Book 1 of the Borgia Trajectory
Set in the Eichi Testaments Universe
By David Wiley
Copyright 2016 David Felstul
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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Table of Contents
“Okay class, who can tell me who Saint Vladnitz was?” Of course Seraphina’s hand shot up before anyone else’s. “Delos?” The teacher prodded. Seraphina shot a dirty look at Delos who was absently staring out the window at an orange-legged Specker hanging upside down from a branch of a gollywan tree. Seraphina then glared back at the teacher, but Miz Corintos persisted. So few of the indentured plantation workers here on Demeter bothered to send their children to school, she was determined to enlighten those that did come. “Delos?”
The boy finally shrugged. “He lucked out and found the first wormhole is all.”
Miz Corintos prodded. “And why is that important?”
Delos heaved a sigh. “If he hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting in this boring classroom.”
Several students tittered as Seraphina’s hand waved like a semaphore signal. Miz Corintos gave in. “Yes, Seraphina?”
Seraphina cleared her throat. Obviously anything she had to say was something all the other students needed to listen to very closely. Miz Corintos sighed. It was already one of those weeks and it was only Monday.
“Miz Corintos, Saint Vladnitz, in 559 Post Kosmos, not only discovered the first wormhole through incredible persistence, but he showed incredible bravery and skill in navigating his ship through the wormhole and with his loyal crew, returned to share the secret, so he could save the human race by releasing us from the shackles of our single solar system.”
Miz Corintos nodded wearily. It was word for word what the text said and why the Church Universal had made him one of their foremost saints, along with Darwin, Newton, and Noya. Of course, the history texts tended to gloss over the fact that on the very next voyage he vanished without a trace. That was hundreds of years ago, lucky devil.
Miz Corintos decided to change topics to something that might be of interest to boys. “Okay, who can tell me what his ship’s name was? Anyone? Come on, didn’t anyone else read the lesson?” The silence was deafening. “Fine. Seraphina?”
“Well, duh, it was the Arch-Angel, of course. What else would a saint’s ship be named?”
Miz Corintos glanced longingly towards where a bottle of alcohol lurked in her bottom desk drawer. If Seraphina really had memorized all of the lessons for this week, it was going to be a long week indeed.
“Captain? Sir?” the annoying voice would not go away. “You really need to take a look at this, Sir.” Annoying and polite, that would be Ernie, the youngest crewmember on the Arkhangel.
Boris Vladnitz warily opened one bloodshot eye. She was still standing in his cabin. Hell, he had not even heard her come in. He gave up and grunted by way of encouragement.
“I think it might be an exotic, Captain.” Ernestine Borgia had been with the Arkhangel for a few months and she still sounded like an eager little puppy. Frankly, Vladnitz thought she could use a little less Ernestine and a little more Borgia, and yes, he did know who the Borgias were. A sure sign of his wasted education if ever there was one.
“For your sake, I sure hope it is,” Vladnitz growled, but he was already calculating what values of some of the scarcer platinum-family metals might bring back on Haumea, the closest of the Kuiper Belt’s trading outposts. “How big?” he asked, absently rubbing at a stain of indeterminate origin on his coveralls.
“Four or five tonnes, at least that’s what Horst thinks. Of course, Abasolo disagrees, but then, he would. He–”
Vladnitz opened both eyes. He tuned out the rest of what Ernie said, knowing that she did not care for their arrogant young pilot, handsome devil that he was. On the other hand, if the ship’s purser thought the rock might be five tonnes or so, then it damn well might be five tonnes. Horst Schroder and his razor-sharp mind had been out here in the Kuiper Belt even longer than Vladnitz. Of course, it was the use of a different kind of razor that had brought Horst out here. Regardless, the man knew his way around a goddamn rock. Maybe Christmas had come early this year, even if this particular gift would take the ship up out of the elliptic where most of the Kuiper Belt Objects resided.
The vast majority of the KBO’s were icy, comet-like bodies made up of simple organics, which, although they could be distilled for fuel and even food for the crew, were worthless to anyone else. But, when you are dealing with millions of objects, even a small percentage meant a fantastic number of metallic asteroids. Of course, finding them in a volume of over 1.5 light years was the problem. However, when you did….Boris smiled, visions of well-aged bourbon dancing in his head.
Boris was still breathing hard from the exertion of quickly climbing up the shaft that made up the internal core of the ship. The ship was under the usual 1 G of thrust so he had felt every single kilo of his body with each of the ladder’s rungs. Newer ships now had lifts instead of the cursed ladders, but not ancient relics like the Arkhangel. Now the Captain’s complexion went from dark pink to brick-red as he entered the bridge and his blood pressure spiked. “It’s a what?!” he bellowed.
“It’s a shell,” Horst admitted. “It happens. They’re not sure why, but some exotics form with only a thin shell of valuable material, platinum, iridium, palladium, and so on, over an icy core. Some scientists think that it might be due–”
“I don’t care what caused it. All I care about is that we wasted over a week going after it,” Boris roared. “We’re already dipping into our fuel reserve. How are we going to refuel this piece of shit ship?”
“Well, the nearest snowballs are about a half-million klicks up this way,” Abasolo Cesar indicated a blurry return on the scope.
“Solo, we hadn’t decided yet whether–” Horst looked anxious for the young pilot. As well he should. As Captain, Boris resented the young man’s studied insolence.
Boris’ voice sounded dangerously calm. “What? And do either of you idiots realize what going even further above the elliptic is going to do? You may enjoy dining on snowballs for weeks on end, but we’re running out of micronutrients, so we are all likely to be anemic by the time this is over.”
“We’re a lot more likely to have the runs with zinc deficiency,” Horst observed. “Be that as it may, Solo is right. Our best shot is to head up for this target.” He tapped on Solo’s scope image.
“And if this doesn’t work out any better than your KBO shell?”
“Then we start coasting back into the thick of the Kuiper. The Arkhangel will get us there eventually,” Qing Zhu interrupted. The tiny woman rarely inserted herself into the arguments, but the engineer knew the ship’s ancient Dobrynin engines better than anyone else. She also knew the captain. “Before we start suffering too many deficiencies,” she added.
Vladnitz grumbled for another five minutes before giving in to the inevitable, then retreated to his cabin to commiserate with a bottle of cheap bourbon, a fitting epitaph to his dreams vanishing faster than a comet’s tail.
“When are you going to tell the others?” Horst asked his old friend, Boris. They were the only two on the bridge of the Arkhangel.
Vladnitz sighed, a bone-weary sigh. “Not just yet, I think.”
Horst tapped a callused finger against the column of numbers running down the monitor, his touch leaving a smudge behind, a natural result of his unnatural affinity for oiling his thinning hair. At least the oils were not scented. They would have been overpowering in the close quarters of the ship. Men had been killed for less out here. With an effort, Vladnitz refocused on the unpleasant topic at hand.
Horst leaned in closer. “Boris, the numbers don’t lie. Even if that shell had been an honest M-class, loaded with metal, it would only have prolonged things by a year or so. We’ve been living on borrowed time for too long.”
“Time borrowed at too high an interest rate you mean,” Vladnitz industriously wiped away the smudge on the monitor. “The thing that most upsets me, though, is those corporate hacks getting their hands on the Arkhangel. I would do anything to keep the old girl away from those dirty money-grubbers, maybe even turn her into a Flying Dutchman.”
“Flying Dutchman, you know, the old myth? Doomed to sail the seven seas until Judgment Day?”
Horst shook his head. “Never heard of it, but it sounds like more of that romantic crap that appeals to you. I’m more worried about our current balance sheet and what we are going to tell the crew and not some story from long ago.”
Vladnitz sighed again. “I will tell them, Horst, I promise. But not just yet. They really cannot do anything until we are back in the elliptic. Tell them now and all they will be able to do is worry.” Not to mention stop even pretending to work, he thought. “I will tell them just before we get back, okay?”
“Okay.” Horst nodded, a sad smile breaking across his coarse features. He patted Boris’ shoulder and stood up. “It’s been a good run, my friend, a damn good run.”
As Horst left, Boris found himself running a hand through his own thick, graying hair. He had to force himself to stop, but at least he had a decent head of hair and without using enough oil to keep the ship’s gimbals lubricated for a year.
Ernestine swung the ship’s sensors around in a wide arc only to have the screen go blank. She carefully aimed a slap at the back of the monitor. The screen flickered back on. She sighed. She had not expected to find much of anything this high above the elliptic, but that was okay. It was her watch and she was alone on the bridge. They were still several days away from rendezvous with the snowballs they needed for refueling. Unfortunately, the snowballs looked smaller than they had originally thought. She could tell the Captain of her latest estimate, but that was Solo’s job, not hers. The Captain would be surprised if she did not let the stuck up pilot bear the brunt of his wrath.
The Captain had been in an even fouler mood since the exotic had turned out to be a mirage. It was so unfair of him to blame Mister Schroder for it. The scans had looked like a multi-tonne exotic. She had almost spoken up in defense of the ship’s purser, but, like usual, she had found her courage lacking. Not that the Captain would have listened to her, anyway. He still treated her as a complete noobie and she had been on the Arkhangel for months. How many years would she have to serve on this ship until he gave her any credit?
Ernestine flipped a switch and the view screen became transparent, showing the glorious heavens. The mass sensors might find the neighborhood boring, but her eyes did not. She was the first person in history to view this multitude of stars, their hard light undimmed by the faintest wisp of atmosphere or dust. Well, maybe not the first. The generation ships, the largest structures ever built by man, may have headed out this way, at the beginning of their centuries-long journey to possible greener pastures out there, somewhere. Generations being born, living, and dying shipboard. The holos portrayed it as a heroic act on the part of humans. Ernie thought it more a desperate one. There had been less than a dozen built, before humanity decided the cost was too high, the payoff, if there was one, too far in the future.
She shook her head. That was not her concern. For now, she was an intrepid explorer, just like in the holos she had watched as a kid. Bright, diamond chips covered most of the screen, showing the view in front of the ship. To one side, as if a paint stroke from the hand of an impatient god, ran the Milky Way. She sighed in contentment. This was where she belonged.
