Day 1: 3 June 2153
Joel Gilmore’s life was saved by a faulty component module, the vagaries of SkySpy’s maintenance roster and a called-in favour.
The module in question was deep in the guts of the Big Scope and that was where he was wedged, hot and tired and even more hungry than when he had started. The Big Scope was one of the many items of surveillance equipment that hung in space around the SkySpy asteroid, trained permanently in-system, and Joel was surrounded by girders and strutwork and was not enjoying himself. It had taken five minutes to get this far and he wanted to go home. Not back to the base, and a meal and a shower — home, which had much more to offer.
In front of him, a quarter of a mile away through the visor and framed by girders, was the dull, dark rock of SkySpy. There was a much more interesting view if he squinted up through his helmet’s topplate. The Shield, a mighty gas giant, bigger than Jupiter, eternally trailed by SkySpy on its endless trudge around the solar system. The giant was fluorescent with greens and yellows. A spectacular sight for eyes that were prepared to appreciate it.
Well, it had been one more useful lesson for life, he thought: don’t give sarky answers to admirals at your lieutenant’s exam. If you’re right then they can’t fail you, but they can take revenge in sundry other ways. For example, making your first posting in your new rank the most unwanted posting in the Commonwealth Navy.
Something dark moved in the gap and obscured his view of the gas giant.
“Are you in position?” said a voice inside his helmet.
“Yeah, I’m here,” Joel muttered. “Pass it through.”
“Here it is.”
No one could mistake the pressure-suited form clinging to a girder ahead of him for a human. The fact that all four limbs pointed in the same direction was one clue. In gravity, Rusties were dumpy quadrupeds. In micro-gee they were amazingly agile, with all legs able to operate independently in any direction. Boon Round’s forefeet held the replacement module — a cube the size of Joel’s head, packed with crystal and electronics — and the Rustie passed it through the gap. The working space was so narrow that Joel could not have carried it in with him.
“Thanks. Component three-three-zero-three-nine-oblique-alpha,” Joel said. “Right here.” In front of him, a row of similar modules poked their casing just proud of the innards of the Big Scope. He took hold of one and twisted it ninety degrees. It slid out smoothly and he passed it out to Boon Round, then pushed the replacement in and twisted it back to lock in place. It took thirty seconds.
“Module replacement complete,” said the Big Scope. “All systems now optimal.”
“Oh, goodie,” Joel said. He reminded himself for the thousandth time never to promise someone a favour. He had owed Sal Gedroyc one, and that was why he was out here right while Sal enjoyed the first shift in the SkySpy canteen. Sal was less qualified for this work than Boon Round, so it would have been the Rustie who would have had to pull the contortionist act. But Joel was more qualified than Boon Round, and Rusties were absolute sticklers for concepts like hierarchy and precedence.
The Commonwealth was all about combining Rustie tech with human initiative, but Joel had joined the Navy to … well, the jury was still out on exactly why he had joined, but furthering his career and doing interesting things had definitely been part of it, and they both sounded better than “because it was inevitable” or “why not?” Putting up with Rusties, a naturally pedantic race at the best of times, had been a necessary evil and he was prepared to grin and bear it. He had even been quite sincere at the citizenship interview about his desire and ability to get on with an alien race. But sitting out a six month posting on a dull rock replacing components had not been part of the dream.
“I do not understand your flippant attitude to maintenance work, Lieutenant,” said Boon Round. “It’s very important.”
“You don’t say?” Joel said. Only five months and three weeks to go …
“I have just said it.”
Now, that could have been a joke, Joel thought. Not a funny one, but a joke. He drew a breath to explore the subject further, and a glowing white spot appeared on the surface of the asteroid. It erupted a second later in a cloud of molten rock and vapour.
“What was that?” he exclaimed.
