punched a button and spoke into a microphone in the console.

“Intruder, identify yourself.”

The man looked up lazily and ran his eyes along the ship. Probably trying to find our camera. It took him a second. The he turned to face us, and looked directly in the lens.

“My name is Wade Murroux. And I was hoping to bargain for a ride off this rock.”

Ana-Zhi and I looked at each other.

“From your accent, it doesn’t sound like you’re from around here,” Ana-Zhi said.

“That’s for damn sure. I hail from Beesan Prime.”

“Well, what’s your story, Wade Murroux from Beesan Prime?”

Murroux licked his lips. “Any chance I could tell you that story inside—and out of the sun? I’d be much obliged.”

“That would be a negative, Mr. Murroux. And, in fairness, I should disclose that we have a Renegade 50/04 trained on you with a jumpy Plargond on the trigger. So state your piece and don’t try anything.”

Murroux slowly held his hands up to show that he was unarmed. “I don’t want no trouble. Just a bit of human kindness.”

“Your story, Mr. Murroux? Or vacate the area posthaste.”

“Okay, okay. Fair enough. As I said, my name is Wade Murroux and I came here in 2339 as part of the Valerius II’s crew. I’m a medic by trade. Me and another crew member decided not to go back so we jumped ship. Nerissa, her name was. She was in some trouble back on Beesan and figured a new life here might be worth a shot. I liked the way she looked at me and decided to go with her. We were going to be Adam and Eve and make a bunch of babies and figure out how to farm a little piece of this dusthole.”

“Where’s the missus and all those babies?” Ana-Zhi asked. “Don’t tell me you’re planning on running out on her?”

“Truth is, she ran out on me. And none of those babies came to be, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. Seven years ago she took off. Jumped on the shuttle to Ordilon.”

I was confused. Ordilon was Yueld’s other moon, but what was this about a shuttle?

Murroux continued with his story. “I’m guessing Nerissa got picked up by the Rhya and brought back through the Fountain. There was no sign of her on Ordilon. I spent a few months looking. Or maybe she found a way to go planetside. Who knows? Either way, it was pretty clear that she didn’t want to have anything to do with me. So that was that. I settled in Maridu out of necessity. The Batalarians took me in and showed me some kindness, but they aren’t the most sociable people.”

“So you want to go home?”

“There’s nothing for me here. And Beesan’s looking pretty good in retrospect, so I’m wondering if we might strike a trade. I help you find whatever you’re looking for and you bring me back. Or, if that’s too much trouble, at least hand me over to the Rhya.”

I had a million questions for this guy and so did Ana-Zhi, but she wanted the rest of the crew in on it too. 

“Let’s bring him inside so we can talk proper,” Ana-Zhi said to me.

“Are you crazy? We don’t know this guy. What if he is some psycho who wants to take us out and steal the ship?”

“You watch too many movies, junior. And, besides, you don’t know me very well. I’m actually a very cautious individual.”

She punched at the microphone. “We appreciate your candor, Mr. Murroux. How about we continue this conversation inside?”

He nodded. “As I said, I’d be much obliged.”

“Splendid. So why don’t you strip off your clothes and meet us at the airlock.”

“My clothes? Strip? What are you talking about?”

“Surely you had bio security protocols on the Valerius,” Ana-Zhi said. “We can’t have any accidental contamination of nasties aboard.”

“There’s nothing on Taullae that can harm you. At least nothing on my person.”

“Nonetheless, rules are rules. Strip or we’re done here, Mr. Murroux. We’re already running a bit behind schedule, so make your decision posthaste.”

He grumbled about it, but he stripped off his clothes and stepped towards the airlock. The guy was pretty buff for a castaway.

“Your hat as well, Mr. Murroux.”

After running Murroux through both a decontamination and a full bio scan, Ana-Zhi let him into the launch bay. Xooth was there with a 50/04 along with me and Obarral, armed with RBs. The rest of the crew—including Chiraine—hung back behind a blast door and monitored our conversation through the comm system.

“Welcome aboard the Freya, Mr. Murroux,” I said. “I’m Captain Beck.”

“Sean Beck? Are you serious?”

I had been a little afraid of this. Without my beard and normal hair style, I had no defense against being recognized.

“Yes, nice to meet you, Murroux.”

“I can’t believe I got picked up by Sean Beck.”

I quickly changed the subject. The last thing I needed was a fan boy. “This is Ana-Zhi Agrada, my first mate, and this is Obarral. The little guy with the impulse rifle is Xooth.”

“And we weren’t lying when we said he can be a little twitchy,” Ana-Zhi said. She handed Murroux a robe and motioned to some equipment crates that we could use as seats.

“That’s some story, Mr. Murroux,” I said. 

He was still looking at me in awe. 