The Arkhangel slowly closed in on the small swarm of snowballs. Although they did not mass as much as her crew originally hoped, the hydrocarbons would still help replenish their stores. Sean Franklin aligned the electromagnetic net and then hit the switch. Microwave radiation lashed out at the cometary remains. The deckhand’s experience was evident as the net deftly captured most of the resulting volatiles and greedily sucked them down. Wildcatters, like the Arkhangel, spent months traipsing around the Kuiper, so they had evolved to be markedly self-sufficient. That did not mean they could not eventually be replaced by others, thought Vladnitz, sipping the last of his hoarded bourbon as he followed Sean’s progress from the Captain’s cabin.
The asteroids and moons of the inner solar system had long been stripped bare and, as had been the human pattern for millenia, eventually demand grew enough that the misfits, the crazies, those with nothing left to lose, set off for new horizons, in this case the Kuiper Belt, to replenish those resources. The powers that be had said it could not be done, but the wildcatters did it, eventually, and at great cost in terms of lives and sanity.
Once convinced by the wildcatters’ hard won successes, the large multicorps started deploying robotic harvesters. The harvesters operated within preprogrammed patterns. To use a metaphor from ancient times, from when Earth still had forests, the robotic harvesters were clear cutting the Kuiper. Regardless of how small an object was, they harvested it. If it was a snowball, they burned it for fuel, if it was a rock, they sent it looping in to the capture yards at Pluto, Haumea, or Makemake, where it was processed and the refined metals sent inwards to the great factories at Triton or one of the moons of the other gas giants. The robots were not as smart as the wildcatters, but then they did not have to be.
Vladnitz forced the last drops of bourbon from the squeeze bottle. The last real bourbon. Now he would have to put up with the on-board alcohol rations, flavor inflicted via a pre-packaged powder. He shuddered. A scratching at his cabin door interrupted his consideration of the yawning abyss. He did not think his newest crew member had lowered herself to scratching, rather than knocking, although stranger things had happened out in the far reaches. However, it was not Ernie. It was Lucky, the Arkhangel’s shipboard cat. Strictly speaking, the orange tabby was Qing’s cat.
Vladnitz hated cats. When he was twelve, he had asked his parents for a dog, after reading stories and seeing pictures. But dogs were almost nonexistent in the far reaches and he had received a cat. He hated that cat and in the perverse way that the universe had, the cat followed him everywhere. Until he went off to college. The cat stayed with his parents, scratching out a living as wildcatters. Boris had not planned on coming back. That was not why his parents had taken chances and run themselves and their ship ragged to send their smart son to school. After graduating, one Boris Vladnitz, a young man full of himself, had made it inward as far as the Triton colony with the occasional bit of financial help from his parents, when word came that his parents’ luck had run out.
Boris found himself the reluctant owner of the Arkhangel, along with the cat. Much as he wanted to, he found he could not get rid of the cat until it died. And, opportunity having passed him by, he could not get rid of the Arkhangel, either. He could ignore the scratching at the door, however. At least for now.
Ernie reached down to pet the cat, which was insistent on rubbing against her legs.
“She recognizes an easy mark when she meets one,” Qing smiled across her cabin at the young woman.
“Yeah, unlike the Captain. He hates Lucky,” Ernie picked up the cat and rubbed noses with it before plopping it into her lap.
“Why do you say that?” Qing frowned.
“Well, for one thing, he’s always trying to kick her,” Ernie pointed out the obvious.
“Has he ever succeeded?”
“I said, ‘Have you ever seen him actually connect?’”
Ernie thought, while giving the topic of discussion a good skritch behind the ears. “No, I guess not. Lucky always seems to move just out of reach.”
“And yet she keeps going back for more,” Qing’s look was skeptical.
Ernie chuckled. “Yeah, what is up with your cat? Are you just a slow learner?” She asked the purring cat.
“Boris, Captain Vladnitz, is the one that insisted the Arkhangel have a cat, you know, not me. She is even listed as a member of the ship’s crew on our register.”
“No,” Ernie’s green eyes widened.
“Yes. Helps to get her through quarantine. Besides, Boris said it wouldn’t seem like home without a ship’s cat. We’ve had at least four since he took over from his parents.”
“Really? I just thought that the Captain didn’t even want to be here. Home?”
“For some of us,” Qing hesitated, studying the girl. Experts had been saying for years that redheads were a dying breed. Apparently Ernie’s parents had not gotten the memo. Even with the crew members’ mandated weekly trips to the solar bed, how Ernie had such generous freckles, Qing did not know, but the girl did. “How about you, Ernestine? Do you want to be here?” A deep blush spread across Ernie’s fair skin, a blush almost the shade of her red hair.
“Yes, I do. I do want to be here, although, maybe not quite like this. You have to understand, ever since I was little, I was hoping for Navy. Something that would get me out of the Orbitals.”
“I see,” Qing murmured. She had visited a couple of the Orbitals, huge factories in Earth orbit. They had offered shining, cutting edge opportunity a century ago. They still housed the descendants of the original workers, but now were largely run-down hulks, with tantalizing views of the stars the only thing that still shone. She nodded, “I see indeed.”
“But I didn’t have the connections,” the girl’s blush deepened.
Qing’s voice was soft. “Few do.”
“Then I had to get the DNA protection treatments to go into space. That isn’t cheap. It took everything I had, well, more than that really…” Ernie’s voice trailed off awkwardly.
Qing decided to change the subject. “You know, I’ve been out in the Kuiper for so long that people think I was born here, right in the engine room according to some of the more imaginative stories.”
“You weren’t? I mean, I know the bit about the engine room, I mean…” Ernie stammered to a halt.
“No, I was born on one of the farming communes on Mars.”
“Really? If you don’t mind me asking, ma’am, how did you end up out here?”
“I don’t mind the asking. The ma’am, bit though, just call me Qing, okay? Like you, I was space crazy. I wanted to get away from grubbing in the dirt in the worst way. I had some mechanical aptitude and a lot of desire. I managed to get in with the Navy as an Engine Tech One, but–”
“The–the actual Navy?”
“Sure, but I didn’t last long, I was stationed on the Navy’s shipyard orbiting Mars, barely made it off planet. Didn’t look like I was going to go any further. After that I went to work for Monogene. I figured they wouldn’t be so hide-bound.”
Ernie had forgotten all about the cat, much to Lucky’s annoyance and she batted at Ernie’s hand. “Monogene? They’re one of the top agricultural corporations, one of the biggest multicorps going, I know people that would die to get in with them.”
“They can have them,” Qing replied, with a bitterness in her words that Ernie could never recall hearing before. “They’re even worse than the Navy. I slaved away for Monogene for almost two decades, watching others being promoted past me. I finally got a supervisor, who, in a moment of kindness, told me that I would never work my way up the ranks. I didn’t have the wasta, the connections. I just wanted to get away from the whole corrupt system. I got in touch with an old friend that I heard had headed out this way, a wildcatter, and she invited me to join her and her husband. She was Boris’ mother.
“So, you see you and I are not so different,” Qing reached out and took Lucky from the slack-jawed young woman.
“You did what?” Vladnitz thundered, using every kilo of his large mass for intimidation.
“It was my watch and I didn’t want to wake you, so I decided to see if I could spot what was causing the error in our sensors,” Solo paled, but he stood his ground. He was reasonably sure the Captain had been in a drunken stupor at the time, not that he was going to mention that. Instead he focused on what appeared to be a new stain on the dirty coveralls the Captain habitually wore. Instant barbeque sauce, he was betting.
“So, the damn sensors are on the flink again,” Vladnitz growled.
“No, sir, if I aim it more than ten degrees away from the anomaly, then it returns to normal energy density. This one spot, it is less than that baseline.”
Qing’s eyebrows shot up. “So you’re suggesting a negative energy density?”
“Negative energy density, negative mass, right now I’m not suggesting anything. I just wanted to triangulate it to estimate how big it is and how far away. Besides, it’s not going to increase the time it takes us to get back to the elliptic by more than a few days, a week at most. After all, we’ve been striking out on just about everything else we’ve tried in the last year, what’s another few days? Sir,” Solo’s mouth twisted in what he probably thought was an ingratiating smile. A smile that Vladnitz would have punched, if not for Qing Zhu’s restraining hand.
“The conniving little bastard thinks he’s smarter than me, that’s why,” Boris complained to Horst as they shared a bottle in the Captain’s cabin. It spoke to his anger that Boris drank the artificial concoction without flinching.
“Whether he is or not doesn’t matter. Attacking him would.” Horst refilled their cups.
“Sure, you would know, wouldn’t you?”
“I’ll pretend I did not hear that, Boris Stepanovich Vladnitz.”
“Leave my father out of this,” Boris complained half-heartedly about his middle name, a legacy of his father. “I’m sure the little weasel is just trying to position himself for a position on a better ship. You didn’t tell him our finances, did you?”
Horst shook his head and Boris did not believe him for a second.
“Not that it would be that tough to figure out,” Boris admitted. “The question is what do we do now?”
Horst smiled. “How about going along with the ‘little weasel?’ If it’s nothing, we can write him up and there’s no way he gets a position on another ship. If it is something, well, we could certainly use a break, right?”
Boris clinked cups with the purser. “That’s what I like about you, Horst.”
“I know, I know, I’m damn good at stabbing people in the back.”
Sean Franklin was the first to explode at Abasolo Cesar. “Like we needed to spend another week out here. We’re practically halfway to the Oort Cloud already.”
“Come on, get real. That’s what, 400 times further out? You’re exaggerating,” Solo snorted.
“You want reality, you grinning idiot? Reality is I was supposed to meet my wife back on Haumea during our leave there. Our two-week leave. It’s been almost a year since I last saw her. Now I will get to see her for a couple of days at most, if we don’t have any further delays!”
Horst Schroder opened his mouth as if to say something, but closed it again at the Captain’s slight head shake.
“So what is this negative energy density?” Ernie asked, too quickly.
“Could be an Einstein-Rosen Bridge,” Solo shrugged.
“A what?” Sean frowned.
“A wormhole,” Vladnitz said, one finger tapping his lower lip.
“A wormhole,” Ernie breathed. “We’ll be famous.”
“We’ll be disappointed,” Qing said. “Do you know how long wildcatters have been looking for a wormhole?”
“At least since the start of the Space Age,” Horst muttered.
“It’s more likely some weird stuff left over from the birth of the solar system,” Qing pointed out.
