CHAPTER ONEThe Rorschach
The speed of light in a vacuum is somewhere in the ballpark of three hundred thousand kilometers per second. This ship, named the S.S. Burgundy, is traveling through the cold vacuum of space at just over one tenth of that. In about eleven minutes, this man will be docking the ship with another. His name is Charles Frost, and he is not supposed to be here.
Charlie is tall, dirty blond, and looks perhaps twenty five or thirty, though everyone knows better. He has a tendency to startle easily and sit with his back to the wall, but that’s not important right now. He is currently very nervous, as, at this speed, a mistake of a tenth of a percent will result in summary execution at the hands of Sir Isaac Newton.
Charlie floats gently in his chair in the helm. A world of color is spread around him, controls and spreadsheets and readouts- but his principal concern, filling more than half of his visual field, is two dials. One of them shows the angle of the ship, and the other shows speed.
He has been running what amounts to a fairly large thermonuclear blowtorch in reverse at the front of the ship for the last half hour, trying to get rid of the last couple of decimal points worth of acceleration. He’s rather anxious that it work. Dying looks extremely bad on your resume. Wrecking a fifty million dollar piece of equipment looks worse.
If he gets it exactly right, he will be moving at about sixty kilometers an hour more than the the agreed upon speed, and will gently bump into the other ship. If he does not get it quite right (or, god forbid, the instruments are wrong), the effect will be less of a bump, and more of an explosion. He reaches to his left and flicks up a series of menus, tweaking a couple of values in the engine’s fusion cycle. There. That’s as much as he can pull without cooking the reflector.
He pulls up a white board and a calculator window and double checks his math again. He’s fairly sure this will work. Sweat stands out in pale lines on his forehead. He exhales slowly, reaches into the pocket of his pants for his handkerchief, and wipes his face. He grabs a dial absently and lowers the temperature in the dark metal of the helm. He pushes himself back into the chair, feeling the chair quietly latch onto his ass.
He pushes the interface back, flattening it against the wall, and rubs his palms into his eyes. He isn’t supposed to do this. He hates docking, which is why he isn’t a pilot. Hell, he isn’t even technically a crewman on this ship. He’d be deadheading right now if they hadn’t given him a free slot in first class. He sighs and relaxes. He can bitch about it later. Right now, it’s time to focus. He pulls the interface forward, and takes another look at the speed. He is currently moving about six thousand kilometers an hour too fast. He watches the speed slowly decline. Four thousand. Thirty five hundred. Three thousand. He closes his eyes, exhales, repeats. When it gets down to less than a thousand, he checks the clock, and then reduces the rate of slowdown.
There is no reason a machine couldn’t do this. It’d be against regulations, but – really – so is letting him fly a half a million pounds of metal around at these speeds, and the machine’d be better at it. He’s at a hundred and twenty now. Ninety five. An alert pops up. He’s approaching the other ship. He weans the speed down. Down. Down.
Alerts are popping up. He’s about to hit it. He gets it down to seventy kilometers an hour. Close enough; he throws the dials aside, causing them to bounce off the wall and spin back into place, and drags a new set of controls to the front, unfolding them. He, very carefully, lines up the docking port. One minute left. Even as he lines it up still more precisely, he opens an intercom window. He’s pretty sure that they’re all going to die, but he doesn’t say that. Instead, he says,“Hello, this is your acting captain speaking. As per previous announcements, we’re about to dock with the Rorschach. If you have not already done so, please move quickly to the nearest deceleration couch, located in every cabin, every major state room, and at the corner of every block. They are designated with a double orange and brown stripe. Upon docking, we will remain for three hours, and there will be a customary twenty minute grace period after that. If you have not returned to the ship by that time, we will leave without you. Thank you.”
He returns to the control, and, finally, lines it up. He just barely has time to relax before the two grams of smartclay on the surface of the chair suddenly lunges around his ribcage. The red material hardens into a deceleration vest. The material has the thickness of shrink wrap, the flex of industrial rubber, and the tensile strength of titanium alloy. The large arms on the ship sink into the docking ports on the Rorschach, and the vast bulk of the Burgundy suddenly decelerates. Charlie lunges forward against the restraints, feeling the blood rush into his face. Then the ship settles backwards, causing his head to sink into the seat. He blinks. They’re alive. He can’t believe it.
