If you’ve read Chapter One already, please note that it has been changed to reflect that the crew of the Reckless Faith has decided to meet up with the Fox instead of building a new ship before leaving Earth. It’s not a significant enough change to warrant another read. Below are the continuing adventures of the Faith and the Fox, soon to be reunited.
The heavily armed group of people closing in on the gas station were human, that much Val could see. He would have found them reassuring, if he had any idea who they were. Friendly or not, due to the sparse cover and bright sunlight he could see at least three of them take up positions near the road, and four more swept toward his position in a wedge formation. He had hoped his own people would notice he was missing, call up the chain for help, and find him. It was possible these were all DIA personnel associated with Jones, but their mismatched clothing and odd variety of weapons belied that. Ultimately, it didn’t matter who they were, as Val was outnumbered and had no escape route. When the four men had approached to fifty meters, he hollered at them through a broken window.
The men froze and crouched down. The second man in formation spoke into his radio. The one at the front, armed with a M1 Garand of all things, replied.
“I’m Commander John Scherer, who are you?”
Val had no reason to lie. If they captured or killed him, they would find his ID anyway.
“Special Agent Val Smith, Defense Intelligence Agency. Who are you with, and what’s your business here?”
“We’re investigating the possible use of energy weapons at this location. Unless the DIA is testing an experimental weapon we haven’t heard about, we’re very interested in determining its source.”
“You still haven’t told me who you represent.”
“Don’t worry about that right now. If you really are with the DIA, then we probably have a common goal. Come out with your hands where we can see them, and we can talk about this.”
Val sighed, and put down his rifle. He unholstered his pistol and left it on a grimy countertop, then took out his ID wallet and flipped it open. The front door to the station had long since fallen off of its hinges, so he simply stepped out into the yard. He kept his hands up at shoulder level and blinked at the sunlight. The four men approached, and he recognized the second man as Chance Richter. The third man patted Val down and took his ID, then shrugged and handed it to Richter.
Richter scrutinized the ID. “Seems legit.”
John said, “So, Agent Smith, what brings you to this particular patch of the Arizona desert?”
“Maybe you should ask that thing lying next to the gas pumps,” he replied.
John gestured for Val to lead the way, and quickly discovered the corpse.
“Holy shit,” said the third man.
“Can I assume you’re responsible for killing this man?” asked John.
“Man?” began Val. “Please don’t tell me this is someone wearing elaborate makeup.”
“It’s not. The species is known as the Rakhar. They’re common in our galaxy, but one should definitely not be on Earth. This is troubling, to say the least. Richter, call it in.”
The fourth man began to search the body as Richter radioed back to the rest of the group.
“So, you guys are Men in Black or something? Can I get Will Smith’s autograph later?”
John smirked. “To our knowledge, there have only been a handful of alien visitations here on Earth. Until a minute ago, we only had to worry about the threat from outside our solar system. There shouldn’t be any other aliens here.”
“Shouldn’t, but here we are,” said Richter.
“Okay, Agent Smith, it’s time to start talking. How did you and this Rakhar get into a shooting match out here?”
Val frowned. “I’m not revealing anything to you until you give me something, anything, about yourself first.”
“We’re the crew of the Reckless Faith.”
“The ship created with alien technology? The one that disappeared 25 years ago? That would certainly explain the presence of Mister Richter here.”
“How much does the DIA know about us?” asked Richter.
“I know very little, I was given a cursory briefing by Agent Jones, who flew out from DC to investigate a signal from space. You may have noticed the bodies by the road, Jones was not so lucky going up against that beast.”
“Who’s the other guy?” asked John.
“Doctor Morgan, an astrophysicist with a group called ASTRA. They’re like SETI…”
“Yeah, but without the money, we know.” John turned to the others. “That means ASTRA tracked either the Faith or the Rakhar’s ship. Let’s hope it was the latter.”
“What have you been doing for the last 25 years?”
“Well, thanks to the effects of time dilation, from our perspective we’ve only been gone for several months. Still, we’ve been all over the galaxy putting out fires here and there. Liberating an occupied planet, destroying enemy fleets, asteroids, lemonade stands.”
“We had a unique opportunity and we had to take it. The deal was, we get the ship in exchange for liberating a planet. I’m proud to say we did, and neutralized the enemy threat completely. However, there may be a new threat to humanity, and once we’re done here, we’re going to head back out and see if we can get to the bottom of it. Unfortunately, the presence of a Rakhar here on Earth complicates things. We need to find out what he was doing here, and if he has any friends. Aldebaran, what did you find on him?”
The fourth man held out some objects. “His dongle, a Liberator pistol, a Rakhar battle blade, and twenty or so of these little devices. I’m not sure what they are, but they look like Zendreen technology.”
Val said, “Zendreen?”
“The alien threat we supposedly neutralized. If this guy was working for them… we may be looking at a whole different kind of problem.” John keyed his radio. “All units, this is Scherer. We have a Rakhar vessel to find. Christie, bring the Faith in. Bravo team, move up to the gas pumps, we have some bodies we need to put in cold storage. Scherer out.”
Val looked at the sky, but saw nothing. “What do you intend to do with me?”
“We have more questions for you, Agent Smith. I’m afraid you’ll have to come with us for the foreseeable future. Can I assume you left your firearms inside the building?”
“Yup. Pistol, M4, and the Rakhar’s energy rifle.”
“Ray, please grab them. Once we get these bodies loaded up, we’ll start a search for the Rakhar ship in earnest.”
“It’s getting pretty crowded aboard, boss,” said Richter. “We should get those bunk beds set up sooner than later.”
John nodded grimly. “I’m worried our project may have to wait, Chance. The stars may be calling us back sooner than we thought.”
It was standing room only in the conference room on the Reckless Faith. Val was the reason for the meeting, and sat at one of the eight chairs at the table, which only left him feeling more scrutinized. He had been brought there after a brief tour of the ship, which was as much to familiarize him with it as it was to prove their story. Some of the crew had objected to the tour, with Richter going as far as to suggest blindfolding him and taking him to the cargo hold, but ultimately John decided it could do no harm. Clearly impressed with what he saw, Val was compelled to share everything that Jones had told him yesterday. Most of the crew were fascinated by the revelation of the Neptunium aboard the Portland, as well as the way the US government had acquired it.
