• • • • • PROLOGUE
From the top of the large boulder he sat on, Ensign Tom Davis looked across the expanse of the cave, toward Captain Lucius Abernathy, Science Officer Q’eeng and Chief Engineer Paul West perched on a second, larger boulder, and thought, Well, this sucks.
“Borgovian Land Worms!” Captain Abernathy said, and smacked his boulder with an open palm. “I should have known.”
You should have known? How the hell could you not have known? thought Ensign Davis, and looked at the vast dirt floor of the cave, its powdery surface moving here and there with the shadowy humps that marked the movement of the massive, carnivorous worms.
“I don’t think we should just be waltzing in there,” Davis had said to Chen, the other crew member on the away team, upon encountering the cave. Abernathy, Q’eeng and West had already entered, despite the fact that Davis and Chen were technically their security detail.
Chen, who was new, snorted. “Oh, come on,” he said. “It’s just a cave. What could possibly be in there?”
“Bears?” Davis had suggested. “Wolves? Any number of large predators who see a cave as shelter from the elements? Have you never been camping?”
“There are no bears on this planet,” Chen had said, willfully missing Davis’ point. “And anyway we have pulse guns. Now come on. This is my first away mission. I don’t want the captain wondering where I am.” He ran in after the officers.
From his boulder, Davis looked down at the dusty smear on the cave floor that was all that remained of Chen. The land worms, called by the sound of the humans walking in the cave, had tunneled up under him and dragged him down, leaving nothing but echoing screams and the smear.
Well, that’s not quite true, Davis thought, peering farther into the cave and seeing the hand that lay there, still clutching the pulse gun Chen had carried, and which as it turned out had done him absolutely no good whatsoever.
The ground stirred and the hand suddenly disappeared.
Okay, now it’s true, Davis thought.
“Davis!” Captain Abernathy called. “Stay where you are! Any movement across that ground will call to the worms! You’ll be eaten instantly!”
Thanks for the useless and obvious update, you jackass, Davis thought, but did not say, because he was an ensign, and Abernathy was the captain. Instead, what he said was, “Aye, Captain.”
“Good,” Abernathy said. “I don’t want you trying to make a break for it and getting caught by those worms. Your father would never forgive me.”
What? Davis thought, and suddenly he remembered that Captain Abernathy had served under his father on the Benjamin Franklin. The ill-fated Benjamin Franklin. And in fact, Davis’ father had saved the then-Ensign Abernathy by tossing his unconscious body into the escape pod before diving in himself and launching the pod just as the Franklin blew up spectacularly around them. They had drifted in space for three days and had almost run out of breathable air in that pod before they were rescued.
Davis shook his head. It was very odd that all that detail about Abernathy pop into his head, especially considering the circumstances.
As if on cue, Abernathy said, “Your father once saved my life, you know.”
“I know—” Davis began, and then nearly toppled off the top of his boulder as the land worms suddenly launched themselves into it, making it wobble.
“Davis!” Abernathy said.
Davis hunched down, flattening himself toward the boulder to keep his center of gravity low. He glanced over to Abernathy, who was now conferring with Q’eeng and West. Without being able to hear them, Davis knew that they were reviewing what they knew about Borgovian Land Worms and trying to devise a plan to neutralize the creatures, so they could cross the cave in safety and reach the chamber that housed the ancient Central Computer of the Borgovians, which could give them a clue about the disappearance of that wise and mysterious race.
You really need to start focusing on your current situation, some part of Davis’ brain said to him, and he shook his head again. Davis couldn’t disagree with this assessment; his brain had picked a funny time to start spouting a whole bunch of extraneous information that served him no purpose at this time.
The worms rocked his boulder again. Davis gripped it as hard as he could and saw Abernathy, Q’eeng and West become more animated in their attempted problem solving.
A thought suddenly came to Davis. You’re part of the security detail, it said. You have a pulse gun. You could just vaporize these things.
Davis would have smacked his head if the worms weren’t already doing that by driving it into the boulder. Of course! The pulse gun! He reached down to his belt to unclasp the gun from its holster. As he did so another part of his brain wondered why, if in fact the solution was as simple as just vaporizing the worms, Captain Abernathy or one of the other officers hadn’t just ordered him to do it already.
I seem to have a lot of voices in my brain today, said a third part of Davis’ brain. He ignored that particular voice in his brain and aimed at a moving hump of dirt coming toward his boulder.
Abernathy’s cry of “Davis! No!” arrived at the exact instant Davis fired, sending a pulsed beam of coherent, disruptive particles into the dirt mound. A screech emanated from the mound, followed by violent thrashing, followed by a sinister rumbling, followed by the ground of the cave erupting as dozens of worms suddenly burst from the dirt.
“The pulse gun is ineffective against Borgovian Land Worms!” Davis heard Science officer Q’eeng say over the unspeakable noise of the thrashing worms. “The frequency of the pulse sends them into a frenzy. Ensign Davis has just called every worm in the area!”
You couldn’t have told me this before I fired? Davis wanted to scream. You couldn’t have said, Oh, by the way, don’t fire a pulse gun at a Borgovian Land Worm at our mission briefing? On the ship? At which we discussed landing on Borgovia? Which has fucking land worms?
Davis didn’t scream this at Q’eeng because he knew there was no way Q’eeng would hear him, and besides it was already too late. He’d fired. The worms were in a frenzy. Somebody now was likely to die.
It was likely to be Ensign Davis.
Through the rumble and dust, Davis looked over at Abernathy, who was gazing back at him, concern furrowed into his brow. And then Davis was wondering when, if ever, Abernathy had ever spoken to him before this mission.
Oh, Abernathy must have—he and Davis’ father had been tight ever since the destruction of the Franklin. They were friends. Good friends. It was even likely that Abernathy had known Davis himself as a boy, and may have even pulled a few strings to get his friend’s son a choice berth on the Intrepid, the flagship of the Universal Union. The captain wouldn’t have been able to spend any real time with Davis—it wouldn’t have done for the captain to show favoritism in the ranks—but surely they would have spoken. A few words here and there. Abernathy asking after Davis’ father, perhaps. Or on other away missions.
Davis was coming up with a blank.
Suddenly, the rumbling stopped. The worms, as quickly as they had gone into a frenzy, appeared to sidle back under the dirt. The dust settled.
“They’re gone!” Davis heard himself say.
“No,” Abernathy said. “They’re smarter than that.”
“I can make it to the mouth of the cave!” Davis heard himself say.
“Stay where you are, Ensign!” Abernathy said. “That’s an order!”
But Davis was already off his boulder and running toward the mouth of the cave. Some part of Davis’ brain howled at the irrationality of the action, but the rest of Davis didn’t care. He knew he had to move. It was almost a compulsion. As if he had no choice.
Abernathy screamed “No!” very nearly in slow motion, and Davis covered half of the distance he needed to go. Then the ground erupted as land worms, arrayed in a semicircle, launched themselves up and toward Davis.
And it was then, as he skidded backward, and while his face showed surprise, in fact, that Ensign Davis had an epiphany.
This was the defining moment of his life. The reason he existed. Everything he’d ever done before, everything he’d ever been, said or wanted, had led him to this exact moment, to be skidding backward while Borgovian Land Worms bored through dirt and air to get him. This was his fate. His destiny.
In a flash, and as he gazed upon the needle sharp teeth spasming in the rather evolutionarily suspect rotating jaw of the land worm, Ensign Tom Davis saw the future. None of this was really about the mysterious disappearance of the Borgovians. After this moment, no one would ever speak of the Borgovians again.
It was about him—or rather, what his impending death would do to his father, now an admiral. Or even more to the point, what his death would do to the relationship between Admiral Davis and Captain Abernathy. Davis saw the scene in which Abernathy told Admiral Davis of his son’s death. Saw the shock turn to anger, saw the friendship between the two men dissolve. He saw the scene where the Universal Union MPs placed the captain under arrest for trumped-up charges of murder by negligence, planted by the admiral.
He saw the courtmartial and Science Officer Q’eeng, acting as Abernathy’s counsel, dramatically breaking down the admiral on the witness stand, getting him to admit this was all about him losing his son. Davis saw his father dramatically reach out and ask forgiveness from the man he had falsely accused and had arrested, and saw Captain Abernathy give it in a heartrending reconciliation right there in the courtroom.
It was a great story. It was great drama.
And it all rested upon him. And this moment. And this fate. This destiny of Ensign Davis.
