The book is with the editor now, and depending on how bad the carnage is among the commas I should have the ebook done and available at the usual fine retail establishments by mid to late April, and paper book shortly thereafter.
Isn’t this luscious?? And below the jump, a sample chapter for your delectation. Ware the commas….
They were in a room that looked like most of the secure meeting rooms Merilee Macrae had been in—no windows, stale, recirculated air, guards at the door, a significant percentage of the attendees in uniform—but there were telling differences. All of the beverages, even coffee, were in sealed bulbs, the furnishings bare of the usual wood and leather, and next to the door was a narrow orange cabinet labeled “Emergency Oxygen Equipment.” With her injuries, long meetings were easier to endure in reduced lunar gravity, but the location hadn’t been picked with her convenience in mind.
On the Moon, security was much easier. Not even data could escape without detection. And at the rate they were going they would run out of pre-generated classification codewords for everything her mission had discovered.
With mordant humor, she wondered how the various governments and their agencies were dealing with all the frantic astronomers who had noticed Pluto was not there anymore. Not her problem. The reason it was missing, however, was. As the man at the head of the table, the director of Space Security, was doing his best to make clear.
“I want to know why you weren’t keeping a closer eye on those scientists of yours,” Buckner said, stabbing a thick finger her way. “You were there only to study that ship, not get it running again! Now you’re telling me the whole planet’s in danger because of this.”
Macrae heard Colonel Gonafrio shift in his seat. She didn’t need to look at him to know he was probably grinding his teeth and about to utter a cutting response.
“Given that Pluto had been behaving in all respects like a rock for thousands of years, it was not unreasonable to assume it would continue to do so. Even when we discovered there was an alien ship inside,” she said, keeping her tone calm and even. Gonafrio wasn’t dumb; he’d pick up her intent. They had a dangerous path to walk and they didn’t need to stir up any unnecessary bad feelings. “Activating Argo was an accident, but convincing it to help was not.” My scientists did that, and don’t you forget it. “Furthermore, it put us in no more danger than we were in already—we just know about it now. I find it hard to believe anyone would prefer to remain in ignorance of what we found. At least now we have a chance to defend ourselves.” You blithering idiot.
“Are you certain there is no possibility of peaceful interaction with these aliens?” The speaker was a man she hadn’t met before, an Army general. He seemed uncomfortable, and now she knew why Buckner was being more of a pill than usual. The military was starting to take over the planning, as it should, and Buckner wasn’t going to be in charge much longer. Good.
Gonafrio leaned forward. “We have testimony from a group of people that have much more recent interaction with these aliens, the fadohl, than we do—and these interactions were in all respects violent and deadly. Our own personal experiences were likewise violent.” Gonafrio turned his head towards Macrae, reminding everyone why she was still wearing an arm brace. Shot up by robots on an alien base, while in the process of setting off a nuke. Bet the doctors didn’t have a diagnosis code for that.
“And let’s remember who those people are,” Macrae added. “They call themselves Wiyert but they are Neanderthals, stolen in bulk from our planet. These fadohl have no problem with slavery or genocide, and if they ever go through their archives they know where we are. No, I don’t think we’re going to be friends.”
Buckner scowled. “The claim that they are actual Neanderthals…”
“Proven. We’ve got one of them on Earth right now that came back with us. The DNA tests pegged him, one hundred percent.” Macrae waited, one eyebrow raised, but Buckner had no further comment.
Major Dahan flicked a finger at the bound classified dossier before her. “This says you have assets remaining with the ancient ship that is no longer here. How many, and what do they do there?”
Macrae stifled a smile. Elana Dahan came from the Israeli army, and had even less patience than Macrae did for unproductive meetings. Elana kept her personal emergency oxygen equipment within arm’s reach at all times and had raised holy hell about not being allowed to carry a weapon on Luna Base. Macrae approved of Major Dahan.
“Four of our people—three military, one civilian scientist—and the Wiyert we rescued from the planet they were trapped on. They intend to find the rest of the Wiyert and free them, gathering any information about the fadohl they can find.”
“Ah. Allies and intelligence. This is good.” Dahan frowned. “But why so few?”