He reaches from the galaxy of ship controls, down to the small bundle of controls above the arm rest of the chair. He taps a blinking one, and the chair releases him. He pushes himself out of the chairs, floats a few inches above it.
Grabbing handholds on the ends of the arm rests, he swings down underneath the chair. There are smooth metal hooks underneath, which he swings off of. As he does so, the helm interface quietly closes itself. A few dozen remaining controls and interfaces detach themselves from the smooth metal walls and float gently to orbit his head and upper body as he swings through the cool air. He travels only a dozen meters or so before he reaches the end of the room. He grabs a handhold and crawls down the wall to the door. He sails down the hallway towards the engine room, and then climbs into an elevator. A series of elevator control options swarm towards his hand. He starts to select the crew deck, but an alert comes up. The captain of the Rorschach wants to have lunch with him. He blinks. It’s lunchtime here? Then again. They want to have lunch with him? He shrugs, taps a floating tile to accept the offer, and has the elevator take him to the primary airlock instead.
There’s a slight jerk, and it begins to move. As it ascends through the deck, is first pressed into the floor by the acceleration of the elevator, and then begins to be drawn towards the ceiling. He’s expecting this, however, and flips himself upside down, to plant his feet firmly on the ceili- floor. Gravity increases as he moves through the storage and service decks, and is a pretty comfortable seven and a half meters per second per second by the time he reaches the airlock. The terminal is pretty small, and it’s already filled with people.
First class, all of them. Nobody is going to wake the corpsicles to stretch their legs. He turns a corner, and finds himself face to face with a pleasant, pale face with two deep-set china blue eyes. A little cold sensation meanders down his spine.
Madam Pennycut smiles at him. He returns the smile, not making eye contact.“Om Acting Captain! It is a pleasure to see you, finally. ”
“Please, it’s just Frost, Madam Pennycut.”
“Om Frost, then. I am so glad we have this opportunity. This is a fine ship, Captain, but six months is a long time to be cooped up in one ship. I take it you are going to visit the Rorschach as well?”
Charlie straightens his tie.
“I have been asked to attend lunch with the Captain of the Rorschach.”
He does not look into her small, pale blue eyes. He knows where she got them. Everybody knows about the war lord’s wife and her eyes. Out on New Damascus, they scare children with that story. She’s talking again.
“You are fortunate! I’m told that Om Captain Willoby is a fine gentleman.”
“I have heard nothing to the contrary. Excuse me, Madam Pennycut. I must refresh myself before my lunch with the Captain.”
He turns, and walks back two gentlemen from the hub (god knows what they’re doing out here), a husband and wife from the colonies, noveau-rich and looking it, and an elderly man with a young servant girl in tow. None of them look at him. Odds are they aren’t even aware he’s the captain yet. Pennycut is sharp. Hah!
He ducks into a side bathroom and locks the door behind him. His shirt is soaked with sweat. He pulls it off and throws it into the garbage chute. An interface comes up, and he finds that, as acting captain, he has access to an extremely nice military-fitted dress suit. He selects it. He takes his pants off, empties his pockets, and throws the pants into the chute after the shirt. After a minute or two, the fabric assembler on the wall spits out his clothing, still warm and damp and smelling like spray paint.
He takes a sponge from a disinfectant box on the wall, and wipes himself down in the dim light, then folds the sink down, splashes some water in his face, and runs a comb through his hair. He mists his armpits down with bacterial deodorant to control the smell, returns the comb and the sponge to their boxes, and puts the suit on; checking to make sure the hat is straight.
As he gets out, he feels a shudder and a slight heaviness as shipboard gravity changes to match the rotation of the new station. He glances around. Pennycut has vanished. He shakes his head, taps the hat, straightens his shirt, and walks down the length of the terminal towards the airlock, which quietly hisses open.
People watch him now. He looks like a captain. It’s amazing what clothes can do. People begin to hurry around him, keeping a respectful distance, toward the Rorschach’s airlocks.
He strolls into the terminal, with the cheerful composure of a man spared from certain death several times in the last half hour. About halfway down the airlock, he sees another man, dressed in a captain’s uniform. He nods to him. The man has someone else with him, probably a crewman of some sort.The Captain smiles at him.