Ensign Davis thought, Screw this, I want to live, and swerved to avoid the land worms.
But then he tripped and one of the land worms ate his face and he died anyway.
From his vantage point next to Q’eeng and West, Captain Lucius Abernathy watched helplessly as Tom Davis fell prey to the land worms. He felt a hand on his shoulder. It was Chief Engineer West.
“I’m sorry, Lucius,” he said. “I know he was a friend of yours.”
“More than a friend,” Abernathy said, choking back grief. “The son of a friend as well. I saw him grow up, Paul. Pulled strings to get him on the Intrepid. I promised his father that I would look after him. And I did. Checked in on him from time to time. Never showed favoritism, of course. But kept an eye out.”
“The admiral will be heartbroken,” Science officer Q’eeng said. “Ensign Davis was the only child of the admiral and his late wife.”
“Yes,” Abernathy said. “It will be hard.”
“It’s not your fault, Lucius,” West said. “You didn’t tell him to fire his pulse gun. You didn’t tell him to run.”
“Not my fault,” Abernathy agreed. “But my responsibility.” He moved to the most distant point on the boulder to be alone.
“Jesus Christ,” West muttered to Q’eeng, after the captain had removed himself and they were alone and finally free to speak. “What sort of moron shoots a pulse gun into a cave floor crawling with land worms? And then tries to run across it? He may have been an admiral’s son, but he wasn’t very smart.”
“It’s unfortunate indeed,” Q’eeng said. “The dangers of the Borgovian Land Worms are well known. Chen and Davis both should have known better.”
“Standards are slipping,” West said.
“That may be,” Q’eeng said. “Be that as it may, this and other recent missions have seen a sad and remarkable loss of life. Whether they are up to our standards or not, the fact remains: We need more crew.”
• • • • • CHAPTER ONE
Ensign Andrew Dahl looked out the window of Earth Dock, the Universal Union’s space station above the planet Earth, and gazed at his next ship.
He gazed at the Intrepid.
“Beautiful, isn’t she?” said a voice.
Dahl turned to see a young woman, dressed in a starship ensign’s uniform, also looking out toward the ship.
“She is,” Dahl agreed.
“The Universal Union Capital Ship Intrepid,” the young woman said. “Built in 2453 at the Mars Dock. Flagship of the Universal Union since 2456. First captain, Genevieve Shan. Lucius Abernathy, captain since 2462.”
“Are you the Intrepid’s tour guide?” Dahl asked, smiling.
“Are you a tourist?” the young woman asked, smiling back.
“No,” Dahl said, and held out his hand. “Andrew Dahl. I’ve been assigned to the Intrepid. I’m just waiting on the 1500 shuttle.”
The young woman took his hand. “Maia Duvall,” she said. “Also assigned to the Intrepid. Also waiting on the 1500 shuttle.”
“What a coincidence,” Dahl said.
“If you want to call two Dub U Space Fleet members waiting in a Dub U space station for a shuttle to the Dub U spaceship parked right outside the shuttle berth window a coincidence, sure,” Duvall said.
“Well, when you put it that way,” Dahl said.
“Why are you here so early?” Duvall asked. “It’s only now noon. I thought I would be the first one waiting for the shuttle.”
“I’m excited,” Dahl said. “This will be my first posting.” Duvall looked him over, a question in her eyes. “I went to the Academy a few years late,” he said.
“Why was that?” Duvall asked.
“It’s a long story,” Dahl said.
“We have time,” Duvall said. “How about we get some lunch and you tell me.”
“Uh,” Dahl said. “I’m kind of waiting for someone. A friend of mine. Who’s also been assigned to the Intrepid.”
“The food court is right over there,” Duvall said, motioning to the bank of stalls across the walkway. “Just send him or her a text. And if he misses it, we can see him from there. Come on. I’ll spring for the drinks.”
“Oh, well, in that case,” Dahl said. “If I turned down a free drink, they’d kick me out of Space Fleet.”
• • • • •
“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said. “So you’re a priest of the Forshan religion? Which schism?”
“The leftward schism, and no, not a priest.”
“Couldn’t handle the celibacy?”
“Leftward priests aren’t required to be celibate,” Dahl said, “but considering I was the only human at the seminary, I had celibacy thrust upon me, if you will.”
“Some people wouldn’t have let that stop them,” Duvall said.
“You haven’t seen a Forshan seminary student up close,” Dahl said. “Also, I don’t swing xeno.”
“Maybe you just haven’t found the right xeno,” Duvall said.
“I prefer humans,” Dahl said. “Call me boring.”
“Boring,” Duvall said, teasingly.
“And you’ve just pried into my personal preferences in land speed record time,” Dahl said. “If you’re this forward with someone you just met, I can only imagine what you’re like with people you’ve known for a long time.”
“Oh, I’m not like this with everyone,” Duvall said. “But I can tell I like you already. Anyway. Not a priest.”
“No. My technical status is ‘Foreign Penitent,’ ” Dahl said. “I was allowed to do the full course of study and perform some rites, but there were some physical requirements I would not have been able to perform for full ordination.”
“Like what?” Duvall asked.
“Selfimpregnation, for one,” Dahl said.
“A small but highly relevant detail,” Duvall said.
“And here you were all concerned about celibacy,” Dahl said, and swigged from his drink.
“If you were never going to become a priest, why did you go to the seminary?” Duvall asked.
“I found the Forshan religion very restful,” Dahl said. “When I was younger that appealed to me. My parents died when I was young and I had a small inheritance, so I took it, paid tutors to learn the language and then traveled to Forshan and found a seminary that would take me. I planned to stay forever.”
“But you didn’t,” Duvall said. “I mean, obviously.”
Dahl smiled. “Well. I found the Forshan religion restful. I found the Forshan religious war less so.”
“Ah,” Duvall said. “But how does one get from Forshan seminary student to Academy graduate?”
“When the Dub U came to mediate between the religious factions on Forshan, they needed an interpreter, and I was on planet,” Dahl said. “There aren’t a lot of humans who speak more than one dialect of Forshan. I know all four of the major ones.”
“Impressive,” Duvall said.
“I’m good with my tongue,” Dahl said.
“Now who’s being forward?” Duvall asked.
“After the Dub U mission failed, it advised that all non-natives leave the planet,” Dahl said. “The head Dub U negotiator said that the Space Fleet had need of linguists and scientists and recommended me for a slot at the Academy. By that time my seminary had been burned to the ground and I had nowhere to go, or any money to get there even if I had. The Academy seemed like the best exit strategy. Spent four years there studying xenobiology and linguistics. And here I am.”
“That’s a good story,” Duvall said, and tipped her bottle toward Dahl.
He clinked it with his own. “Thanks,” he said. “What about yours?”
“Far less interesting,” Duvall said.
“I doubt that,” Dahl said.
“No Academy for me,” Duvall said. “I enlisted as a grunt for the Dub U peacekeepers. Did that for a couple of years and then transferred over to Space Fleet three years ago. Was on the Nantes up until this transfer.”
“Promotion?” Dahl said.
Duvall smirked. “Not exactly,” she said. “It’s best to call it a transfer due to personnel conflicts.”
Before Dahl could dig further his phone buzzed. He took it out and read the text on it. “Goof,” he said, smiling.
“What is it?” Duvall asked.
“Hold on a second,” Dahl said, and turned in his seat to wave at a young man standing in the middle of the station walkway. “We’re over here, Jimmy,” Dahl said. The young man grinned, waved back and headed over.
“The friend you’re waiting on, I presume,” Duvall said.
“That would be him,” Dahl said. “Jimmy Hanson.”
“Jimmy Hanson?” Duvall said. “Not related to James Hanson, CEO and chairman of Hanson Industries, surely.”
“James Albert Hanson the Fourth,” Dahl said. “His son.”
“Must be nice,” Duvall said.
“He could buy this space station with his allowance,” Dahl said. “But he’s not like that.”
“What do you mean?” Duvall said.
“Hey, guys,” Hanson said, finally making his way to the table. He looked at Duvall, and held out his hand. “Hi, I’m Jimmy.”
“Maia,” Duvall said, extending her hand. They shook.
“So, you’re a friend of Andy’s, right?” Hanson said.
“I am,” Duvall said. “He and I go way back. All of a half hour.”
“Great,” Hanson said, and smiled. “He and I go back slightly farther.”
