Before I get started, I should tell you something: according to Adam, he’s just waiting for the last few chapters of the audiobook for Volume Three! Stay tuned for more information about how you can get an early copy!
Now, as for the chapter.
This is a chapter in which yours truly only shows up at the very end, so everything Adam wrote here is stuff which is nearly new to me, too. Oh, I knew the official details. Well. If I’m being honest, I would know the official details if I read the reports, but I’ve never been good at reading them. It’s not high on my list of priorities.
So most of these details, I didn’t know. Oh, the facts, yes, I knew those, but the conversations around them? No.
Click on any of the images to purchase the book, and enjoy the audio at the end!
SS Michael Browne
“Your attention, please. We will be docking at Capricorn Station in fifteen minutes. Be prepared to vacate your cabin when your group is called. Do not attempt to debark prior to your group being called; you will not be allowed aboard Capricorn Station.” The stiff voice continued; it wasn’t the Captain, but some junior officer assigned the duty. “Please don’t forget any items in your cabin; you will not be able to return to your cabin to retrieve it once you have left your deck. We will attempt to return lost items to the proper owners, but Ad Astra Lines cannot be held responsible for any misplaced belongings. Anyone needing assistance…”
Davie tuned the voice out. She’d read all the literature the line provided, kept current with the daily updates, and knew exactly which group she was debarking with, where to go, and how to deal with her nearly non-existent luggage. Oh, OutLook had provided her with clothes, and the sort of souvenirs that a traveling woman would have picked up, but all of that didn’t amount to much. Four skinsuits, each with just about enough material to make one old-fashioned handkerchief, two jackets, two pairs of shoes, and one vacuum suit. She was wearing the vacuum suit, with the blue jacket over it, and the rest was in a small bag at her feet.
Frankly, she was bored. After a career in the jungle of Artemis politics, and six lunars scurrying to stay alive, the past two weeks had been profoundly anticlimactic. For the first three days she hadn’t left her cabin at all while her new nanobots did their work on her body. Tony had been right about her appetite, at least; she’d eaten more in those three days than in any half-lunar since her sudden ‘demotion’. After that, her appetite had diminished to something more fitting, and Tony had chided her out into the halls and the higher gravity. To her surprise, she hadn’t crumpled, or collapsed.
Walking still felt odd, and she knew she still didn’t raise her feet high enough to pass as a native Terran, but the other tourists were suffering the same effect as they re-learned how to walk. That was most of her interactions with her fellow passengers, in fact: comparing awkwardness and inabilities. She didn’t spend much time with them, though, on Tony’s advice. After all, they’d spent two weeks exploring the tourist side of Artemis City, and would constantly chatter about that, or getting back to their dirtside home, and she had none of that in common.
Instead, she spent the time reading, learning the details of her new identity, and exercising.
Finally, though, her enforced solitude was nearly over. She didn’t knew exactly what was going to happen, but whatever it was, she was ready to get on with it.
The door chimed.
“Enter,” she called, figuring it to be Tony. She was right. Oberon’s honor, he’s worse than my mother ever was! She smiled at him in greeting.
“You think I hover,” he said as the door closed. “I can see it on your face.”
“Am I that transparent then?”
“Probably not, but that’s what hovering will do for you. Your tells are pretty easy to pick up on, if someone spends as much time with you as I have.” He smiled, the corners of his eyes crinkling.
“You’re enjoying this,” she accused.
“Yep. It’s been a nice vacation, on the company dime no less. Unfortunately, that’s all ending soon.” The mouth kept smiling but the eyes dimmed. “You ready?”
“I think so.”
“I think so won’t cut it. One more time.”
She sighed. She knew better than to express any doubt, but no, she had to open her mouth. “Exit the Browne with my group, head to the Transit lounge, wait to hear my name and go to the airlock where I’ll be met by another agent.”
“Right. Do you go through Customs?”
“No. I don’t have to on the Station, and I won’t let anyone make me no matter how much they insist.”
“And if you see anyone from MinSec?”
“Then I’ll know we’re blown, because if I see one then there’s four or five others I missed.”
He nodded. “You’ve got it. Well, Davie, it’s been a pleasure.”
“Hey! That’s the first time you’ve used my real name.”
