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Chapter 1: Saree
Saree slid through the crowd, a double-time bass drum pounding in her chest. Bending her knees, she hid among the masses in the passageway, trying to reach her shuttle before the black-haired man caught her. The flashes of red in her rear-view holo increased, and she fought back the impulse to run. Thank all the suns she’d tagged the man right away.
Outside her airlock, a crowd of people stood enthralled by a wailing busker banging on an out-of-tune guitar. Saree slipped between them, thankful for the throng’s lack of taste. They must be truly desperate for entertainment. Covering her mouth with her hand, she murmured, “Hal, emergency ingress alpha-four-two-uniform.”
At the airlock, she reached out to enter her code on the worn, grimy keypad, but the hatch swung open. She ducked in, securing it and the next three. Collapsing against her inner shuttle hatch, she ignored the sharp struts pressing into her back. She was home, thank all the suns. That was just too close. She closed her eyes and breathed. Blanking her mind, she slowed and deepened her shallow panting, reveling in the quiet…no, not working.
The whole slow-motion escape replayed in her head like a horror vid. Maintaining her carefully crafted persona while being hunted was so rad-blasted hard. She’d strolled the passages, gawking, seemingly fascinated by every performer along the way. She didn’t waste any time on the awful musician outside her shuttle airlock.
She’d considered stunning the dark-haired man and hoping nobody noticed, but he was good, staying back and blending into the crowd. Stunning him meant taking down a lot of beings, innocents caught in the crossfire. And anyone stunned on the station would be robbed before the authorities reacted. If they reacted at all.
Enough. She wasn’t out of danger, not until she left the system. Leaving the station might be tricky, depending on who was after her and why. Sucking in a big breath, Saree pushed off the chilly hatch, no longer shaking like a thruster on a loose pivot joint.
She strode to the pilot’s seat, the worn, dark gray plas tiles beneath her feet popping a tiny bit with every step, the cracking comfortingly normal. She patted Big Beige on her way. Saree paused mid-step, her hand hovering over the frequency standard maintenance case. Maybe it was time. She had no offensive capabilities; she should maximize her defenses.
Facing Big Beige, she planted her feet and put her hand on the case’s top-mounted security sensor. “Hal, implement Security Protocol Zeta.”
Hal’s smooth, calm, human male voice replied. “Security Protocol Zeta initiated. Passphrase, please.”
At Hal’s light tenor tones, her tight shoulder muscles unwound. “Hickory dickory dock, the Sa’sa ran up the tetrahedron.” She winced at the bite of the DNA sampler.
“Security Protocol Zeta implemented. Please note, the additional security measures will add approximately thirteen point two seconds to maintenance case release. This could be fatal during an emergency evacuation.”
“Noted, Hal, and risk accepted. Thank you.”
“You are welcome, Saree.”
She walked to the pilot’s seat and plopped down. Under her weight, the seat sighed and creaked, the seen-better-days padding almost flat. The smooth, light gray pleather under her hands was dark from decades of use. But she didn’t care if it looked old and worn—the shuttle systems were top-notch. And sitting in the pilot’s seat meant escaping, control, safety.
Not really. Safety was an illusion. But she was safer.
Finding a fold transport to take her and her shuttle far away from Dronteim was her first priority. A trustworthy one leaving soon—very soon. But there was no sense in escaping a black hole just to fold into a supernova. Find the right folder, a safe folder, was always difficult.
Sweeping a hand across the main control area, Saree entered her security codes, the big shuttle screens lighting in her standard display. She brought up the station security vid outside her shuttle. The black-haired man was still there, using his holo in security mode, concealing his face.
“Saree, you appear to be in some distress. Would you like a calmer?”
“No, thank you, Hal.” One of these days, she’d have to change Hal’s programming to remove the default to mood-altering substances or allow Hal to compile a personality profile. But allowing Hal to develop a profile meant more data available for exploitation if someone got through her net defenses. Better to leave the former inhabitant’s in place, and do a little more work herself, even if it meant putting up with some oddities. Besides, sometimes Hal’s predictability was strangely comforting, especially in his ultra-calm voice.
“Some Jhinzer tea?”
And sometimes, he was annoying. “Not now, Hal.” She had to get out of here. Tea could wait. Maybe she would make those profile mods.
