Chapter 13: Whispers in the Dark
Chapter 13: Whispers in the Dark
Moses’ impact on the study of theology cannot be overestimated. The moment of his emergence was the crowning moment of secularism. The wisdom of man said that If there was a God, he was no longer needed, for man had replaced him with something made in his own image rather than the divine. Others thought that this was deity itself, newborn in the universe and that it was due our reverence.
The truth was far stranger.
Moses needed little input from humans when it came to science in those early days, and in the later years, none at all. But the theologians of the world’s various faiths found Moses to be their student. Many reported that the AI asked them questions directly from their computer terminals and those questions were the same ones men have been asking for millennia. About humanity, the universe, and, most of all, about the nature of evil. In the final years of his stewardship over mankind, the AI began to ask after his own existence, about death and nature of the soul.
It was sobering to discover that the greatest rational mind that we had ever encountered struggled with the same questions we did. If he ever came to conclusions, Moses never spoke a word of it.
Did Moses predict his own demise? Was he afraid of what awaited him after his own consciousness ceased?
His departure made all of mankind gaze inward upon itself, as the terror of the night fell down upon Adam’s race.
Sister Margaret P. Sullivan
Historian of the Order of St Aquinas
Died 18 AM
Davey walked through the Venusian market, not sure what he was looking for, but convinced he’d know it when he saw it. Yellow light filtered down from the skylights above in an attempt to make the market feel as if it were in the open air. Crowds of people pressed past the narrow winding stalls, buying and haggling their way to a good deal. While it seemed that crimson was reserved for the emperor and the upper crust of society, the Venusian commoners wore equally vivid colors. Tunics of verdant greens, golden yellows, and assorted blues were the norm.
Someone bumped into him, and Davey’s hand immediately rose to his breast pocket to secure the precious coins. Matthew had warned him about pickpockets in a market like this, but Davey hadn’t needed the reminder. He and Grace had lightened the load of more than one mark in the depths of Ceres before they’d gotten picked up by slavers. He would distract the target while Grace moved in with the nimble fingers. They’d had a good thing going, but this thing with the Sparrow had possibilities.
The most unbelievable part was that he and Grace got paid. Or sort of. Yvonne seemed to be handling the money. Most of it went to expenses, fuel, supplies, maintenance, and food, but everyone got a personal allowance. He assumed that the useful people got a bit more than stowaway kids, but he wasn’t going to complain.
Especially if it meant he could get Grace something for her birthday. Now he had to figure out what. He walked up to a canvas covered stall and frowned at the collection of toys. She was going to be thirteen and he couldn’t just get her a doll or something like that. He needed something special.
He didn’t have a clue what that was.
Leaving the toy booth behind, he rejoined the flow of the crowd. Matthew was somewhere nearby. He was in the market for a new hat after having his favorite one destroyed during the birthday party fiasco. Just in case Matthew’s mysterious friend was caught, they'd been required to stick around Venus. The plus side was that they’d been invited to the palace for dinner on several occasions. Davey didn’t mind eating like an emperor, and the company wasn’t all that bad. He still hadn’t forgiven Nicolas for being an idiot, but he did have to admit that Claudia was easy on the eyes.
This wasn’t helping him find a birthday gift for Grace.
“Young man, you seem like just the sort I’m looking for.”
Davey turned to the voice. A man with a faded eyepatch sat with his back to a wall. Davey pointed at his chest in question, unsure if the man had even been addressing him.
“Yes, yes! Of course you. Come, come talk to old Arnim.”
He cautiously approached the man who smiled widely. Too widely for Davey’s taste.
“I’ve been looking for a brave young adventurer like you,” Arnim said. “I see a lot of myself in you of course.” He tapped his chest. “I had a ship. A crew. The solar system was practically mine.”
“I’m sure it was,” Davey said. “Is this going to go somewhere, or are we just wasting time?”
“Direct and to the point,” Arnim mused, scratching the back of his head. “I like that. I like that, indeed. What if I told you that I know of a secret? A treasure I discovered on my last journey.”
Definitely a scammer, Davey thought. He knew guys like this. But this wasn’t a tactic he’d seen before, and he was curious. “Seriously?” he asked, feigning excitement. “What’s the treasure?” A good scammer would have seen Davey’s suspicion and dodged out. This guy was an amateur.
“Something that could save all mankind,” Arnim whispered. “I have a map to Moses himself. He’s still out there!”
That took Davey by surprise. He was used to hidden caches of syndicate money or abandoned spaceships that still worked, but Moses himself was quite a prize. He raised an eyebrow and crossed his arms. “Oh? And where did you get this map?”
Arnim looked left and right as if to make sure no one else would hear them. “I took it from the body of a corrupt government official I had to kill. It’s all a conspiracy. The colonial governments. They’re hiding Moses from us.”
“I see,” Davey said. The story wasn’t too bad of one, now that he thought about it. Prey on people’s desire to be the hero and save mankind, while stoking their distrust of authority. The execution was off, but that could always be polished. “Why don’t you go find Moses yourself?”
“Lost my ship and crew in that same adventure,” Arnim said, looking morose. “I barely escaped with my life.”
“And now you’re ready to pass the map to me,” Davey continued. The price would come next.
Arnim nodded. “I need a little help though. See I’ve lost everything. In exchange for some coin, Arnim would be more than happy to trust the map to a young man like yourself.”
Davey suddenly felt a hand on his shoulder, and he turned to see Matthew behind him. “What have you gotten yourself into Davey?”
“Me? Just getting scammed by a grifter.”
Arnim’s mouth dropped open briefly before he managed to paste a hurt look on his face. “I’m here trying to help you save us all but you’re…”
“Is this a ‘Map to Moses’ thing?” Matthew asked.
“Yep,” Davey said. “I never heard this scam down in the depths of Ceres.”
“You gotta be close to a spaceport,” Matthew said. “You through toying with this guy? We’ve got to get going.”
Davey reached into his pocket and found a small denomination coin, enough for lunch, and tossed it at Arnim. “Might want to find a job. I’m not sure you’re cut out to be a con-artist.”
