The Cygnian Liberation Front was based on a large, rocky moon of Dellal V, in an underground complex that had been a palladium mine. The mining operations were still ongoing, at least on paper, but any meaningful amount of precious metal had long since been removed. A meager haul of palladium was still pulled from the mine, though profit was no longer its reason for existing. The Cygnian Offworld Mining Export and Transport company had been transformed into a shell corporation for the CLF. It was not a perfect arrangement, but the eyes of God were everywhere.
Dellal VB, known as Leda, was once considered a prime candidate for terraforming. An effort had been made about fifty years ago but had succeeded only in making the frigid, thin atmosphere breathable for short periods. Though interest and funding had run out for the attempt, a future effort might be successful with enough financial backing. For now, it served only as a colony for rugged individualists and the home of COMET. There were just enough colonists and just enough palladium to allow the CLF to operate in secrecy, as private or corporate vessels were allowed to come and go with minimal solar government oversight. As long as taxes were paid on time, they were mostly left alone.
Kalle Tulle, a scientist turned jack of all trades, drove her all-terrain truck across the dusty surface of Leda. It was windy that morning, which wasn’t saying much. The moon experienced almost no weather, with an occasional slight breeze being the only feature. The wind was kicking red dust across the road before her, combining with the blue hue of Dellal to create a purplish haze. She was on her way back from a local hydroponic farm with a load of fresh food for her compatriots at the mining complex. If the farmers knew about their clandestine operations, they didn’t care. There was little in the way of trade on Leda, and for them it was easy cash. Kalle and the CLF were more than happy to be able to resupply without leaving the moon.
Through the haze, the gas giant of Dellal V could be seen, taking up most of the horizon. Its orange and blue swirling clouds were muted through the atmosphere, and far more beautiful from space. It was well below freezing on the surface of Leda, and Kalle’s breath threatened to completely fog up her windscreen. She knew better than to try to adjust the environmental controls for her truck, which was older than she was. Unfortunately for her, a new truck was not something the farmers on the moon could provide. Thankfully her trip was a short one, and soon the disused outbuildings of the mine came into view. Beyond the buildings, the outlines of their ships could be seen. She parked near the main entrance to the underground complex, and keyed her radio.
“Marlen, it’s K.T. I’m back.”
Marlen’s voice came in over her earpiece. “Great timing, K.T.! The intercept device just caught a signal. You’d better get down here.”
The food would have to wait. Kalle donned an oxygen mask and goggles, and put up the hood on her jacket. She shut down the engine, got out of the cab, and made sure the door was latched securely behind her. The main entrance was nothing more than a large shack that enclosed the top of a freight elevator. If she was sure the lift was at the surface, she wouldn’t have bothered with the oxygen, but this time it was waiting for her when the doors slid open. She got in and mashed the button for sublevel 3. The lift made sounds that were less than reassuring as it descended, and she gratefully removed her mask and hood as the air warmed up.
The main corridor on sublevel 3 was well-lit, and as clean as one could expect. First passing by the former administrative offices (only one of which was still used for that purpose), then several sets of living quarters, Kalle arrived at a laboratory. The metal door squeaked on its hinges as she entered, and she was met with a scene of chaos. On the other side of the lab was a chamber once used as a clean room, now meant for the receiving end of the intercept device. Inside was Marlen, a Rakhar technician, and Polsen, their Cygnian medic. They were crouched over a body, attempting to administer first aid. Kalle rushed over and gasped.
A humanoid female lay on the floor, obviously in very bad shape. She was missing her right leg at the knee, and had a garish abdominal wound. Polson was about to put a tourniquet on her leg, but paused. He looked up at Marlen in confusion. The Rakhar had a scanner in his hand.
“She’s not bleeding,” he said.
“I lost her pulse,” came the reply.
“Are you sure you had a pulse to begin with? It looks like she’s already bled out.”
Marlen held out the scanner. “See for yourself.”
Polsen glanced at the device. “It shows two heartbeats milliseconds after she arrived. I’m sorry, folks, but there’s nothing I can do for her.”