What followed was a 45 minute retelling of the Faith’s adventures, despite John’s attempt to give Val the short version.
“And that’s it,” John concluded. “We tracked the Uranium hexafluoride traces to the gas station and found you.”
Val took another pull from the canteen of water that had been provided for him. “Okay. So you were planning on going back into space tomorrow. How does what happened to me change things?”
“We’ll have to find out what the Rakhar was doing here, and if a threat to Earth still exists. Christie is analyzing his PDA and the devices he had on him, so hopefully there will be some information there.”
Christie’s voice filled the room. “I finished half an hour ago, John. I was just waiting for you two to finish your conversation.”
“That’s fine, what do you have for us?”
“Most of the information on his PDA is encrypted, I’m working on an algorithm to break it but it could take some time. What I was able to figure out is that his name is Thel Maktar, and he’s a member of the Black Crest.”
John turned to Val. “That’s the mercenary group the Zendreen hired to try to stop us. I wonder they ordered him to come here before we wiped them out.”
“I think that’s highly likely considering the devices he had on him. They’re mind control devices, identical to the one in Ferro.”
“Mine was never activated,” Ari said to Val.
“It’s worth noting that one of the twenty devices was modified to work externally, rather than implanted.”
John pondered this. “Maybe Maktar was trying to build a fighting force loyal to the Zendreen. Twenty people is hardly worth much, though.”
Aldebaran said, “Remember, the Zendreen planned in terms of hundreds of years. They might have anticipated losing the battle for the Vulture, but they couldn’t have anticipated being wiped out. Knowing the location of Earth, it only made sense for them to consider it a backup plan. However, they weren’t concerned about how long it would take them to get here.”
“You think Maktar was a sleeper agent,” said Richter.
“Exactly. Any course of action he might take would have been severely limited simply by his appearance. The mind control devices would allow him to assemble a small cadre of loyal servants to realize the Zendreen’s potentially ominous long term plans.”
“Then it would make sense,” began Ari, “that one of the devices was meant to work externally. Perhaps he planned on capturing a surgeon, who could then implant the rest of the devices one by one.”
“I guess we’ll have to wait until the decryption is complete,” said John. “Right now we need to find his ship, and do an exhaustive scan of the planet from orbit to see if there are any other unwelcome visitors here.”
“I already found his ship, too,” said Christie.
John laughed. “You know, Christie, you can feel free to interrupt me when I’m blabbing on endlessly.”
“You’re always so enthusiastic with your stories. Anyway, it’s in a copse of rocks about five hundred meters from here. I couldn’t detect it at first because it’s powered down. Looks like a heavily modified Umberian Mark Fourteen.”
“A gift from the Zendreen, perhaps? We’ll have to see if it can keep up with the Faith. Put us down nearby, we’ll check it out before we head into orbit.”
Dana said, “There’s something we haven’t talked about yet, everyone. Val said there was 60 kilograms of Neptunium aboard the Portland, collected from four points across the globe. We know that this material was required for the construction of our stardrive, but we didn’t know exactly where we got it. Occam’s Razor would have suggested that it was on the Portland all along, and now Val’s information proves it. Mystery solved, mostly. Anyway, we may have abandoned our plans to construct a new ship in favor of an alliance with the Fox, but if more still exists on Earth, we should attempt to collect it. Even with access to the Neptunium that Cane Venator found, it’s rare enough that we should take it wherever we can find it. The US Army may have failed to find more at the other four points referenced by the Sumerian tablet, but we have much better technology.”
Vecky spoke from a shadowy corner of the conference room. “I already told you, Cane is going to want to be compensated for his Neptunium, and that’s assuming he hasn’t already sold it.”
“I figured he would want something in exchange,” said John. “I’m sure we can make a deal. I agree with Dana.”
“Listen, John. I appreciate your offer to find the Fox more than you can ever know, and I know Richter and Devonai are just as eager to be reunited with Evangeline as I. I was willing to wait a few weeks while you finished your recruitment efforts here, and I’m glad you were able to find these folks. I’ll be proud to have any of you as a part of my crew. However, we were planning on leaving tomorrow. As far as we know, my efforts to communicate our SRC frequency through my mother have failed. With each day, I’m becoming increasingly anxious that the Fox has gotten herself into a bad situation. The origin of the Neptunium on your planet is a compelling mystery, to be sure, considering the age of the tablets that were discovered. The Kira’To have always had a special relationship with your planet and it stands to reason that they put it there for you to find.”
“In the hopes that we would use it to develop spaceflight technology? We’ve had five thousand years to do that and the best we could do with it was abandon it on a decommissioned boat.”
“Whoever placed it, and whatever the purpose was, I’m all for coming back later and searching for it. Right now, we need to find the Fox.”
“I agree with Vecky,” said Aldebaran. “We’ve already conceded that if not for our ongoing recruitment efforts, we would have departed days ago.”
John nodded. “I’m compelled to agree. Agent Smith already told me he doesn’t know how to transliterate the celestial coordinates of the mentioned stars to terrestrial coordinates. All of the equipment that belonged to Agent Jones was destroyed along with the Endurance. That means we would have to convince the DIA to work with us before we could even start looking for the other four points. We might be able to accomplish that with Smith’s cooperation, but we’re still looking at a long project. If there are no objections, once we’re done investigating Maktar’s presence on Earth, we’ll head for Vulpecula.”
“What do you intend to do with me?” asked Val.
“You’ll be free to go, we have no reason to keep you captive.”
Richter said, “So you’re okay with him telling the DIA everything he just learned? There’s no guarantee that they’ll pool their resources with Omega Group. Why not contact Hill and let her decide what to do with him?”
“Who the hell is Omega Group?” asked Val.
