1: The Find.

In space, no one can hear you scream.  But on a spaceship, the sound of coolant backing up travels just fine.

One moment the normal hum of fluid vibration is there, the next it isn’t.  Pressure builds up then equalises.  Compression and rarefaction, resulting in rattling pipes.

Then the pipe mounts rattle.  Then the whole ship, transmitting the vibration as noise all the way up to the cockpit.

Then the hum of the engine changes.  Up, one octave.  A little less a rumble; a little more a shriek.  The metal inside gets hot. It grows.  Components that should move, don’t.  Or they crash into other components.  Parts aligned to the nanometer move by micrometers.

The engine note changes again.  That’s strike 2.  Last chance saloon.  When it hits that second level of shrillness, you have two minutes before you’re adrift and walking home.

And the MFCS Asteria was thirty lightyears from home.

“What’s the hold-up, Bones?” yelled Jeremy Digger through the comm.  Strapped into the pilot chair he saw half a dozen gauges – all red – and no sign of them going green.

“I’ve got this,” came Bones’ gravelly voice over the link.  “It’s just like last time.”

“You’re taking longer than last time,” Digger replied, trying, and probably failing, to strip the worry from his voice.

The ship shivered, harder than before.  The regular sounds were gone now, replaced with harsher, more urgent sounds.  Klaxons, grinding steel, his ship ripping itself to bits.

The comm cut off.  Digger, swung in his chair, as if looking backward may help him hear Bones down on the Orlop.

“Bones?”

Nothing, of course.  He couldn’t see the comms board from his chair.  He unstrapped and kicked off to Bone’s vacated seat.  He reached for the armrest as the ship lurched.  The lack of coolant playing havoc with the engines.  He grasped empty air as he floated upward, but hooked the chair with his foot and pulled himself down.  Straps on, eyes on the board.  The comm was running.  There was background noise, but no Bones.

“Bones!”

Precious seconds evaporated before Digger’s gaze.  The two minutes were almost up.  If Bones was injured, knocked over in that last lurch, Digger wouldn’t have time to get down there and help him.

His fingers dug into the armrests, knuckles white, sweat pooling on the bridge of his nose.  “Bones!”

A cough, then a groan.  “My bad,” Bones normally sounded like he had rocks in his throat, but now he sounded like he’d rubbed his vocal cords raw on them.  “I kinda lost consciousness.”

Digger’s eyes widened.  Every muscle screamed for him to run for the orlop.  “You what?”

“Easy, easy,” Bones said.  Digger was about to shout at Bone’s flippancy, but his co-pilot kept whispering it and Digger realised the man was talking to the coolant system rather than him.

A racket of banging and whooshing echoed through the ship and then slowly the ship quietened down.  The grinding stopped.  The banging and crashing dissipated, replaced by the gentle hush of flowing coolant.

Digger flopped his head back and sighed.  Shit, that been close.

If the damn Board’s timetable wasn’t so tight he’d have time to fly to Mayflower for a proper overhaul.  But no, money, money, money was the call, and by the way your pay doesn’t cover ship maintenance.

Fuckers.

He let out another sigh.  Could have been worse.  It was the wrong system to end up adrift.  Good odds pirates would have found him before the Navy, though these days he wasn’t sure which was worse.  One would ransack, pillage then destroy the ship.  The other might see value in the scrap metal.

The rear hatch squeaked open and Bones appeared. A blue pressure suit.  Thick brown skin draped over a set of bones, topped with a head that Digger had always thought of as Cro-Magnon.  Cro-Magnon’s had bigger brains than homo-sapiens but didn’t know how to use them.  Just like Bones.

Digger stared at him, eyebrows raised in question.  Bones shrugged then bounced over to his co-pilots seat.  Digger moved back to his own seat but still stared at him.  Bones belted in then said, “What?”

“You ‘lost consciousness’?”

Bones scratched his bald head.  “Ah, yeah, well, there was a bit of an explosion down there.  Kinda knocked me against a bulkhead.”

Digger sighed.  “Do I need to go down there?”

“No, it’s fine, and thanks for your sympathy.”

Digger studied the man, no big gashes, no joints swelling up, a cocky grin on his face.  Digger was sure that once Bones reached the orlop, the physical laws of the universe broke and reality and fiction became one.

Well, whatever, as long as the ship was working again and wasn’t about to explode.

“We good to go then?” Digger asked, but Bones was leaning forward and squinting at his display.  Digger’s pulse quickened.  “What?”

“There’s something out there.”

Digger would have asked what it was, but Bone’s tone told him he had no idea either.  Instead, Digger looked at his own sensors.

They were off course but still in the Messiers system, on their way to Landnamabok to dump ore for Blankicite conversion.  They’d been transiting the system toward the Landnamabok Waygate when Bone’s engines gave out and sent them drifting. (Ownership was equal when the engines were working well of course).

They were in a part of the system he’d never been in before.  He looked up at the viewport.  There was big fat-ass white star to starboard, growing closer.  Across the centre of the star were pockmarks of black, some small, some big, but together thick enough to blot out a strip of sunlight.  It made the sun look like it was wearing a belt.  Then he glanced at Bones, a gunslinger in his youth, and changed his mind.  It was more a bandolier, slightly cocked, as if sagging from a star’s shoulder down to its waist.

The blip on the sensor map was coming from the accretion disk.  The blip was large and grey, signalling a capital class ship.  There weren’t many of those out here.

What was it doing in the accretion disk?  Spying?

He inhaled.  Spying on them?

No, of course not.  They were a simple freighter.  Bones had left the war behind a few decades ago.  Digger’s troubled adolescence didn’t qualify him for stalking-by-military.

The grey blip was still.  It wasn’t keeping pace with the Asteria’s drift.  He re-tuned the sensors and the particles of the accretion disk appeared as tiny green specks on the display.  The grey blip was nearly lost in them.  It seemed to follow them in their lazy orbit around the star, as if it were one of them.

“Let’s go have a look,” Digger blurted.  “I sense salvage.”

Bones’ gaze moved around the cockpit, his shoulders hunched up slightly.  “We don’t have any space.”

“Not that kind of salvage,” Digger said with a wave.  “I’m talking small and valuable.  Like the stuff you’d find on a navy bridge.”  He realised he was selling the wrong angle.  “And their engineering deck.”

Bones’ eyes lit up briefly.  “How do you know its salvage?”

“I don’t.  Only one way to find out though.”

#

The closer they got to the object the weirder the whole situation felt to Digger.  The viewport still couldn’t discern the ship but the sensors had put together a representation on the display.

Digger and Bones stared at it.  It was square and boxy, but long, like a sharp-edged nightstick with the lopsided handle.

“Is that an Armstrong?” Bones asked.  His eyes hadn’t left the virtual image.

Digger nodded, his gaze also glued to the image.  “A Class A.  One of the originals.  I didn’t know any of them were still around.”

Bones clicked his fingers.  “Didn’t Honnette Outil auction one off last year?”

Digger leaned forward, zooming in to see if the sensors could detect the registration.  “You’re right.  Was it INC or Pleiades Corp who purchased it?”

The sensors completed a deeper sweep.  The registration appeared on the screen.  Bones was already digging through old media dumps.  They only received MFC filtered news, but Digger remembered the auction so the old article would be there somewhere.

“Got it,” said Bones after a few minutes.  He looked back at the sensor image.  “It’s the same one.  A subsidiary of the Pleiades Corporation purchased it for a pittance.  Not my words, the articles, but once they took ownership of it, it was never seen again.”

Digger’s gaze drifted to the viewport.  He could see a small twinkle in the distance, larger and shinier than the dust of the accretion disk around them.  “Until now.”

“You still want to check it out?” Bones asked.

“Someone would pay good money for the sensor logs alone.  And a chance to solve a mystery like this? Hell yes I want to check it out.”

The slither of reflection grew as they crept closer.  Absolute velocity was a no-no in an accretion disk.  You needed to be slow relative to what was around you so you didn’t slam into it.

Digger flicked off the autopilot once they were close enough to read the registration by eye:  TNS Constitution.

“She’s an oldie all right,” Bones said.  “Wasn’t that General Blenheim’s ship?”

Digger closed his eyes, trawling through history lessons.  General Blenheim had lead the Terran Confederation Navy, such as it was at inception, to the Pleiades system.  The infamous battle had gone badly for Blenheim, but he had survived, escaping on the Constitution.

“Geez, that was the flagship,” Digger said.  The ship ha been mothballed after that infamous batter.  It hadn’t been brought out again until Honnette sold it last year.  Digger could still see holes in the armour, black scoring from missile impacts and large gashes down her flank.

He was looking at history.

Digger smiled.

Time to steal some history.

2: The Investigation

They latched onto a for ‘ad airlock, up close to the bridge.  Bones wanted to dock near the Armstrong’s engineering section, but Rock, Paper, Scissors had settled the argument in Digger’s favour.  Now they stood on either side of the airlock door, waiting for the red right to flick green.  Digger heard the door flex under the equalising pressure, then the light went green.  He put his hand over the open button then glanced at Bones.  Two Garrard .5s were holstered at his hips.  Two spare clips protruded from his pockets.  Another pair were velcroed to his gravity boots.

“Ready?”  There was a 99.9% chance the ship was empty, but that didn’t necessarily mean there weren’t any threats.