Kalle said, “We should find out if the intercept contributed to her death.”
“Contributed? I think it’s obvious that she died of her wounds.”
“We still need to do our due diligence. If we contributed to her death in any way, we need to know.”
Polsen stood up. “We’ll do a full autopsy, of course. The initial pathogen scans were negative. Help me get her onto the gurney.”
Kalle retrieved a wheeled metal table, and with minimal effort the three of them placed the woman on top.
“Genetic profile?” she asked.
Marlen gestured with the scanner. “Already doing it. I’m showing a 99% match to Cygnian stock.”
“One of us?” asked Polsen.
Kalle shook her head. “All that tells us is that she came from one of the Stymphalian Raptors. Considering what we know, it’s far more likely that she was born on the Eagle or Vulture.”
“Unless she was out wandering the stars and God called her home.”
“You got me.” Kalle walked to a sink and began washing her hands. “But as far as the genetic infusion program, it would make no sense to bring her here. Not that the Swan needs the program any more. Trying to figure out what our dear resident Kira’To is up to is pointless anyway. Our goal remains the same.”
The others took turns washing their hands as well, and Kalle went over to scrutinize the body. Though not an expert, she could tell the woman’s injuries were recent, probably within the last eight hours. She donned a pair of disposable gloves and searched the body. There was something in her pants pocket.
“I found an ID tag,” she said.
Kalle held the object up by its chain, and the others came over to look at it. It was a flat metal oval, similar to tags worn by soldiers, but instead of a name or ID number, there was an inscription.
“Can you read it?” asked Polsen.
“It looks like the ancient language of the Eagle. ‘Voltur Caput.’ Vulture something. I can’t make out the rest.”
“So maybe she came from the Vulture,” said Marlen. “Perhaps she was meant to reunite the communities of the Vulture and Swan.”
“She got herself pretty well fucked up right before that. Maybe somebody knew she was going to be taken and had a problem with it. Whatever happened, I don’t think this incident is going to be of much use to us. We’ll need a living specimen if we ever hope to prove anything to the SCC.”
“That could be another 97 years,” said Polsen. “Or never.”
Kalle sighed. “I know. Begin the autopsy, I’ll call General Sarbessin and give him the bad news.”
Polsen and Kalle exited into the corridor. Polsen spoke as they walked toward her quarters.
“If you want to make that call now, I’ll unload the truck.”
“I’d appreciate that, thank you.”
The pair parted ways as Kalle entered her quarters. This area was arranged with a kitchen, living room, two bedrooms, and a shared bath. Since the population of the complex had dwindled along with its intended purpose, there was no one occupying the other bedroom. Though Kalle had made her quarters as comfortable as possible with her limited resources, she and the rest of the CLF might need to make a quick exit someday so there was no point in attempting any permanent upgrades. She unzipped her jacket and hung it on a hook behind the door.
Her computer was on a coffee table in the living room. Kalle unholstered her sidearm, put it on the table, and sat heavily on her couch. She had to call Sarbessin with a report, but she wished she had something more to tell him. Waking up her computer, she opened the program that would let her make an encrypted call. She had no idea what the General was up to, or where he might be. She was too far down the chain to be kept apprised of what their leadership was doing, except for the updates that were sent out to everyone. Kalle wasn’t even sure that Sarbessin would remember her, but he sure as hell knew about the intercept project. She had standing orders to contact him directly with any progress, so there was no need to call her supervisor first. In fact, she had no idea where Lieutenant Garvin was, either. Probably doing something far more interesting toward their efforts than grocery runs and wrangling corpses.
Kalle held the ID tag up to the light as she waited for the secure call to connect. The inscription was too faded for her to have any hope of reading all of it with the naked eye. She could have scanned it back in the lab, but she didn’t want to distract Marlen from his work. She sighed, and put the tag in her pocket.
“I don’t know who you were,” she mused, “but welcome to the resistance.”