“Came up a little quick there, Om Captain.”
“I apologize, Om Captain.”
“No harm done. I’m Willoby. This is my secretary, Il Rickman. It’s a pleasure to meet you, Om Frost.”
“Likewise. Nice to meet you, Om Rickman.”
The Captain nods back down the terminal.
“I must ask, though, I thought Captain Adams would be piloting this ship.”
“Um, the captain is indisposed at the moment. I was asked to help pilot the ship until he can return to duty.”
Willoby raises an eyebrow.
Charlie lowers his voice.
“He was, ah, killed this morning. He won’t be back on duty for several hours.”
“Unfortunate. Well, come with me, and you can tell me all about it. There’s a wonderful restaurant in this hub. It’s right off the lake.”
And Charlie says,
• • • — — — • • •
Charlie watches the ducks and shakes his head. They’re in a wide, open air hab, revolving around a central shaft. The lake takes up about half of its arc. He can see it terminate somewhere above his head, just past the shaft. There are more traditional housing complexes at the far end of the hab, and there’s a business district here, on the half of the hab not occupied by the lake.
Charlie turns back to his two hosts. He shakes his head again. Willoby smiles.
“You like our lake?”
“Honestly, I did not know that they could do this. I’ve been away from civilization for a long time. When did this happen?”
“Oh, maybe ten years ago. What kept you away?”
“Well, I spent about ten years dead-heading from New Damascus on a cargo ship. Before that, I was doing some work for the government there for a few years, and New Damascus is about a dozen years behind the curve anyway. So, this is all about thirty years more sophisticated than what I’m used to. Last time I passed through here, your ship didn’t even exist.”
Willoby tucks a napkin in under his beard, picks up a fork, and begins to dig into his fish. In between bites, he comments,
“The crown has long felt that the Xiansuo Gap was an underdeveloped transit region that was strangling trade with the hubward colonies, like-” he gestures with his fork, ”-New Damascus. So, they financed my employers’ construction of the Rorschach. We resupply ships passing through, and in return we get an excellent leveraged trade position for all goods passing through the Gap.”
Charlie nods thoughtfully, briefly contemplates the implications of the phrase ‘leveraged trade position,’ doesn’t care for the results much, and takes a bite of steak. He suddenly notices secretary giving him a strange look. It’s happened several times already. He turns to look at him.
“Is there something you want to say, Om Rickman?”
The secretary says, in flat, chilly voice,
“Nothing, Om Frost.”
Charlie raises an eyebrow and turns to Captain Willoby for explanation.
“You are wearing your hat, Captain. At lunch.”
Charlie blinks uncomprehendingly. Then, suddenly, he becomes uncomfortably aware that both the Captain, the secretary, and everyone else in the restaurant have removed their hats before eating. He blushes.
“I’m sorry, Om Captain. I must be missing something.”
The captain nods.
“There is no offense here, Il Rickman. Om Frost has been away for a long time. Customs have changed.”
He turns to Charlie.
“Since you have last been here, a number of things have changed. It is now customary to remove one’s hat when eating, or while enjoying music or entertainment.”
Charlie removes his hat, and sets it on the table beside his plate.
“I apologize, Om Rickman, Om Willoby. I’m afraid that I may find my re-integration into society more difficult than I had feared.”
Captain Willoby smiles pleasantly.
“No offense taken, Om Frost. If you like, I can have a modern etiquette primer transferred to your ship’s network for your perusal during the remainder of your journey.”
“Thank you, Captain.”
The Captain nods.
“So, Om Frost, what is your position aboard the Burgundy when the Captain is not… indisposed?”
“Actually, I’m not even a crewman. I was the only passenger certified with this equipment, and the copilot unexpectedly resigned before the Gap, so I was hired conditionally in case of this sort of problem. I did not expect to ever need to actually pilot the ship.”
Captain Willoby blinks in surprise.
“They thought it was so likely for the captain to die?”
Charlie averts his eyes.
“The Captain is, ah, ill.”
“Ill? Come now, Om Frost. There is hardly the need for euphemism.”
“The Captain was on a long mission recently, and the resurrection caskets on board were damaged. The Captain had expired of age by the time rescue arrived. They were able to retrieve his chip, but his advantaged age and isolation had lead to some…. He sometimes becomes confused. For example, about the operation of airlocks.”