Other spots appeared next to the first, turning into matching superheated geysers, and then the spots began to move, scorching white hot canyons across the rock. For a second, Joel just stared at the sight, aghast, his brain trying to make sense of the fact that SkySpy was being strafed by military-strength lasers. Then he swore and started to wriggle backwards out of the Big Scope, as best he could in a pressure suit intent on wedging itself into every nook and cranny.
“Go to general band,” Boon Round said urgently. A cacophony of voices and blaring alarms filled Joel’s helmet. Words could be picked out of the gabble.
“Negative radar lock. Negative radar lock.”
“Fire flares. Lock on visual.”
No one could have got close enough to SkySpy to strafe it without very good stealth tech indeed. The base had been built by masters at remaining unobserved, but now it seemed the masters had been surpassed.
Down below him on the surface of the asteroid, hidden hatches had moved aside and turrets had sprung up into space. Joel caught the brief flaring blur of torpedoes firing off. A bright white light, SkySpy’s flares, glared through the mechanism of the Big Scope and he tried to move even faster. The flares might illuminate the attackers, but bright lights could shine both ways.
“Visual lock! Fire.”
More blurs, more torpedoes, more flashes. There was a battle going on out there in space and Joel couldn’t see a bit of it.
“This is most spectacular,” Boon Round said. Joel grit his teeth and kept squirming.
SkySpy had been built at a safe distance from the second world of this solar system and the creatures who lived there, but every year they had pressed further outwards. They had helium retrieval bases on their moon. They had an ever-increasing space trade, with space habitats and space lanes to link them. And their mining operations had reached their system’s first asteroid belt. It had always been inevitable that one day they would be out past SkySpy, but no one had expected it to be quite so soon.
The Rusties called the natives of this system The Beings of Sample World Four. Humans called them the XCs. It was short for “xenocides”. The inhabitants of the third world of the system, if any had still remained, could have said why.
For the first time in his life, Joel cheered at the destruction of a spaceship.
And then the enemy lasers opened up again and Joel could only watch hopelessly — with that part of his mind not intent on extricating himself from the second juiciest target in the war zone — as their invisible beams carved trenches across the surface of SkySpy and across the turrets. One by one they fell silent.
“I would advise speed,” Boon Round said.
“I’m going as fast as I can!” Joel shrieked.
“I’ll go round behind you. I may be able to help you out.”
“You mean it takes this to make a Rustie have a good idea?” Joel yelled.
“You’re quite new here, so you might not know we prefer the term ‘First Breed’, ‘Rustie’ is an entirely inaccurate human expression based upon our appearance …”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever.” In the dying light of the flares, Joel saw dark objects settling down upon the rock, no longer opposed by SkySpy’s dead defences. Then he frowned as they vanished.
“Magnify,” he said to his suit, and the centre of his visor expanded the view. They hadn’t vanished: they were burrowing into the rock, leaving neatly drilled holes behind them. “Oh, no,” he muttered. Then, on general band: “This is Gilmore. They’re burrowing in. Look out for …”
And then the surface of the rock erupted, a fountain of vapour and debris blasting out from the first hole. And another, and another. Over the general band, Joel heard screams and shouts and the roar of explosive decompression.
“Power is out. Launch Lifeboat B. I say again, launch Lifeboat B. All personnel to evacuate to Lifeboat B. I say again, all personnel …”
Boon Round’s forefeet finally grabbed Joel’s ankles and pulled him out of the Big Scope.
“We’ve been told to evacuate,” the Rustie said.
“Then come on.”
The Rustie was already diving back down to SkySpy, propelled by his suit’s thrusters. Joel set his suit to follow, and foremost in his mind was the absurd thought:
“My God, all those drills are finally going to come in useful!”
There was a drill for everything …
(His suit thrusters cut in, throwing him down towards the rock after Boon Round.)
… including the very unlikely event of the XCs actually getting so far as to launch a surprise attack on the station without being spotted a light minute away.
(A nudge from one of the shoulder nuzzles diverted him, edging him out into space. Two more nozzles cut in to swing him around the rock.)