“Larger numbers would not improve the chance of success in this case,” Gonafrio said smoothly. “And in this case, the people have unique abilities that were extremely effective.”
And better out there than here. Macrae found she was rubbing her injured arm unconsciously, remembering. Only a handful of people knew exactly how effective, or that detonating a nuclear device had only been part of the fight on the alien base. Lea Santorin’s terrifying ability was the real reason they’d won, and the only reason any of them from the expedition ship Kepler had made it back to Earth alive. She was grateful, but Macrae still didn’t want Santorin anywhere in the solar system. Macrae knew better than anyone what she was capable of.
And I’ve sent her off with a giant alien AI ship that thinks she’s a god, her own team of SF soldiers, and a bunch of Wiyert to save us. Unsupervised. With a sinking feeling, Macrae realized that might not have been exactly the smart idea she’d thought at the time.
Alaghar sat and watched in the dim light as her people slept, even though there was no need. They were no longer trapped on the dead planet, fighting just to stay alive, exposed to cold and hunger and the danger of the fadohl machine servants. Now they were warm, with plentiful—if strange—food, and the ship itself a servant now protecting them. No dark rock cave with painfully hand-chipped sleeping ledges, but a large room with light that came and went at a word, and beds placed precisely as they wished by the ship-mind that made them of its own material.
Beyond the door, open passageways and openings that looked like doors, but were not. Stepping through such an opening would bring one wherever the opening was linked to, anywhere on the giant ship.
There was no need to keep watch here, but Alaghar believed in discipline. It had kept her from despair during the long days on the dead planet. It would help her find the dangers yet to come. She was the Warleader, and that was her task. Of all that had set out from Vartai, only six of them had survived. Four were still in her care. She had taken a desperate risk in trusting the Frost People, endangering them all—endangering all the Wiyert—if she had not made the correct choice.
Trusting their lives to the Frost People was one thing, but trusting them with information was another. They had many questions—she did not blame them for that. They had never known of the fadohl before now, and feared for their people. But to simply tell them…Alaghar shook her head. That was not for her to decide. One of the buj-lagar, perhaps, but not her. She hoped the Frost People would understand the Wiyert’s desperate need for caution, and not become angry. They needed each other to survive.
There was hope. They walked the pale sand-colored passages of a former fadohl ship, as no Wiyert had for hundreds of years. But they were not prisoners, not slaves. They held their weapons, and no fadohl were present here.
Alaghar had faced many bitter hours and dark nights when the weight of her task seemed more than she could bear. They had no way to return to Beredul and their beleaguered people, no way to fight for them even in death. They had been gone so long she did not even know if the long-feared attack had finally begun—that they had made their desperate attempt at escape to stop. That had been the worst of their suffering.
But the dead planet had some ancient equipment, long abandoned by the fadohl. They had fashioned a crude sensor apparatus from pieces salvaged from it. In her soul Alaghar had expected nothing, but it gave her people hope. And then it had detected an energy pulse from the fadohl nexus they had retreated from. From the portal gate that linked the nexus and the dead world.
When they investigated, they found the nexus portal completely dead and a thin, strangely pale young woman nearby. She looked human, but did not speak their language and had no knowledge of the fadohl. Ah, but how quickly they had learned! And the first blow for freedom had been struck with their help. Alaghar could face her end with honor now, remembering the blinding destruction of the nexus. She had fought there, and won.
The Wiyert were no longer alone in their desperate fight, and it gave her the first faint threads of hope. From the young woman’s people they learned they had a common home, that once Wiyert and the Frost People had lived together in the world of the Gold Sun. Not a legend, as she had been told, but the truth.
She was not certain how the Frost People had convinced the ship-mind to obey them, but it did. If the Wiyert could learn to do the same…Alaghar smiled, baring her teeth.
The fadohl were nothing without their tools.
Especially if the tools fought back.
I’m beginning to think the true Universal Constant is paperwork, Lea thought. She held the clipboard between a thumb and finger, wrinkling her nose in disgust and glaring at the massive pile of boxes, crates and equipment that had been hastily dumped in the large cross corridor.
It was a good thing Argo was the size of a moon, because they were collecting baggage at an alarming rate. Cardboard boxes really brought down the tone of the place, though.