There is a brief silence.
“Yes. Morning Star Transit, Incorporated did not wish to fire him, but felt that it would be wise to have at least one trained pilot in board in case something should happen. Thus I come to be here.”
“But you are a Captain yourself, on your own ship?”
Charlie shakes his head.
“No, I’ve never been much of a Captain. Flight training on several models of older starship was part of my education.”
“Oh? Where were you educated?”
“The Royal Naval Academy.”
“Oh! A soldier!”
“No, sir. Not precisely. I did work for the Crown for some time, but New Damascus was the end of that. As of now, I am a free man.”
Rickman looks like he’s tempted to ask what Charlie did for the Crown, but Willoby shoots him an icy look. He’s staring a lot harder at Charlie, now. Charlie matches his gaze with his own calm, unmoving gray stare. After a few seconds, Willoby leans back.
“And what will you do with yourself, now that you’re your own man?”
Charlie smiles, and simply shrugs. He idly flicks open a painting application with one finger, and draws a number on the table cloth with one finger. The number is one million, five hundred and three thousand, eight hundred and forty two. Nobody else can see it, but Charlie can.
“I don’t know, Om Captain. I really don’t. I feel the need for civilized life and dirt under my feet. I was thinking of settling down in the New Kingdom. Perhaps a farmer or a businessman.”
“Active and noble professions, both. I like you, Om Frost. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance, and to break bread with you. I feel confident that the Burgundy is in capable hands. Will you be staying aboard the Rorschach for the remainder of your stay?”
“I think so. It seems like a lovely ship. We have another two hours before we must break your orbit?”
The Captain gestures, bringing up an interface menu that Charlie can’t see. He nods.
“In that case, I will take my leave of you. Gentlemen.”
“Of course. I’ll leave you my contact card. Should you need anything at all, do not hesitate to inform me.”
Charlie bows, Rickman and Willoby return the gesture, and he leaves the restaurant. It is not until he is a dozen blocks away that he realizes that he has left his hat.
• • • — — — • • •
Half an hour later, Charlie is badly lost. He’s in the housing district far from the lake, and he’s surrounded by merchants and their families. People who live here. He’s getting strange looks, and without an objective reference for his map, it’s worse than useless. He checks his clock. He’s only got about a half an hour. His interface has been keeping out of his way. With a flick, he pulls it all back into view. He pulls up his personal TP, plugs it into the Rorschach’s public network, and turns it on.It unfolds beside him. It’s wearing a fairly nice suit. The face is a blandly handsome composite. It’s slightly silvery and translucent. It turns. The voice is oddly toneless and uninterested. It sounds like someone reading announcements over an intercom.
“Hello Charlie. How may I help you today?”
“Hi, Jeeves. Do you have network access?”
“Please lead me back to my ship.”
There is a brief pause. Then,
“I’m sorry sir. I have no record of you owning a ship at this time.”
“I don’t own it. I’m the acting captain. The ship is the Burgundy. Check the harbor logs, if they’re public.”
“Yes. Follow me.”
The TP turns and begins to walk at a maximum comfortable speed. Charlie hurries along behind it. As soon as they break out of the cluster of buildings onto the edge of the small park at the edge of the lake, he sees the dock on the far side, and relaxes.
He begins to walk quickly along the edge of the lake. Would they have left without him? Of course they would. Physics does not compromise. As he is about to pass the last part of the lake, he is struck by a strange little compulsion. Glancing at the time, he decides he can make it, and kneels down. His fine, shiny shoe comes off, and then his black sock. He gingerly lowers his foot into the water, hissing at the surprising cold. He looks at his strange, pale toes under the surface of the water, and wiggles them experimentally. Then, glancing around to see if anyone’s seen him, he pulls his foot out, shakes it off like a dog, and puts his sock and shoe back on.
Without looking back, he trots the last hundred meters to the airlock, and crosses into the ship. On the inside, the XO is waiting for him. He bows.
“Captain. It’s good to see you. The ship is ready to depart in thirteen minutes. All crew and passengers are aboard, with the exception of Mary Lovelace.”
Charlie raised an eyebrow.
“What happened to Om Lovelace?”