“And the last.” He reached down, took her hand, and pulled her up into an unexpected hug. “Good luck, whatever you end up doing.”
Awkwardly at first, she returned the hug. She found herself holding onto him for just a moment longer than she planned, reluctant to let go of the one person she somewhat knew. When she did break away, he let her, his hands lingering on her arms for an extra second. Dropping them, he dug into a pocket, retrieved a small card, and handed it to her.
“My real name and contact code. If you need a friend.”
She didn’t quite trust her voice, so she nodded, tucking the card into her bag without looking.
“Let’s go. We can wait in the lounge until your group is called.”
Debarkation was straightforward enough, and they were soon through to the waiting area. It was full of typical tourists, most either excited and eager to be on the way on an adventure or quietly waiting to return home. Only one group seemed to be at all unhappy to be there: an older woman, with a younger woman and man, and Davie watched them with unabashed interest. After two weeks of limited contact with people, she yearned for the mundane. The older woman was probably in her 70s or 80s, thin, with iron-gray hair pulled back in a ponytail, high cheekbones, and the air of a person for whom nothing is ever good enough. The younger woman looked to be her daughter, or perhaps a niece, with similar build, facial structure, and coloring. Her face, though, reflected a much more positive view of life, with fine lines showing where dimples preferred to appear.
The man was a bit of a mystery. He wasn’t a son, or any sort of close relative, as he bore no resemblance to the other two at all. Though they were sitting, he was a head taller than either woman, his hair was blonde, and he seemed to be both stretched and compressed, if that made any sense. She puzzled over that, then gasped.
“What?” said Tony, sitting next to her.
“That man’s from Luna,” she said in a whisper, not taking her eyes from him.
“The blonde, with the two women.”
Tony studiously failed to look directly at them. “Are you sure?”
“Positive. The way he’s sitting? He’s struggling to stay upright without looking like he’s trying to stay upright. I know, I was doing that just a few days ago.”
“Okay, I see that, but that could be anything. A bad back, or just tired.”
“His body’s the dead giveaway, though. He looks just like other Loonies, not like you groundhogs. Sorry,” she said, realizing too late she’d used the native terms. “But people from Terra always look compressed, because you are by the gravity. People who live in Luna can grow taller because their bodies don’t have to fight against an unnaturally high gravitational field. It’s the way I looked when we met; I know I don’t look like that as much now.”
Tony turned to face her. “What do you suggest?”
“You’re the expert! I’m just telling you what I see, you figure out what we do next.”
“I see. Right, I’m going to circulate, get some pictures, then I’ll send them down to the office and see what they can put together. Be right back.” He stood, stretched, and proceeded to take a leisurely stroll around the lounge. He talked to people along the way, chatted up the bartender while getting a drink, stopped and watched a soccer match on the terminal, before returning to his seat.
“You want a sip?” he said in a perfectly natural tone, holding his glass to her. She took it gingerly, touched it to her lips, and handed it back with an entirely fake smile.
“You’re welcome.” He dropped his voice and said, “Got the photos. They sounded like they’re arguing, but I couldn’t get close enough to pick out words. I recorded some of their sounds and maybe the guys downstairs can make something of it.”
“And now what?”
“Now we wait for your name to be called. I think I’ll stick around, rather than head groundside just yet.”
“Don’t argue. It’s my job to get you where you’re going in one piece.”
She didn’t have a response to that except to say, “Thank you.”
“Not a problem.”
Until the trio left, fifteen minutes later, Davie did her best to watch them without seeming obvious about it. Fortunately for her efforts, they were sitting more or less in her line of sight to a monitor on the far side, showing the incoming and outgoing ships, and she was able to keep up a fairly steady stream of chatter with Tony. When they did get up to leave, she paid particular attention to how the man walked, looking for the hesitancy that a Loonie would demonstrate. She didn’t see it, but that didn’t mean she was wrong, and once they exited the lounge she finally felt she could relax a bit.
“We should be called soon,” Tony said, breaking into her reverie.
“How do you know?”
“That monitor you’ve been staring at?”
“The icon labeled Wolf 3? That’s yours. I guess I mean ours.”
“Wolf 3? What’s a Wolf 3?”
“You’ll see shortly. I’d rather not talk too much about it here.”
