Ashlan Jackson slammed her retrieval pod into an abrupt standstill. She stared into the rictus grin of the dead warship’s open belly, not breathing, as a piece of live Vai ordnance passed within an inch of her pod’s forward camera, twinkling in the light of the Tribulation star.
Predictably, the commlink flared to life.
“Ash. Holy crap.” She expected her captain Kate Keller’s familiar, wry tones, not Leonard Downey’s worried pitch and gravel. The presence of the engineer on the other side of the comm did nothing to make her feel calmer. Keller would understand her mistake, but Len might investigate. Ask questions. Damn. “What the hell are you doing to my pod down there?”
Ash gulped down stale, end-of-shift air and keyed the button to respond. “The pod’s fine. I’m fine, too. Thanks for asking.” She winced as she lied. “I just miscalculated the approach vector to London. Had a near miss with something live. I think it was Vai, but I’m not getting a good read on it from here.”
“It’s not like you to miscalculate.”
Ash sighed. “Forgot my coffee this morning.”
“Coffee’s important. Nat says…” Len’s voice crackled through the comm. “Nat says it looks like a zapper and that she can defuse it. It’s on the Christmas list, so if you can snag it, we’ll all get a nice bonus.”
Ash felt a headache flare to life as she switched the view on her camera. The alien bomb peeled away from her pod, blinking merrily. “I like my head right where it is, Len, not five hundred klicks away and on fire.”
“You’ll be fine. Zappers aren’t molecular. They’re kinetic. You won’t evaporate. They’ll only blow you up if they hit a plasteel hull.”
“My pod has a plasteel hull.”
Len paused. “You’ll be fine. Snag it with the net and Natalie will meet you in the cargo bay, do her thing, and we’ll all be that much closer to citizenship.”
Ash cut the audio and looked back out toward the black beyond. The zapper blinked, twisted, and twirled in the starlight. She thought of the Christmas list—the long, dangerous schedule of explosive extras Aurora Company set as bounties for its salvage teams—and, not for the first time, wished her indenture was up, so she could be somewhere warm, with pretty women, real alcoholic beverages, and something other than standard Company decking underneath her feet.
Maybe just one particular pretty woman.
“Fine,” Ash said, erasing the thought of Keller from her mind. “One alien death trap, coming right up.”
Ash keyed in a new vector, doing the math in her head as the targeting computer brought up a red, blinking path for her to follow. The zapper was heading on a trajectory that would take it out of the former battlefield and into the freeze without hitting anything too valuable. Letting it go would be easy, but all of them needed the extra credit. The zapper’s easy velocity made it a perfect target, and her pod was just fast enough to catch up.
Unfortunately she didn’t feel the same way about her instincts. A five-year-old could have seen that damn thing coming, she thought, swallowing panic.
Ash grasped the sensors, and the metal rigging around the pod shook to life. She fired the engines long enough to bring the pod alongside the bomb, then released her net. The zapper pressed gently into the quiet squeeze of the collapsing fibronet, losing all forward momentum and hanging, a coruscating emerald marble in the sky.
“The master at work.” Len sounded pleased. “Natalie, you’re on and looking good.”
“You’re not so bad yourself,” Natalie said.
The team’s salvage ordnance engineer, Natalie Chan, was in her late twenties, a three-year Aurora anti-Vai combat vet with the scars and attitude to match. When Ash first heard Natalie’s comm voice, she’d guessed her age to be around fifteen, a teenager playing with gaming tablets rather than someone who could defuse entire minefields before breakfast, a virtual hero of the line.
Ash forced out a chuckle. “Stop flirting, you two. I’m about to drop a present down the chimney.”
“Too much chatter.” Keller had returned to the comm from wherever she’d been, and with her, a ragged sense of decorum.
Ash stared into the open maw of the salvage bay. Her ship, Twenty-Five, looked like all the others of its line, stocky and serviceable with a safety rating of 97 percent and a drab name to match. Twenty-Five’s square, commonplace hull was built to slot into any number of Auroran maintenance ports on any number of Company-run space stations. The ship’s dark matte paint and hard curves were meant to conceal rather than impress. Most of Twenty-Five was cargo space and storage bays; the crew lived on the cramped middle deck, stuffed between the medbay and engineering storage. The ship’s full integrated antigrav was a reward for their stellar work on last quarter’s Company goals. Compared to the mine on Bittersweet, it was paradise.
