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Jahr:
2013
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Durandus
Sprache:
english
Serien:
Solar Clipper Trader 5; Trader's Tales from the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper
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Clarkesworld Year Four

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This book and parts thereof may not be reproduced in any form, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, or otherwise—without prior written permission of the publisher, except as provided by the United States of America copyright law.



This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to actual persons, organizations, and/or events is purely coincidental.





Visit us on the web at: www.solarclipper.com





Copyright © 2013 by Nathan Lowell

Cover Art J. Daniel Sawyer

First Printing: August, 2013





Books in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper Series


Trader Tales


Quarter Share

Half Share

Full Share

Double Share

Captain’s Share

Owner’s Share*





Shaman Tales


South Coast*

Cape Grace**





Fantasy Books by Nathan Lowell

Ravenwood

Zypheria’s Call

The Hermit of Lammas Wood**



* Available in audio (itunes and podiobooks.com), print and ebooks coming soon

**Forthcoming





To my grandfather, Owen Wallace.

I inherited his eyebrows

and his fascination with technology.



He worked for NASA before it was NASA

and was the first of us to reach for the stars.

He won't be the last.





Table of Contents

01. Diurnia Orbital: 2371-August-22

02. Breakall System: 2371-September-24

03. Breakall System: 2371-September-27

04. Breakall System: 2371-September-28

05. Breakall System: 2371-September-28

06. Breakall System: 2371-October-02

07. Breakall Orbital: 2371-October-31

08. Breakall Orbital: 2371-November-09

09. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-08

10. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-08

11. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-08

12. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-08

13. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

14. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

15. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

16. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

17. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

18. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-09

19. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-10

20.;  Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-10

21. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-10

22. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-10

23. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-11

24. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-11

25. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-11

26. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-January-11

27. Diurnia System: 2372-January-12

28. Diurnia System: 2372-January-12

29. Diurnia System: 2372-January-12

30. Diurnia System: 2372-February-02

31. Welliver System: 2372-February-16

32. Welliver System: 2372-February-17

33. Welliver System: 2372-February-22

34. Welliver System: 2372-February-22

35. Welliver Orbital: 2372-February-28

36. Welliver Orbital: 2372-March-02

37. Welliver System: 2372-March-20

38. The Deep Dark: 2372-March-21

39. Jett System: 2372-March-24

40. System: 2372-March-24

41. Jett System: 2372-March-30

42. Jett System: 2372-April-06

43. Jett System: 2372-April-06

44. Jett Orbital: 2372-April-15

45. Jett Orbital: 2372-April-20

46. Jett Orbital: 2372-April-21

47. Diurnia System: 2372-June-01

48. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-June-02

49. Diurnia System: 2372-June-05

50. Diurnia System: 2372-June-22

51. Dree Orbital: 2372-July-24

52. Dree Orbital: 2372-July-26

53. Diurnia System: 2372-September-09

54. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-September-09

55. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-September-10

56. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-September-10

57. Diurnia Orbital: 2372-September-13

58. Diurnia System: 2372-September-13

Other Works

About The Author





Chapter One

Diurnia Orbital:

2371-August-22


It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of good fortune must be in want of a wife. However, a man of good fortune, in the company of a wife, may find himself questioning that truth–or at least its universality. With those dark thoughts and dire portents I collected my kit, gathered my fortitude, and prepared to get underway once more.

“Ishmael,” she said, with a wheedle in her voice, “when are you going to stop this gallivanting around the quadrant and actually get a real job and settle down?”

Every time she asked me that question, it was a fresh cut. Every time a synaptic overload put a lock on my brain which my mouth couldn’t overcome. Just as well. All the things I thought of later were mostly negative and not terribly helpful.

“Jen...” I began, but there was nothing behind it. I only shook my head in silence.

“Jen, what?” she said. “You’ve got nothing to say?”

“You knew what I was when you married me.” It was feeble but all I could bring together.

“Ishmael, dear...” She pushed it hard and I braced for it. “That was what? Seven stanyers ago? You’re still doing the same job for the same company and you’re never at home!”

She was right about the time, and the company. “I made it up to first mate. That’s not like the same job I started with.”

She made a little “pfft” noise with her lips. “You’re still sailing off for months at a time. I get to see you a few days when you’re here and then you’re off again.”

“It’s my job, Jen. It’s what I do.” I could hear the defensive whine in my own voice, but I couldn’t stop it.

She shifted gears on me, maybe smelling weakness, and turned hard. “So, why did you get married, huh? Just so have a cheap place to stay in port? Did you think we’d just go on like this? You going out there and flyin’ around and me back here pullin’ pints and sloppin’ burgers?”