“Or even more likely it could just be drifting through the neighborhood. Some crazy dwarf star or something. Nothing much out here for it to run into,” Vladnitz corrected.
“Wait, if it is negative energy, shouldn’t there be an even bigger amount of positive energy associated with it? We haven’t spotted that, have we?” Ernie asked. The others all turned to look at her. “I–I read it in the tech notes for my favorite holo show when I was growing up, ‘Space Patrol: Arcturus,’” she blushed a crimson as brilliant as the show’s namesake star.
Qing nodded. “I recall hearing something similar, although perhaps from a different source.”
“We don’t even know how much negative mass is there, not until I recalibrate the sensors. They’re designed to detect something, not the absence of something. It was amazing I figured out how to detect this as it was,” Solo said in his best humble voice. “Just being honest,” he added to the less-than-friendly looks.
“We should be in for a good-sized finder’s fee,” Ernie changed the topic. “I mean, look how much they paid the Laredo when they discovered that last trans-Neptunian object, that minor planet, a few decades back.”
“Or that weird comet with the metallic core. What, maybe three years ago? This could be worth a lot more,” Qing pointed out.
“How would we claim it if it is just passing through. It’s not like we can brand it and send it back to Haumea like one of our usual rocks.” Horst mused.
“No. If the object is made up of negative mass and we try grabbing it, applying any force, it will just go the opposite direction,” Vladnitz nodded as he thought out loud.
“Well, maybe we could slow it down and poke it back toward the elliptic,” Solo said.
“Right and what if it hits something else on the way in?” Qing pointed out. “Nobody’s really sure what will happen.”
“I guess we’ll find out,” Solo smirked.
“If we don’t die of malnutrition first,” Vladnitz grumbled.
“Or worse,” Sean muttered, glaring at Solo.
Sean Franklin had not killed Solo yet, but Boris admitted that accident a few days back seemed more than a bit suspicious. The Arkhangel was a typical wildcatter ship, mostly metal girders welded together in a boxlike framework from which hung living and working modules, cargo holds, fuel tanks, and engines all connected by various tubes containing ladders. It would never enter atmosphere, so it did not boast the smooth lines of one of those rocketships featured on Ernie’s beloved ‘Space Patrol: Arcturus’, but its mass did have to remain relatively balanced along the longitudinal axis for maneuverability. That same balance required that the Arkhangel’s crew quickly repair it when one of the six main thrusters failed.
Standard operating procedure required two of the crew to do any extravehicular activity. Ernie volunteered, but Solo, backed by Boris, overruled her. “What do you have? Less than a hundred hours experience and a novice rating? It’s one thing to crawl around in a vacuum back in the shipyard, another thing entirely out here. Sean and I will handle it.”
Abasolo Cesar and Sean Franklin were listed as the ship’s two primary EVA specialists. As they suited up, Horst pulled the Captain aside to argue against sending the two of them out together, but Boris overruled him, figuring if Sean was out to get their cocky young pilot he would do so in a less-public venue. The pair had been poking around Thruster Number 5 for nearly a half-hour when Solo started checking the fuel lines leading to the dead thruster. One of the lines blew out with tremendous force and blasted Solo back against a couple of the ship’s girders. A metal cable, strung from girder to girder caught him across the upper back of his suit. Ten centimeters higher and the cable would have sliced through his breather hose and probably his neck as well.
The accident had some real benefits. Solo now sported a really glorious bruise across his shoulders, but he finally seemed to have realized that he did not lead a charmed life and dialed back the acidity of his comments. In addition, Boris now had an excuse to call Sean in for a personal conference in the Captain’s cabin. Sean now faced him across the battered plasteel desk, his jaw clenched, ready for a dressing down.
Boris hated confrontations like this. He glanced up at the hologram of the great actor Madankirpal in his role as Jalil Sengupta, the first human to set foot on Mars. The production was, of course, a tragedy, as Sengupta had perished when his rocket exploded while leaving Mars.
How would Madankirpal play this part? Boris offered Sean a drink. After the small, wiry machinist hesitantly accepted the cup, Boris asked if Sean had ever met Philippe Laviolette? Sean shook his head, puzzled. “Well, Philippe was an old friend of mine. More than a friend really, like a brother. In fact he still owes me money. Anyway, he crewed on the DaLong a few years back. Yeah, that DaLong,” Boris responded to Sean’s raised eyebrow. Sean had heard of the ship, as had everyone out here in the Kuiper.
“One night, in port on Makemake, we got really soused. Only time he ever told me what really happened on that trip. Odd what happens with some crews when they are so isolated. Little things seem to take on great importance. Only eight of DaLong’s crew came back alive. Philippe said he did not sleep for the last two weeks of that trip.”
“Fact is, now that I think about it, I do not believe most of them ever shipped out again. I don’t know if they made that choice or others made it for him. At least they were luckier than their four crewmates who finished the trip in the meat locker. Maybe luckier too, than Philippe. He and the DaLong eventually vanished without a trace. Ah well, another drink?” Boris held the bottle poised. Sean shook his head.
Boris poured himself another shot from the bottle. “I will be wishing you a good evening, then, Sean. I appreciate you putting up with an old man and his reminiscing.” He lifted the cup in salute as his cabin door shut behind Sean. He smiled. The great Madankirpal could not have played it better.
“I recalibrated the sensors, but I still can’t even tell exactly how big it is. But it is big,” Solo told the assembled crew. They had traveled Solo’s predicted week without noticeably gaining on the object.
“Nothing is nothing, no matter how big it is. We’re already going to practically be coasting just to get back to the elliptic. Microgravity for weeks on end is no fun. Turn it around, Abasolo.” Boris shook his head. Why had he even wasted a week on this?
“I agree. If anything were to go wrong…” Horst was idly flicking his penknife’s razor sharp blade open and closed, open and closed, open and closed.
“Plus I’m sick of eating basic rations,” Sean groused. At least his sniping at Solo had only been verbal since his little visit to the Captain’s cabin.
Solo’s shoulders slumped as he reached for the controls. “Wait!” Ernie interrupted. “At least, take a look at this first.” She brought up a picture on the view screen. “Abasolo may actually be right about this. I knew the scans were not showing much, so I decided to see if I could see anything visually. I aimed the scope in the direction of the anomaly.”
“So?” prompted Qing.
“Sorry. Watch as I zoom in,” Ernie deftly spun the tracking ball in the console with her fingers. At first it was difficult to tell anything was happening. The stars that filled the view screen were so far away that even a large increase in magnification did not affect their position appreciably.
“Ah,” Horst was the first to respond.
“Yes, I see it too,” Solo agreed.
Boris squinted and then he saw it. At first it simply looked like a distortion in the screen.
“Gravitational lensing,” Ernie announced.
“You can’t know that,” Sean objected.
“Well, I can’t be sure,” Ernie admitted. “However, something’s causing this visual effect, the way the starlight is smeared.”
“Maybe a wandering planet?” Horst asked.
Solo shook his head. “A planet’s mass, even a dwarf planet should register on the mass sensors. Good thinking, girl. If it was solid it would register a lot more on the sensors. It’s definitely a wormhole!”
Ernie squirmed, but looked pleased. “I don’t know that we can say that yet.”
“Nothing rules it out, though, does it?” Qing’s mouth quirked. “I’m impressed, you two. Captain? I think we have a decision to make.”
The Captain offered no objection to proceeding at least far enough to see what they had found. “We cannot very well go back and say that we have found something odd, might be a wormhole, might not be, we are not sure. If they already think that I am crazy, imagine what that news would bring me. Probably a padded cell with a diagnosis of Belt Fever.”
The crew watched as his bulk squeezed through the bridge’s hatch. “Well that was unexpected,” Horst finally said and turned to follow.
“Maybe he finally decided to grow a pair,” Abasolo snickered. Ernie glared at him hard enough that he shrugged and turned away to plot a course for the anomaly.
“I don’t believe it!” Sean Franklin turned and followed the Captain and Horst through the hatch, although at a considerably greater velocity.
“If we’re going to do this, I’d better take a look at our long-suffering engines,” Qing excused herself.
“Anything, yet?” the Captain stepped onto the bridge, the start of his watch. Ernie jumped to her feet, her face flushed.
“Nothing so far, Sir.” Boris half expected her to salute. He glanced at the text on her monitor. She acted guilty, but Boris was sure she was merely reading everything in the Arkhangel’s library that dealt with wormhole theory. Centuries of theorizing and never a shred of evidence as to whether any of it was right or wrong.
The only other person on the bridge looked up from the sensors. Obviously frustrated, Abasolo ran a hand through his tousled hair. “I can’t get anything more out of them for the time being. In fact, I’m betting we are going to have to get a straight on view before we can tell anything for sure. I’m calling it a night.”
Solo left, not looking back. “I have the conn,” Boris announced, ignoring the pilot’s insubordination.
Ernie turned to the Captain. “I’m sorry, sir. He should not have done that.”
“So why are you apologizing?” Boris shrugged. He jerked his head toward the hatch. “Go on. Get out of here. It wasn’t even your watch. You need to stop working so hard.”
After she left, Boris keyed in a code to the monitor. The code secretly activated the ship’s comms, activating the sound pickup without turning on the signal light. It was crude, but much less likely to be discovered than fiddling with the video feed and hoping they were in front of the monitor. It was Horst’s cabin, but Solo was the one speaking.
“Suppose it is a wormhole? How do we keep the old fool from saying anything until we can sell the knowledge to one of our bidders?”
Horst’s voice had raspy overtones. Maybe it was due to the ancient comm system, maybe not. “Why don’t we wait until we know what it is, before we start worrying about that. In the meantime, you could consider being a bit nicer to our most junior crew member even if she’s annoying as a puppy.”
“And about as well trained,” Solo interjected.
“But she saved your ass back there by bringing up the picture like that.”
“Like I needed saving,” Solo laughed it off.
Solo might be an arrogant son of a bitch, but he knew his stuff, Boris realized. They found out that they indeed needed a straight view at the end of the structure to determine if it was a wormhole with a view into some other part of the universe or whether it was simply some weird object that distorted light. Even a small angle kept them from making the determination. So, by unspoken agreement, the Arkhangel kept flying further and further away from main body of the Kuiper. Boris each day felt more and more like he was on a modern day Flying Dutchman. He even jokingly suggested they change the Arkhangel’s name, but even after he explained it, nobody else seemed to find it amusing. Maybe it was because to conserve fuel they had throttled the ship back to one-third of a G thrust. The lessened gravity made everything feel less substantial.