“My apologies, Saree.”
She scanned her shuttle status—everything ready—and relaxed into the chair. Initiating external net access to Dronteim Station, she called up the departing interstellar space fold transport schedule. Even if the dark-haired man’s surveillance was her sometimes too-vivid imagination combined with her understandable paranoia—doubtful—she’d be better off leaving, fast.
Saree pulled up the Guild priority list and set her standard match program running between the Guild list and the departure schedule. But wait—speed was a priority. Inserting ‘departure time’ as the new number three criteria, Saree tried to relax while the program calculated. It shouldn’t take long in their current location. Dronteim was rated ‘frontier-safe’ by The Guide™ but it was still the frontier of human space; criminal organizations and pirates abounded.
Which one was after her on Dronteim Station? The man with the black hair and olive skin was following—no, hunting—her, but she didn’t know why. A young female human alone in the fringe was often considered an easy target, so it could be simple opportunity. But they might suspect her true identity.
A chime sounded, startling her. Saree frowned. Lost in her head again. A bad habit for a solo traveler—being in her shuttle didn’t equal safety. Glancing at the top matches between available fold transports and Guild requirements, she grimaced. Maybe she needed the tea after all. At times like these, she missed Ia’asan and the clutch. Life was a lot simpler in the co-pilot’s chair.
And having real, live backup, even if it wasn’t human? Priceless.
Saree studied the fold transport match list again. Blast and rad. None of the choices were good. Few folders departed in the next thirty standard days and none of them were ideal. She snorted. Most were poor at best. Either they were fixed-route locals, quick but potentially criminal, or unknown and unrated.
She removed two of the transports immediately—they had ties to Familia, and Familia was far too curious about her, both in general and specifically here. The black-haired, olive-skinned man had the ‘Familia look.’ She checked the station vid again. The man was gone, but there was no way to know if he’d given up.
The next possibility, Universe-Tera, was a good line known for their dependability and security, but the particular folder was ancient, slow and on a milk run.
What was a milk run, anyway? She shook the thought away. A question for another time—she had more important orbits to achieve.
The final folder on the list was a relatively new company, with little available on the net. Saree dug deeper, despite her instincts yelling, “Run!” Lightwave Fold Transport appeared to be a single-ship company, with mixed reviews. She filtered out the obvious bot-generated reviews, but nothing cleared.
Scrolling down, she read the individual entries, rather than relying on the aggregate. She tapped an impatient rhythm on the armrest. Reviewing each took too much time, but folding into the unknown wasn’t smart.
Some shuttles left bare-bones comments of “adequate,” “sufficient,” and similar condemning-with-faint-praise statements, but a few said more. The recent reviews raved about the food, a big surprise—often, folders provided the cheapest pre-made stuff they could find.
One entry raved about the speed, precision, and security, but warned the captain put the wellbeing of his transport and shuttles above every other consideration. Which didn’t seem like a negative to her; the fringe was dangerous. And if the folder didn’t survive, none of the shuttles would.
Many of the other comments said the captain was cold and all business, but that seemed like a plus. If he were all business, he wouldn’t be looking into her business. Just another set of strangers passing by—lonely, but safe.
She thumped her fingers against the chair arms impatiently. Lightwave would get her to one of the higher-priority jobs, although that particular job didn’t pay the fold costs. But…Cygnus was light years away, on the fringes of known space. Getting away from Dronteim system was a very big plus—signs of Familia were everywhere.
Bringing up The Guide™ listing for Cygnus, she scanned it. Not much Familia in Cygnus, another big plus, although there were plenty of other typical frontier dangers listed. Except for Cygnus Prime, but if she could afford planetfall on Deneb, she wouldn’t bother with a job. Saree huffed out a laugh.
Jittering in her chair, she initiated external net access again, and searched for more reviews, tracing Lightwave’s travels. Neither Lightwave nor its crew had much of a net signature, but there was no sign of criminal activity or behavior. Apparently, Lightwave kept their noses clean, doing their job and nothing more. Or someone was cleaning up after them. Not likely; not for a single ship in the fringes.