I looked around our little crew quarters. Station living arrangements ran a bit on the close side. Not as close as shipboard but certainly not as spacious as living planetside. “Well, I’ve told you repeatedly that living up here is entirely up to you. If you want to live below, then go ahead.” I recognized this as a dodge, and she didn’t even bother to block it.

“And do what? Find a job in a bar down there?”

“I don’t know. What do you want to do?”

“Well, I’d like to live with my husband.” She bit the words off.

My tablet bipped to remind me I needed to be aboard. I grabbed my kit bag and looked to where she sat behind the dinette table, arms crossed over her stomach and glower on her face. “See you in a few weeks.”

The door didn’t close fast enough behind me to block off her response. “Bastard.”

Every time I got underway again it was the same. Every time it got ugly. Every time my brain locked down. And every time I knew she was right, but I had no answer.

Why did we get married?

The cold bite of dock air snapped me out of my funk and I started thinking about what had to happen by 1300 to get underway on schedule. Six stans. Should be enough time and gods knew I’d done it often enough over the stanyers.

Still, each time we pushed back, there was a chance we’d not dock again. Each time was new in a way that made everything else somehow less. Each time was both awful and awe-inspiring at once. I sighed and stepped smartly down the dock. First mates didn’t linger. Even married ones.

Stepping aboard the Tinker, I felt the station and all the things associated with it slough away, as if the closing lock severed the ties. It was not that all the trials and tribulations of home port went away. They simply ceased to hold sway. I could do nothing about them while underway, and even though the ship was still docked, mentally, I had already sailed for Breakall.

I smiled to see Able Spacer Dagostino on the brow. “How you holding up on brow watch, Ms. Dagostino?”

“Welcome aboard, sar. Just fine. It’s as boring as they said it would be, but at least I’m the one callin’ the messengers.” She gave me a broad grin.

It was a standing point of contention on the brow. Messengers of the watch thought the watch standers had it easy until they got promoted to the post themselves. They soon appreciated just how deadly dull sitting there for twelve stans at a time could be.

I chuckled a little under my breath, remembering my first brow watch. “Yes, well, just remember the little people on your meteoric rise to fame and power, Ms. Dagostino.”

She laughed in reply. “Aye, sar, but I’m pretty sure meteors don’t rise, sar. They fall. That’s what makes them meteors and not asteroids.”

“Makes you wonder where the phrase came from, doesn’t it, Ms. Dagostino?”

“Yes, sar, it surely does, but I’ll leave such idle speculation to my betters and superiors, sar.” Her eyes danced with humor and I confess I felt a little stab of immodest pride in thinking that when I’d first joined the Tinker’s crew over a decade before, that grin wouldn’t have been there.

Of course, Dagostino herself wouldn’t have been there. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-five. That sobering thought punctured my small bubble of hubris and left me feeling old. I kicked myself mentally. Thirty-eight was not old, although sometimes I felt it. I wondered how old I’d feel at sixty-eight.

“Thank you for your kindness to your elders, Ms. Dagostino. I’ll make a mark in your record on the plus column.”

“Oh, thank you, sar,” she said as she registering my current mass allotment.

The "plus column" was another standing joke among the crew. While the Tinker did have records on all the crew–the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade required every ship to keep good records–there was no plus and minus tally. One serious "minus" aboard, and nobody’s tally would mean much. Good behavior wasn’t a luxury in the Deep Dark–it was a survival trait–and the unit of interest was the ship, not just an individual crew member.

I started down the passage to drop off my kit when she stopped me. “Captain’s compliments, sar, and would you join her in the cabin when you’ve stowed your bag?”

I turned to look and she was looking at the brow’s terminal. The skipper must have seen me check in and sent a summons. She was a stickler for form, our Fredi, and I loved her for it. “Of course, Ms. Dagostino. My regards to the captain and I’ll be with her in three ticks.”

“You do know you two could talk to each other directly on your tablets, don’t you, sar?” she asked after hitting the acknowledge and reply button. She looked up at me with her cheeky grin restored.

“Why, Ms. Dagostino! You come up with the strangest ideas at times.” I heard her chuckling as I rounded the corner at the end of the passageway and started toward the ladder up to officer country.

Of course, we knew, and we did. Often. But there were times that the captain wanted the crew to know that she and the first mate worked from a common understanding that grew from a frequent and widely noised about series of meetings. Frederica DeGrut was no slouch when it came to managing the ship. I only hoped I had half her skill and panache when it became my time to sit in the cabin.

It was the work of a moment to drop my kit into my locker and knock on the cabin’s door frame, since Fredi had the door propped open. “Good morning, Captain.”

She smiled up at me from her seat at the small conference table. “Hello, Ishmael. Come in, and close that door behind you, if you would?”