“Go,” Bones said, nodding.  Digger palmed the switch and the door ratcheted upward.

They leapt forward together into the chute, the flexible conduit that sealed against the Constitution’s hull.   They floated to the far door on the Constitution.  There must have been pressure behind it, as it opened when Digger pulled and they stepped into a second airlock.  Their grav-boots touched down to the steel floor and locked on.  They closed the door behind them, opened the one in front and then they were in the Constitution.

Digger paused mid step as he stared at what could only have come straight out of a history vid.  Weak yellow light panels overhead.  Bare metal walls and ceiling.  The corridors were narrow and short rectangle.  The floor was grating only.  There were voids between the structural members below, dark little cavities were anything could get lost.  It looked so rushed, so incomplete, a design only 80% complete.  General Blenheim’s fleet had been rushed into combat before it was ready.  It was amazing this one had survived.

A drip echoed from the corridor to the left.  Digger sniffed.  The air was ok, maybe a little damp, certainly not dry, but not stale either.  It didn’t smell like twenty years of inactivity.

There had been people here recently, though that could have meant a week or a year.  It was hard to tell with recycled air.

Bones turned toward Digger, palms on his Garrards.  His sign of nerves.  “I’m going down below.  Holler if you find any zombies.”

“As if.  I ain’t sharing them with you.  Now get lost.” Digger went left, forward, to the bridge.  He’d had hours to prepare a shopping list.  First the sensor logs.  They were good value for money but could take time to download, so they were always first.  Then he’d check the various officer stations.  From the bridge he could salvage processors, super conducting wire, tactical displays, any of which he was sure would fit just fine into the Asteria, but what he really wanted was a full schematic of the Armstrong.  INC had aptly named it ‘The first of many’, and being a living, breathing prototype he’d heard that there were some unknown technologies built into her.  For testing, for fun, or whatever reason INC had decided to put them in.

Not the negative space they were chasing these days, but the conflicting rumours sounded positively exciting.  If at least one of them was true. . .well bringing one of them home would be mighty impressive.

The corridors lost their shape as he moved forward, some bowing into triangles, some trying to emulate an inverse pentagon.   More light panels were dead or missing.  There had been some big blows to the ships armour once upon a time, distorting the walls, buckling the doors and breaking the brittle light panels.  One corridor looked like a parallelogram.  Some doors had seized half open or cracked under some intense compressive stress.

He had to double back several times to bypass blocked corridors.  He’d open a door and hear bangs elsewhere as stress worked itself out.

The next corridor was pitch black.  He found another way around.

He grew accustomed to the ships noises.  No hush of air vents, (how much air did they have left then?), but there was a distant clatter of hull flexion, a persistent drip which seemed to be following him, and the gentle hum of electronics.  The sub-audible thrum of a fusion generator was absent.  The ship was probably running on batteries.  The ship wasn’t all dead.  Mostly dead perhaps.

He was beginning to worry there might not actually be a bridge when the corridor widened and ended at a pair of thick doors. They were smooth and thick and curved backward like the armour plating of a ground tank.  Which was perhaps what they were.  Protection for the bridge from internal attack.

The doors weren’t locked.  He palmed the switch and they parted.  He stepped back as they opened outward then eased to a stop against the walls.

The bridge was ancient.

He fought back the rising disappointment.  It was minimalist: Short, steel seats. Small control panels with tiny displays. A main display smaller than the viewport on the Asteria.   The walls were crumpled from superstructure failure.  He saw rivet heads, loose bolts and welds a first year apprentice would be ashamed of.

Built on the cheap. And in a hurry.  There wouldn’t be any surprises here.

Although. . . He slinked to the centre of the bridge, feeling uneasy.

Where were the crew?  The ship got here somehow.  If an accident had befallen them, where were they?  The ship wasn’t missing any escape pods, so no one left that way.

The hairs on the back of his neck stood up.  Something was wrong.

He inhaled long and slow and ran a hand through his hair.  A dead ship wasn’t going to hurt him.  Just breathe, and get the sensor logs.

He stepped up to the navigation control station.  It was blank but came to life with a touch of his hand.  There was no crystal port on the console, probably to stop people illegally downloading military information, but Digger knew a few tricks.  He bent down, pulled the casing away from the console stand and found the backup wires.  The computer core recorded all information from every console and the sensor logs would travel down these five twisted pairs.  Digger pulled a fresh junction from his belt, worked the wires in, plugged his own crystal port into it then inserted a data crystal.

Five minutes, give or take.  Absolute child’s play.  Not that he was a professional thief or anything, but he still took pride in his extra-curricular skills.

He stood, put his hands to his back and stretched.  The bridge was silent around him, the crystal darkening as its nodes filled with data.

The prickle in the nape of his neck returned.  If the crew had suddenly abandoned ship they wouldn’t have taken the time to turn everything off.  They would have run like hell.  Sensing no pilot input, the autopilot would have achieved null velocity or stable orbit and waited patiently for input until the power ran out.

Unless someone had been here after the crew evacuated.  Someone who went around and turned all the controls off, along with. . .

He caught a red flash in his peripheral vision.  From the Commander’s chair.  It was set near the back on a little mezzanine overlooking what would have probably been a dozen officer stations.

Digger climbed the ten steps to the chair, watching for the red light to flash again.

The chair was bigger than the others, with a sturdy looking backrest.  A palm computer had been fused to the armrest.  A hasty addition perhaps, overlooked in the original design.

The red light flashed again, from the frame of the palm computer.

The hair follicles on his neck nearly burst from his skin.  A shiver came over him as he reached out his index finger and touched the screen.

It lit up, a bright white backlight.  The screen was empty.

Digger felt a nervous smile, then turned and sat down in the chair.

Then his chest went cold.

The display was monochrome.  Digits flashed past on the scrolling screen, number letter combinations, so long Digger didn’t know where one finished and the other started.  Then they shortened until each was shorter than a line on the screen.  They kept shrinking until the last was down to one digit.

A zero.

Then three words flashed up, all in capital letters.  

LOCATOR BEACON ACTIVE

3: The Flight.

Digger launched from the chair a split second before his heart leapt from his chest.  He bounded down the stairs, grabbed the half-full crystal and ran for the door, his back already damp with sweat.  He was through the bridge doors before he remembered his radio.  He ripped it from his belt.

“Bones?  Bones!”

Bones’ voice was excited.  “You found Zombies?”

“These fuckers are real life.  Get back to the Asteria.  Now!”

Bones grunted.  “Just two more screws.”

“Now Bones.”

“One Screw.”

“I’m leaving you behind you stupid bastard.”

“I’m coming.”

Running and yelling was too much for Digger’s lungs.  He clipped the radio to his belt and concentrated on oxygenating his muscles.

The back of his neck crawled as if someone was watching him.  The ship had made him nervous before.  Now, he was outright. flapping.

He turned left at a junction, toward a blocked door, swore and doubled back.  Was he lost?  No, he’d just taken the wrong turn.  The next corridor, with a single light panel confirmed his location.  He went right, straight, right again, then left, weaving down the corridors, trying to work out who was tracking the ship.  Had they set it adrift?  Had they removed all the crew?

The ship shivered around him.  A distant tremor rose from the lower decks.  He felt it more than heard it, his own breath ragged in his ears.  The ship seemed to be awakening from some slumber, inert systems reigniting: Propulsion, air conditioning, heat dispersement.

The hiss of equalising air pressure echoed down the corridor, sending a cold shiver through his chest.

The noises weren’t coming from this ship.

They were coming from outside.

They were being boarded.

He grabbed his radio.  “Bones!”

Static screeched back at him.  Jamming.  He threw the radio aside.  He ran harder, arms pumping hard, breath reverberating down the narrow corridors, grav boots sucking and releasing.  He wasn’t far now.  A few more corners-

-SHUNK-

-The wall exploded above his head.

Adrenaline exploded through Digger’s chest.  He fell back, slamming hard into the grating.  His hand clawed for purchase as his heels skidded back and forth.  His right foot dug in, he launched backward, and the grating ripped apart beneath him.  His knee fell into the void.  Hot sharp metal tore at his pressure suit.  Animal instinct took over.  Pain was irrelevant; survival was everything.  Percussive booms rocked the corridor.  Walls disintegrated around him. He dived around the corner, catching a glance of two black figures with big ugly guns. With his chest heaving and throat rasping he reached for his missing radio.  Dammit, where was Bones?

Digger pushed against the wall to stand.  Hyperventilating, he peeked around the corner again.

They were coming.  Slowly, walking in a squat, upper body perfectly still, rail guns steady as rock.  Cold-blooded killers.

Diggers shaking hands fell to his belt.  He had no weapons.  All he had left was his tool bag and a half used packet of Advil.  Perhaps he could feed them the whole half packet, lull them into a sense of pain free nirvana.

Or he could run.

Digger turned toward his own corridor.

Two booms rang out.  Different.  Higher pitched.  Not as powerful.  He leaned back out.  The two black clad men were face down, guns extended in mirror images of each other. Small clouds of grey smoke wafted from their backs.

“You waiting for a damn invitation?” Bones’ voice screeched out in his attempt at a whisper.  He was at the far end, his Garrards extended, a wisp of smoke at each barrel.  “Let’s go,” he said, waving one at Digger.

Digger went.