“I would hope so,” Duvall said.
“I’m going to get myself something to drink,” Hanson said. “You guys want anything? Want me to get you another round?”
“I’m fine,” Dahl said.
“I could go for another,” Duvall said, waggling her nearly empty bottle.
“One of the same?” Hanson asked.
“Sure,” Duvall said.
“Great,” Hanson said, and clapped his hands together. “So, I’ll be right back. Keep this chair for me?”
“You got it,” Dahl said. Hanson wandered off in search of food and drink.
“He seems nice,” Duvall said.
“He is,” Dahl said.
“Not hugely full of personality,” Duvall said.
“He has other qualities,” Dahl said.
“Like paying for drinks,” Duvall said.
“Well, yes, but that’s not what I was thinking of,” Dahl said.
“You mind if I ask you a personal question?” Duvall said.
“Seeing as we’ve already covered my sexual preferences in this conversation, no,” Dahl said.
“Were you friends with Jimmy before you knew his dad could buy an entire planet or two?” Duvall asked.
Dahl paused a moment before answering. “Do you know how the rich are different than you or me?” he asked Duvall.
“You mean, besides having more money,” Duvall said.
“Yeah,” Dahl said.
“No,” Duvall said.
“What makes them different— the smart ones, anyway— is that they have a very good sense of why people want to be near them. Whether it’s because they want to be friends, which is not about proximity to money and access and power, or if they want to be part of an entourage, which is. Make sense?”
“Sure,” Duvall said.
“Okay,” Dahl said. “So, here’s the thing. When Jimmy was young, he figured out that his father was one of the richest men in the Dub U. Then he figured out that one day, he would be too. Then he figured out that there were a lot of other people who would try to use the first two things to their own advantage. Then he figured out how to avoid those people.”
“Got it,” Duvall said. “Jimmy would know if you were just being nice to him because of who his daddy was.”
“It was really interesting watching him our first few weeks at the Academy,” Dahl said. “Some of the cadets— and some of our instructors— tried to make themselves his friend. I think they were surprised how quickly this rich kid had their number. He’s had enough time to be extraordinarily good at reading people. He has to be.”
“So how did you approach him?” Duvall said.
“I didn’t,” Dahl said. “He came over and started talking to me. I think he realized I didn’t care who his dad was.”
“Everybody loves you,” Duvall said.
“Well, that, and I was getting an A in the biology course he was having trouble with,” Dahl said. “Just because Jimmy’s picky about his companions doesn’t mean he’s not self-interested.”
“He seemed to be willing to consider me a friend,” Duvall said.
“That’s because he thinks we’re friends, and he trusts my judgment,” Dahl said.
“And are we?” Duvall said. “Friends, I mean.”
“You’re a little more hyper than I normally like,” Dahl said.
“Yeah, I get that ‘I like things restful’ vibe from you,” Duvall said.
“I take it you don’t do restful,” Dahl said.
“I sleep from time to time,” Duvall said. “Otherwise, no.”
“I suppose I’ll have to adjust,” Dahl said.
“I suppose you will,” Duvall said.
“I have drinks,” Hanson said, coming up behind Duvall.
“Why, Jimmy,” Duvall said. “That makes you my new favorite person.”
“Excellent,” Hanson said, offered Duvall her drink, and sat down at the table. “So, what are we talking about?”
• • • • •
Just before the shuttle arrived, two more people arrived at the waiting area. More accurately, five people arrived: two crewmen, accompanied by three members of the military police. Duvall nudged Dahl and Hanson, who looked over. One of the crewmen noticed and cocked an eyebrow. “Yes, I have an entourage,” he said.
Duvall ignored him and addressed one of the MPs. “What’s his story?”
The MP motioned to the one with a cocked eyebrow. “Various charges for this one, including smuggling, selling contraband and assaulting a superior officer.” She then motioned to the other crewman, who was standing there sullenly, avoiding eye contact with everyone else. “That poor bastard is this one’s friend. He’s tainted by association.”
“The assault charge is trumped up,” said the first ensign. “The XO was high as a kite.”
“On drugs you gave him,” said the second crewman, still not looking at anyone else.
“No one can prove I gave them to him, and anyway they weren’t drugs,” said the first. “They were an offworld fungus. And it couldn’t have been that. The fungus relaxes people, not makes them attack anyone in the room, requiring them to defend themselves.”
“You gave him Xeno-pseudoagaricus, didn’t you,” Dahl said.
The first crewman looked at Dahl. “As I already said, no one can prove I gave the XO anything,” he said. “And maybe.”
“Xeno-pseudoagaricus naturally produces a chemical that in most humans provides a relaxing effect,” Dahl said. “But in about one-tenth of one percent of people, it does the opposite. The receptors in their brains are slightly different from everyone else’s. And of those people, about onetenth of one percent will go berserk under its influence. Sounds like your XO is one of those people.”
“Who are you, who is so wise in the way of alien fungus?” said the crewman.
“Someone who knows that no matter what, you don’t deal upward on the chain of command,” Dahl said. The crewman grinned.
“So why aren’t you in the brig?” Duvall asked.
The crewman motioned to Dahl. “Ask your friend, he’s so smart,” he said. Duvall looked to Dahl, who shrugged.
“Xeno-pseudoagaricus isn’t illegal,” Dahl said. “It’s just not very smart to use it. You’d have to either study xenobiology or have an interest in off-brand not-technically-illegal alien mood enhancers, possibly for entrepreneurial purposes.”
“Ah,” Duvall said.
“If I had to guess,” Dahl said, “I’m guessing our friend here—”
“Finn,” said the crewman, and nodded to the other one. “And that’s Hester.”
“—our friend Finn had a reputation at his last posting for being the guy to go to for substances that would let you pass a urine test.”
Hester snorted at this.
“I’m also guessing that his XO probably doesn’t want it known that he was taking drugs—”
“Fungus,” said Finn.
“—of any sort, and that in any event that when the Xeno-pseudoagaricus made him go nuts, he attacked and Finn here was technically defending himself when he fought back. So rather than put Finn in the brig and open up an ugly can of worms, better to transfer him quietly.”
“I can neither confirm nor deny this interpretation of events,” Finn said.
“Then what’s with the MPs?” Hanson asked.
“They’re here to make sure we get on the Intrepid without any detours,” said Hester. “They don’t want him renewing his stash.” Finn rolled his eyes at this.
Duvall looked at Hester. “I’m sensing bitterness here.”
Hester finally made eye contact. “The bastard hid his stash in my foot locker,” he said, to Duvall.
“And you didn’t know?” Duvall asked.
“He told me they were candies, and that if the other crew knew he had them, they’d sneak into his foot locker to take them.”
“They would have,” Finn said. “And in my defense, everything was candied.”
“You also said they were for your mother,” Hester said.
“Yes, well,” Finn said. “I did lie about that part.”
“I tried to tell that to the captain and the XO, but they didn’t care,” Hester said. “As far as they were concerned I was an accomplice. I don’t even like him.”
“Then why did you agree to hold his . . . candies?” Duvall said. Hester mumbled something inaudible and broke eye contact.
“He did it because I was being nice to him, and he doesn’t have friends,” Finn said.
“So you took advantage of him,” Hanson said.
“I don’t dislike him,” Finn said. “And it’s not like I meant for him to get in trouble. He shouldn’t have gotten in trouble. Nothing in the stash was illegal. But then our XO went nuts and tried to rearrange my bone structure.”
“You probably should have known your product line better,” Dahl said.
“The next time I get something, I’ll run it by you first,” Finn said sarcastically, and then motioned toward the window, where the shuttle could be seen approaching the berth. “But it’s going to have to wait. Looks like our ride is here.”
• • • • • CHAPTER TWO
The Intrepid’s four other new crew members were met on the ship by a petty officer named Del Sol, who quickly marched them off to their stations. Dahl was met by the Intrepid’s chief science officer, Q’eeng.
“Sir,” Dahl said, saluting.
Q’eeng returned the salute. “Ensign Junior Rank Dahl,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you. I do not always greet my department’s new arrivals in this manner, but I have just come off duty and I thought I would show you your station. Do you have any personal items you need to stow?”
“No, sir,” Dahl said. His and the others’ foot lockers were going through ship’s security for inspection and would be delivered to their quarters, the locations of which would be updated to their phones.
“I understand you spent several years on Forshan, and that you speak the language,” Q’eeng said. “All four dialects.”