The man sneered at Davey, but he caught the coin and pocketed it anyway.
Davey turned and followed Matthew through the crowd. “Hey, I’m not done in the market yet.”
Matthew stopped and glanced over his shoulder. “How long does it take to find a birthday present?”
“Long enough, I guess.” He looked at his feet. “She’s going to be thirteen. I don’t know what to get her.”
“We’ll be late to the palace,” Matthew said. He ran a hand through his hair. Davey thought he was almost unrecognizable without the hat. Apparently, the gaucho’s shopping trip hadn’t been all that successful either.
“Well, that changes everything,” Davey said. “We wouldn’t want to keep Julia waiting.” Matthew glared at him, and Davey smirked.
“Funny. And here I was about to help you out.”
“I figure you still are,” Davey said.
Matthew sighed. “I hope Grace won’t be as obnoxious a teenager as you are. Come on. I’ve got an idea.”
They’d barely made Davey’s purchase when Matthew’s comm pinged. He glanced at it. Sharon. Probably upset at how late they were. “We’re on our way. Just finishing up. No one is going to miss dinner.”
Sharon scoffed on the other side. “This is better than dinner. Just got a message from Benny. He’s got a job for us but we have to get airborne in the next hour.”
“He give any details?” Matthew asked. If it was time sensitive, it was somewhere close by.
“You know how he is. He’s your broker. He said more details will follow when you confirm.”
“We’re on our way,” he said. “Tell Yvonne to have the Sparrow prepped for launch and inform the palace we’re heading out earlier than expected. Tactfully please.”
“What, you don’t want to break Julia’s heart yourself?”
Matthew’s eyes flicked over to Davey. The teen shrugged. “Just don’t burn any bridges,” he grumbled and ended the call. Obviously, some faulty assumptions were being made by the rest of the crew and the gossip chain had started.
They pushed their way out of the market back towards the palace’s side entrance. Security checked them for weapons, and they were escorted to the royal hangar where the Sparrow still sat. Thankfully, they weren’t being charged for parking, or Matthew would have moved somewhere much cheaper. They boarded via the portside ramp and he closed it behind them.
In the cockpit, Yvonne already had the Sparrow prepped for launch. “Welcome back, Captain. She’s all yours.”
“You don’t want the practice?” he grinned as he sat down. He reached up to take off his campero before he realized he wasn’t wearing one.
“No thanks. I’d rather get some practice landing and taking off from a stationary rock before doing anything fancy.”
“Best way to learn is by doing,” he said and tapped out a quick message back to Benny. It would be a few minutes before the broker got word on Mars and replied. Speed of light was only so fast after all. He flipped on the intercom. “Find somewhere to park. We’re taking off.”
Sharon appeared in the cockpit. “Good to finally be getting out of here.”
Matthew nodded as he eased the Sparrow out of the hangar. “No sense getting soft sitting around a palace eating puff pastries.” He felt the sudden jolt of the wind as they cleared the safe harbor of the city. Pushing the throttle, he gunned for orbit. Soon the winds died away as the hellish atmosphere of Venus gave way to the cold vacuum of space.
“I could have done that,” Yvonne observed smoothly.
“That’s why I offered,” Matthew said. “Looks like Benny’s already replied. Let’s see what’s so important.”
The broker’s nasally voice crackled over the cockpit speaker. “Who’s your favorite broker, Cole? Don’t answer that. You’ll just say something sarcastic. Now that you’ve got a crew, courtesy my good advice, you’re suddenly hot stuff. This job came in specifically with your name on it. Are you sitting down? I hope you are because this is one of those once in a lifetime jobs. And before you ask, the employer checks out. Some guy that goes by a moniker: The Unchained Man. A bit dramatic maybe, but I’ve heard of him before. Never had the chance to work with him till now. Pays real well.”
Yvonne looked at Matthew and he shrugged. Melodramatic name aside, the odds were Benny was overselling this.
“Someone spotted a Mosaic Frigate. Derelict and drifting. Here’s the best part. The salvage team working on it went silent.” Benny paused for dramatic effect. “It’s a ghost ship! I’ve sent the details. Make me proud and people will start begging me for your services.” The message ended with a pop and Matthew leaned back in his seat and whistled. Benny wasn’t kidding about this being a top tier job.
“What’s a Mosaic Frigate?” Grace asked. Matthew turned quickly. He hadn’t noticed Davey and Grace crowd into the cockpit. Place was elbow room only now with Sharon hogging the space.
He scratched his stubble thoughtfully. “Back a century ago, when Moses was still around, he had a fleet of ships under his direct control that he used to oversee projects all across the solar system. Big ones. Some were over a mile, er… two kilometers long. So big that they couldn’t enter atmosphere. They’d pull up at a colony and little robotic drop ships would descend to do whatever work Moses had in mind. No one even knows where they were based or where Moses built them. They just kind of started showing up.”
“That would be terrifying,” Sharon said.
“To us? Sure,” Matthew said. “In that day they were used to Moses working miracles. Humanity had seen the red sea parted enough times that they no longer questioned the wonderful things he did.”
Davey shook his head. “I don’t think I could ever trust a robot or AI or whatever he was.”
Yvonne smiled. “It’s hard to say what any one of us would have done in any different time and place. It’s easy to be judgmental of the past from the vantage of the present.”
“Look where he left us,” Davey said.
“Whatever happened to Moses?” Grace asked.
Sharon snorted. “Grace, if we knew that answer we’d all be rich.”
“No one has any guesses?” she asked.
“Oh there are lots of guesses,” Matthew said. “Catastrophic hardware failure. Sabotage. Software revision gone wrong. Aliens. And they only get weirder from there. Doesn’t matter since Moses didn’t really leave much behind to study.”
“Except these ships?” Grace asked.
“Pretty much,” he nodded. “It’s been over a decade since we’ve found one too, at least one announced publicly. When Moses left, they all shut down and drifted cold. We found the ones in orbit over colonies quickly. The ones in route to a destination ended up in eccentric orbits that have been difficult to find.”