“This is ridiculous. Why are we still doing inventory? We’re on a giant talking alien spaceship, not in some warehouse on Earth. And aren’t we supposed to be coming up with clever sneaky plans right now? It’s been nearly a week since we dropped off Kepler.”
Ramirez chuckled. The floating bed he was on shifted a little, overcompensating for his movement. “Hate to tell ya, but this is how most Spec Ops sneaky plans start. Paperwork and meetings. They focus on fast-roping off black helicopters and blowing shit up in the recruiting ads so people will sign up. Here, I’ll take that. I’m still not up for much lifting. You move the crates.”
Lea gave him the clipboard and stopped complaining. She had a brief but vivid memory of Ramirez, bloody and screaming with pain after being shot by a defensive robot. He’d healed fast, but he was still recovering. I could see his internal organs. How can he be so calm about it?
And she knew he was calm about it, because she’d been changed by alien tech too. Sensing his emotions was like breathing air now—it took no effort and she couldn’t stop it. Fortunately, it was usually only emotions. If she didn’t make physical contact, she could avoid picking up what he was thinking. It still felt like snooping, though.
Lea shook herself and headed for one of several personal footlockers, throwing the lid open. She needed to think about something else.
“Wait, this has to be wrong. It’s stuffed with DVDs from the rec library. Or someone’s personal collection.” She held up one. It had “Grand Canyon Vacation 2019” written on the disk in marker pen. “I don’t remember this movie hitting the theaters.”
“They asked everyone for any Earth stuff they could spare. You weren’t on Kepler for that, I think. It’s for the Wiyert.”
“Oh.” That made sense, actually. The Wiyert were getting a crash course on their long-forgotten home planet. She liked that part. They were astounded by the most ordinary things, and the questions they asked made her equally curious about how they lived. Or, from the sounds of it, died. Nobody took vacations on Beredul. “Right. One footlocker, miscellaneous video. Including cartoons. I don’t know if that’s a good idea—the Wiyert already think Earth-humans are a bunch of hyperactive children.”
“Nah, just you.” Ramirez grinned. “They’re hard-core, but so are we.”
“Not like them, you aren’t. I’m not sure they even have a word for fun.” Lea opened more boxes, wondering how the language sessions were going. And, being honest with herself, when she was going to be able to spend some time with Ivars. That mental connection she liked.
Lea knew everybody had to learn to communicate with the Wiyert on their own, but it took a long time. She could cheat—she could mentally link to anything remotely computer-like, and that included Argo. While they were on Argo the AI could provide translation services for everyone, but they weren’t going to be able to stay on the moon-sized ship all the time. She had learned a lot of the Wiyert language already with her mental link to Argo, but the rest of the team had to do it the hard way. So she got to spend time making lists, and making sure Ramirez rested like he was supposed to.
A fine way to conquer the galaxy. We’ll just bore everyone to death.
“I can move all of this into a place of storage,” Argo’s voice said diffidently. “I will make helpers to do it more quickly than you can.”
“It’s not just about moving, Argo.” Lea looked in the large cardboard box of MREs and sighed. “We need to know what we’ve got here, and you don’t know what these things are, right?”
“It is true. I will learn.”
And the faster she got this done, and Argo up to speed, the less time she’d have to spend away from everyone else. “Soldier-chow, one large box, says 144 of the things but damn if I’m going to count them all. I’m glad Macrae let us have all that real food from Kepler. If I had to eat this all the time I’d get pretty cranky.”
“You’d get more than cranky.” Ramirez waggled his eyebrows. “A constant diet of that will plug you up like concrete. Me, I like Argo’s creative refrigeration fix. Even canned stuff gets old.”
“Yeah, I noticed the extra chicken nodules evaporated in record time. I was planning on having some for a snack, but not with you guys around.”
“Hey, I didn’t take ‘em! Chicken nodules…chica, I don’t know what scares me more, that I knew what you meant or that I agree with you.”
“See? It’s contagious! Gonna make a geek of you yet.” She grinned at him.
Lea got about ten feet down the corridor of stuff, talking as she went, before she realized Ramirez had fallen asleep. Just in case a box fell or something, she had Argo modify the floating bed to have acoustic baffling and kept going.