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said.
“I studied it briefly at the Academy,” Q’eeng said, and then cleared his throat. “Aaachka faaachklalhach ghalall chkalalal.”
Dahl kept his face very still. Q’eeng had just attempted in the third dialect the traditional rightward schism greeting of “I offer you the bread of life,” but his phrasing and accent had transmuted the statement into “Let us violate cakes together.” Leaving aside the fact it would be highly unusual for a member of the rightward schism to voluntarily speak the third dialect, it being the native dialect of the founder of the leftward schism and therefore traditionally eschewed, mutual cake violating was not an accepted practice anywhere on Forshan.
“Aaachkla faaachklalhalu faadalalu chkalalal,” Dahl sad, returning the correct traditional response of “I break the bread of life with you” in the third dialect.
“Did I say that correctly?” Q’eeng asked.
“Your accent is very unusual, sir,” Dahl said.
“Indeed,” Q’eeng said. “Then perhaps I will leave any necessary Forshan speaking to you.”
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said.
“Follow me, Ensign,” Q’eeng said, and strode forward. Dahl raced to keep up.
Around Q’eeng the Intrepid was a hive of activity; crew members and officers moved purposefully through the halls, each appearing to have someplace very important to get to. Q’eeng strode through them as if he had his own bow wave; they would magically part for him as he came close and close behind him as he walked past.
“It’s like rush hour in here,” Dahl said, looking around.
“You’ll find this crew to be quite efficient and effective,” Q’eeng said. “As the flagship of the Universal Union, the Intrepid has its pick of crew.”
“I don’t doubt that, sir,” Dahl said, and looked briefly behind him. The crew members behind him had slowed down considerably and were staring at him and Q’eeng. Dahl couldn’t read their expressions.
“I understand you requested at the Academy to be stationed on the Intrepid,” Q’eeng said.
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said, returning his attention to his superior officer. “Your department is doing some real cutting edge work. Some of the stuff you do on board is so out there we had a hard time re-creating it back at the Academy.”
“I hope that’s not a suggestion that we’re doing sloppy work,” Q’eeng said, with a slight, tense edge to his voice.
“Not at all, sir,” Dahl said. “Your reputation as a scientist is unimpeachable. And we know that in the kind of work your department does, initial conditions are both significant and difficult to re-create.”
Q’eeng seemed to relax at this. “Space is vast,” he said. “The Intrepid’s mission is to explore. Much of the science we do is front line—identify, describe, posit initial hypotheses. Then we move on, leaving it to others to follow our work.”
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said. “It’s that front line science that appeals to me. The exploration.”
“So,” Q’eeng said. “Do you see yourself participating in away team missions?”
Directly in front of them, a crew member seemed to stumble over his own feet. Dahl caught him. “Whoa,” Dahl said, propping him back up. “Careful with those feet, now.” The crew member pulled away, his mumbled “Thanks” very nearly dopplered as he hastened off.
“Agile and polite,” Dahl said, grinning, then stopped grinning when he noticed Q’eeng, also stopped, staring at him very intently. “Sir,” he said.
“Away teams,” Q’eeng said again. “Do you see yourself participating in them?”
“At the Academy I was known more as a lab rat,” Dahl said. Q’eeng seemed to frown at this. “But I realize that the Intrepid is a vessel of exploration. I’m looking forward to doing some of that exploration myself.”
“Very good,” Q’eeng said, and started moving forward again. “Being a ‘lab rat’ is fine at the Academy and may be fine on other ships. But the reason that the Intrepid has made so many of the discoveries that interested you in the first place is because of its crew’s willingness to get into the field and get its hands dirty. I’d ask you to keep that in mind.”
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said.
“Good,” Q’eeng said, and stopped at a door marked “Xenobiology.” He opened it, showing the laboratory beyond, and stepped through. Dahl followed.
It was empty.
“Where is everybody, sir?” Dahl asked.
“The Intrepid crew does a lot of cross-consultation with crew members in other departments, and often have secondary or supernumerary postings,” Q’eeng said. “You are supernumerary with the Linguistics Department for your facility in Forshan, for example. So people don’t always stay chained to their workstations.”
“Got it, sir,” Dahl said.
“Nevertheless,” Q’eeng said, pulled out his phone, and made a connection. “Lieutenant Collins. The newest member of your department is at your laboratory to present himself to you.” A pause. “Good. That is all.” Q’eeng put away his phone. “Lieutenant Collins will be along presently to welcome you.”
“Thank you, sir,” Dahl said, and saluted. Q’eeng nodded, saluted in return and walked off into the hallway. Dahl went to the door and watched him go. Q’eeng’s bow wave preceded him until he turned a corner and went out of sight.
• • • • •
“Hey,” someone said behind Dahl. He turned. There was a crew member standing in the middle of the lab.
Dahl looked back out the door, to where Q’eeng had turned, and then back to the new crew member. “Hi,” Dahl said. “You weren’t here two seconds ago.”
“Yeah, we do that,” the crew member said, and walked over to Dahl and stretched out his hand. “Jake Cassaway.”
“Andy Dahl.” Dahl took his hand and shook it. “And how exactly do you do that?”
“Trade secret,” Cassaway said.
A door opened from the other side of the lab and another crew member entered the room from it.
“There goes the trade secret,” Cassaway said.
“What’s in there?” Dahl asked, motioning to the door.
“It’s a storage room,” Cassaway said.
“You were hiding in the storage room?” Dahl said.
“We weren’t hiding,” said the other crew member. “We were doing inventory.”
“Andy Dahl, this is Fiona Mbeke,” Cassaway said.
“Hello,” Dahl said.
“You should be glad that we were doing inventory,” Mbeke said. “Because now that means that it won’t be assigned to you as the new guy.”
“Well, then, thanks,” Dahl said.
“We’ll still make you get coffee,” Mbeke said.
“I would expect nothing less,” Dahl said.
“And look, here is the rest of us,” Cassaway said, and nodded as two new people came through the hallway door.
One of them immediately approached Dahl. He saw the lieutenant’s pip on her shoulder and saluted.
“Relax,” Collins said, and nevertheless returned the salute. “The only time we salute around here is when His Majesty comes through the door.”
“You mean Commander Q’eeng,” Dahl said.
“You see the pun there,” Collins said. “With ‘king,’ which is what his name sounds like.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dahl said.
“That’s a little nerd humor for you,” Collins said.
“I got it, ma’am,” Dahl said, smiling.
“Good,” Collins said. “Because the last thing we need is another humorless prick around here. You met Cassaway and Mbeke, I see.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dahl said.
“You’ve figured out that I’m your boss,” she said, then motioned to the other crew member. “And this is Ben Trin, who is second in command of the lab.” Trin came forward to shake Dahl’s hand. Dahl shook it. “And that’s all of us.”
“Except for Jenkins,” Mbeke said.
“Well, he won’t see Jenkins,” Collins said.
“He might,” Mbeke said.
“When was the last time you saw Jenkins?” Trin said to Mbeke.
“I thought I saw him once, but it turned out to be a yeti,” Cassaway said.
“Enough about Jenkins,” Collins said.
“Who’s Jenkins?” Dahl asked.
“He’s doing an independent project,” Collins said. “Very intensive. Forget it, you’ll never see him. Now . . .” She reached over to one of the tables in the lab, grabbed a tablet and fired it up. “You come to us with some very nice scores from the Academy, Mr. Dahl.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” Dahl said.
“Is Flaviu Antonescu still heading up the Xenobiology Department?” Collins asked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Dahl said.
“Please stop appending ‘ma’am’ to every sentence, Dahl, it sounds like you have a vocal tic.”
Dahl smiled again. “All right,” he said.
Collins nodded and looked back at the tablet. “I’m surprised Flaviu recommended you for the Intrepid.”
“He refused at first,” Dahl said, remembering the discussion with his Academy department head. “He wanted me to take a post at a research facility on Europa.”
“Why didn’t you take it?” Collins asked.
“I wanted to see the universe, not be down a sixty-kilometer ice tunnel, looking at Europan microbes.”
“You have something against Europan microbes?” Collins asked.
“I’m sure they’re very nice as microbes go,” Dahl said. “They deserve someone who really wants to study them.”
“You must have been pretty insistent to get Flaviu to change his mind,” Collins said.
“My scores were high enough to get Commander Q’eeng’s attention,” Dahl said. “And as luck would have it, a position opened up here.”
