Time to read: about 45 minutes to one hour
The shuttle Pegasus nudged its way gently towards the orbiting dockyard arm of Osiris Station, matching the station’s spin as it slowly rolled around its axis. Landing lights flashed invitingly, but Rox wasn’t looking forward to a return to gravity after three months of weightlessness. Osiris Station only spun to a third g, but it would still make her tired bones creak and keep her awake at night. No more zero-g sex for a while, she thought ruefully, casting a glance over to the other occupant of the shuttle. Not that she really minded. Dmitry was inhibited and undemanding, and she’d grown tired of his passivity; she suspected he’d be relieved too.
She fastened her helmet in place as Pegasus settled to a halt and docking clamps rammed with a heavy jolt onto her landing fins. Like most of Osiris’ bays, Docking Station Six was open to vacuum, so they’d have to walk, suited, to an airlock. They had to weave past a scurrying mass of spider-limbed Bots, already swarming for Pegasus’ cargo.
“Good trip?” said a short, heavy-set, balding man in a middle-management blue tunic as she walked out of the airlock. She’d already taken in the room: two security grunts positioned by the outer door, no viewscreens, no table, two chairs bolted to the floor against the port-side wall. To starboard, a rank of storage bins embedded in the wall: two slowly glided open as she watched. Lighting bright enough she wished she still had her suit visor on. Telltale surveillance camera pimples in the corners of the ceiling. No visible means of exit apart from the airlock to raw space behind her and a bulkhead door in front. If Osiris didn’t want anyone getting past that room, then they pretty much wouldn’t. People in the chamber with her was the weakness, though, particularly with the security grunt’s holstered weapons. Station Security was getting sloppy.
“Had its moments,” she said, looking over at Dmitry, who was pointedly looking in the other direction.
“I’m Commander Evans,” the man said, holding out his hand. Rox looked at it, then waved hers, still-gloved, before shrugging.
“Military? You’re not in uniform,” she said.
“Neither are you.”
She cast Dmitry a quick glance, to see whether he’d be listening, and caught his quizzical eye. So she changed the subject and they talked about local politics, the vids she’d caught up on during her long trip and the effectiveness of the new graphene derivatives they were using for Osiris’s station expansion (not very, was the consensus). She waited until station security ushered Dmitry out for immigration processing. When just she and Evans remained, she abruptly changed tack.
“I’m retired. What makes you think I was military, anyway?”
Evans laughed. “What, apart from your straight-from-the-navy buzz cut and the fact that you checked out every inch of this room before you even took your helmet off?”
“A guess, then?”
“Sorry to disappoint, but I’m sure you know you never actually leave the service. Come on,” he gently ushered her to the door. She contemplated turning right around and flying back to Earth in the Pegasus, but suspected she’d never make it past the airlock. So she flashed a smile she hoped was obvious in its insincerity and followed Evans through immigration.
Fast tracked, which surprised her. She didn’t even have to produce her paperwork, which was just as well. Good though the forgery was, Evan’s presence in the welcoming party suggested it wasn’t quite good enough.
She walked into what she’d assumed was a storage module and stopped abruptly when she saw who was inside: the woman who’d destroyed her. The monster who haunted her nightmares. She’d long dreamed what she’d do if she ever saw Fenella Jackson again, but she never imagined she ever would.
Jackson had clearly appropriated the module for her office, a massive open space dwarfing a small desk and conference table, all surrounded by huge potted plants—small trees, really—all impossibly thin and long due to Osiris’ reduced gravity. Evans lurked behind her. Three protuberances in the ceiling suggested embedded weapons and surveillance equipment, so she was effectively cornered. She scanned for other security threats whilst trying to dismiss her rising anxiety. Nowhere to go—might as well just enjoy the ride.
Jackson rose from her desk and beckoned Rox closer. She was in her sixties, running to paunch, hair greying. The years hadn’t been good to her, or maybe it was Osiris. Maybe that meant she was ready to atone.
“Roxanne Weaver, as I live and breathe. Or should it be Jane LaCosta?” She directed Rox to a seat on the other side of the desk.
Rox sank down. Lower, she noted, than Jackson’s high-backed chair, though the effort to height-intimidate through seating was somewhat undermined by Rox’s upright five-ten frame overshadowing Jackson’s five-four slouch. By the look of her uniform, Osiris grey rather than her old EarthCorp blue, Jackson had been prospering while Rox had been scraping by hauling freight. Was that a Strategic Board insignia? That wasn’t going to win her any more respect.
“How long’s it been, Rox? Five years? Ten?”
“Seven. Since you left me stranded on Io, presumed dead. Six since you awarded me a posthumous Gold Cross, which made everyone think nice things about you so they wouldn’t investigate too closely. Five since you rescinded it and pinned the blame for the whole debacle on me, which covered your back quite nicely. Four since you erased most of my life from every system in every part of the inhabited universe and sequestered all my assets, which I presume are stashed offshore somewhere. And three since I promised I’d kill you, first chance I got.”
Jackson laughed, long and hard, which wasn’t the reaction Rox was expecting. “No need to harbor grudges, Rox, because we both know it wasn’t my fault. And here I am, about to do you a big favor.”
It was her fault, Rox thought, but chose to stay silent. Serve it cold, she told herself, when she wasn’t still mad as hell.
“You’ll give me my assets back?”
“Some of them.”
“Some of them?”
“Less an administrative fee. It took quite a lot of time and effort to gather up all your holdings. You were very good at hiding things, you know.”
Rox sighed. “And my reputation?”
“I’ll think of something. Though your unexplained return from the dead might cause some confusion. Sure you don’t want to stay as Jane LaCosta?”
“Do I look like a Jane?”
“Good point. Anyhow, your assets…”
“You know my account numbers.” Actually, she hoped she didn’t, since most of her active accounts were under her Jane LaCosta identity. She activated her G-node and checked her balance, anyway. “Nope. Not here. Banks running slow today?”
Jackson smiled and leaned back in her seat.
“Ah. The catch. You need me to do something for you, don’t you?” Rox said. “You want to bribe me with my own money to do your dirty work. No. Like you said, I can’t come back from the dead, and Roxanne Weaver had hardly any assets to begin with.”
“You do realize we found the Cayman account? And all that accrued back pay…”
Jackson sighed. “Pity. Commander Evans?”
Rox turned to see Evans reaching for his holster. Soon she was looking at the nozzle of his pistol. A vibration pistol. She’d heard about them. Perfect for confined spaces like close-to-hull cabins where a bullet risked decompression. Hit the target and the molecules just judder off in all sorts of directions. Painful, apparently. And very, very illegal.
“Commander, Ms Weaver seems to have forgotten there’s no record of Jane LaCosta—or whatever else she might be calling herself these days—arriving on the Pegasus. I gather the only person on board was a sadly deceased man called Dmitry Chang. Barroom brawl. Very sad. Or hasn’t that happened just yet?”
So much for security fast tracking. Rox wondered how Jackson was planning to space her body without anyone noticing. But she wasn’t, though, was she. Because she knew she wouldn’t be able to resist.
“Put that thing down, Evans. You might hurt someone,” she said, trying to appear calm. “All my assets, and Dmitry stays alive.”
“You’re in no position to make demands,” Jackson said, amused.
“I’m making them anyway.”
Jackson paused, then nodded. “You don’t even know what the job is yet.”
“Will it be interesting?”
“Then I’m in.”