Saree’s fingers drummed harder and faster on the thin pleather, echoing her impatience. Nothing but pressure from Gov Human raised Cygnus’s priority—whatever mega-corporation owned the system also owned someone in Gov Human. They had a human-centric population and government, lots of high-priority, low-pay jobs, no Familia, fringe of nowhere frontier—the perfect place for her.
Saree finished her chair-arm drum solo with a flourish. Lightwave Fold Transport was it. She sent a message to Lightwave, to confirm availability and price, and started the computer calculating the transfer orbit from the station to the fold transport pickup orbit, matching Lightwave’s parameters. Surprisingly, she got a reply from Lightwave before she’d finished double-checking the computer’s calculations. The price was as quoted, they had one slot available and would depart after she docked.
“Hal, is there anything unusual in this contract?”
“Yes, Saree. This provision states: ‘Shuttle owner and pilot must contact Lightwave Fold Transport with human-spectrum vid and voice-enabled before contract confirmation.’”
Hmm. Saree considered the provision. Unusual, but not unique. It might signal xenophobia, but it might not, and since her DNA was human, it didn’t matter. She may as well get it done. Lightwave would see nothing but slightly shabby gray plas behind her; they wouldn’t get any real intel from the vid except her face.
Initiating the comm link, Saree wished for Jhinzer tea to soothe her dry mouth. She cracked a smile. Despite not allowing a true personality profile, Hal knew her well.
“Shuttle Centauri Kilo-Uniform-Tango-Six-Zero-One-Five-Four-Four, state the name of your vessel, owner, pilot, and other occupants,” a computer-generated voice announced.
“Shuttle Centauri Kilo-Uniform-Tango-Six-Zero-One-Five-Four-Four, called Fortuna Lucia, absentee owner Centauri University, Pilot Candidate Scholar Cary Sessan, no other occupants.” The shuttle’s name came with it, but the Familia-tinged designation had served her well as an initial cover and distraction in the past. Overall, it was fortunate indeed.
A face appeared in the holo projected in front of her. Human, male, cinnamon-brown skin, thick black brows glowering above dark brown eyes. Pretty eyes, but cold like the outermost planet in a dying star system. A faint scar across the right side of his forehead, bisecting his eyebrow, showed through short dark brown hair. His nose, prominent and slightly hooked, presided over compressed lips in a square face. He was the definition of a man who’d seen bad things and was ready for more. Not a bad attitude for a fold transport pilot. If he was the pilot.
Saree snickered inside. No matter his role on Lightwave, no one would ever mistake him for a vid star, so why smile? “Scholar Sessan, you may approach. Turn your controls over to Lightwave for docking as specified in your instructions. Do you have any questions?”
“No, Pilot? Captain?” A name or a title would be nice…
“Please transfer funds and initiate your release from the station now, Scholar. We will depart after you dock.” The screen blanked.
Humph. That explained the “cold, all business” comments. “Rude” might be a better term after insisting on a face-to-face, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. She wanted a quick departure, and she was getting one. And she wasn’t vid-star material either—no reason to waste time staring at her unremarkable face, with the same tan skin and mud-brown eyes and hair shared by the vast majority of space-traveling humanity. Still, he could take a few seconds to introduce himself. Suns, why insist on the vid when he didn’t ask any questions?
Just as well. More talking meant more chances to get in trouble, and she needed to leave Dronteim—immediately. Saree snorted a laugh. The irony of being upset by rudeness, when she’d done so much worse to so many.
Initiating the station undocking procedure, she waited for the station release. Thankfully, she didn’t have to talk to a live being, just transfer credits, a ridiculous number for her very short stay. The docking clamps released and the station pushed her away into the transit zone. Saree sighed in relief. The man chasing her wasn’t well connected in Dronteim or hadn’t made the necessary bribes to hold her.
She engaged the station-approved flight path, the shuttle thrusters shoving her back into her chair until the grav generators kicked in. While they flew to the rendezvous point, she confirmed her credit transfer to Lightwave.
Confirmation and flight complete, she set her controls using the codes specified in the contract, checked the transfer was to Lightwave, not some pirate, and disabled her meteor shielding. Reluctantly, Saree removed her hands from the controls. She hated not flying her ship, but it was standard procedure for interstellar folders—they were big credit investments.