The CO’s facial expression does not change.
“She decided to extend her stay on the Rorschach. Indefinitely.”
“So we have an empty slot?”
“No. She’s transferred her first class seat and fare credit to Adelle Blanchet, who is currently settling into a room behind the engines.”
Charlie’s eyebrows curl in on themselves.
“I don’t like that at all. I’m going to go speak to this Om Blanchet.”
He starts to move. The XO interrupts.
“I’d reconsider that, sir.”
“Well, there is nothing official, but, to speak frankly, Om Blanchet smells of the crown. Her financials are improbably clean, the circumstances of her boarding are convenient, and everything about her manner screams soldier.”
Charlie must look unconvinced, because she continues,
“Also, she had a single fifty-kilogram suitcase delivered into storage. I had it opened to be safe. It’s smart clay. It’s inactive, but it’s there.”
“Fifty kilos? That’s worth, what, half the ship?”
“Something like that, sir.”
“So she’s what, military police?”
“I really don’t like this.”
“Nor do I, Captain, but I’m not sure we have many options. Hopefully, her business is at the end of our journey, and not aboard the ship itself.”
“Well, she won’t be my problem much longer. How’s the good captain’s resurrection going?”
“Ah – that is a problem. We’re getting extremely erratic readings from the resurrection casket. We’re concerned that his chip might have been damaged.”
“Damn. Can you pull him from the ship’s live archive?’
“We could if he’d been backing himself up. He forgets things.”
“I’m aware. When’s the last backup?”
“Six months ago, before we launched.”
“That is a problem.”
“What are your orders?”
“Well, flush the body, get the chip, and see if the boys in engineering can fix it. Let me know what they say. In the mean time, I’ll do what I can as acting Captain.”
She looks relieved.
“I’m going to get to the helm. I have a ship to launch. Please make the spy comfortable.”
With one eye on the clock, he takes the elevator down to the engineering level, certifies his keys to get into the helm, and launches himself down the shaft, across the empty space of the helm, and onto the grips on the bottom of the chairs. He pulls himself into the chair, which grips him lightly, grabs his interface, gatherers it up, and pastes it out against the walls.
As he does so, the helm interface activates, and a thousand new tiles, graphs, and windows erupt into space around him, intermixed with his own. He pulls up the math on breaking orbit. A single equation with barely a dozen terms. He plugs the numbers in, maps the output to the engine, and lets it start to run. A window pops up, showing rapidly increasing stress on the docking arms. He taps three tiles, which glow, turn over, and vanish. There’s a distant grinding as the docking mechanisms retract.
He grabs a small, hollow sphere of light floating in a coordinate grid, feeling the soft, warm weightless resistance in his fingers, and pulls it slightly to the right, feeling the ship twice. An external camera feed appears floating in front of him. He grabs it, and spreads it out to a larger size, watching the long, rotating column of the Rorschach vanishing off to the right and sinking behind as the ship accelerates. The ship is trying to tend to the right, trying to follow the orbit, but the sideways angle of the thrust, dictated by the math, is holding the ship on the straight and narrow, as predicted. With the engine on full burn for a little longer, they’ll break free shortly. It’s all automated at this point; all he has to do is watch in case something happens.
A window appears. It doesn’t open automatically, because the keys don’t have hard authentication. It’s from Willoby. He taps it, and it unfolds into a small video window. He composes himself. The image is a little grainy from data loss, but recognizable.
“Om Frost. It was a pleasure to have you aboard.”
Charlie produces his best genial smile.
“The pleasure was mine, Om Captain. I shall certainly stop by again should I find myself in Rorschach space.”
“My ship is your ship, Om Captain.”
The image begins to accumulate visual snow. The laser link is breaking down, and the algorithmic reconstruction is failing to cope. The face twists and lurches weirdly, the lip motions coming out of sync of the audio.
“I’m sorry, Om Captain, but we appear to be moving out of laser link range. I wish you the best. Goodbye.”
Charlie taps the button to release his chest from the smartclay wrap, and bows awkwardly, his face nearly touching the wall. In the jerky, snow-filled image, he sees Willoby begin to bow in return, and then the image is gone. He shuts the window and checks the numbers. They’re exactly on course, and well out of the danger zone. He opens a script to alert him if something goes wrong, and climbs out of the helm, launching down the central shaft. He gets into the elevator.