Ana-Zhi noticed and didn’t seem too happy about it. “As I said, we don’t have much time, so let’s chat about what you can offer us.”

“What are you looking for?”

“There’s an Ambit node up here,” I said. “We need to find it. Quickly.”

He thought for a minute. “An active node?”

“Yes, we’re assuming so.”

“So it would need power.”

“Yes.”

“A long-term power source.”

“My understanding is that the Ambit’s been running for over a thousand years,” I chimed in.

“Then there’s only one place on Taullae it could be.”

We all looked at him.

“The zoo.”

* * *

Apparently the Yueldian Sky Reavers didn’t only collect trinkets from their raids on other systems. They also collected life forms. And they kept these life forms in a vast underground biosphere on Taullae. Over the past millennium those life forms had almost certainly died out, but according to Murroux, large parts of the biosphere were still operational.

“Have you been there?” Ana-Zhi asked.

“Not inside,” Murroux said. “The Batalarians are deeply fearful of that place. I figured they’d been around long enough to know what’s what.”

“But you can lead us there?”

“That I can.”

We needed to discuss this among ourselves, so Ana-Zhi parked Murroux in the holding cell, while the rest of us assembled in the galley.

Yates was the first one to speak and immediately expressed his doubts. “This is too dangerous.”

“C’mon, Virg,” Galish said. “It’s a failed zoo filled with the universe’s most lethal lifeforms. What could go wrong?”

“Everything. But, more importantly, how do we know that this isn’t a colossal waste of time? We’ve got less than three days left to find the Kryrk, and, thanks to her, no leads.” He was staring right at Chiraine.

“How is it suddenly my fault that a thousand-year-old data network has developed some kinks? I’m doing the best I can!”

“Chiraine’s right,” I said. “We don’t have much of a choice. We need to find this next node and hope to Dynark there’s a reference to where the Kryrk is stored.”

“Of course we have a choice,” Yates said. “We get paid no matter what. We can sit around and play four-tin monte until it’s time to go home, and we’ll still collect.”

“Sure we will,” I said. “Just not as much. Plus, don’t you want to find the Kryrk for the pure joy of finding it?”

“Now you’re starting to sound like your father.”

“I don’t think so,” I said. But it got me wondering—wondering what it was like being with my dad on a mission.

“Perhaps we could just do a flyover,” Obarral said. “We have a perfectly-fine EMR array to scan for the underground structure.”

Ana-Zhi nodded. “That’s a possibility. We could also scan for electrical activity.”

“Yes!” Chiraine said. “When a node gets disconnected, it continually attempts to hook back into the network. We might be able to zero in on it.”

“Then what?” Galish asked.

“Then we dig,” Ana-Zhi said.

It was settled. The only thing left to figure out was what to do with Murroux.

* * *

Ana-Zhi ended up deciding to let Murroux stay aboard, but Xooth would closely guard him.

“Remember,” Ana-Zhi said, pointing to Xooth. “Jumpy.”

Xooth smiled evilly.

We escorted Murroux to the bridge and set off, skimming just a few dozen meters off the dusty surface of Taullae, with Murroux guiding us. Meanwhile, Yates and Chiraine operated the scanners.

“How deep is this zoo?” Ana-Zhi asked Murroux.

“I told you, I never actually went inside. But judging from the entrance, I’d guess it’s at least fifty meters. But it could go down four times that. Who knows?”

“That doesn’t sound very helpful,” Galish said. “Why are we bringing him along again? We could find the place ourselves.”

“Sure you could,” Murroux said. “But how long would it take you? I was under the impression that time was of the essence.”

“It is,” Ana-Zhi said. “So stop your jawing and keep navigating.”

We arrived twenty minutes later. I could immediately tell that we were in the right place. Massive solar arrays and light tubes ran in a grid that covered at least sixteen hectares. At the southern end of the grid was a low blocky structure.

“That’s the entrance,” Murroux said.

“Not too close, Galish,” Ana-Zhi said. “We don’t know what kind of defenses this place has. And I imagine for it to have lasted a thousand years, it must have some defenses.”

“Well, I can see at least two D-beam cannons,” I said. “One on each of those two diagonal corners.”

“Good eyes, Captain.”

“Yes, those are D-beams, all right,” Murroux said. “But I’m not sure they are even operational.”

“Better safe than sorry,” Ana-Zhi said. “Yates, make sure you scan the weapons as well, and you might as well go ahead and scan for life forms. Just for shits and giggles.”

I asked, “How far out are we from a full tableau?”

“Close, Captain,” Yates said. “Real close. EMR’s done and we’re just waiting for the energy and biomass scans. This place is gigantic, by the way.”

“Tell me something I don’t know.”