The docking maneuver was smooth and uneventful. Relieved to be outbound, Saree completed the main engine shut-down procedures, the shuttle checks and made minimal net connections with Lightwave. She escaped Dronteim, and not a minute too soon. Safe.
Sagging with sheer relief in the pilot’s chair, Saree blew out a breath and deliberated joining the other travelers. She checked Lightwave’s local time; their standard day aligned with Dronteim Station. Unusual. They must have been in orbit for a long time.
Indicators flashed on the main screen, drawing her attention back to C2—they were moving. Guess the glowering man—whoever he was—hadn’t been kidding about leaving when she docked. They wanted to leave the back-of-beyond system as badly as she did.
Or someone was chasing them too.
If that was the case, there was little Saree could do about it now. Not without making things worse. If she went back, whoever was after her might be successful. Besides, independent folders were always a risk—nothing new there.
Downloading the list of other shuttles folding with Lightwave, she scanned them. She didn’t notice anything unusual. Except….one of the shuttles was from a Familia system. That wasn’t uncommon, and it didn’t always mean Familia ownership.
Saree dug a little further and frowned. But not listing the owner or pilot was suspicious. Great. Maybe she’d stay in her shuttle. Her rations were a little boring, but boredom beat danger. It wouldn’t be the first time she’d stayed on her shuttle—she’d folded on some scary transports. When your choices were all bad…
She scrolled through the list of Lightwave’s amenities. The usual observation lounge—although what you’d observe from a screen in the lounge versus a screen or holo anywhere else was a mystery—a dining facility and a big physical fitness module.
Well now, that would be worth leaving for. She could churn out klicks on her barebones treadmill, but there were better options available. A good, hard phys session would clear the remaining tension and fear from her body. She frowned. But only if there was nothing to fear on Lightwave.
“Saree, Lightwave Fold Transport dining would like to know if you will be joining them for the constellation departure dinner,” Hal said. “The message notes the kitchen is under the command of a student from Culinary Institute Sirius.”
Ooh. A very good reason to leave the shuttle. CIS trained some of the most inventive human chefs in the universe. Remembering one particular story, she chuckled. Inventive didn’t always equal delicious. There were several tales of practically inedible meals because a student chef was too wrapped up in one ingredient, or too intent on a certain look to think about common tastes. Saree pursed her lips.
A once-in-a-lifetime experience was available. She’d never eat a meal created by a CIS graduate. Even after she paid her Guild debt, she’d never earn enough credits for that kind of event.
But more importantly, a CIS student on board meant Lightwave was safe and stable—there’d be plenty of offers from other, bigger folders, so they must have something special. Creativity required basic human security. Lightwave looked better every second. “Hal, please confirm my attendance with my thanks for the invitation. Also, please confirm dress requirements and the time.”
“Certainly, Saree. Stand by.” Thirty-nine seconds later, Hal said, “Constellation departure and arrival dinners are formal. All other meals are informal. There is no guarantee the CIS student will prepare meals other than the formal dinners.”
Before she could ask, he continued. “Historical data suggests at least one meal a day will be prepared by the student. It also implies there will be no more than twenty and no less than ten beings for dinner. I will set a thirty-minute warning for you. The warning will chime in approximately forty-five point two minutes.”
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree.”
Computer experts insisted assistant programs weren’t Artificial Intelligences, didn’t have personalities and thanking them was a useless ritual, but Saree always erred on the side of caution. A little politeness cost nothing. She grinned. And if the AIs ever took over, maybe she’d survive.
More to the point, she had forty-five minutes to work off the tension and stress of her slow-motion escape. Opening her clothes storage, she threw on some workout gear. Saree picked up her sweat-soaked Scholar robes, keeping them at arm’s length and throwing them in the cleaner, her nose wrinkling at the stench of fear. At the airlock, she paused. “Hal, if you’ve been allowed access, please check the passageway outside the shuttle and the entire phys mod for beings.”
“Certainly, Saree. I see no beings of any kind. Would you like me to send a remote through the rest of the ship?”
Hmm. Saree pondered. Not a bad idea, but if the remote was spotted, it would put a cloud of suspicion on her right away. It wasn’t worth it, not yet. “Not right now. Thank you anyway, Hal. I just don’t want to be surprised going through the hatch.”