Ernie had the first watch, so it was a little before midnight, ship’s time. She slumped in the Captain’s chair. Damn that Solo! She had worked with the Arkhangel’s Nav routines on the course update. She triple-checked the results on how long it would take the ship to be in position to see if the anomaly was a wormhole or not. She nonchalantly handed her calculations to the pilot as he passed through. Abasolo glanced at them. “I hope you didn’t spend too long on this, Ernie.”
She shrugged. “I was bored. This was just a little something to keep busy, that’s all.”
“Because they are totally wrong. This would take us so high out of the elliptic we wouldn’t even be able to see the end of the anomaly.”
“What? But I checked the numbers with–”
“Looks like you ran the numbers only out to the third decimal place, instead of the eighth. The distances we’re talking about that means several million kilometers difference.” He handed the calculations back to her. “If I were you I’d leave the navigation to the professionals, girl.”
As she replayed the scene in her head again, Ernie caught herself clenching her hands into fists. She glared down at the traitorous appendages. Just great. The Strangler surfaces again. She hated her large hands, they were the size you should see on a man, not a girl. The other kids on the Orbital had taunted her, calling her the Strangler. It hadn’t helped when Rodrigo’s body was discovered in one of the hydroponics tanks, when Ernie was fifteen. Rodrigo had been a couple of years younger than Ernie and as he was a bright, socially awkward outcast like her, they naturally hung out together–until he was murdered, that is. He had been strangled or drowned, nobody was really sure, his body had been in the tank for a while. But if she thought she had been an outcast before….
Of course, Ernie had her own suspicions about Rodrigo’s death. Rodrigo was a handsome boy and had confided in Ernie about attracting the unwanted attention of Reverend Jim, the self-appointed leader of the Orbital. She shuddered as she thought of Reverend Jim. With an effort, she unclenched her hands. She decided to turn on the view screen. The stars always helped her forget, even back on the Orbital.
A while later, Ernie had tired of peering at the supposed wormhole and was now using the Arkhangel’s visual sensors to look down at the Kuiper Belt. Not many ships ever came up this way, so once again she could imagine that she was the only human to have ever seen this view–at least until Qing entered the bridge, trailed by Lucky.
Qing studied the view screen. “I would have thought you would be looking ahead and not back.”
Ernie smiled. “You don’t know how right you are. Hey, Lucky,” she greeted the cat who started purring and rubbing against her legs.
Qing sat down and nodded her head toward the view screen. “So, what do you see there?”
Ernie regarded the screen soberly. “Patterns, I guess. Up close you can’t tell that the ice and dust are long braids and those braids are woven with others. But from up here it all looks carefully planned.”
“Hmmm, I never figured you for a theist, Ernestine Borgia,” Qing’s tone implied she was only teasing the younger woman, but Ernie still shuddered, thinking of Reverend Jim.
“I’m not really. My folks were members of one of those obscure little sects that seem to sprout up in the poorer habitats like mushrooms in uh, manure. Some smooth-talking preacher that was good at separating folks from their money. I never took to it, one of the reasons I wanted to get away from home. No, I know the patterns are from the resonance orbits, lots of stuff at one orbit for every two of Neptune’s or two for three and even a little bit at weird ratios like at four to seven. So, I’m not a theist, what kind of a god would make you do the math on a four to seven ratio?”
Qing’s mouth quirked. “Indeed. Still, pretty as they are, it is too bad they can be calculated at all.”
Ernie thought for a moment. “Ah, the multicorps and their robotic miners.”
“Exactly. If it was not so easy to predict where the rocks will be, it would be a lot better for wildcatters. The robots would not just be able to move along an orbit, sucking up everything in their path. You know, Saturn once had the most spectacular rings you ever saw.” Qing stared at the view screen, but she was seeing something else.
“I know, I’ve seen photos,” Ernie said softly.
“I saw them in real life as they harvested the last of them and please don’t say anything about how old that makes me.”
“Wouldn’t dare,” Ernie said. Lucky had now worked her way up into Ernie’s lap and she gave the cat a good knuckle rub. “How long do you figure we have before the multicorps and their robots are out here?”
“Oh, decades. It’s a long way between rocks out here, but they are starting to work their way out through the Belt. And they are getting smarter, I’m afraid. They’re quicker and quicker at finding the good stuff amidst all the dirty snowballs.”
“Better even than Horst’s intuition,” Ernie murmured.
“Better than Horst.”
“Where would we go then? The Oort Cloud?”
Qing shook her head in a tacit admission of defeat. “Stuff there is even further apart. Besides, that’s outside the heliopause, without the solar wind to protect us, we’d fry from cosmic rays, even with our magnetic screens.”
“So we don’t have any choice. That’s why we have to see what this thing is. If it’s a wormhole, well, I think we should fully investigate,” Ernie switched the view screen back to the mysterious object.
“You mean go through it,” Qing waved at the screen.
“I know things can’t go on as they are, forever. I know the Captain is worried about being able to keep the Arkhangel running and I know he is scared to try, but we have to. Don’t you see?”
“We have to at least try. You’ve known him longer than anyone else, can you at least talk to him?”
“The best I can do will likely be for him to allow a vote by shareowners,” Qing cautioned.
“And me, being so junior, will barely have enough to even include. You must really be worried if you came to feel me out before your shift.”
Qing looked at the girl with obvious affection. “You continue to surprise me.”
“Yeah, well, I’ll stop now. I’m beat and am going to bed. It’s your watch. You have the conn.” Ernie logged out and handed the controls and the cat over to Qing.
Qing nodded, “I have the conn.”
“I’ve been thinking about the potential ramifications if this is a viable wormhole,” Horst Schroder had cornered the ship’s pilot in the galley.
Abasolo Cesar snorted from in front of his open food locker. “Bullshit, Horst, you’re just figuring out how you can make the most money off of it.”
Horst smiled vulpinely, “And you have a problem with that?”
Solo took a swig of what the ship’s galley euphemistically called fruit juice and made a face. “Judging by how nasty our rations have become, not at all, but I’m thinking bigger than that.”
“Oh, I’ve got to hear this, got a plan, have we?”
Solo frowned at Horst’s tone. “I do, which is more than what most of you have. For starters, I can just about guarantee you that any decision that the Old Man makes, will be the wrong one. The slob is in hock up to his thrusters and that won’t change any time soon, not without taking some chances. Why else do you think I set us on the course for the wormhole or whatever it is in the middle of the night? So he didn’t have the chance to crap out about it.
“Regardless though, whether it is a wormhole or merely a curiosity, there is no way any wildcatters are going to be able to control it. The multicorps are where the action is. If they can’t buy something outright they’ll steal it, through the so-called legal system, if nothing else. Trick is, you need a way in to the multicorps, offer them something unique to get your foot in through the door. If I had been fortunate enough to be born into the right family, I’d be flying high by now, with all the fancy toys and women I could ever want. Instead, I’m stuck on this decrepit old wildcatter rig, going slower and slower to nowhere.”
Solo shut his locker door, but it popped back open. He slammed it shut again. Twice. “Dammit! Not even the lockers work right on this ship. Take it from me, Horst. This could be our ticket out of here, but only if we think big enough. And I’m going to get what I deserve, one way or another. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a watch to stand.”
The tone was insolent, but Solo’s interests seemed to be aligned with those of Horst Schroder, at least for now, so the purser let it go without comment. However, Horst fingered the penknife in his pocket, remembering the days when a sharpened sliver of steel often proved to be the most eloquent argument he could make.
The Captain brooded in his cabin. Just below the surface, tremors ran through the Arkhangel’s crew. He could feel them. Like a misaligned grapple slinging an asteroid back to the processing plants, the resulting oscillations could shake the ship apart. He stared up at Madankirpal’s heroic features while considering and discarding several options to restore the equilibrium. He absently stroked Lucky’s fur. Somehow the damn cat had snuck into his cabin, despite his best efforts to keep it out. He stared into the cat’s slitted eyes. “Why bother?” he asked and grasped the squeeze bottle, the plastic worn smooth over time by his hand.
Boris belched and worked on draining the last of his despised shipboard alcohol rations. Unfortunately, he could not ask Sean to refine any more alcohol, not with the potential for short rations looming for everyone. Would he be able to handle the sniping without his preferred crutch? He regarded the cat and sighed. “Tomorrow we’ll find out for sure.”
“What was that?” Qing asked from the doorway.
“Oh, nothing. I was just thinking, they are like rats fleeing a sinking ship, you know. Although out in space there is nothing to flee to, a fact probably lost on our crew, unlike that of Captain Bligh and the Bounty.”
“Never mind. I am just sorry I cannot keelhaul the miscreants.”
Qing snorted. “Next you’ll be having them walk the plank. You know it wouldn’t kill you to at least pretend to live in this millennium, Boris.”
It was Boris’ turn to snort. “Some concepts are timeless. What are you doing here anyway?”
“Looking for Lucky, that’s all.”
“Well, you can have her,” Boris dumped the protesting cat off his lap. “You know how I hate cats.”
“Yeah, I know how you feel about cats,” Qing closed the hatch behind her and then sat down in the chair across from Boris.
“Won’t you come in, Qing?” Boris invited.
“Thank you, Boris.” She sat in silence for a minute.
Boris finally cleared his throat. “I would offer you a drink, but I know you never touch the stuff. Not anymore.”
She looked up sharply at this, but Boris would not meet her eyes. She picked up the cat, who was pawing at her leg. “Boris, I want to know what you’ve decided about the anomaly. Whether we are going to fully investigate it.”
“Haven’t decided,” he mumbled.
He must have been drinking more than she thought, to be slurring his words like this. “Well, you’re going to have to decide pretty soon. I think we need to go for it.”
His eyes flashed. “I did not ask you.”
“No you didn’t, but even your youngest crew member knows what we have to do.”
“Oh come on, Boris. Ernie knows full well that you, that we, are running out of options. This wormhole is not only our best chance, it’s our only chance.”
“A good chance of getting killed, you mean.”
Qing threw her hands up in the air. “Any given day our number could be up. You know that, Boris.”
“Why? You been slacking off on maintenance again?”