The surveillance gear was expendable — there was no tech there that would be any news to the XCs. More important was the destruction of anything that remotely hinted at how to open a step-through point. Or the precise whereabouts in space of the Commonwealth or Earth. Thermite charges were placed permanently against all computer equipment and memory banks in the station.
(The dark, rough surface of SkySpy blurred past him.)
What it came down to was: in the event of an attack, on-duty crew within SkySpy had to handle the defence of the station and, if necessary, go through a sequence of codes to set off the charges the moment an unfavourable outcome became evident. Off-duty crew and anyone outside the station got the hell out of there.
(Joel and Boon Round came out the other side of the rock, side thrusters burning to cancel their outwards momentum.)
SkySpy had two lifeboats but right now Lifeboat A would have been too exposed to attack. Lifeboat B had emerged from its hangar and was floating just free of SkySpy, protected by the bulk of the asteroid. With Boon Round still ahead of him, Joel’s suit fired a blast to put him on a final course. The airlock loomed, his suit retroed, and he and Boon Round touched down together. A suited human figure was already there.
“In, quick,” said the airlock master, pulling them towards the open inner door. By definition, if the lifeboat were needed then it would be a combat situation, so the ship was air-empty. She peered at the name patch on Joel’s suit. “Gilmore? You’re most senior on board, sir …”
“… so get to the flight deck.”
Joel got. The human pilot, Albarazi, and a Rustie that Joel couldn’t put a name to were already there. “Gilmore here,” he said as he dropped into the command couch. The autostraps wrapped snugly around him. “What’s happening?”
“M-main engines powered up, course laid in to the generator, standing by to burn, sir,” said Albarazi. “Ready for your word.” He and the Rustie both stared through their faceplates at Joel, poised over the controls.
The lifeboat was too small to have a step-through generator on board. All Commonwealth traffic entered and left the system via a generator in Shield orbit, which had pre-set orders to self-destruct if any ship not beaming the correct codes came towards it. The lifeboat would be there in ten minutes, it would slip through into a far-off solar system and, short of actually having confirmed proof that intelligent life existed somewhere else in the universe, the XCs would be none the wiser.
“Airlock master,” Joel said on the open band. “How many on board?”
“Seventeen total, sir.” Which left another sixty-three unaccounted for.
“Where the hell is everyone?” Joel muttered.
“Dead,” Albarazi said. He looked at Joel from dark, hollow eyes. “You weren’t in there. They dug in through the walls, and then they drilled through the bulkheads so we couldn’t seal up, and people were being torn to pieces and they’re dead.”
Joel made himself picture the scene. The emergency bulkheads would shut immediately there was a pressure drop, but what good was that if someone was digging tunnels all over the place? And the bulkheads only protected the outer galleries; the inner ones had always been thought to be protected by the rock itself. And though all personnel should have been suited up within seconds of the first alarm, what protection did a standard pressure suit offer against explosive decompression all around you, with bits of rock and equipment hurtling about in hurricane-force winds?
“Command Centre …” he said.
“… was the first to go after the generators,” said the Rustie. Joel made a last, desperate try on the general band.
“This is Lifeboat B,” he said. “Calling all SkySpy personnel not on board. Respond. Please respond.”
Silence. Joel, the pilot and the navigator looked at each other.
“Airlock master to flight deck. A three foot hole just appeared in the main section. We’re under laser fire.”
“We’re getting out of here,” Albarazi said. “Stand by …”
“Wait,” Joel said. All eyes turned to him and for the first time he understood what his father had meant when he talked about the loneliness of command. He was the most senior … “Were the records destroyed?”
“Sir?” Albarazi’s look suggested he really couldn’t care about the records.
“Were the records destroyed?” Joel shouted.
“I- I don’t know, sir …”
Joel shut his eyes, took a breath, made his decision.
“Boost to the Shield on full and get out of here,” he said. He unstrapped himself. “Thirty second countdown.”
“You- you’re not coming?” said Albarazi, amazed.