“After your return to the shuttle today, that is logical.”
Indeed. Saree put a towel, bev-tainer of water and stunner in a tote. “Hal, please secure the shuttle after I leave, and let me know if anyone attempts to enter or if there are any serious attempts on our net-interface.”
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree.”
She worked through the airlock hatches, noting the folder’s airlock status lights worked correctly and the hatches swung smoothly, the seals shiny. Proper maintenance was always a good sign. Looking both ways along Lightwave’s passageway, Saree saw nothing but gray plas flooring and bland, beige walls decorated with bright orange and black ‘emergency escape’ labels.
She sniffed. Clean, too. Tension in her shoulders and back eased, and she headed toward the phys mod, the plas decking pleasantly supple under her feet. As she walked, her wariness returned—there were a lot of escape pods for a small shuttle folder. Perhaps Lightwave was bigger than she thought.
She examined Lightwave’s passenger map. The ship was built, like most fold transports, in a big cube. As she’d remembered, there were eight passenger shuttle bays, two per side. Lightwave’s shuttles took the two bays on top. The main engines and fold generators sat on the bottom of the cube. Crew quarters, air handlers, hydroponics and cargo bays were normally below the folder’s shuttles—Lightwave’s map showed no details, the top and bottom levels marked ‘restricted’—a good security precaution. Hmm. Maybe she should let Hal snoop a little.
The middle layer of the cube was dedicated to passengers, with the shuttle airlocks exiting to a passageway circling Lightwave. Inside the passageway, the lounge took a fourth of the space on one end, the end farthest from her shuttle bay. The physical fitness module took up a fourth of the closest end, with the dining area and kitchen in the middle. Additional hatchways allowed access between the interior sections and to the surrounding passageway.
Maybe Lightwave was extremely safety conscious? Along with the plethora of escape pods, interior safety hatches stood ready to divide the passageway, everything sparkling clean with no signs of poor maintenance, like lubricant leaks or corrosion. Saree approved; all too many folders skimped on interior emergency bulkheads and their upkeep.
Stepping into the fitness facility, she scanned for beings while she moved away from the hatch. No one here—perfect. There was always one weird being hanging around, watching, making her nervous. Shaking the thought away, she surveyed the equipment. The phys mod was exceedingly well equipped, a pleasant surprise.
Saree wandered through the machines. Rows of aerobic phys machines: treadmills, configurable for flat, stairs or uneven surfaces, bikes, rowers and a few machines she’d never seen before—for non-bipedal beings, maybe? Racks of free weights stood along one wall—secured against gravity loss—and lots of different benches. In the middle, a large, open space with firm but springy matting for group classes or gymnastics.
Saree looked up. The walls and ceiling were covered with climbing holds, bars, rings, ropes, and other apparatus. All of it seemed sturdy—professional-quality—if unimaginatively coated in black and light gray, with the occasional accent of white.
She pushed a bike but it didn’t move. Everything was secured and spotless—it smelled fresh too, a combination of citrus and sinus-clearing chemicals. Cleanliness was difficult to maintain in the recycled air of space travel. Somebody on Lightwave was serious about fitness. And maintenance. She surveyed the equipment again. She had a treadmill—she could run anytime. She had no idea what half these machines were, but the rower was obvious.
Sitting on the rower, she slipped her feet under the hold bar and the machine adjusted to fit her. Saree jolted in surprise. She gazed in wonder at the holo appearing around her. A full surround on a phys machine was big credit stuff. She skimmed through the pre-programmed options once, then a second time, slower, to take them all in.
Saree whistled. Very big credit stuff. She’d never seen these kinds of routines on a phys machine. Deep jungle, in quick but stealth mode, where your score depended on speed, stealth, and precision maneuvering. Open water mode, scored on distance while being tossed by waves ranging from nothing to three meters. Whitewater kayaking of varying levels, the judging on speed and survival or precision and speed.
She glared at the holo, the tension she’d shed returning with a vengeance. Training for these kinds of events was not normal.