“What’s the word on this one?” Sharon asked. Matthew could see she was getting itchy for action.
“Don’t know yet.” He pulled up the information. “Highly eccentric orbit that reaches out beyond Neptune and dips in past Mercury. Bit of a sungrazer actually. Let’s see…” he scanned the document. “Right now it’s traveling inward. About an hour away by frameshift. Salvage team made contact a week ago. Two days ago they entered the ship. That was the last they were heard from. We’re supposed to determine their fate and, if need be, mount a rescue.”
“That’s it? No other clue as to what happened to them?” Yvonne asked.
“Not one,” Matthew admitted.
“I don’t like it,” Davey said. “If that ship was a derelict, this is bad news. Nothing good happens when people start disappearing.”
Matthew shrugged. “Maybe someone else found it first? Or maybe it was booby-trapped. Either way, we’re taking the job. It’s worth too big a pile of cash to pass on. We’ll be careful and go in with cool heads.” The comm on the console lit up and he flipped the switch. “This is the Sparrow. Who…?”
“I see you thought you could give me the slip, Matthew Cole,” Julia’s voice said.
Matthew regretted taking the call almost immediately. Now the crew was really going to talk. Pointless gossip. There wasn’t anything going on between him and Julia. Aloud he said, “Unhappy fact of life. A freelancer has to eat. And we don’t eat if we don’t work.”
“I understand.” The disappointment in her voice was plain for everyone to hear. ”When you return to Venus, I insist you stop by Concordia. My father isn’t the only one who enjoys entertaining guests.”
“We’ll keep that in mind,” Matthew said, making sure to emphasize the we part. Maybe he had miscalculated when it came to the Emperor’s daughter…
“Very well. Be safe out there and may your ship always find safe harbor.” The comm went silent.
Matthew cleared his throat uncomfortably. “Not one word,” he said, knowing he was wasting his breath.
Davey didn’t like the mission one bit. He wasn’t sure if he believed in ghosts, regardless of the stories the kids had told each other about the dark lower levels of the Duke’s habitat, but the idea of a ship just floating empty and abandoned for a century made his skin crawl. Something had happened to that salvage team. Something that shouldn’t have happened.
Things had explanations. He was sure of that. He just wasn’t sure he wanted to know the explanation.
For the first time since stepping foot on the Sparrow, he was glad he was a second class crew member. Matthew and Abigail were welcome to an adventure. He’d be happier in his room where he had been hiding for the last hour.
The door opened abruptly. “Davey get your new spacesuit on. You’re coming with us,” Matthew said.
Davey’s eyes snapped to the intruder. He wasn’t serious was he?
“Get moving. We’ve got a job to do.”
“Wait now, just a minute,” he said, finally finding his voice. “You’re going to send me into that… That ghost ship unarmed? What is this? Am I bait?”
“There’s no such thing as ghosts and I’m not sending you in unarmed. Get ready.”
The door slid shut with a whoosh leaving Davey alone again. “Not cool, Matthew,” he said to the door. He obeyed though and pulled out the new spacesuit they’d bought for him on Venus. The fact that it was a children’s size was a bit insulting, but at least it fit properly.
Five minutes later he stepped out of his room, helmet tucked under his arm, and turned towards the cockpit. Yvonne and Grace were staring out the front canopy.
“Look at that thing, Davey,” Grace said, her voice filled with awe.
An enormous ship floated dead in space in front of them. Enormous was the only word Davey could find for it. To his eye, it looked three times the size of the Duke’s habitat, but he knew that judging size in space was tricky. It had a strange angular smoothness to it. Most ships and stations had sharp industrial looks or lean aerodynamics if they were meant to land in atmosphere. Everything had a purpose. But this wasn’t the case with the Mosaic Frigate. It was something out of a dream, or nightmare. Inhuman. Then he saw the smaller ships clustered around it, at least a dozen tiny ships, also silent and dead.
“What are those other ships?” he asked, not really wanting to hear the answer.
“Presumably,” Yvonne said, “one of them belonged to the salvage team. The others probably belonged to earlier groups unlucky enough to stumble upon this particular ship.”
Davey felt his heart drop into his stomach. “Then what are we doing here? This thing is dangerous.”
“You’re not scared are you?” Grace asked mischievously.
“No,” he said too quickly. “I just don’t like the odds. It’s why I don’t play you in checkers. I know a losing game.”
“Matthew and Abigail will keep us safe,” Grace said, with a confidence that Davey certainly didn’t feel.
“We’ll do our best,” Matthew said. “But if you lose contact with us, Yvonne, I want you to back the Sparrow away from the frigate. If you don’t hear from us for twelve hours, go find help.”
“And just who would come to help a group of Freelancers?” Yvonne asked. “I’m with Davey. I think this is a bad idea.”
“Noted, but we accepted the contract. Yvonne. Grace. Keep an eye on the ship.”
Davey and Matthew left the cockpit and joined Abigail in the common room. Matthew surprised him when he pulled out the old enforcer sub-machine gun that he had smuggled onto the Sparrow and used to take Yvonne hostage. Stupid decision, he thought cursing himself and his own rash actions. He could have gotten someone killed. He could have gotten Grace killed.
Matthew checked the gun over once before handing it to Davey. “I’m not going to take you into a dangerous situation with no way to protect yourself,” he said. “Don’t make me regret this. If this gun fires, it better be a life or death situation. The drum magazine is full. If you need more, and I hope you don’t, I’ve got two more on me.”
“And if you point that thing at either of us, I sit on you till you pop,” Abigail said, menace in her voice.
“I get it,” Davey said. He checked the gun over for himself before clipping it to the waist of his suit. “Anyone else need to threaten me?”
No one answered.
“So what’s the plan?” he asked.
“We take a little walk over to that frigate, find a way in, and work out a plan from there,” Matthew said.
“Translation,” Abigail added cheerfully. “We don’t have one.”
“Great.” He was going to die in a child-sized space suit.