“CIA,” replied John. “Don’t worry, they’re not going to hold you captive either. We just want to make sure information is flowing in the right direction. As for Maktar’s ship, if we can’t take it with us then we’ll destroy it. Same reason. So we’re decided? We’ll assemble the same teams as before. Vecky, please take Agent Smith down to the galley and get him some food.”
“I’d appreciate that.”
“It’s about lunchtime,” said Sparrow.
John gestured at the newcomers. “Anybody else, feel free.”
Vecky led her six charges out of the conference room, down a flight of stairs, and into the galley. As they had noted during their tours, it was easily the most comfortable place on the ship. Two couches with coffee tables and a dining room table offered ample room for them, and John had long ago programmed the ship to shine lights through the windows from the water storage tanks on either side. There was also a bar with plenty of adult beverages, and Val and Milly were mildly surprised to see Vecky pour herself a small glass of ale. Seeing their reaction, she smiled wanly.
“There are no rules about alcohol on this ship,” she said. “Just don’t get sloppy.”
Hawkes noticed an ashtray on the bar. “Can I assume it’s okay to smoke in here?”
Vecky shrugged. “If it’s okay with whomever happens to be in the galley. The ventilation system will carry away the smoke almost before you can even smell it.”
Nobody objected, so Hawkes lit a Marlboro. Vecky showed the group what their options were for food, which was either leftovers in the fridge, dry goods, or MREs. That done, she grabbed a sleeve of Saltines for herself and returned to the bar.
Penrose looked up from his container of chicken penne. “Captain Kitsune, the crew hasn’t told us anything about you other than what we just overheard in that meeting. You have your own ship?”
“You can call me Vecky. Yes, the Fox, back in what you Terrans call the Vulpecula constellation. It’s about 300 light years away.”
“How did it come to be that you were separated from her?”
Vecky laughed. “How much time you got?”
Milly said, “You might as well start at the beginning and see how far you get before the others return.”
“Okay. Let’s see, short version… I was a farm girl about to graduate secondary school when my uncle came to my home planet to visit my dad and I. While we were touring his ship, the Fox, a quasi-criminal syndicate attacked us and killed everyone but me. My uncle’s last act before dying was to deed the Fox to me. Determined to seek revenge, I traveled to a more populated planet to hire a crew. I met Evangeline Adeler, a CIA operative who had been abducted and brought to the Eagle, an asteroid city not far from there. She had earned her freedom, and was looking for a way to find Earth and get home.” Vecky sipped her beer. “I also enlisted the help of Cane, a freelancer, and his friend Talyn. After some shenanigans, we returned to the Eagle and I learned that I had been born there and my mother, thought to be dead, was alive there. I also learned that the man I thought was my father was actually my other uncle, and my other uncle was actually my dad. You still with me?”
“I think so.”
“There was some initial unpleasantness between us and the Eaglites, but once we got that sorted out we had bigger problems. The syndicate had become interested in the Eagle’s reactor technology and mounted a raid. Furthermore, my real dad staged a coup at the same time for control of the Eagle. It was while defending the asteroid from the syndicate that we learned that its reactor was in fact a living being, an extra-dimensional entity of the race known as the Kira’To. It was that race that was responsible for Eva’s abduction. Unwittingly freed from the reactor, this being attempted one act of kindness before disappearing into space: it tried to send Eva home. I got in the way, and it sent me to Earth instead. The transportation process created some sort of signal that was detected by the crew of the Faith, and they found me lying unconscious in the middle of a forest. Anyway, I don’t know if my father was successful in gaining control of the Eagle, or if my mother was ever granted her freedom. I also don’t know if Eva, Cane, or Talyn lived through that day, so as you can imagine I’m rather eager to get back home and see what happened to my ship and crew. I guess that’s it. The long version would make a pretty good novel, I think.”
The others ate in silence for a couple of minutes as they tried to process her story. Milly drank some water and spoke.
“It sounds like you had to grow up pretty fast for a woman your age. I sincerely hope that your friends and your ship are okay.”
Ehrlich said, “Based on everything we’ve been told so far, I’m going to make an educated guess and say that the Kira’To are the threat that Scherer has been referring to.”
Vecky nodded. “Correct. Miriam was also abducted and taken to another asteroid, this one known as the Vulture. The Kira’To have been doing this for at least a thousand years. The purpose is to infuse their populations with fresh genetic stock, as the asteroids travel very slowly and genetic diversity had often dwindled.”
“But the asteroids are populated by humanoids, right?” asked Milly. “Not Kira’To?”
“Yes. The Kira’To helped to create the asteroids, and oversaw their quests. There were three in total, the Eagle, the Vulture, and the Swan. Each had a different mission statement. In the same order, they were a mission of exploration, one of conquest, and one of diplomacy. The Vulture was destroyed, and we have yet to find the Swan. Finding the Swan is crucial to our own mission of determining the Kira’To’s intentions toward Earth.”
“Do you have any idea where it is?” asked Sparrow.
“Just rumors. There may be more information back on the Eagle, though. We were a little distracted during our last visit.”
Christie’s voice filled the room. “Vecky, the team is done with their sweep. The Rakhar ship is a one-seater, and there’s no sign of any additional interlopers.”
“That was fast. Any word on the ship itself?”
“John and Aldebaran are checking it out. If it’s capable of matching our top speed, we may take it with us.”
“There aren’t a lot of ships as fast as this one, but I suppose it’s possible. What’s our next step?”
“Once everyone is back on board, we’ll head to Boston to link up with Omega Group. We’ll offload Agent Smith and the bodies of his companions, then scan the planet from orbit.”
Ehrlich turned to Val. “Not that it’s my place to invite you, but perhaps the crew would be willing to take you with us, if you’re interested.”
Val smirked. “In another life, maybe. I’ve got a wife and a young daughter, I don’t think they’d appreciate me going on a top secret mission for who knows how long. And this line of work sounds awfully dangerous. I take it all of you are single?”
The newcomers looked at each other, though they all could have guessed the answer. Hawkes spoke.
“Having no attachments was a requirement for this job. None of us knew it would be anything like this, but we assumed a certain level of risk. I don’t think any of us are disappointed that we’re not really working for the CIA.”