Three days later Jane “Rox” LaCosta found herself leaning on a stanchion supervising welding Bots do whatever they were doing to some micrometeorite damage to the hull flanking the aft cargo hold of the Enchantress, bound for Neptune, or more specifically to Triton Station. Jackson had told her bugger all about her mission, except that it was super-secret and would “blow her mind,” which was ironic since Rox still had a strong desire to blow out Jackson’s brains. But that could wait until she got her money back.
Most trips to the outer system were slow-burn looping orbital trajectories, trading time for cost reduction, but the Enchantress was on a fast-burn, carrying some specialist equipment that couldn’t be manufactured in the Outers. Or that was the excuse, so that Rox could get there without delay, though it would still take her eight weeks of mind-numbing boredom. Enchantress was a remodeled pleasure yacht, built more for speed than for cargo capacity, with two ugly cargo bays tacked on to the sides. Rox signed on as maintenance technician: an easy enough gig to get since Jane LaCosta had been earning her living piloting cargo shuttles between Earth and Osiris for the past three years.
There were only four other people on the Enchantress: a huge guy called Puk, nominally the Captain, who only spoke when he was giving orders, which wasn’t often as the Enchantress pretty much ran things herself, two young guys called Wendell and Schultz who looked and sounded identical to Rox even though one was a six-two German and the other was five-ten and from Minnesota, and a wiry woman called Annie who responded to Rox’s opening greeting with a curt “keep the hell out of my way” and kept herself to herself, except when she was in Puk’s cabin, which was most of the time.
So, with Puk and Annie emerging only at mealtimes, Rox only had Wendell and Shultz for company for most of the trip. As well as the height difference, Schultz had blonde, shoulder length hair and Wendell’s was black and cropped, but that didn’t make it any easier to tell them apart. If Rox closed her eyes, it could be either one spouting the same inane football related drivel at the other: as alike in personality as to make them indistinguishable.
There isn’t much to do on a ship that runs itself. The crew was there to make sure the AI and the bots didn’t get too uppity, to supervise loading and unloading, fix anything technical that the bots and the ship’s AI couldn’t handle, which wasn’t much, and because the Unions had insisted on manned flights. So she amused herself by watching Wendell and Schultz pirouetting around each other with their barbs and insults, wondering how far their bromance would develop. She missed Dmitry, much to her surprise. She briefly contemplated making a play for Puk, mainly to piss Annie off, but she found the fat Russian repulsively reptilian, and even she had standards. Besides, Annie looked like she could handle herself. Rox had seen her sneak out to the exercise deck when she thought no one was looking. Combat ready, for sure.
Six weeks out and Rox had seen every episode of Galaxy 99, twice. She watched the first few on her own in her cabin, but after she realized the boys were watching it too it became movie night, every night. Just no popcorn. Space jocks exploring far distant reaches of space but trapped with no way to get back home, relentlessly pursued by the nasty, alien Space Goblins and their evil cyborg army. She was beginning to warm to Captain Dirk MacGirk of the Repulse and his intrepid, mainly male crew. Though secretly she was rooting for the goblins. “So bad it’s good” vid—just as she liked it.
Wendell seemed infatuated with MacGirk, and Rox suspected the only thing preventing him from printing off a giant poster of his hero and sticking it on his cabin wall was the lack of a printer. And possibly Schulz, who thought it all as amusing as Rox did and kept teasing Wendell about it.
They sat on hard plastic chairs watching a screen projected over the canteen table. Rox was on her third beer bulb and she’d lost count of how many the others had.
“Why do the aliens in these shows always have to look just like us?” Schultz said, as the intrepid Captain found himself locked in an embrace with a sultry blue skinned beauty.
“Makes ’em more relatable,” said Rox. “And that’s where these shows go wrong. By concentrating on what we’ve got in common instead of what we don’t, we start to feel comfortable with them, and that makes them less alien.”
“Makes ’em less scary, though.”
“That’s the trade-off. Trouble is, we start thinking of aliens as guys like us, we’re not going to be properly scared of them. And we should be.”
Schultz shifted uncomfortably on his chair. “Aliens? They don’t exist.”
“Better hope not. And if they do—remember, they’re not blue faced girls from Idaho.”
“Yeah, but how do you know that aliens would be hostile?” butted in Wendell.
“How do you know they wouldn’t? And how do you know they won’t kill us all by accident, or even notice us as they flood the system with hard radiation to do whatever the hell aliens that we know absolutely nothing about might do?”
“Hey,” said Wendell, “’s only a vid. Chill. Have beer.”
Rox took the bulb and sat back down, tried to “chill,” but couldn’t. The conversation had brought up…memories, memories she had been trying to forget. Memories that she was afraid she was rushing back into. She took a swig and let the soothing liquid work its magic powers on her mood.
When she’d signed up to Jackson’s deal, she’d known it would be something dangerous and controversial, because if it was anything less suicidal, she’d have sent a normal, currently on-payroll ops team to deal with it. Rox was starting to believe that it had to be connected with Io, with things only she knew and lived through. With a threat only she truly believed in.
Triton Station was little more than a couple of crates loosely tied together in a slow, lazy orbit around Neptune’s largest moon. In its defense, the crates were almost warehouse sized, divided up to house almost three hundred people, and with external docking space for seven ships the size of the Enchantress. No spin-grav, though, which was a major drawback after eight weeks in free fall. Still, Rox didn’t expect to be there long. Just long enough to find a ship heading in her direction.
She slung her bag onto her overpriced bunk and briefly considered floating over to join it. Doing nothing much for eight weeks had been tiring, but Jackson had sufficiently spooked her to know she didn’t have time to waste. So she headed for the noisiest of Triton Station’s two bars to see if she could make the right sort of friends. She’d hoped Puk would have the connections she needed, but Puk was Puk and was no help to anyone. Wendell and Schultz, though, proved to be handily well connected.
The bar was suspended in the middle of a cargo area, held together with scaffolding poles and planks. It formed a rough sphere, with the bar itself in the middle, connected at six points by spokes, each interconnected with scaffolding creating a lattice structure, with customers hanging on at various angles. Rox shuddered, trying to imagine what it would be like to be drunk in that bar and watching people drinking upside down over your head. But she had no intention of getting drunk. At least not until she got what she really needed.
“Hey, Rox,” called Schultz, beckoning her over. “Meet a friend of ours.”
“Jak,” said the man, holding out his hand and grinning. She was still floating without anchor, so taking his hand would be a very bad idea, which told her Jak was new to space. But he was also the captain of a prospecting and exploration skiff, apparently. She waved instead of shaking and grabbed hold of a scaffolding pole. “So, Jak, what’s a handsome boy like you doing all the way out here?”
Schultz and Wendell exchanged glances and rolled their eyes at the line that could have come straight from the mouth of Dirk MacGirk, but Jak just smiled. They exchanged small talk. Bought a few beers. Flirted. And after she thought he was sufficiently drunk, she pressed her luck.
“Not many ship’s captains your age—not even bright, good looking ones like you. You serve in the Academy?”
He shook his head, looked embarrassed. “Wasn’t for me.”
Which Rox took as meaning he’d tried to get in and failed. “Daddy rich, then?”
He looked sheepish. “Mom, actually. I’m getting acquainted with the family business.”
“What’s your surname, Jak?”
“Actually, Jak is my surname. Short for Jackson.”