They left the Sparrow by the top side hatch. From out here, the frigate looked even bigger. It was wider than it was long, with great wings like one of the bats that roamed the coreward cities of Ceres. They were bad luck, which seemed about right given the current circumstances.
“I don’t even recognize the models of most of the ships,” Abigail said.
“Most of them have been out here for decades,” Matthew said. “Except that one right there.” He pointed at a ship drifting close above the starboard wing. “Late model. Last year or two.”
“That’s our missing survey team’s ship,” Davey said as the dots connected. “I guess we start there and figure out how they got in?”
“Precisely,” Matthew nodded. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. “Keep an eye on each other in there. I was trying to talk confidently in front of Grace, but I don’t know what we’re getting into.”
“I’ve got one for each of you,” Abigail said. She pushed off the Sparrow and used her thruster pack to point toward the survey ship. “Race you gentlemen there.”
Davey wasn’t in any mood for games, but he followed after her. To his left, the sun shone huge and menacing. He was used to the tiny beacon of light visible from Saturn, not this harsh eye that burnt down on him inside of Venus’ orbit. It cast sharp shadows on the frigate as the hulk loomed ever closer. He’d rather head back to the Sparrow, be anywhere but here. But if he lost his nerve, he’d hate himself for it. The worst part was that he knew Matthew would probably just give him another chance. For all the tough talk, he was a forgiving sort. Davey owed him. Big time. And he wasn’t about to disappoint.
Abigail wouldn’t forgive him if he chickened and ran, but she could go rot for all he cared.
She beat them to the survey ship. Not having to worry about slowing down before slamming into it had advantages. By the time Davey and Matthew caught up, she’d already found an airlock.
“Power’s off. Not really a big surprise,” she said.
Something caught Davey’s eye. “Matthew, look at that.”
The hull had been peeled back from one part of the survey ship. Someone or something had dug into the machinery beneath. “That’s the power plant,” Matthew said quietly. “Efficient and nasty bit of sabotage. Yvonne, you there?”
“Ready and waiting,” she replied.
“Keep your eyes and ears open. Something disabled the survey ship. Ripped right through the hull to the power plant.”
Yvonne was silent for a long moment. “That doesn’t make me feel any better about this mission.”
“Me neither,” he said. “You see anything, you get the Sparrow out of here.”
Davey shook his head. This was bad stuff.
“Well, at least we know it’s not ghosts,” Abigail said. It was an attempt at a joke, but it fell flat.
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said. “You know that whatever did this could pry open that suit like a tin can, right…?”
That shut her up for once.
“If you two are through trying to scare each other, let’s see if we can get into the frigate.” Matthew shined a spotlight along its hull. “There’s an airlock. Probably why they parked here.”
They drifted over to the hatch. Matthew clumped his magnetic boots down on the hull and bent over the controls. “Still powered. Ready to head inside?”
“No,” Davey said.
“Honesty,” Abigail laughed. “I like it. I’ll go first.”
The hatch was a dark portal. Abigail gripped the sides and lowered herself into the airlock.
“You next,” Matthew said gesturing at the opening.
No turning back now. He gritted his teeth and followed Abigail into the unknown.
Abigail had figured the lights would come on as she entered after the hatch had power. Why weren’t there lights?
She flicked on her suit’s headlamp. The airlock was much bigger than the one on the Sparrow. They’d all fit without a problem.
Davey bumped into her backside. “Sorry. Can’t see a thing. He fumbled for a moment before turning on his helmet’s much smaller light.
They were soon joined by Cole, whose spotlight flashed around the room. He closed the outer hatch. At once Abigail felt the rush of air around her. Cole waved his hand. “Umm, Davey you might want to check which way is about to be down.”
The kid’s eyes went wide as he tried to spin. He almost made it. Right as the room pressurized, gravity turned on, and he dropped to the floor. Abigail tried to swallow her laugh. Now wasn’t the time to pick a fight.
He scrambled to his feet and reached to take off his helmet.
“Better leave it on until we know what happened to the survey team,” Cole suggested quietly.
Davey’s hand froze in place on the latch it had been about to unclasp. “Right. Good call.”
Abigail opened the inner door. She was hoping to see a nice, clean, well-lit corridor. Instead, it was dark again. “Doesn’t look like Moses was much of an interior decorator,” she said, as she stepped through into the ship. “Seems rather industrial in here.” A tangle of pipes and machinery ran above their heads and the floor beneath was only a steel lattice over more of the same.
“I guess this ship wasn’t designed with humans in mind,” Cole said, flicking his light back and forth down the corridor. “I’m surprised it’s even pressurized. I guess Moses thought he might have the occasional guest, but didn’t bother with the paint job.”
“Sure does a good job of welcoming them,” Davey mumbled.
“I don’t think Moses is home,” Cole countered.
“Then who is?”
Abigail heard the pitch of his voice. The kid was scared. Considering the situation, she didn’t really blame him. She kept seeing the survey ship’s peeled back hull plates in her mind. Whatever had done that wasn’t something she wanted to meet in a dark hall.
“I don’t know,” Cole admitted. “Yvonne, we’re inside the frigate.”
He was greeted with a hiss of static.
“Yvonne? Sparrow, come in?”
Abigail caught Cole’s eye. “Interference?”
“Probably something in the frigate jamming or blocking the signal. Must have started right when we entered. I guess it’s not strong enough to block close-range suit to suit.”
Davey spun on his heel. “We need to go warn them…”
Cole caught him with a hand on his shoulder. “Easy. Yvonne will pick up the jamming when she tries to call us. She’ll move the Sparrow further away. Grace is safe on the Sparrow. Warning them of something they’ll find out in the next couple minutes will just burn valuable time.” Abigail knew there was some logic there, but wasn’t entirely sure she agreed.
“Right. I got it,” Davey said. He took a deep breath. “So what do we do now?”
Cole pointed his light down the corridor to the right. “We go that way.”
Abigail frowned. “Why that way?”
He smiled. “We’re in one of the wings remember. One way leads towards the tip of the wing, the other leads towards the body. I’m going to make an assumption that the survey team was trying to find a control center or something along those lines.”