Still suited, Joel could carry on the conversation as he made his way quickly aft through the main cabin to the airlock.
“We don’t know that the records were destroyed,” he said. “I’ve got to check, and you need to get out of here now.”
“But if we leave you …”
“That’s an order!” Joel was at the airlock, and he leapt out into space. He didn’t need to be told what would happen if he was left, but he knew what he had to do. Bloody sense of duty, he thought bitterly. And no question of where he had got it from. Why couldn’t he have swapped the inherited duty gene for, say, eye colour?
His suit carried him swiftly away from the lifeboat and he took a final look back. Its laser turrets were in action, returning fire as good as they got. And then the main drive came on and it effortlessly slipped away from SkySpy, vanishing to a dot in a couple of seconds.
He wasn’t alone. Another suited form drifted into his vision and he almost had a heart attack.
“What are you doing here?” he snapped. The Rustie braked to hang in front of him.
“None of my pride escaped to the lifeboat,” Boon Round said in a neutral, colourless voice.
“What’s that got to do with it?” Joel said without thinking. Was he doomed to be plagued by this creature forever? And then he bit his tongue because he knew the answer to his question.
“I might be able to die with them,” Boon Round said in the same voice.
“Right.” Joel swallowed. This time he had noticed the tone. Rustie translator units nowadays could convey colloquial speech and even different kinds of emotions, but there were emotions at the far end of the scale that still lay outside their programming, whereupon they would revert to this bland matter-of-factness. And that was how Boon Round spoke now. A human could lose both parents and all children, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents in one fell swoop and still not come close to understanding how the sole survivor of a Rustie — sorry, First Breed — pride would feel.
“Come- come on then,” Joel muttered, and they jetted down to SkySpy.
“It would be convenient to know your plan,” Boon Round said as they dropped down. Still bland, still wracked by sorrow far outside the scope of his translator. He wasn’t going with Joel to be helpful or out of a sense of duty; he was going with Joel because the sheer fact of association with another living being kept him sane. Yeah, thanks for that responsibility, Joel thought. It’s not like I’ve got anything else to worry about right now.
“We enter SkySpy, we get to the computer centre and we set off the charges,” he said.
“SkySpy is without power.”
“The charges are self-powered.”
“What if we meet any XCs?”
We’re dead. “I don’t think we will,” Joel said. He kept one wary eye on the heavens about them. “It must have been automated. Think about it. Transporting troops all the way out here without being noticed would be harder than … well …”
“Sneaking up on SkySpy undetected in the first place?” Boon Round said helpfully.
“Look,” Joel snapped, “at the first sign of any XC activity, play dead. They’ll expect to have a lot of bodies floating around.” He winced as he said it, but it was true.
“And then?” Boon Round said. Joel entertained a vision of sinking a fist through the Rustie’s faceplate. Probably bad leadership.
“We’ll try and get out in Lifeboat A,” he said. “If we can get on board and boost straight out of the bay, we’ll be in with a chance.”
What is your problem, you stupid Rustie?? “There’ll be sufficient power and air reserves to last us a long time,” Joel said with very forced patience. “They’ll send a ship, maybe a squadron, to investigate and pick up the pieces. I mean, they won’t be worried now about letting the XCs know about us. And they’ll pick us up.”
“How long do you see this taking?”
“In here,” Joel said, determined to change the subject.
They floated towards the bottom of the empty cavern that was the lifeboat bay. Without the lifeboat it looked larger than normal, and the vacant grapples and the blunt heads of the disconnected power feeds looked somehow forlorn. They entered the dark tunnel that led to the main complex.
Battery-powered emergency lighting lit the corridors of SkySpy with a red glow. The two of them drifted slowly along the airless passages, boosted by small nudges from their thrusters. They came to a hole that crossed the corridor — a smooth, round tunnel, just wide enough for Joel to stretch out his arms. It came in from the direction of space, the top right of the corridor, and carried on towards the heart of the complex at the bottom left. Joel angled his head so that his helmet lights shone down it, towards the centre of the asteroid, and shouted in shocked surprise.
