Dropping out of node-space, Prudence instinctively knew there was trouble. Seconds later the computer complained there were no navigation beacons, and after a moment, that there was no radio chatter at all. But she already knew.
She flipped the switch and shut off her own radio signature. Should have done it when the feeling struck, but she hadn’t wanted to believe. Hadn’t wanted it to be real.
“Pru, the link is down.” Jorgun took off his headphones. They always looked amusingly delicate on his huge frame. “I was trying to call Jelly but the link is down.”
He had made friends here. They all had, and Jorgun didn’t make friends easily. Not true ones who wouldn’t take advantage of his simpleness.
Prudence did not make friends easily, either. It would just hurt more when she had to leave. And she always had to leave.
She flicked on the intercom and broadcast throughout the ship. “Battle stations.” Jorgun’s eyes went wide at her clipped tone, but she had no comfort for him yet. The inexplicable silence of the planet below promised worse to come.
Jorgun drew in his trembling lip and began strapping himself down. Melvin stuck his head in the bridge hatchway.
“Did you say—”
“I did. Don’t power up until I tell you to.”
“Fucking uncool. Uncool.” Melvin was constitutionally unable to perform his job—or for that matter, his life—without a running commentary. It was just one of the many quirks Prudence had learned to live with. She couldn’t recruit her crew from Fleet academies.
At least he would do his job. She could hear him cussing all the way to the top deck. The Ulysses was a commercial trading vessel, of the smallest economical class, and thus unrated for combat of any kind. But Prudence was a woman of extreme caution and deep paranoia, and thus had made a few modifications. The “mining laser” bolted to the top of the ship was wired in a most unorthodox fashion. It was only good for thirty seconds of operation before something burned out, but two seconds from the amped beam would cut an unarmored ship in half. The left cargo pod carried a rack of missiles. And she had six chaffers bolted to the hull, disguised as auxiliary fuel pods. Hopefully, it would be enough.
She had to trust to hope, because she had no experience. Despite the hardware, constant drills, and obsessive planning, she had never been in combat. Such vigilance had made her the butt of many jokes and the object of her crew’s displeasure, but it had always kept her out of even the hint of a fire fight.
She didn’t intend to break that record now. Running quiet, the Ulysses presented almost no signature. Too small to impinge on any grav fields, at least until she turned her own gravitics on, and with only life support operational, there wouldn’t be enough emissions to pick her out of the void.
Aside from Jorgun broadcasting their presence the minute they’d dropped in, that is.
“What’s going on?”
The voice of Garcia, the super-cargo, rattled through the intercom with his peculiar and sometimes unintelligible drawl. He claimed it was an ancient heritage, like his fiery cooking, but Prudence was sure simple orneriness was an adequate explanation.
“There’s no radio signal from Kassa.”
As usual, he didn’t bother to figure out the meaning of the last answer before asking the next question.
“Some kind of malfunction?”
“Right, Garcia. A whole planet, fifty thousand people, with a full satellite crown and a C-class spaceport. And they’ve all gone on the blink.”
Perhaps this was not the best time for sarcasm. Still, it made Garcia stop and think.
“What the hell are we gonna do?”
“We’re going to run.” What she always did when things got bad. Perversely, it was also what she did when things got good. When she’d made enough margins long enough, and had a hold full of high-value trade goods, she would set her crew down in the biggest spaceport she could find and offer them a choice.
Get off, or go Out.
Sometimes they stayed. Sometimes they took their bonus pay and left. Sometimes she found other adventurers, stragglers, wanderers to replace them. And then she would run, hard and fast, hopping from node to node, until either they ran out of fuel or ran into a planet that had the local nodes locked down tight. Then they bartered, bribed, and begged their way into whatever passed for a commercial license in those parts, and started all over again.
The rumblings of Altair imperial politics had hinted it was time to run. The quiet of the planet below screamed it. Idly she wondered which of her crew would go and which would stay. Idly, because she couldn’t afford a long dry run yet. Idly, because she couldn’t face losing any of them. For all their faults, they were part of her life. Trapped on the tiny ship, constrained by the necessities of space travel, they had learned to get along despite their differences, to support one another and even enjoy each other’s company. Together, they were no more dysfunctional than the average family. Or so she assumed; her experience with family had been cut short.
Garcia interrupted her musing. “There might still be people down there. We gotta find out what happened.” Since when did he care about anything but a profit margin?