Vecky said, “Evangeline, Richter, and Devonai all came from the CIA. I think it’s safe to say none of them would be content to go back to their old jobs, any more than I would be to return to my family farm.”
“I’m sorry you lost your father,” said Milly. “I mean, the man you thought was your dad. When you get back to Vulpecula, are you going to try to get to know your real father better?”
“If he’s still alive, he’s probably the new Daimyo. That is, the leader of the people of the Eagle. Yes, we’re still blood, even though I only met him a few weeks ago. Still, the specter of the Kira’To looms above us. We’ll have to deal with that before anything else.”
The setting sun cast long shadows from the buildings of the twice-abandoned Salvanus Hospital complex. It was a warm summer afternoon on this part of Matesia, and Evangeline Adeler was more than comfortable in a short sleeve t-shirt and her light cargo pants. Of equal comfort, at least for their clothing, were her two opponents, who faced her wielding hardwood swords. Eva had the same weapon in her right hand, and shifted its weight in her palm and she prepared for an assault. The courtyard between the empty dormitories and darkened main building was mostly clear of debris, and offered ample room for the fight that was about to occur.
Eva had placed her glasses on a crate nearby, but she could still see her foes clearly. The man on her left was Cane Venator, humanoid, and towered over her by a full six inches, not including his seemingly unkempt mop of hair. He had discarded his normal vestments and wore a similar t-shirt, as did the man to her right. Arture Talyn, a Kau’Rii, was a few inches shorter than Eva, but grasped his sword with far more familiarity than Cane. This was not the first time such a fracas had ensued, and all three of them rightly anticipated receiving their fair share of bruises. For Cane and Talyn, who were no strangers to pain, it was worth the sense of mild dread that they felt. Eva, however, only felt slight elation in addition to calm.
With a sharp cry, Talyn began the attack. Once he and Eva had exchanged a few parries, Cane joined in. Both men used simple techniques at first, with the intent of circling her around so that the sun would be in her eyes. This idea quickly proved to be pointless, as Eva had her own strategy, constantly moving to her left to make it as difficult as possible for both men to attack her at the same time. The report of wood on wood echoed between the buildings, but they weren’t worried about the noise. The Rigby Corporation had given up on the Salvanus Hospital a few weeks ago, and left it to rot in obscurity. The three sparring partners were the only sentient beings for miles, save for the scientist named Billingslea on board the Fox.
This scientist, hired soon after the Fox returned to Matesia, contacted the group by radio before a victor could be declared. The trio had hardly worked up a sweat, nor landed any blows, when they stopped to reply. Cane was the first to key his own transmitter, built into the earpiece he always wore.
“Go ahead,” he said.
“I’ve had a breakthrough with the Neptunium,” said Billingslea’s voice. “Any chance you guys are coming back to the ship soon?”
“I don’t know.” Cane looked at Eva. “You haven’t had a chance to humiliate us again, do you want to keep going?”
Eva shrugged. “I’m just as curious as you are about this stuff.”
“I think I’ve got you figured out,” said Talyn, “but we can get back to this later.”
“You think so, huh? We’re on our way, Billingslea.”
Eva retrieved her glasses and followed the other two back to the Fox. It was parked on the other side of the dormitories, in a low power state. Though it was unlikely to be discovered on the ground, they had been reluctant to return to Matesia after their earlier adventures there. Visiting the planet again had become necessary in order to find a technician willing and able to fix the ship’s FTL drive. With Billingslea’s help, they were able to do so, and the man’s experience with nuclear physics had also spurred them to ask him to assist in analyzing their mysterious lump of Neptunium.
The trio clambered aboard the Fox and made their way to its small but well-equipped lab. Billingslea, a native Matesian with dark skin and short, white hair, greeted them from his seat at a work bench.
“Welcome back,” he said. “How did the sparring go?”
“Nobody died,” replied Eva. “Whatcha got?”
Billingslea turned back toward the machine on the bench. “I shaved off a few micrograms of the material in order to use the materials analysis unit. At first I was only able to confirm what you already told me about it, so I began further testing. I wasn’t really getting anywhere until I decided to try exposing the sample to a magnetic field. Watch what happens when we get to 75,000 parhet.”
He typed a few keys at his console and directed his attention to the monitor. For the others, the results were immediately obvious.
“Gamma rays?” asked Cane.
“Not just gamma rays, but fast thermal neutrons as well. Luckily the MAU is well-shielded, or I would have killed myself. The fascinating thing about this material is that the energy released is far in excess of that which is used to generate the magnetic field. Note also the apparent lack of degradation of the material.”
Eva asked, “Are you suggesting Neptunium can be used as a power source?”
“Exactly. There are several existing reactor designs that can use this type of energy source. Well, maybe after some modifications, anyway.”
“How much power will Cane’s 60kg generate?” asked Talyn.
Billingslea grinned. “Enough to power ten large cities, two or three top-of-the-line galactic vessels…”
“Or one asteroid,” interjected Eva. “Cane, I think we may have just found a buyer for your stash.”
Cane put his hands on his hips. “I’d stand to make a lot more profit selling it to someone else. What are the Eaglites going to offer me, origami cranes?”
Eva glared at him. “You know they use gold as a basis of currency. I think that you should accept however much they’re able to offer.”
“The Eagle isn’t going to be able to do much with it if they don’t have some hot shot nuclear engineers living there,” said Billingslea.
“The people of the Eagle, under their new Daimyo, have agreed to open up trade with the local planets. They should be able to hire qualified engineers to help them build a new reactor.”
“If they don’t go broke buying Cane’s stuff,” said Talyn.
“You two, step outside with me for a minute, please.” Eva led Cane and Talyn into the hallway, and waited for the door to close. “Cane, I can’t force you to sell the Neptunium to the Eagle. However, I’m sure they can make you an offer you can live with. I’d also consider it a personal favor.”
Cane leaned against the bulkhead. “If Billingslea is right, I could retire comfortably because of this stuff. I doubt the Eagle can come close to that kind of scratch.”
