Time to read: about 90 minutes
94 days after arrival
She runs without sound. Bare feet absorb impact, springing her forward in the partial gravity.
She would prefer to sidle, leave the frigid air undisturbed, creating no eddies; but she needs this brief period of starlight to get from one end of the access tube to the other, to open the Echo Chamber. Only then can she crawl across the gantry, gather the data and return.
The Echo Chamber is vast and frigid. Countless receivers and instruments hang from its spherical shell, suspended at varying heights above the data core. Leighton’s creation. He spent weeks teasing the fragile, sensitive equipment into alignment, wire by atom width wire, sensor by sensor. Recalling Leighton brings no regret. His death is not on her tally.
On the gantry she crawls with deliberate, desperate speed, feeling the edges with her fingers and toes. A strip of printed data hangs from the narrow slot of the bio-diffusion printer. She tears it off with practised precision and wriggles backwards.
The research is all-important. She has removed every possible source of radiation and interference from the ship to ensure it succeeds. Noise anywhere in the spectrum has been minimised until the silver cloud of her breath is a cacophony. Blankets litter the floors to suppress vibrations in the few areas of the ship she frequents. The shapes and volumes of those decks and corridors have been rehearsed until she can travel through the impenetrable gloom on muscle memory alone.
There are no lights, no electrical signals, and no heat pumps through the veins of the ship. Only the Echo Chamber and the data core draw a miniscule thread of power. The Rumour is otherwise dead and adrift, spinning slowly in space.
Back in the access tube, she pauses to enjoy the last of the faint starlight. Time is against her, every moment she delays means more exposure to the Lethe Cluster. But light is precious despite what it shows. Her hands are pale and skeletal, her reflection is a shadow of what she once was. “I am Rose Jones,” she tells herself, knowing it is not true, knowing it is who she must be.
The access tube spills out onto Level Three. There she pauses again. A lapse in concentration here could ruin everything. She unwinds a strip of cloth from around her arm and covers her mouth and nose. She knows it to be a false reassurance, the motions remind her to steady her breathing.
She presses her eyelids shut and fills her lungs. The blood and viscera that litter the floor are easily kicked up in the low gravity, easily swallowed. She has cleared a narrow path through the carnage she wrought; a safe space of metal floor plating edged with red ice and bone-white debris, but the small chaos of her passing shivers the particles.
She moves in loping bounds, landing precisely on feet that are frozen numb, purple and blue. She relies on the grip of her bare soles to propel her down the corridor.
Something wraps itself around her ankle. Fingers of wet ice, colder than her skin. She gives a low whimpering cry, pushes away harder than she should, skewing. Her shoulder takes the impact against the wall. Her eyes snap open. A sharp, involuntary breath, cloth pulling into her mouth, sodden. Her imagination paints movement on the scattered bodies. She ducks her head and sprints. Her foot catches on a fallen rifle, sending her skidding face first through blood frost and shattered corpses.
The door at the far end has no power. She heaves against it, fingers slipping on the frozen metal, certain there are footsteps thudding in time with her heartbeat. She falls through, levering her legs to slam the door closed.
Sound jolts her body. Her whimper turns to a scream she cannot hear, deafened by the dull clang of the door, its echoes ricocheting through the floor plating. Unbidden tears squeeze from under her tight eyelids. Palms against her ears she curls into herself. When the echoes fade, there is no sound from the other side of the door.
It would be so easy to stop. To let the cold take her. Already she can feel the false warmth of impending death in her limbs. But she has come too far, risked too much to give up now. “I am Rose Jones,” she lies to herself again and again, a mantra that absorbs and disperses her hysteria. She drags herself upright and resumes her silent run in darkness.
Extra layers of clothes lie ready for her when she finally limps onto the Bridge. She strips off everything, grateful she cannot see what is soaked into the fabric. She stops in the middle of dragging dry socks over her feet. The left sole has a cut. Her fingers come away wet with her own blood. The water supplies are frozen and the wound needs to be cleaned. After a meditative moment, she reaches a point of acceptance. She wraps a shirt around her foot then swaddles herself under blankets, with a precious bottle of water tucked under her armpit to melt.
She is weary. Through hunger and dehydration she has propelled herself over an exhausting distance. She allows herself two hours of unconsciousness.
2 days before arrival
The low murmur of conversation snapped to silence as the Captain strode in. Dr. Justine Richmond risked a glance around the briefing room. All the navy officers were seated in the same pose, task pads flipped open, fingers interlaced on the surface of the oval table. She straightened in her seat; conscious she had been slouching.
“I’m making some changes to the mission playbook.” Captain Amelia Hammond stood at the head of the table, flanked by her First Officer. “New plans and procedures are on your pads now.”
Lights flickered on all the pads, but none of the crew moved to review the updates. They would wait for the briefing to end first. Justine and her team weren’t subject to the same rigid discipline.
“May I ask if that affects any of the research parameters?” she asked.
“You may, and it doesn’t.” Hammond turned her flat gaze on Justine. The younger woman gripped the underside of the table and returned the look, unwilling to be cowed. The Captain’s stony face seemed to relax a fraction, hinting at a smile, but it could just have been a trick of the low light.
“We’re shifting the target destination.” In the middle of the table, a hologram of the central systems spun into view. The broad arch of civilized space wrapped around the Lethe Cluster, an impassable barrier for travel and communications.
The curve of their route from the last jump gate was picked out in red, a dotted line showed their planned trajectory. “We have a new target location that meets mission requirements. It is approximately twenty gigametres beyond our original target zone, and at the edge of the Cluster’s psychosphere.” She put her hands on the table. “Once we pass our original target zone, there will be no communications off ship until the mission is complete.”
“Why wasn’t I consulted?” Professor Zac Leighton didn’t bother looking up.
“Mission security is a military matter, Professor. The new location meets the specifications that Dr. Richmond requested.” Hammond dropped into a seat and signalled to her lanky First Officer to continue.
A holographic projection of the ship replaced the trajectory map, the glowing image filled the length of the table. The Starship Rumour was a freighter, designed to run with a small, gritty crew and to haul standardised containers in a hollow shell. Now her cargo space was filled with unwieldy components of experimental research equipment, military hardware, and shielding against the mind-altering effects of the Cluster. Any space left was given over to additional life support systems for the enlarged complement of scientists, marines and sailors.
“We’re tapering our decel to reduce engine flare en route to the new target zone.” Justine had had little interaction with the Lieutenant Commander Form, from his monotone voice it seemed she had not missed out on much. “That leaves us in motion two days longer than planned, and all that time in the range of the Cluster. We’re going to start work on Professor Leighton’s research equipment while we are still on the move.” On the display the skin of the ship peeled away to show the interior. Rumour’s structural spine glowed red, a corridor on Level Three that ran the length of the ship, from the Bridge in the bow to Engineering in the stern.
“As of oh-two-hundred, Level Three will be sealed off. We are going to run the structural integrity tests while still in flight. Passage fore to aft will be for essential purposes only, by the outer corridors on Levels One and Five.” Form’s lips twisted into a smile displaying the first sign of any emotion. “So, no more using the main corridor as a jogging track for a couple of days. I’m pretty sure none of you have the lung capacity to get through in a vacuum, even the marines.”
Chuckles rippled through the room. There was an ongoing friendly competition between the military personnel. Justine had joined some of the junior officers on their runs, but she lacked their obsessive need to keep fit, and recently she had been avoiding them. She took a quick look around the room. A few places to her right, Rose was whispering into her neighbour’s ear. She looked up, perhaps sensing the attention. Justine jerked her eyes away, a blush rising to her neck. She hadn’t spoken with the young lieutenant since Rose had abruptly lost interest in… whatever had been going on between them.
Form let the murmurs die down. “Level Three will reopen when we have completed the tests.” He nodded to the captain and took a half step back.
Hammond looked around the room. “Any questions?”
“Why the change?” Leighton’s curt question cut across the raised hands.
Captain Hammond turned in her seat to look at him. “Work it out Professor. We are on a supposedly secret mission. Our flight plan puts us at Freedom Fields six days from now. No one is going to report us missing, but someone may ask.” The Captain’s tone was laced with acid. She had been scathing about the mission in their planning sessions, and her opinion had clearly not improved. “We’ve left a trail as fat and wide as this heap of junk we’re flying. There are also a few too many people back home that know what we’re doing and where we’re going. This way we should get about an hour’s warning if someone pops into our original TZ.”
“That should have been in the mission plan,” Leighton snapped back.
Hammond turned away, nodding to the comms officer whose hand was still up.
“Mission protocol is for a two-day heartbeat, Ma’am. If we don’t check in, there’ll be alarms.”
“Mission protocol is at my discretion. Our last message will inform Orlo HQ that we’re going dark.” Hammond pointed at Rose. “Jones?”
“Ma’am I’ve been going back over mission specs. I think we missed something.”
“Half the lifeboats are on racks in cargo bay 3C, on the port side. We need to reprogram their launch sequences, or risk collision with either the access tube or the Echo Chamber.”
Hammond pursed her lips. “Good point. Although, this close to the Cluster, if we’re in lifeboats we’re dead already.” A breath of laughter whispered up. Gallows humour came naturally to the crew. “Form, take the safeties off the lifeboat controls so Jones can rewrite the launch sequences.”
“Anything else?” Hammond swept a look around the room. “No? Good. Jones, we have forty-eight hours before we reach the new TZ. I want the lifeboats sorted before then.”
23 days after arrival
Justine resisted the urge to leap out of her seat. The Captain moved quietly for a solidly built woman of high-gee origins. Without looking up from her screen, Justine replied, “He’ll be in the Echo Chamber aligning the sensors.” She was tempted to add that this was the same place he had been for the last two weeks, but she bit back the comment. There was enough needle between the Science and Military personnel on this mission without her adding to it.
“Who’s monitoring his exposure time?” The Captain’s voice had a dangerous degree of patience to it, a patience that sounded brittle and carefully maintained.
Justine pushed away from her workstation. She rubbed her eyes and forehead, surprised by how bright the lights were. “Captain, we don’t have the same hierarchies as you do. Leighton’s an adult and he knows the risks and the protocols. When it’s time for him to come in, he’ll come in.”
The Captain glowered at her. Not for the first time, Justine wished she had found out more about Amelia Hammond before heading into the void with her. This might be Justine’s research project, but it was the Captain’s ship. Woe betide anyone who forgot it. As Justine’s concentration on her work faded, she wilted inside. If the Captain was here in person, it meant something was seriously wrong. She should have been alert to that.
“Is there something I can help you with?” she asked.
“I have a complaint from my crew. Leighton has been shouting obscenities at them.” That was the second time she had omitted his title. Zac Leighton had clearly run out of any leeway the Captain would allow him.
“I know he can be acerbic,” Justine started to make excuses but her words failed under the Captain’s glare.
“Hierarchy or no, get your man under control. I can put one of my crew on charges if they hit him, but we don’t have the facilities to replace missing teeth.” The lines were drawn: my crew, your man. Hammond waited for an acknowledging nod from Justine executing a sharp about face and stalking out.
With her gone, Justine sighed. A long exhale that turned into a groan. Zac Leighton was a nutjob. Even though Justine was the nominal leader of the science team, he acted as a law unto himself. In Leighton’s world view no one else knew as much as he, understood with as much depth, or had any worthwhile capabilities. But he had designed the prototype Echo Chamber, and it needed his obsessive attention to detail to be operationalised. Her contract of employment failed to mention the risk of being stuck with him in deep space.