I didn’t read too much into the request to close the door. After nearly ten stanyers of sailing with the woman, I’d learned more than a few things. This was one of them. I’d come to the conclusion that she did it randomly so that the crew couldn’t jump to conclusions about the nature of the conversations occurring within. Sometimes they were serious. Sometimes Fredi just wanted to talk about the little nothings that were really the everythings aboard a solar clipper. She made it a habit to keep the door open when in the cabin alone, unless she was asleep or trying to write reports. She liked feeling the flow of the ship, she’d told me once. But that left the issue of when to close the door when something serious was happening, and how to do it without telegraphing it to the crew. Her solution was to randomly close the door when in conference. Or at least, so I imagined. I never did ask her about it.

She poured me a coffee from the carafe on the table as I took my accustomed seat on her right hand. I felt her looking at me in that intensely birdlike way she has. At nearly seventy, she was just reaching late middle age for spacers. She wore her gunmetal-colored hair cropped, like the rest of us. Her laugh-lines were more pronounced than I remembered from my first days aboard when she had been the chief cargo officer.

But she wasn’t laughing.

I glanced at her over the rim of my cup while she studied me. She wasn’t laughing but she wasn’t angry either. She looked sad.

“So, why did you get married, Ishmael?” she asked, breaking the silence after almost a full tick.

She smiled, not unkindly, at my shocked look.

“Don’t be so surprised.” She patted my forearm. “I’ve known you for ten stanyers, Ishmael. I’ve seen you grow from a startlingly precocious boot third to a terrifyingly competent first mate.”

I wasn’t comfortable with complements. I started to demur but she stopped me with a “tsk” and a sharp pat on the arm. “Don’t interrupt your captain. It’s bad manners.” She said it with a grin and a twinkle in her eye.

She settled back into her chair, cradling her cup in both hands just below her chin. “As I was saying. I’ve known you for ten stanyers and for the last five of those, you’ve been coming back to the ship like a whipped dog every time we’re in home port.”

She had me.

I leaned forward on the table and stared down into my cup. “That obvious?”

She wrinkled her nose a little and gave a little shake of her head. “Not obvious. You mask it well, but I recognize the signs.”

The bitterness in that last statement took me by surprise a bit. “Voice of experience?” I asked.

She made a non-committal nod and shrug. “Something like that.” She sipped her coffee and waited, her sharp eyes watching me over the rim of her mug.

“I don’t know,” I told her. It wasn’t much of an answer but it was real.

She chuckled. “It seemed like the thing to do at the time...” she let the statement trickle off at the end.

“Yeah, well. At the time, it seemed like that was what grown-ups did. Got married, settled down, had kids. It seemed like it was something I was supposed to do. I’d known Jen for a couple of stanyers and we always hit it off like gang busters when I was in port.”

“So you got married, but you didn’t settle down,” she prompted me after a half a tick.

“Well, I did, really.”

“Really?” she asked with that snarky little lilt at the end.

“Well, it felt like it. I could have taken other jobs. Gone to other companies. And it’s not like there aren’t plenty of opportunities for–” I stopped cold, realizing where that statement was going.

“Advancement?” she suggested with a smirk.

“Yes, okay, advancement.”

We both knew that wasn’t what I was talking about, but she also knew I wasn’t tom-catting around. Some officers might have had a lover in every port, but I wasn’t one of them. Not that I wasn’t tempted often enough. I just didn’t.

We sipped for a few ticks but she wasn’t done with me. “So, you think you’ve settled down, but Jen thinks you’re still a spacer and you’ll never settle down because what you mean by settle down and what she means by settle down aren’t even in the same system.”

All I could do was sigh and nod.

She gave a little sideways nod and a kindly smile. “So the question of why you got married isn’t really important, is it?”

I gave my head a little shake. “No. It’s not. The question is how am I gonna deal with it now?”

“Good.” She said it a bit sadly and with a small sigh. “I was afraid I was going to have to explain it to you.”

I realized that I’d known that for a long time. Admitting it didn’t make it any easier. It might be the first step to solving the problem, but it still looked like a long road ahead.

She didn’t let me stew on it, though. We both knew there would be plenty of time for stewing on the long voyage out to Breakall and back.

“Good,” she said again, more forcefully. and her tone shifted to business. We started tracking through the thousand and one details that we needed to cover before the crew reported aboard and the ship pushed back from the orbital.





Chapter Two

Breakall System:

2371-September-24


The jump into Breakall wasn’t exceptional. Ms. Behr hit the Burleson limit dead on and we slipped in without a hiccup. The ship secured from navigation stations just before the watch change at 0600 and first section took the duty. Since I was the OD for first section, that meant I got to settle in with a fresh cup of coffee while the messenger of the watch brought my breakfast tray from the galley.