Rox remembered then: Fenella Jackson had a son. Podgy, always sniveling and hardly equipped for life in the Outer Planets. Maybe she’d sent him to find himself, or maybe she couldn’t bear to see his ugly face any more. But it did explain why she’d sent Rox to Triton, knowing full well Rox would know what to do next. It was as if she had a ship ready and waiting for her without anyone, other than Fenella Jackson, knowing.
Half an hour later they’d established that Jak had been waiting for her, and virtually threw his ship at her, momma’s orders. The Morning Glory was a battered wreck, long overdue for an expensive refit. But it was spaceworthy. And that would do.
She thought about recruiting Schultz and Wendell to crew it, but they were looking forward to heading back to Osiris Station and they hardly seemed equipped for what she suspected was to come. No, there was only one other person she wanted from the Enchantress.
She tracked her down in the other bar, slouched over an upturned barrel welded to the floor—or ceiling. She counted ten crushed bulbs: more than enough for catatonia. No sign of Puk, which reinforced her suspicions that all was not well with their somewhat unusual relationship. She ordered strong coffee and lifted Annie’s head.
“Thought I told you to piss off,” said Annie, surprisingly sober.
“That was weeks ago,” said Rox. “I thought you might have come round to my charms by now.”
Annie looked unconvinced. “What do you want?”
Rox sighed. “The ship I’m crewing out on needs someone who knows what to do if things go wrong. You understand?”
“Because you’re more than qualified and I’m pretty sure you’re not looking forward to spending another eight weeks in the Enchantress with our fat Captain.”
Annie grunted, then leaned forward. “Knew there was something not quite right about you. Seen you before, I remember now. On the vids. You’re supposed to be dead.”
“I have no idea what you mean.”
“Rumor is you were a trouble magnet. Still are, probably.”
“So when do we ship out?”
Jak insisted on coming along, though Rox doubted Mom would be happy. Still, he was harmless enough. He put up a token protest when she insisted on taking the pilot’s chair, but since his regular pilot had quit, along with everyone else, he had little choice and Rox could see in his eyes he was just going through the motions. Like the Enchantress, the Glory was mainly automated, but it was old and cranky: they’d all be working hard to keep it running smoothly and she cursed his inability to keep hold of a regular crew.
Glory was a converted cargo carrier—all ugly contours, large storage bays and oversized engines. She wasn’t built for speed or maneuvrability, but she had the power she needed to do the job—just not the job Rox needed her to do. Still, she doubted the ship would attract much attention since nobody sane would expect anyone to use it on any sort of clandestine stealth mission, so in a perverse way that made it perfect.
Glory’s usual job was rock-chucking for the Osiris Project, nudging balls of ice and iron in-system so that they could coalesce into some super-asteroid in the Goldilocks Zone which would end up being terraformed into some sort of New Earth. It all smacked of hubris to Rox, mad people with mad dreams, too much money and too much spare time, but at least it provided a handy excuse for Rox to get back out to the Belt.
The main cabin smelled of overripe fruit and rotten cabbage, which suggested either the food replicator or the waste disposal were screwed; probably both. And that Jak was too lazy or incompetent to get it fixed. Maybe he just didn’t care. Rox wrinkled her nose but knew she was going to have to get used to it, because she was sure as hell not going to clean up after him. There were empty cups and crumbs everywhere and if she’d had the time, she’d have insisted Jak go back to the Station and buy himself a cleaning bot. She suspected he’d got to the stage that he didn’t even notice the filth and the stench—and no doubt that was high among the reasons why he had problems keeping a crew.
The object was almost as close as a Lagrange point Trojan could be to Triton Station, but that still meant days of boredom. Rox spent most of it learning Spanish, listening to obscure grunge bands and avoiding her crewmates. When they did eventually reach the object, the sense of anti-climax was palpable. Dark, elongated and anonymous, like thousands of objects in the region, and Rox was sure it would have remained undiscovered if Jak hadn’t spotted it on his last trip. It had been unusual enough for him to send data in-system back to Jackson—too light, for one thing, with unexplained gravity and a stubborn resistance to his attempts to nudge it Sunwards. It was the same nondescript hunk of rock Rox had last seen round Io, she was sure of it.
She kept a respectable distance on approach and transferred to something smaller and more manoeuvrable—the ‘hopper’, which doubled as an asteroid lander, ship to ship shuttle and escape pod. It was light, thinly shielded and pig-ugly with its squat nose and jagged, misaligned protrusions, but it was nimbler than the Glory and, frankly, after weeks in one tin box anything, even the hopper, was a welcome relief to Rox.
They left Jak on the Glory. Now it was just Rox and Annie in the hopper, heading towards an asteroid that really shouldn’t have been there at all. They aligned their position a thousand meters out, where Rox could see the asteroid clearly without sensor enhancements. It was irregular, as were most of the small outer-system objects, and looked like a giant double headed monkey nut. She knew without checking the readings that it was about fifty kilometers long and twenty wide—big, but not enough to stand out—and that it was probably hollow. She switched her suit cam on—she needed hard evidence this time.
Her thoughts kept drifting back to Io. That had been a complete disaster. Rox had been working for EarthCorp’s military then and Jackson had been her mission commander. Rox and her team had been sent in to bang a few heads in a local squabble about mineral rights. The Lopez cartel had all the licences they needed and state backing from the South Americans, but Io wasn’t all that interesting, precious metals wise. The cartel was using it as a jumping off point for the rest of the system, which is what annoyed the Russians, the Europeans, the Americans and everybody else with even a passing interest in grabbing a piece of space for themselves, even though, technically, they were all friends together in EarthGov. Things had been fine until an American Firebird rocket touched down right next to Lopez’s crew hangers, causing massive structural damage to the nearest and leaving a permanent scorch mark reminder of their clumsy entrance on the others.
So the military sent a gunship, which hovered in orbit while Rox and her small team took a shuttle to the surface. The Americans were lucky the hangar had been empty when they landed, otherwise Rox had no doubt she’d be looking at a bunch of shot to death corpses rather than wary adversaries. It was still touch and go, though. She had a team of four: all muscle, all there to back her up. They stood behind her as she sat at the Lopez’s canteen table, trying to avoid having to drink Jimmy Lopez’s foul smelling homemade tequila. The Americans had armed backup too, all getting finger-twitchy—a three-way standoff. The Firebird crew started out thinking she’d be sympathetic, given that she’d not lost her deep south accent, but if Rox was going to play favorites, it would be with Jimmy with his unkempt hair and hand-me-down threads, and not with the white-toothed Americans in their shop-shiny freshly pressed intimidation suits. Despite the obvious tensions in the room, things were going as well as they might have. Nobody had died yet and Jimmy seemed like a nice guy. He knew his negotiating position was shot: that’s what an orbital gunship will do. So this was a face-saver for him. Rox was sympathetic, not that Jimmy would have noticed. Small outfits like Jimmy’s always got screwed when the politicos took an interest—and no way they were going to let anyone they couldn’t control gain leverage over any lucrative piece of outer planet turf. The irony was, give it five years and EarthGov would be begging the likes of Jimmy to set up operations—firmly under their control.
While she got on with her mission, strange things were happening in space. There was something unusual about Io, or rather the space around it. Io had a moon of its own. Or rather, a captured bit of rock maybe fifty k long and half that wide. Not that improbable, because the Jovian system is full of bits of rock, but not usual either. This object, which never even merited a name, just a string of numbers, circled close and was light—very light by asteroid standards. It must have been recently captured, Rox thought when she first saw it, because anything captured in orbit round a moon, particularly a moon of something as big as Jupiter, would be pulled every which way by the gravity of all the other bodies in the vicinity and have its orbit destabilized pretty quickly.