She flicked her fingers over her comm unit and called up his personal communicator, surprised that it did not jump to the messaging mode. Before she had time to think, she blurted, “Professor Leighton, it’s Dr. Richmond. We need to talk.”
There was a rustle and a muffled sound before silence. She tried again, but now the unit was dropping to messages. She’d have to go and see him. Leighton treated the navy personnel with a disdain that usually meant ignoring them. Shouting meant he was taking notice. That would not end well.
The Echo Chamber was a sphere, one hundred meters in diameter attached to the hull of the Rumour by a one hundred and fifty-meter access tube. A carefully choreographed dance of drones had taken a week to manoeuvre the prefabricated pieces into place. The last two weeks had been spent aligning sensors, a process largely invisible to the crew, which added to the underlying tension.
Everyone was nervous. It was a rare privilege to study the Lethe Cluster, a deadly, solar-system sized spatial anomaly. While the research was being planned, the scientists had been filled with a sense of wonder and excitement. The military had also been keen to test their mettle against its legendary potency.
Now, in the vague boundary between the known peril of space, and the brooding malevolence of the Lethe Cluster, the enthusiasm and sense of daring were replaced by a desire to get the job done and get away. The desire came up against the necessity to do things right, which took time and meticulous work. Tempers frayed around the ship. The last thing she needed was the military personnel deciding the small team of scientists were the problem.
It was tempting to link the febrile atmosphere to the Lethe Cluster. Nothing that went into the Cluster came out unscathed. Occasionally the adventurous or desperate would test its margins. Their ships were found adrift, usually unmanned. Madness and memory loss consumed those few unfortunates to emerge alive.
The truth behind the crew’s growing aggravation was probably a little more prosaic. The Rumour was a converted freighter. The potential payoff from their mission was as high as the likelihood of failure. The accountants in central command had run their arcane abaci to determine this hulk, one journey away from the scrapyard, was best suited to the task. If the Rumour came back she could be divested of the retrofit armaments and sensors. And if, as was probable with anything that touched the Cluster, she did not return, then the bulk of the investment was written off already. Justine had not asked where people came into the equation, fearing she knew the answer already.
Those cold calculations meant that despite Rumour’s kilometer length, its occupants were cramped into irregular quarters separated by long dim corridors. They sniped and jostled because they rubbed against each other in spaces not intended for this use. The superstition and fear that surrounded the Cluster ate away at the professionalism of all on board, adding fuel to an already combustible mix.
Justine squared her shoulders and stood up. In building her career there had been worse things to put up with than Leighton. She would look in on the rest of her team and then confront him.
Gregory Douglas sat hunched over a microscope. As the Rumour pulled into position, probes had collected dust from the edge of the Cluster. The mineralogist had barely looked up since.
Justine tapped his shoulder. “I’m off to see Leighton.”
Gregory grunted in response without looking up.
Justine always felt uncomfortable talking to Perry Stoneman, the last member of the team. She had offered up his role as a potential saving against the tight budget. Her own analytical skills were more than sufficient to handle the results of their research. But somehow the additional funding had been found and someone in a political sphere far removed from her own decided the mission needed a data specialist.
She found him with his head buried in the open carcass of one of his computers. Bio-gel tubes snaked around his lab, glowing blue and then green. The chaos was an affront to Justine’s meticulously tidy mind. Whatever Perry was doing could be accomplished with some semblance of order. The lab doubled up as his quarters, with a cot and screen bolted to the floor in one corner. From her vantage she could see the bed had not been made. She bit back an observation. Justine wasn’t Perry’s mother. Besides, perhaps knowing his precarious position in the team, he had not complained about sharing hygiene facilities with the crew, rather than getting his own fully equipped space.
“What are you doing?”
Perry wiped his bald head with his sleeve. “I think I can squeeze more performance out of this equipment if I daisy chain the processors.” He held up one of the gel tubes. “This stuff is rudimentary, I’m sure I can make it go faster.”
If she had not hired Perry, Justine could have purchased better hardware. She would never say that to him. Her own career had been peppered with the snide remarks and callous jibes of the people around her. Perry was on the team and they would make the best of what they had.
“Let me know how you get on.”
Perry nodded and ducked back behind the carcass.
Leighton was waiting for her by the access tube. He was rake thin, with a pinched face and close-cropped hair. The tight-fitting body suit he wore while working in the Chamber accentuated his spare frame. He insisted on the unflattering garment, despite the extreme cold, because anything else might snag on his precious receptors.
“What the hell are you playing at?” he spat as she approached.
“What?” Even from Leighton, the verbal attack was unexpected.
“Sound.” He wiggled his hands around. “Travels in a wave. Makes echoes.” He stomped past her. “We didn’t spend all that money on the shielded bio-diffusion printer just for you to call on my communicator. There can be no signal interference in the Chamber. You nearly cost me a day’s work.”
Justine bit down on her response. Leighton should have had his comm unit set to secrecy, so it warmed gently against his skin, alerting him without making a noise. It was a strong indication that something was wrong that someone so obsessive had missed that detail. He ducked through the hatch and stalked off down the corridor.
“Where are you going?” Justine asked as she ran to keep up with his pace.
“To talk to the Captain. There’s something she needs to see.” He didn’t stop, or even talk over his shoulder; he marched on, assuming she would stay with him. Justine barely made it into the same grav lift. Once inside she rounded on him.
“She’s pissed at you. Don’t you go winding her up anymore.”
“What for? I’ve barely seen the woman.”
“You’ve been yelling at her crew.”
“Of course I’ve been yelling at her crew. Her minions come pounding down here trying to burn off the calories they stuff themselves with in the mess. If they want to stay thin they should eat less.” He thumped a wall panel with the heel of his hand. “Every footfall reverberates through the access tube and into the Echo Chamber. But even that is not as bad as what passes for an engine on this hulk.”
“You want to switch off the engine?” Justine’s voice squeaked in shock.
Leighton stopped the lift in mid-flight and leaned against the wall. “These people don’t get it, Richmond. They have no idea what we are trying to achieve.” He took a deep breath. “There was a crew member in the mess hall, her hair was moving.” He put up a hand to stop Justine from interrupting. “Not like that. Her hair was vibrating. That’s not jogging sailors, it’s the engine. If we are going to make the Echo Chamber work we need to shut the power down. All energy waveforms are potential interference sources.” He restarted the lift.
Justine gave a sigh of relief. “Let me explain that to the Captain before you go asking her to cut power. She’s a hair’s breadth from letting the crew beat you into a bloody mess.”
“I don’t want her to shut off the power yet.”
“But you said . . .”
There was a soft chime as they arrived. There were only a couple of people on the Bridge, in neat shipboard uniforms of deep navy blue with a single thin silver stripe running down the right-hand side.
“Where’s the Captain?” Leighton asked, addressing none of them and all of them at once.
Before the crew could answer, a side door hissed open and the Captain emerged. “Professor Leighton.” She nodded coolly at Justine. “Dr. Richmond. You need my permission to step onto my Bridge.”
Leighton gave her a frosty smile in return. “You can stand on ceremony, Captain, or you can listen. There is a credible threat emerging to your ship.” The crew were well drilled; none of them looked up, but there was a palpable change in their demeanour. Once busy fingers were now poised over terminals. Captain Hammond lifted an eyebrow. Leighton took that as permission to proceed. “There are at least six vessels closing on our previous mission location. I estimate they’re making point five light, so your passive sensors may have where they were half an hour ago.”
“You asked me to switch the active sensors off when we took our position.”
“I did, because I want the research to succeed. But it won’t succeed if we die, so I am suggesting you switch on your active sensors, train your weapons and hail the vessels before they find us.”
The Captain pursed her lips, holding Leighton in a steady regard, then nodded.
“Officer of the watch, recall the alpha command crew.” She turned to the main viewscreen which showed a passive image of the star field outside the ship. “Do you have a bearing?”
“I have an estimate. They were approaching the location from about seventy by two twenty.”
The lift hissed open behind Justine as the remainder of the Bridge crew took their places with assured steps that were at once unhurried and urgent. A faint waft of perfume was all the warning Justine got of Rose brushing lightly by on her way to the tactical station.
The low lighting hid Justine’s blush. She pressed back against the bulkhead, wishing for a moment the walls would swallow her.
She shook her head to clear the thoughts away. She had not seen a military Bridge crew in action before and might not get the chance again.
The Captain seemed oblivious to this byplay. “Listen in. We have a potential hostile sighting. Jones, what have you got on the passive grid?”
“I thought we were going to use the active sensors?” Leighton blurted.
“We weren’t going to do anything. If I light up the active grid they’ll know something is out here.”
“But there’s no reason for anyone else to be out here, which means they’re looking for us.”
“Looking is not finding, Professor. Spend a bit of time in space and you’ll learn the most important fact about it: it is big. If they don’t know where we are, the probability of them stumbling over us is miniscule.”
Standing beside him, Justine could hear Leighton’s teeth grind. He flipped open his pad and glared into the screen. She nudged him.
“What’s got you all bent out of shape?”
“We didn’t test the Chamber with tight beam tachyon sensors. I was hoping for some field data.”
Justine shook her head, in the midst of potential peril all he could think about was his work.
“I’ve got something Captain, could be engine flare.” Rose flicked data around her screen at dizzying speed.
Tense minutes passed before Rose called out, “Contact, contact. Six vessels executing a standard orthogonal search pattern.”
“Shall I hail them, Ma’am?” The comms officer’s hand was poised above the flat surface of his station, but he did not touch anything.
“Negative. They’re looking where we were meant to be, not where we are. Let’s not put any data on the map yet.”
“Engine signatures in two minutes.” Justine could not help noticing how the glow of the screen picked out Rose’s fine features. As she watched, the young woman’s face went cold. “Captain, tachyon trace. They’re not just running a pattern, they’re using active sensor sweeps to find us.”
“Back trace them.”
“Yes Ma’am. Scout ships, Viper class. Not ours. We’ll need to ping for a targeting location.”
“That changes things. Form, bring the ship to battle stations.”
Suddenly there were five conversations going on at once, with the Captain at the center of them all. Information spanned the readiness of the damage control team, the overall condition of the ship and crew, to the powering of weapons and shields. Comments and messages flew across the room in a carefully coordinated dance. Each update filled in part of a patchwork of information, none of the bridge crew looked up from their stations, but somehow managed not to talk over each other, or leave an unfilled pause. Over the top, Captain Hammond gave sharp, clipped instructions.
“Seal the Echo Chamber and prime the charges.”
“Charges?” Justine blurted. Leighton grabbed her wrist in a painful grip and gave a sharp shake of his head. “Did you know about this?” she hissed.
“Stands to reason, if we have to run we leave it behind,” he whispered. There was a grim set to his eyes that belied his casual acceptance.
“This is how we play it – fast and silent. We have a limited window of opportunity.” All other activity on the bridge stopped as the crew attended the Captain. “Professor, any sign of a mothership or launch platform from your contraption?”
Leighton juggled with his pad before steadying it and regaining his composure. “No.”
“Any other contacts?”
“Good. Lieutenant Heen spool up two of the new AM warheads in bay four, I want a one-twenty degree directional broadcast.”
“Twelve seconds for the warheads.”
“Very well. Jones, I want your best plot on where they are now, not where they were. Prep the active scanners and light them on my mark.”
“Warheads prepped.” The blue glow from the weapon’s officer’s station turned green.
“Drop them from the tubes, and edge them out of the shield aura, take your heading from Jones.”