“No, although you wouldn’t know it since the lighting in the storeroom in B Hold is shorting out again. No, you know I would not do that.”
“No, you would not dare. Who are you to lecture me on the need to take risks? How long have you been with the Arkhangel?”
“You know very well.”
“Since before my parents died.”
Qing sat, her face carved stone.
“And just how did you survive? And they did not?” Boris enunciated slowly, sinking the barb.
“Boris, we’ve been over this time and—”
“By taking risks? I don’t think so.”
“Damn you, Boris!” Qing slammed her hand down on the desk as she rose. “Just go back to your fucking bottle. Let someone else play at being captain for a while, okay?” She stormed out of his cabin, trailed by the cat, who shot him a reproachful look as it left.
By unspoken agreement, they had all gathered on the Arkhangel’s bridge for the big moment. Even the damn cat was there, hissing at Horst until he moved further away. The ship had finally come far enough to allow them to peer into the end of the structure.
Ernie toggled the knob to switch the view screen to visual. The wormhole appeared like a perfect, dim-white circle. “Well, that’s just great, we still can’t make out a damned thing,” Sean complained.
“Hang on a second, let me up the magnification,” Ernie punched in a command and zoomed in. The circle flared making it hard to look at. “I’ve got it,” Ernie quickly added a filter before they were permanently blinded.
The structure now looked like a thick white ring with a small center of black. Ernie pushed the magnification to its limit and pinpricks of light shone in the black center.
“I don’t know what the ring is, but you can see to the other side,” Sean conceded.
“It’s not really a ring, it’s more like a sphere,” Ernie said.
“Regardless, there’s no wormhole,” Sean growled. “Can we go back to Haumea now?”
“No, you’ve got it wrong,” Horst said. “Show him, Ernie.”
Ernie split the view screen. On the left was the white ring. On the right was just an anonymous group of stars.
“Oh, excellent, Ernestine,” Qing murmured.
“Yeah, that’s brilliant,” Solo drummed his fingers, ignoring Ernie’s look.
It took Boris a moment to realize that the view on the right must be a view in the same direction as the one on the left through the wormhole. However, the stars were completely different. All that reading about wormhole theory must have paid off. Ernie had realized they would need a point of comparison and recorded one sometime during the last week. Boris frowned as he realized she must have discussed this with Horst, but not him. Well, he could live with that. Now, they had another decision to make.
As Captain, Vladnitz had the option of simply making the decision, but he agreed to decide the matter by a formal vote of crewshares. He would have done it that way, even if Qing had not visited him the night before for a chat. She was not nearly as subtle as she thought she was or maybe they just knew each other too well after so many years. Although she never directly addressed it, Boris knew what she was angling for. In fact, Boris found following the arcane voting protocols much less stressful than having to make the decision himself.
Each person with valid crewshares got a brief chance to speak, in reverse order of the number of shares they owned. In the case of the Arkhangel, that was all of them. Boris prided himself on including everyone; not to mention, it was essential for filling the roster on an old ship like this. After everyone spoke, they would hold a simple majority vote of shares.
As the junior member, Ernie went first. Her message was delivered with heartfelt sincerity. “It’s the chance of a lifetime or more. How often can any of us say that? Besides, I’d love to show those Navy jerks up. I say we see what is on the other end of that wormhole.”
Sean, although older than Abasolo, had joined the Arkhangel at the same time, about five years ago. Pilots got better compensation than deckhands, however, so Sean, with fewer shares, went next. “I don’t have the brains the rest of you do, so I know what I say probably won’t matter, but I’d like to point out that the Arkhangel is not equipped for scouting or survey or whatever. We’ve had to futz with the sensors just to detect this negative mass. Now, we have no idea of what is going to happen. I say we head back to Haumea and let the professionals take over.” He glanced first at Ernie and then at Solo as he said this last.
Solo spoke next. “Well, we could go back and let the ‘professionals,’ none of whom have ever found a wormhole yet, take over and get all the credit. We could also go back, refuel, unload those who don’t want to participate, and come back here. But that would take forever and we would not be any better prepared than we are now.”
“Except for a few minor things like food and fuel,” Sean interrupted.
“It might mean going without dessert for a few meals, but I’m sure we could tough it out,” Solo patted his stomach. The gesture was not lost on Sean who, although wiry, had a noticeable pot belly, although nothing compared to the Captain’s. As if realizing this, Solo quickly added, “I suggest we go on.”
Horst was his usual blunt self, “I say we go back. If the rest of you can keep what we found and where it is located a secret, we can auction off the information to the highest bidder and make a fortune.”
Qing may have had the smallest stature of those present, but she stood tall. “I’m disappointed in you, Horst. Something like this should be for the benefit of everyone. The future possibilities for all wildcatters, including us, would transcend any small profit you would make with selling out to the multicorps. Not to mention, I think someone with access to one of those telescope arrays, like around Triton, would be able to backtrack our path and discover the wormhole’s location, even if we prove capable of keeping our mouths shut. No, I say we go on or we will come to regret missing our chance.”
Solo looked over at Horst and rolled his eyes, a gesture noticed by Boris. Without alcohol, Boris found himself noticing more than he liked.
As the largest shareowner, Boris spoke last. “I would rather not go charging through immediately. The wormhole should first should be thoroughly studied, but we do not have the supplies for a long stay. As far as going back, reprovisioning, and returning, I am afraid I have some bad news about our finances. The noteholder on the Arkhangel is likely to seize her, and auction her off for debts. Our options would either seem to be charge through, in spite of our lack of knowledge, or head back to Haumea and see if we can get anything for our knowledge, knowing full well that we will have to live with any regrets and likely losing the ship.”
“At least we would be alive,” Sean added.
In the end, the anonymous vote was 57 to 43 percent shares in favor of proceeding. Sean slammed the hatch open and stormed off the bridge. Ernie almost bounced off the walls, as she pumped her fist. Horst sat deathly still, his face a blank mask. Solo nodded at each of his supposed allies in turn, graciously acknowledging their support. Horst abruptly stood and headed for the hatch, followed by Solo. “Listen, Horst, I think it is for the best. If we–” the hatch closed, shutting off the rest of Solo’s attempt at persuasion.
“He just doesn’t know when to shut up, does he?” Ernie stared after them.
“No, he doesn’t,” Qing agreed, standing up. “If you could give us a minute, dear.”
Ernie nodded and scooping up Lucky, left the bridge, automatically avoiding the hatchway’s worn spot with the rivets showing.
Qing smiled after her. “You know I’m going to have to leave the cat to her. I’m getting too old for this.” She looked down at the Captain’s timeworn features. “I’m rather surprised none of the others, especially Horst, has done the math.”
Boris raised an eyebrow in interrogation. “How so?”
Qing patted his shoulder. “Oh, you know very well, Boris Stepanovich Vladnitz. You hold 33 percent of the crewshares. Assuming each of the rest of us voted our full shares one way or the other, you must have split your vote. The way I figure it, 17 percent for and 16 percent against. You really are of two minds about this, aren’t you?”
Later, the crew of the Arkhangel held a brief, but spirited discussion on how to make things as safe as possible.
Should they send a probe ahead? It would seem a prudent thing to do, but their only recon probe had limited sensor capabilities and virtually no on-board intelligence. It would take quite a while to transit the entire length of the wormhole and how could they be sure the probe would be able to keep from plunging into the side of the wormhole? Would the negative energy screw up its navigation sensors?
Solo pointed out that there was a reason why a negative mass wormhole was on the rump side of nowhere. What would happen if positive mass, like the probe, touched the wormhole’s side, would it blow up? Like antimatter?
Ernie spoke up. “That’s different. Antimatter has positive energy, it’s just the opposite of regular matter, that’s why you get the explosion. Negative energy, on the other hand, added to positive energy, they just zero each other out. I—” she stopped abruptly at Solo’s glare.
Horst asked “Why doesn’t the wormhole just fly apart?”
The others looked to Ernie. She hesitated, then admitted, “Well, I read that normally mass is attracted to mass, but a wormhole exists because negative energy repulses itself. What I’m wondering, is it accumulating new negative energy from outside the compacting wormhole? Or is the wormhole in multiple dimensions and so made stable that way? Maybe cosmic strings? What will happen if positive energy goes through wormhole? Even without touching, will it collapse? Shouldn’t there be an even larger amount of positive energy with this much negative energy? Why isn’t there any sign of that around the wormhole?”
Solo snorted, but Qing interrupted before it could go any further. “Sounds like you have done your research, dear, but I don’t think anyone really knows. Right now what we need is the most practical approach. I think we need to send our probe in just beyond the edge of the sphere to make sure it does not explode, collapse the wormhole, or cause anything else awful to happen. If it passes, so do we, right into the wormhole.”
The probe accelerated away. Solo steered it right into the center of the sphere, the wormhole’s mouth, by all appearances, a perfect circle a little less than five kilometers wide. They held their collective breath as the little probe crossed the threshold and kept going. Ernie flashed a laser message at the probe and it responded with its own message back, showing a visual of a featureless white tunnel.
Solo sent the probe a little more than two kilometers into the wormhole and then retrieved it without incident. “Time for the main event,” he murmured.
“Almost,” Qing corrected. “I could use a break to collect myself.”
“Agreed,” said Boris.
“First dibs on the head,” he said as they started down the ladder.
“You bastard,” Qing laughed.
The Captain gave the command and Solo started the Arkhangel forward into the wormhole. Qing leaned over the Captain’s shoulder. “What’s this, Boris? You shaved and put on a clean uniform? And, I believe you’re actually smiling. I haven’t seen that for a long time.”
Standing only a couple of meters away, Horst chuckled. “The Flying Dutchman effect.”
“What?” Ernie asked.
“The Flying Dutchman. Remember? We talked about it the other day. A legendary ship, doomed to sail forever. I have to agree with you, Captain, this is a better fate than handing the ship over to the moneymen.”
“Ah, best of all, the decision is out of your hands. Your smile–and your vote–begin to make more sense, Boris,” Qing said.
“Mark, T-minus five minutes,” Solo announced as they slid towards the bright white circle.
The Captain tried to shake off his rippling unease. For some reason he recalled an essay he had written in college. It sang the praises of the wildcatters, their bravery, their necessity for expanding the sphere of human endeavor. Pure bullshit. It did not talk to the sheer, squalling terror of being the explorer, of going where no man had gone before. He really, really needed a drink right now.