So the gunship investigated. And because this was the marines, and not sensible people, they did what they do best: fired a missile at it, just to see what might happen. Seconds later, if she’d been paying attention, Rox would have noticed her comms link to the gunship abruptly terminated. But she was too busy persuading the miners to be nice to each other to notice that, or the things sloughing off the object and descending towards the surface.
The lead American—a particularly odious man called Palmer—was attempting, unsuccessfully, to appeal to Rox’s better nature. Then the lights went out.
Everyone’s guns seemed to go off simultaneously, but by that time Rox was under the table, keeping out of the way. Then the emergency lighting kicked in, and Rox sneaked a look around. Palmer was dead, with an ugly hole in his neck. Jimmy Lopez was somehow still moving, though his groaning suggested he’d taken some damage. The bodies of his men lay behind him. Only one of Rox’s men had made it: a spindly veteran called Bannerman. He and the last standing American eyed each other warily through the sighting lenses of their pulse rifles.
Rox checked Jimmy was okay—a chunk of meat out of his left arm but otherwise fine—then tried to make sense of what was going on. She talked Bannerman and the American down and cursed her stupidity in allowing everyone to keep their weapons in the negotiation.
The ground rumbled.
The American was just a kid. A hulking, weightlifter sized kid, but just scared under all the muscle and bluster. He did what she told him. The others, too. Lopez fell in line when he couldn’t get hold of any of his other people on the com. There’d been fifteen on the base. Now when he called them all he got was static. Rox had tried the gunship: nothing there either. So either comms were down, or…
They suited up. The kid had to be talked into giving up his weapon, but Jimmy just shrugged and handed his over. Whatever beef he had with the Americans would have to wait: survival came first.
It didn’t take long to find the first bodies. Two of them, face down, looking almost spectral in the light from their suit’s headlamps. Scorch marks on their backs: they’d been running for the hangar.
A flash to the right and a building exploded. Then another to the left, flames spewing through Io’s blood-red sky. And through the murk came figures. Dark, menacing and impossibly tall, moving relentlessly towards her.
Io’s thin atmosphere was mainly sulfur dioxide from the excessive volcanic activity peppering the moon, at least during daylight hours. At night the air itself froze in chunks, dropping like ruby hail. She admired the likes of Jimmy: you’d have to be insane to work in this environment. Insane, or doggedly determined. Rox couldn’t tell whether it was the sulfur or something else, but the shapes coming towards her seemed to be shimmering, their shapes indistinct, their edges blurry.
The American shouted something and the response was deadly and immediate. A beam, unlike anything she’d ever seen, sliced him through the middle. Bannerman was first to react, firing repeat pulses at the lead figure. Sparks bounced against it, dissipating amidst the overall shimmer. She couldn’t even make out how many limbs the things had, or whether they were human. Energy beams targeted Bannerman, and he exploded.
She looked at Jimmy, and without another word, they ran. She looked back, only once, to see the base in flames and the American’s firebird lying crushed on its side.
Jimmy led her to the head of the mine. It was hard running in their suits, because no matter how many times she ran in low g, Rox could never get used to it. They were hardly covering their tracks either, spewing up clouds of dust with every frantic step. When they got to the mine, Jimmy practically threw her in, then stood at the entrance, looking back at the settlement. Whatever it was that had destroyed the base was coming towards them. Jimmy shouted something in Spanish, then he was gone.
She waited until it was clear he wasn’t coming back, then headed deep into the mine. Later she’d conclude he’d drawn the shimmering shapes away to give her a chance to survive. Or maybe he’d gone back for his people. Either way, she never saw him again.
Jackson’s cleanup crew found her holed up in a lifepod at the foot of the mineshaft with three hours of breathable air left. Only Jackson debriefed her so only Jackson knew what had happened, not that Rox had much of a clue, except that it was fast, decisive and scarcely human. And then Jackson made her disappear.
Afterwards, the newsfeeds blamed everything on an unfortunately timed volcanic eruption. There was no mention of the gunship, but then the gunship, now lost, was never officially there. Madness, of course, to contemplate working in the most volatile place in the solar system, not surprising it all ended in tears.
Rox often wondered about that, about keeping what she’d seen private. Maybe Jackson had reported, up the line, and been told not to panic anyone, that one incident on Io (even if they could believe it on the flimsy eyewitness evidence of one traumatized Marine) did not mean that the Earth was under threat. And for a time, Rox persuaded herself that maybe they were right—certainly in the seven long years that followed, nothing else happened, save that the object round Io was gradually yanked loose by Jupiter’s superior gravity and began orbiting the planet itself—until it disappeared, presumably sucked into the massive gas giant. Nobody was tracking it closely enough to be sure.
Then something just like it showed up on a routine sweep of objects—Trojans—trapped in one of Neptune’s Lagrange points—a cluster of rocks no doubt running loose from the Kuiper belt and trapped at one of the points where the pull of the Sun and the weaker but closer pull of Neptune canceled each other out, leaving a gravitational dead zone and a massive rocky junk pile. Coincidence? Rox was too old and cynical to believe in coincidences.
“What’s our move?” said Annie.
“Full scan first. Then we move in. Cautiously.”
Rox edged them closer. The scan quickly confirmed the dimensions and mapped the object against the one that orbited Io—identical twins. Or the same object. They stopped at 100 meters—close enough to tether up. Suited and armed, they squeezed through the hopper’s tiny airlock and went in.
Annie went first. “One small step,” she said as her boots touched rock.
“Always wanted to say that. Never had the chance before.”
Rox had expected a dust cloud from Annie’s feet, but the rock stayed smooth and even. Odd. Even odder was the gravity. There should be some—enough mass for a feeble pull at least—but this was much stronger than she expected. She hadn’t thought to check the gravity readings when she could—why should she, when she wasn’t expecting much?—and her in-suit system was too crude to give her anything, but it felt more like the moon’s pull than a pebble.
Nothing would surprise her about this rock.
“What are we looking for?” Annie said as Rox joined her on the surface.
Rox contemplated staying vague but decided Annie deserved more—especially as she was in much more danger than she could possibly imagine. “The reason all those people died on Io,” she said. “And why this damned rock has reappeared.”
“Stop being so damned cryptic.”
So Rox told her. About the object over Io. About the things that slowly descended from its underbelly, slithered towards them and unleashed something that fried the brains of almost everyone on the surface whilst simultaneously triggering an EM pulse that stretched to orbit, killing everything it touched. Only Rox survived, and she had no idea how.
“Now we need to find a way in and find out what we’re up against.”
Annie said nothing, just turned and started walking. The ship’s scans suggested a fissure lay to their left. Fifty meters later, they found it. Annie attached a tether and they drifted down, faster than Rox would have liked because of the unexpected gravity, but safe enough. The fissure was long and thin, and Rox wondered if it would stay wide enough as they descended, but she needn’t have worried. After seventy-five meters or so, they landed at the bottom in a small chamber onto a flat and even surface.
“Wasn’t expecting this,” said Annie.
“Too flat to be natural? Check the floor.”
They found the hatch a few meters away, though it wasn’t obvious how to get it open. Rox should have turned back at that point—she’d done what she needed to, confirmed that the object wasn’t natural and was probably the same one that she’d seen on Io—better to report back and let a fully equipped team take it from there.