“Trajectory confirmed to 93% accuracy, Ma’am.”
“Good enough. Lieutenant Commander Form, confirm authorisation for FTL weapons launch.”
The bridge stilled in the breath between the Captain’s request and the answer.
“Heen, you are cleared for FTL weapons launch. Jones, light up the active grid. I want a targeting ping and a sector wide sweep. If there is another molecule moving I want to know about it.”
“Aye Captain.” Screens burst to life all around the bridge as data flooded in. “It’s just us and them in the sector Ma’am. I’m getting deceleration flares, they’ll have a back trace plot on us by now.”
“Heen, take them out. I want all six in one shot.”
Justine pressed her hands against the bulkhead behind her, trying to draw a steadying breath. FTL weapons technology was banned. There was nothing in the mission spec that mentioned illegal weapons, and both the Captain and her First Officer had shown no qualms about using them.
A schematic of the space around the six vessels came up on the main screen. The full array of active sensors, analysing the movement of faster than light tachyon particles, provided information that was near enough real time to give a useful view on what was happening. The six ships were in a braking curve and keeping close formation. Algorithms sucking computing power plotted their probable onward trajectories in cones of volume. The cones narrowed as their course choices became clear.
“That’s precision flying,” the Captain noted. “They aren’t amateurs.”
Justine counted her heartbeats as she watched the ships shed their momentum. Nothing happened for a minute, which stretched into two. “Mr. Heen?” the Captain asked.
“Four seconds Captain. It helps if they’re sandwiched in the shockwave.”
The screen blanked momentarily as the warheads exploded. One by one, the ships winked out. There were six smaller flashes as the antimatter containment failed in each ship, then the screen was clear.
It was a false picture, Justine thought. There would be bodies, screaming, the howl of depressurisation. What she had seen was devoid of any of those details, as if lives had not been snuffed out.
Leighton leaned towards her. “He is more mathematician than warrior. That was a neat bit of faster than light calculus.” She nodded numbly, not trusting herself to speak. Theirs was a research mission. Secret and sensitive to be sure, but she had no idea of the destructive capability that had been retrofitted to the old freighter. The military had sent the Rumour expecting trouble and put a ruthless captain at the helm. Hammond had made no attempt to negotiate, she had seen the threat and acted.
Justine let go of the bulkhead, her fingers aching, wary of all the military personnel around her, and relieved that there was a cool distance between herself and Rose Jones.
“Grid is clear Captain. We’re alone.” Rose’s terse comment pierced the tension on the bridge.
“Very well. Stand down battle stations. Form, analysis?”
The first officer grimaced before replying. “We’ve been compromised, and whoever sent those ships is going to come looking for them. Since there is nothing in our active sensor range, I’d estimate between two and four hours before someone boosts into the original TZ to confirm what happened. That still gives us an hour’s head start if we stay put. I recommend an active scan every two hours.”
“Why not make it look like we left?” Leighton butted into the conversation.
“Professor?” There was an edge to the Captain’s voice, but Justine doubted Leighton would pick up on it.
“We go fully dark, emergency power only, no scanners, no engine trace, no measurable power curve at all. If anyone comes looking at our original location, all they will find is a debris field and echoes of multiple antimatter bursts.” His eyes were bright in the dim lighting of the bridge. It was the first time Justine had seen him shed his acerbic, cynical demeanour and seem enthusiastic. “It will take days of sifting the debris to work out what happened, and all the while we’ll be invisible. I’ve shown you what the Echo Chamber can do. You’ll see everything as soon as it comes in.” He gave her a broad smile. “And I can cut weeks off the research timeline if we’re not cleaning engine noise from the results.”
The Captain considered Leighton and his words for several long slow breaths. “In two hours I am going to scan the sector again. So in ninety minutes you’re going to come back to my ready room and prove to me we can rely on the Echo Chamber if we’re deaf and blind. Do that, and we’ll set for silent running.”
94 days after system arrival
She wakes precisely two hours later. Before emerging from her cocoon, she goes through the routine of focussing on her muscles, feeling them awaken. It takes longer every cycle. She needs to bring her mission to a conclusion before she’s incapacitated.
She lights the candle sitting in a puddle of wax on the console. The ship has been without its artificial gravity for months. The immensity of the engines and Rumour’s lazy spin provide a gentle pull, at a dizzying angle, to the floor. The candle struggles, leaning drunkenly to one side. She watches the flame hungrily for some time. She doesn’t miss people, she misses heat and light. Sensing the self-indulgence of this thought she turns her attention first to her injured foot, cleaning and binding the wound. Then she turns to the data.
The data strip is an inch wide and ten feet long. She has been reading them without computer aid for so long now that she can parse a day’s recording in a few minutes, looking for anomalies, for signals, for signs.
A faint distortion. She examines the rest of the strip but finds nothing of note. Reluctantly, she crawls out of her nest in the comm station and carefully glues the strip with its predecessors against the wall, lining up the date stamps. There are two months of data from top to bottom.
She ignores the early results which are contaminated. There is a spike when she destroyed the fleeing lifeboats. The capsules are now a tumbling mass of debris scattered in front of the Rumour. She reads the details of that history in the welter of symbols as easily as a storybook. The shouting, the discharge of weapons, the hammer of boots on deck plates, the expelled air, and the death.
She feels no guilt. Her faith demands a series of carefully calibrated sacrifices. Life is precious, to be hoarded and saved until it needs to be expended in the pursuit of a purpose. The thrust from the lifeboats would have cluttered the sensors for weeks as they pulled their way out of the sector. Letting the escaping crew live would have been inconsistent with her purpose.
She stares at the mass of data. Hunting for meaning in the minute variation she sees in the signals, every day at the same time, from the same source.
She will need the computers to calculate the source and decode the signal. That will spell the end of her data collection, as systems powering up flood the near field with interference. She isn’t ready for that yet. Besides, the day she disrupts the research there will be a lot to do. She’ll need help, and in that she feels a flutter in her hollowed belly. It might be guilt, it might be desire. For now she can afford neither.
23 days after arrival
“Do we have to do this? Leighton fumed.
They held meetings infrequently, mainly because of Leighton’s vitriolic response to them. With Gregory lost in his new mineral samples, and her own discomfort around Perry, it had become impossible for Justine to gather the team. The encounter with the incoming ships gave her an opportunity, and she was not going to let it go.
She snapped her holo-pad shut, ignoring Leighton’s derisive snort. She glared at the three men.
“This is not a kindergarten field trip to the local pond. None of you have filed progress reports, which means the next step is going to take longer than it should, and longer than we have. We need to prove to the Captain what we’ve found.”
Leighton barked out a laugh. “We?”
Justine had prepared herself for this and was not cowed. Leighton had been riding roughshod over her since she had been assigned as the team leader and it was time for it to stop. “Without my analytics, your data is just noise.”
He scowled at that. She let him stew for a moment before going on.
“We need the ship to go dark to improve the sensitivity of the equipment. Rhetoric isn’t going to win her over. We have a very short window to pull together the proofs we need.” She looked around for agreement. Leighton threw up his hands in a “that’s obvious” motion, Gregory waved away the look as it was not his field and Perry nodded slowly. She took that as a cue to go on.
“The Captain has just seen a significant military application; it will be a feather in her cap if she is the one to bring this home. You can bet her career is not going anywhere if she got this gig.” She looked around, pinning each of them in turn. “There was precious little to find out about her before we came aboard. No commendations or decorations. If we sell her the discovery of a major tactical advantage, with her name all over it, I think she’ll bite. And no one in the scientific community will care about Captain Hammond. They’ll know we did the work.”
Leighton gave her an appraising look. After months of snide remarks this might be the moment she gained his respect as a scientist and team leader. She swelled a little before settling herself. Leighton’s opinion was irrelevant, except to prove she could win over the most difficult characters.
“Let’s do the science properly. Perry, it’s time to run some numbers.” She could handle it herself, but he was here and he might as well make himself useful. “Look over the data from the encounter with those ships. We thought this might be an application for the Echo Chamber in the design phase. The base equations are filed under Brown’s Theorem. Let’s see if we can refine the logic for ship sensing and give the Captain a gift.”
“Waste of time.” Leighton was back to normal, any sense of rapprochement gone. “We’re not here to look for ships or pander to the military. We’re here to examine the Cluster. I need Perry working on the interference algorithms, not rubbing the Captain’s belly.” He stood up and stalked to the door. “Leave it to me to explain my life’s work to someone without a shred of science in them. The rest of you can get on with whatever it is you do.”
With that, he was gone. She ground her teeth. Justine was sure she understood Zac Leighton, but his mercurial reaction suggested she had missed something.
Gregory stood up and gave Justine’s shoulder a paternal squeeze. “I should write up what I’ve got so far, it’ll give my eyes a rest from the scopes.” Then he too was gone. Perry shrugged and traipsed off after him.
Justine put her hands flat on the holo pad and took a deep breath. Rose breaking off their relationship, the Captain using banned weapons and Leighton passing up a chance to corroborate his genius, no one was doing what she expected.
95 days after arrival
In her dream, she is drowning in data. A heaving black sea hauls her up on the crests of waves and sends her tumbling. The sea is not water, nor droplets of any fluid. It is thumb-sized symbols, crescents, cubes, complex multi-sided objects. She struggles against them, trying to keep her head out of the roiling mass. There is a buoy floating nearby, the light on top of it flickering as it dips and rises with the waves. She strikes out, swimming towards it. The sides are sheer and smooth, the edges sharp. A pyramid, bobbing on the violent ocean. The globe of light at its peak is a sphere.
She wakes with a jerk, her breath condensing before her. She blinks, eyelashes weighed by frost. It takes several minutes to ease her cramped limbs beneath the layers of blankets. The insight on offer is worth a risk. She edges a hand into the frigid air and plucks a flashlight from the floor. Dragging the blankets with her, she examines the reams of data on the wall.
Over the weeks she has narrowed down the field of her search. She has eliminated the radiation from distant suns and the background chatter of the universe. In the chaos of the symbols that remain she sees it. A heartbeat, a pulse. Pyramid and Sphere. She will retune the Echo Chamber again. Tomorrow she will have data that expands and explores that signal in detail. She will hear the message she has sacrificed everything to search for.
She is close now. The blankets fall and she begins her stretching routine, her first movements awkward. She avoids putting weight on her injured foot and gains confidence as her muscles warm and loosen. Reassured that she can still run, the wound is dismissed.
The familiar movements settle her mind. She has purpose and focus.
At the entrance to the Level Three corridor, she pauses. The memory of icy hands flashes through her mind. Slowed breathing steadies her. The door hisses open. She has left nothing but death here. Only the Captain can override the code and the Captain is also dead. There is only one other living soul aboard the ship.
Her light sweeps into the doorway. The bodies are still where they fell. The shattered frost recalls her own fall and slide, but her path remains clear. She runs. Nothing touches her this time.
She twists herself gracefully into the space before the access tube. Her hands fall into the lengthy routine of unlocking it. She stops.
There is a distinct sensation of being watched. A warning prickles down her spine. The only sound she can hear is the thudding of her own heart. She tries to block out the churning rhythm, to hear the danger hidden under the signal of her own existence. Her fingers clench and unclench on the freezing door controls. There is nothing.
The hatch opens outwards, she spins through and closes it in one move. There is faint natural light here. She wastes several precious seconds of it preparing, centering herself. Then she runs.