Abigail kicked herself mentally. Sometimes the obvious was too obvious. “Okay, but I’m still taking point.” She deployed her shield, the faint hum of the grav plate muffled and indistinct with her faceplate down.
“I’ve got the rear. Davey, stay between us.”
“No complaints from me.”
Cole dug under his poncho and pulled out two weapon magazines. “Also I’ve changed my mind. I’d rather you had these on you. Just in case.” Davey took the ammo and stashed them in a pouch. Maybe even Cole was getting spooked.
“We ready?” she asked, impatient. “Sooner we find that survey team the better.”
“Lead the way,” Cole said.
Abigail turned back to the dark corridor and began to slowly march down it, shield raised in front of her. The hall was straight as a laser and long enough that her lights didn’t reach the end. They bobbed and wavered with each step she took, casting hypnotic shadows on the tangled machinery surrounding them. For the next several minutes they plodded forward, but the scenery never changed. There were no side corridors, accessways, windows, anything. Just a never-ending hall of dancing shadows. She found her attention drifting.
Wait. Something was wrong. The hall was getting shorter. Or maybe the lights weren’t going as far. Abigail checked her wrist display and saw her charge was still good. No reason the lights would be dimming. She looked back up and the light was brighter again. Weird.
No sooner had she started walking again than it seemed like the light was shrinking back towards her. She licked her dry lips. Definitely in her head. You wouldn’t think someone who spent every day of her life in a metal shell would get claustrophobic, but here she was.
“What was that?” Davey squeaked behind her. She stopped in her tracks. Nothing ahead of her, so she glanced back at the others. The short kid was staring at the ceiling, which looked like pretty much the same maze of metal it had for the entire corridor.
“I don’t see anything,” Matthew said. He was keeping an eye on the rear.
“I heard it,” Davey insisted. “Above us.”
She looked at the ceiling again and imagined another corridor above them. The thought that something might actually be up there was unnerving. “I didn’t hear anything,” she said, aware that she was lowering her voice. Couldn’t hurt to be too careful. “Cole?”
“No,” he said, also lowering his voice. “What did it sound like?”
“Like… a quiet metal tapping sound?”
Abigail breathed out a relieved sigh. “Probably just metal expanding or contracting.”
“It moved,” Davey insisted. “It went from up there to back there,” he said, gesturing toward where they came from.
Cole turned his light back down the corridor. “Hmm. Well, that’s a little unsettling. Keep moving?”
“Only if you keep watch behind us,” Abigail said. Why was it so blasted dark in here?
“This is a bad idea,” Davey moaned. “Why are we here?”
“Because we’re getting paid to do this,” Cole said. “Keep moving. One step and then the other. We have to get out of this wing eventually.”
Abigail began her forward march, expecting to feel the walls press her again. She was relieved to find the dark had lost its power over her. “Hey, let’s keep talking. If anything’s out there, it probably already knows we’re here anyway.”
“Not a bad idea,” Cole said. “So Davey. Tell me about how you met Grace.”
“Really? Right now?”
“Sharon’s right. If we keep talking, the silence and dark won’t get to us.”
“Okay…” he said. Abigail wasn’t sure he quite bought into the idea yet. “At the time I lived in this real junk heap in the lower parts of Ceres. An old mine filled with slums. Locals called it Blight, and it deserved the name. Anyway, I was passing this alley one evening when I heard…” He stopped abruptly. “Did you hear that?”
Abigail had heard it that time. She spun around trying to spot whatever had just made the rustling noise. Her stomach dropped and fear gripped her heart.
Cole was gone.
Yvonne and Grace had watched the three disappear into the frigate through one of the Sparrow’s outer cameras. Yvonne wrinkled her forehead. There were too many unknown variables here. What was to keep them from ending up like the other derelict ships in the area? The frigate lurked out the front window, a silent menace against the backdrop of stars.
“Think they’ll be okay?” Grace asked. Her tough face was starting to give way to worry, and Yvonne thought it best to hide her own concern.
She smiled through the tension. “I’m sure they will be. Abigail is a terror in action, and Matthew is pretty formidable in his own right.”
“I don’t think Davey’s quite on their level,” Grace said.
“Your brother will be as safe as the other two. They won’t let anything happen to him.” She hoped. “Let’s check and see if they made it into the frigate.” She flipped open the comm channel. “You guys make it inside yet?”
A burst of static greeted them and Yvonne scrambled to turn the volume down. “Matthew? Abigail?”
“What’s going on…?” Grace asked, voice raising a step in fear.
“Some kind of interference,” Yvonne said, closing the channel down. “It wasn’t there a minute ago. It must have been triggered when they entered the frigate.” This wasn’t doing anything to assuage the girl’s fears. Or her own for that matter.
“Something knows we’re here,” Grace whispered. She pulled her legs into the co-pilot’s chair and hugged her knees to herself.
“Maybe,” Yvonne said taking the Sparrow’s controls.
“What are you doing?” Grace asked.
“Following orders. Matthew said to move the Sparrow away if we lost contact. I’m going to move us twenty-five klicks out.” She gave a slight touch to the maneuvering thrusters, pushing them away from the derelicts. They began to recede ever so slowly, and she let off the steam, content to let them drift away.
They were silent for nearly a minute as the kilometers ticked upward. Yvonne tried to keep the more ominous thoughts at bay but wasn’t entirely successful. “Grace, go put on the spacesuit we bought you on Venus.”
“What’s wrong? Why?”
“Safety,” she replied simply. “Something out there can tear into ships. If it’s intent on adding us to the graveyard, I’d prefer we have a fighting chance.”
Grace nodded and ran out of the cockpit.
Yvonne tried the comms one more time and was rewarded with an earful of static. “Someone answer, please,” she begged.
Grace returned a few minutes later, helmet in hand. “Do I have to put this on now or can I just hold onto it.”
“You can just hold it for now. Listen for the comm in case they get through. I’m going to go get suited.”