Several minutes later the Station PA announced the arrival of the Hannibal, and advised all passengers for Njord head to docking bay eight. Tony stood hearing this.
“Let’s go. I don’t know how many others are scheduled, and I want to be able to choose our seats.”
“I thought we were headed to Earth?” she asked, rising and picking up her small bag. “What’s a Njord?”
“Njord is the new habitat the Federation built, out at L5,” explained Tony as he led her through the crowd. “Come on, we have to go down two levels.”
They made their way along corridors, downstairs, and finally to the docking bay where they were stopped at the airlock.
“I’m sorry, only persons with authorization are permitted past this point,” said a man in a blue uniform. He had green piping around the shoulders, but no other identifying marks. Davie noted the cameras mounted either side of the hatch and did her best not to stare.
“We’re authorized,” said Tony, holding out an ID. The guard took it and gestured for them to wait. They did, and it seemed that he was holding a conversation inside his head.
“Tony?” Davie asked uncertainly, cramming pages of meaning into the single word.
“Shouldn’t be a problem,” he answered. “You’re on their list, and I sent in the request to add myself through channels.”
“Is there –“
“Go ahead,” spoke the guard, handing back the card and keying open the hatch. “Helmets required beyond the outer lock.”
“Outer?” said Davie, as the hatch closed behind them.
“Further out from the center of the habitat,” said Tony, fitting his helmet onto his vac suit. She matched him, turning on the suit radio so she could keep talking with him.
“Makes sense.” As far as she could see, they were the only ones in the passageway, and the far airlock was closed. “Looks like we’ll have choice of seats.”
The lock showed ready, so Tony cycled them in, then they waited for the other lock to show green. When it did, it was opened for them from the other side.
“Welcome to the Hannibal,” said the suited figure. There was a patch on his right arm with a stylized head of a wolf, and the name ‘Sandman’ was stenciled over his heart. ‘You’re the only ones we’re expecting, so sit where you like. We’ll give it two minutes and then we’re history. If you need anything, I’m on channel three.” He stepped out of the hatch and pushed it mostly shut.
“Rather informal,” she commed privately to Tony.
“A bit,” he agreed. “I don’t know much about this end of the organization.” Having learned that they were going to be alone, Tony selected a pair of seats toward the front. Davie looked around with interest.
The interior was comfortably wide, about six meters, generously tall, two and a half meters, and about ten meters deep. The seats were acceleration couches, she could tell, and there were twenty of them in two paired rows of five. That suggested, whatever this craft was, it could get up and go pretty well. There was a faint curve to the interior walls and ceiling, and she could feel vibrations through her feet, probably from the engines. Behind them was a bulkhead, with a closed hatch to the right side. Ahead of them was another bulkhead and hatch, but this was on the craft’s centerline and dogged open. She could just about see through the hatch into what would seem to be a cockpit but couldn’t make out any details.
“It’s a Wolf-class Multifunction Orbital Vehicle. We usually call ‘em Wolves or MOVs,” said the suited figure, who’d re-entered the cabin and was securing the hatch. “You’re going to want to get comfortable. The Admiral was pretty insistent that we get you back to Njord.”
“Um, Sandman?” said Tony, unsure whether he ought to be using the name.
“How did – ? Oh, right. The suit. Yeah?”
“Can you hold the acceleration down a bit? I don’t think that Julissa is ready for high g’s.”
Interesting, thought Davie. He’s still using my cover, being careful. What in Titania’s bones have I gotten into?
“We don’t usually go much above 1g,” answered Sandman. “Does that work?”
Davie felt both sets of eyes on her, and she nodded. She could handle 1g, something she’d never have dreamt of saying just a couple weeks earlier. “I can.”
“I’ll let Twinkie know to keep his foot off the gas then,” Sandman replied. He checked the seal one more time and headed into the cockpit, closing that hatch as well.
“This is your Coxswain speaking,” came a voice over the internal speakers. “We’re just awaiting clearance from Capricorn Station for departure. Once cleared we will begin our run to Habitat Njord. We will hold acceleration down, so our expected flight time is twenty-five minutes from lock to lock. We’re setting the screens to display the scenery; if you’d prefer something different, let us know. Thank you for choosing Wolf lines for all your intraplanetary transportation needs.”