She lands in a crouch in the pitch black of the Echo Chamber, then races over to the gantry, arcing into a dive that takes her partway across before she propels herself by fingers and toes to the data core.
She has not needed to attenuate the receivers for some time, so she takes a moment to recall the procedure, visualising the panel, the thumb pad, and the sensor dials. She narrows the range of the sensors to the small band of the pyramid and sphere. There is a message buried in there: instructions, perhaps an invitation, a warning, something other than the silence of white noise.
25 days after arrival
The Rumour’s conversion from a cargo hauler to a military transport, able to carry the unwieldy bulk of the Echo Chamber, led to a number of design changes. The Captain’s ready room was once a tiny galley that opened directly onto the bridge of the freighter.
With Justine and Leighton taking the two chairs opposite the Captain, Lieutenant Commander Form had to stand at the Captain’s shoulder and Rose Jones was squeezed against a cupboard. Five people in the room made it stuffy.
“You realise,” the Captain said with a sour twist to her lips, “that if you had sold the military application to your research first, we could have properly kitted out a science vessel and an escort, instead of this bucket of bolts.”
Justine answered while Leighton indulged himself by rolling his eyes. “Most likely they would not believe us. If they did we’d have lost control of the project. The Navy Science Division would have taken our work and all the designs and we would never see it again. The joy of doing science is to be the ones doing it, not reading about it in a journal.”
“I don’t like being misled.”
Justine stood her ground, resolute without being offensive. “The theory was sound, it just hadn’t been field tested yet. That encounter was the first time we’ve been able to demonstrate the effect.”
“It was a bit more than a demonstration.” Leighton leaned forward and put his pad on the desk, spinning it to face the Captain.
Unwilling to let his rudeness derail the meeting, Justine continued.
“The Echo Chamber is hypersensitive to electromagnetic signals, just as we said. We will have better data about what is going on in the Lethe Cluster as a result of the mission and we’ll be closer to knowing if there is a secure route through.”
“But we found something more in the lab.” Leighton glowered at her, cutting in as she waited for the Captain to acknowledge her words. “There are deeper, sub-quantum level signals that the Chamber picks up if electromagnetic interference is minimised. In occupied space or too close to a stellar body these are impossible to detect. The lights in our own lab can mask them.”
“So how does it work?” Hammond had lost some of the stiffness in her posture.
“You know the basics of quantum piercing and sub atomic spectrum resonance?” Justine asked. Hammond gave her an impatient gesture to get on with it. “Everything that exists resonates. When a particle moves in a deterministic pattern that resonance creates a bow wave, which interferes with all the other resonances. The higher the energy state of the object, the greater the resonance, and the further forward the bow wave is cast.
“The electromagnetic effects only express themselves at the speed of light, or more accurately the speed of causality. But the sub-quantum effects are almost instantaneous if you can detect them.”
“Detect and interpret them,” Rose interjected. Justine hoped her pleasure that Rose understood her work did not show on her face.
“And it can only be used in areas of space where there isn’t anything to see?” Form drawled.
Leighton bristled but Justine was ready.
“For now. We need to learn more about how the effect works in idealised conditions.” She gave a wry look at their surroundings, eliciting a snort of laughter from the First Officer. “If we can prove the theory works, and we bring back solid data on the Cluster, there’ll be funding to take the whole thing further.”
“And you think you can get the data you need for both if we run near zero on the power curve?” Justine nodded, but Hammond wasn’t done. She picked up the point Justine had been expecting. “What about the Cluster? Right now we have shields up against its radiation. If we go dark, we’re relying on the hull and nothing else.”
“Good point.” Justine pulled up a schematic of the ship on her pad and cast it on the cupboard door beside Rose. She knew Leighton would not think about the effects on people or practical matters, she had prepared for the momentary advantage. “The best bet is to close off the outer corridors and hold everyone near the bows.” She pointed to the Bridge. “You should be well shielded enough there, but the cargo hangars and some of the living quarters will be pretty hazardous for extended exposure.” She pointed out the access tube and the Chamber. “From here on Professor Leighton’s time in the Chamber will need to be more rationed.”
“What else do you need?”
“Basic door controls only, no grav lifts, cold rations.” She ticked the items off on her fingers.
“I’ll need to keep the safety protocols, escape pods and emergency lights.”
“OK, but no base power in engineering and we cycle antimatter containment in a month.”
There was a faint crease of mirth in the Captain’s eye. Justine realised the dour woman was enjoying the negotiation.
“Done. Jones, I want the full array of data feeds to the Bridge. We double up the tactical station at all times and I want to know about anything that drifts, spins or breathes funny.”
Justine choked back her surprise when the Captain agreed so readily. She hadn’t picked Hammond as a gambler. Perhaps her career really was in the balance. She leaned back in her chair as Hammond and Form began discussing the logistics of billeting the crew and movement around the ship.
A raising of the hair on her arms made her look up. Leighton was staring at her with something less than his usual hostility, and over his shoulder Rose was watching her too, a small smile playing across her lips.
The Captain and Form decided on two days to prepare the ship and dismissed them.
“You coming to the Chamber?” Leighton asked her when the lift doors slid shut.
“Sure, as long as you don’t make me wear one of those awful suits.” He looked her up and down, something she had endured through her tortuous years of study. Part of her wanted to shrink inside her lab coat, hoping he did not know her background. Part of her wanted to punch him. She bit down on the reaction and lifted her chin. She had put up with enough crap in her career already.
“I’m surprised it bothers you. I’ve never met a prudish Melinan.” Leighton walked away, perhaps thinking he had had the last word, but she stopped him dead.
“I’m not a prude. I just have standards.”
An enormous bulkhead ran through Rose’s quarters and the synth shower was shared with four other junior officers. That was why she preferred Zac Leighton’s airy room. The creation of new cargo bays and fitting extra equipment had left an awkward space in a hard to reach corner of the ship. Some judicious welding in the dockyard created Leighton’s irregular and private space. He had his own shower and a large clear area with great headroom in the middle of the floor. The walls sloped at odd angles and there was no room for standard cupboards and stowage, but the scientist seemed content with cases strapped to the bulkheads. The entrance was in a shadowy side corridor. Rose could either sneak back to her own deck or work her way to Level Three, which the crew continued to use as a running track.
The military was always suspicious of those who wanted to keep apart and encouraged communal living to the point of obsession. Lack of privacy to pursue her parallel agenda made Rose’s task harder. Fortunately, cultivating a scientist had always been part of her game plan. Leighton’s quarters were a bonus. Despite her research, she had been surprised by how lecherously willing a collaborator he had turned out to be. She let Justine go when it was clear the science team leader had too much integrity. It had been a wrench, but that only proved to Rose she had made the right choice. There was no room for attachment.
She stretched out in her centering routine, a preparation that gave her focus and precision through the day. There were four candles equally spaced around her. She balanced on one leg and stretched towards each candle in turn, pivoting smoothly on the ball of one foot before switching to the other leg and repeating the sequence, each time allowing the heat from the candle to warm her toes before she flowed into the next pose.
Leighton lounged on the bed as though it were a show put on for his benefit. The routine was impossible in her own quarters and revealing her faith would lead to her arrest. His ogling and occasional interruptions were simply the price of attaining a usable space to carry out her ritual.
“I’m surprised how well Richmond managed the Captain.”
His voice nudged the shell of her focus. Leighton’s genius was limited, it was in his nature to underestimate someone like Justine. The thought of Justine was a stronger breeze, pushing at Rose’s balance. She stopped her movements as a premonition washed through her. Justine’s strength would carry her a long way.
She began moving again, picking up momentum. Captain Hammond was a separate puzzle. Rose’s probing into her had followed what was obviously a carefully laid false trail. Hammond’s file could not be duller, no medals or honors, no significant commands or action seen in any of the many flashpoints of the preceding decade. A nondescript captain on a mission with a low probability of success was too neat. That meant Hammond was here for a reason separate from the official mission. The rest Rose had pieced together from the shapes of shadows and things that were not said.
She let the thoughts pass through her, feeling the tides of the space around the ship, the constant low-frequency vibration of the engines and the inescapable presence of the Cluster.
“Did you know the Captain wouldn’t go straight to active sensors when I told her about those ships?” Leighton asked, ignoring being ignored.
Rose flowed between the candles, her balance faultless, toes and fingers brushing the tips of the flame, a little lower each time as the candles burned down, getting faster and faster until she was a blur. She knew the moment her observance was complete. The ship, the sector, the Cluster all found a point of perfect equilibrium. She stopped, arms outstretched, leaning forward with her weight on one foot, the other leg a curved scorpion tail behind her. She held the pose, absorbing the knowledge it gave her. There would be a death. She looked along her right arm. The palm of her hand faced upwards. That was new. Something she did not have an interpretation for. She held the pose a moment longer, accepting her ignorance, and waiting to see if the universe would gift her with some insight. Death was imminent. Some things would become clearer. Some would become more difficult.
She jumped on the spot a few times, enjoying the warmth and freedom of her limbs.
“Why do you persist with this religious mumbo-jumbo?” Leighton scoffed. “There is no message from god coming from the Cluster. I’ll unravel what there is to know with hard science.”
“Does it bother you that I think there might be a spiritual answer to your scientific question?” He shrugged, not committing himself to an answer. “I want to use the science to prove the spiritual hypothesis. You want data on which to build a proof. We both want to run the same tests, even if we’re trying to prove different things.”
“That’s the kind of double think they teach you in the Seminary. How did you ever manage to get into the Academy with that background?”
Only now had he asked her the right question, one she had no intention of answering. She dawdled through, pulling on her running gear. With a practised twist of her hands, she tied her hair into a neat ponytail. With several deft movements, her discarded uniform was folded into a bundle with the candles hidden in the center and stowed in a slim backpack. She gave Leighton a quick kiss and evaded his reaching arms. “A girl’s gotta have some secrets.”
The screen on the door showed the corridor outside was clear. Before opening it, she reminded him, “Emergency power only an hour from now, engines off and we go sensor blind.”
With that, she stepped out the door, jumped on the spot a few more times, and trotted off down the short access corridor towards the intersection.
A shadow shifted in her peripheral vision. Someone had been watching the door. If her awareness had not been heightened by her exercises, she might have missed it. She did not break stride until she ducked through a security hatch and pressed herself to the wall. Her breathing slowed to allow her to focus on her hearing.
A footstep whispered over the metal floor. She jerked back through the hatch, catching someone by the throat in her clawed hand. She shoved hard, driving air from the body as it hit the wall plating. Her free hand whipped out from side to side, sending something hard skittering away across the floor. With a bright smile that belied her iron grip, she said, “Mr. Stoneman, what an unexpected pleasure.”
She could see his thoughts flutter behind his eyes. He would be thinking of a lie, a reason he would want to visit Leighton’s quarters, but she saw his own understanding swell and grow. She would know it for a lie. On a ship of this size, he would have called ahead. He wilted a little in her grip. If she was on official business and was going to report him to the Captain, she would have let go by now. That meant he had found out something she wanted to keep secret.
For a fleeting moment, she felt sorrow. She and Perry shared a lonely profession, two operatives pursuing their objectives obliquely, wrapped up in misdirection. It was a life that forced them to accept the inevitable. That one day their facade could fail and their life would be forfeit. That day had come for Perry Stoneman. From here, it was merely a question of how much information he would divulge first. She nodded at him, acknowledging that the course of their lives was set. Her sorrow proved costly. He was a fraction of a second ahead of her, and it was enough. He smiled. There was a crack.