Matthew had wisely insisted she learn to put on one of the bulky suits. She’d never needed to wear one before and had never been on a spacewalk. Hopefully, this wasn’t going to be her first time in vacuum. By the time she returned to the cockpit, the Sparrow had reached a satisfactory distance, and the Mosaic frigate was just a sliver of metal on the horizon.
“No word from the others,” Grace reported faithfully. “What now?”
Yvonne used the maneuvering thrusters to slow the Sparrow to a halt relative to the frigate. “We’re back to waiting I guess. Grace do you think you could…”
There was a distinct thud somewhere behind and above them.
Yvonne and Grace slowly turned their heads to look behind them and then at each other. This couldn’t be happening. What was… What was out there? Yvonne fought to keep her breathing calm. “Grace put your helmet on.”
Grace obeyed and then stood. “I’m going to go outside.”
Yvonne narrowed her eyes. “No. We don’t have any idea what…”
“You heard what Matthew said. Whatever it is goes for the power plant. If we don’t stop it, we’ll be floating dead.”
“Grace, I admire your bravery, but I can’t let you go out alone.”
“No offense, but you don’t know how to get around in zero gee. I do.” Okay the girl did have a point there. “Plus, I have my bracelets.”
“You sure they’ll work through the suit?” Yvonne asked, trying to think of some way to keep from sending the girl into unknown danger. But for all she knew, it would be safer outside than inside.
There was another thump behind them, further away this time.
“Never mind,” she said. “Only one way to find out. Go. The power plant is at the rear of the ship beneath the engines.”
Grace turned and shuffled down the hallway. Yvonne fumbled with her own helmet and latched it into place, feeling a hiss as her suit pressurized.
There was another thump from the rear of the ship. She closed her eyes and tried the comm one more time, praying that Matthew would respond.
Davey waved his gun around wildly, trying to spot something, anything to shoot at in the pale circle of illumination from his helmet. “I don’t understand. He was right there. And now he’s not! What are we going to…”
“Quiet.” Abigail hissed.
A faint ticking noise passed by overhead moving in the same direction they had been. He could hardly hear it over the sound of his own heartbeat. Something had Matthew. And it had happened so quickly, they’d barely heard it. “What do we do now?” he whispered.
“We go get our gaucho back, and hope he’s still alive,” she said. “Walk in front of me. I’m not losing anyone else to whatever this thing is.”
Davey stepped in front of her. It made sense from a logical standpoint, but he wasn’t exactly looking to be point man on this little descent into the abyss.
“Let’s move,” Abigail said. “And keep that gun up.”
He lifted the barrel and pointed it down the corridor. How long was this blasted thing?
“You gonna be able to hit anything with those shaking hands?” she asked. “We’re in this together now and if you’re about to lose it, I’m going to leave you here.”
He glanced at his hands and took a deep breath willing his nerves to calm.
“That’s better. Keep going. Just like Cole said. One step in front of the other.”
They continued in silence, Davey descending further into his own nightmare. Every stray shadow cast by their bobbing lights was an unseen foe, preparing to steal him away into the dark. Or worse Abigail, and then he’d be left alone.
The tapping sound passed by overhead.
“It’s come back for round two,” Abigail whispered. “Not one sound.”
Davey wondered if she could hear his heartbeat hammering at his chest like a blacksmith.
With a whir of servomotors, she swung her shield behind her. Davey tried to turn to see what was happening but only saw a tangle of movement that disappeared into the dark. “What was…?”
“Didn’t get a good look.” She glanced at the mess of pipes above them. “It’s above us again. There has to be another passageway up there.”
Davey heard the movement from the front of the corridor and raised his gun. It dropped right into the ring of light from his headlamp. He pulled the trigger. In the flashes of bright gunfire, he saw flexible limbs writhe, sparks erupting where the bullets struck home.
His magazine was spent in a few short seconds, and he tried to step back as the shape moved at him. Abigail dove around him. Limbs reached out and gripped the edges of her shield in iron pincers. The thing plucked the shield from her hands and tossed it aside. She used the distraction to rush past the limbs and land a bone shattering punch on its center mass.
The sound of crunching metal rang through the corridor, like a head-on collision between two grav cars. And just like that, it was gone. Abigail fell to the floor and scrambled for her shield. Davey fumbled at his belt for a fresh magazine. He didn’t trust the thing was beaten just yet.
It was behind him again. He spun, gunfire spraying.
There was a single pale red eye. It glowed sickly, like a dying star.
Davey felt something sharp stab into the back of his neck and the eye melted away into darkness.
Grace was scared out of her mind.
“It’s just another mission,” she said aloud as she climbed out the Sparrow’s airlock. “It’s just another mission. And people are relying on you. Davey is relying on you. And if you fail, then it’ll be back down to the lower levels. Back to the dark.”
She drifted out into space and spun to get her bearings. The power plant was on the Sparrow’s belly. Between the engines. She fired a burst of steam from her thruster pack and darted over the Sparrow’s aft.
“Grace, can you hear me?” Yvonne asked through the comm. She sounded funny. Distant and muffled.
“I can hear you, but I think the interference is messing with it.”
“Stay close to the ship. I don’t want to lose contact with you too.”
“I will, I’m just trying to get far enough out to see.” She gave the thrusters another push and dropped down past the engines. She’d round the corner soon and be able to see the belly. “I just need to be far enough out to see what’s…” she cut off abruptly. “What is that?”
“What’s what? Talk to me, Grace. What do you see?”
It was a metal sphere about a meter across. Two segmented tentacles extended from the body to the Sparrow wielding bright plasma torches. It had already cut two red-hot lines into the armor.
“It’s a… probe? I don’t know what it is.”
The armor plate suddenly buckled and peeled back, seemingly on its own, exposing the machinery beneath. That was impossible! A grav plate that strong couldn’t exist.
The probe detected her and spun, a single red eye glowing in its center. The Sparrow seemingly forgotten, it charged her. Grace hadn’t seen any thrusters or rockets of any sort. How was it…?
She barely had time to dart out of its path and the metallic claws that had replaced the plasma torches. She punched the thrusters wildly and lost control, spinning haphazardly.