It had been Ashlan’s home for well over a year.
She felt better these days. More confident. The zapper was an isolated incident, that’s all, she told herself. It isn’t a symptom. I’m still too close to my exposure date for symptoms. Nobody’s going to notice. I can still finish my indenture and make it to citizenship.
She could see Natalie’s guide-light and adjusted her trajectory in millidegrees, pushing the pod and its precious contents back toward the ship. When Ash was close enough, Natalie rushed forward in an EV suit. Her smart brown eyes gleamed through the faceplate. Natalie detached the net using a pair of long pliers. For a moment, Ashlan thought she was looking at a small child in a large and dangerous Halloween costume.
“Oh, what Christmas morning fun,” Natalie said.
On the bridge, Keller sighed. “Please concentrate.”
Ash made sure Natalie cleared the cargo safety line before engaging a new trajectory back toward London’s R&D ring, taking a hard right at some railgun debris. She liked flying in vacuum. She was good at it. Natural talent, Keller had said. The comms went silent as the dead cruiser leered at her once again in the ancient silence of the living stars.
She aimed her pod at London’s science level and spiked the burners, taking the trip slow and steady to calm her zapper-fried nerves. The starship’s open belly swallowed the stars around the fore camera, and she dropped down a corridor-turned-access shaft.
Last week’s work had been quiet and gruesome. The Vai coup de grâce had surprised London’s research cadre as they’d gathered in their lab-level conference room to look over some sort of mid-battle development. There they remained, floating silent and shocked, until the salvage team arrived to take them home.
That had been Ash’s least favorite part of this job—finding, identifying, and cataloging the bodies, their nails and eyelashes crusted with frost, their eyes wide with sudden, eternal surprise, their white coats filled with the gruesome evidence of explosive decompression. It reminded her entirely too much of the last days of her time in the mines on Bittersweet, after the Vai attack, after she’d been dragged out of the wreckage by Keller and her new Auroran family. Her friends on Bittersweet had been loaded like this, coffin by coffin, onto Twenty-Five. Onto an Auroran salvage ship, because Wellspring Celestial Holdings had been too decimated to show.
She’d towed the scientists’ bodies back, one by one, cradled careful and sure in the pod’s pincers. Keller ran their DNA, identified them, and said their names, while the rest of the crew stayed quiet in respect for the dead. Some of them had been allies from another Company, carrying Manx-Koltar jackets, bags, and guns. Those were placed in separate pods in the Twenty-Five cargo bay, to be returned to their families the next time the crew made a supply run to one of the outlying stations.
Now that the R&D bodies were packed away, she could relax. They’d open the bridge-adjacent decks later, go through the entire rigamarole again. Today was all about lasers and lifting, machinery and discovery, Natalie’s quips and Len’s jokes. Today was coffee and chatting in the morning with the others, lunch bathing in the Tribulation sun, card games after dinner. She felt a hopeful little hitch in her chest as she imagined Keller smiling at her behind the ragged curtain of her light brown hair, warmth in her eyes, and she wondered, maybe she’d want to talk after dinner, maybe she’d—
No. She doesn’t want to see me. Not that way.
The comm lit up, rescuing Ash from feeling sorry for herself.
“So. We know the scientists were having a meeting,” Len said. “Check for doughnuts. They might have real coffee. Oh, and see if you can snag me some of those new haptic interfaces, too. I’m sick of having to type everything manually.”
“You’re terrible.” Ash moved the pod alongside the crash-locked door next to the conference room. “Have some respect.”
“Frozen doughnuts are the best kind.”
“Shut up, both of you,” Keller said. “Space plus bullshit equals death.”
Ash flicked on the pod’s lasers, waiting for them to warm up. A crash-locked door might stop a human infiltrator in standard gravity on a functioning starship, but it wasn’t going to stop a salvage worker in a Company pod who could literally lift away a wall and cast it into the void. She waited for Keller to give her the go order but heard nothing.
“Captain? Should I engage?”