This time, instead of the airlock, he selects the first class deck, specifically the dining hall. As soon as he steps out into it, he is taken by the breathtaking display of stars overhead. The entire ceiling is a clear window in the abyss. The stars do not twinkle. Instead, they shine with the cold intensity of thermonuclear fire.
It’s not real, of course. It’s a dreamtime projection, like his interface. It looks just as good, though. Windows are a structural weakness aboard a starship, and besides, the spinning makes people dizzy. He spots Om Pennycut across the room, being tended to by her servant girl, and stays away. The servant girl is a Gook, young, probably not chipped. Poor girl.
He turns, and sees a crowd of people. The married couple from the colonies, a veteran from the Padaa Conflict, his niece hiding behind his battle sashes, and a handful of others are sitting at the table near a woman he hasn’t seen before. He walks up, and bows to the spy. He notes her sash and speaks accordingly.
“Madam Blanchet. I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure.”
She turns. Her face is utterly polite and composed. Except for the eyes. There’s something off about the eyes. When she speaks, her voice is smooth, pleasant, and has no regional inflection at all.
“Om Captain. Please call me Adelle. I was just amusing our friends here with stories from the colonies. ”
A pink faced young woman is tittering politely into her napkin. She leans forward, taking Blanchet’s hand.
“Madam Blanchet, is it true that in the Wandering City, the gooks perform human sacrifice?”
Charlie is certain, for the briefest instant, that Blanchet is going to strike her. Then the little flash of impending violence vanishes, and she smiles and responds. He doubts if any of the others noticed.
“Om Evans, I couldn’t possibly comment on what the gooks get up to. I stayed only in Imperial colonies. I visited New Rome, Los Dei, Pène du Bois, New Damascus. I even spent six months on the Rorschach.”
“Oh, it sounds like a lovely vacation!”
“It certainly does.”
Charlie smiles at the spy.
“What inspired you to take such an extensive vacation abroad, Madam Blanchet – I’m sorry, is it Madam?”
He thinks he can detect a slight tightening of her smile. Her voice, however, remains amiable.
“Madam is correct. As far as the vacation goes, there is only so much to do in the New Kingdom. It grows tiresome. Honestly, I craved an adventure.”
The other woman, Evans, stares on in blank-eyed fascination.
“Isn’t it dangerous? I mean, they’re colonials, not gentlemen. Surely there’s risk?”
Charlie briefly considers what Pennycut might do to her if she was within earshot of that remark, and concludes that Evans must be very young and very stupid. Blanchet is either unaware, or chooses to ignore this.
“Oh, certainly, there’s danger. This isn’t the New Kingdom with police nuli on every corner. That said, all of life is risk. Worst case, I have backups on my estates in the New Kingdom. In any case, the things I’ve seen abroad are well worth the risk. And what of you, Ms. Evans? What brings you so far out?”
“I went to – to meet a man. A friend of my father’s, I…”
She trails off, looking flustered. Blanchet steps in smoothly.
“I mean, you can see things out in the colonies that you would never find in the New Kingdom. Do you know that I stood on the remains of the original colonial ship on Los Dei. I saw Earth through a telescope from New Rome. Well, what’s left of it, anyway. You would not believe the things I’ve seen on New Damascus…”
Charlie feels sweat suddenly bloom on his palms. He looks at her. Her facial expression hasn’t changed.
Evans seems grateful for the interruption, straightening her blouse.
“What did you see on New Damascus?”
“Cities, stretching as far as the eye can see. A million people in one city. A million. Can you believe that? I also got to see their fleet, including the Granada, their nuclear warship.”
She knows. She can’t possibly know. She knows, and she’s mocking him.
He feels himself blush. His hands begin to shake, ever so slightly. She makes eye contact, just for a fraction of a second, and then it’s back to debating trivia with the others, but he still gets a flash of her intensely cold green eyes. It’s not exactly hatred, what’s in them, but it’s not far off.