“Maybe, but you’ve also been blacklisted by the Syndicate, and what’s left of the Rigby corporation isn’t your biggest fan right now, either. To whom exactly would you sell the Neptunium?”
“I’d have to travel to another system first, things are too hot for me around here.”
“As I thought.” Eva folded her arms across her chest. “You need to decide right now, Venator. If you refuse to let the Eaglites make you an offer on your stash, then pack it up and get off this ship. If you think you can secure passage out of the tri-planet area from Matesia on your own, then good luck to you.”
“That would be borderline suicidal, and you know it.”
“Then your choice should be clear. Vecky would offer you the same choice if she were here. This is still her ship, and her allegiance is to the Eagle.”
Cane sighed. “It seems you have me by the balls.”
“I thought you liked that sort of thing,” said Talyn.
“Only after we’ve agreed on a safe word.”
Eva rolled her eyes. “I don’t care what you two are into. The walls are soundproof. Anyway, let’s get a final tab from Billingslea for his services and drop him back near Falling Brook. Then we’ll head to the Eagle. Meet me on the bridge.”
“He didn’t mean the two of us!”
“Maybe neither of us have been drunk enough yet,” laughed Talyn.
Eva was already walking down the corridor, and didn’t respond. However, she did allow a slight smile to cross her face as she headed to the nearest lift. Cane did have a tendency to do the right thing, even if a little arm-twisting was sometimes necessary. Ultimately, she was right about one thing. After all the shit they pulled last month, being left alone on Matesia would likely be a death sentence. For any of them.
“My friends, welcome back to the Eagle.”
The main hangar of the Eagle asteroid was dark and frigid, but familiar to everyone there. The Fox’s shuttle had just landed on the central platform at the heart of the cavernous space, and her crew was met on the causeway by Daimyo Tomoyasu. He had adopted the crimson gi and black hakama pants of his predecessor, and smiled broadly at his visitors. By contrast, his second in command, Ikari, was draped in gray. There were two other soldiers in addition to these men, both unfamiliar to the crew of the Fox. Everyone but Cane and Talyn carried a sword, and in Eva’s case, it was a weapon that she had been gifted by the last Daimyo. This gift also included the privilege of carrying it on the Eagle, a practice that Tomo had no intention of rescinding. Cane had finished offloading a shielded container onto a dolly that had been requested, and stood ready to wheel its precious cargo to the city.
“It’s good to be back, Daimyo,” replied Eva. “Tell me, how is Maoko?”
Tomo turned and led the group across the causeway. “I’m pleased to report that she has mostly returned to her former self, and is very much the same person I remember from my youth. Our relationship has been cordial, which is all that can be expected after everything that’s happened. She’s very eager to show you her most recent drawings, of course. I’ve not seen all of them, perhaps one or more contain additional clues to help you and Vecky get back into contact.”
Eva nodded, and the group passed through a tall corridor into the City of the Eagle. She was not surprised to see it bathed in twilight, with motionless stars shining through the dome high above, since the destruction of the main reactor had resulted in a need for significant power conservation. If the residents were bothered by this, they showed no outward concern, and could be seen going about their days as normal. Tomo made his way through the streets toward his command center.
“I’m eager to see her, too. I thought perhaps I could visit with her while you and Cane negotiated a price for the Neptunium.”
“I don’t see why not. She’s taken up residence in the common area of my personal chambers.”
The group boarded an elevator and soon arrived at the command center. Two additional Eaglite soldiers were there, monitoring their consoles with barely-concealed boredom. They stiffened up when the Daimyo entered, but he paid them no mind. He gestured toward the door at the opposite side of the room, and invited Cane and Talyn to take a seat. Eva continued through the far door, which opened to a short hallway. This corridor led first to the door to Tomo’s chambers, then to an elevator that ran to the heart of the asteroid. She knocked at the first door, and hearing no reply, she let herself in.
The Daimyo’s office had barely changed since Eva’s last visit, still lavished with ornate Japanese decorations, paintings, and bladed weapons. The only exception was area in one corner that contained a bedroll, an easel and canvas, and Maoko. She smiled at Eva as she put a set of pastel pencils into a bureau drawer, and as was typical of her oddly calm demeanor, acted as if she had just seen Eva an hour ago. Somehow radiating beauty despite the low light, Eva was reminded that Maoko looked much younger than her physical age.
“Hello, Evangeline,” she said, continuing to tidy up her corner. “I thought I heard a knock but I wasn’t sure. Please, come in.”
“Thanks. So, uh… how are your new quarters working out?”
“Tomo has his space, and I have mine. Though he offered me something more private, I feel at ease here.”
“That’s good.” Eva crossed to Tomo’s massive, carved hardwood desk. “How is Tomoyasu handling the office of the Daimyo?”
“It has been challenging for him, to be sure, but he’s up to the task. The people immediately accepted him, as tradition required. He’s been particularly stressed by the state of the Eagle itself, and wants nothing more than to provide a stable habitat for his people. I understand you may be able to help us replace our main reactor core.”
“We’ve got some material that has a lot of potential. Time will tell.”
Maoko picked up some drawings, the contents not yet visible to Eva. She gestured toward an ancient red velvet couch, and the two sat down.
“Then I hope our engineers can make use of it. Did you ever fix Reveki’s ship?”
“Yeah, our FTL drive has been repaired. If we leave soon, we can be at Earth in four months. I know it’s a long time to wait, but we’ll get your daughter back to you, I promise.”
Maoko patted the papers on her lap. “We may not have to wait that long. These images will be of interest to you.”
Eva accepted the drawings. She was expecting to be amazed, as with the images that Maoko had shown her previously, but was startled nonetheless. The first picture was of Vecky on the bridge of a ship that Eva didn’t recognize. It was a smaller space than that on the Fox, and contained three people she didn’t know and one that she did. Chance Richter was there. Everyone on the bridge was peering at something out of the front window, but all she could see was bright sunlight. The second picture was of Vecky alone in a desert, staring at the night sky. The perspective was from behind the girl, so Eva could see constellations. She recognized Cygnus, and marveled at the accuracy of Maoko’s abilities.