Bones led, Garrards out front, sweeping each new corridor before returning to the centre.  For years Digger had endured Bones’ old gunslinger stories – Oberon, Valhalla, Tombstone, but now he was extremely grateful for Bones’ previous experience.

They stopped at the last corner before the airlock.  Bones nodded to Digger who leaned around the edge.  There were no guards.  A trick, surely?  But they couldn’t just hang about waiting to be surrounded and shot to death.

Digger shrugged and Bones leapt out long and a little bit graceful before his grav boots sucked him down.  He charged forward, short gasping breaths, Digger right behind him.

The air lock was open.  At both doors.  That told Digger two things, both of which scared him.  First, whoever these people were they either had incredible hacking skills to defuse the safely protocols, or they had high-level command codes, and two:  They were on the Asteria.

“Real quiet, like,” Digger whispered to Bones.  They both stepped into the airlock, gathering at the second door.

This was the time of maximum danger.  While floating down the chute they were prisoners to their own inertia.  No magnetic floor to react against.  No gravity to push them one way or the other.  Sitting ducks.  Well, slowly drifting ducks.  Not enviable ducks, that was for sure.

Bones leapt off.  Digger shrugged again and followed suit.

Digger stared at the Asteria’s open airlock, watching for movement.  The light inside was muted, filled with shadows.  Already he could smell the familiar scents of his ship coming toward him.  The thick greasy smell that Bones brought with him whenever he came back from the orlop, the slight chemical tang of the processed air working through expired air filters.  A hint of his last vacuum dried ration pack.  ‘Kumara’ with a touch of ‘pork’.  It was quiet in the chute.

A shadow moved beyond the open door.

Digger’s heart raced, butterflies flapping through his chest.  He reached out for the chute’s fabric edge but it bowed to his hand pressure.  It provided no friction.

A black-clad head appeared in the opening.

Boom!  A tongue of fire spewed from a Garrard and the head snapped backward, an arc of globular blood spewing out and around, forming a cloud of haemoglobin.

Bones flew backward, out of sight and Digger reached the Asteria’s airlock, sending the cloud of blood billowing away.  He gripped his grav boots on the hull and shoved the headless corpse out into the chute.

Bones appeared next to him, panting slightly.  He nodded in greeting, squeezed his foot into the handle, bent around edge, stuck both Garrard’s through the opening and let it rip.

The noise bounced through the chute, deafening Digger, the light from the bullets flashing behind the airlock door’s window.

The guns clicked empty.  Bones was already moving inside.  Digger slithered in after.  With feet on steel he wrenched the airlock shut and surveyed the damage.

Bullet holes in the wall, bullet holes in the ceiling, who knew what damage behind the walls, and two drifting dead bodies.  Their blood cloud would clog up the air conditioners.  One problem at a time, he reminded himself.

“Check the Orlop,” he instructed Bones.  “I’ll sweep the cockpit.”

Bones nodded, holstered the Garrards, and was gone.

Digger’s boots clanged on the decking as jumped through the narrow hatches and ran along the decking.  Then he reared up, realising how much noise he was making.  If there was still someone on board. . .

He stopped beside the cockpit hatch, smelling, listening.  Smells floated freely in zero gravity.  Pressure suits had a faint rubbery tang to them. A beating hard and breathing gave a room a certain life, a sixth sense feeling, like when you knew you were being watched.

But the cockpit felt empty.  A black clad soldier could be hunkered down in there though, barely breathing, calm and quiet, waiting for the chance to kill him.

He searched for a weapon.  Bones’ ‘sensor relay whacker’ pole was velcroed to the corner wall.  Digger slowly reached out, closed his fingers around its centre and pulled it back to his chest.  He took a deep breath, tensed his legs and lunged through the hatch.

The cockpit was empty.

Digger released the pole, an embarrassed laugh escaping his mouth. He belted into his seat then comm’d Bones.  “How’s it down there?”

“Fine and dandy.  You?”

“Chasing ghosts.”

“Best you look for underhanded influence on your pilot systems instead?”

Digger flicked off the comm with a grunt.  Last time he checked on his friend’s welfare. He unstrapped and checked under the panel.  The wiring was a mess, but it was a known mess.  He knew what every wire did.  Not because he was some sparky egg-head, but because he’d been forced to learn or die at various times over the ships life.

Nothing was out of place, or hooked up wrong.  The cockpit looked clean.  In a manner of speaking.

Next step, get the hell out of Dodge.  But to where?

A dull bang reverberated through the hull.  The black clad figures, banging on the airlock.

They were trying to get back in.

He flicked the comm back on.  “We’re going!”  He retracted the chute, fired the engines and spun around.

Three frozen bodies tumbled past the viewport.  Their expressions were stretched in horror, their eye sockets empty, their faces and hands bloated with ice.  Dem da breaks.

Bones appeared in the hatch.  “If they weren’t onto us before, they will be now.”

“I know, I know.  Any ideas?”

A large accretion asteroid loomed ahead.  Digger pushed the Asteria out of a collision course.

“Into the dust?” Bones asked.

Digger tried to think of the system. There were three waygates in the Messiers system.  The one they’d left, linked to Oberon, the one they had been heading for, linked to Landnamabok, and the third, linked to Incorporated Space.  He checked the system map. It orbited Scott, a Hot-Jupiter on the far side of the accretion disk.

It was the closest.

Digger turned to Bones.  “I’ve got a plan.”

#

“There’s three of them back there,” Bones said, voice level, as Digger swung them past another accretion rock.

Digger swished at the sweat pooling on his face, half choking, half blinding him.  “A towel for fucks sake!”

Bones pointed to the left.  “Watch out!”

Digger swung down and away, trusting his co-pilot rather than waste time confirming the threat.  He continued driving down through the accretion disk.  A rock to the right exploded, shredded by mass driver pellets.  Digger swore and swung back up.  He inched the thrust up another notch.  Every extra percent of speed made it that much harder to fight inertia and dodge the asteroids, but those pellets were getting too close to the Asteria’s jaxie.

“How far?” Digger rasped.  He was panting.  He’d never flown this hard in his life.  Not even when the Kildred pirate clan had mistaken him for an opposition’s courier.  The strain was taking its toll.

And not just on him.  The engines hiccupped and instead of breaking left, the ship continued straight.

Digger blanched. He pulled harder left, the engines regathered, and he over corrected.  The Asteria slew back and forth then rocked as more pellets slammed into the rear armour.

“They’re closing,” Bones whispered.

“How bloody manoeuvrable are those fuckers?”

Bones watched the scanner as Digger flipped them around and behind a large accretion rock.  “I’d say ‘very’.”

Digger humpfed then twisted around another rock.  Well, the Asteria was no ordinary ship either.  She was herd together with duct tape and a prayer because Digger’s money went in upgrades, not overhauls.  Upgrades designed solely to increase the likelihood of not dying on the fringe of civilisation.

The ship rocked again.  “Five hundred metres,” Bones dead-panned.

“Close enough for the Jumping Jacks?”

Now Bones smiled wide, exposing his chiselled yellow teeth.  “Always close enough to use a Jumping Jack.”

Digger managed a half smile.  “Dump em!”

Bones lifted the lid on a toggle switch then flicked it across. The groan of depressurisation sounded through the hull, the released air like a section reaction thruster, slewing across their vector.  Digger risked a glance at the sensors.  Where before there had been three blips amongst the rock, now there were dozens.  Scrap cargo containers, old gear shafts, a few rotator couplings.  Oh, and four Jumping Jacks.

The three incoming ships entered the new debris field.  Bones brought up a rear view.  Digger concentrated on flying straight but risked the odd glance at Bones’ screen, which flashed white.  He held the controls tighter; Bones gripped his chair.  The Jumping Jacks on proximity released a torrent of shrapnel in all directions. The shockwave was supposed to be strong enough to fling the debris as shrapnel as well.   They were a gruesome and effective device, but the only draw back was that ‘all directions’ included toward the Asteria.

The Asteria bucked downward, the blast smashing them like a hand swiping at a fly.  Klaxons raged.  Smoke poured from the air vents.  The light panel exploded in sparks.  Red lighting swelled to take its place.

Digger breathed in deep while Bones whooped.  “Hoo Wee! That’s how we did it on Montague, baby!  Tore those fuckers a new one!”

Another rock reared up ahead.  Digger pushed the controls right but they kept going straight.

Digger blanched, his eyes widening in slow realisation.  “Oh no.  Oh no.  Come on girl.  Not now.”  He pushed the control stick against the casing as if extra encouragement would alter the digital output.

“Baby, baby, Daddy needs to live a few more seconds.”  Craters, fissures and ravines filled the viewport.  Digger’s heart tremored as he stared transfixed.  He felt Bones grasp his forearm.

The engines coughed.  The ship slewed sideways.  The rock grew larger.  Grey, littered with holes like a giant piece of dirty pumice. There were arches and canyons.  There were big elliptic structures and misshapen towers of cooled magma.  They flashed past, in front, to the sides, below.

The ship lurched.  Vibrations shook his chair, the controls, the ship.  His vision blurred.

The view was grey.  His throat was hoarse.  He was screaming.  He could feel the controls wrenching from their socket.

He blinked.

His world was still.

His scream faded into silence.  His arms ached.