“T-minus four minutes,” Solo’s voice intruded on Boris’ thoughts. The white edge of the wormhole dominated the view to all sides. It felt not so much like a hole, but being swallowed by the worm itself.
“T-minus three minutes.”
“I have the sensors recording and–hang on a second.” Ernie punched in a last set of numbers. “I’m ready to release the beacon on your command Captain,” she reported. It was part of their plan. Boris had directed Solo to program the beacon to activate after two weeks. If the Arkhangel did not return and deactivate it by then, the beacon would begin broadcasting the news of the wormhole and by implication, warning of its danger, and possibly summoning rescuers, although by the time any got here, Boris was certain it would be too late.
“T-minus two minutes.”
“Eject the beacon, Ernie.” His voice sounded steady, assured, exactly what a Captain’s voice was supposed to sound like. Qing smiled at him. He noticed and shook his head with a wry expression.
“Beacon away, Captain.”
“T-minus 90 seconds.”
The entire view screen was a brilliant white. Ernie kept upping the strength of the filters to compensate, but it was still blinding.
“Looking good, Captain. Everything’s above the green line. We should have enough fuel to traverse the wormhole, take a quick look around, and then return. That’s assuming we keep our thrust at 0.2 G, of course.”
“T-minus 60 seconds.”
The bridge fell silent as the ship approached the mouth of the wormhole. The edges of the wormhole were much thinner than Boris would have thought. A drumming sound intruded on his thoughts. Boris looked over towards the source at the sensor station. “Sorry,” Ernie stopped her fingers. Damn her giant hand, anyway, she placed it firmly in her lap.
“T-minus 30 seconds.”
A good Captain would have some immortal words, a pithy phrase upon the occasion of the first humans entering a wormhole. Boris’ mind went blank. “Hang on,” he croaked.
“Five-four-three-two-one, zero,” Solo counted. There were a few moments of silence as nobody breathed. “Instruments show we are a half-klick inside the wormhole,” he announced.
Ernie chimed in. “I confirm that. Here’s the view from astern.” The view screen changed, showing a set of familiar stars and a white ring encroaching from the edges of the screen. Boris forced himself to breathe again.
“Yeah! We made it!” Ernie did what looked like a victory dance while remaining seated at her station.
Qing squeezed Boris’ shoulder. “Well, we still have a long ways to go.”
“Two days one way and another two to get back,” Horst said.
“If we come back,” Sean muttered.
Boris instituted a system of two hour watches, essentially dog watches around the clock. He also mandated that anyone not standing watch get some downtime off the bridge. Otherwise everyone would have spent the whole time staring into the dark spot at the end of the white tunnel. The unending whiteness and the one-fifth gravity due to their reduced thrust quickly tended to make an observer disoriented. At first they switched the view screen to show the view astern, but the steadily receding end of the tunnel had its own unwelcome effects on their state of mind. Eventually, they turned the view screen off entirely with only a check at the top of each hour to make sure they were still flying straight down the middle of the wormhole. Nobody wanted to see what would happen if the ship ran into one of the walls.
The crew remained on edge, even with the short shifts. If anything, the tension seemed to ratchet higher with each shift change. Currently, Boris was eavesdropping on Solo and Ernie arguing. That did not surprise Boris. What was slightly surprising, was that they were arguing in the privacy of Solo’s cabin. The bigger surprise was they were arguing after a session of energetic sex that only the young can aspire to. Boris felt like a peeping tom, but could he really be a peeping tom if he only listened?
“You know you could treat me better, like I’m your girlfriend and not just some cheap whore you picked up in the tunnels of Makemake.”
“Sorry, baby. You know I can’t do that. Captain has a policy of crew members not fooling around.”
Boris frowned at this. He had no such policy. Solo was not even being terribly original, just a jackass.
“Since when do you care what the Captain thinks?”
Boris nodded. Good point, Ernie.
There was the sound of a zipper, probably Ernie getting dressed. “Even if you won’t admit I’m your girlfriend, you could at least treat me nicer.”
“Then everyone, including even our oblivious Captain, would suspect. I think Qing does already.”
Ernie grumbled something inaudible and then left, slamming the door to Solo’s cabin on the way out, not an easy feat with the heavy hatch cover. Solo started whistling off-key as soon as the hatch shut.
Boris turned off the microphone and sat pondering for a minute. As far as he knew Qing was unaware of this little affaire de coeur, but maybe it was time she knew.
“Damn, this is awkward,” Qing said across the workbench that separated her from Ernie. She had asked the girl to join her in the engine room and now that she had, Qing’s carefully rehearsed lines seemed just that, rehearsed.
“What’s awkward?” Ernie frowned.
“This conversation. You sleeping with Solo. Take your pick.”
“Yes, that. Ernie, you can do better.”
“But he’s smart, talented, and really, really, handsome,” Ernie protested.
“He’s an asshole,” Qing snapped, before seeing the tears in Ernie’s eyes. “A smart, talented, handsome asshole,” she amended. “Like I said, you can do better.” She moved around the workbench, reaching out, but Ernie moved to keep the workbench between them.
“Out here? Not likely,” Ernie’s lower lip quivered. “Besides, he promised me–he, never mind, you wouldn’t understand.”
Ernie wiped away tears. “How did you find out, anyway?”
“I didn’t. The Captain did. You know there actually isn’t a policy against crew members fooling around.”
“I know, I’ve read the ship’s charter, front to back.”
Qing raised an eyebrow at this.
“How can you follow the rules, if you don’t know the rules?” Ernie asked. “Um, the Captain found out?”
“The Captain did. Don’t ask me how he knows stuff like that. He just does. Point is, you can do better, Ernie.”
“Well, it’s my life and I can do what I want. What would you know about it anyway?” Ernie stormed out of the engine room.
Qing sighed. “More than you think, child.”
After about a day and a half, they were close enough to the end of the wormhole that they left the view on the screen. The white ring slowly retreated towards the edge of the screen and a black space, sprinkled with white pinpoints grew.
“They look like normal stars,” Horst observed. He had been the one who suggested the wormhole might lead to a different universe, maybe even one with different physical laws.
They were all on the bridge again, as Solo began his five minute countdown. Even the cat, who had been bothered by the white glare from the transit, had deigned to make an appearance.
Boris was not sure what he was expecting when the Arkhangel at last emerged from the wormhole. Trumpets? Cymbals? Applause? What he got was a large belch from Horst. “Sorry. What do you expect when we’ve been eating nothing but reconstituted snowballs for weeks.” The purser patted his stomach. “First thing when we get back I’m going to have a real steak. A scorched steak, a twenty-year-old whiskey, and a thick slice of cheesecake.”
“Shut up, you’re making me drool,” Qing swatted the back of Horst’s head.
Boris interrupted. “Out here you’re more likely by far to get a twenty-year-old steak and a scorched whiskey. Enough already. We only have ten days to record everything and then head back.”
“Proceed with the scan, Ernie,” Boris ordered.
“Scanning now, sir,” Ernie punched in a set of commands for the Arkhangel’s sensors.
“Looks promising,” Horst commented.
“That it does,” Boris agreed. “That indeed it does.”
“Preliminary readings coming in now, Captain,” Ernie announced. None of the crew had left the bridge during the several hours it took to scan and the tension was thicker than the lies of some old-timer spacerats in a dockside bar. “Looks like an F0 or maybe an A9 star, blue-white, just over 1.4 solar masses. So, it’s bigger and hotter than Sol.
“I need more time to confirm any planets, but the system does have the equivalent of a Kuiper Belt I got from doing a digital sky survey. It helps that this end of the wormhole is actually closer to the elliptic than back home, but further out from the sun.”
“How far to the belt to refuel?” Boris asked.
“About three days,” Solo jumped in. “If we double our acceleration to 0.4 G, which, we should do now that we’ve confirmed a belt.”
Qing frowned at his trampling on the Captain’s authority, but Boris just nodded. “Go ahead and do it.”
Two days later, Ernie had an update and a splitting headache. “The system has at least five planets, probably more, but I can’t tell for sure with our sensors. Two of the planets are potentially in the habitable zone, where there could be liquid water. One of the two appears slightly smaller than Earth and the other is a super-Earth, about five times the mass, at least that’s what the occultation seems to indicate.”
“The what?” Horst asked.
“Occultation. Passing in front of a light source. One of the innermost planets actually passed in front of the sun.” Ernie massaged her temples.
“Grab some shuteye,” Boris said.
“I can manage, Captain.”
“If you are going to call me ‘Captain,’ then consider that an order. You have not had more than a couple of hours sleep since we got here,” Boris gently pried her out of her chair and pushed her towards the hatch. “Go.”
“Uh, something interesting here,” Solo leaned back so Horst could see the sensor monitor.
“What? We within range of some snowballs?”
“Not quite. This is something else entirely.”
Horst leaned over and studied the monitor. “I’ll say.” He pondered, before belatedly calling the Captain over. “Hey, Boris, you ought to take a look at this.”
Everyone once again crowded onto the bridge. “A distress signal?” Qing asked. She had been the last to arrive, making her way up from Engineering at the stern. How could she climb all those rungs at her age and not even be breathing hard? Boris shook his head and resolved to start exercising, sometime after this trip.
“Yes. From the DaLong,” Solo answered.
“So, have they responded to our hail?” Ernie asked.
“We haven’t hailed them, yet,” Solo finally admitted.
“What? We have to let them know we’re here,” Ernie moved towards the comm station, only to find it blocked by Horst. She looked at Boris. “Captain?”
“We need to think this through, Ernie.”
“How long has it been since they disappeared? If we’re lucky they’re all dead by now,” Solo said.
“What?” Qing exclaimed.
“Or we could just claim we never heard it,” Horst pointed out.
Boris nodded slowly. “That might work.”
“It will not ‘work!’” The objection came, surprisingly, from Sean. “You do not ignore a distress call. You just don’t. I can’t believe you two are even considering this!”
“We’d have to split the finder’s fee at a minimum. Maybe lose the whole thing to the DaLong if they’ve documented their claim. It’s first come, first served,” Solo pointed out.
“Boris Stepanovich! I can’t believe you’re even considering this. It’s Philippe Laviolette’s ship. He’s supposed to be your friend!” Qing was trembling with anger.