The third picture surprised her even more. Vecky was back on the bridge of the other ship, this time framed alone. She sat in an office chair and held a white board. On the board had been written ‘Reckless Faith SRC Freq. 214410.6.’
“Holy shit,” murmured Eva.
“Does that message mean anything to you?”
Eva smiled. “It’s a radio frequency for a Superluminal Relativistic Compensator transceiver. Reckless Faith is the name of the ship she’s on. Maoko, Vecky just told us how to make radio contact with her!”
“The others have to see this! This is fantastic news.” Eva jumped up and headed for the door. Maoko remained seated. “Are you not coming?”
“I was about to make some tea. You’re welcome to have some, too. Oh, and I’d prefer if you left those drawings with me.”
Eva looked at her for a moment before replying. “Okay. You know, if this frequency works we could be talking to the Reckless Faith in fifteen minutes. Don’t you want to try to contact Vecky?”
“You can let me know how it goes, dear, you know where to find me.”
Confused, Eva returned to the couch. She gazed at the last picture long enough to memorize the number on the white board, then gave the papers back to Maoko. The older woman brought them back to her easel, then busied herself with a teapot on a squat table near her bed.
“Good luck, Evangeline.”
Returning to the hallway, Eva had to remind herself that Maoko had been thought to be crazy and held in an asylum for almost eighteen years. Still, she had to wonder if Tomo had exaggerated how well she had been adjusting to normal life. Even if she had the mental fortitude to overcome her years of near captivity, she was still saddled by the useful if inexplicable visual connection to Vecky. By the grace of the Kira’To was enough of an explanation for Maoko, but Eva thought their interference in her own life was anything but graceful.
Back in the command center, Eva found Cane and Tomo shaking hands. She was bursting at the seams with her news, but deferred to what was going on in front of her.
“I take it you made a deal?” she asked.
Tomo faced her and smiled. “Mister Venator has agreed to accept 60kg of gold in exchange for his neptunium.”
Cane was less enthusiastic. “It’s more than your average freelancer makes in a year, so I suppose I’ll be mollified. How did it go with Maoko?”
Eva shared her news with the others. Tomoyasu was far more excited than Maoko had been.
“By all means,” Tomo began, “let’s get you back to your ship so you can attempt contact.”
Cane said, “We can link up with the SRC device on the Fox through its shuttle. That will give your treasurer time to gather my payment.”
Tomo nodded. “We’ll meet you back in the bay, then. Mister Venator, I wish we could offer you more. You are already a hero of the Eagle for your actions last month, and now you may have helped save us again.”
Cane saluted, and headed toward the elevators. Eva and Talyn followed him. When they got back to street level, Eva led the way to the hangar.
“I know you’re not happy with this arrangement,” she said to Cane, “but you could have kept your grumpiness to yourself until we left.”
“You know, Cane,” said Talyn. “You were right that 60kg of gold is more than an average freelancer makes in a year. But since you’re below average, this should be a windfall for you.”
Cane smirked. “Leave it to my best friend to kick me when I’m down.”
“Look on the bright side, we can have a nice celebration. Fine dining, top shelf booze, maybe a night out with Lammy and Hotts…”
“I don’t know when you think you’ll have time for all that,” said Eva. “First things first.”
They arrived at the shuttle, and the trio clambered inside. Cane turned up the heat to combat the chill of the hangar while Eva accessed the main computer at a console. She linked the shuttle’s comm system to the Fox, and took a deep breath.
“This is it,” she said, typing in the frequency.
The team waited while the call was placed. Unsurprisingly, it took much longer than usual for a response. In the moment before the call connected, the SRC program informed Eva that there would be a twenty second delay between transmissions. After that time had passed, the computer beeped at her.
“We’re receiving a reply,” said Eva, “audio only.”
An unfamiliar voice filled the shuttle. Eva immediately recognized the language as English, as the translator earpiece she wore remained silent.
“Unknown vessel, state your intentions.”
“This is Evangeline Adeler aboard the independent vessel Fox, attempting to contact the Reckless Faith.”
After another twenty seconds, an image appeared on her console. It was the same bridge depicted in Maoko’s drawing, occupied by the same people. Again, she only recognized Richter, Devonai, and Vecky. The girl spoke.
“Eva? Eva, I can see you! And Talyn and Cane! Hello!”
Vecky waved madly at the screen, then grabbed both Richter and Devonai in a bear hug.
Eva smiled, and felt tears welling up in her eyes. “I can see you too, Vecky. Hello to Chance and Kyrie. Are you still on Earth?”
The seconds ticked by until the reply was received. Vecky released the men from her grasp and moved closer to the front of the bridge.
“Yes, the crew of the Reckless Faith and I are finishing up a few things here, then we were going to head to Vulpecula and look for you. Where are you, exactly?”
“We’re on the Eagle. Maoko got your message; actually, I don’t know how long ago she drew that picture, but we finally got it too. What’s the top speed of the Faith? Should we try to meet halfway or what?”
Cane said, “Two months out, two months back, it’s the same amount of time if we simply wait for them to come to us.”
“Yeah, but if the crew of the Reckless Faith is willing to return Vecky to us, then it would only be polite to meet them halfway. We don’t know what their mission or goals may be. The Eagle may be way out of their way.”
“Didn’t you want to go back to Earth?” asked Talyn.
“I did, but everyone I care about is on that ship.”
The reply came through. “The top speed of the Faith is 1.56 million c. Stay where you are and we can be there in two hours and change. Add four hours to that to finish up what we’re doing here, plus the effects of time dilation on your end, and we’ll see you half a day. Sound good? I can’t wait to see you again, guys.”
“One point five… holy fucking shit.”
“I’d bet a kilogram of gold that ship has Umberian technology,” said Cane.
“I’ll take that bet,” replied Talyn, holding out his paw.
“I wasn’t serious.”
Eva spoke to her screen. “Understood, Reckless Faith. We will wait at the Eagle. See you soon.”
For the first time in her life that she could remember, Cassie Lyra was nervous. After a lifetime of upheaval and change, she wouldn’t have thought there was anything that could rattle her, until she lost her home. Then, it was a cold rage that filled her. Nervousness was a novel feeling.