Space ahead was clear.  They’d left the accretion disk.  Finally, he turned to Bones with raised eyebrows. “Holy shit?”

Bones smirked.  His forehead vein was at odds with his apparent calmness.  “You scream like a girl.”

“The best screamers I know are women.  I’ll take that as a compliment.”

Bones snorted and turned back to his panel.  “I’ve got damage across a dozen systems here.  Funny how you are happy to cause damage but not happy to help fix it.”

Digger rubbed his face.  He felt exhausted.  And he needed to pee.  “If we can get to the Waygate then repairs can wait till Landnamabok.”

“Waygate locked in.  Activation request sent.  Should be dialled in by the time we get there.”

“Let’s go for no more surprises before then.”

Bones glanced at the sensor sweep and cocked his head.

Digger’s throat clenched.  “See something?”

Bones shrugged.  “Nah, just imagining it.  Or it’s gone now.  We’re clear.”

4. The Limp Home


There were three Relaygates between Messiers and Incorporated Space.  Another two to Valhalla.  They checked their six at every turn but there was no one back there.  At least no one trying to kill them.  Just normal traffic.  They traversed Valhalla and found themselves in a queue at the Waygate heading for Landnamabok.

It was then that Bones saw the sensor shadow again.

“It’s them, Digs,” Bones said.  “Has to be.  Three times now.”

Digger turned to Bones.  “Three?”

Bones reddened.  “I may have seen it on the way to Valhalla.”

Digger hid his face in his hands.  “Fates.”  Slowly he slid his hands down and looked out at the queue. A Pleiades Engineering and Drive Tigress freighter.  Beyond her, a Mayflower Interstellar Systems bulk transport.  The ‘Humpback’ as the MFC boys called it.  He couldn’t see the next ship in line but sensor wakes indicated displacements ranging from several tonnes to several hundred tonnes.  An eclectic mix.

“Good odds they won’t try and kill us in the middle of a busy queue.  Too many witnesses,” Digger mused.

“Unless they’re prepared to kill everyone in the queue.  Remove all the witnesses,” Bones said.

Digger coughed, straightening in his chair as if he’d been electrocuted.  “Yeah, we’re out here. Tighten up yer belts.”  He stirred the Asteria from station keeping, looped her out of the queue and blasted away at flank speed.  The sudden acceleration compressed the veins in his neck and he had to swallow to push back at the invisible hand squashing him.  The ship rattled with the full burn then settled as the acceleration dropped off.

“Where we going?” Bones asked.  “Nothing out here but desolace.”

Digger smiled.  “This ain’t Montague, my boy.  This ain’t desolace.  This is space, where the options are limitless.”  Digger pressed a few buttons and a new blip appeared ahead at the edge of scanner range.  “And this is a Map.  Courtesy of the Mineral and Fusion Corporation Board.”

Digger gave a long drawn out whistle.  “In the Valhalla system?  How did they swing this off Valhalla Corp?”

“For services rendered I assume.  We helped them, we get a free ticket out of Valhalla if ever needed.  Most MFC ships have the data.”

The sensor briefly registered a blip behind them.  There, then gone.  A shadow, stalking them.

Bones stared at Digger.  “If these people are good enough to track us across two stellar systems, are they good enough to know about this Map?”

Digger grimaced.  “Shut your hole.  Your optimism is pissing me off.”

The shadow crept closer as they narrowed in on Prometheus, the inner most planet.  It was a big ball of gas with a giant double ring.  The perfect place to hide a map.

“See anything out back?” Digger asked.

Bones magnified the rear view, studied hard but shook his head.  “If they’re out there they’re invisible.”

“Fates almighty, don’t say that,” Digger cried.  He shook the thought away.  One step at a time.  Get to the Map.  Get to Landnamabok.  They’ll be safe there.

The double rings grew, extending beyond the viewport, Prometheus itself glowing a fiery pink sapphire.

He opened a comm program and pinged the Map.  The ping returned five seconds later.  It was ready.

“How’s our shadow?”

“Holding its distance,” Bones said with a frown.  “I don’t like it.”

Digger pursed his lips.  He didn’t either.  What the Fates had they stumbled into?

“We’re coming up on the Map.  They’re untraceable.  Too low tech to have recording equipment.”

Bones didn’t say anything.

The rings became individual rocks, a sea of debris spreading out around the gas giant.  Digger adjusted course.

“Dial it up,” he urged, making fine adjustments to velocity.  He wanted to hit the Map at speed.  It would require precise flying but Valhalla Corp had installed this Map to get their bulk freighters out of trouble.  Asteria would have room to spare.

“The shadow’s accelerating,” Bones said.  “They’ve figured out what we’re doing.  They know about the Map!”

“They’re too late,” Digger said through clenched teeth.  He could see the Map now, a distant twinkle.  Suddenly it flashed bright like a flare star then died back.

It was open.

He nudged the throttle.  Rocks flashed past.  They were in the rings.  The lapis puddle of the Map’s portal undulated lazily, waiting for him.  This Map was tidally locked to the gas giant.  It was drifting out of alignment.  He fired a dorsal thruster, slewing back in line.

“The shadow’s gone,” Bones said.  He leant forward, concentrating on the sensor sweep, head still, eyes darting side to side.

He flinched back.  “He’s right behind us!”

The ship rocked from pellet fire.  Digger grunted, but kept the ship heading straight.  He didn’t want to clip the Map and only have half his ship transfer to the next stellar system.  That would be a ‘bad’ thing.

“Put the Map on a countdown,” Digger commanded.  “Twenty seconds.”

Bones sucked in a breath.  “That’s tight.”

“Eighteen seconds now.  Do it.”

Bones sent the signal as the Asteria rocked again.  The portal shivered, flashed white, then returned to lapis.  It was preparing to dissolve.

They beared down on the Map. Closer.  Closer.

“If you’ve got this wrong. . .” Bones murmured.

“I don’t,” Digger said.  I hope, Digger thought.

The portal flashed white again. And again, faster and faster until it was only white.  It thinned.

Digger’s mouth went dry.  A growl crept from his throat.

An explosion rocked the ship.  The Asteria spun, the Map flashing away from the viewport

“No!” Digger yelled-

-Then white enveloped them.

The mottled blackness of space reappeared and the metal construct of a Waygate flashed past.  Then they were in empty space, unknown stars creating unknown constellations.  Whites, reds, oranges, Blues.

Digger sat stunned, waiting for his blood to stop pounding and his hearing to return.  He gave the controls an experimental tug.  The Asteria would turn right, but it wouldn’t turn left.  Turning the long way around, he settled the viewport on the Waygate.  It was off, and not recycling for another portal.  Yet.

Bones looked up from the damage board.  “Ever rowed a dingy with only one oar before?”

Digger smiled, the adrenaline fading.  “Sure.  Why not.”

“Plan?”

Get to the Landnamabok system,” Digger said, shrugging.  “Before anything else happens.”

5: The Sanctuary

The moment Asteria touched down on Lucifer a weight worthy of Atlas fell from Digger’s shoulders.

They were safe.

Docking Pad 6 in the starport Garden.  Anonymous amongst the hundred other freighters currently docked, and with a Terran Confederation Navy force in orbit.

Safe.  At least as safe as you can get on a volcanic world trying to rip itself apart.

Digger yawned, stretched and looked over at Bones.  “We made it.”

Bones smile was even bigger.  “Showed them mystery warriors how to put your tail between your legs and run, huh?”

“Showed them how!”  Digger laughed and they sat there for a moment burning off their residual nervous energy.

Digger unstrapped and clapped Bones on the shoulder.  “Shall we unload?”

“We shall.”

Digger took the lead to the cargo hold.  It felt good to walk under gravity again.  Harder perhaps, but he always felt that bit more co-ordinated.

Rectangular containers of ore filled the hold, leaving a narrow aisle in the middle. Digger had to half turn to walk between them. They reached the far wall – the cargo door – and he palmed the release.

Hazy orange light filtered through the widening gap.  The door crashed to the ground and Digger stepped off onto solid land for the first time in two months.  He raised his arms, tilted his head back and closed his eyes.  Light.  Wind.  A bitter tang of sulphur.  The grit of volcanic particulate on his tongue.  The distant cry of a flying predator.  Cooking food and factory fumes and the sharp scent of what passed for pine trees on this planet.

Why did he keep going back inside that artificial steel box of a ship with its processed recycled air?

Because you’ll be bored in a week.

Maybe.  But maybe this time he’d welcome the boredom.

Melinda’s Star was directly overhead, its dull orange glow fighting hard against the gloam of the primary binary stars.  The dullness was almost welcoming, like a homestead lit by candles.  Intimate.  Relaxing.  Safe.

The Rust Hutt Mountains meandered past to the south, disappearing behind the haze.  Digger coughed.

The north was littered with factories, and smoke stacks and wind and tidal traps.  Energy in, energy out.

To the south, his landing pad stretched out and linked with other landing pads, a central towel between them.  Bones was over there chatting to a stevedore.  They knew what to do.  MFC cargo went to a particular factory to be graded.  MFC got an instant payment, and at some point Bones and Digger would get their payment.  Unless there was an ‘accounting error’ or ‘a problem at the bank’ or ‘subspace is slow today’ excuse to dish out.  Because for every minute the money stayed in MFC’s coffers, an extra milli-percent of interest they made.