“It wasn’t luck,” Mbeke said.
“It was a Longranian Ice Shark,” Cassaway said.
“Which is the opposite of luck,” Mbeke said.
“A what?” Dahl asked.
“The crew member you’re replacing was Sid Black,” Trin said. “He was part of an away team to Longran Seven, which is an ice planet. While exploring an abandoned ice city, the away team was attacked by ice sharks. They carried Sid off. He wasn’t seen again.”
“His leg was,” Mbeke said. “The lower half, anyway.”
“Quiet, Fiona,” Collins said, irritated. She set down the tablet and looked back at Dahl. “You met Commander Q’eeng,” she said.
“I did,” Dahl said. “Did he talk to you about away missions?” Collins asked.
“Yes,” Dahl said. “He asked me if I was interested in them.”
“What did you say?” Collins asked.
“I said I usually did lab work but I assumed I would participate on away missions as well,” Dahl said. “Why?”
“He’s on Q’eeng’s radar now,” Trin said to Collins.
Dahl looked at Trin and back at Collins. “Is there something I’m missing here, ma’am?” he asked.
“No,” Collins said, and glanced over at Trin. “I just prefer to have the option to indoctrinate my crew before Q’eeng gets his hands on them. That’s all.”
“Is there some philosophical disagreement there?” Dahl asked.
“It’s not important,” Collins said. “Don’t worry yourself about it. Now,” she said. “First things first.” She pointed over to the corner. “You get that workstation. Ben will issue you a work tablet and give you your orientation, and Jake and Fiona will catch you up on anything else you want to know. All you have to do is ask. Also, as the new guy you’re on coffee duty.”
“I was already told about that,” Dahl said.
“Good,” Collins said. “Because I could use a cup right about now. Ben, get him set up.”
• • • • •
“So, did you guys get asked about away teams?” Duvall asked, as she brought her mess tray to the table where Dahl and Hanson were already sitting.
“I did,” Hanson said.
“So did I,” Dahl said.
“Is it just me, or does everyone on this ship seem a little weird about them?” Duvall asked.
“Give me an example,” Dahl said.
“I mean that within five minutes of getting to my new post I heard three different stories of crew buying the farm on an away mission. Death by falling rock. Death by toxic atmosphere. Death by pulse gun vaporization.”
“Death by shuttle door malfunction,” Hanson said.
“Death by ice shark,” Dahl said.
“Death by what?” Duvall said, blinking. “What the hell is an ice shark?”
“You got me,” Dahl said. “I had no idea there was such a thing.”
“Is it a shark made of ice?” Hanson asked. “Or a shark that lives in ice?”
“It wasn’t specified at the time,” Dahl said, spearing a meat bit on his tray.
“I’m thinking you should have called bullshit on the ice shark story,” Duvall said.
“Even if the details are sketchy, it fits your larger point,” Dahl said. “People here have away missions on the brain.”
“It’s because someone always dies on them,” Hanson said.
Duvall arched an eyebrow at this. “What makes you say that, Jimmy?”
“Well, we’re all replacing former crew members,” Hanson said, and then pointed at Duvall. “What happened to the one you replaced. Transferred out?”
“No,” Duvall said. “He was the death by vaporization one.”
“And mine got sucked out of the shuttle,” Hanson said. “And Andy’s got eaten by a shark. Maybe. You have to admit there’s something going on there. I bet if we tracked down Finn and Hester, they’d tell us the same thing.”
“Speaking of which,” Dahl said, and motioned with his fork. Hanson and Duvall looked to where he pointed to see Hester standing by the end of the mess line, tray in hand, staring glumly around the mess hall.
“He’s not the world’s most cheerful person, is he,” Duvall said.
“Oh, he’s all right,” Hanson said, and then called to Hester. Hester jumped slightly at his name, seemed to consider whether he should join the three of them, and then appeared to resign himself to it, walked over and sat down. He began to pick at his food.
“So,” Duvall finally said, to Hester. “How’s your day?”
Hester shrugged and picked at his food some more, then finally grimaced and set down his fork. He looked around the table.
“What is it?” Duvall asked.
“Is it just me,” Hester said, “or is everyone on this ship monumentally fucked up about away missions?”
• • • • • CHAPTER THREE
Dahl was at his workstation, classifying Theta Orionis XII spores, when Ben Trin’s work tablet pinged. Trin glanced at it, said “I’m going to get some coffee,” and headed out the door.
What’s wrong with my coffee? Dahl wondered, as he went back to his work. In the week since his arrival on the Intrepid, Dahl had, as promised, been tasked with the role of coffee boy. This consisted of keeping the coffee pot in the storage room topped off and getting coffee for his lab mates whenever they rattled their mugs. They weren’t obnoxious about it—they got their own coffee more often than not—but they enjoyed exercising their coffee boy privileges from time to time.
This reminded Dahl that he needed to check on the status of the coffee pot. Cassaway had been the last one to get a cup; Dahl looked up to ask him if it was time for him to start another pot.
He was alone in the lab.
“What the hell?” Dahl said, to himself.
The outside door to the lab slid open and Q’eeng and Captain Abernathy stepped through.
Dahl stood and saluted. “Captain, Commander,” he said.
Q’eeng looked around the laboratory. “Where are your crewmates, Ensign Dahl?” he said.
“Errands,” Dahl said, after a second.
“He’ll do,” Abernathy said, and strode forward purposefully toward Dahl. He held a small vial. “Do you know what this is?” he said.
A small vial, Dahl thought, but did not say. “A xenobiological sample,” he said instead.
“Very good,” Abernathy said, and handed it to him. “As you know, Ensign, we are currently above the planet Merovia, a planet rich with artistic wonders but whose people are superstitiously opposed to medical practices of any sort.” He paused, as if waiting for acknowledgment.
“Of course, sir,” Dahl said, giving what he hoped was the expected prompt.
“Unfortunately, they are also in the throes of a global plague, which is decimating their population,” Q’eeng said. “The Universal Union is concerned that the damage caused by the plague will collapse their entire civilization, throwing the planet into a new dark age from which it will never recover.”
“The government of Merovia has refused all Universal Union medical help,” Abernathy said. “So the Intrepid was secretly assigned to collect samples of the plague and engineer a counter-bacterial which we could release into the wild, burning out the plague.”
Counter-bacterial? Dahl thought. Don’t they mean a vaccine? But before he could ask for clarification, Q’eeng was speaking again.
“We sent a covert two-man away team to collect samples, but in doing so they became infected themselves,” Q’eeng said. “The Merovian Plague has already claimed the life of Ensign Lee.”
“Damn plague liquefied the flesh right off her bones,” Abernathy said, grimly.
“The other Intrepid crew member infected is Lieutenant Kerensky,” Q’eeng said. At this, both Abernathy and Q’eeng looked at Dahl intensely, as if to stress the sheer, abject horror of this Lieutenant Kerensky being infected.
“Oh, no,” Dahl ventured. “Not Kerensky.”
Abernathy nodded. “So you understand the importance of that little vial you have in your hands,” he said. “Use it to find the counter-bacterial. If you can do it, you’ll save Kerensky.”
“And the Merovians,” Dahl said.
“Yes, them too,” Abernathy said. “You have six hours.”
Dahl blinked. “Six hours?”
Abernathy angered at this. “Is there a problem, mister?” he asked.
“It’s not a lot of time,” Dahl said.
“Damn it, man!” Abernathy said. “This is Kerensky we’re talking about! If God could make the universe in six days, surely you can make a counter-bacterial in six hours.”
“I’ll try, sir,” Dahl said.
“Try’s not good enough,” Abernathy said, and clapped Dahl hard on the shoulder. “I need to hear you say that you’ll do it.” He shook Dahl’s shoulder vigorously.
“I’ll do it,” Dahl said.
“Thank you, Ensign Dill,” Abernathy said.
“Dahl, sir,” Dahl said.
“Dahl,” Abernathy said, and then turned to Q’eeng, turning his attention away from Dahl so completely it was as if a switch had been thrown. “Come on, Q’eeng. We need to make a hyperwave call to Admiral Drezner. We’re cutting things close here.” Abernathy strode out into the hallway, purposefully. Q’eeng followed, nodding to Dahl absentmindedly as he followed the captain.
Dahl stood there for a moment, vial in his hand.
“I’m going to say it again,” he said, again to himself. “What the hell?”