It’s funny how old habits die so hard. Almost eight stanyers since I’d been system’s officer and I still reviewed incoming traffic logs when I was on watch. Being first mate had its own load to haul but part of that load involved making sure the ship stayed safe. In the Deep Dark extra eyes sometimes meant living to get to port.

That’s how I happened to spot the HazNav notice in the incoming traffic queue. We got a fresh load of data at each jump, picking up a packet from wherever we’d been and trading it wherever we went, for updated news of the system. A few light-days out from the primary, the data on the buoy was relatively fresh and it would only get fresher as we moved inward. Usually, that incoming packet was nothing to beam home about. It held some limited price and cargo data, some news and sports scores. We had to have the sports scores. I suspected the betting pool in engineering berthing of tapping the feed directly but so long as the wagering was fair, there wasn’t any reason for me to interfere.

That particular packet carried a high priority flag and that wasn’t usual. Our current third, a competent and slightly crazy individual named Julianna Kazyanenko, scampered up the ladder to the bridge even before the packet finished its load up.

She grinned at me as she slipped into the systems’ console. “You readin’ my mail again, Ishmael?”

“That’s ‘Mr. Wang’ to you when I’m on duty, Ms. Kazyanenko!” I tried to growl and look fierce.

“And who are you when you’re ta home, then?” she shot back. She wasn’t really paying attention to me. An excellent systems and comms officer, her focus was already deep in the machine.

Mark Clemming had the helm and he stared straight ahead. I could just see his face from where I sat. I looked across the bridge to where Kaz was ripping the data packet apart to extract the HazNav notice.

“So you were reading my mail.” Her attention was still riveted on the message traffic. “It’s not far from our track.”

I’d already keyed the course plot into the big display above my own station and saw we’d be moving within a few thousand kilometers of the hazard. That was unusual enough that I sent a copy to the skipper and another to the astrogator.

HazNav–Hazard to Navigation–notices were not unusual. They were part of doing business in the Deep Dark. Sometimes things got a little cosmic out there and ships needed to know about the odd rock, extra stellar ejecta, or dropped baggage. Most things were just part of the equation–stuff you don’t think about because the systems all deal with it routinely. Between the shielding created by the sails and the simple expedient of steering around the obstacle, most HazNav notices had advice about avoiding planets, missing moons, and generally not being stupid while navigating a cargo hauler.

That HazNav notice was different. The location and course of the hazard is coded in the header, but the specific nature of the hazard is usually buried in the comment notes. Kaz and I saw the comment at the same time.

She swore.

I bipped the captain.

This wasn’t the normal stray rock or lost bag.

It was a ship.

The captain bounded up the ladder to the bridge and leaned down to read over my shoulder. I leaned back to give her a look at my screen.

“What do we have here, Mr. Wang?” She straightened and looked out the bridge window as if to try to see it, although we were still two or three days out.

“Haz Nav warning came through a few ticks ago, Captain. Ship is running ballistic, and apparently abandoned.”

“We can’t be the first ones through here. Any indication of who it is and how long she’s been there?”

I looked to Kaz who shook her head. “Not much on the HazNav record, Captain. Originally reported by the Billi Baddings, a tractor out of Gamblin, four days ago. Derelict is the Chernyakova, a Barbell like us, out of Greenfield, but no notes on the circumstances of that report.”

Fredi looked thoughtful, crossing her arms across her chest and pulling at her lower lip with her fingers as she stared off in the direction of the derelict. “Greenfield is a bit out of the way, don’t you think, Ms. Kazyanenko?”

Kaz looked at the tank that held a three dimensional representation of the sector. A few clicks on her keyboard and the display zoomed back. She made a couple more clicks and a system pulsed. We all focused on the display.

“She could have been making the loop,” Kaz said.

A string of systems looped around from Diurnia, out and down, and back and up–like a series of beads on an irregular string.

Fredi looked at it for a long moment. “That’s an awfully long trip for a Barbell,” she muttered.

The Unwin Barbell design hulls were common in the quadrant. They were basic ‘one can’ design bulk haulers. They had the advantage of a single cargo pod–the one can–that was completely isolated while underway. The container slipped in between the forward and after nacelles, where it locked against the spine. Once locked into place, the hull blocked the container’s loading ports, located in either end. The contents were effectively sealed in until that can was delivered to the destination port and unmounted from the ship.

They also could not get underway without a can because the stresses on the bare spine would separate the navigational systems in the bow from the propulsion generators in the stern. The can itself provided stability to the backbone by locking the fore and aft nacelles tightly against itself. With no can, the ship amounted to two bricks on a straw.

“Ms. Kazyanenko, please plot a rendezvous course with the Chernyakova. See what that does to our transit time to Breakall Orbital, if you please?”

“Aye, aye, Captain. I’ll have the breakdown for you in a couple of ticks.”