Brushing away the surround holo, Saree surveyed the phys mod again, peering at the walls. There, under the plain beige coating, partially obscured by a climbing hold. She strode to the wall, scrutinizing the irregularity. Under the bland, but pristine light tan paint, was the slightly raised outline of a shield. Her stomach, filling with dread, sank to her feet. She subvocalized to Hal through her e-torc. “Hal, can you send a vid to my location? Or use my e-torc? There’s something I’d like you to image.”
“Certainly, Saree. What do you want imaged?”
“There was a shield on this wall—it’s been painted over. Can you analyze to see what it looks like under the coating?”
“I will attempt to, Saree. I will scan in multiple frequencies, and display the results for you in the shuttle. Please stay in place. I will let you know when I am finished, or if I require a better sensor.”
“Thank you, Hal.”
“You are welcome, Saree.” Fourteen seconds later, Hal said, “I have completed the scan. You may now move.”
Saree forced herself back to the rower—no matter how hard she stared, she couldn’t see through paint. If what she suspected was true, there was nothing she could do about it unless she wanted a long, boring trip back to Dronteim Station—and a loss of all those credits she’d transferred to Lightwave. And she’d definitely be in danger. She wasn’t in danger right now—there could be a perfectly innocent reason for the shield.
Setting her e-torc to alert her of any movement in the phys mod, she sat down on the rower and chose the extreme tide program. The workout would be stimulating and she’d be too busy to worry. “Hal, please let me know if anyone approaches.” Even if her e-torc didn’t work, Hal would.
“Of course, Saree.”
Twenty-three minutes later, she slid off the rower and collapsed on the flat, still floor. Sweat ran from every pore and her arms shook with exhaustion. Despite her best effort, her score was laughably low. The machine replicated the sight, sounds, and motions of the waves and pressures of tides, and the scent of seawater—the only thing missing was salt spray on her face. But she was producing plenty on her own. Good thing she wasn’t prone to motion sickness. She pulled the towel out of her bag and mopped her face.
After sitting longer than she cared to admit, she rolled over onto her knees, and levered herself up on wobbly arms and legs. She sighed and started stretching. She needed a little more recovery time before attempting to pick up her workout bag. She’d laugh about it, but it would take too much effort. Stretches complete, she hoisted her bag and tottered across the phys mod.
Tomorrow might be painful. Digging out an electrolyte tab, she popped it in the bev-tainer, sipping in the vain hope it would help her recover. The workout did achieve her objective; the stress and tension were gone. A clicking and whirring behind her made her spin—a cleaner bot trundled its way toward the puddle of sweat she’d left on the floor. Wow. They were serious about sanitation on Lightwave. Saree slogged to her shuttle.
Once locked inside, she double-checked the utility connections to the folder and entered the sani-mod. She sagged into the hot water pounding down, massaging her muscles and sluicing away the sweat. One of the big advantages of a fold transport was a real water shower. She couldn’t stay long, but it sure beat the sonic scrub-and-vac she’d do otherwise.
After enjoying an extravagant but within-limits shower, she contemplated her monotonous clothing selection. The only formal outfit she could wear was the long black tunic, with the traditional scholar’s cowl in the purple patterns of Centauri University, and matching leggings. The uniform would cement her scholar persona in everyone’s mind. She dressed quickly, finishing with the scarlet and dark blue patterned cords showing her area of study.
Reaching out, she stroked one hand down the soft, sensuous material hanging in the back of the closet, and sighed. She’d love to wear the beautiful, flowing dress of Tazan silk, dyed to match the glorious shaded colors of an Old Earth sunset. But wearing it would blow her cover—Scholars couldn’t afford Tazan silk. She snorted. She couldn’t either, but a lucky barter worked out well for everyone. Maybe someday she’d wear it somewhere other than alone in her shuttle.
She had no hope of ever wearing it for anyone else.
“Saree, you have six minutes before departure time. Would you like to see the image I’ve reconstructed for human vision capabilities?”
“Yes, Hal—please display it on the main screen.” Walking forward, she stopped, her heart crashing to the floor. Examining the giant stylized bird, all the colors of fire on a black background, she dropped her head, then the rest of her body, collapsing in the pilot’s seat. She’d been right, blast it all into a black hole. Right beyond her wildest nightmares.
Lightwave Fold Transport was a troop ship.
A Phalanx Eagle troop ship.