“I won’t stand for this. If we don’t help them, I’ll tell the admiralty judge exactly what happened here.” Ernie’s voice was as cold as the icy fragments they were closing in on.
“As will I,” Qing took a step closer to the girl.
“I’ll take a piece of that action,” Sean sided with them.
Six hours closer and still no response to Arkhangel’s hails. The DaLong appeared to be outbound in an elliptical orbit, currently traversing the outer part of the system’s Kuiper Belt. “They’re dead,” Solo announced with finality. “It’s just wasted effort on our part.”
“We agreed to attempt a rendezvous,” Boris said. “The sooner you bring us alongside, the sooner we can confirm and be on our way.”
“Looks like she’s taken some damage,” Qing commented, looking at the DaLong’s magnified image on the screen.
“Probably from colliding with a KBO or two,” Sean agreed. “Might have damaged their communication array.”
“Might have,” Boris did not sound convinced.
About an hour later, Sean reported from the hatch. “Docking tube extended. Bring us forward about ten meters and up two, Solo. Almost there. Good. Close enough.”
Boris waited in his EVA suit inside the airlock, along with Ernie. He had agonized over the best combination to send onto the DaLong and then finally just asked for volunteers. Sean had stepped forward immediately. Boris was not surprised when Ernie was the other volunteer, but he was surprised at her comment as they were suiting up. “Don’t worry. I think Horst and Solo will behave themselves while we’re gone.”
Boris nodded, then settled his helmet into place. “Okay, let’s get this over with,” he said over the comm circuit. They evacuated the atmosphere in the Arkhangel’s airlock and then opened the outer hatch and floated across less than ten meters to join Sean at DaLong’s main cargo hatch. They did not want to physically dock until they determined it was safe to do so.
Sean rotated the wheel to manually undog the large outer hatch. The three of them crowded into the airlock. Like its dragon namesake, the DaLong was a big beast, with a crew of a dozen and the airlock was sized accordingly. Even so, in their bulky suits they still managed to bang into each other while closing the outer hatch.
“Readouts show 0.9 atmospheres in DaLong,” Sean reported. “Still probably want to stay fully suited.”
Ernie tried to nod in her helmet. “You got that right. We have no idea what might be in there. It could be–”
“Ernie,” Boris cleared his throat.
“Crack her open, Sean,” Boris ordered.
Sean palmed the pressure plate to open the inner hatch. Nothing happened. He tried it a second time.
“Something seems to be wrong,” Ernie said.
“No shit!” Sean retorted. He grabbed the manual wheel and awkwardly started cranking with his gloved hands. “If I have to do this at every hatch, I want bonus pay.” After a few minutes of grunting effort, the hatch yielded.
Lit by the lights mounted on either side of their helmets, the cargo hold beyond was hazy with the dust and small particles you always got in zero-G, but everything seemed to be in order. Ernie ducked in front of Sean, grabbed the next wheel with her gloved hands, and started to crank the hatch open.
The hatch opened to the central core of the ship. The DaLong was large enough to have a lift installed in the core. Unfortunately, it was not running. Instead the core stretched in either direction, fore or aft, emergency lighting LEDs flickering their sickly yellow glow. “Looks like the lift is stuck at the top of the shaft,” Ernie pulled her head back. “At least we can float instead of climb since we haven’t got any gravity. Fore or aft, Captain?”
“You and I will go fore to the bridge. Sean, you head aft and check out the engine room. You reading us okay, Arkhangel?”
“We can hear you just fine,” Qing responded. “The picture is a little fuzzy, but it’ll do.”
“Okay, then.” Boris kicked off along the shaft, followed by Ernie. Since the ship’s engines were off, there was no gravity to slow them down. However, inertia was still a bitch if you were not careful, especially since the ship had just enough rotation about its axis to cause you to miss a handhold.
They found the first body in the lift. “Must have gotten stuck in it when the ship’s systems failed,” Boris muttered.
Ernie shook her head, not realizing that it was barely noticeable in her helmet. Boris bet she had not been on more than a handful of EVAs. “I don’t think so,” she transmitted. “The lift door is stuck wide open and look how he’s fallen, his head pointing into the lift. Why would anybody head into a stalled lift?”
Boris regarded her. “Very good question.”
Ernie’s voice sounded odd. “Sorry, I just start chattering when I get nervous.”
Boris turned the figure over. There was a large soiled patch underneath the man’s head, probably dried vomit, and several clumps of hair floated off his scalp. “Must have been out here a long time,” Ernie said. “He isn’t, uh, your friend, is he?”
Boris shook his head, in his unease making the same mistake as Ernie. “Doesn’t look like a very pleasant way to die,” Horst observed over the commlink from the Arkhangel.
“What do you think it was?” asked Qing.
“A pathogen of some type, maybe,” Solo suggested.
“Doesn’t make sense,” Horst chimed in. “A pathogen wouldn’t have affected ship’s hardware and shut everything down.”
“Captain? Sean here. I’ve got a couple of bodies here in engineering. The woman looks like she upchucked so hard she ripped something inside, at least there is blood all around her mouth and smeared across her hands. The guy looks like, well, best I can determine, he was trying to unfasten the shielding from the engine core.”
“Must have been going nuts,” Qing muttered over the circuit.
“Odd thing is, clumps of hair all over the place. Looks like both of ‘em got a bad case of mange.”
Ernie stepped over another body and entered the darkened bridge. “There are another three bodies here. There’s a woman in the doorway, and two guys on the bridge. All with hair loss. One of the guys seems to have removed most of his clothing. Looks like he ripped it off. Then he crawled under the sensor station and puked his guts out. It’s–it’s awful.” She turned to the Captain. “What the hell happened?”
Boris did not answer. He was crouched down next to a bulkhead, where the body of the other male had drifted in the weightlessness. The Captain’s twin headlamps played over Philippe Laviolette’s twisted face. Ernie came over and knelt beside Boris. “Is that him?” Boris mutely hugged the body to his chest.
“I’m sorry, Captain.” Ernie said, then awkwardly pushed to her feet. The knee joints in the spacesuits definitely worked better going down than coming up, even in weightlessness. She gave the Captain some space and reported back.
“The telltales at all of the stations, communications, sensors, helm, they’re all off. Only a few of the emergency LEDs are still showing.” She punched the reset button on each station in turn, awkward with the suit’s gloves. “Nothing is rebooting. Whatever hit them, hit them hard enough to knock out all of the electrical systems.”
“Sean? Is the engine completely offline?” Qing broke in.
“Completely. Looks like it’s been off for a long time. How long has the ship been missing? A couple of years? But these guys down here look better than I thought they would.”
“What? Mummified?” Solo asked.
“No, the humidity is below normal, but still at about 40 percent,” Ernie said. “Shouldn’t these bodies be decomposed?”
“You’d think so, even in a spacecraft. Unless they instantly froze, but then all those, uh, bodily fluids would not have leaked,” the Captain stood up. “Something about this is wrong. Really wrong.”
“Any sign of a battery pack down there in engineering? I’m thinking if we can find one that wasn’t fried by whatever happened and hook it up to one of the bridge stations we may be able to get at the ship’s log and figure out what happened.”
“Shoulda thought of that myself. I think I saw one over by the workbenches,” Sean replied.
“Good idea, Qing. Sorry I, well, it’s Philippe.” Boris held up a short linked chain with a coin-sized disk. It was Philippe’s MID tag, containing his medical and identification data. Boris wore a similar one, as did the rest of the Arkhangel’s crew and any other wildcatter. Boris regarded Philippe’s tag somberly. “Poor son-of-a-bitch died while owing me money. Ernie, can you grab the tag from the body under the sensor station? Then let’s check the rest of the ship while Sean hooks up the battery pack.”
“What do you make of this, Captain?” Ernie asked. She stood in the doorway to the DaLong’s tiny sickbay. Between the two of them and Sean, they had collected eleven tags. The twelfth and last was on the body strapped in the sickbay’s lone bed. The corpse had an IV roughly jammed into her right arm, the needle bent. Several other bags floated gently around the room.
Boris grabbed one of the bags as it floated past in the air currents caused by the Ernie’s movements. Red blood cells, Type A. Something nagged at him, a certain pattern lurking just out of reach. Ernie had crossed to the figure. “Blood transfusions? Why would she–”
The pattern clicked. “Damn! It’s radiation poisoning.”
“What? How? The engines?” Solo bleated over the comm.
“No, the engines hadn’t blown,” Sean answered from the bridge. “And it didn’t look like they had gotten the shielding off the engine core. Qing? Could radiation have leaked from–”
Qing’s voice was firm. “No. Shouldn’t have harmed anyone in the engine room, let alone the rest of the ship. It–”
“The star,” Ernie breathed.
“The star?” Horst demanded.
“The star?” Boris echoed.
“The star. It’s a blue-white. Hotter and bigger than Sol. Puts out more radiation. Maybe there was a solar flare or something. Caught them unawares.”
There was an uncomfortable silence. “I mean, it’s just an idea,” Ernie added.
“That would explain the fried electronics,” Qing said.
“And the symptoms, nausea, hair loss, even the blood transfusion attempt,” Boris nodded towards the corpse. “She was probably their medical officer. Figured out what was happening, but it was too late.”
“The DaLong wouldn’t have much shielding, none of us do. Some metal bulkheads, water tanks, and we generate small magnetic shields for each of our modules with rechargeable cells. We’re designed to operate out in the Kuiper, after all, well away from the sun. A large flare from a hot star though…” Qing mused. “Radiation could also explain the lack of decomposition, if it killed off all the bacteria. Uh, Boris?”
Boris snorted. “I know, we need to get the hell off this death trap. Sean? Any success in hooking up one of the bridge stations to the battery pack?”
“Not yet. Everything is still flatlined.”
“Drop it. We need to evacuate. Ernie, grab that last tag.”
“Solo? I want you to plot a course to harvest some of those nearby snowballs as soon as we are back on board. Our hydrocarbons are awfully low and I want to get out of here as fast as we can. Just keep our bow pointed–”
“Away from the star. Got it. I’ll try and keep the amidships water tank between us and it in case it’s still blasting out radiation.”
Back on board the Arkhangel, as they went through a thorough decontamination from the nozzles in the airlock, Boris spoke up. “Ernie, just how did you figure out about the radiation and the star?”