But Annie was already poking around, looking for a way to open the hatch. And she was curious…
Annie pushed something at the edge of the hatch and it slid back into the rock. She didn’t even bother to glance at Rox before heading in. Decision made. Rox hesitated, then followed.
The shaft was steep but by no means vertical—in the weak gravity Rox had no difficulty following it down. She was sure the pull was getting stronger though—counterintuitive for spin gravity, but then, this rock wasn’t spinning. Dull light seemed to throb from the walls, confirming that someone—or something—had made this.
They emerged in a large semi-circular cavern—flat floor, even walls—with an indistinct object, right in the middle. She couldn’t make out its shape, because the harder she looked, the more indistinct its contours became as though it was flicking through a variety of forms, unable to decide—or reveal—its true appearance. Disconcertingly, it shimmered. Annie took a step forward, then another, and the shimmering intensified, bright reds and greens whirling frantically. Then something emerged from the frenzy—solid, yet formless. It undulated slowly, hovering over the ground, smooth and indistinct, moving towards them. Annie, ahead, stepped back, but the object was gathering speed. Inexorably, it hit, then swept over her, wrapping itself around her body and stretching down so that she was completely enveloped.
Rox stifled a scream and fumbled for her weapon, even though deep down she knew firing it would risk Annie. The thing wasn’t moving now and for a few seconds all was serene, as though Annie had never been there. She risked edging back to the shaft, back to safety.
She almost made it. Then it was on her, and the world went white.
She woke, still in her suit, floating in space. She shook off her dizziness and checked her telemetry, but the system was down. She had no idea where she was or how much air she had. She concentrated on breathing. Still her breathing. Let the throb in her head die down. Comms were out: no way to even tell anyone what she’d found.
She was barely conscious when rough hands pulled her onto firm ground and unclasped her helmet. She sucked thick gulps of ship air, then looked up to see Jak staring down.
“You had me worried,” he said. “Where…?”
“I have no fucking idea. How did you find me?”
“Those suits are fitted with a location finder. You know, just in case you drop out of contact for three days then I find your shuttle empty.”
“Three days? But I only had eighteen hours of air.” She eased on to her elbows, but her head thought better of it and she slumped down, exhausted.
She spent most of the rest of the trip in the medi-bay. Jak didn’t ask too many questions aside from establishing the basics and chose to believe her story about a spacewalk gone wrong. That didn’t explain why eighteen hours of air could stretch to three days, though. And that didn’t explain Annie. She must have reappeared beyond the range of her location finder, thought Rox. Or maybe not at all. Jak spent another week searching for her before they turned back.
It was a long time before she saw Annie again.
She debriefed over encrypted com, trying not to get irritated by the time delay. Jackson wasn’t in the mood to let her talk much anyway, after she’d delivered her report. Jackson seemed angry, as if Rox had failed in a suicide mission. And she was less than pleased when Rox told her that her suit cam stopped working as soon as they dropped into the fissure.
“But I confirmed the object is almost certainly the one over Io—or its twin. And that it has to be alien.”
“You sure about that?”
“We’re hundreds of years from that tech.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“I’ll believe it when you bring back some alien tech. Preferably something I can use.”
Rox contemplated Jackson’s choice of words. She already had enough evidence to persuade EarthGov to take an interest, but Jackson seemed indifferent to the threat the aliens might pose. No, she was after something else.
“You know what that means, Weaver?”
Rox swallowed hard. The object had killed fifty-seven people on Io, and when she’d poked it, had spat Annie out to almost certain death. Now she had to poke it again. With a sharper stick.
She wanted to pull out, tell Jackson to go screw herself and damn the consequences, but she knew she couldn’t do that. Annie gave her an obligation. She had to find her, had to be sure. She thought about going to the authorities and spilling all. But they wouldn’t believe her at first, and by the time they did, if they did, any chance of finding Annie would be long gone.
Rox nodded. “Back for more?”
Jak insisted they return to Triton Station first, partly to beef up the Glory’s systems and defenses now they had a clearer idea of the weirdness awaiting them and partly to find new crewmembers. They’d been light going out with three, but now Annie was gone they had no margin for error in case something else happened.
She half expected to find Wendell and Schultz leaning against each other in the bar: drunk people are the easiest recruits, she thought, but Puk had already headed back in-system. Jak tried everyone he knew, but the station was light: Puk had scooped up the remaining jobless no-goods. They were short of options, sensible ones at least.
She nursed a bulb with Jak in the bar and looked enviously at the Marines, the famous Greenshirts, laughing and joking and like the professionals they were, sipping half bulbs on their no doubt very short R&R. Clean cut, broad-shouldered, well-trained, elite EarthGov troops riding point on the deep space mission that would, apparently, “transform the way humanity views the universe.”
“They’re what we need, Jak. People with firepower. If that rock is crammed with hostile aliens and advanced tech—and despite what your mother says, that’s what my money’s on—then what the hell are we doing sending out a washed up ex-marine and a green, barely trained shuttle captain who got his gig because of who he knows rather than what he knows? No offence.”
He shrugged and gestured over for more drinks. Service drones floated them over in seconds. “None taken. I’m realistic enough to know that without Mom, the highest I could hope for at this stage would be scrubbing floors on an earth-moon freighter.”
“If you were lucky. But you’ve got potential, Jak.”
“You’re just saying that ’cause I’m buying the beers.”
She clunked bulbs, “Maybe. But I suspect you’re going to get plenty of chances to prove your suitability for the job when we head back out.”
“You’re right about the marines. We need them. Or something like them.”
“Mom going to let up on her ‘don’t mention the aliens’ embargo?”
“What, and risk system-wide panic and total chaos? That would torpedo the Osiris project. Kill it stone dead. Mom’s a fixer. Nothing to see here—move along.”
“So why send us out here in the first place?”
“Apart from our below the radar dispensability?”
“Not feelin’ the mother-son love here.”
He laughed. “You’ve met her, right? We’re here to double check these aliens—if that’s what they are—aren’t going to cause any glitches for the project.”
Rox had always had her doubts about “the project,” even though she’d happily hauled cargo to help make it happen. They needed haulers to bring cargo to and from the station and had money to pay, and, since Jackson’s betrayal after Io, Rox needed a way to make some money where they wouldn’t look too closely at her papers. So she kept her mouth shut.
But sensible voices on Earth didn’t. They were more than willing to point out the potential hazards of constructing a planet-sized mass on the opposite side of the sun in the same orbit as Earth. Unless their orbital speeds exactly aligned… She didn’t want to think about it.
So public opinion was on a knife’s edge. It would only take something like, for instance, the suspicion that there were hostile aliens out there to scupper the whole thing—after all, no one would want to fund a planet-wide vanity project when Earth—the real one—was under the threat of attack.
“If they were going to cause any real problems, why didn’t they do it after Io?” she asked.
“Maybe they’ve been gathering their strength. That’s what Mom says. ‘Check that the sneaky bastards aren’t up to something,’ was how she put it. Plus, I think she wants us to steal some alien tech.”