“Thank you, Ms. Kazyanenko.” The captain turned to me and asked, “Any ideas?”

“Anything I’ve got is speculation, Skipper.”

“Yes, Mr. Wang. That’s what I’d like to hear. Your speculations on what might be out there.”

“The can is the weakness,” I said with a shrug. “If she lost her can, there’s not much else to do.”

“Why didn’t the Baddings tow her?”

“Maybe she was full up,” I said. “Although an unloaded Barbell, wouldn’t be that much of a load for a tractor like that.”

“Unless she wasn’t unloaded,” the captain said.

“True, but if the can’s still there, why abandon her?” I asked. “And why isn’t the place swarming with operators looking to cash in on the salvage rights?”

Her idle smile turned a bit shark-like at that and a sharp little twinkle lit her eyes. “Maybe we just haven’t arrived yet.”





Chapter Three

Breakall System:

2371-September-27


It took us three days to close the gap on the derelict freighter. Kaz used the time to find out what there was to know about the ship and the crew. It wasn’t much. The Billi Baddings had come across it drifting on a ballistic course, more or less stable, but without sails or keel extended. The Baddings had carried a full load and, judging from the rather terse statements from her captain, perhaps a bit more than they should have. Going alongside, or even doing much more than taking evasive action was beyond the tractor’s cability. The reports were sparse, but while the can was still there, there was no sign of crew and no response to hailing.

We went to navigation stations just after 0800. We saw the hull in the distance. We were that close to it. Ms. Behr had done a bang up job of laying our track right along side theirs so we held station about five kilometers astern.

“How stable is her track, Ms. Behr?” the captain asked as we stood gazing out the armor glass.

“Track is stable as ballistic can make it. There’s a slight wobble on her but she’s not spinning, and you can see she’s laying more or less steady. No pinwheel that I’ve been able to detect.”

“Any response to hail, Ms. Kazyanenko?”

“No, Captain. Only automated signals and none of those are distress. Just ID beacons and proximity radars.”

The captain frowned. “Then they have power.” She turned to the engineering chief officer, Amela Menas, who was running her own scans from the engineering terminal at the side of the bride. “Mel? Anything you can add to this puzzle before we commit any more resources to solving it.”

“She’s got power. I’m seeing one hot reactor in her engineering spaces. There should be at least one more, I’d have thought.” Chief Menas was thinking out loud for all of us to hear. She didn’t look up from her screens and her voice sounded as if she were far away. “No sails. No keel. Heat signatures look normal. Mostly.”

“Mostly?” the captain asked.

“The can is a little warmer than I’d have expected. Not much and it might just be errors in the instruments. Might be something that’s in it keeping it half a degree warmer.”

We’d all seen that happen before as well. The cans got loaded at the cargo terminals. They normally carried only bulk items that wouldn’t be damaged by the cold of the Deep Dark. The containers themselves consisted of little more than bare metal buckets with hatches on the ends. They were cans in a literal sense. But some cargoes didn’t do well in that extreme cold so some cans had a little extra insulation in them and a low yield heater–just enough to keep a bit of warmth in the can. In the Deep Dark, refrigeration was seldom a problem. Warmth was.

“So, where’s the crew?” the captain mused.

“Life rafts are still in their pods, Skipper,” Ms. Behr said. “At least the doors are closed. If they left that way, the pods would be open.”

That was the point where we all had the same, unsettling thought. I, for one, had been trying not to think it. If the crew hadn’t left, then they’d still be aboard. If they were aboard and not answering the hail, then the prognosis was grave indeed.

The captain took a deep breath and let it out. “There’s no help for it, I guess. We’re gonna have to go over and knock on the door.”

Chief Menas blew out a noisy breath, her eyes locked on her console’s display. “I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but I think you’re right, Captain. The ship’s launch is prepped. Ulla’s in the pilot seat running the checklist now. Who do you wanna send with her?”

The captain scanned the bridge, as if she hadn’t already made up her mind. “Ishmael, sign me onto your watch. I relieve you. Get into a softsuit and run over there with her.”

I expected that much. I had gotten my softsuit qualification when I made first mate. It meant I could put on the soft-fabric ‘goin’ outside for a walk’ suit and be pretty confident that I’d be able to come back in alive. Going outside wasn’t really something that we needed to do a lot as Deck officers. The Engineering crew had three ratings qualified on ‘hardsuits’–more armored exoskeleton than suit–and they handled most of the outside work that needed doing.

Sending me in the softsuit meant she wanted me, probably literally, to knock on the door.

“Aye, aye, Captain. You have the watch.” I typed the few commands needed to pass over the formal watch stander title to the captain and headed aft to Engineering.