Charlie is already running through the possibilities. He can cut life support to her cabin. Flush her out an airlock. Poison one of her meals. Something. She might be armed; he’ll have to be careful. She has to die, that’s certain. Killing a crown spy is risky, killing secret police is worse, but he’ll have to deal with it. He can run when they reach the New Kingdom. Buy new identity keys, join a colony ship, and get the hell out of there. It’ll be a few days before they recover her chip, if ever. He can make it. He’s breathing fast, pupils dilated, trying not to tip his hand.
His reverie is broken by Evans, pointing out the window.
“Captain Frost? What’s that over there?”
He’s too brusque. He backpedals, noticing Blanchet smiling at his discomfort.
“Yes, Om Evans? What’s what?”
Her heart-shaped face is looking somewhere overhead. She sounds distracted.
“That star. The one that’s flashing.”
She’s pointing at the ceiling. He turns to look. Overhead, a little blue star is flashing. Not twinkling (which you don’t get in a vacuum anyway), but actually flashing. He feels his jaw slacken, slightly. Even Blanchet is now peering curiously. He grabs an interface and drags it up, summoning his CO. She’s there in a few minutes.
He points up at the ceiling at the flashing star.
“When’s this tape from, Il Bell?”
She peers at the star in confusion, and then taps away at a control he can’t see.
“Two hours ago.”
“Give me the video feed from that time period.”
The ceiling goes blank for a second. Then, it’s filled again with the same sky. She does something, and the image jumps back. By now, everyone in the room is watching the proceedings. A few whispered conversations spread the explanation to those who were not paying attention.
“This is right before the flashing starts.”
“Thank you, Il Bell.”
He reaches up, grabs the image, and zooms in on the flashing star. He continues to zoom until the pixels are visible. At this zoom, it’s obvious that the star is not flashing. The flashes are coming from some distance away. They’re not random, and they’re not regular. They’re coming in bursts, three small, three large, three small. It repeats. He glances at his CO.
“What star is that?”
“Looks like… oh, it’s Regulus.”
“The Ilium colony?”
“Yes sir. Don’t know what the hell the flashing is, sir. Maybe some kind of message, or an accident, or-”
“It’s a distress call.”
His voice surprises him. It’s incredibly calm, almost bored.
“Morse code. I think the NK phased it out, but it’s still used in the colonies. Three short, three long, three short. It’s an S.O.S. It means they need help. Il Bell, please do the math and let me know how much energy would be required to produce a visible flash visible at this distance.”
“Yes, sir. One minute.”
She stares at controls he can’t see, punching up windows and calculators and white boards. The entire room is quiet now, watching her. To her credit, she doesn’t pause, or even appear to notice. Then, she speaks. Her voice in conversational, but it’s also just loud enough to be heard by everyone in the room.
“Somewhere in the vicinity of fifty megatons, sir.”
He feels ill. Someone speaks up.
He glances down at Blanchet. Her voice is entirely flat, almost clinical. She’s out of character now, just for a few seconds, but this is her. Her shoulders are set, her posture is good. Her face is blank. All social niceties are gone. She looks like a soldier. Odds are, none of the others will notice, but he does.
“Yes. Nuclear weapons. In orbit, I think. How long does this continue for?”
A pause as she checks.
“Eleven minutes. Four hundred and eleven flashes, total.”
He exhales slowly. He’s bound under Crown law to respond to any distress call received from a royal colony. Even if he weren’t, a rescue mission offers numerous opportunities to kill the spy or flee the ship. Blanchet is already recovering herself, and slipping back into character. She looks up, her voice friendly and slightly amused.
“So now we are faced with a predicament. What are you going to do, Om Captain?”
Charlie ignores her, walks to the front of the room, and taps an icon to project over the intercom. His test cough comes back to him from the walls.
“Hello, this is your acting captain speaking. I’m sorry to inform you that there’s been a change of plans. Approximately two hours ago, something happened to the Ilium colony in Regulus. We don’t know exactly what, but we know that it was serious enough for them to send a distress call. We will be detouring to visit the colony and provide rescue, if necessary. This will delay our trip by about fifteen days both ways, and any time spent in between providing rescue. I am sorry for the inconvenience. You may be reimbursed by Morningstar Transit for the inconvenience. Thank you.”
There’ll be protest, of course – there’s already a hubbub of angry voices rising up to meet him, but they’re the least of his concerns. Charlie Frost turns on his heel, and walks out of the room.
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