Digger left Bones to it.  The Asteria needed fuel and repairs, and Digger needed a stiff drink.  And being a professional pilot he had to prioritise those two requirements.

The walkway turned left before he reached the factories and took him to the customs facility.  Digger flashed his MFC credentials and a customs agent waved him through to Ship services, a large cavernous steel space underground.  Processed air again, but clean.

There weren’t many smells with the recycled air but sound reverberated well enough.  Haggling, arguments, a trio of TCN pilots acting out some manoeuvre to a female audience.

The docks and Ship Services were the only parts of the planet he could easily access, but he had everything he needed there to cheer him up and send him on his way.

His gaze settled on a bar called the Frothy Mons. The three windows were tinted but the dull thump of music wafted across to him, a treble soundtrack of spaced-out voices playing over top.

Digger smiled.  Priorities.  Then he stopped.  No, he really had to fix the ship first.  Just in case.  He turned and found Antonio in his services booth.

“Antonio!” he called, waving as he walked over.

Antonio looked up.  He was in a small box backing onto a dry dock.  He rested against a counter, his hands busy working away on a computer no doubt.  “Jeremy! It has been too long!  I thought you no longer made the Blankicite run?”

Digger shook his head.  “No my friend, I’ll be doing this run till I die.  Had a few problems out on the fringe.  Some of the miners were behind on the quota.  We figured it was best to wait.  Save coming back with a half hold.

“Ahh, and keep your MFC Board off those poor men’s backs?”

“Women, actually.  It wasn’t the hardest layover I’ve endured.”

Antonio beamed, his gaze beyond civilised space, where lonely women lavished Digger with undivided attention.

As if.

Antonio shook his head.  “So you staying long?  Need to catch up on the schedule, no?”

That was the question Digger had been playing with too.  Right now the last thing he wanted to do was get back in the Asteria.  Not after what he’d just been through.  The Board would need answers though.  He squeezed the data crystal in his pocket.  Maybe he could get some.

“The Asteria needs repairs, so I’ll be laying over for a little while.”

Antonio’s hands appeared from behind the counter carrying a PAD.  His eyes lost their sparkle, the grin not so lavish.  It was business time.  “So, repairs, yes?  Overhaul? Specifics?  And Benzina?”

Digger nodded.  “Full load of fuel.  Everything is a bit shot to hell.  Just fix it up enough to get me going again.  I don’t have the DRM for a full overhaul.”

Antonio turned and opened a window behind him.  A cacophony of hammers and drills and welding discharge assaulted them.  Antonio leaned through the window, waving and whistling.  He yelled something Italian then closed the window and came back to Digger.  “We’ll bring her in, yes?  Sort her out down here.”

“Perfect.”  Digger nodded and began to turn away when a thought struck him.  He withdrew the crystal from his pocket.  “Who is best to take a look at this for me?”

Without looking Antonio gestured across the way to the row of media outlets – Imperial Nightly, the Guardian, Pleiades Press, Incorporated Now.  Even the tabloid Wealth Lately had an outpost here.  “They help.  I fix ships, I don’t play with crystals.”

Digger glanced to either side.  There was no one within ear shot so he leant forward, elbow on the counter.  “I don’t think this crystal is for general media.”

Antonio’s eyes tracked upward.  He repeated Digger’s double glance and leant forward to match Digger.  “Go on.”

“Did you hear about the TCS Constitution?”

Antonio’s brow crinkled.  “Of course, she went missing after-” his voice trailed off, his gaze lasering in on the crystal.  “Santo Cazzo Madre di Cristo,” he breathed.  “You found it?”

Digger stepped back at Antonio’s rising voice.  He raised his hands.  “No one’s saying anything, Friend.  I just want to see what’s on this crystal.  Discreetly.”

A blur of light to Digger’s left.  He flinched away, arms rising for a fight, but it was just Bones, collapsing against the counter.  “Yeah,” he said, a half-cocked smile on his face.  “Discreetly.”

Antonio’s gaze narrowed at Bones, then he turned back to Digger.  “Tell your friend to find himself a whore.  Then you can come out the back here.”

Digger heard a thump as a lock de-energised around the corner of Antonio’s booth.  He pulled Bones a few steps back, wondering what it was that his co-pilot had done to Antonio.

“Listen,” Digger whispered but Bones raised a palm to him.

“Whores.  Understood.  I’m on it.”

Digger snorted.  “I think he said ‘Whore’.  Singular.”

“Nope.  Whores.  Adios.”  Bones waved and was gone.

Digger watched him for a moment, shrugged and slipped into Antonio’s booth.

#

He’d never been in Antonio’s booth before, his knowledge of it limited to that visible from outside the counter.  The window out to the drydock, fuel, filter and welding product posters on the walls, a sartori rug on the floor and the computer terminal on the counter.

Inside he could see the drop down shield locking the counter, but there was nothing else of interest.

Then Antonio rolled the sartori back to reveal a trap door.

Digger climbed down behind Antonio into a room that reminded him of the Asteria’s engineering room, all computers, glowing lights and things that looked like they might explode and kill you.

Digger kept his cool for appearances sake.

Antonio lead him to a three-dee projector with a crystal reader in the side.  This reader had a mass of wires feeding to and from it.  Like a bird’s nest.  Or a bowl of spaghetti. Or a third party alteration to a proprietary product in order to achieve illicit gains.

Digger shrugged.  Details.

Antonio typed commands into the projector, then pushed the crystal into the reader.  A cloud of numbers materialised over the projector.  Antonio waved his hand through it, zooming in on some sections, pushing others away.  Digger gave him the play-by-play, but glossed over the details of the black-clad death squad.  “I freaked out a little and we bailed with this data.”

Antonio nodded along, but it was clear his focus was the data.  Digger was watching it too, but none of it meant much to him.

“There,” Digger said, pointing.  “Those are coordinates.  The Pleiades system.”

Antonio rewound the data.  He nodded.  “You’re right.  And so are these.  And these.”

He pushed the data to his pad and loaded a star map.  In the centre of the screen was the knobbly cloud of shallow space.  To the top was The Nest; to the bottom the Teutonic Nebula.  A red line ran across shallow space, sprinting back and forth at different angles until it looked like a toddler’s drawing.

Antonio whistled.  “Looks like your mystery ship has been tiki-touring all over shallow space.”

Digger leant forward as if proximity might enhance understanding.  “What about the crew?”

“I don’t see any information about them.  You say you downloaded this from the navigation station?”

“That’s right, but I would have thought duty officer, or navigation officer details might be in there.  Or that an evacuation was ordered.  I’m still a little weirded out by the lack of, you know, people on board.”

The projector beeped.  Antonio pulled out the crystal and handed it to Digger.  “I’ve copied all the crystal data-” Antonio raised a hand as Digger opened his mouth to retort, “Which is the price of my assisting you here.”

Digger’s mouth froze open a half inch then closed.  “Ok, fair enough.”

Antonio flicked off the projector and gestured Digger back upstairs.  “Go hire a bunk, get some gravity sleep and come see me tomorrow.  I have work to do, such as fixing your ship.”

Digger nodded as he left.  “Thanks Antonio.  I’ll see you tomorrow.” Bones would probably need rescuing from whatever drunken disorderly mess he’d gotten himself into anyway.

6: The Big Rock

The one day turned into three.  The landing pads had filled fast and legitimate ship repairs had kept Antonio from analysing the data.  Digger could have taken the original crystal elsewhere he supposed, but he wasn’t in a hurry.  Gravity felt good.  The food was fresh and real.  And Bones wasn’t making a meal out of his down-time.  He paid the girls and they kept him out of trouble.  It was damn paradise.

Which naturally meant it would all go tits up soon enough.  So by the third day Digger was getting itchy to move on.

The queue at Antonio’s booth was long.  The steel chamber warmed as both stars shone down.  The air vents pretended to do their job. The room swelled with multitudes of smelly pilots.  By early afternoon Digger was wishing he was anywhere else.  Back on the Asteria in the frigidity of space being chased by mysterious kills for instance.

Finally he reached the booth, a dozen other ship captains behind him.

“Yes?” Antonio said, his tone bland but helpful.  “How I help?”

“I want my ship,” Digger said, impatience colouring his words.  “And some answers if you have any.”

“Antonio’s gaze remained neutral.  He maintained his business smile for a moment, before looking down at his pad.  “The Asteria, yes?  She’ll be ready to leave drydock in a few hours.  Landing Pad 93 has been secured for her release.  You shall find all your answers there.”

Digger nodded.  “Thank you.”

“Thank you for custom.  Please come again.”

Digger left to find Bones.  He started at the far end of the chamber were the boarding houses were.  Bones was in the third door to the left on the second floor entertaining a woman named Mitsy.  Her blonde hair reached the floor and her eyes were blue.  She had sharp cheekbones and a pointy chin.  Young twenties.  Digger restrained from checking out the rest of her.

Bones collected his pants, kissed the girl on the cheek and then they returned to the surface.  A carry-all appeared in the sky near the factories, a spider shaped ship with the Asteria captive within its legs.  It eased toward pad 93, released the Asteria then flew off again.

Digger walked around his ship, inspecting the repair job.  Damage from micrometeorites pockmarked the hull.  The MFC logo was faded and scratched, barely legible.  ‘ASTERIA’, written in script across the side of the cargo section, was in a little better condition, but only because Digger had touched it up last year.