More like it, thought Rox. Made more sense that Jackson was working an angle. The Military should have been all over this operation—if they even knew about the object. She’d always suspected Jackson had downplayed the weirdness of the Io incident to her superiors—now she was sure. They’d have panicked, no doubt, and that would have led to irrational and unprofitable consequences. And, more to the point, cut Jackson out of the loop. Rox shivered. Jackson had been lucky: the object had disappeared rather than repeat its Io trick somewhere more inhabited. But it had been a warning, she had no doubt. A warning Jackson had deliberately buried. Now the object was back and Rox was once again taking all the risks for Jackson. But obligation had its limits. “Like that’s going to happen. We observe from a distance with those fancy new sensors of yours. I’m not setting foot on it again.”
“You’ll find no argument from me. Last time you had about five minutes before you ran out of air, and don’t forget, Annie wasn’t so lucky.”
“I still think we should tell the Marines. Or at least kidnap one.”
She’d meant it as a joke but as the evening wore on, beer blunted her inhibitions and she waved goodnight to Jak and sidled over to the men at the bar. One by one they drifted away, leaving only one, a full two meters of muscle as solid as a freight train.
He was still unconscious in her cabin when they blasted off at six sharp the following morning. When she told Jak about it, he wasn’t happy.
“You kidnapped a marine? Are you insane?”
“We need him.”
“We need to keep a low profile, too. Or weren’t you listening to my mother?”
“She wants us to keep a low profile. I want to know what’s going on.” Plus, she thought, it wouldn’t hurt to have a gunship or two turn up, just in case things got out of hand with the asteroid. Downside was that they’d see for themselves what was going on, which would blow Jackson’s keep-it-to-ourselves subterfuge. But this was potentially first contact and that should be a big thing. And if the Greenshirts discovered the aliens, surely Jackson couldn’t blame Rox for spilling the secret? She knew that was a little naïve but she was past caring—plus she really needed backup.
“You know they’ll arrest us both for this. Lock us up and throw away the key.”
“Only if we don’t find anything. Discover honest to god aliens and we’ll be heroes. Nobody will care about kidnapping Clyde.”
“Lieutenant Clyde, to be precise. He’s an asset, Jak. We need him.”
“We’re under instructions not to discover anything, publicly at least. How are you going to silence him and save our asses?”
She sighed. “One problem at a time. For now, we have to make sure we’re far away from Triton Station before his commander realizes he’s missing.”
“And before he wakes up and demands we turn back.”
“Too late for that,” said a voice from the doorway. Clyde didn’t look happy. “But I am going to insist you turn back. Now.”
Jak started to press buttons.
“Hold on now,” said Rox, placing her hand over Jak’s to stop him. “Maybe we should discuss this.”
Clyde moved closer. “Nothing to discuss.”
“You going to press charges?”
“What do you think?”
“I think we both had way too much to drink and fell into an alcoholic stupor. So drunk that we didn’t notice Jak here had left the station. Turns out he assumed it was just me in the bed and he thought he’d leave me to my beauty sleep.”
“Is that what happened?”
“It could be.”
He moved to within a couple of inches of Rox’s face, the veins in his temple throbbing alarmingly with barely concealed rage. “Turn. Now.”
She smiled and stood her ground. “Not going to happen.”
“Or I start to break things.”
Up that close his breath was nauseating, but her smile didn’t fade. “That’s not going to happen either.” She grabbed him by the wrist and twisted.
“Ow,” he said as she released, clutching his wrist in pain and giving her the chance to edge away. “Where’d you learn to do that?” He pushed forward again, trying to intimidate her with his bulk.
He gave her just enough room for her to swing her head back, then butt him on the nose.
He staggered back, clutching his face. “You broke it!”
“Don’t be such a baby. Never did introduce myself properly yesterday, did I? My full name’s Roxanne Weaver.”
“The Roxanne Weaver?” He continued rubbing his nose. Rox was disappointed: it clearly wasn’t broken because she’d have heard the crack. The marines she knew were all super-tough hard-asses and she’d been counting on Clyde to be the same. Had she overestimated him?
“So you’ll know I’ve got a reputation to uphold. And some points to prove.”
“They’re going to Court Martial me.”
She rolled her eyes. She’d been hoping for more fight. But, marine or no marine, he’d allowed himself to be compromised, so she clearly wasn’t dealing with the pick of the litter. It didn’t really matter, she told herself. The prize was the gunships they’d send after her to get him back.
“Yeah, probably. Whatever happens next, you’ve already screwed up. So you might as well go back a hero, right?”
Clyde shot a look that curdled Rox’s stomach. But he relaxed slightly and pulled away. “You’re out of your mind. You know that?”
“So I’ve been told.”
Rox grinned at Jak, who rolled his eyes and looked away. Clyde strapped in, still muttering.
By the time they reached the object, Clyde appeared to have forgotten he was there under duress. But Rox wasn’t fooled. Jak had already spotted the Military’s distinct drive signatures, heading out of Triton Station, just hours after she’d “accidentally” forgotten to lock down the comms console when she went for coffee. They had faster ships, but she had a head start: plenty of time for what she needed to do.
It sat there as serene as ever, leaving Rox to wonder what the fuss was all about.
“Plan?” said Clyde.
“Obviously we have to go in the thing.”
“Didn’t work too well last time, from what you said.”
“Yeah, but this time we’ll be more careful.”
“Better equipped. Better armed. More cautious.”
They entered via a different shaft than their previous visit, but Rox didn’t breathe out until she was sure her suitcam was working, courtesy of the upgraded tech she’d insisted Jak buy. Military grade shielding hadn’t been cheap, but she wouldn’t have gone back without it.
“You getting this, Jak?”
“Yes. Be careful.”
Clyde had insisted on going ahead, though Rox figured it was probably more out of arrogance and stupidity rather than chivalry. She had contemplated overruling him, but what’s the use of bringing the Marines and not deploying them?
The top of the shaft was rocky, but flecked with something she couldn’t identify, giving off a faint glow. She chipped the rock away from a pebble sized chunk, looked at it curiously as it gave off a dull yellow pulse, stuck it in her pocket and forgot about it. Jak stopped at the bottom of the shaft and she eased down behind him. They stood in silence, looking on. An open doorway drew them forward, opening up into a large room, ceilinged with rock but with smooth floors and walls. Their flashlight beams barely hit the roof, but it was clear that this chamber was different: smaller than the one she’d seen before, and packed with machinery. Rox looked around for the shimmering shape she remembered, but they had the place to themselves.
Cautiously, they moved into the chamber. She couldn’t work out what the machinery was for, or how it worked. Pipes, huge metal blocks, dead consoles, sealed caskets, all casting baleful shadows from their suit lamps. It seemed to be inert, but what did she know? Maybe it just worked quietly. A layer of dust covered everything and coated the floor: clearly nothing had disturbed these machines for some time.
But machines they clearly were. Proof, if she still needed any, that the object wasn’t just another asteroid.
“Seen enough?” said Clyde.
“Seen anything we can pick up and take back with us?”
They poked around every inch of the chamber, but nothing looked as though it could be broken loose. She couldn’t identify the material the machines were constructed of, but it was strong enough to resist her clumsy attempts.
They reached the end of the chamber and entered a long, low corridor. Clyde had to stoop to get through it, and even Rox only cleared the roof by a centimeter or so.
That’s when they saw the shimmering object, just like before, blocking the exit from the corridor. It made no effort to approach.
When she’d talked it through with Jak, they’d concluded the shimmering objects acted like antibodies, latching on to infection. She’d expected to see some as soon as they’d entered the first chamber, but maybe they only showed an interest if something got too close to the important parts of the object.
Then Clyde’s headlamp gave out.