She didn’t have to speak for Argo to hear her. And the AI preferred the mental link, which was faster and more complex, to spoken communication anyway.
This box has ammunition. I don’t know what guns it goes with; you’ll have to ask the others.
Why are there so many of the same thing?
They get used up. She visualized pulling the trigger of a gun and the bullet coming out. The next container had multiple smaller boxes, all with medical supplies. This is stuff for fixing people when they are hurt. Ramirez knows the most about this.
Several large cartons of cold-weather clothing, which made her wonder what the original plan had been when Kepler left Earth for the derelict Argo, more commonly known then as Pluto. Maybe it had been packed just in case. None of it looked large enough for the Wiyert, who were rather massive about the shoulders and arms.
I can make things, Argo reminded her.
Lea widened her eyes. Maybe this was all an academic exercise. She knew Argo could fabricate items, but she hadn’t thought about variety, or scale.Yeah, but how much? And what kind of things?
The data burst from Argo took some time to unpack. It could not, unfortunately, create an infinite amount of anything, or very much of what they really needed. It had a stock of most elements, and could produce large quantities of material similar to cloth or fiber, but it could not directly synthesize complex molecules except slowly and in small batches.
They might be able to work around that, if someone knew what the chemical process was. Argo could probably make the equipment or bootstrap from there. She would have to ask the others if they wanted to do that.
She shifted the big bulky box and saw the familiar sheen of protective aluminum cases. Good, they hadn’t forgotten her gear. Lea had the distinct impression Macrae, the mission director, had been relieved to go back to Earth without her—had it really only been a week ago? Nobody really felt comfortable around her…new abilities. They didn’t want her happy so much as far away from them.
They are very primitive. They do not have any adaptive processes. Why do you want these devices? The AI equivalent of a sniff, she guessed.
This is the technology we came up with ourselves, she explained. We don’t know how to make anything even one tenth as complex as you. Also, you are hard to put in a pocket.
A signal decoder, a digital oscilloscope, several portable computers—the data crunching kind, not websurfing tablets—and a wheeled bin full of a wide assortment of components.
On top of the next stack was a medium-sized cardboard box with garish color illustrations of cheese crackers. It had obviously been opened already but Lea reached for it, hoping against hope some of the original contents might remain. She was feeling hungry all of a sudden.
It was curiously heavy for crackers. She tugged it down, resting it on the wheeled bin, and lifted one flap. The box was filled with inky blackness. One green eye opened and stared at her. Messier Object #102, aka M.O., Kepler’s… former…ship’s cat, stood and stretched.
Lea just stared at him in horror. “How did you…we put you back! You’re supposed to be back on Earth!” Now she really could never go home. Macrae would never, ever believe she hadn’t done it on purpose. “Bad cat! No tuna!”
M.O. yawned with magnificent unconcern.
Ivars winced and got up from the table to get some coffee and take a break. North and Ramirez were still hard at work; one sitting at a different table in the big common room Argo had made for them, the other drawing some complicated diagram on the reactive walls to illustrate a point. The Wiyert’s language sounded just enough like Russian to give Ivars a headache. Now and then he slipped up and used the wrong language, and Alaghar would give him a funny look. Fortunately they didn’t have to do it all from scratch, since Lea had given them direct access to a very effective translation service. A slightly archaic translation service—he got the feeling the Wiyert thought Argo sounded like authentic Shakespeare to a modern English speaker. Still, it was good enough for government work.
“Hey.” A thump on his shoulder followed the voice, and he blinked. North was standing next to him and giving him a resigned look. “You blanked out again. Tell me you aren’t going squirrelly too, dude. One’s enough.”
Ivars felt his face heat. “Nah, I just…” Then he realized what he had been doing. His mind had been unconsciously searching for the link, because he had thought of Lea. “OK, maybe. Dammit, how’d I get so used to having voices in my head? Before we left Earth if anybody even hinted something like that I would’ve punched them. Now when I can’t…sense her I think something’s wrong.”