We set down outside the perimeter of the underground zoo complex, well away from the D-beam cannons and the entrance. As Obarral and Galish prepped for the ground op, Ana-Zhi pulled me aside. “Same marching orders. You stay on board with Galish and the princess. I’ll go with Yates, Xooth, Obarral, and Murroux. We’re just going to try a few data grabs on the surface first. My preference is to avoid going underground.”

I took a deep breath. “I can go with.”

“That wasn’t the deal.”

I glanced back towards the bridge, in the direction of Chiraine. “It’s starting to get suspicious. I mean, what kind of captain just sits on his ass during a mission?”

“You call it ‘sitting on your ass.’ I call it ‘command and control.’ Doesn’t matter. You’re staying.”

“What if I want to go?”

“As my great-great-grandma used to say: tough titties.

“I am the captain. Technically, right?”

She put a hefty hand on each of my shoulders in that friendly, yet threatening way of hers. “Let’s not succumb to delusions of grandeur, shall we, Jannigan?”

Back on the bridge I felt a little bit like a loser, staying put with an academic and an injured guy, while the real crew was out there doing the work.

Well, if I wasn’t a loser, I certainly was an imposter. That came through loud and clear when Murroux was fawning over me. Or fawning over Sean, to be more accurate. Even after all these years I couldn’t get used to it. 

I wasn’t like my father. Or Lirala for that matter. I didn’t crave attention. I didn’t have to be the loudest guy in the room. I didn’t need everyone hanging on my every word. That was bullshit as far as I was concerned.

My thoughts were interrupted by Chiraine.

“You have a weird look on your face. Everything okay?”

“Yeah.”

“You concerned about the incursion team?”

“A little,” I said, looking down. “We didn’t have time to be as thorough as I’d like. In terms of threat assessment.”

“I don’t know,” she said. “A lot of the area on the tableau looks dark. It narrows down the area of consideration quite a bit. Plus nothing really came back on the bio scan. It’s probably just a big empty structure down there.”

“I guess. The question is, are they going to be able to find anything from the surface. Empty or not, no one wants to go down there.”

The sled was loaded up with all kinds of equipment, including the Riker and a portable version of the Freya’s EMR array. Ana-Zhi had a copy of the tableau on her datapad, so she had a map of sorts to start the scanning process.

It went slowly. Chiraine and I watched as the team methodically ran down and up a row, and over, and then down again. The Riker was perched up front on the sled like a hood ornament on a Cimber Exeter. Its displays blinked and it occasionally changed position as it scanned, but even after a few hours it didn’t find anything to connect with.

“I think we need to go in,” Ana-Zhi said over the radio.

“I thought the plan was to just go in through the surface.”

“Negative. Scan shows at dozen meters of catasteel. We’d never cut through it in time. We’re going to need to go in through the front door.”

I didn’t like it, but we didn’t have much of a choice. 

We tested the video link on the sled and then the team geared up in their exosuits and headed towards the entrance building.

“Are they going to be able to get in?” Chiraine asked. “I thought this facility was all locked up.”

“They’ll get in,” Galish said. “Xooth is an annoying little dimbag, but he knows his way around a donokkal, I’ll give him that.” 

“A what?”

“A donokkal. It’s a Plargondian device. Very rare.”

“What’s it do?”

“You wouldn’t understand the technology. It’s esoteric to say the least. But picture an electronic lock pick that works on nearly every door manufactured in the past two millennia.”

“Okay…”  

It turned out that Hap Galish was right. Whatever ancient security tech the building had was no match for Xooth and his magic lock pick.

After he disabled the controller, a set of blast doors creaked open. Beyond them was a ramp heading down. Guide lights winked on, illuminating the entrance, which was filled with all kinds of dust and strands of some sort of insect residue.

As the team walked the sled down the ramp, wall-mounted security scanners tracked them.

“You guys are seeing that, right?” I asked Ana-Zhi. “Scanners.”

“Affirmative. Nothing to worry about. The drones are messing with them.”

I had forgotten about the micro drones that flew beside the sled. They were almost impossible to see unless they were caught in a beam of light piped down from a tube.

At the bottom of the ramp was another set of security doors that opened into a smaller room that seemed to function as some sort of sally port. Ana-Zhi seemed extra cautious in this room and they did a lot of scanning before proceeding. 

“Those doors are sealing behind them,” Chiraine said.

“I saw that. Probably part of the security programming to prevent whatever was in there from escaping. I’m surprised it’s still working.”

“That’s actually a good sign. It means the node is operational. They should be scanning with the Riker now.”

I conveyed the suggestion to Yates, but he replied that they had been scanning continuously since entering the complex. “We’re not getting any signal strong enough for a connection. It looks like these security controls are hardwired.”