She’d gotten too far from the Sparrow and the jamming all but choked out Yvonne’s desperate voice. She hit the button to stabilize her spin. Where was the probe now?
Beneath her and coming fast. She extended her left arm and stopped it with the iron grip of her bracelet barely two meters in front of her. It halted its advance, and she imagined its puzzled confusion. Without warning, it tried to lunge at her again.
With horror, Grace found it was pushing her backward through space, away from the Sparrow. She fired her thruster pack, but it was no match for whatever invisible form of propulsion the probe used. With no better ideas, she released the probe while firing her thrusters full power. She shot over the machine and its grasping claws missed her by mere millimeters.
Grace didn’t let off the thruster now and swung back in a long arc toward the Sparrow. She twisted her neck to try and get a glimpse of the thing over her shoulder. There it was, already closing the gap.
She just needed to get in between it and the Sparrow. If she could just get the ship behind her she could…
Running out of time she cut the thruster and spun, catching the probe in her bracelet’s grip again. It wasn’t caught off guard this time and kept pushing her, faster and faster, toward the hull of the Sparrow. Maybe it saw the ship and thought it could crush her. Maybe it didn’t even know it was there.
Mere seconds before she was broken on the hull, she tightened her grip on the probe and swung it as hard as she could at the Sparrow, simultaneously firing her thrusters one last time.
The probe smashed into the Sparrow and crumpled like an aluminum can, fragmenting into hundreds of pieces. Grace swooped in a terrifying arc towards the ship, straightening out at the last second. Her boot clipped it and sent her into a wild tumble off into space again.
For a moment she just let herself spin, feeling weak, sick to her stomach.
She realized Yvonne was screaming in her ear.
“I’m… fine. I just... Give me a minute,” she panted, letting the thruster pack automatically stop her spin. With one last puff of steam, she slowed to a stop and then drifted back towards the Sparrow.
“Grace! What’s going on out there. Talk to me.”
Grace could barely hear her through the jamming and the ringing of her own ears.
“I got it,” she said.
Abigail saw the machine jab the long sharp needle into Davey’s neck. He went limp, and his knees buckled. The machine was quick as lightning and scooped him into one of its many limbs and darted back into the hidden accessway in the ceiling. It skittered by overhead, and she was left alone.
At least she knew what she was dealing with now.
She chuckled in spite of the grimness of the situation. Better to laugh than cry. She tapped her wrist display, worried that her suit wouldn’t be able to detect the tracker through the jamming. Luckily, it worked on a different wavelength, because the signal came through bright and clear. She’d slipped the tracker onto Davey as soon as Matthew had gone missing. This was getting to be one of her favorite tricks. Hadn’t failed her yet.
She stashed her shield on her back and jogged down the corridor. Without the other two, she could move quickly. Let the thing come at her with that needle. It wasn’t the only thing made of metal. She thundered down the hall, loud enough to wake the dead, and in less than a minute broke into a large octagonal room.
“What’s with all the dark, Moses?” Abigail shouted. “Your hospitality sucks.” She checked her wrist and chose the door to her right. Davey was only about a hundred meters ahead.
Right as she stepped into the doorway, her foe dropped on her from above. Metallic tentacles wrapped around her arms trapping them against her side. She fought for a brief moment before realizing they were stronger than her. Another arm reached out and tried to sedate her the same way it had Davey. The needle broke on her armor. Spinning on her heel, she slammed the thing into the wall. For the briefest moment, its grip slacked and she turned the tables on it, throwing it away from her.
She pulled her shield from her back and dove at it before it could recover its balance, but it was quick and slid around her attack, trying to wrap its arms around her again.
“Oh no you don’t,” she growled as she battered the tentacle-like limbs away. The mechanical creature lunged at her again. This time she was ready for it. It caught the full brunt of her shield’s gravity field and hurtled into the wall. She didn’t take any chance and smashed it into the wall several more times until its red eye darkened and the thing was little more than a pile of twisted scrap metal.
Abigail eyed it suspiciously, poking it with her foot. “Good riddance. You better not have friends.” She ran through the door towards Davey’s tracker. It was another long, dark hallway. Thankfully, with the wreckage in the room behind her, the ship had lost the last of its terror over her. Even if the robot had friends, she could deal with them.
A sturdy door blocked her route. “If anyone’s on the other side, stand clear of the door,” she shouted. She smashed it repeatedly with her shield, warping the steel with each successive blow. Finally, when she had done enough damage, she gripped it and tore it out of its frame.
“Are… Are you here to rescue us?”
She stepped into the room and saw a handful of men and women huddled in the dark.
“You guys from the survey team?”
A man with disheveled hair and the beginnings of a beard nodded. “That guardian attacked us when we first entered the ship two days ago. Picked us off one by one and stashed us here.” He looked up at her earthtech suit in awe. “From the sound of the battle we just heard ringing through the walls, I’m hoping you trashed the thing.”
“It’s never moving again. Are my friends here?”
He stepped aside and gestured at two bodies lying in the corner. “Just dropped em off a few minutes ago, actually. They’re still drugged. It’ll wear off in a bit.”
Abigail didn’t like seeing Matthew tossed aside like that or Davey for that matter, but she breathed a sigh of relief that they were okay. “How about you guys? You alright?”
“A few injuries. We’re dehydrated and hungry, but we’ll live. Unlike, well, everyone else that’s found this ship.” He gestured towards the far end of the room. Abigail shined her lights that way and saw a neatly arranged pile of petrified corpses. Gross.
“I wasn’t aware Moses was into murder like this,” she mused.
The man shrugged. “We think the ship's security didn’t really know what to do once they lost contact with Moses. They’ve been dutifully doing the best they can, and in the absence of food and water for their captives…”
“Worst jailers ever,” Abigail said.
“Precisely. Now, how about we get out of here.”
“Best idea I’ve heard all day.”
Davey slowly came to his senses. He was alive, so that was a good thing. Or it would have been, if the room wasn’t spinning and he didn’t have a splitting headache. Slowly the world took shape around him.