Len’s voice had gone quiet. “Captain’s still here, but she’s a little distracted. Corporate just called. Go ahead and open the room, but hold up for further instruction before you go in.”
Great. Exactly what I need on a bad day. Corporate watching my every move. Ash swore under her breath, aimed her laser cutter and fired, separating what had once been a ceiling from what had once been a wall. The work reminded her of the little that had been good about her Wellspring Celestial mining indenture: the pride she took in her exacting cuts, the meditative repetition of clearing a vein. Instead of extracting celestium from the rocky skin of a crappy planetoid, though, she was extracting secrets from the dead. It paid better and, plus, mining had never been this exciting. There was so much to be discovered from a ship’s final moments, and London told its stories in spades.
The laser cutter finished its work, and Ash engaged the pod’s pincers, pushing them forward to snag the wall. She fired the backburners to nudge the pod into position, lifting and setting the wall aside as if it were a plastic building block. She directed the lights into the room beyond, starting the standard scans for heat and radiation signatures.
“Indenture Ashlan,” Keller interjected, using her careful corporate voice. “Mr. Solano is watching on the ansible from the Rio de Janeiro. When we fixed the Tribulation system ansible array three weeks ago, corporate received a data dump that’d been waiting in the buffer ever since the battle. There’s a lot of data missing, but he thinks you’re close to something very interesting.”
“Is that all I have to go on?”
Keller cleared her throat. “Mr. Solano believes that whatever we’re looking for was the object or phenomenon that caused the Vai to retreat behind the White Line.”
“Is it ours or theirs?”
“Unknown. It’s in a quarantine locker, and all we know is it’s going to be unlike anything we’ve seen before,” Keller responded in that no-nonsense, corporate-is-watching tone of hers. “That’s all the scientists were able to dispatch in the data dump.”
“They didn’t take any readings?”
“No. Whatever it was, it came up from the planet on an unscheduled shuttle. The scientists had just enough time to snag it, dump it in quarantine, and gather the science crew before—”
“Bam. Vai attack.”
“And Vai retreat,” Keller said.
“All right. I’m heading in.”
Ash focused her pod’s lights into the closet she’d uncovered—an Aurora standard quarantine room with long, octagonal lockers set into the walls and just enough space for someone to walk through with a transport dolly. As she’d hoped, most of the lockers were still operating, sealed from the rest of the ship with their own power sources whirling away. Three showed the slow, blinking red light indicating that there was something inside.
“Three live ones,” she reported, uploading the registration information to the ship.
There was no immediate answer from Twenty-Five.
Ash tapped her fingers, restless in the silence. She imagined Keller conversing with the CEO, imagined her crooked smile and her graceful collarbones and her—Damn it, she thought. She said no, and no means no, so you’re not helping yourself by thinking about her that way.
“Two are biological research samples,” Keller finally said. “What about the third?”
Ash fought off a skittering, nervous energy. The third locker blinked at her, the registration blank as the gray walls of the room itself. She queried the system with the Company’s salvage hack number; the box operating system reported back that the interior weighed 9.85 pounds and that it contained nothing at all.
“Mr. Solano would like you to open the box,” Keller answered after a few seconds.
“I’d feel safer with more scans.”
“He wants you to open the box,” said Keller, her voice still careful. “But I’m Aurora out here. I want Dr. Sharma to have a look as well. Hang tight.”
Ash stopped slouching as soon as she heard the doctor’s enthusiastic voice in the background.
“I don’t see any indication that what’s inside is dangerous,” Sharma said. “But it’s a quarantine box. An isolette. Storing dangerous things is the whole point.”
“So, I could be pressing a suicide button,” Ash said.
Keller coughed. She wasn’t talking to Ash. “Look, I don’t want to put my people at risk if we don’t know what’s in there, sir. Yes, I know she’s an indenture.”
Ash waited another tense fifteen seconds.
“Mr. Solano would like you to go ahead, Ash,” said Keller, her voice tight and commanding.
Ash wondered why the captain would make the mistake of using her personal nickname in front of the Company CEO instead of her hated title of indenture. Was Keller that nervous? “Acknowledged,” she said. “Opening the box now.”