“What is it?”
“Guess,” Joel muttered. He had been expecting this, it shouldn’t have been surprising …
He reached down carefully to take hold of the body under the arms and extract it from the tunnel. Chief Astronomer Annika Vogl was no doubt typical of what had happened to SkySpy. She had been in her suit, she should have been protected against loss of pressure and air, but the howling gale of escaping air had picked her up and dashed her against something, or something against her, and her helmet was cracked. The wind had carried her up the hole.
Vogl had been part of the station’s scientific complement: barely two hours ago, in what Joel had suspected was a vain attempt to chat him up, not knowing that he wasn’t currently on the market, she had been sat at a console demonstrating the wonders of SkySpy’s astronomical research. It was apparently very interesting to astronomers and very boring to Joels. And here she was now.
Joel peered back down the hole. This time he had an unobstructed view to the next level.
“This will take us straight there, almost,” he said. He glanced back at the late Chief Astronomer. “There’ll be more,” he said, and led the way.
There were more: most of SkySpy’s crew had been in the deeper levels when the attack came. Human and Rustie corpses floated in the passageways, some still jostling very slowly, their momentum not yet absorbed by the walls and the other bodies. Smaller, loose objects, not secured when the air went, floated between them. Joel led the way and applied the mental blinkers: he would get to the computer centre, set the charges, get out. Then and only then would he worry about what to do next.
“How are you, Boon Round?” he whispered
“I am managing.” Still bland.
They came round a corner and Joel abruptly retroed, stopping dead. Then he yelled as Boon Round bumped into him from behind and he flew again towards the thing.
It had come to rest at the Y-shaped junction of three corridors, big, round and metallic. It lurked, alien and intrusive, the red lighting gleaming off its hull. The two jetted slowly up to it. One end was a blunt point, like a giant snub-nosed bullet, pitted with the openings of thousands of tiny nozzles. The surface was shiny but scored, and directly behind its cylindrical body was the tunnel it had carved through the asteroid. It was these things that had destroyed the base.
“It goes straight out to space,” Boon Round reported from the rear end.
“Uh-huh.” Joel had jetted round to the other side, and discovered something more urgent. “Oh my God. Boon Round …”
The XC that had emerged from a corridor wore some kind of space armour. It had four arms and two legs that bent the wrong way and it was probably just as surprised as they were. It recovered first. Joel’s muscles had frozen and he could only watch in horror, in terror, as it brought its weapon up …
… and 300 pounds of Rustie cannoned into it, propelled by a single thrust of Boon Round’s hind legs, and smashed it against the wall. Its weapon flew away and Boon Round wrapped all four limbs around the creature. The XC could only wave its four arms and hammer futilely at the Rustie’s body as Boon Round went to work, pulling out every hose and every connector he could find. Air gushed out of the ruptured armour and the XC died.
Boon Round waited until the struggles ceased, then let go and drifted back to get a better view of the body.
His voice was conversational again. “I’m sorry, what were you going to say?”
“Say?” Joel tore his gaze away from the dead XC and the memory of the frenzied Rustie. Rusties were normally so placid …
(And XCs were on SkySpy! It was a concept he would have to work up towards grasping …)
“Oh, yeah, right,” Joel said. He pointed at the open hatch he had discovered on the other side of the burrower. “I was going to say, this thing’s hollow, which means XCs probably came in on them.”
“Hopefully I got it before it could communicate,” said Boon Round. “It depends on whether they are on a general band or have to initiate contact each time they speak.”
“Uh huh …” Joel leaned closer to study the dead XC’s suit. The visor had misted up with a vapour he didn’t want to think about. Some of the gear on the armour was completely beyond him, some he could hazard a guess at; and the glass-tipped tube, the size and length of a small cigar, that was mounted on the XC’s shoulder was obvious. In fact, taken as part of the day he was having, it was entirely consistent.
“They’re linked by video,” he said. “Come on, quick.”