The storage room door opened; Cassaway and Mbeke came out of it. “What did they want?” Cassaway asked.
“Checking inventory again?” Dahl asked, mockingly.
“We don’t tell you how to do your job,” Mbeke said.
“So what did they want?” Collins asked, as she briskly walked through the outside door, Trin following, cup of coffee in hand.
Dahl thought hard about yelling at all of them, then stopped and refocused. He held up the vial. “I’m supposed to find a counter-bacterial for this.”
“Counter-bacterial?” Trin asked. “Don’t you mean a vaccine?”
“I’m telling you what they told me,” Dahl said. “And they gave me six hours.”
“Six hours,” Trin said, looking at Collins.
“Right,” Dahl said. “Which, even if I knew what a ‘counterbacterial’ was, is no time at all. It takes weeks to make a vaccine.”
“Dahl, tell me,” Collins said. “When Q’eeng and Abernathy were here, how were they talking to you?”
“What do you mean?” Dahl asked.
“Did they come in and quickly tell you what you needed?” Collins said. “Or did they go on and on about a bunch of crap you didn’t need to know?”
“They went on a bit, yes,” Dahl said.
“Was the captain particularly dramatic?” Cassaway asked.
“What is ‘particularly dramatic’ in this context?” Dahl asked.
“Like this,” Mbeke said, and then grabbed both of Dahl’s shoulders and shook them. “‘Damn it, man! There is no try! Only do!’”
Dahl set down the vial so it was not accidentally shaken out of his grip. “He said pretty much exactly those words,” he said to Mbeke.
“Well, they’re some of his favorite words,” Mbeke said, letting go.
“I’m not understanding what any of this means,” Dahl said, looking at his lab mates.
“One more question,” Collins said, ignoring Dahl’s complaint. “When they told you that you had to find this counterbacterial in six hours, did they give you a reason why?”
“Yes,” Dahl said. “They said that was the amount of time they had to save a lieutenant.”
“Which lieutenant?” Collins said.
“Why does it matter?” Dahl asked.
“Answer the question, Ensign,” Collins said, uttering Dahl’s rank for the first time in a week.
“A lieutenant named Kerensky,” Dahl said.
There was a pause at the name.
“That poor bastard,” Mbeke said. “He always gets screwed, doesn’t he.”
Cassaway snorted. “He gets better,” he said, and then looked over to Dahl. “Somebody else died, right?”
“An ensign named Lee was liquefied,” Dahl said.
“See,” Cassaway said, to Mbeke.
“Someone really needs to tell me what’s going on,” Dahl said.
“Time to break out the Box,” Trin said, sipping his coffee again.
“Right,” Collins said, and nodded to Cassaway. “Go get it, Jake.” Cassaway rolled his eyes and went to the storage room.
“At least someone tell me who Lieutenant Kerensky is,” Dahl said.
“He’s part of the bridge crew,” Trin said. “Technically, he’s an astrogator.”
“The captain and Q’eeng said he was part of an away team, collecting biological samples,” Dahl said.
“I’m sure he was,” Trin said.
“Why would they send an astrogator for that?” Dahl said.
“Now you know why I said ‘technically,’” Trin said, and took another sip.
The storage room door slid open and Cassaway emerged with a small, boxy appliance in his hands. He walked it over to the closest free induction pad. The thing powered on.
“What is that?” Dahl asked.
“It’s the Box,” Cassaway said.
“Does it have a formal name?” Dahl asked.
“Probably,” Cassaway said.
Dahl walked over and examined it, opening it and looking inside. “It looks like a microwave oven,” he said.
“It’s not,” Collins said, taking the vial and bringing it to Dahl.
“What is it, then?” Dahl asked, looking at Collins.
“It’s the Box,” Collins said.
“That’s it? ‘The Box’?” Dahl said.
“If it makes you feel better to think it’s an experimental quantum-based computer with advanced inductive artificial intelligence capacity, whose design comes to us from an advanced but extinct race of warrior-engineers, then you can think about it that way,” Collins said.
“Is that actually what it is?” Dahl asked.
“Sure,” Collins said, and handed the vial to Dahl. “Put this in the Box.”
Dahl looked at the vial and took it. “Don’t you want me to prepare the sample?” he asked.
“Normally, yes,” Collins said. “But this is the Box, so you can just put it in there.”
Dahl placed the vial into the Box, placing it in the center of the ceramic disk at the bottom of the inside space. He closed the Box door and looked at the outside instrument panel, which featured three buttons, one green, one red, one white.
“The green button starts it,” Collins said. “The red button stops it. The white button opens the door.”
“It should be a little more complicated than that,” Dahl said.
“Normally it is,” Collins agreed. “But this is—”
“This is the Box,” Dahl said. “I get that part.”
“Then start it,” Collins said.
Dahl pressed the green button. The Box sprang to life, making a humming sound. On the inside a light came on. Dahl peered inside to see the vial turning as the disk he placed it on was rotated by a carousel.
“You have got to be kidding me,” Dahl said, to himself. He looked up at Collins again. “Now what?”
“You said Abernathy and Q’eeng said you had six hours,” Collins said.
“Right,” Dahl said.
“So in about five and a half hours the Box will let you know it has a solution,” Collins said.
“How will it tell me that?” Dahl asked.
“It’ll go ding,” Collins said, and walked off.
Roughly five and a half hours later there was a small, quiet ding, the humming sound emanating from the Box’s carousel engine stopped and the light went off.
“Now what?” Dahl said, staring at the Box, to no one in particular.
“Check your work tablet,” Trin said, not looking up from his own work. He was the only one besides Dahl still in the lab.
Dahl grabbed his work tablet and powered up the screen. On it was a rotating picture of a complex organic molecule and beside that, a long scrolling column of data. Dahl tried to read it.
“It’s giving me gibberish,” he said, after a minute. “Long streaming columns of it.”
“You’re fine,” Trin said. He set down his own work and walked over to Dahl. “Now, listen closely. Here’s what you do next. First, you’re going to take your work tablet to the bridge, where Q’eeng is.”
“Why?” Dahl said. “I could just mail the data to him.”
Trin shook his head. “It’s not how this works.”
“Wh—” Dahl began, but Trin held up his hand.
“Shut up for a minute and just listen, okay?” Trin said. “I know it doesn’t make sense, and it’s stupid, but this is the way it’s got to be done. Take your tablet to Q’eeng. Show him the data on it. And then once he’s looking at it, you say, ‘We got most of it, but the protein coat is giving us a problem.’ Then point to whatever data is scrolling by at the time.”
“‘Protein coat’?” Dahl said.
“It doesn’t have to be the protein coat,” Trin said. “You can say whatever you like. Enzyme transcription errors. RNA replication is buggy. I personally go with protein coat because it’s easy to say. The point is, you need to say everything is almost perfect but one thing still needs to be done. And that’s when you gesture toward the data.”
“What’ll that do?” Dahl asked.
“It will give Q’eeng an excuse to furrow his brow, stare at the data for a minute and then tell you that you’ve overlooked some basic thing, which he will solve,” Trin said. “At which point you have the option of saying something like ‘Of course!’ or ‘Amazing!’ or, if you really want to kiss his ass, ‘We never would have solved that in a million years, Commander Q’eeng.’ He likes that. He won’t acknowledge that he likes it. But he likes it.”
Dahl opened his mouth, but Trin held up his hand again. “Or you can do what the rest of us do, which is to get the hell off the bridge as soon as you possibly can,” Trin said. “Give him the data, point out the one error, let him solve it, get your tablet back and get out of there. Don’t call attention to yourself. Don’t say or do anything clever. Show up, do your job, get out of there. It’s the smartest thing you can do.” Trin walked back over to his work.
“None of this makes the slightest bit of sense,” Dahl said.
“No, it doesn’t,” Trin agreed. “I already told you it didn’t.”
“Are any of you going to bother to explain any of this to me?” Dahl asked.
“Maybe someday,” Trin said, sitting down at his workstation. “But not right now. Right now, you have to race to get that data to the bridge and to Q’eeng. Your six hours is just about up. Hurry.”
Dahl burst out of the Xenobiology Laboratory door and immediately collided with someone else, falling to the ground and dropping his tablet. He picked himself up and looked around for his tablet. It was being held by the person with whom he collided, Finn.
“No one should ever be in that much of a rush,” Finn said.
Dahl snatched back the tablet. “You don’t have someone about to liquefy if you don’t get to the bridge in ten minutes,” Dahl said, heading in the direction of the bridge.