Rose jumped back as a wisp of gas escaped from the supposed data analyst’s lips. His lifeless body dropped to the ground.
She frisked him. A lump in his pocket turned out to be a recording device. The object that had fallen was a single shot needle gun. Good equipment but an unwise choice. The single shot was powerful enough to punch a hole in the skin of the ship. She stowed both items.
Justine had been chary about Stoneman without explaining why. Did she know the man was a plant? Rose winced. For all their intimate moments, she had not thought to probe her erstwhile lover about the innocuous man on the science team. She did not know how long it would be before he was missed, or if he had an accomplice. That she would have to handle on the fly. Her ability to adapt was her edge.
She dragged the body back towards Leighton’s quarters. There were two escape pods in the cargo bay close by. No one would find him until it was already too late.
The ship was going dark in half an hour. Portable lights and emergency equipment had been distributed, every door and hatch recoded to manual release.
Justine dodged past marines pressed into service as porters to make sure everything was ready. Given the choice between watching data come in on the small screen in the Echo Chamber or in the comfort of the lab, she had chosen comfort, to Leighton’s evident disappointment.
Perry had left a message asking to talk to her, so she popped her head into his lab first. The computers were running their routines in the unlit room. There was a set of equations and associated charts popping and fading on his screens.
She looked around. The lab computers had not been linked up with emergency power. They would crash as soon as the ship went dark. There were two battery packs tucked against the wall by the door. That was probably what he wanted help with, minimizing the downtime on the analysis with another capable pair of hands. Wherever he was, she would have to get started. There wasn’t much time left.
While working out what to shut down first, she noted the timestamp on the data. It was during the encounter with the six vessels. She checked the bearing. The same one Leighton had given on the Bridge. Justine dropped into the chair, eyes wide and mind racing. She pushed the timeframe on the data forward. There was nothing for several minutes, and then two closely timed spikes that disrupted the stream. It went quiet again until the FTL missiles launched, then exploded.
There were no ships in the data stream. She ran it again, slicing the data to get different perspectives. Still nothing. The whole thing had been a hoax! She had watched Rose Jones import Leighton’s evidence to the Bridge systems. Her mind reeled with the implications.
“Justine, are you there?” She leaped up at the call. “Justine?” Gregory called from his lab.
“Not now.” Her voice came out strangled, fighting the hammering of her heart.
“Yes now, you have to see this.”
She did not know who to trust. Leighton had fabricated evidence. Perry had clearly found out about it and was going to tell her. He wasn’t in his lab, and now Gregory, who never got excited about anything, was calling her with unusual urgency.
She skipped lightly over to her own lab and slipped her antique brass letter opener into a pocket. It wasn’t much, but it was comforting and solid.
Gregory’s face was buried in the screen of his microscope. He waved her over to the monitor hanging from the wall while making some more adjustments. When he finally looked up, his eyes were bright and wide, unlike any expression she had seen on him before. He transferred the view to the monitor. “The resolution is not as good as if you look through the microscope, but you can still see it.” An image of specks of dust came up. “At first I thought it was just the background vibration of the ship, but it isn’t.”
“What isn’t?” She glanced back the way she had come, impatient to take another look at Perry’s analysis.
“Look.” The objects on the screen came into progressively higher focus and resolution. “They’re oscillating. Incredibly fast—faster than this equipment can effectively display. But I can just about slow it down enough for you to see.”
Particles collected by the probes filled the screen. In the midst of ordinary granules and crystals, Justine saw a few anomalies, blurred and out of focus. As Gregory slowed them, a shape emerged. The object was not irregular; it was two regular shapes in combination. A pyramid topped by a sphere. Although it continued to shimmer, Gregory had slowed it enough to show the shape. She felt him watching her face as the color drained from it. “I’m getting five, maybe six parts per million, but they’re definitely there, and incredibly difficult to isolate.”
He pushed his hand flat to the surface of the desk to stop it shaking. “It doesn’t occur anywhere else in the known universe. Something of such a peculiar recurring shape, in such a high energy state, doesn’t occur by chance. It was put there.”
Justine’s knees wobbled, she held onto the wall, breathing deeply, trying to steady herself. Thoughts of Perry and Leighton evaporated.
She swallowed, her mouth suddenly full of saliva. The conclusions clamored for her attention. She stroked the letter opener, its smooth hardness helping her focus. They had to do the science properly.
“Can you slow them down more?”
“Not here. The power drain would fry the energy circuits. We just…” His mouth kept moving, but no words came out. He made fists and hammered on his knees. “This is just so far out of what we expected. The mission was scaled for the signals, not the mineralogy.” There was a hint of a rebuke in that.
“What more do you know?” she asked. “Are all the particles at the same frequency, or is there a variation?”
He swiped away the view and pulled in another. “We’re on the same wavelength.” It was the first time she had ever heard him joke; she let her lips twitch with a smile. “Here are the ranges that I think I can see. The error margins overlap, so they may be at the same frequency, but the probability is quite low.”
“Can you impute a signal by taking the mean of each reading?”
He nodded. “If you can keep the power up for a bit longer. I can’t do it on emergency power only. The quantum camera uses about as much power as the lower decks combined.”
As if on cue, the lights went out in the lab. Startled, her hand slid across the letter opener. Pain burst out of the tip of her finger. She cursed and pressed it into her thumb.
“Perry’s equipment hasn’t been re-routed. All his analysis will have crashed.”
Gregory fumbled around beside her. “Nothing you can do about that now. Here, the marines dropped these ‘round a little earlier. They last about six hours and you can get replacements in the mess hall.” A hand lamp came on. He gave one to Justine and lit another. She took it in her good hand and turned away from him so he could not see her lick the blood from her finger.
They spent the next two hours drawing up a plan on how to analyze the particles. Justine stretched and rubbed her eyes. Working by lamplight had taken its toll on her, but Gregory still seemed to be running on the energy of his discovery.
“Write it up,” she said. “Maybe the Captain can give us a couple of hours of power when she cycles the containment fields.” She pointed the light at her own face and gave him a big smile. “You have paid off this entire trip, Greg. We won’t just get a lab out of this, we’ll have our own faculty.” He laughed at that, and she turned the light away to leave. “I’m going to track down Perry and tidy up a few things. Let’s talk again in a couple of hours.”
With the next steps on Gregory’s discovery under control, Justine could turn her attention back to Perry. The data specialist clearly thought he had found something. If he was right, it meant Leighton had duped the Captain. If the Captain found out… Justine had to find out what Perry knew before deciding anything. She’d get him to resurrect his analysis and take her through it step by step.
There was no answer on his communicator. She stamped into Perry’s lab, frustrated at the prospect of hooking up the battery packs herself. Shadows swooped around the lab as she swung the lamp around. They stalled on monitors and leaped over the workstation. Something had changed. She passed the light over the room again, slowly, her own heartbeat thumping in her ears. A sense of presence trickled beads of sweat down her spine.
She twisted the lamp to light a corner. It was empty. She spun sharply on her heel, but the shadows stayed one step ahead. She was alone.
Deep breaths calmed her racing heart. She was a scientist. Suspicion and darkness were clouding her judgement. There was no one else here. Nevertheless, she lit every spare lamp in the room before going about her task.
She turned the lamps off when the screens flickered back to life, replacing the pools of white light with a cold blue glow. The analytics Perry had been running were lost, the latest query codes were in secure files she could not access. Recreating them would take time. She stabbed at the input tablet, annoyed to be paying for Perry and having to do the work herself.
Pain blossomed from her fingertip. There was a spot of blood on the screen, brightly backlit. She knew, with the cool, professional part of her mind, that there was nothing she could possibly see in that drop with the naked eye. But her instincts, the intuition that could inspire research, were on fire. Something about the blood was not right.
She hurried back to Gregory’s lab, pressing her fingertip to push out a single scarlet bead. She smeared it across a plastic slide. Gregory had his back to her, vulnerable and trusting.
“I need you to look at something.” She put the slide down on the counter. “Put this under the high-power scope.”
“We don’t have the power for that. It will drain the batteries in a couple of minutes.” Greg complained. He looked away from the microscope and saw what she had put on the desk. “Oh.” He looked up at her. “Is that…?” She nodded, her face carefully expressionless.
It took them several minutes to re-rig the power, taking the feed away from the small microscope Greg had been using. Even under the high-power scope there was nothing to see at first.
“Blood cells, they look healthy but I’m no medic,” Gregory observed dispassionately as he peered into the scope. He moved aside so she could see. There was not enough spare power to run the monitor.
She took a cursory look as if this was no surprise and then said, “Turn down the speed, the way you did with the dust.”
His eyes widened, and then he nodded slowly, realizing what she was looking for. It took a few moments to adjust the controls, and a light flashed amber as the power drain accelerated. Gregory peered into the scope again and took a shocked breath. Justine moved him aside and looked for herself. Not all the blood cells were in the expected toroid shape. Some had morphed or been replaced with pyramids topped by spheres.
She hit the master power and switched the scope off, then held up a hand to forestall Gregory’s complaint. From her pocket, she took out the letter opener.
“You don’t think…?”
“We have to be sure,” she replied curtly.
They were there, amid the healthy blood cells of Dr. Justine Richmond and Dr. Gregory Douglas: pyramids topped by spheres running silently through their veins.
“There’s nothing about this in any of the literature. We don’t know if it is an infection, or a mutation, or…” Gregory slumped in his seat, rubbing his eyes with the heels of his palms. “We need more data. There are too many variables in gender, birth planet, inoculation history, who knows what else. We need to narrow it down.”
Justine chewed the inside of her lip. More data would help. She pondered her options for a minute, glancing at the samples and weighing their implications against the risks. Finally, she came to a decision. “We need a screening program.” Justine drew a steadying breath. “I’ll talk to the Captain.”
“Talk to the Captain about what?” Lieutenant Commander Form, the first officer, was standing in the doorway.
“Commander!” Justine swallowed against the sudden hammering of her heart and put on a smile. “We were just talking about some more help we would like from the Captain.” Her smile faded. There were two marines in battle dress behind the officer. Their armor may have been lightweight and the guns low velocity projectile rifles, but there was a bristling air of menace in the masked faces. She put her hand on Greg’s arm for support.
Form signaled the marines to take up station at the doorway and hunched his tall, athletic frame over a device hanging around his neck. Lamplight glinted off his bald head as he waved the device around the lab.
“What’s going on?”
“We ran a sensor sweep before going dark. There’s unlicensed transmission equipment somewhere in this section of the ship.”
“All transmissions go through the bridge.” Justine began to rise from her seat, but a slight gesture from the tip of a marine’s gun had her lowering herself back into the chair.
“While we’re scanning, would you care to explain why you are breaching the energy conservation protocol?” The Lieutenant’s voice was cool and curious.
“We found something. In our blood. There’s an infection.” Justine paused. There were guns trained on them. She had no cards right now but the plain truth. “We need to screen the entire crew and see how far this thing goes.”
The first officer paused his search, suspicion written across his features. There was no expression visible on the faces of the marines, but their bodies stiffened minutely. “One thing at a time.” He continued scanning.
The minutes seemed to stretch out into an eternity before Form flipped his scanner closed. “Nothing here. We’ll need to search the other quarters and labs.” He gestured. One of the marines did a smart about face and followed Form out into the corridor.
“I can assure you…”
“I’m sure you can assure me of many things, Dr. Richmond, but I have come here to collect evidence. Let’s see where that leads us.”