Half a stan later, Ulla Nart eased the ship’s launch off the lock downs and out of its little pocket hanger in the aft nacelle. The boat wasn’t used much, but when we needed to go short distances in local space, it was indispensable. The regs classified it as safety equipment but it was a capable small craft.

“What do you think we’ll find, Mr. Wang?” Ulla asked. She was focused on her flying and her brain was engaged there, but the stress of flying over to what we all thought was probably a huge tomb had her talking without thinking.

“I’m pretty sure we’ll find an Unwin Barbell class cargo hauler, Ms. Nart,” I said.

She snorted in amusement. “Judging from the looks,” she nodded at the rapidly closing hull, “I think you may be right, sar.”

We approached from the stern and passed along the port quarter. I looked out the starboard side of the boat and tried to get a look the engines as we slipped past. It was too dark back there to see much. The ambient light from Breakall’s primary didn’t provide that much illumination and the hull was angled away. Black shadows provided little information.

“Easy does it, Ms. Nart,” I said. “I’d like to get a good look at the ship’s skin.”

“Easy does it, aye, sar,” she said. The huge hull seemed to scrape by just outside the armor glass. We didn’t want to get close enough to leave paint or other valuable parts of our launch bruised onto the pitted surface.

I didn’t really know what I was looking for. I was still trying to figure out how this thing could be happening at all. Twenty billion credits of freighter didn’t just fly itself through the Deep Dark, and these vessels carried a lot of safeguards built into them. Why, then, was this great beast doing a good impression of a modern-day Flying Dutchman?

“Talk to me, Ishmael.” The captain’s voice came over my suit comm.

“Nothing to see here, Skipper. Hull is clear. No sign of puncture or fire damage. Mostly it’s just the can’s skin. Nothing stood out when we came by the stern. Nothing obvious on what I can see of the spine.”

Ulla knew her flying business and we settled into a position with zero delta velocity relative to the hull and just outside the Chernyakova’s port bridge wing. I layered on an optical magnifier and scanned the dark glass. I could just make out the flickering of bridge readouts and displays. I couldn’t see well enough to know what they were showing, but the flicker and glow was bright enough to show in the shadowy emptiness of the bridge.

“The bridge lights are off, but the displays appear to be active, Captain. I can’t see what they’re displaying but they’re on and displaying something.”

“Any signs of alerts or a warnings?” Mel’s voice sounded calm on the channel.

“Not that I can see. No red or white strobing lights. Nothing that looks like a flashing screen that I can see from this angle. Just looks like a quiet day in the bridge.”

The captain added, “Except with no people?”

I looked closely, trying to see if there were any moving shadows, any silhouettes moving between me and the light sources inside the bridge. “Correct, Captain. No people.”

“Ms. Nart?” the captain’s voice came over the launch radio. “Maneuver onto the top of the bridge and see if you can engage a locking clamp, if you would?”

“Aye, aye, Captain.” Ulla bit her lip and moved us ever so gently up and over the bridge. The ship’s wobble was apparent from this range. We couldn’t get too close to it without running the risk of a bump.

The locking clamp was a sort of magnet that held the launch down to a deck. The bridge roof wasn’t one of the approved strong points but if Ulla could get the magnet locked down, we could reel ourselves onto the top of the bridge and ride the wobbling hull.

Ulla used a joystick controller to maneuver the locking clamp closer to the ship but we weren’t quite close enough to engage the bridge roof. She looked at me and gave a dry swallow. “We’ll need to be closer, sar. Please check your belt. This could get bumpy.”

With one hand holding the clamp’s joy stick, she nudged thrusters with the other and we slipped another couple of meters closer to the wobbling freighter. It was nerve-wracking, drifting slowly, slowly, slowly down toward the behemoth under us, not really knowing if the hull would suddenly take a bad jink and slam up under our feet.

Without warning the launch dropped a solid two meters very fast, and I could almost hear the “chunk” sound as the locking clamp engaged . Suddenly we were riding a bobbing, weaving deck that almost seemed to have a life of its own.

Nart retracted the cable, which had the effect of pulling us down to the hull, and with a delicate touch, she fired off two more clamps from the middle and stern of the launch. It didn’t take long before we were nailed down and riding on the back of the dinosaur. I wasn’t sure I could stand up with all the motion on the ship, but after a few steps, it became almost second nature.

I headed for the launch’s little airlock aft. “We’re locked down, Captain,” I said on my suit comm. “I’m heading down to knock on the door.”

The helmet sealed around my ears and left me breathing too close to my face but breathing was the point, so I didn’t complain. A positive suit pressure test proved I had no open gaps in my gear and I started the small personnel lock through its cycle.

No matter how many times I cycled through a vacuum backed airlock, the effect of having the world go from normal to silent was always a bit disturbing. I could hear my body and the radio, and even the small machinery that made up the integrated life support system of the softsuit, but outside went from background noise to nothing. The outer door popped open. I felt the small click through the soles of my boots, but I didn’t hear a thing.