The repair welds appeared crude, but the fusion looked complete.  A cheap and cheerful repair. Everything he needed and nothing he didn’t.  Antonio’s crew had done perfectly.

Digger ended his inspection at the rear cargo doors.  He waved his transponder and the door creaked open, the lower half dropping to form a ramp.  No cargo this time though, just the crew of two.

Bones had to lumber faster than usual to keep up with Digger through the cavernous cargo bay.  “What’s the hurry, Diggs?”

“I want to see if Antonio left us anything.”

He had.

A note, written on hemp board hung from the pilot’s chair:  ‘Enjoy your new data library.’

Digger logged on and searched the ships archives.  There was a new entry titled ‘Mary Celeste’.  Digger smiled.  Antonio thought he was funny.

He opened the file to the projector so Bones could see the data.

Antonio’s head appeared instead.  He stared straight through Digger.

“Well my friend.  I had a fun time with your information.  Remember we could find nothing about the crew?  Well it was there all along, right in front of our noses.  Lots of crew information, but all of it designated with numbers.  Not rank or name, but hexadecimal digits.  Odd, yes?

“Unrelated perhaps, but I have heard whispers that the Terran Confederation Navy has been experimenting with clones.”

The image of Antonio’s face smiled a dazzling used ship salesman smile.  “Enjoy!”

Then he vanished and the data appeared.  Digger leant forward.  Antonio had flagged the data.  He was right.  These weren’t crew.  In fact if Digger didn’t know better he would have thought they were robots.

Digger heard muted voices from outside, and cargo cranes whining back and forth.  A wind had picked up, gently rocking the Asteria.  But inside it was silent.

“Do you really think its robots?” asked Bones.

“About as likely as Zombies,” Digger replied with a smirk.

Bones rubbed his chin as if seriously considering Digger’s words.  “It won’t be the TCN,” he said.

“Why not?”

Bones pointed spaceward.  “Because there is a whole bunch of them up there.  If the TCN wanted us dead, we couldn’t have flown past a bunch of them and sat right under their noses for three days.”

Digger nodded.  He had a point.  “I doubt the TCN’s right hand knows what its left is doing though.”

“But the left could tell the right what to do, under normal pretext.  We’re wanted fugitives, or we are wanted for questioning.  Any guise would do.”

Again Digger nodded.  Bones was probably right.  “Ok, let’s say it’s not the TCN.  Who else?  The Pleiades Corporation?”

Bones snorted.  “They wouldn’t be caught dead using an INC ship.”

“Even if it was to frame INC?” Digger asked, playing Devil’s advocate.

“No.  Their noses would be turned up so high they wouldn’t be able to see where they’re going.  The men from Pleiades have principles, Digger, come on!”

Digger laughed.  “Must be proper in all proceedings, show the rest of Shallow Space how superior they are and what-not.”

The laughter died away.  Digger wiped a tear away.  “Not PLC then.  INC?  Surely not MFC? Pirates?  The Alliance of Interstellar Mercenaries?”

Bones opened his mouth to speak when an air siren wailed though the starport.  Through the hull it sounded low and sonorous, like the crying of a distant God.

They both scrambled for the cockpit.  “What have we got? What have we got?” asked Digger as he strapped in.

“Planet wide emergency call,” Bones said, disbelief tingeing his voice.  “Incoming asteroid?”

Digger was already on the comm to traffic control but it was jammed.  Everyone else was trying the same thing.

“Ahh, fuck it,” Digger mumbled.  He spooled up the engines and lifted off.  About twenty metres.  He spun the ship to check no one was about to crash into him.  Then, when he realised he had just committed a traffic felony in full view of the navy, he activated the prime mover and fired the Asteria into orbit.

“Talk to me,” Digger said, words rushing together.

Bones grunted.  “Hold the comm.  Tracking computer detected it coming in from the asteroid belt.  It’ll be here in a few days.”

The adrenaline evaporated instantly.  “TWO days?  What the hell did they do that to my heart for?”

“They want everyone to assist in blowing it apart before it gets too close.”

Digger eyed the scanner, the navy taskgroup moving into formation, the rising freighters and other ships moving to join them.

Asteroids didn’t just wander out of the asteroid field by themselves.  There was a huge dance of gravity interactions, the sun, the planets.  Everything was in balance.  Digger leaned over at Bones scanner.

Shit, he thought. That asteroid was larger than Terra’s moon.  At that size, someone had to have made it change course.  Someone hiding in the shadows trying to remove evidence.

It was a setup.

“Bugger this,” Digger said, pushing the Asteria through a sharp turn.  “We are out of here.” Turbulence buffeted the ship but in the atmosphere she turned on a dime and they headed away from the fleet.

“Where are we going?” Bones asked.

Digger’s mouth settled into a thin line.  He’d known the answer for a while, now, he just hadn’t realised it. There was anger and animosity throughout shallow space, corporations attacking corporations, xenophobia from the Pleiades system.  The Imperium was a tinderbox.  And somewhere, some part of it was trying to kill him.

In all that mire there was only place he thought that he could even start to consider safe.  “To MFC headquarters.  We’re going to Terra.”

“We might need this then.”  Bones flipped a switch that looked very much bolted on to Bones’ control panel.  In fact, Digger had never seen it before.

“Umm, do I want to ask?”

Bones winked.  “Salvage.”

7: The Illicit Route

“Check your navi computer,” Bones said, his high wattage smile equal parts pride and guilt.

Digger narrowed his eyes at Bones but booted up the computer.  An image of the stellar system coalesced before him, the orbits of each major planet represented by a green ellipse.  The six Jumpgates appeared at their expected places.

Then another blip appeared.  And another.  And another.

Digger stared at the screen in confusion, his brain struggling to comprehend what his eyes were seeing and what Bone’s open smile suggested.

“Maps?” he said finally.  “You stole maps?”

Bones’ smile stretched his face to breaking point.  “Salvage, Digger.  It was an add-on to their navigation array down by their engines.  Every Map in Shallowspace – that the Navy knows about – is now programmed into Asteria!”

Digger felt elation he’d never experienced before, the pressure of the last few days melting away, his chest a little higher, his spine a little straighter.  He grabbed Bones’ shoulders.  He could have kissed him.  “Well done you drunken son of a bitch.  Well fucking done.”

He turned to the controls and headed for the closest Map.  “We’ll plot a route from Map to Map all the way back to base. Like hidden stepping stones that only we can see.”

“Unless it is the TCN chasing us, in which case they know all the Maps we now know.”

“But do they know we know?”

Bones growled and rubbed his forehead.  “We’re not playing that game.”

Digger considered it, but liked his odds.  Unless of course they knew who he was, and they knew what he knew, and they knew how he would think and knew he would then return to MFC HQ, then they should be safe.

If whoever was chasing him was omnipotent and knew all those things. . .then perhaps he should advise HQ he was coming in hot.

The Asteria effectively operated as an independent ship, almost like a contractor, but only in practical terms.  Digger and Bones were bonded to MFC and they did technically have a supervisor. As long as Digger hauled what he was supposed to haul, when he was supposed to haul it, he was left the hell alone.  But if he needed it there was a chain of command.

He considered sending a priority one signal to that supervisor to inform her of his arrival, but that might also just broadcast to these people his intentions.

No.  He’d come in fast and cold.  No other way.

“What’s the fuel like?” Digger asked.

“Your bunny Antonio topped her up.  We’re good to go.”

Digger nodded.  The comm lit up as the assembled freighter fleet assaulted the asteroid.  They sounded like they were having fun.  An excuse to use their weapon systems without the chance of anyone shooting back.  Fish in a barrel.

Finally the asteroid fractured enough that its constituents would miss Lucifer or burn up on entry.  Success.

“Well there goes the distraction designed to keep us occupied while someone did something nefarious to us.  Now what?”

Bones grinned. “Now we keep our eyes open.”

8: The Journey Home

They blasted through each stellar system like criminals on the run.  Not slowing down, violating all known traffic lanes, and spending as little time in one place as possible.

On approach to each Map they sailed straight and fast, waiting for the ambush to materialise, the curtain to be drawn back, confirmation that the two of them were simply mice on a wheel, spinning around in some laboratory while black-clad men watched and laughed.

But with shot nerves, stubbled faces and questionable hygiene, they entered the Terran system unmolested.  Their Map was out in the Oort cloud, a popular location due to its distance and sheer invisibility.  It left them a long journey through the Terran system itself, but that was part of the plan.  They could have chosen the Map by the Neptunian world of Shield, ended up less than an astronomical unit from Terra, but that would’ve been the obvious move of the scared and desperate.  And while Digger admitted he was scared, he wasn’t desperate.  Not totally.  Well, maybe scared and desperate, but also smart.

Maybe.

Time would tell.

They hadn’t seen a shadow on their six since Lucifer. Digger knew that was either really good news or really bad news.  Regardless, they had played their hand.  Now all they could do was sail the darkest sea to Terra, to either safety or their doom.  Had they lost their tail?  Or was the tail waiting for them ahead?

The Terran system was relatively empty.  There was no place to hide.  Digger received the odd ping from TCN patrols, but otherwise there was little activity.  Where was the commerce?  The tourism?  Was something wrong?