The last week had gone by without incident for the Reckless Faith and the Fox. Longer transit times had become routine for the original crew of the Faith, and they had settled into a comfortable daily pattern once again. The two newcomers assigned to the ship had been introduced to the training opportunities that an orb simulation offered, and under the less than subtle guidance of Richter and Aldebaran, had spent much of their time getting their backsides handed to themselves in combat scenarios. Milly had joined a few of the simulations that were created for ground combat, and did passably well for her experience level. Her focus, however, had been on spaceflight and zero-g engagements with the Faith, a task for which she proved well suited. Both types of scenarios were rather rigorous, and even though their bodies weren’t actually being taxed, it was still exhausting. Beer or something stronger seemed like an apt reward at the end of the day.
On the Fox, Cane had been keeping a watchful eye on the stardrive. So far, the overdrive device was stable, and any excessive wear on the system was undetectable while in operation. Of course, fuel was being consumed at an alarming rate, but thanks to the Faith’s replication ability, they could simply create more uranium hexafluoride upon arrival at Dellal.
For the newcomers to the Fox, they were grateful to have their own quarters, which were a significant upgrade from sharing bunks in the Faith’s cargo hold. Though they didn’t have an orb to simulate combat, there was more than enough to do to fill their time. Learning the Fox’s systems and weaponry was a challenge, both due to their lack of experience with spacecraft and the fact that the graphical user interface was in another language. Evangeline had previously embarked on the task of translating the GUI into English, but hadn’t accomplished much. With the addition of Penrose, she had shifted her focus to the medical bay for his benefit. Making sure he could interact with their medical equipment without oversight was a priority. The surgeon, for his part, was thrilled with the technology, though they all hoped he wouldn’t have to use it.
While not as immersive as an orb simulation, the Fox did offer a flight training program that included opportunities for gunnery practice. Ehrlich and Hawkes had both spent several hours using it, but the scenarios that were loaded weren’t nearly as complex as the real world engagements that the Faith and the Fox had experienced. It was better than nothing. The two men had also been introduced to the small arms that had been left behind by the Fox’s former crew, and had no trouble adopting to the different technology. Overall, the journey might have left them with lingering boredom if not for Talyn, who easily convinced the pair to join him in martial arts training. Along with Eva, Ari, and occasionally Vecky, they could be found in the galley sparring, earning new and interesting bruises.
Eva, Vecky, and Cane had spent most of their time on the bridge, interrupted here and there by one of the others wandering in with a question or simply to converse. It was a bittersweet experience for Vecky; while she was glad to see her crew grow and felt renewed by their enthusiasm, she was also sad at the thought that her Uncle Miyamoto had the same experience on the Fox only to lose it all in a heartbeat. Each night when she went to bed in his old quarters, she wondered if it would be easier to remove his possessions and decorations, then hated herself for even thinking of it. She would have to find a way to let those things remind her of the man he once was, and not the tragedy that took him away.
That night, with one more day left on their trip, Vecky again sat in the command chair on the bridge. At the moment, she was joined by Talyn and Miriam. The girls had become friends since Vecky’s arrival on Earth, and for more reasons than simply both having been transported across space by the Kira’To. They were also close to the same age, at first neophytes in combat, and overwhelmed by circumstances they had no chance of anticipating. It brought them comfort to talk about things from their pasts that were similar, though certain topics such as education, life at school, and previous love interests seemed trite. Indeed, both had crushes on boys that seemed particularly vapid after all of their new experiences. If such a role was to be filled by someone else, neither would admit it.
As he often did, Talyn sat quietly at his console, his chair facing the girls. They seemed to have no problem discussing any topic in front of him, and the man could only conclude that they found him eminently non-threatening. He could also see that neither of them were interested in him romantically, which would have been far more awkward for them than he. Talyn never interjected anything into their conversations, but responded when asked a question.
“What do you think, Talyn,” Miriam was saying. “Is it common for spacers to get distracted by relationships?”
“Sure,” he replied, leaning back in his seat. “How far they take it depends on the captain. Most of my time under a formal command was in the military, so you can guess how it was tolerated there.”