Protocol called for me to clip a safety line to the D-ring mounted just outside the airlock. If something happened, Nart could reel me in. I stepped out and pushed myself down to the weaving deck before shuffling to the back of the bridge. I got down on my belly and hoped that the bobbing and weaving hull wouldn’t throw me off. I leaned down over the edge and took my first direct look into the back of the bridge, upside down and all. I lay there for a few ticks, letting my eyes adjust to the light levels inside and watching for shadows.

One screen on the bridge was solid red. It took me a moment from my upside down perspective to see which one it was–Environmental. As my eyes adjusted to the view, I saw shapes–one on the deck near the OD’s station. Another at the helm station. They weren’t moving. Judging from the wet looking outline gleaming around the shape on the deck, they weren’t going to.

“Captain, I don’t think they’re going to be opening the door for us.”

I heard her sigh. “Thank you, Mr. Wang. Grab some images and get back here. We’ll file a report.”





Chapter Four

Breakall System:

2371-September-28


“Very well, ladies and gentleman,” the captain said, “what we know is sparse. What we have is a tragedy. We don’t know what kind of catastrophic failure they’ve had and we’ll need to be careful going in. For the record,” and she nodded to the log recorder on the table in front of us, “I have filed a formal salvage claim against the derelict vessel Chernyakova now lying three kilometers off our starboard bow. That claim has been acknowledged pending CPJCT validation, when and if we reach Breakall orbital. The authorities have been notified as to the condition of the ship. They already have a packet en-route with a forensics team. It won’t be here for another ten days, but we have been granted clearance to enter the hull pursuant to our claim of salvage.”

She paused then and looked around at us. There was a strong sense of ‘it-could-have-been-us’ around the table. The simple fact that the ship across the way was a Barbell, just like the Tinker, re-enforced that feeling. Having been through one near calamitous environmental failure underway myself, I was only too aware of how fragile the ships really were. Around the universe, clippers sailed trillions of kilometers every day, and while the safety record for the big ships was actually better than planet-side pedestrian travel, periodically one got lost or destroyed close enough to you that it mattered.

“Ms. Kazyanenko reports that there has been no response to hail, no distress call, and no sign of electronic emission since we’ve been here over the last twenty-four standard hours. Mr. Wang’s physical exploration of the bridge through the glass revealed no signs of life. The ship has been designated as abandoned under the Joint Committee rules, pending discovery of any living person aboard.”

She paused again to let that sink in. There was a possibility that somebody might be aboard, but too injured to get to the bridge. If that person were a member of the crew, then the ship’s status would depend on a Joint Committee hearing and our salvage claim went up for grabs. We stood to make a lot of money if we actually managed to pull off the salvage. We might lose a lot of money by delaying our cargo delivery at Breakall.

Fredi took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Our options are to sail on, to stand by and await the authorities, or to try to board the vessel and consummate the salvage claim.”

We all knew that there might be somebody aboard over there who needed help. We also knew that the twenty-four stans we’d been sitting off their port quarter represented one standard day of pain and suffering to anybody who might be still there. CPJCT regulations required us to wait that long before we could attempt to break into the ship on our own. We were rolling the dice with other people’s lives, but the Joint Committee had to protect a variety of interests and, in the light of the evidence, we had no probable cause for suspecting any ongoing emergency condition.

“Is your boarding team ready, Chief Engineer?” Fredi turned to look Mel in the eye.

“Aye, Captain. Hardsuits and tool kits. Let the record show that I have assigned Spec One Power Sondra Strauss and Machinist Christopher Marks to attempt to key the emergency lock on the after nacelle.”

“Thank you, Chief Engineer.” She turned to me. “Mr. Wang, I formally charge you with command of the salvage team in the name of Diurnia Salvage and Transport under the authority granted me by virtue of being captain of this vessel, and the long-standing rules and regulations of deep space salvage as outlined in the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade, Title Twelve, Section Seven. Do you understand your rights and responsibilities under that charge?”

“I do, Captain.”

“And do you agree to accept this charge?”

“I do, Captain.”

“Very well, Mr. Wang. Please state for the record your intentions.”

“As soon as is practically and legally feasible, I will convene a team consisting of the engineering crewmen previously named by Chief Engineer Menas along with Able Spacer Martin Udan and Spacer Apprentice James Belnus. We will use the ship’s launch to navigate to the emergency access lock in the engineering section of the Chernyakova. Assuming that the engineering team is successful in gaining access to the ship, my team will establish operational control of the vessel, stabilize its attitude and attempt to restore steerage way using ship’s engines, navigational thrusters and any other appropriate ship’s systems that might be available. We intend to render aid and assistance to any individuals found aboard, or failing to locate any living members of the crew, to consummate a good-faith claim of salvage in the name of Diurnia Salvage and Transport in as much as we are able to ascertain our legal standing with the information and understanding we currently possess.”