Justine stole a glance at Greg, but he was ashen faced and could only shake his head slowly. She did not know how to interpret his demeanor or what his head shake meant, so she resigned herself to wait.
It wasn’t long. The footsteps clattering back down the corridor announced Form, who ducked his head into the lab. “Follow me.”
The remaining marine’s gun jerked once, commanding them to stand. Form swept an arm in front of himself inviting Justine and Greg to go before him, and fell into step behind them as they were led to Perry’s lab. Justine heard his communicator click, her heart sank as he spoke. “Bridge. Form. Captain to the analytics lab, please.”
He made them wait until the Captain emerged from the gloom of the corridor. She did not spare the two scientists a glance, but strode straight in. The room was in disarray. Form had been swift and thorough. Amidst the opened cases of the computers was a high-grade battery pack and an FTL comms device.
“Battery pack was on a trickle charge from the main power grid, Ma’am. We’d never notice the power drain during normal operations. Radio is set to burst out a narrow signal through our wake, hard to trace on a cruiser, let alone this crate.” The Lieutenant was unconsciously moving his fingers, ticking off a list of the items he had found. “It has been precisely axially aligned. Maybe the Echo Chamber could pick it up, but nothing else we have on board would be able to.”
“Would you care to explain what one of your team was doing with this equipment?” Hammond raised an eyebrow at Justine.
“Begging your pardon, Captain, there’s more.” Form’s list was clearly not complete. “I’ve seen this kit before. We trained with it—it’s ours, but it’s not an asset registered to this mission. Whoever was using it was either one of our own spooks or had access.” He took a deep breath. “And there is a message still in the buffer.”
“It’s scrambled, Ma’am,” Form apologized. His smile suggested he was pleased, and Hammond returned it.
“Let’s see if it really is one of ours.” There was a small panel on the side of the device. The Captain flipped it open and put her eye to it. “Hammond, four-three-eight-two-one.”
There was a moment of silence before Perry’s voice came through, identifying the date and time. “I’ve still not found any sign of an agent on the ship, but there is definitely something going on. We had an encounter with suspected bandit ships, but the whole thing was faked. It was input either at the tactical station or the Echo Chamber data core. It looks like the Captain was taken in by it. Leighton has to be involved. Leighton should be in the Chamber now, so I’m heading down to look around his quarters. The ship’s going dark. This may be the last transmission for a while.” There is a pause. “The Cluster keeps its secrets.”
Justine’s legs turned to water. She stumbled against one of the desks and held onto it to keep herself up. Greg put his arm around her as she slumped further but let go as a gun poked him in the back.
There was a click as the Captain tapped her personal communicator. “Sergeant Attir.”
“Captain.” The sergeant led the squad of marines. A complement of eight was all the mission had merited.
“Captain?” There was a chime on the line. “Secured.”
“I want a guard on the Bridge, and I want you to send two of your squad to apprehend Professor Leighton. I need him alive enough to answer questions, but you can let him know we’re serious.” She paused. “And I need two more marines to meet me on Level Three.”
The communicator flipped closed.
Hammond turned at last to the two scientists. “I think it is time for you to talk now.”
Greg shook his head, his face still gray. He had not spoken since the Lieutenant Commander had arrived, but his hands were shaking. Justine opened out her own hands helplessly.
“Very well.” Hammond turned to the marines. “The forward cargo hold will have to double up as a brig. Lock them in, but don’t linger. It’s in one of the less shielded sections.” Justine started to protest, but the Captain turned away from her and gave Lieutenant Form a long calculating look. “What do you reckon, Joe?”
“I don’t think we’ve found our mole. This was the backup.” His lips twitched in a smile. “Our mission is still on.”
Hammond nodded thoughtfully. “The last time we were given backup without being told, things went sideways.”
“Your mission…” Justine began, and then stopped as a rifle barrel pressed into her gut.
Form raised a single eyebrow to his captain. “We have a pretty narrow pool of suspects. Right now, whoever it is thinks they’re one step ahead.”
“Time to wrap this one up, then.”
“Yes, Ma’am. I’d say we’re in exceptional circumstances.” Justine saw a look pass between them. Form’s words seemed to be a quote, but she did not know from where.
Hammond nodded. “We go via the arms locker. Message Jones to meet me in the briefing room on Level Three. Make it sound dull.” She squinted in a moment of thought. “Heen too. If it wasn’t her, then Weapons is the only station with direct access to Tactical. It could be either or both.”
Rose knew the moment to act had come with the sudden appearance of marines in battle dress. Form called her to the briefing room and, as far as she could tell, no one else from the command crew had been summoned.
The tramp of boots on the metal floors gave her warning of approaching troops. She ducked into a shadowed alcove as two marines stamped past, pushing Leighton roughly in front of them. His protests echoed around the dark corridor, the headlamps of the marines sending light in a swaying cadence ahead of them. She could have killed both marines in a moment, but she had no need of Leighton now. The Captain’s suspicion of her was more damning than any confession they might wring out of the skinny scientist.
She jogged, picking up a stowed handgun from a power junction box on her way to Level Three. She held more cards than the Captain knew, but there was no need to let any of them go to waste through tardiness.
Heen was waiting when she arrived. His presence meant that Hammond needed to confirm her suspicions. That gave Rose some options.
“What’s going on?” Heen was worried. He had seen the same signs as she had, but without the knowledge to string them together.
She looked meaningfully at the door to the briefing room and then motioned with her head that he should join her on the other side of the large table that dominated the room. He’d placed a single emergency lamp on the table, which threw the shadows of the chair backs up on the metal walls. She was momentarily jolted out of the present to relive the rigors of testing and judgement that she had endured at the Seminary, making her what she was today. It was a timely reminder. The discharge of her weapon would echo in the closed space.
He died swiftly, one moment looking for her to explain her conspiratorial quiet, the next sliding silently under the table, his windpipe crushed with a single blow. She flipped open his communicator to silence it. She repositioned the chairs to hide his body and her own lamp.
Satisfied with her work, Rose stood at ease, as if waiting for her commanding officer on a routine matter.
It was not long before steps announced the Captain’s arrival. While the Captain had a knack of moving her dense body silently on the hard metal plates of the deck, the deactivated magnetic boots of the marines were unmistakable, marching in time, chiming where the edges of the floor plating met.
Hammond took a moment to assess the scene as she walked in. “Sit, Jones.”
“How can I help you, Captain?” Rose took a seat, carefully pushing the chair further away from the table than she needed to. Heen’s body was at her feet, giving off a faint warmth. Hammond and Form took seats opposite her, with one of the marines at Hammond’s shoulder and the other in front of the door.
“We’re just waiting for Lieutenant Commander Heen.”
“Heen?” Rose affected a frown. “I saw him heading the other way.”
“Did he say anything?” With a gesture from Hammond, Form left the room.
“No, Ma’am. He didn’t seem in the mood to talk, and I didn’t know you’d asked to see us both.” She gave no sign that Heen’s communicator was warming slightly in her pocket. Form was trying to call him. In a moment, he would step back in to report his failure.
On cue, he returned and whispered in the Captain’s ear. Rose folded her hands on the table in a picture of obedient waiting. Hammond tapped her own communicator, and gave a single clipped command, “Officer of the Watch secure the ship.”
On the Bridge, the ranking officer would now be reserving command functions to the Bridge. That was good. It would take about thirty seconds for the controls to filter through Rumour’s antique operating systems. It was time to play one of her hidden cards. She dropped a hand below the table and pressed a remote control device in her trouser pocket. The resulting vibration was audible through the ship.
The Captain’s communicator chirruped. She had not set it to secrecy.
“Lifeboat released, starboard side. Plotting trajectory.”
“Can you take out the engines?”
“Negative, we don’t have Heen on the Bridge, Ma’am. I’m covering weapons and I don’t have his touch.”
Hammond cursed. “We don’t have time to power up engines and pursue. I want the occupant, make the shot.”
The ship shuddered once again. Rose winced, hoping the debris or shock wave did not damage the Chamber. It was a calculated risk.
“Got the engines, Ma’am. But it must have vented. Scans indicate a body on board, but it’s dead.”
“Captain, I don’t understand.” Rose had to say something.
“It looks like we had an agent on board. Heen knew we were on to him…” the Captain tailed off. Realization dawned on her face. She had jumped to the conclusion Heen was on the escape pod, and that had cost her precious moments. The Captain’s expression pleased Rose. It meant at least some of her artistry had been appreciated, if only momentarily. The marines and Form were slower on the uptake.
Rose shot the marine at Hammond’s shoulder first. Her high-velocity bullet went through his faceplate and then burst through the back of the helmet. It embedded itself in a bulkhead.
Her second shot took the other marine as Rose herself dropped sideways off her chair. To the marine’s credit, he got a single low velocity shipboard round away, which fused with the wall behind her.
Hammond and Form had dived for cover. Rose saw movement between the chair legs and risked a shot, relieved to hear a cry of pain. She had at least winged Form. The door hissed open and she heard Hammond calling for help and dragging Form with her, through the door and out of sight.
There was only one rifle. Hammond must have picked up the other one. Rose pursed her lips in frustration. She hauled up the body of one of the marines and pushed the corpse out of the door. She leaped across the hall as Hammond’s bullets dented the marine’s light armor, the body spasming before collapsing. Rose squirted off a couple of rounds at the slightly darker patch of shade she thought might be the Captain. A low-pitched cry indicated some success. She started down the hall toward the sound, but stumbled over a soft obstruction.
Form was whimpering and crawling away from her, one hand pressed to his leg to staunch the flow of blood. His plea for mercy was stifled by a bullet through his head.
The Level Three corridor ran almost the whole length of the ship. The doors at either end opened together, and in that moment outlined the marines in the glow of their own headlamps. Rose was in deep shadows near the middle of the corridor. She shot twice with her own pistol, once forward and once aft. She took two deep breaths, centering herself. The decisions she made now were critical.
Staying alive was her immediate priority, but if the Rumour powered up its engines and restored long-range communications, her mission was lost. Getting to the bridge gave her more options. The bridge crew would be unarmed, leaving only the Captain and the marines to deal with. Getting to engineering would ensure control of the engines, but would lose her control of any other ship functions.
She needed to reduce the number of variables. She fired twice in each direction.
Cries of pain reached her at the same time as the crack of the rifles returning fire. She counted “One, two,” and then dropped to the floor. The bullets whistled overhead, passing each other. From the floor, she shot once more toward the bows. The last standing marine on the Bridge side of the corridor fell. But the Captain would be there, and waiting.
She pressed herself against the wall, careful not to be outlined in the doorway. Footsteps came towards her, three sets. She would be caught in the lights of the headlamps soon. She spun into the middle of the corridor and shot once. A lamp arced, pitching over to point at the ceiling. Another light ducked to the side with a wild burst of fire and then was extinguished.
They were waiting for her, knowing she had to go either forward or back, and that she was trapped. She crawled back into the briefing room. There was no arms locker on the bridge, but the Captain may have sequestered other weapons. Rose shook her head. She wasn’t thinking clearly. Hammond was first and foremost a spook. She would have back up arrangements of her own. What the Captain lacked was trust. Hammond knew the mission was compromised. Who else would she allow to be armed?
Still too many variables. Rose’s mission would be blown if the engines started up. She had to prevent that. She had to get to engineering. Heen’s lamp glowed on the table. She turned it to its lowest setting, and closed her eyes, waiting for the after images to fade.