The next part of the corridor was where it got a little dicey. Light tubes illuminated the space enough so that we could see that the corridor was flooded with disgusting-looking liquid—with large patches of slime floating on it.

“That doesn’t look good,” Chiraine said. She had her shoulders pulled tight and was rubbing her hands together.

“You okay?”

“Fine.” She took a deep breath. “This is just a bit stressful.”

“Report!” I told Ana-Zhi.

“Not much to report, Captain,” she said. “We’ve got some ancient pond scum. A third of a meter deep. No life forms. Moving on.”

The team sloshed its way through the corridor, hanging on the edge of the sled for balance. Soon they arrived at a three-way junction. Ana-Zhi consulted the tableau in her datapad and then chose the left corridor.

This hallway was quite a bit narrower—maybe three meters or so. There wasn’t much clearance on the sides of the sled, so the team had to change formation—with some in front of the sled and some in back.

“Getting close now,” Yates said. “Signals getting stronger.”

“That’s a relief.”

They passed through another sealed chamber lit by light tubes. And fortunately, it was dry. Beyond the chamber ran a short corridor which ended in a large pressure door.

“Dead end?”

“Looks that way,” said Yates.

“Hang on.” Ana-Zhi double-checked her datapad. “Just as I thought. This is a vertical shaft. Probably leads down to a lower level.”

“You’re talking about an elevator, right?” I asked.

Ana-Zhi didn’t answer. Instead she directed Xooth towards a wall-mounted panel. The Plargond worked his magic and the door slid open to reveal an empty shaft.

“No sign of an elevator car,” Ana-Zhi reported. “We’ll use the sled to go down.”

“Why not go around?” I asked. “One of those other branches will get you closer to the node.”

“Negative, Captain. We’re right on top of it. Signal’s still too weak, but we’re close.”

Chiraine turned to me, her face pale with worry. “You got anything to drink around here?”

“Like what?”

“Gin would do it.”

“Sorry, no drugs or alcohol on board. Company regs. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll buy you a drink once we get back to Tor-Betree.”

“Deal.”

With the sled in the shaft, it was hard to see what was going on. From the movement along the walls, I could see that they were descending—slowly. But everything was dark and shadowy, except for the little pinpricks of light from the micro drones.

Then I heard Murroux call out, “Quiet! I think I heard something.”

The sled stopped in place. The only sound coming through the feed was the faint hum of the sled’s z-field generators.

“Why don’t they just send the damn Riker down there by itself?” Chiraine asked. She had leaned close to me and I was pretty sure she wanted a reassuring hug.

“Did you hear it?” Murroux asked. “A creaking sound.”

“Settle down, ladies. In all likelihood it was just a light tube duct expanding,” Obarral said.

“He’s right,” Ana-Zhi said. “We need to press on.” She keyed the sled’s drive and it began to descend again.

They didn’t get a half dozen meters before the shaft erupted in chaos. The sled’s cameras spun wildly and the sounds of yelling and radiant blasters echoed throughout the shaft.

“Oh my god!” Chiraine screamed.

“Report! Report!”

A flash of light blinded the cameras and before the image could return another blast of light hit. A burst of static crackled over the audio feed. I could hear people shouting frantically, but the transmission was too distorted to make out what they were saying.

“Hap, get over here!” I yelled into the intercom. “We’ve got a problem!”

“I know,” he said. “I’m trying to switch to another camera.”

“I can’t believe this!” Chiraine’s nails dug into my arm.

“Oww!”

“Sorry!” She moved away, and took a deep breath—trying to regain her composure.

“Incursion team, come in!”

The camera was still lurching crazily, and I couldn’t hear anything besides static. I thought I caught a glimpse of a smooth rippling black shape. But it might have just been a shadow.

Suddenly the video changed to another angle. I saw Obarral’s face, splashed with something thick and dark. The audio cut in—

“—repeat, we got it.”

“Report!”

“Beck?” It was Ana-Zhi Agrada.

“Yes, what’s your status?”

“Two down.”

“What?”

“Xooth and Murroux are down. Possibly critical. But the threat is neutralized. I think.”

Spots danced before my eyes. I couldn’t believe what was happening.

“What the hell—”

“Something was down here. I couldn’t tell you what it was. Looked like a big manta ray.”

“A what?”

“Batoid. Never mind. It came out of nowhere. Slashed Xooth’s throat. We kept blasting at it. The fucker wouldn’t die.”

“What about Murroux?”

“It’s not looking good for him either.”

Shit, shit, shit!

“Get out of there!” I said.

“No.” It was Obarral. His voice was barely a whisper. “We’re too close.” 

“Return to the ship,” I commanded. “That’s an order.”

“No can do, mon capitaine.”

Then both the video and audio feeds went dead.