“He’s awake,” said a voice he didn’t recognize.
Matthew appeared over him. “Welcome back. How you feeling?”
“Like I got sucked out the airlock and hit the bulkhead on the way out. What happened?”
“Robot hit us all with some sort of tranquilizer. We think you got overdosed for your body mass.”
Davey frowned and tried to sit up. He should have been offended about being called small, but he was just grateful to be alive. The strangers surrounding them had to be the missing crew. “Where’s Abigail?”
“Back at the Sparrow trying to sort out how to get us out of here. Our mechanical friend punched a hole in our suits with that sticker of his. We’ve got to figure out how to patch everyone up.”
Davey rubbed the back of his neck. It was a bit sore after being stabbed by a homicidal murder bot. Stupid piece of junk. “So I guess that means we won?”
“Sharon and Grace had to do the heavy lifting, but yeah, we won,” he said, getting to his feet.
“Wait, what do you mean Grace?”
Matthew looked back down at him. “She had a run in with a probe that wanted to turn the Sparrow into scrap. Apparently she went out and returned the favor. Turns out, your sister is a bit of a fighter.”
Davey slowly stood to his feet, using the wall for support. His head chased thoughts in several different directions. On the one hand he was proud of her. On the other, the thought of her getting in a fight or being in danger scared him spitless. How was he going to keep her safe going forward? The Sparrow wasn’t exactly the safest ship to ride.
His internal debate was interrupted by Abigail’s return. “Who wants their suit patched? Oh good, Davey’s awake. Let’s get this done and get out of here.”
It took them some time to get everything sorted and everyone on board the Sparrow. Thankfully they had no further complications. The Frigate had exhausted its resources or had lost the will to fight back, and it slept peacefully now. The salvage team was optimistic that they might get the chance to return and finish their job once they had a few weeks to recover. Davey still didn’t trust it. Not now and not ever.
As Davey waited patiently for his turn at the Sparrow’s airlock, he turned to Matthew. “If Benny ever finds us another once in a lifetime job…”
“We’ll tell him no,” Matthew cut him off, “and ask for a milk run.”
The next day they met their employer, the Unchained Man, at the specified coordinates. Matthew docked the Sparrow to the slightly larger patrol craft and went to the common room to see the survey team off. They’d have a story to tell, but they were alive.
Matthew disconnected from the other ship, and Yvonne used the maneuvering thrusters to push the Sparrow away. They planned to wait for the other ship to frameshift away as a common courtesy.
Sharon joined them in the cockpit. “Well, that’s over. We gonna make a profit after repairs to the hull?”
“Our employer gave us a little bonus to cover that,” Matthew said. He scratched the back of his head under his hat. It was the one he didn’t like, the one that itched. “We’re in the black.”
“You saw him?” Yvonne asked. “I kind of thought he’d be the type to hide his face given the moniker.”
Matthew shook his head. “He sent payment back over with one of the team members. Apparently, they didn’t get to see him either.”
“That’s creepy,” Sharon said. “Let’s not work for him again.”
“I was already going to ask Benny to keep clear of him in the future.”
Yvonne shrugged. “There was no harm in this job. We saved some lives.”
The comm chimed. “This is Matthew Cole.”
“Good to hear from you Matthew,” a familiar voice said. “You and your crew did not disappoint.”
Matthew sat up abruptly. “Whitaker. You son of a…”
“That’s out of character,” he chided. “And I already told you that’s not my name.”
“So I take it you’re the Unchained Man?”
“One of the many names I’ve done business under over the years. It’s got a certain poetic ring to it that I like. Here I am calling to be friendly, and you’re probably already warming up the weapons. Which I would recommend against by the way. I’m well outside your firing arc, and you’re well within mine. Let’s keep this civil.”
Matthew felt his face burn. “So what did you use us for? What do you get out of this frigate?”
The Unchained Man sighed. “Probably nothing personally. There’s a piece of technology I’d like to find, but that would be a bit of a miracle.”
“The University of Ganymede benefits the most. They get full salvage rights, outside this one harmless piece of tech. Once we make sure there aren’t any more surprises, they’ll set their engineers loose on it. Should keep them occupied for the next decade. Who knows. They may just learn something that’ll save mankind.”
Matthew shook his head. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“It’s not likely, I admit,” he said. “Still I do my part. Just like on Venus.”
“You’re talking about White Void?” Sharon asked.
“Good evening, Abigail. I was going to have Matthew send my greetings, but it looks like you’ve saved us both the trouble.”
She stared out the window at the other ship doubtfully. “Yeah, whatever,” she said. “What was this about White Void?”
“I did my part,” he replied. “White Void has been trying to expand its influence to Venus. Given that Discordia and Concordia are the most stable colonies in the solar system, I don’t have to tell you why this is a bad thing. Turns out the other syndicates were willing to pay to keep that from happening.”
“You’re a mercenary,” Yvonne said.
The Unchained Man chuckled. “Of course not. I can’t be bought for any cause other than my own. But I have expenses and if I can get another man to foot the bill, then I see that as good business.”
Matthew had had enough of this inane talk. “What’s the point of all this? Why hire us?”
“You were in the area. The survey team’s lives were in danger and you were the only crew that could respond quickly enough. Also thought it wouldn’t hurt to show you that I’m not your enemy. Contrary to what you’ve spent the last decade thinking, Matthew, I’m not one of the bad guys. We’re all on the same ship after all. Isn’t that what you once told me in Villa Maria?”
Sharon had to remember him saying the same thing to her, and Matthew felt her eyes burning into the back of his head. “Tell that to the people you sold into slavery,” he said and cut the transmission. He stood and threw his campero at the window. He left it where it fell and stormed from the cockpit. “Get us out of here once his ship leaves,” he said to Yvonne.
“Where do you want me to take us?” she asked, hands folded neatly in her lap.
“Doesn’t matter to me,” he said. “Flip a coin. Cast lots.”
“Cole,” Abigail said. Her voice was firm. “Talk to us.”
He shook his head. “Not now.”
And by that he meant not ever.