He spoke quietly, so only North could hear. They were focusing on getting the Earth-humans fluent in Wiyert first, but he knew the Wiyert were damn observant and intelligent and were probably already able to understand more English than they’d been taught. And Lea’s special abilities were not something he felt ready to explain to them, or get them to accept.
“Argo would be sounding every alarm it knows how to make if anything happened to Lea. She’s probably the safest human in the galaxy right now.”
Ivars glared at North. “I know it isn’t rational. Blame it on my dented skull.”
“I don’t think the brain is the problem here.” North grinned. “This link thing. Is it like what she does?”
“Not even close. Mostly I can tell where she is.” Of course that changed if they were in contact. With great effort, he managed not to smile.
“I’ll probably regret asking this, but do we have any plan beyond ‘hide out for a while, then contact Beredul’?”
“That’s up to the Wiyert.” This would take more than their current simple language skills. “Hey, Argo. Go back to translate mode, please. And how long are we going to be waiting once we get…wherever you are taking us?”
Argo’s voice had been changing as it learned human speech modulation. “If the fadohl are able to track my drive signature, we should not go to Beredul. I am going to a location they can reach from their network and I will have a wide array of sensors deployed. If they do not follow, there is a low probability they can find me if I go to a location away from the network.”
“And then what?” Ivars gestured to Alaghar, who regarded him with a stony, impassive expression. “What is our immediate mission once we reach Beredul and make contact? We all want the fadohl taken out, but what’s the best way to do it that protects the people of both Earth and Beredul?”
The other Wiyert gathered around Alaghar. With Argo handling the translation now, the communication bottleneck was removed.
“Before all, we must find a way to break the barrier that imprisons us. The fadohl left devices and a watching mind on the portal, and the only connection to that portal on the surface of Beredul is heavily guarded. The watcher will not permit any powered vehicle to approach without destroying it, and the asuhan are drawn to the place as well.”
“Giant beasts, violent and dangerous.”
“How did you get to this portal in the first place?” North gestured at the Wiyert. “You got out to the planet of the nexus where we found you, so it must be possible.”
Alaghar’s lips pulled back just enough to bare her teeth. It was not a smile. “Fifty of us left the stronghold of Vartai to make the attempt. Of those only twelve survived to reach the portal, Three more died before we escaped to the dead world you found us on. We were the first of the banished on Beredul to leave. Our people will think the fadohl captured us, and will be suspicious of any who return—and will also fear any stranger who appears.”
Ivars felt his eyelid twitch. It hadn’t escaped him that Alaghar had never answered his original question, and she was handing him a whole bunch of dangerous complications instead. “So if we get to this portal somehow we still have to fight our way through giant monsters to get to a place where we will essentially be shot on sight just for breathing. Do I have that right?”
“We must also reach the portal without bringing the fadohl to investigate.” There might have been a gleam of amusement in Alaghar’s flinty gaze, but he wasn’t sure. “We have been missing for…” she spouted some Wiyert phrases, and Argo translated it as “302 Earth-days.” So, nearly a year. Yes, the home office had probably written them off and was in deep panic mode.
“Great. Looks like our first priority is calling this Vartai and convincing them we are friendly.”
Alaghar shook her head, in the sharp, back-and-forth style of the Wiyert. “There is nothing like your ‘radio’ for such long distances. This is also detected and attacked by the watcher.”
Ivars groaned. “This cannot possibly get any worse.”
“Oh, you’re forgetting a few things.” North raised an eyebrow. “One, it will probably rain. Two, Santorin has to come with us if we’re going to hack in to the system and take the barrier down.”
No. He felt his stomach knot and his skin go cold. Too dangerous. Not Lea. Then he tried desperately to think of something happy and calm, like sleeping puppies. If she was listening she’d feel his sudden jolt of terror and worry. It was hard to keep that in mind, and he didn’t want to add to her troubles with his own hangups. It was going to be near impossible for him and North as it was. Ramirez might be a problem too, if he hadn’t healed up enough, but he had the training. Lea, on the other hand, was pure computer-geek civilian and not up to fighting giant alien monsters. Or even a five-mile run with a full pack.
“Then we’re just going to have to figure out a way to get all of us down to the surface, safely, and tell the locals we come in peace.”
North sighed. “For a very loose definition of peace.”