She felt this way because even after watching her own civilization dwindle, everyone she loved die, and her home itself vaporized and lost to the soulless depths of space, her core belief system survived. That the Kira’To were ultimately responsible for the destruction of the Vulture was the conclusion of the crew of the Reckless Faith, not hers. She refused to believe it. No benevolent creator would so callously destroy its own creation.
And then, Cassie met Reveki Kitsune. At first, she was elated to learn about the Eagle. Nothing more than a story passed down from generation to generation, she still believed it existed, same as the Swan. But to meet someone who had actually been there, and learn about how it currently was, that was astonishing to her. That sense of wonder rapidly turned to confusion once Reveki got to the end of her story. It shook her beliefs to their foundations that the Kira’To would imprison one of their own on their blessed Eagle, sullying what should have been a perfect creation. It raised too many uncomfortable questions, not just about the nature of the Kira’To, but also the truth of the Vulture’s past.
Was there once an imprisoned soul on the Vulture, acting as its main reactor? Was the Swan the same way? Were the Kira’To acting as a whole to facilitate their genetic infusion program, or was it entirely up to the entity in the reactor? At least for the Vulture, the answer was clear. There had been no Kira’To there, in corporeal form anyway, for eons. Yet, the Terrans continued to arrive. Perhaps they would continue to send humans to the Eagle, despite what had happened. On top of all of this uncertainty, there was an even bigger problem. Reveki told the crew that this Adeler person wanted to stop the abductions. Just two months ago, Cassie would have scoffed at this. The Kira’To could not be stopped. Now, anything seemed possible. That might make her and Adeler enemies, a fact that didn’t seem to have occurred to anyone but Cassie.
If Cassie and Adeler were enemies, then that would make the Faith and the Fox her enemies, too.
Cassie stared into her glass of bourbon as she sat at the bar in the Faith’s galley, mulling all these thoughts in her head. The brown liquor was new to her, but she had quickly grown fond of it. Her tolerance was very low, having been denied access to alcohol for decades, and the haze around her mind only served to magnify her nervousness. She had been alone in the galley for the moment, as the rest of the crew was busy with scanning Earth for trespassers and preparing to travel to the Eagle, until Vecky came down the stairs.
“Oh, hello, Cassie,” the girl said, heading behind the bar. “I suppose you’ve heard we’ll be departing soon. I thought I would have a pre-celebratory drink and try to catch some sleep before we arrive at the Eagle, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to rest. I’m beyond happy to be reunited with my friends and my ship.”
“That’s great,” came the even reply.
Vecky poured herself a large glass of ale. “I don’t think you and I have been alone together in the two weeks I’ve been on board. John told me your story. I’m sorry you lost your home.”
“You and I share something, you know,” she said, sitting two stools down. “We were both born on one of the asteroids. How strange that we would end up together, so far from where we started.”
“I don’t think it’s strange at all. When someone has been touched by Our Progenitors, they become connected in ways that we could never fully understand. That, combined with their fondness for Terra, easily explains you and I in the same room. Same goes for the Colchester girl, and her half-sister.”
Vecky peered at Cassie before taking a pull from her glass. “You must be intensely curious about the other asteroids. I’m eager to find the Swan. The Vulture and the Eagle have experienced so much strife, I have to wonder if the Swan has suffered the same fate.”
“You mean blown into a trillion pieces, or forced to betray their mission statement?”
“I simply meant I wonder if they’re peaceful and successful.”
“Kitsune, I believe it is inevitable that if we go looking for the Swan, we’ll find it. You’ll have your answer soon enough.”
Vecky nodded pensively. “What’s your goal, Cassie? Personally, I mean.”
The older woman drained her glass, and refilled it. “My reason for being died along with the Vulture. The only reason why I’m here is because I’m too much of a coward to take my own life.”
“If you wanted to wallow in self-pity, you could have stayed on Freedmen. Something must have made you join the Faith’s crew. I had assumed you were just as interested in finding the other asteroids as everyone else.”
Cassie sighed. “I am, I just don’t know if I’ll find what I’m looking for with either of them.”
“A sense of purpose?”
“Look at it this way. Nobody knows as much about the Vulture as you. If you don’t pass its history on, it will be completely forgotten. What better way to redeem yourself than to share that knowledge with the Eagle and the Swan? By the time you’ve accomplished that, perhaps you’ll want to make a home on one of them. And if we have a special connection to the Kira’To, the best place for you to be will be there.”
Cassie’s demeanor softened a bit, and she briefly smiled at Vecky. She decided to switch seats to one of the couches, so Vecky followed her.
“I think I’ve heard most of your story by now, but not directly from you. I’ll not ask you to relay the entire tale to me right now, but I am curious to know more about your father. Tomoyasu, isn’t it?”
“Tomoyasu is my biological father, and the current leader of the Eagle.”
“That’s him. As you know, I was the leader of the Vulture. Please, tell me all you can about him.”
Vecky sat down and put her feet up on the coffee table. “Sure. I think I can do that in an hour or less. Still, if you have to pee, you might want to do it now.”
John was engaged in one of his favorite pastimes, sitting on the bridge of the Faith as it traveled in Superlume, puffing on his pipe and listening to trance music. This would be a much shorter trip than many he and his crew had taken, but there was still enough time to relax. He was alone at the moment; most of the crew was divided between the conference room, lounge area, and galley for dinner. John had grabbed a quick snack so he could return to the bridge. Of course, he wasn’t really alone, as Christie’s was always present at some level or another. Though it was rare for her to completely isolate herself within her world of the orb, she could certainly do so if she wanted. That, or spend some alone time with Ray in a scenario of their choosing. Either way, she could set the monitors to display her status as ‘unavailable.’ Without that message, however, John could never be sure if she was paying attention.