The uncertainty, and the Oberon coffee, stretched his nerves to violin strings.

Bones, however, was snoring in the co-pilots seat.  The blithe son of a bitch.

Digger couldn’t take it.  He needed to do something. He sent a priority one signal to HQ.  “MFS Asteria incoming. Situation Hot.”

He waited for the speed of light to do its thing.  Two hours there, two hours back at this distance.  But that gave time for doubt to creep in.  Would they take him seriously?  Would they disavow knowledge of him?  Turn him over?  No, MFC were loyal and Digger was an employee in (reasonably) good steed.

Would that be enough?

Had he handed himself over to another enemy?

It was a touch under four hours later when the comm pinged.  His supervisor Martissa had messaged.  The Asteria had pre-approved landing at landing bay number 1.

Digger smiled, a little warmth spreading through his chest.  The strings loosened a little.  The crazy shakes settled with his calming heart.

Maybe they’d be ok.

The Asteria continued on its journey, crossing over the orbit of the twin planets Amulius and Numitor.  The MFC refinery in orbit pinged a hello.  Digger pinged back.

As they passed the orbit of Brother, the pilot assist signalled and Digger spun the ship around for a fast deceleration.  He didn’t want to come all this way and burn up in Terra’s atmosphere like a meteorite.

Once reduced to orbit speed, Digger flipped back around.  Terra was a stratified orb of blue, brown and white.  Brush strokes of wispy cloud flittered across the continent ‘Capitol’, itself striped with white tundra, brown mountains and green lowlands.

Capitol tapered down to a giant peninsula that stretched out toward the smaller continent, ‘Underwood’.  Where Capitol ended with rocky cliffs, Underwood started with a golden beach and green, luscious rainforest.

The Asteria dropped lower, bisecting the continent.  To the north, Callaghan’s Anchorage.  To the south, in the shadow of Mt Maunganui, lay the headquarters of The Mining and Fusion Corporation.

Digger had enjoyed his previous visits to Underwood.  His initial training, a second for a disciplinary hearing (whoops) and a third for a promotion and recognition of his good work (disciplinary action notwithstanding).  Now he was back for a fourth time.

How would this time work out?

The headquarters was a sprawling complex.  There was still an active mine at the foot of the Mount, chasing an increasingly dwindling vein of Nickel.  A refinery, a pair of cooling towers, a row of landing pads and then the main office.  Smaller buildings connected radially to the main office:  Accounts, engineering, sales, unions and law, human resources.  All spokes in the wheel of MFC commerce.

And sitting by itself a few kilometres away was the R&D facility.

Legend had it the first one burned down and took half the office with it.  So, they built the new one a bit further away.  Digger didn’t know much about fusion, but thought that if you got that wrong, a few kilometres weren’t going to make much of a difference.

He slowed as he passed over the R&D facility and settled into vertical descent above landing bay number 1, the closest to the main office.

Martissa was waiting under the eve of the building when Digger and Bones descended. She was tall, dark skinned with pale green eyes.  She wore a striped v-neck dress with long sleeves.  Her bleached hair danced in the wind.  She was striking.  She made you stand up watch.  Watch the way her mouth moved as she talked, the way her hips swayed as she walked, the way her chest rose as she laughed.

Bit of a bitch though.  Sometimes.  Today her eyes were narrowed and her mouth was thin in worry.

Digger raced forward and shook her outstretched hand.  “Supervisor.”

She shook and nodded at both of them.  “Jeremy, Bones.”  She waved them inside.  Martissa had an office in the main building on the third floor.  All four walls were glass.  Outside, leafy fronds danced in the wind.  The office to the right was empty.  To the left, a man working at a terminal.  Another supervisor perhaps.

Martissa settled behind her square steel desk and gestured at the two seats opposite.  Laminated wood with a thin cushion.  Digger felt it flex as he settled into it.  It probably cost more than the pilot’s chair on the Asteria.

Martissa leant forward, elbows clanging on the steel, her fingers steepled together.  “So what the hell is this all about?”

Digger opened his mouth but his tongue went dry, a seized motor without oil.  He closed his mouth again, trying to find the words.

Martissa leant back and shook her head.  The canopy behind her shifted in the wind and a beam of light illuminated her from behind.  Digger thought he heard Bones sigh.

“Look Jeremy,” she said.  “I know you aren’t one to fuck around.  You’re a business man and you do it well, so if you’re sending me panic, I know it’s real.  I’m not pissed.  Just give it to me.”

Digger did.  The breakdown, the Constitution, the men in black, the shadow, the attacks, the asteroid, their long dark run home.

Martissa nodded throughout it, taking notes with her old-gen pen and paper.  “I heard about the asteroid,” she said when he had finished.  “The Navy is trying to recreate what happened.  They don’t like it any more than you did.”

Digger and Bones glanced at each other.  There had been a few details they’d missed out.  “We’re not sure whether the Confederation Navy are the good guys in this or not.”

Bones told her about the Maps, the wealth of knowledge on the Asteria that made Martissa literally lick her lips.  Good to know what turned her on.

The conversation ran out of steam.  All that was left was conjecture and guessing.  And the possible, maybe, bad guys coming to find them.

“You boys stay here,” she said finally, rising from her seat.  “I’m going to see the CEO.”

9: The Fortress

Digger and Bones sat and waited.  They said nothing.  What was there to say?

He just sat there, watching the ferns and branches dip and dive outside as the wind grew.  A high-pitched whistle built outside as wind screamed past an antenna.

A dull boom reverberated through the building.  They glanced at each other and shrugged.  A warehouse door closing perhaps.  Or the floor closing over the hidden landing pad.  The Asteria was probably in there, hidden, some tech plugging in and downloading all the Map data Bones and he had risked their lives for.

He realised the air smelt different.  Not stale, but more metallic.  Like it was being sourced from internal air batteries rather than the fresh air outside.

Digger stood, his legs suddenly tense.  That was what the bang had been, the switch over to closed-loop atmosphere, something one did when expecting a bombardment of biological weapons.

He paced, wondering what was happening throughout the complex.  The R&D facility would be shut down as far as possible – a wayward bomb could do a lot of damage to a live experimental fusion reactor.  Any weapon systems the MFC had would be brought online.  And up on the top floor, Martissa and the Top Dog would be debating all of their immediate futures.

The wind turned.  Digger thought he saw the tip of the mount through the canopy.  No fleet of invading ships coming from that direction.

“Sit down,” drawled Bones.  “You’re fritzing with my happy place.”

Finally, the door opened to show Martissa curling her finger at them to follow.  Together they left and entered the elevator.  Martissa hit the top button.

Digger raised his eyebrows.  They were going to see the Top Dog himself.

The elevator stopped and the doors opened. They stepped out into a penthouse office.  It filled the whole top floor.  Large plush rugs, decorative panels on the ceiling, couches, lamps, sculptures of. . .something.  It felt grandiose but empty.  A wasted space.  It took Digger a moment to find the sole occupant, Henry Kallahar, CEO of Mineral and Fusion Corp, standing behind his quartz desk by the far window looking out over the canopy, a link hanging from his ear.

“Dammit, Walverzon, what the hell are friends for if you can’t rely on them when you need them?

Digger elbowed Bones and whispered.  “He’s talking to the owner of A.I.M.”

“Fates sake Henry,” came Fred Walverson’s voice from the desk.  “Its Terra we’re talking about.  The milli-second I activate agents in Terra airspace, I’ll lose my license and A.I.M will be disbanded.  I won’t be any bloody use to you then will I?”

Henry turned away from the window, saw Martissa, nodded, then looked down at his desk.  “I’ve got twelve spooks coming in hot.  I need man-power Fred, or I’m not going to be around for you to help.  It’s now or never, Fred.  What’s it going to be?”

Digger crept forward at Henry’s words, forgetting all company decorum and leaning forward over the desk.  Henry glanced at him before turning back to the window, waiting.

Henry had been looking at a near space sensor sweep.  There were twelve blips approaching Underwood.

Digger felt a cold lump in his throat.  They’d been followed.  He’d brought the wrath of whoever it was on the whole of MFC.  It was his fault.

He was backing away before he realised it.  He bumped into Martissa.  He spun, eyes wide, staring up into hers.  “I shouldn’t have come.  I’ve put everyone in danger.”

He moved to pass her but she put a hand on his shoulder.  “Hush now,” she said.  It was quiet, almost a whisper, but most definitely an order.  Digger stopped.  He turned back to watch Henry.

Fred Walverzon’s sigh scratched across the link.  “I have some discrete ships I can send up to you, but they’re not the best and they can’t hang around for ever.  They’ll be too obvious.”

“Just get them here now,” Henry said at a near bellow.  Then softer: “Thanks Fred.” He tapped the link, pulled it from his ear and looked back at his guests.  “Martissa, thank you.  These are the gentlemen?”  He gestured Digger and Bones to the two lounger-cum-seats before his desk.

“I ordered your ship out of sight as soon as Martissa told me what happened,” he said.  “But I’m afraid it may have been too late, which is why I was wrangling a deal with A.I.M there to help us out.”

Digger nodded, a lump in his throat.  He felt heavy, trapped under the twin weight of stupidity and inconsideration.  Henry seemed to pick it up.