Ernie shrugged, not easy in a spacesuit. “Well, there was this episode of ‘Space Patrol: Arcturus’ that had–”
Boris’ groan was clearly audible across the commlink. “Auuggh! Just once I wish we were not reliant on a plot from a holovid to solve our problems for us!”
The trip back through the wormhole was slightly less nerve-wracking because they now knew what to expect. Of course, there was always the possibility that the wormhole was not a permanent fixture, a nightmare that Solo had brought up in one of their discussions. It did not help when Ernie reminded them of speculations that wormholes were shortcuts through time as well as space. Thoughts of emerging back in the solar system during the age of the dinosaurs made them all a little nervous. “I don’t think we’re travelling into the future, or I think we would see other spaceships using the wormhole, wouldn’t we?” asked Qing. “I mean, this is going to be big.”
“I wonder what would happen if two ships collided head-on in the wormhole?” asked Solo. Okay, so now they had two things to worry about, Boris thought.
The end of the wormhole that led to the solar system was approaching when there was a bang from the stern of the Arkhangel and the ship yawed toward the wall of the wormhole. Five voices screamed some variation of “What the hell happened?” while Solo frantically wrestled with the lurching ship.
“It’s the Number 5 Engine,” he announced.
“We’re doomed,” Sean moaned.
“It figures,” Horst snarled.
Boris glanced nervously at the instruments, but the surprisingly composed voice of his most junior crew member cut through the babble. “Two kilometers to the wall, one point eight klicks, c’mon Solo, one point five klicks, one klick, seven hundred meters–”
Solo slumped back in his seat, sweat pouring down his face.
“Don’t let it hit, don’t let it hit, don’t let it hit,” Horst murmured over and over.
“Five hundred meters,” Ernie continued after a brief pause. “Six hundred, seven hundred, we’re pulling away.”
Solo wiped at his face with his sleeve. “Did an emergency shutdown of the Number 2 Engine. Balanced the thrust.”
They emerged to find the beacon still there. They were back in the same universe they had left.
“We’re back,” Boris said.
Qing leaned close and murmured. “Really? That’s the best you can come up with? ‘We’re back?’ Captain of the first ship to traverse a wormhole?”
She straightened. “Me, I’m thinking of retiring and opening a nice little bar just for spacerats.”
“I’m going to be famous, schoolkids will want to be just like me,” Solo nodded.
Sean snarled at Solo, “Not my kids, I’m never gonna let that happen.”
“The Navy is so going to regret not offering me a commission,” Ernie grinned.
“We’re going to be rich,” Horst said.
“Well, some of us will do better than others,” Solo corrected, chuckling at the puzzled expressions of the others.
Horst smiled a very unpleasant smile. “Allow me to explain. Abasolo and I had an agreement. He programmed the beacon to begin broadcasting less than a day after we entered the wormhole. By now it should have broadcast our wormhole discovery to a certain multicorp, which will file for the discovery. After what we saw on the other end, we should be well-compensated.”
“No-o-o,” Sean moaned.
“You didn’t,” Qing said without much conviction.
“Traitorous filth!” Boris glared at the two of them.
Solo cleared his throat. “Actually, Horst, only one of us will be well-compensated. I only included myself on the claim. Sorry, you know how it goes. I–”
With an outraged roar, Horst sprang at Solo, razor-sharp knife in hand.
“STOP!” Ernie screamed, jumping between Horst and Solo and almost getting skewered in the process. It distracted Horst enough for Solo to dive behind the helm station.
“Thanks, Ernie, you naive little fool, for trying to save me, but you should know that I didn’t include you either.”
“I know,” Ernie said.
“Come out from there you little maggot!” Horst snarled.
“Stop it, Horst!” Ernie ordered.
“You knew?” Surprised, Solo peered over the helm station at Ernie.
“Of course,” she said.
“What?” Horst’s jaw dropped.
Ernie turned to the ship’s purser. “Before you disembowel my -non-boyfriend, I feel I should mention that I reprogrammed the beacon just before I released it. Sorry, you naive little fool,” she shot back at Solo, “but it wasn’t too hard to guess what you had planned. Instead of broadcasting your claim, it claimed it on behalf of the Captain and crew of the Arkhangel. I just let you think you were getting away with it so you’d behave.”
“You know how much more we would have gotten if we held a secret auction for the multicorps, instead of a measly finder’s fee?” Horst asked, incredulous.
“I can guess,” Ernie shrugged. “But we’ll still do okay this way and all of us will actually live to see it. Besides, this way the wildcatters will be the first to benefit.” She winked at Qing as she reached down to pick up Lucky. “That’s something I didn’t learn from ‘Space Patrol: Arcturus.’”
Boris smiled back. “Well done, Miss Borgia, and since it is the Captain’s prerogative as to how any prize money should be divided up, let me just say that some of us will do better than others.”
Horst cleared his throat. “In my duty as ship’s purser, I feel obligated to remind the Captain that, as per the ship’s standard charter, subsection 5c, you cannot allocate prize funds to probationary crew members.”
Sean frowned. “What did he just say?”
“That Ernie can’t have any part of the reward because she has been with the ship less than a year,” Solo said.
“That’s not fair,” Sean clenched his fists.
“It’s just so a relative or a noobie can’t join a ship and immediately be rewarded without doing any real work,” Solo added, his smirk directed at Ernie.
Ernie hugged the cat tightly, her face averted. “Damn, I thought I had it all figured out.”
Qing moved to stand behind her. “Boris, you know this isn’t right.”
Boris sighed. “No, Horst and Solo are correct. The rules are there for a reason. Legally, they could tie things up for quite a while. Hmmm. Just a minute,” he reached into a cubbyhole at the command console and extracted a sheet of paper and a pen and started writing.
“You have to be the only person left in the entire solar system that still uses a pen and paper,” Solo sneered. “Might as well be painting on the walls of caves.”
“You know you can’t just give her part of your prize money,” Horst pointed out. “That would also be in clear contravention of the charter.”
“Here, would you witness this, Qing?” Boris handed the paper and pen over to her.
Qing took and read it. An ear-to-ear grin spread across her face, crinkling the corners of her eyes. “With pleasure, Boris.”
“What?” the others asked simultaneously.
Qing signed with a flourish and then showed the paper to Ernie, who read it through her tear-filled eyes. She looked up, puzzled. “You’re giving me the cat? Really? I mean, I like Lucky, but…”
Qing’s grin became outright laughter as the shock registered on both Horst’s and Solo’s faces. She patted the girl’s shoulder. “Remember I told you how Lucky is listed as crew on the Arkhangel’s register? She’s been listed that way for what, five years, Boris? That means she is definitely eligible for prize money. I’m sure she’d be willing to share her good fortune with her new owner in return for a few sardines.”
Ernie wiped at the tears on her smudged cheeks. “I-I don’t know what to say. I don’t believe it.”
“You’d better believe it,” Qing said.
“Yes,” Boris added with a huge smile of his own. “After all, this day it’s your Lucky!”
“Okay, class, last week we learned about the heroic Saint Vladnitz, who navigated the first wormhole with his loyal crew and the ship’s mascot, Lucky the goat.”
“Did they milk Lucky? My dad says they probably made cheese from her. Did they make cheese, Miz Corintos?”
Miz Corintos shook her head. “I’m not sure, Garra, they might have. Anyway, this week we are going to talk about Saint Noya, she–”
“–traveled the Universe with her ark of animals, populating all the planets with them so humans would be able to live there.” Seraphina interrupted. “Look, I even made a diorama, with her ark to the same scale as it says in the text book. If you’d like you can use it for your lesson, Miz Corintos. Miz Corintos?”
Thank you for reading my book. If you enjoyed it, please take a few moments to leave a review at your favorite retailer. Plus, look for my other stories set in the same Eichi Testaments Universe.
Excerpt from Toothless, the sequel to Saint Vladnitz:
…she struggled to focus as Gaucho pointed at the main screen. Baikonur loomed there, spotted with what looked like a pox.
“First time they seem to be in line with us,” Gaucho observed.
Ernie thumbed the transmit switch. “Limey, you there?”
“I’m here,” he confirmed. “Though I’ve still got a tough little bit of vacuum welding I need to concentrate on before we can fire up the engine again.”
“Gaucho just picked up some solar activity. Looks like the sunspots are lined up with us. How much longer you gonna need?”
“Thirty or forty minutes,” Limey answered. “Shit! The brace just bent. Make that forty to fifty minutes.”
“I don’t think you have that kind of time,” Ernie said.
“Especially not with the numbers Boone just handed me,” Kat chimed in from her post in sick bay. “Limey, your little stunt with the lead bag cut the badge’s radiation exposure in half. The bag’s exposure–not yours. You’re already outside the allowable annual limit. You need to get back inside.”
“No can do, Katie. The star might not send a flare our way. If it does, I’m in danger, but so is the whole ship, right? You’ll have even more dead patients.”
“Ernie, you have to order him back in,” Kat pleaded.
“If you do, it will add quite a few hours to get to the wormhole,” Limey pointed out.
“Approximately 8.2 hours,” Boone interjected.
“What the man says,” Limey sounded amused.
“Ernie?” Kat implored.
Ernie felt like her head was splitting open, a fiery mass. “Do it, Limey. But for God’s sake be quick.”
“Understood, mon Capitan,” Limey signed off.
“Ernie…” Kat’s voice had a warning tone, cut short by Ernie’s jabbing finger ending the connection.
Over five hundred years since the start of the Space Age and humanity has still not yet broken out of the prison of the solar system. Generation ships have been sent to nearby star systems, but the sublight speeds involved means that nobody has returned yet. Warp drives and worm holes have been around for centuries, although only in science fiction. Running short on resources in the solar system–even Saturn's rings have been strip-mined–humanity needs some divine intervention. Instead, they get Boris S. Vladnitz, a down on his luck captain of a battered spaceship. Follow along with Captain Vladnitz and his crew of wildcatters on board the Arkhangel as they eke out a living among the snowballs and rocks of the Kuiper Belt and finally get the chance of humanity's lifetime, if they survive the trip–and each other. Saint Vladnitz is the first story in the Borgia Trajectory, a series set in the same universe as the Eichi Testaments, back when the Galactic Empire wasn't even a glimmer in the eyes of the corporations that ruled Earth.