The ship was on its way after a thorough scan of the surface of Earth revealed nothing. Agent Smith had been dropped off in Boston to be debriefed by Lauren Hill and Omega Group, an effort that didn’t much concern John, nor his former CIA colleagues. Keeping the existence of the galactic community a secret from the population of Earth was an effort about which John was ambivalent; whether or not it benefitted an average person to not know these things was a question for people with different problems than him. It was for the same reason that they told Hill where to find the Rakhar ship. It had a lower top speed than the Faith, and wouldn’t fit in their cargo bay, so it had to be left behind.
As he produced prodigious smoke clouds from his pipe, he thought about the neptunium left on Earth so long ago. Vecky had speculated that it had been left there for humanity to find. That explanation seemed to mesh with the information that was left on the ancient Sumerian tablet, but John was unconvinced. If the Kira’To were responsible for it, there might be a more sinister reason. He was disappointed that they didn’t have time to gather the intel that the DIA had on the coordinates, as there were probably more clues there. He did know that the locations were based on the North Star, stars that had been in that location over the eons, and the four stars of the Southern Cross.
Christie’s voice filled the bridge. “What’s up?”
“I’m mulling over why the Kira’To or some other aliens put neptunium on Earth. If it was meant for us to find, why put it at eight locations scattered across the globe? Were they fans of scavenger hunts?”
“That’s one explanation. The other is we were not meant to find it, and the creator of that tablet came across the info by another means. If we were not meant to find it, then it must have served some other purpose. I wonder… John, what do the Kira’To and neptunium have in common?”
“I’m not sure I follow.”
“Our best guess about our particular form of neptunium’s source of power is zero-point energy. Energy, that is, from another dimension. The Kira’To may be from another dimension, or at least have access to one. That’s the commonality.”
“Are you suggesting that the neptunium facilitates the Kira’To’s ability to travel?”
Christie sounded excited. “Not them, humans. What if placing the neptunium on Earth was necessary for them to be able to abduct humans? The relationship between the stellar coordinates and the terrestrial coordinates may not have been for aesthetic reasons. Those northern and southern polar stars are always visible from their locations, even with axial precession. If I wanted to be able to use the terrestrial locations as a beacon from space, that’s where I’d put them.”
“That’s a fascinating possibility, but the Sumerian tablet predates the asteroids by four thousand years.”
“Maybe the Kira’To were sending people somewhere else prior to the asteroids. We may never know.”
John stroked his chin. “Cassie told me that Miriam’s parents were the first people sent to the Vulture who didn’t survive the trip, and that it was the first abduction within her lifetime. That goes back far enough to cover when the Army dug up the neptunium. I have to wonder if the removal of those four deposits degraded the Kira’To’s ability to transport people.”
“It’s plausible, John. If we could confirm your theory, we could return to Earth and find the remaining deposits. Then our people would be safe from the machinations of the Kira’To.”
“I also wonder if Umber had that problem.”
“The presence and distribution of neptunium on Umber makes no sense at all in this context. I can check the historical archives, though.”
John shrugged. “Only if you get bored. If I am right, though, that makes Evangeline lucky she survived the trip to the Eagle.”
“I don’t think she would consider what happened to her lucky by any stretch of the imagination. But, we’ll find out soon enough.”
Sparrow entered the bridge, so John waved at him.
“Hey boss,” he said, “we need a metric socket set to finish putting together the bunk beds.”
“That set should be in the arms room. I’ll go with you. Christie, you have the controls.”
“I have the controls,” she replied.
John led Sparrow out of the bridge and down the staircase that led to the cargo bay. From there, they went up a smaller set of stairs to the arms room. Sparrow had briefly seen this room before during his tour of the ship. He gazed at the rifle racks as John located the socket set.
“I take it you must have decided to standardize with the M1A,” he said.
“Neither myself or any of the original crew members had a combat arms background. I was familiar with the M1 Garand, so I figured the M1A was a good choice. They’ve served us well during several engagements, though we haven’t really pushed the limit of their capabilities.”
Sparrow pointed at four rifles he didn’t recognize. “What about these?”
John glanced at him. “Those are called Phalanxes, they’re of alien design. They use a ten millimeter non-fouling cartridge, magrail barrel enhancements, and feature an optional suppressed mode. As you can see, they use a fifty-round magazine similar to the FN P90. We’ve found them to be excellent for short range combat. Ah, here it is.”
John handed the socket set to Sparrow, then grabbed a Phalanx and demonstrated how to load it.
“Yup. Other than keeping them dust free and oiled up, they’ll stay clean.”
“A Marine’s wet dream.”
John laughed. “Richter said the same thing. Now, I know you brought a rifle, let me see if I can figure out which one.”
Casting his gaze over the new additions to the racks, John settled on one and picked it up.
“Good guess, Scherer.”
“I’ve never seen one before. FN?”
“Yup, FN SCAR 16S, with a Gemtech suppressor. It’s the civilian version of the rifle I used in the Corp. It uses M16 mags, but the internals are different.”
“Nice.” John put the rifle back. “Let’s hope we won’t have to use any of these weapons this time out.”
“My presence belies that kind of optimism.”
“Consider yourself part of our life insurance policy.”
John and Sparrow returned to the cargo bay, and traversed a short corridor to the cargo hold. The rest of the newcomers were there, trying to assemble three sets of bunk beds. Milly noticed the men come in.
“Why doesn’t it surprise me that you smoke a pipe?” she said to John.
“Just call me Captain Nemo. I know the day is getting long, folks, but we’ll be at the Eagle in an hour or so. I’ll leave it up to you if you want to rack out anyway.”
“I don’t think any of us are going to pass up the chance to see a new world, Commander. Oh, and Captain Nemo eschewed tobacco, or are you just pretending to like classic science fiction?”
“She’s got some sass, doesn’t she?” exclaimed Ehrlich.
John smiled. “You’re all going to need a sense of humor if we get into trouble out here.”
“I gotta ask you,” began Milly. “I got your origin story from Aldebaran. You, Bailey, and Ferro found the orb, and decided to pursue its mission yourself rather than tell NASA or the feds. Why?”
“You need look no further than the name of this ship for your answer, Lieutenant.”
“I suppose Batshit Crazy would have been considerably more awkward.”
John puffed on his pipe. “Well… you’re not wrong.”