She tried to still her breathing. He was a couple of meters ahead of her, shining bright in her own headlamp, with darkness behind him.
Then her own lamp went dead, plunging her first into blackness, but gradually as her eyes adjusted, leaving Clyde silhouetted by a faint shimmer from the object in the next chamber.
“Your weapon still work, Clyde?”
He put it to his ear, listening for the active charge.
“Uhuh,” he said, but his voice was faint and crackly.
“Then I suggest you use it before we lose more than the headlamps.”
It was a wide energy sweep, designed to disrupt anything in its path on multiple levels. Rox fell to her knees as if punched in the stomach. She should have been completely protected from the weapon’s effects since she was behind Clyde, but a wave of nausea filled her stomach, accompanied by a stabbing behind her temples.
But the shimmering object had gone.
Gradually, her helmet light flicked on and they stepped into the chamber.
They were in a large, square room with nothing to distinguish ceiling, floor and walls except the inexplicable Mars-grade gravity. There was no sign of the shimmering entity.
Behind them, a door silently slid across the entrance to the corridor, embedding itself so thoroughly in the room’s surface that Rox couldn’t see where the walls ended and the door began. There were no other exits. They were trapped in a cube of less than 100 cubic meters with no illumination save for the headlamps whose batteries, she thought wistfully, would long outlast the air supply in their suits.
“Shit! Jak?” Rox held her breath waiting for Jak to respond, then breathed out sharply when it was clear he wasn’t going to.
“We’re cut off.”
“But we’re still alive,” said Clyde.
Rox wondered how much longer that would last. They stood in near silence, waiting for something to happen. When it didn’t they slumped, as one, down one of the featureless walls.
Five hours later, a door opened. In came Annie. She wasn’t wearing a suit.
Rox had been aware that pressure and atmosphere had been building in the room, but she hadn’t trusted it enough to take her helmet off. Now she did, though Clyde, watching warily, kept his on, giving her a stare that suggested that once again she was doing something stupid. The door behind Annie closed, leaving a featureless blank wall. Rox started forward, but stopped when she saw the blank look on Annie’s face. “Annie?”
But it wasn’t Annie. She could see that straight away.
“There is nothing for you here,” said Annie’s body. “Turn away.”
“What have you done to Annie?”
“Turn away. Forget us.”
Rox could feel her temper rising. She’d grown to like Annie. She’d warmed to the sarcasm, the insults and the taciturn bloody-mindedness. And now? She felt they were mocking her. “Why should I do that?”
“Because you have seen what we can do.”
“About that. Why don’t you just kill us.”
“Rox…” Clyde put his gloved hand on her arm. She brushed it aside.
“That’s not our way.” Not-Annie spoke calmly and emotionlessly.
“You did before, on Io.”
“Then, we had no choice. Now we do.”
“What do you want?”
“Turn away. Forget us.”
“What are you going to do? Eject us into space like you did the last time?”
And with that, the headlamps finally gave out. Rox could hear Clyde shifting position, ready to fire off another energy pulse.
“No! Annie’s still in the room!” cried Rox.
“Don’t you get it? Annie’s dead!”
Clyde never got a chance to fire. Rox gasped, sucking desperately as the pressure in the room diminished. She jammed her helmet back on, furiously tightening the seals. Then the darkness gave way to a dull shimmering light, before the room exploded in brightness.
“Making a habit of this,” said Jak as he hauled her in.
She pulled her helmet off and coughed, breathing deeply from the fetid ship air. “Clyde?”
“On his bunk, recovering. He’s as argumentative as ever; tried to get me to head straight back, but I insisted on looking for you first. But I swear if he could have piloted this thing we’d be halfway back to Triton Station by now.”
“About an hour behind us. I’ve been ignoring their hails and maintaining the comms are broken so Clyde couldn’t talk to them.”
“He bought that?”
“The Comms are broken, at least for outgoing, thanks to whatever that object is and what it swept us with after you went in. Nothing I couldn’t fix, though, if I had a mind to.”
“There’s something else, too.”
“Better if I show you.”
He led her through the cramped corridor to the sleeping bunks, separate cubicles barely larger than coffins against the hull of the ship itself with only curtains for privacy. Clyde was fast asleep in the first bottom bunk she came across.
In the bunk above, Annie lay on her back, staring at the ceiling.
She turned and raised herself on her elbows, giving her familiar Annie scowl.
“Can’t get rid of me that easily.”
Rox caught a sob. Annie even let her hug her. Eventually. Briefly.
They headed to the galley for coffee, Clyde reluctantly rousing himself from his slumber. It came, hot, black and steaming, tasting faintly of engine oil.
Annie remembered very little of her extended stay on the object. There’d been bright lights and strange alien shapes which she found hard to describe. Bipeds, though smaller than humans, but their features were blurred, shimmering, as if out of phase. They’d used robots to pin her down and she was aware of something pricking her skin when she passed out.
The next thing she remembered was waking up in space with three hours of air left and her emergency transponder bleeping. Half an hour later, she was on the ship.
“Were they studying you?” said Rox.
“Maybe. Doesn’t explain why they let me go.”
“They—you—said they didn’t want to hurt us.”
“They’re checking us out,” said Clyde. “Standard reconnaissance.”
“What about Io? That didn’t feel like we were just being ‘checked out’?” Rox shook her head vigorously.
Annie coughed and began slowly. “About that. It surprised them, the gunship. It performed some sort of sensor sweep and then opened fire. Not enough to cause any real damage, but enough to provoke an instant response. If they hadn’t taken out the gunship, there was an immediate danger to the ship itself.”
“Ship?” said Jak.
“You still think it’s an asteroid? It traveled the void to see what the noisy humans are up to, at what it thought was a safe distance, until we made it as far as Io and started poking it. Can’t blame them for reacting, can you?”
Rox had never heard Annie say so much in one go. But then, what she was saying wasn’t really coming from Annie.
“And the people on the ground?”
“Still a potential threat, until they weren’t.” Annie’s stone faced reply chilled the air.
“So if three Military cruisers approached them, fangs bared…?” said Rox.
Jak checked his retina display. “Ten minutes ’til they’re in range. Ideas?”
“What did you tell them, Clyde?”
“Just that you kidnapped me. Which you did.”
“What do you think will happen if they see this rock?”
Jak bolted for the corridor. “We need to steer them clear.”
Rox was right behind him. “Fixed comms yet?”
No, was the answer. Jak threw something which Rox caught, the momentum pushing her backwards until she caught hold of some webbing. A spare circuit. “What am I supposed to do with this?”
“Give it to me,” said Annie, grabbing it off her. They spilled out into the cramped bridge and Jak started the task of turning the ship back to the approaching military vessels. Like most ships, Glory could get up plenty of speed if she was pointing in a straight line, but turns and standing starts needed a little more patience—and time that they didn’t have.
“We’ll need those comms, Annie,” said Rox, “otherwise they’ll shoot first and ask questions later.”
“It’s a rescue mission,” Clyde reminded them. “They’ll board us.”
“Not until they’ve destroyed the engines,” said Jak. “First thing they’d do when we don’t answer their hails. Might as well put bullets through our heads.”
“Well you shouldn’t have kidnapped me, then.”
“Not helpful,” snapped Rox.
“Oh shit,” said Jak. “They’re scanning.”
“So?” said Rox.
“Not us. The object.”
“Comms up!” said Annie.
“Their weapon doors are open now,” said Jak. “Clyde—what are those things equipped with?”