“That’s not our job. We’ll report the situation to Altair Fleet, and they can investigate. After they call it clean, we’ll come back for the delivery.” They had to. The colony below was an anomaly, growing its food outdoors instead of in hydrotanks. No other planet that she knew of would want a hundred mechanical threshers. She’d bought the machines as surplus from a factory that used to do something else with them, but had changed production methods. So she couldn’t even take them back for a refund.
Without this deal, the ship would be perilously close to bankrupt. That might explain Garcia’s solicitousness.
“And for a visit.” She flashed a smile for Jorgun’s benefit.
If there was anything left to come back to. What kind of disaster could silence an entire world? Prudence didn’t know, and she didn’t particularly want to find out.
“So what are we waiting for?” Melvin asked over the intercom, from his station in the laser pod.
“Grav.” She shouldn’t have had to explain it to an engineer, but then, he already knew the answer. He just couldn’t stand to be left out of a conversation.
A gravitics engine manipulated gravity; but that meant there had to be gravity to manipulate. Something the size of a planet was an ideal source of gravity. But right now Kassa was a million kilometers away. At that range, the influence it exerted on the Ulysses was minuscule.
The Ulysses had come out of the node exit with a high nominal velocity, expecting to cut the long trip to the planet down to a few hours. Now that energy hurtled them toward the distant planet, and it was still too far away to push against. Only when they were within a few hundred thousand kilometers would the Ulysses be able to change its course, undo all the velocity they had brought with them from the node. They would have to get closer to get away.
She started programming a course into the computer, a slingshot around the planet. One quick pass and they would be back out again. If they were silent, if they were lucky, they would be gone before anyone knew they had come.
A light on her console blinked, and Prudence lapsed into a rare swear word.
“What? What is it?” Garcia was audibly nervous. Prudence had threatened his life once without resorting to swearing.
She thought about hiding it from them. They didn’t need to know. It would be her decision, whatever happened; her responsibility, whatever they did. She had to balance the interests of her crew against the duties of basic humanity. That was why she was captain.
Jorgun made the decision for her, glancing with curiosity over at her console and puzzling out what the insistent, dire little light meant.
“A distress beacon,” he announced.
“Just one?” Garcia, practiced at the art of deception, was instantly suspicious.
Her console told her Melvin was panicking, trying to do a radar sweep despite her direct orders. But she’d already disabled his console, so he would get no further than another complaint.
Counting breaths, she waited for it.
“Pru, I’m gunning blind up here. Turn on the targeting system.”
“For what, Melvin? What are you going to target?”
“I don’t know.” He did exasperation very well. “If you turned on the system, I’d know what there is to target.”
“Not yet,” she said. “They might not—”
Nobody thought to ask who “they” might be. Whoever did this. Whoever was still out there, and was now coming for them.
“Powering up, Melvin. We have company.” She routed her detector into his targeting display. Someone out there had turned on their gravitics. Something was moving. And they weren’t coming from the planet. Whoever or whatever it was had been lying in wait, in deep space.
She was still too far out to do anything meaningful. Right now the Ulysses was little more than a comet, falling inward.
“I don’t see anything on the targeter.” For once, she found Melvin’s commentary deeply interesting.
“Then it’s not a ship.”
“Maybe it’s Fleet. I heard they have a cut-out signal that disables standard targeting systems.” Garcia believed every trick and cheat he heard about.
“We don’t have a standard targeting system,” she reminded them. Her ship had not been built on Altair. It had been built on a planet so many hops away that no one on Altair had ever heard its name.
It was a testament to the laziness of man that her Altair-trained engineer could maintain the ship despite its foreign origin. The basic designs, refined into perfection over untold centuries, no longer evolved. Only the electronic protocols changed, like dialects of the mother tongue. The computer could learn to translate those quickly enough, so that was rarely a problem. And sometimes, like now, it was a benefit.
“If it’s not a ship…” Garcia was still waiting for her to fill in the blanks for him.
“Then it’s a mine,” she said. Let him stew on that.
Melvin started swearing again.
Her gravitics detector wasn’t accurate enough to tell her if the mine had locked on to them. She might still be able to slip away, but without knowing what signal it was using to track her, she didn’t know if it was safe to turn on her own gravitics.
Garcia’s gossiping might be helpful here.
“What’s the standard signal for Altair defensive mines?”
“Grav,” he answered immediately. “For Earth’s sake, don’t turn on the engine.”
“I haven’t. And it’s still coming. What are their secondary triggers?”