“What about when you were with the syndicate?” asked Vecky.
“As a field agent, I never spent too much time on one single ship. If there was any fooling around going on, I didn’t care to know.”
Miriam asked, “What’s going on with Cane and Evangeline?”
Talyn shrugged. “Low grade flirting, I’d guess. They work well together, though Eva isn’t really Cane’s type.”
“Yeah, what is his type?”
“The type you can purchase services from for a quarter of an hour at a time.”
Vecky put her face in her hands. “Oh, for the love of the core, Talyn.”
“What do I know? Ask him yourself.”
“Ask me what?”
Cane had just entered the bridge. The others fell silent. Miriam blushed.
Talyn grinned viciously. “Go ahead, Miriam.”
Miriam stammered. “Do you still have any of that Secundian whiskey from the other night? I wanted to try some.”
An alarm sounded from Talyn’s console, so he spun around to look at it. He silenced the alarm and grunted.
“I’ve got a fault warning on the port side reserve fuel redirect valve.”
Cane walked over and peered at the screen. “Looks like it’s overheating, either that or the temperature sensor is failing. I recommend we drop out of superlume just in case.”
Vecky nodded, then opened a channel. “Reckless Faith, this is the Fox. We’ve got a small problem with our fuel system over here and we’re going to have to drop to sub-light.”
John’s voice filled the bridge. “Roger that, Fox, we’ll match your speed, out.”
The ship shuddered slightly as Vecky pulled back on the throttle. A moment later, the Faith appeared, pacing them on their starboard side.
“No change,” said Cane. “Recommend full stop.”
Vecky did so. The Faith overshot them, then appeared a few seconds later from ahead.
“Do you have an emergency?” asked John.
“Not at the moment,” replied Vecky. “Cane, any idea how long it will take to fix this?”
Cane chuckled. “No clue. If we can isolate the problem, we can ask the Faith to replicate replacement parts for us. I’d like to say a few hours, but you know how these things can go.”
“Replicating parts won’t be a problem for us,” said John. “Just let us know what you need and send us the schematics.”
“So much for getting any sleep tonight,” said Talyn.
Another voice came in over the radio. “Hello Fox, this is Christie. I hope you don’t mind me jumping in on this conversation. I’m getting some weird readings from the direction of our flight path.”
“Define weird,” said John.
“As you know, normally when we travel at sub-light speed, our engines leave a slight trail of ionized particles in our wake. Same for the Fox. These particles dissipate almost immediately, but if you know what to scan for you can still detect them for a fraction of a second. I took it upon myself some time ago to passively monitor those particles as part of my routine scans. Well, this time I detected eddy currents in the wake of the Fox. Eddies that were not caused by us.”
“You suspect we’re being followed,” said Vecky.
“I’m afraid so. As you can see for yourself, any ship that might be out there isn’t detectable by normal means. If I’m right, we should be on guard.”
“What about the flare function of our plasma cannon?” asked John. “We once speculated that, by process of elimination, we could detect a cloaked ship by firing one off in close proximity.”
“It’s worth a shot. We sacrifice nothing in the attempt.”
“Okay. Look sharp, everyone. When this thing goes off, check your sensors against the starfield background for anything that doesn’t belong. Shot out in three, two, one…”
An extremely bright bluish-white sphere emanated from the bow of the Faith, and shot by the Fox. Illuminating the two craft for only a few seconds, it sent a glut of data to the sensors of both ships. Talyn buried his head in his console, attempting to glean something useful.
“I’ve got something,” he began. “A void, one hundred meters in length and thirty meters in height, bearing two-six-nine mark one-five, distance five hundred meters.”
“I see it,” replied Christie. “Just about the size of a ship.”
John said, “We’ve got company, people.”
Vecky’s fingers tensed around her flight controls. “Cane, can she handle a scuffle?”
“I don’t know,” Cane said, strapping himself into a chair. “You could flood the entire ship with corrosive gas. But fuck it, right?”