“That’s very dramatic,” Finn said, matching Dahl’s pace.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be?” Dahl asked him.
“I do,” Finn said. “The bridge. I’m delivering a manifest for my boss to Captain Abernathy.”
“Doesn’t anyone just send messages on this ship?” Dahl asked.
“Here on the Intrepid, they like the personal touch,” Finn said.
“Do you think that’s really it?” Dahl asked. He weaved past a clot of crewmen.
“Why do you ask?” Finn said.
Dahl shrugged. “It’s not important,” he said.
“I like this ship,” Finn said. “This is my sixth posting. Every other ship I’ve been on the officers had a stick up their ass about procedure and protocol. This one is so relaxed it’s like being on a cruise ship. Hell, my boss ducks the captain at every possible opportunity.”
Dahl stopped suddenly, forcing Finn to sway to avoid colliding with him a second time. “He ducks the captain,” he said.
“It’s like he’s psychic about it,” Finn said. “One second, he’s there telling a story about a night with a Gordusian ambisexual, and the next he’s off getting coffee. As soon as he steps out of the room, there’s the captain.”
“You’re serious about this,” Dahl said.
“Why do you think I’m the one delivering messages?” Finn said.
Dahl shook his head and started off again. Finn followed.
The bridge was sleek and well-appointed and reminded Dahl of the lobby of some of the nicer skyscrapers he had been to.
“Ensign Dahl,” Chief Science Officer Q’eeng said, spotting him from his workstation. “I see you like cutting it close with your assignments.”
“We worked as fast as we could,” Dahl said. He walked over to Q’eeng and presented the tablet with the scrolling data and the rotating molecule. Q’eeng took it and studied it silently. After a minute, he looked up at Dahl and cleared his throat.
“Sorry, sir,” Dahl said, remembering his line. “We got ninety-nine percent there, but then we had a problem. With, uh, the protein coat.” After a second he pointed to the screen, at the gibberish flying by.
“It’s always the protein coat with your lab, isn’t it,” Q’eeng murmured, perusing the screen again.
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said.
“Next time, remember to more closely examine the relationship between the peptide bonds,” Q’eeng said, and punched his fingers at the tablet. “You’ll find the solution to your problem is staring you right in the face.” He turned the tablet toward Dahl. The rotating molecule had stopped rotating and several of its bonds were now highlighted in blinking red. Nothing had otherwise changed with the molecule.
“That’s amazing, sir,” Dahl said. “I don’t know how we missed it.”
“Yes, well,” Q’eeng said, and then tapped at the screen again. The data flew off Dahl’s tablet and onto Q’eeng’s workstation. “Fortunately we may have just enough time to get this improved solution to the matter synthesizer to save Kerensky.” Q’eeng jabbed the tablet back at Dahl. “Thank you, Ensign, that will be all.”
Dahl opened his mouth, intending to say something more. Q’eeng looked up at him, quizzically. Then the image of Trin popped into Dahl’s brain.
Show up, do your job, get out of there. It’s the smartest thing you can do.
So Dahl nodded and got out of there.
Finn caught up with him outside the bridge a moment later. “Well, that was a complete waste of my time,” Finn said. “I like that.”
“There’s something seriously wrong with this ship,” Dahl said.
“Trust me, there isn’t a damn thing wrong with this ship,” Finn said. “This is your first posting. You lack perspective. Take it from an old pro. This is as good as it gets.”
“I’m not sure you’re a reliable—” Dahl said, and then stopped as a hairy wraith appeared before him and Finn. The wraith glared at them both and then jabbed a finger into Dahl’s chest.
“You,” the wraith said, jabbing the finger deeper. “You just got lucky in there. You don’t know how lucky you were. Listen to me, Dahl. Stay off the bridge. Avoid the Narrative. The next time you’re going to get sucked in for sure. And then it’s all over for you.” The wraith glanced over to Finn. “You too, goldbrick. You’re fodder for sure.”
“Who are you and what medications aren’t you taking?” Finn said.
The wraith sneered at Finn. “Don’t think I’m going to warn either of you again,” he said. “Listen to me or don’t. But if you don’t, you’ll be dead. And then where will you be? Dead, that’s where. It’s up to you now.” The wraith stomped off and took an abrupt turn into a cargo tunnel.
“What the hell was that?” Finn asked. “A yeti?”
Dahl looked back at Finn but didn’t answer. He ran down the corridor and slapped open the access panel to the cargo tunnel.
The corridor was empty.
Finn came up behind Dahl. “Remind me what you were saying about this place,” he said.
“There’s something seriously wrong with this ship,” Dahl repeated.
“Yeah,” Finn said. “I think you might be right.”
••••• CHAPTER FOUR
“Come on! We’re almost to the shuttles!” yelled Lieutenant Kerensky, and Dahl had one giggling, mad second to reflect on how good Kerensky looked for having been such a recent plague victim. Then he, like Hester and everyone else on the away team, sprinted crazily down the space station corridor, trying to outrun the mechanized death behind them.
The space station was not a Universal Union station; it was an independent commercial station that may or may not have been strictly legally licensed but that nonetheless sent out on the hyperwave an open, repeating distress signal, with a second, encoded signal hidden within it. The Intrepid responded to the first, sending two shuttles with away teams to the station. It had decoded the hidden signal while the away teams were there.
It said, Stay away—the machines are out of control.
Dahl’s away team had figured out that one before the message was decoded, when one of the machines sliced Crewman Lopez into mulch. The distant screams in the halls suggested that the second away team was in the painful process of figuring it out, too.
The second away team, with Finn, Hanson and Duvall on it.
“What sort of assholes encode a message about killer machines?” Hester screamed. He had brought up the rear of his away team’s running column. The distant vibrating thuds suggested one of the machines—a big one—was not too far behind them at the moment.
“Quiet,” Dahl said. They knew the machines could see them; it was a good bet the machines could hear them too. Dahl, Hester and the other two remaining crew members on the team hunkered down and waited for Kerensky to tell them where to go next.
Kerensky consulted his phone. “Dahl,” he said, motioning him forward. Dahl sneaked up to his lieutenant, who showed him the phone with a map on it. “We’re here,” he said, pointing to one corridor. “The shuttle bay is here. I see two routes to it, one through the station’s engineering core and the other through its mess hall area.”
Less talk, more decision making, please, Dahl thought, and nodded.
“I think we stand a better chance if we split up,” Kerensky said. “That way if the machines get one group, the other group might still get to the shuttles. Are you rated to fly one?”
“Hester is,” Dahl heard himself say, and then wondered how he knew that. He didn’t remember knowing that bit of information before.
Kerensky nodded. “Then you take him and Crewman McGregor and cut through the mess hall. I’ll take Williams and go through Engineering. We’ll meet at the shuttle, wait for Lieutenant Fischer’s away team if we can, and then get the hell out of here.”
“Yes, sir,” Dahl said.
“Good luck,” Kerensky said, and motioned to Williams to follow him.
He hardly looks liquefied at all, Dahl thought again, and then went back to Hester and McGregor. “He wants to split up and have the three of us go through the mess hall to the shuttle bay,” he said to the two of them, as Kerensky and Williams skulked off down the corridor toward Engineering.
“What?” McGregor said, visibly upset. “Bullshit. I don’t want to go with you. I want to go with Kerensky.”
“We have our orders,” Dahl said.
“Screw them,” McGregor said. “You don’t get it, do you? Kerensky’s untouchable. You’re not. You’re just some ensign. We’re in a space station filled with fucking killer robots. Do you really think you’re going to make it out of here alive?”
“Calm down, McGregor,” Dahl said, holding out his hands. Beneath his feet, the corridor floor vibrated. “We’re wasting time here.”
“No!” McGregor said. “You don’t get it! Lopez already died in front of Kerensky! She was the sacrifice! Now anyone with Kerensky is safe!” He leaped up to chase after Kerensky, stepping into the corridor just as the killing machine that had been following them turned the corner. McGregor saw the machine and had time to make a surprised “O” with his mouth before the harpoon the machine launched pushed into him, spearing him through the liver.
There was an infinitesimal pause, in which everything was set in a tableau: Dahl and Hester crouched on the side of the corridor, killing machine at the corner, the harpooned McGregor in the middle, dripping.