“Uh. Maybe thermal…”
Altair was a technologically sophisticated system. They would use the best. But she had passed through worlds with plenty of tech, and a lot more interest in combat than Altair had. The chaffers were supposed to be proof against all known targeting systems. Hopefully targeting technology was as stagnant and unchanging as the rest of the space-faring designs.
She launched one of the expensive pods. It floated off of the ship, out into space, pretending to be the ship itself. It used gravitics to drive itself, and to fake a mass signature. It put out the same amount of heat. It generated internal static to appear as typical radio-signal leakage from electronic circuits, including canned intercom communications with Prudence’s voice announcing bogus course changes. If the black-market dealer who had sold it to her was to be believed, it even faked cosmic ray scattering. She had believed him. She’d paid enough for competence and honesty.
Five minutes later, when the gravitic detector said the mine hadn’t changed course, she stopped believing.
“Why isn’t it showing up on targeting? How can it see us and we can’t see it?” Melvin was outraged at the unfairness.
“Maybe it’s not locked on.” Garcia said, looking for the easy out.
But Prudence was used to things being hard and unfair.
“Less chatter, more ideas. I’m going to try a course correction. Hang on.”
She brought the engines online and slammed the controls hard to starboard. Her warning was wasted. As far out as they were, she couldn’t feel the motion through the ship’s passive grav-plating.
Cutting the engines, she went back to silence and waiting. Two minutes and the console gave its answer.
“It’s tracking us,” Melvin squealed. She was sorry she’d left his display wired into the gravitic detector.
“Come on, boys, think. What else is it locking on to us with?”
“Screw that,” Melvin cut her off. “Bring it up on target, so I can shoot it.”
The laser beam was a half centimeter wide. The mine was probably less than a meter broad. At a range of a million meters, even a computer wouldn’t be able to make that shot.
“Seriously, Pru. Let me defocus the beam and spray it.”
“Defocus to what, Melvin? A kilometer across?” At that level of spread, the laser wouldn’t even give you a suntan.
“Just a meter. It’s worth a try, damn it.”
No it wasn’t. Melvin didn’t understand even the most basic physics. Defocusing the beam more than a few centimeters would weaken it to just a bright flashlight. And if the mine was hardened to military grade, even a tight-beam hit from the laser might not matter.
“Wait till it’s closer, Melvin.”
No point in measuring the distance in meters. All that mattered was time until impact. Her future had been reduced to ten minutes.
At five minutes she set off two more chaffers, to no effect. She hadn’t expected any.
At three minutes she turned on the engines and started evasive maneuvers, a complex series of course changes. Each one extrapolated to a unique vector, but the sum total of them all was the real path the ship would wind up taking. If her random number generator was smarter than the mine’s random number predictor, they might throw it off.
For this pass. It would turn around and come after them again. But at these velocities, that would buy them more time. Time to get closer to the planet, where she could really maneuver. Or possibly hide in the atmosphere.
“Stop jerking the ship,” Melvin shouted through the intercom. “Let me aim.”
At what? She could see his targeting display was still clueless. But she had promised him his chance. She turned off the random autopilot. The detector showed it wasn’t confusing the mine, anyway.
“Go ahead, Melvin.”
“Are we gonna be okay?” Jorgun asked. He’d been so quiet she had forgotten about him.
“We’ll be … fine. Just close your eyes and count to…” She looked at the readout and its bleak display: sixty seconds to impact. “Count to sixty-one.”
Over the whisper of his chanting, she heard the hum of the laser. It drained power at a phenomenal rate. Because of its modifications it bypassed the usual circuit breakers. The lights went out, and life support shut down.
Jorgun was trying not to cry. That was no way to spend your last sixty seconds as an ordered collection of molecules, before poofing into atomic plasma. She got out of her chair, went over to Jorgun’s, and held his hand.
“It’s all right,” she told him, with a smile. It would be quick. Instantaneous, even.
This was not how she wanted to die. In space. She wanted to die on a planet. On a place she could call home. She wanted to make that one last landfall someday, come to rest on a dirty rock and never leave. As young as she was, she had thought she had more time to find it. But all of her searching had led only to deals. Negotiations, not acceptance; contracts, not trust. Even the few men she had taken to her bed had been dealers, of one kind or another.
With her free hand, she touched the medallion that hung around her neck. Just another dream that would fail, dying silently and unfinished in the black of space and blinding fire.
The hum of the laser went away and the lights returned. As life support began pumping air, she could smell the burned silicon.