She launched it blind, out of the door and towards the rear of the ship. Rifle fire spattered down the corridor. She rolled out of the briefing room, firing at the reflected light of the lamp on rifle muzzles. In moments, the only sound was the discharge of her own gun. She crawled through the dark, feeling out the bodies, checking pulses. One of the marines gurgled and sobbed, his body a mess of sticky wetness. She silenced him with a swift cut with his own knife.
Two of the three engineers were spooling up the reactor, their backs to the door. She killed them with a single shot to each skull, angled upwards to avoid any damage to the consoles where they worked. She pushed their bodies over the gantry into the observation well by the engines. There should have been a third engineer, but a quick search of the section did not reveal him. He would have to wait.
The control panels were old and simple. With two strokes, she pulled the circuits linking engineering to the bridge, then killed the shipwide artificial gravity. Her stomach lurched with the reduction in weight, replaced by a pull towards the antimatter core deep in the engine well. It was a fraction of the planetary standard she was accustomed to, but enough to give her control over her movements. Her hand lingered over the controls to cut the remaining trickle of power through the ship. She left it. Until the situation was wholly under her control, she might need more options.
She checked over her weapons. A looted rifle, the lamps the engineers had been using, and a blood slick knife. She tucked her own pistol into the waist of her trousers. She had to deal with all the remaining crew and that would require the faster rate of fire of the rifle.
The evacuation order came as she opened the door to Engineering. She had thought Hammond would hold out a little longer, but losing control of the engines and gravity was clearly enough for the Captain. Rose trotted through the rear of the ship feeling one, then a second lifeboat get away. This meant moving faster, taking more risks. She could not allow the tiny pods to power up their engines. It would ruin everything.
As she opened the door to Level Three, she was momentarily blinded by multiple lights. The Bridge crew were coming through en masse, last to leave the ship. None of them were armed. Hammond had turned out to be entirely untrusting. Rose could not afford to be merciful.
She swung the rifle and released a burst of fire. Tearing through the colleagues she had shared Bridge duty and mess breaks with for weeks. Handlamps smashed and exploded, adding to the chaos. Bodies refused to fall in the minimal gravity, propelled gently backwards by the low velocity bullets. She ran forward, emptying the magazine in short bursts as targets lurched into view. Blood droplets sprayed out, hanging in the air before slowly falling towards her and the distant antimatter core like red snow.
She picked up a spare magazine from one of the fallen marines and made sure of them all, counting as she went. She shoved her way through the bodies and mist of blood, face buried in the crook of her elbow. Lifeless arms attempted to embrace her in an entreaty to join them in death. Blood dripped off her as she emerged onto the Bridge. She put the rifle to one side of the weapons station. The lives aboard the escape pods stood between her and her purpose. It was time to end them.
“Let us out.” Justine winced as her fist struck the edge of the metal door, propelling her backwards. The marines had left their posts at the master control panel outside some time before, just after the artificial gravity gave out and the call to abandon ship echoed through the cargo bay. The ultra-dense engine core was aft and below the makeshift brig that she, Greg and Zac were held in, giving a nauseating angle to the residual pull they felt. There was no sign of anyone coming back to free them.
She gave the slave control panel a kick as she passed, which put her retreat into a dizzying spin. She had even tried mimicking the Captain’s security code to override the door, but it seemed to have been deactivated from the other side.
“Give it a rest, Richmond.” Zac flipped a discarded wrench from one hand to the other. The sole emergency lamp glinted off the metal, casting looming shadows across the dunnage and discarded pallets left over from the components of the Echo Chamber.
“It’s your fault we’re stuck in here. If you hadn’t lied about those ships, we wouldn’t be locked up.”
“You’re the one who hired a spy to handle the data,” Leighton retorted.
“A spy who was looking for the spy you were conspiring with.”
“On that, I concede, you got there first. Lead author on the study of Rose Jones is Dr. Justine Richmond.”
Justine let her shoulders sag. Leighton gave a snort of disgust and hopped off the cargo pod. He took on the tone of a lecturer. “The marines are not here to let us out, ergo, they are not here to stop us from leaving.” He peered out of the observation panel in the door. “See, no one there.” He turned to face his fellow prisoners with a raised eyebrow.
Greg shrugged a reply. Slumped in a corner, he responded to Leighton out of habit rather than interest.
“So, the challenge now is to open the door ourselves.”
Justine gave him a slow clap. “Well done Professor Genius. They’ll give you tenure for that deduction.”
“I already have tenure, Stripper Doc.”
Gregory’s shocked gasp echoed around the cargo bay as the color drained from Justine’s face.
“You think I didn’t know? The hot Melinan gets assigned to my project, and you think I didn’t get her checked out?” He leered at Justine. “You should have chosen a career your brain and body were suited for.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
“One of my assistants took some of your courses. Did you ever wonder why students always jostled to sit at the front in your class?” She didn’t want to react, but the shaking of her head was involuntary. “You’d lean forward over the desk.”
Justine felt the blood rush to her face. Hers had been a popular course while she was writing her thesis. She bit down hard on the wave of doubt that threatened to drown her. She knew her students; their marks were exceptional across the board. Perhaps some of the boys had sat nearer the front of the study hall, but that did not mean they were there only to lech at her.
Leighton was a bully. She had faced his kind all her life, from raising the money to get away from the recreational planet Melina and study, to her rejections from one doctoral program after another. Everything she had, she’d earned a dozen times over. Justine had battled prejudices while playing by rules that were stacked against her. She had lived with her chin up, and she would die that way too.
She stood, noting that Zac had found a pry bar. He had his back to her. “It’s a shame you never got the goods out on this trip,” he went on, oblivious to her determination. With the tool in hand, he pried at the access panel to the door control. “If you were more than eye candy, you would have realized this is a cargo hold on an old freighter, not a prison. Now we can be sure our guards are not returning, we can leave.” He gave a grunt of effort. The panel came away and fell in slow motion. In a moment, he had hot-wired the release and the door hissed open. He turned around with a smug smile. Justine wiped it off his face with a swing of an abandoned spar. His eyes glazed as he toppled sideways.
“Come on, Greg. Let’s get out of here.”
Gregory looked from her to the spar to the prone form of Leighton. The mineralogist scrambled to his feet, over-compensating and grabbing at the door frame to steady himself. He edged past Justine and pushed out of the cargo bay.
Justine kicked Leighton’s groaning form away from the door. He snatched his fingers back as the door shut. Justine swung the spar again, this time into the master control panel on the outside of the door. A new array of lights glittered across the panel’s dull body. She grunted with the effort of hitting it again. Sparks flew as the mechanism shorted out, fusing the electronic release.
Zac shouted something at her through the viewing panel, but the sound did not come through. An ugly welt was rising on the side of his face. She gave him a sunny smile which froze. Her eyes went wide and her face fell.
Zac frowned and turned around. Shrinking against the door and downwards. Justine had not only shorted the door release. Red lights flashed in the cargo bay.
“We have to go, Justine.”
“That arrogant prick will be fine. There’ll be a manual override or something, he just has to find it. Come on.”
He joined her at the view pane and cursed. Justine watched in horror as Zac sank from view. She pulled at the edge of the door, knowing it was hopeless. A crack of darkness opened against the haunting red gloom. Spars and cargo pods began edging away, gathering speed. Zac reappeared, clawing at the floor plating as his spare frame was sucked towards the growing darkness.
For a breath, nothing moved. Then the entire contents of the cargo bay vanished into the void. Her legs turned to jelly. She threw up against the door, horror purging her body.
Greg grabbed her arm. “Come on.” He led her away in a series of stumbling, loping arcs.
98 days after system arrival
The data is clear. The symbol appears at the extreme end of the Echo Chamber’s sensor range, and she has cleaned out the noise from other sources. Nothing prevents her from getting clarity on the signal. The energy decay curve in that part of the sub quantum spectrum is extremely steep. Whatever is causing the signal is either very close or very powerful.
She stares at the data. Behind her another of her precious candles burns down and gutters. Burn. Down. The time has come. Her painstaking data gathering is complete. The analysis must begin. She needs the computers. She needs power. It is time to bring the Rumour back to life.
She will have to traverse the length of the ship and waiting will not make it easier. At least this time she can wear boots.
Outside the Level Three corridor, she takes a moment to compose herself. She has two lamps and her weapons. She hauls open the door. There should be bodies by the door. The marines and the stragglers from the Bridge. She knows this. She has seen the bodies before. But there is nothing.
Blood stains, scraps of cloth, and shattered bits of bone litter the ground, but no bodies. The thick dust of death that she had left here has tracks dragged through it. They lead away, inwards, where the light does not penetrate. Someone she has not accounted for is alive.
She doesn’t know what she might face, but she has to get to the end of the corridor. The safety on the rifle is stiff with cold, her numb fingers catch and bruise on it before the weapon becomes active.
The first step is loud, crunching in the thick, bloody frost. Her lamps sway in the dark, sending new shadows racing ahead or running off behind. The door to the briefing room is an empty hole. She wants to give it a wide berth, but something draws her to it.
The bodies are inside. Broken and grotesque, they sit in the high-backed chairs around the broad table. Heen is there, and Form. A marine leans drunkenly to one side. A female marine is at the head of the table, holding court.
She backs out, rifle trained on the bodies, hoping one of them moves so she can pull the trigger. She allows self-recrimination to engulf her for several heartbeats. She should have confirmed the Captain’s death. Somehow Hammond’s dense, high gee body survived the rifle rounds. Hammond is neither dead in a hidden corner, nor has she left the ship. For all Rose’s searching, the Captain has eluded her.
Halfway across the ship, the access tube hatch is open. She risks one hand and shines the light inside. Nothing. If the Captain is in the Chamber, there is nothing she can do. A firefight in there could damage the core, or the cabling to the computers.
She closes her eyes to think. In engineering there is a known task, one she will have to complete no matter what she does. There is only one logical path. She turns away from the cross tube and prepares to run.
Captain Hammond is staring up at her from the hatch. Her eyes are glittering. She is withered and pale, struggling to bring her own rifle to bear. Her mouth forms the word “Jones.” But no sound comes out.
Rose kicks her in the face and is propelled backwards, landing awkwardly, twisting the ankle of her injured foot. She lurches for the distant door, boots slipping on icy ichor, shoulder in a bruising collision with the wall. She hits the door with outstretched arms and struggles through the opening procedure. There is a shuffling sound behind her.
The door hisses open and Rose falls through, tucking into a roll. She brings the rifle to bear through the door and fires twice. The pop of the discharge assaults her ears. She drops the gun, hands on her ears, eyes squeezed shut in pain, hoping that the cry she heard under the echo is not her own. She braves a squint against the ringing in her head to kick the door closed and roll against it. Her own ragged breaths are harsh and alien. It takes her a long time to steady them before clutching at the door to stand. Her ankle throbs, but she can walk on it.
It is easier to seal the door than it was to open. She raises the rifle to jam the mechanism and stops. She has underestimated Hammond’s resilience before. She arranges the lamps to face the door before reopening it and standing to the side. There is no sound other than her breathing. She risks a look and jerks back to process what she has seen. A body. Prone. She steps up warily to check.
Amelia Hammond is dead. Whatever her purpose was, it has been left unfulfilled.
25 days after system arrival
Justine and Greg stumbled into the mess hall. The ship was deserted. They had taken several wrong turns in their flight from the cargo bay, and for a while had completely lost their bearings.
Rose was waiting for them. She was covered from head to foot in blood, calmly stripping and cleaning a rifle.