McGregor turned his head toward the horrified Dahl. “See?” he said, through a mouthful of blood. Then there was a yank, and McGregor flew toward the killer machine, which had already spun up its slicing blades.
Dahl screamed McGregor’s name, stood and unholstered his pulse gun, and fired into the center of the pulpy red haze where he knew the killer machine to be. The pulse beam glanced harmlessly off the machine’s surface. Hester yelled and pushed Dahl down the corridor, away from the machine, which was already resetting its harpoon. They turned a corner and raced away into another corridor, which led to the mess hall. They burst through the doors and closed them behind them.
“These doors aren’t going to keep that thing out,” Hester said breathlessly.
Dahl examined the doorway. “There’s another set of doors here,” he said. “Fire doors or an airlock door, maybe. Look for a panel.”
“Found it,” Hester said. “Step back.” He pressed a large red button. There was a squeak and a hiss. A pair of heavy doors slowly began to shut, and then stalled, halfway closed. “Oh, come on!” Hester said.
Through the glass on the already closed set of doors, the killer machine stepped into view.
“I have an idea,” Dahl said.
“Does it involve running?” Hester asked.
“Move back from the panel,” Dahl said. Hester stepped back, frowning. Dahl raised his pulse gun and fired into the door panel at the same time the machine’s harpoon punctured the closed outer door and yanked it out of the doorway. The panel blew in a shower of sparks and the heavy fire doors moved, shutting with a vibrating clang.
“Shooting the panel?” Hester said, incredulous. “That was your big idea?”
“I had a hunch,” Dahl said, putting his pulse gun away.
“That the space station was wired haphazardly?” Hester said. “That this whole place is one big fucking code violation?”
“The killer machines kind of gave that part away,” Dahl said.
There was a violent bang as a harpoon struck against the fire door. “If that door is built like the rest of this place, it won’t be long before that thing’s through it,” Hester said.
“We’re not staying anyway,” Dahl said, and pulled out his phone for a station map. “Come on. There’s a door in the kitchen that will get us closer to the shuttle bay. If we’re lucky we won’t run into anything else before we get there.”
Two corridors before the shuttle bay, Dahl and Hester ran into what was left of Lieutenant Fischer’s party: Fischer, Duvall, Hanson and Finn.
“Well, aren’t we the lucky bunch,” Finn said, seeing Dahl and Hester. The words were sarcastic, but Finn’s tone suggested he was close to losing it. Hanson put a hand on his shoulder.
“Where’s Kerensky and the rest of your team?” Fischer asked Dahl.
“We split up,” Dahl said. “Kerensky and Williams are alive as far as I know. We lost Lopez and McGregor.”
Fischer nodded. “Payton and Webb from our team,” he said.
“Harpoons and blades?” Dahl asked.
“Swarming bots,” Duvall said.
“We missed those,” Dahl said.
Fischer shook his head. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “I just transferred to the Intrepid. This is my first away team. And I lose two of my people.”
“I don’t think it’s you, sir,” Dahl said.
“That’s more than I know,” Fischer said. He motioned them forward and they made their way cautiously to the shuttle bay.
“Anyone else here rated to fly one of these things?” Fischer asked, as they entered the bay.
“I am,” Hester said.
“Good,” Fischer said, and pointed to the shuttle Kerensky had piloted. “Warm her up. I’ll get started on mine. I want all of you to get into that shuttle with him.” He pointed at Hester. “If you see any of those machines coming, don’t wait, take off. I’ll have enough space for Kerensky and Williams. Got it?”
“Yes, sir,” Hester said.
“Get to it, then,” Fischer said, and ducked into his own shuttle.
“Everything about this mission sucks,” Hester said in their own shuttle, as he banged through the shuttle’s pre-flight sequence. Finn, Duvall and Hanson were strapping themselves in; Dahl kept watch by the hatch, looking for Kerensky and Williams.
“Hester, did you ever tell me that you knew how to fly a shuttle?” Dahl asked, turning to look at Hester.
“Kind of busy now,” Hester said.
“I didn’t know he was rated to fly a shuttle, either,” Finn said, from his seat. His anxiousness was needing a release, and talking seemed like a better idea to him than wetting himself. “And I’ve known him for more than a year.”
“Not something you’d think you’d miss,” Dahl said.
“We weren’t close,” Finn said. “I was mostly just using him for his foot locker.”
Dahl said nothing to this and turned back to the hatch.
“There,” Hester said, and punched a button. The engines thrummed into life. He strapped himself in. “Close that hatch. We’re getting out of here.”
“Not yet,” Dahl said.
“The hell with that,” Hester said. He pressed a button on his control panel to seal the hatch.
Dahl slapped the override at the side of the hatch. “Not yet!” he yelled at Hester.
“What is wrong with you?” Hester yelled back. “Fischer’s got more than enough space for Kerensky and Williams. My vote is for leaving, and since I’m the goddamn pilot, my vote’s the only one that counts!”
“We’re waiting!” Dahl said.
“For fuck’s sake, why?” Hester said.
From his seat, Hanson pointed. “Here they come,” he said.
Dahl looked out the hatch. Kerensky and Williams were hobbling slowly into the shuttle bay, propping each other up. Immediately behind them were the pounding of the machines.
Fischer popped his head out his shuttle hatch and saw Dahl. “Come on!” he said, and ran toward Kerensky and Williams. Dahl leaped out of his shuttle and followed.
“There’s six of them behind us,” Kerensky said, and they came up to the two of them. “We came as fast as we could. Swarming bots—” He collapsed. Dahl grabbed him before he could hit the floor.
“You got him?” Fischer said to Dahl. He nodded. “Get him on your shuttle. Tell your pilot to go. I’ve got Williams. Hurry.” Fischer slung his arm around Williams and dragged him toward his shuttle. Williams turned back to look at Kerensky and Dahl, utterly terrified.
The first of the machines stomped into the shuttle bay.
“Come on, Andy!” Duvall yelled, from the shuttle hatch. Dahl put on a burst of speed and crossed the distance to the shuttle, fairly hurling Kerensky at Duvall and Hanson, who had unlatched himself from his seat as well. They grabbed the lieutenant and dragged him in, Dahl collapsing in afterward.
“Now can we go?” Hester said, rhetorically, because he slapped the hatch button without waiting for a response. The shuttle leaped up from the shuttle bay deck as something slammed into the side and clattered off.
“Harpoon,” Finn said. He had unstrapped himself and was hovering over Hester, looking at a rearview monitor. “It didn’t take.”
The shuttle cleared the bay. “Good riddance,” muttered Hester.
“How’s Kerensky?” Dahl asked Duvall, who was examining Kerensky.
“He’s nonresponsive, but he doesn’t look too bad,” she said, and then turned to Hanson. “Jimmy, get me the medkit, please. It’s on the back of the pilot’s seat.” Hanson went to get it.
“Do you know what you’re doing?” Dahl asked.
Duvall looked up briefly. “Told you I’d been ground forces, right? Got medic training then. Spent lots of time patching people up.” She smiled. “Hester’s not the only one with hidden skills.” Hanson came back with the medkit; Duvall cracked it open and got to work.
“Oh, shit,” Finn said, still looking at the monitor.
“What is it?” Dahl said, coming over to Finn.
“The other shuttle,” Finn said. “I’ve got a feed from their cameras. Look.”
Dahl looked. The cameras showed dozens of machines pouring into the shuttle bay, targeting their fire at the shuttle. Above them a dark, shifting cloud hovered.
“The swarm bots,” Finn murmured.
The camera view wobbled and shook and then went blank.
Finn slipped into the co-pilot seat and punched the screen they had just been looking at. “Their shuttle’s been compromised,” he said. “The engines aren’t firing, and it looks like the hull integrity has been breached.”
“We need to go back for them,” Dahl said.
“No,” Hester said. Dahl flared, but Hester turned and looked at him. “Andy, no. If the shuttle’s been breached even a little, those swarming bots are already inside of it. If they’re already inside of it, then Fischer and Williams are already dead.”
“He’s right,” Finn said. “There’s no one to go back for. Even if we did, we couldn’t do anything. The bay is swarming with those things. This shuttle doesn’t have weapons. All we’d be doing is letting the machines get a second shot at us.”
“We were lucky to get out at all,” Hester said, returning to his controls.
Dahl looked back at Kerensky, who was now moaning softly while Duvall and Hanson tended to him.
“I don’t think luck had much to do with it,” he said.
Redshirts © John Scalzi 2012