Out of habit, she kept trying. From Jorgun’s console she flicked the engines back on. No more time for random dodging: she pushed the ship into as steep a turn as it could pull from this distance. Not much, but at least she could feel it.
The gravitics display went blank, its crude accuracy incapable of distinguishing mine and ship at this close range.
She really didn’t want a damn countdown, but Jorgun faithfully whispered the numbers.
“I think I got it.” Melvin’s voice was jarring. “I defocused the beam a lot, at the end. I’m sure I hit it.”
If he had succeeded in damaging it, why hadn’t it self-destructed? At this range the blast would probably have killed them anyway. But she took pity on him, as she had on Jorgun, and let him believe.
Jorgun stopped counting.
“Are we safe now?” he asked.
“Sure,” she told him. It would be good to see him smile one last time.
He turned on the intercom.
“We’re safe, guys. Prudence says we’re safe now.”
“Jorgun, you half-witted genetic cesspit—” Garcia unloaded a lifetime’s bitter frustration into the nearest target. Prudence flicked off his intercom.
“Garcia sure can swear, can’t he?” Jorgun said with a grin. “Like you told me, Pru, we all have our own special talents.”
Jorgun was a giant, seven feet tall and well proportioned. He could crush Garcia like an eggshell. But Jorgun was incapable of violence. The best he could do was to glare silently from behind dark glasses. It had worked a number of times, browbeating port officials into being less obnoxious, but if he forgot his role and took off the shades, they could see his eyes were laughing. It was just a game to him.
Now he thought the game was over. He was trying to raise Jelly on the comm again.
Prudence held her breath, involuntarily.
The gravitics display winked on. The mine had passed them, was still sailing blindly out into space.
Melvin really must have hit it somehow. The odds were impossible; not merely astronomical, but impossible. Far more likely the damn thing had malfunctioned on its own, but Melvin would never accept that. The man would be impossible to live with now.
She laughed at the irony. Complaining about living conditions when you expected to be dead was Melvin’s shtick, not hers.
Turning on the intercom, she shouted over the noise.
“Shut up, Garcia!”
The swearing stopped.
“We’re safe. It missed, and it’s not even slowing down. It’s on a dead run.”
“I told you I hit it,” Melvin crowed.
Garcia, a rational person despite his cavalier attitude toward the truth, was too stunned to say anything. At that moment Prudence remembered what they shared, why she had kept him on the ship so long. They were the only two with a shred of common sense.
The distress beacon was still calling.
Sighing, she pushed caution aside, and entered a course for planetfall.
* * *
The Ulysses floated out of the sky on a cushion of gravity. Prudence sat at the helm, her fingers twitching, ready to spook and run at the shadow of a threat.
The beacon lay in the middle of a burnt field, whining plaintively. A village was over the hill, or had been, once. Now it was a smoking pile of rubble.
Nothing stirred below; the field was quiet and still. On this silent world, it seemed like a warning siren.
“Melvin, give me a targeting sweep.”
The comm panel told her he was trying. It also told her the result.
“There’s nothing down there made of metal. ’Cept the beacon.”
“Sweep the horizon,” she said. Melvin tended to think a little too directly.
“Hang on—I got something out in the woods. Aft of us. Light metal—it’s bouncing up and down!”
Reflexively, she touched the controls. But left them unmoved.
“Tell me if it starts coming at us.”
“It’s gone now,” Melvin complained. “How can I tell you if it’s coming, when it just blinks in and out?”
She sighed. Melvin was used to space, where things were neat and clean. Planetside, there were always obstructions and distractions. She sighed because she sympathized with Melvin. Space was better.
Gently she rotated the ship until it faced the mysterious woods. Hovering for a moment, she stared at the view-screen, trying to pick out details. But the trees yielded no secrets.
The thought of landing twisted her stomach into knots. Anything could be buried in that innocent field: plastic explosives, a magnetic grapple, electrifying cables. The Ulysses belonged in the sky, the only place it was safe. If somebody out there wanted her attention, they would have to play their cards first.
Very slowly, she started going back up.
The watching woods parted. A figure stepped out into the open and waved both arms in a universal, timeless signal.
“The metal’s moving again—now there’s more! What the hell is going on, Pru?” Melvin was obviously too absorbed in his radar screen to look at his visual. At least he couldn’t panic and open fire. The laser was dead.
“Somebody down there is asking for our help, Melvin. But they’re not alone, and they’re not stupid. The metal you’re detecting must be hand weapons.”