XCs were on SkySpy!! Joel’s neat little rationale about the impossibility of sneaking shocktroops out here unobserved had collapsed, but that tiny and irritatingly vocal part of his mind, that insisted on being analytical regardless, wouldn’t shut up as they raced to their destination.
So, the XCs were here. What did they want?
(Down one final level.)
Well, a clean-up operation was one option. The XCs had got their name when a horrified discovery mission led by the Rusties’ former masters had witnessed their extermination of their nearest planetary neighbours. So, there was plenty of reason to believe the XCs would strongly contest the sanctity of life of alien beings from beyond their own solar system. Once they detected SkySpy — somehow — then of course they would make sure they achieved total extermination.
(Quickly down the corridor, past the canteen, through the gym.)
But they would want the knowledge of those aliens. They would send in the troops to do what machines couldn’t: retrieve that knowledge, intact.
(Turn right after the living quarters.)
In other words, the XCs were heading for exactly the same place as Boon Round and Joel. The only difference was their intent when they got there, and the fact that they didn’t know which of SkySpy’s many chambers or rooms it was in.
(Fourth on the left.)
Joel and Boon Round paused for a moment at the entrance to the computer centre, savouring the sight of the intact crystal storage banks and the absence of XCs. Then a group of five aliens appeared at the end of the corridor.
Boon Round jetted at full thrust down the corridor, spinning furiously and legs flailing, and just had to time to say “take the banks” before he pounded into the XCs, sending them flying like skittles in micro-gee. Joel took one last look as they closed in on the Rustie, then jetted into the computer centre and shut and locked the hatch behind him.
The general band was still open and Boon Round’s translator unit had finally given up on interpreting what its owner was saying: all Joel could hear was a single, monotone “Ahhh-hhh …” He switched it off and searched feverishly for the charge control.
Got it: a black-and-yellow striped plate the size of his hand, set into one wall. He pressed it and it slid aside. Within were three switches, each under its own guard. Joel flipped each guard up in turn, then positioned a finger over each switch and pressed the three down together. He turned to look at the results of his handiwork.
Nothing: the banks were intact as ever. Joel bellowed in fury and frustration. The central control had been broken or disconnected in the attack.
A red, glowing spot appeared on the locked hatch and Joel went back to work.
“Caution. Biometrics show imminent danger of hyperventilation,” said his suit, but he ignored it as he studied the banks. The charges were small black boxes, the front ends of dark rods that extended into the crystal, and a single light shone on each one to show that it was running off its internal batteries. Each box had a duplicate of the controls on the central switch: a cover for the three switches, a guard for each switch under that.
“Increasing CO2 content to compensate for overdependence on oxygen,” said his suit. The red glow covered half the hatch and was turning to white.
“Yeah, do that,” Joel muttered as he got to the first bank. Flip one; flip two; flip three; altogether now — flip.
The rod began to glow and the crystals shimmered as the heat distorted them, then frosted like shattered glass as their molecular structures distorted beyond recognition and their memory content was wiped forever.
“Yes!” Joel shouted and went onto the next one. Flip one …
And another bank, and another. The hatch was almost incandescent.
The last two-
The hatch exploded into the room and XCs poured in.
The last one-
The XCs grabbed hold of Joel in their unbreakable four-handed grips and he didn’t even try to resist, letting the force of their charge carry them away from the bank and across the room. All the better, because it gave Joel a proud view of his beautiful handiwork. A row of cracked, wiped, useless memory banks, their information gone for ever.
He glanced round at his captors. He could see through their visors: the maned heads and flat faces; the small, dark eyes, wide apart and perfect for triangulating on prey; the mouths with their bared shark’s teeth.
A hundred and one lost memories flashed across his mind. Earth. His parents. Seeing the sun, holding a girl in his arms and kissing her, drinking a glass of good wine. These alien bastards were taking it all away from him.
He grinned and held up a single finger at them.
“And swivel,” he said. Then they came at him.