Davie looked to Tony with an amazed look on her face, the sudden view of the interior of the hangar bay ignored.
“Did he say twenty-five minutes?”
“I think so,” Tony replied.
“You know what I used to do, right?”
“I’m aware,” he said, uncomfortably. He obviously didn’t want too much of her true identity revealed, no matter how secure they might appear.
“The best time I’ve ever heard of for a ship getting to a Lagrange point is just about two hours, rest to rest. They’re talking about less than a half hour!”
“It’s impressive,” he agreed.
“It’s unheard-of!” she answered. “I knew that they made breakthroughs, but nothing like this!”
The sound of the locking clamps disengaging cut off their conversation. The view shifted as the Hannibal maneuvered out of the bay, the metal walls slipping past and being replaced by stars speckled against the black of space. The shuttle cleared the bay, passed the bulk of the Station, then the Station simply fell away. Davie felt heavier, by about a third, and she figured that they must have hit their acceleration. She sat, watching the stars, until the Coxswain’s voice sounded again.
“We’ll be cutting the engine and coasting in a few seconds. If you have any problems with micro-gravity, you probably won’t enjoy it.”
“Not much for small talk,” said Tony as the gravity dropped off and they were in free-fall again.
“Definitely not,” she agreed, stretching, and enjoying the sensation.
Fifteen blissful minutes later they were warned to strap back in, as they were going to be decelerating for their approach to Njord. That wasn’t an issue, as neither had left their chairs, but the return of gravity was still unfortunate in Davie’s opinion. Even though Davie knew they had turned, and were flying ‘backwards’, the screens still showed their approach. A bright point of light rapidly grew, taking on shape.
Davie switched to channel three and asked, “Is that Njord?”
“Yes,” answered Sandman.
“How far – I mean, are these screens magnifying?”
“No, realtime exterior view.”
“Thank you.” She switched back to the private channel and said, “If that’s not magnified, I can’t imagine how big it is.”
“No idea,” he said.
The shape grew larger, taking on a distinctively mushroom-shaped look. Presently it took up most of the screens, then all of them, shining brilliantly. Their approach seemed to angle towards the wide end, but there was a problem: there didn’t seem to be any opening. Davie was starting to wonder if they intended to crash when a seam opened in the center, rapidly gaping larger and larger.
“Maeve wept,” whispered Davie. “Doors.”
As they swept past the doors, she caught the merest glimpse of their massive construction. She couldn’t begin to guess how many meters thick they were, just…lots.
The interior was brightly lit, and she could see across the entire length. There were two massive ships nestled in metallic frameworks along one flank, while two identical frameworks opposite had signs of activity.
“We’ll be docking in a little less than thirty seconds,” the coxswain said. “Please check your immediate seating area for any personal items you may have brought onboard. If you didn’t bring it, don’t bother looking.” He chuckled, amused at his own joke.
“Don’t forget to tip your crew, and thank you for flying Wolf.”
The little announcement had distracted her from their flight, but now she saw them approaching another opening set of doors, smaller than the outer doors but still substantial. Beyond, she could see a large open space below, a bulkhead with hatches at the bottom and a number of, were those windows? Yes, definitely windows, she could see people behind them. The shuttle curved to the right, and she could see it approaching one of perhaps a dozen identical berths built into the wall. She suspected there would be matching berths on the opposite side, but she was fascinated by their approach. A third set of doors pulled open quickly and the shuttle slipped between them.
With hardly a thump the Wolf touched down. She felt the engine’s vibrations die away, and Sandman passed through their compartment to the hatch. He waiting, checking, until four green lights shone. Then he undogged the hatch, pulled it open, and said, “Any time you’re ready.”
Tony and Davie unstrapped, picked up her small bag, and moved to the hatch. Davie noted Sandman suddenly stiffening, but paid it no mind, following Tony out and onto the hangar floor.
“Welcome to Habitat Njord,” said an amused voice. Davie looked for the source, finding it almost immediately: a blonde woman in a brilliant white uniform, gold piping and gold starbursts on her collar and cuffs, standing a few meters away.
“I’m Admiral Kendra Cassidy. You’re Davie Whitmore, former Minister of War for the Artemis Colony, and you have no idea how long I’ve wanted to meet you!”