“Weapons! Don’t go down, Pru. Get us out of here,” Garcia’s voice demanded through the intercom. He hated being strapped into the passenger lounge, but there were only two seats on the bridge. Prudence had had the other two removed years ago, one of the best decisions she had ever made.
Melvin voiced his opinion by aiming the defunct laser at the woods.
But Jorgun cast the deciding vote. “Is it Jelly?” he asked, and Prudence’s heart wrenched.
“No, Jor, it won’t be her. She lives in Baliee, a thousand klicks away.”
“Oh,” he said, disappointed. Too simple to understand that meant hope for her. Too innocent to guess that hope was all there was.
Prudence took the ship down again, heading for a spot halfway between the woods and the beacon. The tiny figure watched her.
She punched up the zoom on the visual display, brought the man into focus. Dirty, bearded, disheveled. At this range, his face was inscrutable.
The feet of the Ulysses touched ground, unsteady with the tension between mass and apparent weight. She left the gravitics on, ready to spring up, to safety.
The man waited, unmoving. Her turn to play a card.
“Jor,” she said, hating herself for using him. “Open the boarding hatch. But stay on the ship. Do not get off, for any reason. Just let them see you, okay? Wave to them.” She had to use him. He was huge, intimidating—from a distance. They would take his size for strength. If it was a trap, they might change their minds and flee. If they attacked, then Jorgun was the only crew member she could afford to lose, the only one who could not use a weapon.
While he was stepping out of the bridge, Garcia stepped in, carrying a short, stubby gun. The splattergun was designed to repel boarders. Its projectile disintegrated into a hundred tiny particles when it left the barrel, which made it less likely to puncture hulls and more likely to hurt people. Prudence hated the crude weapon. It was, like Garcia, undiscriminating in picking its targets.
“Where’s he going?”
“To make friends,” she answered.
“I came up here to tell you to escape while we still can. Not to watch you send Jor out to die.”
“Shut up, Garcia,” she repeated. Despite his protestations, he didn’t go running after Jorgun to stop him. Instead, he stared at the zoomed image on the display.
“That guy hasn’t been eating well.” Trust Garcia to notice something like that. He never missed a meal.
Carefully they watched the display, looking for clues. They heard the boarding hatch open. They heard Jorgun’s shouted welcome. Then, and only then, the man relaxed, his shoulders sagging. With his hands raised, he stumbled toward the ship.
Behind him, faces appeared, peering out of the foliage. Scared, tired, hungry faces.
* * *
Prudence met the man at the boarding hatch. Standing at the top of the gangway gave her power, rendered him a supplicant at the foot of the throne. A simple trick, but it had worked on more than one dockside petty official.
“Thank Earth you’re here,” the man said.
“Captain Prudence Falling, of the Ulysses,” she introduced herself. The formalities were there for a purpose. They gave structure to the negotiations, reminded everyone exactly where they stood. “And you are?”
“Brayson James.” There was no argument in his voice, only despair. “A pumpkin farmer. Or I was. Until we were attacked.”
“Attacked by who?” Garcia whispered fiercely from where he was hiding behind a bulkhead. “It freaking matters, don’t you think?”
It did matter, rather a lot. Knowing which planet launched the attack would tell them where to flee. “By who?”
“Burn Earth if I know. The bombs just fell out of the air. No warning. If I hadn’t been out in the field, trying to fix an irrigation line, I’d be dead with the rest of my family. They dropped a bomb right on my house, Captain. They aimed for us.”
“And those people?” Some of the crowd coming out of the woods were carrying weapons, but they no longer looked dangerous.
“Refugees and survivors. We haven’t eaten right for a week. Too afraid to go near town for any supplies that might be usable. They didn’t leave right away, Captain. They stayed and hunted us for days. We only figured it was safe now because you weren’t already dead.”
“Nice that you were thinking of us,” she said, but without heat. She would have done the same in their shoes. “You set the beacon?”
“Yes. And the seven before it. This is the first time a bomb didn’t fall out of the sky on it.”
“What do you want me to do?”
Someone in the crowd answered with a shout. “Get us out of here!”
The Ulysses was a freighter, not a passenger liner. Its life support couldn’t keep a hundred people alive for the four-day trip through node-space to the next colony, let alone the long journey to Altair.
“I can’t take you to off-planet,” she said carefully. Unhappy crowds were not prone to listening to reason.
But Brayson stared at her, his face set into ugly hardness, like badly poured concrete that could never be smoothed over. “We’re not running away. And we’re done hiding. Take us to the capital.”
Copyright © 2012 by M. C. Planck