“You.” Justine tried to process what she saw. She had slept peacefully beside this woman. Loved her. Her body spasmed, retching what was not there. She had misjudged everyone on this journey. She had misjudged herself.
Rose went on with her cleaning and reassembly without looking up. She hefted the weapon when the procedure was complete.
“I’m going to seal you into your quarters and labs, and I’ll bring you all the spare power packs that I can scrounge up.” She motioned them to move in front of her. “It’s going to get cold and dark until we have enough data.” She made them pick up arm loads of supplies from the mess. “When I’m ready to switch the power back on, you’ll know. We can head home when the mission is accomplished.”
Justine turned to face her. “Where is everyone else?” Her voice hoarse. Rose looked and reeked like a charnel house.
“Dead. I killed them. Where’s Leighton?”
“I killed him.”
98 days after system arrival
She knows about the infection, if only that it exists. She knows the symbol is important. Justine babbles about it every time Rose goes to check on her. The rock doctor scrawled it on the walls of his lab before taking his own life.
That death is also not on her slate. Level Three is different. Level Three was a decision she made. Lives ended so that Rose Jones could fulfill her purpose.
There is a bubble of excitement, which she knows is only a moment away from hysteria sitting below her diaphragm. The answer is close now. She knows the shape of the signal. She just needs to narrow it down to a source and extract the message.
The pressure seal on the airlock into Engineering is jammed. The manual release is behind a panel rimed with frost. She has the marine’s knife. She jabs the knife as far as it will go behind the panel cover, and levers it open.
She jumps back as the panel comes away, drifting down and landing with a dull clang where her feet had been. She activates the door release.
The pressure lock opens. A body is collapsed in a position of despair and desperation under the controls on the other side, backlit by the residual glow from the engine well. His corpse is emaciated, he must have waited for weeks before attempting to leave Engineering. In the freezing ship he has not begun to smell, nor seems to have decayed.
Perhaps this one watched from a corner when she shut down the reactors. This annoys her. It was sloppy to leave yet another body unaccounted for. She swings the hilt of the knife and sends the body tumbling away before catching it by the boot. She wedges the body against the railing. The Cluster is affecting her judgement, an untethered object is an uncontrolled variable.
She looks at the remains for a while, puzzled. She is not usually vindictive. That kind of behavior is a distraction she cannot afford. It is the Cluster, infiltrating her mind.
She smiles. She understands this for the gift that it is. It is not a madness to be rejected, or a forgetting to be resisted. It is a reordering of the mind to accept a higher truth, one that she is on the cusp of decoding.
The dead engineer slips out of her thoughts. She needs all her concentration to restart the reactors. It is a delicate and skilled operation for two experienced antimatter engineers. She will do it alone based on principles learned at the academy, and the deeper, subtler knowledge she gained from the Seminary.
The two control panels are side by side facing the reactor chamber. She can reach both sets of sliders and dials with her arms spread. It will be a test of balance, like her meditation.
Her nails are too long. In preparation for impossible physics and a feat of coordination, she has almost been undone by the mundanity of her personal care. She puts a hand to her hair. How long has it been since she has taken account of her own needs? It does not matter. She will have time while the computers run and the ship is powered to put her body to rights. In the meantime, she is pleased the knife is sharp. She trims her nails with the blade braced against her thumb. It leaves fine scores against the whorls, and lifts a bead of blood. She presses it against her side, letting the cloth soak it up and stop the bleeding. She is ready.
She opens her senses to the environment around her. There is the smell of cold metal, leaching heat through the soles of her boots. The only sound is her breathing.
Left hand, right hand, together. By leaning back, she can keep the screens on both consoles in her eye line. They flash red in warning. She is about to permit the release of antimatter by weakening the field that contains it and coax it to flow, molecule by molecule, into the dense immensity of the reactor.
The dance begins. The field is breached. Her hands flicker over the controls. The ship is an antique, the controls rudimentary. She pushes the sliders against their frozen resistance, aiming for small variations against the board’s jerking and stuttering. A warning klaxon goes off and is silenced once a perfect flow rate is managed. The engines hum to life, lights come up around her. She keeps the two consoles moving in tandem, flow rate out, flow rate in, precisely balanced. Soon, she will be able to stop, as soon as there is a stable reaction. She does not need the power for propulsion yet. Just enough to run the computers.
Her hand slips on one of the dials, a smear of blood from her thumb disrupting her grip. She corrects it swiftly, but the damage is done. There is an uneven note in the rising pitch of the reactor. An uneasy vibration runs through the ship.
She can fix it. She can run the engines up to maximum power and allow the variation to diminish in its relative scale and then tune the engines down again. It will take longer and introduces a new risk. The reactor was not designed to be shut down, only powered up and down in a range. It has been cold for months and may not retain the integrity to handle the limits of its capacity.
She has no choice. By minuscule increments, she runs the sliders up. Sweat drips from her when she finally eases them down again. The air is already warmer as the ship comes back to life. She moves to a different control board. Now that the grav lifts are working, she won’t need to traverse the ship herself. She isolates Level Three, preventing it from heating. Better to let everything there stay frozen.
With the lights and heating restored, the ship is transformed. Ice melt drips off the walls, pooling on the floor as the climate controls struggle to keep up. The whole ship hums with life.
She ignores the rock doctor’s lab. The door is sealed shut and there is nothing in there that she needs.
The equipment in Perry’s lab is in pieces. She could figure out how to put it all together eventually, but it will go faster with Justine, who will know which bits go where. She’ll need the scientist eventually anyway. There is no reason to put off confronting her.
Justine’s quarters are further down the corridor. Rose rings the door chime before punching in the code to unlock it. It is dark inside, and rank. Justine has given up any pretence of hygiene.
“Lights,” she says, surprised to hear the croaking sound of her own voice. “Justine? It’s Rose.” Her voice steadies as she speaks.
A mound of blankets and clothes in the corner moves slightly. Rose picks her way through discarded nutrition pouches and blister packs of low gee meds. She toes away some of the textile layers with her boot. There is a scuttling movement, pulling away from her intrusion. A gap forms, and through it a narrow wrist, holding something sharp. It glints as the fingers wrapped around it tremble.
“Stay away from me.” The voice is barely audible, it rasps with disuse.
Rose kneels, putting the rifle noisily to the ground and pushes it away, scraping across the floor. The sharp object, it seems to be a small knife, wavers. The grip tightens and the voice is a little clearer.
“I’m not going to hurt you, Justine.”
“Did you say that to the others?” The voice crashes into a hacking cough. The knife slips, a hand scrambles for it and clutches at it, even though Rose made no attempt to take it.
“I didn’t. They weren’t here for the same reason we are.” She reaches forward and takes the thin hand between her own. A gentle pressure is enough to stop it being pulled back. “I’ve isolated a signal. There is something out there. This is our destiny, Justine. This is the moment we were born for.”
“I was born for dancing on tables. I got over it, maybe you should too.”
The humor is a reassurance. It means Justine has not lost her spark. The knife is a small brass letter opener. Rose puts it to one side and pulls gently.
The hand snatches back. “Did you kill Perry?”
The question is a surprise. In all the time that has passed, Rose has almost forgotten the other genuine spy on board the Rumour.
“No. No, I didn’t.” She can say this truthfully. “I caught him following me, and before I could interrogate him, he took a poison pill.”
“I killed Leighton. I could kill you.”
“You didn’t kill Leighton. Being a dick killed him.” Rose has listened to this confession before, in the early days when Justine was both more coherent and wracked by guilt. She reaches for the hand again.
The pile of clothes falls away. Dr. Justine Richmond emerges, shielding her eyes from the light with one hand. She is covered head to foot in a matted layer of filth and grime. The smell is an assault. She totters forward, unable to keep her balance or hold up her own weight as blood rushes into unused legs and she collapses to the floor. Justine makes an attempt to push against the wasting of her muscles, and unaccustomed normalization of gravity, but fails. She sobs in uneven gasps. Rose suppresses a grimace and wraps an arm around Justine’s withered frame.
Getting her into a condition that will make her useful will take time, but there is no choice. Rose nudges Justine into the shower and cuts the rags off her with the marine’s knife. The scientist was always fastidiously tidy. Cleanliness may restore some of her sense of self.
Synthetic gel covers Justine for a moment and then re-combines to flow away in one discolored mass. Rose has never needed more than one cycle. She puts Justine through again and again until the woman is free of filth. Her bronze skin has turned sallow from the lightless confinement. Rose plies her with fluids and a restorative until a blush of color emerges in her complexion.
Rose has been holding Justine up in the shower. The contrast between her forearms and the rest of her body makes her empty stomach lurch in a wave of disgust. While Justine eats, she cleans herself too.
It is a welcome feeling, a comfort to be physically clean before the revelations of faith that are to come. When she emerges from the shower, the two women stare at each other. Their previous intimacy is a cold, forgotten thing. Both have changed since those early days. They stare, beyond self-consciousness in this place at the end of their separate ordeals. The scientist from the pleasure planet and the agent. They could not be more different, and yet at this ending it is just them.
There are two clean lab coats hanging in the closet. It tells Rose something about Justine that she did not use them in her nest where the other filthy clothes lay. Justine’s eyes brighten, and her shoulders straighten as she pulls on the garment. Her nod of acknowledgement to Rose is of a scientist confident in her ability, not someone defined by their looks. She hobbles ahead of Rose to Perry’s lab, holding the wall to stay upright on her own.
Form’s vandalism was superficial and with purpose, he was looking for something, not seeking to cause damage. Nonetheless, it takes an hour to hook everything back up again and reset the data feeds. There is a massive store of data to transfer. The two women in lab coats sit opposite each other. The proximity of another person is uncomfortable after so long alone. They both wipe away beads of sweat as the air warms. They both sneeze. The evidence of their shared humanity breaks the silence.
“Are you going to kill me?” Justine asks.
The directness of the question and the scientist’s calm gaze make Rose pause.
“That doesn’t inspire confidence.”
Rose smiles. The humor has pierced the clouds around her self-perception.
“Before all of this, I would have killed you without hesitation. Now, now I don’t think I could.”
“You need me to run the computers,” Justine says drily.
“It’s more than that.” The time for deceptions has passed. So much of her life has been concocted from lies and misdirection. It feels as though a weight is lifting, and with it the truth appears, humbling and stark.
“All my life, I thought this was my mission, my destiny. Now I realize I’m just a catalyst for the journey you are going on.”
“I don’t know what that means.”
“I’d like to take the time to teach you.”
Before Justine can respond the computers give a chirrup. The data transfer is complete. Justine calibrates the algorithms, one to isolate the source of the signal, another to decode the signal itself.
“You know, Perry said something very strange in his last message,” Justine says when the coding is complete. Their understanding will have to wait. “He said ‘the Cluster keeps its secrets.’ What do you think he meant by that?”
“There are some that think the Lethe Cluster is holy and should remain a mystery, even in the military.”
“What about you?”
“I want to know. That’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
The computer chimes. On the screen, a map of local space coalesces, bringing up arcs that trace the source of the signal. The second computer that is decoding the signal also chimes.
The image resolves. A map comes up of local space, a cursor blinks in anticipation of providing an answer.
Justine reaches over and blanks the screen. “Tell me something first.”
“What’s your real name?”
She has been Rose Jones for almost half her life. It is time to shed this lie.
“My parents named me Dienna.”
Justine holds out a hand. “Shall we do this, Dienna?”
Dienna grips Justine’s hand. They have both had lonely, difficult journeys to this point. Ahead of them is a path no one has taken before, one they will not take alone.
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