“You know,” he started.  “I’m proud of what Mineral and Fusion Corp have achieved over the last four hundred years, all the way back to Old Earth.  Hell, we were the benchmark at one stage.  Everyone in shallow space still uses MFC fusion technology.  That’s pretty fantastic right?  But since INC pulled that coup in claiming a whole stellar system and the rediscovery of the Pleiades colony, well, we’ve been the underdog.  
“Now if there is one thing I know about the underdog is that they play to the strengths and they stick together, and they don’t fight the big boy on their turf.  They let the big boy come to them.

“So you boys did the right thing, coming here.  We look after our own, and we don’t take shit from anyone trying to play us for fools.  We have defences.  We’ll be ok.”

Henry stood, ushering them up.  “But I believe it will be best for us to move to our underground control centre.”

The four of them entered the elevator.  The ride down was quiet. No one spoke.  Henry kept glancing at Martissa, whose own expression stayed bland, if not disinterested.  Digger kept watching them all, wondering what they weren’t telling him.

Bones elbowed him and nodded at Martissa’s butt.  She was wearing a complimentary dress for sure, but Digger was more worried that an invading armada didn’t rank highly in Bone’s priorities.

The rush of air around the elevator changed pitch as they went underground.  The door opened a few moments later.

The control centre was small, maybe all of twenty square meters, but fitted out with serious kit.  Large screens filled all four walls: sensor sweeps, satellite imagery, a link to the A.I.M network showing friendly ship statuses.  Data was streaming in continuously.  Three men worked at the consoles.

“Bandits have entered the atmosphere,” said one of them, as if he were in a military bunker relaying news to his General.

Digger didn’t like sitting still, hiding, waiting for them to come to him.  There had to be something he could do.  The whole thing had started when they boarded the TCS Constitution.

No, not when they boarded.  When he went to the bridge and started downloading information.

Information. . .

“What about the information we downloaded off that ship?” Digger asked.  “What if that’s what they’re after?”

Henry scoffed.  “Too late for that, Jeremy.  Besides, it’s irrelevant.  My IT slicers found nav data.  Nothing out of the ordinary, nothing worth attacking you for.”

“But what if they don’t know that?  What if they think we got the mother-lode?  Or what if we do have the mother-lode and we just don’t know it?  Don’t know how to look at it properly?”

Martissa squinted at him.  She clenched her jaw.  “What do you suggest?”

“Bandits inbound.  One thousand klicks and closing.  A.I.M forces moving to intercept,” called one of the console men.

Digger glanced at the screen.  The twelve ‘bandits’ were coming in from the northern sea, avoiding Capitol airspace.  The small clump of freighters and explorer ships that A.I.M had organised slowly edged northward to meet the aggressors.  Unless the A.I.M ships were ironclad and their pilots were masters, then it was going to be a one sided battle.

And he’d be responsible for their deaths.  Any other option sounded appealing.  He took a deep breath.  “Broadcast it.”

Bones raised an eyebrow, Martissa stared blankly, but Henry understood.  “All of it?”

“All of it,” echoed. Digger.  “If its gibberish, they’ll realise we know nothing and maybe leave us alone.  If it’s not gibberish then everyone on Terra will have the information and maybe they’ll get distracted by damage control rather than bombing us into oblivion.”

Henry tossed Digger’s crystal to a console man.  “Do it.”

The man plugged it in, pressed some buttons and then a stream of information screamed across one of the smaller displays.  “Transmitting,” he said.  “Ten percent.  Twenty.  Thirty percent, forty.”

“Bandits five hundred kilometres and closing,” called the other console man.

“Sixty percent.”

Digger watched the progress bar scroll across one side of the large screen as the incoming ships closed in on the other.  Both inching forward, both looking to meet in the middle.

It was going to be tight.

Henry had his link back in his ear.  “Talk to me Walverzon.”

“My boys have a visual,” droned Fred’s voice through the control rooms speaker.  His voice had a distant boomy quality, as if he was talking into a speaker in his own control bunker.  “They show no hostile signs toward us.”

Henry’s voice rose.  “Then get the hell in their way, Fred!”

“You know we can’t fire first.  Not on the same planet as the damn Emperor!”

Digger stepped up to Henry and snatched the link.  “Get in their way for Fates sake!  Make them alter course.  Make them have to shoot you out of the way to get through.  Get in the game or go home and play with your dolls.”

The room went silent.  Henry snatched his link back, his cheeks red.  Digger expected a big huff, the hurling of abuse, but Henry simply snorted.  There was a twinkle in his eye.  “Well said.”

“It’s uploaded,” called one of the men.

“Two hundred kilometres,” called the other.

The enemy ships merged with the A.I.M ships on the monitor.  Random blips of black superimposed over the satellite image.  Their movements were incoherent and random but then it changed, as if a magicians hand had waved past the screen, like the resolution had grown pixelated and then cleared.

The twelve ships were still coming.

“Fred, What the hell?” yelled Henry, both hands clutching the link.

Fred’s breathing filled the room’s speakers, but he didn’t say anything.

“Fred!”

“They flew right through us.  Fate-fucking-sake they flew right between our ships!  I’ve never seen flying like it.  My ships closed in like a mesh and they threaded the goddamn needle!

“Henry, I’m sorry.”

Fred sighed.  His whole frame seemed to sink forward, like whatever strength had held his spine together had suddenly disappeared.  “You did your best, friend.  Now it’s our turn.”  He turned to the men.  “Sound the alarm.  Activate the defences.”

A distant air siren spooled up, louder and louder, the pitch increasing to a crescendo in a promise to destroy any eardrum on the continent.

Then it died. Falling and falling, like a collapsing air balloon, the sound driven by momentum rather than force.

The computers flicked off one by one, followed by the lights, until only the last screen remained.  The big one.  The one showing the incoming fighters.

Digger spun toward the elevator, a heavy pang in his own chest, the sting of failure, and embarrassment.  Whoever these people were, they had just played the Mineral Fusion Corp like a two dollar banjo.  Like the magician waving his right hand around while his left got up to mischief.

The incoming ships weren’t there to attack them.

The attack was already here.

“Guards!” Henry yelled, obviously having coming to the same conclusion.

Bones ran toward Digger, both Garrard’s out and powered.  “I’ll go check it out.”  He entered the elevator but the power was out.  He exited and turned to Henry.  “You got stairs outta here?”

Three armed men appeared from a shadow, answering the question.  Bones nodded at Digger then he was gone.  The guards formed up in a wedge before the stairs, their big guns long and dark and scary.  But how trained were they?

Digger turned to the sole surviving screen.  The approaching ships were overhead now.  Digger waited for the explosions, the pressure shockwave of bunker-buster bombs literally shaking the building to its core.

The ships continued on, leaving without even a deep breath.

Digger found himself stepping forward as the ships passed away across Underwood, the A.I.M ships now overhead.

Martissa appeared next to him.  She was looking at him.  He looked up at her.  “False alarm?”

Henry pulled on his shirt collar and straightened his suit jacket.  “Let me tell you something, pilot.  No one goes to this much effort for a false alarm.  Someone is here.”

A man cleared his throat behind them.  They turned as one.

A man in black stood at the hidden staircase.  He had a shock pistol in his right hand and a blackjack in his left.

At his feet were the three security guards.  The shadows were too dark and too long for Digger to see if they were dead, but the blackjack appeared dry and the shock pistol would only kill someone with a heart problem.

“Who-,” started Henry but this man raised the shock pistol, silencing him.  The last screen went out, collapsing the room into pitch black.

The voice of the mystery man wafted out of the pure darkness, like the disembowelled voice of a nightmare, a voice that made your shoulders shiver as if someone was standing right behind you.  “Your mainframe has been wiped.  The computer in that pissy little freighter has been fried.  She’ll never fly again.  All data crystals in this building are now inert.

“You know nothing.  That is if you want to stay in business, and if you want to stay alive.  I trust I’m understood?”

Henry’s voice came out of the black hole to Digger’s right.  “Understood.”

Shoes squeaked on flooring.  The man was turning to leave.

“Wait,” Digger said.  He winced at his stupidity.  The sooner this spook was gone the better.  But he was committed now.  “Who are you?”

The man’s voice changed, warmer, as if he were smiling.  “We’re the Watchers.”

Another squeak then the man stopped again.  “Good day Jeremy Digger.”

#

It has come to my attention in the last few months how big the Imperium really is.  Space really, really, is quite big and the horrors (man-made) hiding in its depths will leave even the hardest C.E.O with nightmares.

The other thing I learnt recently was how small Mineral & Fusion Corporation is.  Our technology is crucial to all of Shallow Space and we are the third largest Corporation in the Imperium.

But we are still small.  Small compared to what is out there, watching us.

We have survived so far through ingenuity, hard work and god bless it, good, old fashioned luck.

Three lynchpins of many success stories over the millennia, but I can’t see a future for us in them.  Not anymore.

Going forward, we need to be strong.  We need to be able to defend ourselves.

When those hidden nightmares come out of the shadows we need to be ready to send them back to the hell whence they came.

To this end, I am hereby authorising the construction of a MFC StarYard and a MFC Protectorate Fleet.  This will become our private navy to defend our interests, from our home in Underwood to the wild fringes beyond shallow space were our miners toil day in and day out.

We won’t be caught off guard again.

We will be ready.

Extract from The Kallahar Manifesto, written March 31st, 2494