“You could crack that rock right open with what those are carrying.”
“They’ll never get the chance,” cried Rox. “Clyde! Stand those ships down!”
The marine talked desperately and rapidly, though at that point it wasn’t clear anyone was listening.
Then a crackle on the line. “Captain Idrissi here. Explain.”
Clyde started to talk, but Rox stopped him with an arm and on his arm and a shake of her head. “Not here,” she cut in. “We’ll come to you.”
She cut off the comms signal. “They powered their weapons down yet?”
“Looks like it,” said Jak. “The rock too.”
“The rock had powered weapons?”
“Difficult to tell, but there were some pretty strange energy readings. And a big now silo sized hole near the equator.”
“Then we need to do this quickly.”
Jak sighed and steered a course. It took half an hour to just get moving, but then he hit the engines with everything he had. But just as he should be decelerating to match their pursuer’s speed and trajectory, he accelerated instead.
As he passed them by, Rox threw Clyde out of the airlock, fully suited.“Don’t shoot them!” he yelled as he spun slowly in the airless void. Rox held her breath until she was sure they’d listened to him.
No way the military ships could turn and follow quickly. Which meant they’d got a head start. “Besides,” said Rox, “they’re going to want to check that rock out.”
They left the Glory in a maintenance dock at Triton Station, then headed for the nearest in-system shuttle, stopping only to pick up a false ID for Annie: Jak and Rox already had plenty. By the time the Greenshirts got back to Triton, they’d be well on their way.
The first thing Rox saw when she walked out of the airlock on Osiris Station was Fenella Jackson. And she didn’t look pleased. Even the sight of her son failed to pacify her.
So there they sat, Rox and Jak, in Jackson’s plush stateroom. Annie was still on board the Glory,so she wasn’t there. Evans looked bored as he pointed his vibration pistol at the pair, as though it was exactly what he’d expected.
Rox shifted uncomfortably. Jackson should be all smiles and Evan’s pistol should be out of sight, but instead the air was crackling with tension and she felt like a naughty schoolgirl caught setting fire to the bike sheds. “I did what you wanted. You’ve seen my reports and the pictures Jak sent back. So, can I have my life back now?”
“You brought nothing back.”
“You’ve got video.”
“All that tells me are things I already know.”
Rox could see the veins on Jackson’s neck pulsing. “But we know they’re not a threat. We didn’t know that before.”
“You think I care about that? You were supposed to bring back some alien tech—not goad me with images of what I might have had.”
Rox had hoped she’d been wrong about her, but she reminded herself that she was Fenella Jackson. She sighed, “Wasn’t for want of trying.”
Jak nodded in agreement. “We went in twice. Everything we saw was nailed down tight. You’ve seen the vid—you know that’s the truth. We tried…”
“You’re making us go out there again?”
“You’re my son, dammit. Not her, though. She knows too much now. And, you know, I really don’t like her.” She gestured to Evans.
He raised his pistol. Rox looked at it, her panic rising. She could hear her own breathing in slow motion. Was that a look of apology on Evans’ face? Jackson was screaming at him, waving her own pistol alternately at Rox and Jak who, useless lump, sat paralysed on the sofa. Evans pulled the safety catch.
Rox closed her eyes.
A roar filled her ears. But it wasn’t from her flesh, disintegrating. It was the cabin door, blown inward. Rox opened her eyes. When the smoke cleared, Annie stood, grinning widely and cocking a pulse rifle.
Evans finally fired his vibration pistol, this time at Annie, but she was too quick for him. She rolled and fired a shot almost simultaneously. Rox cursed, because that only works in action movies and all Annie managed was to clip Evan’s leg. But it was enough to distract Jackson and slap Jak out of his stupor. Rox barreled into Jackson: Jak fell onto Evans, sending his gun clattering.
“Took your time,” said Rox.
“More fun that way,” said Annie. “Gets the adrenaline going.”
Evans clutched his leg and groaned.
“Such a child,” said Annie. “Just a stun setting.”
Jak had Evan’s gun on his mother, hands up on the sofa.
“You wouldn’t…” she said.
The look in his eyes said he would.
“Called Station security?” asked Rox.
“On their way,” said Annie.
It took some fast talking to keep Rox and her crewmates out of jail. The vibration gun was enough to put Jackson and Evans behind bars, initially, and after some suggestions from Rox the whole sorry mess about Io and the alien object came tumbling out. Once Security had cracked Jackson’s encryption software—so easily Rox wondered why she hadn’t tried it herself, years before—Jackson’s crimes shifted from illegal weaponry to potential high treason.
When Station Security finally released them, Rox and Jak cruised the docks to see if they could pick up another ride out-system. Annie had left them, perhaps for good, muttering something about tracking down her old captain and lover Puk, though it wasn’t clear whether she wanted to make up with him or break his neck.
They were broke. It would have been easy if Rox had persuaded Jackson to cough up all the compensation due to her, plus give a lengthy retraction statement exonerating her of any wrongdoing on Io, before the security team dragged her off. But Jackson had been screaming and hardly in the mood to cooperate. And although Jak was owed a lifetime of backpay, that was now highly unlikely to ever find its way to his account, given Jackson’s incarceration and stated desire to kill him, son or no son. Now, the only significant asset either of them had was the Glory, and they’d be lucky if they could afford the cost of maintenance when, and more likely if, they made it back to Triton Station.
The next time Rox saw Fenella Jackson was on a newsfeed. She and Jak were in a sports bar, one street over from the docks; close enough to stay edgy but far enough away to lure some more civilized clientele. Rox wondered what category the other punters would put her in. Jak droned on about whatever football game was silently beaming from most of the bar’s many viewscreens, but she concentrated on the ticker at the bottom of the silent newscast on the only screen not tuned into sports.
“Shut up, Jak. Nobody cares,” she said, even though she had no idea if he was still speaking or not. “That’s your ma, if I’m not mistaken. Not looking good, either.”
She asked the barman to turn the sound up and the football off, but she was stopped with a withering glance, so they peered at her handheld instead. The feed was noisy, chaotic with jostling crowds. Showing Jackson immediately after her arrest, then a cutaway to her sitting shackled in her cell, awaiting her trial. The Greenshirts had released all the data on the Io incident to the media and it was, predictably, incendiary. A gunship shot down by aliens. A mining colony destroyed. A disappearing asteroid. All covered up because Jackson didn’t want to take the blame for the shambles at Io. If they’d known that Jackson wanted alien tech for herself, Rox had no doubt they’d shoot her on the spot, even though execution was banned across the system.
And just when it couldn’t get any more world changing, there were the reports coming out from Triton, where three Military gunships were claiming First Contact and a fresh-faced Greenshirt Lieutenant called Clyde was rapidly becoming the new Neil Armstrong.
Rox settled with the barman and they headed out into the gloomy calm of the station.
“How do you feel about your ma?”
Jak shrugged. “Conflicted.”
“But at the end of the day, she’s my Ma, and that counts for more than the shitty things she’s done.”
“Like exiling you to Neptune and nearly getting us both killed countless times.”
“She was just driven, you know? And if she had found some workable alien tech…”
“…we’d probably have some working aliens looking for it.”
“But still, don’t you wonder, if just maybe we’d been able to bring something back? If only we hadn’t left that thing empty handed.”
Rox smiled and patted the pocket where a small pebble-sized object throbbed reassuringly, glowing faintly through the fabric of her trousers.
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