Ash slid her right hand back into the sensor glove that controlled the pod’s human-interaction arm. Her hand shook. Her eyes swam. She felt her stomach bottom out in sudden fear; she was out on a job, driving expensive Company equipment, and symptoms were the last thing she needed. I can’t be sick right now, she thought. I can’t have symptoms now. Not while the CEO is watching. The robot arm rattled. Hoping beyond hope that Keller and her high-placed friend on the ansible hadn’t noticed, Ash slowed, taking a long, quiet breath.
She pushed the robot arm’s controls with a light touch of her index finger and connected it to the locker’s basic interface. The front panel slid open to reveal a main chamber filled with a sick, slanted violet-green light. It was fierce and starbright, choking and painful; she raised her hand in front of her eyes until they adjusted. She wondered what it would be like to see it in person, without a pod or an isolette dampening the transmissions between them. She wondered if it would be a good idea.
She tried to turn on the polarizing filter on the cameras, but the pod was unresponsive. Buttons and toggles shuddered and crackled. Noise built from a faraway point—a great, crashing rush—and she felt it wrap around her chest and crawl into her ears, smothering her in one wide, frightening moment. She struggled to breathe. Tried to blink away the blinding light. Tried to yell for help, but she couldn’t hear her own voice. She was buried in memories of dirt pouring down her throat.
The pod’s exterior cameras crashed, one by one. Its main systems failed in a cascade that had Ash out of her harness and elbow-deep in the innards of the maintenance panel in seconds. Her nose ran; when she wiped it, blood stained her fingertips. The temperature around her plummeted twenty degrees in the second before the pod went dark as a tunnel on Bittersweet. She saw her breath in the second before the light faded for good.
Ash tried to stay calm, panic licking at the old memories of the mines, of the long dark days and darker nights. She reminded herself that since she was still breathing, structural integrity hadn’t been compromised, and eight hours of oxygen was more than enough to survive.
Twenty-Five was right around the corner.
Keller would never leave her.
She’d trained for this.
Ash pushed back in her chair and peered at the quarantine locker, allowing her eyes to adjust. She could see the outline of a spherical inferno that burned like a supernova and roiled like an ocean. She extended her fingers, squinted, tried to block out enough of the light to really see what was out there. She heard whispers, somewhere high above her, coalescing in spatters of sibilants and breathy vowels, and she looked away, trying to see who was talking—
Glory, she heard.
She pushed forward in the chair, her stomach twisting, too dizzy to stand, attempting to hit the robot arm with the last dregs of the pod’s power. There was no reason for her to be hallucinating her dead fiancé’s voice, not unless she was truly, wholly screwed. The pod was quiet as the expanse outside, as the shocked seconds after the mine shaft collapse, before the screaming.
This is it, she thought. I’m going to die.
The robot arm moved. The quarantine locker closed.
The pod rebooted.
Ash thought the blessed, bright blue Company logo would be imprinted on her grateful retinas for the rest of her life.
She sucked down freezing, canned air and stabbed the comms hard enough to hurt her fingers. “Twenty-Five, this is Ash, come in, Twenty-Five.”
“I’m seeing her. She’s alive, she looks okay. Christ, Ash, you gave us a scare.” It was Natalie, sounding frantic and relieved at the same time. Ash opened her mouth to speak, but her throat felt numb from the cold. She checked the porthole and jumped in surprise; Twenty-Five’s second pod was floating right next to hers, hanging over the quarantine room like it had been there the entire time. She could see the black-haired, pixie-dangerous ordnance engineer working at her console, her face drawn and pale.
Her own cockpit looked like the aftermath of a tornado. Subsystems had been toggled that shouldn’t have been, as if she had pressed a bunch of buttons at once. She had bruises running up and down her arms. Ash busied herself with turning off the charge on the mining laser, the backup atmo scrubbers, and the exterior secondary arm that snapped at nothing. Did I turn them on? Is this another symptom?
“Natalie? How did you launch so fast? It’s been what, two minutes?”
Natalie, looking worried, peered out the aft porthole. “What?” she said. Her words came over the comms a half second after she spoke; for a moment, Ash felt she was the star of a badly dubbed movie.
“It’s been twenty-six minutes,” Natalie said. “We thought we lost you.”
Copyright © 2020 by Karen Osborne