I rattled it off pretty smoothly. It sounded like I knew what I was doing, but the truth was that Mel, Fredi, and I had banged the whole thing out over dinner in the wardroom the previous evening. I actually read the points off my tablet to make sure I had all the correct legal bandiflage needed to cover our collective stern quarters from any charges of breaking and entering or piracy in deep space by trying to take over a ship that, technically, wasn’t ours to mess with.

“Thank you, Mr. Wang. You have my authority as captain to carry out your mission as outlined and ratified by this board consisting of the senior officers present in the area with names and ranks appended to the log record. This meeting is adjourned.”

She reached out and clicked the recorder off before looking around the table. “Now, we wait.”





Chapter Five

Breakall System:

2371-September-28


The launch felt a bit crowded with the six of us. The two engineering crew just locked their hardsuits to the decking along the center aisle. I was back in the softsuit but Udan and Belnus wore only emergency ship suits with extra air packs. The plan was for the engineers to cross first and establish a line connection. They wouldn’t open the lock until I was there as senior officer. The access would then technically be under my direct supervision and responsibility, thereby serving the legal niceties. It seemed an awkward dance, but with that much money–to say nothing of the legal liabilities should things go wonky on us–everybody followed the forms down to the letter.

Ulla remained quiet on the trip over. With the extra hardsuits and tools aboard, the launch probably handled about as nimbly as a brick in ice water and she proceeded with all due caution. It only took a few ticks to take up station directly astern of the Chernyakova and slightly above the huge, open mouths of her main engines. We didn’t want to be in line with those, even given the remote chance of their firing.

She had enough of an angle to shine an arc-light onto the hatch area. We were able to see the ship’s wobble as the spot stayed steady while the outline of the door wove a lopsided figure eight in the light.

“Ms. Strauss, Mr. Marks, you are cleared to debark and establish the line. I’ll follow you over on your signal.”

They said, “Aye, aye, sar,” almost in unison and then lumbered aft to the lock and had to cycle it twice to get both of them out.

“Hold the fort, Ulla,” I told her with a smile I didn’t really feel.

She smiled back and nodded once in agreement.

I cycled the lock and ran the suit check while I waited for it to allow me to enter. I could see Strauss and Marks using their suit thrusters to jet over to the stern of the ship, trailing safety lines just like in the exercises. By the time I’d cleared the lock and stuck my head out into the silence, they’d already clipped a line to the D-ring outside the hatch and I had a clear road from the launch to the hull.

I heard Ms. Strauss’s voice on the common working channel. “We’re secure on this end, sar.”

“On my way, Ms. Strauss.”

I deliberately and carefully clipped my own link to the safety line, securing a second line to the launch, just in case. The softsuit didn’t have any maneuvering jets but hand-over-hand along the line worked just fine in zero gee.

“We are at the lock, Captain,” I said on the common working channel.

“Proceed, Mr. Wang.” Fredi’s voice sounded calm and cool on the radio.

I turned to Marks and nodded my head inside the helmet. He smiled back and turned to the keypad next to the air lock. He had just started to attach his break-in tool to the locking mechanism when Strauss held up her hand to get his attention.

I could see the puzzled look on his face through his helmet as she made a little shooing motion. He backed off a bit to give her room.

She reached over and tapped a series of nine keys on the keypad.

The tattletale over the lock turned amber to indicate that the lock was cycling.

Strauss smiled and I heard her voice on the working channel. “Let the record show that the emergency access hatch responded to the default access code. We didn’t need to crack it.”

“Good thinking, Ms. Strauss,” the captain said.

We had already determined that the lock would only hold two of us by experimenting back on the Tinker. As the two senior staff, Strauss and I got first look so we slipped into the lock when the outer door finally admitted us. Strauss punched the button that would cycle us into the ship.

The inner door opened onto the Chernyakova’s hanger deck and their launch rested on its skids, locked down securely and, by extension, ruling out the idea that the crew might have abandoned ship that way. We shuffled out of the lock and I punched the cycle button while Strauss limbered up her atmosphere sniffer.

“We’re inside, Captain. The launch is here. No signs of trouble.” I hoped I didn’t sound as spooked as I felt. “The lights are on but there doesn’t seem to be anybody home.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wang.”

“Mr. Udan, Mr. Belnus, if you’d join us, we’ll begin our search.”

They responded on the working channel and I turned my attention to the hangar.

Strauss held her sniffer up so I could see the readings. The carbon dioxide was low, but hydrogen sulphide and methane were elevated. Apparently, the scrubbers worked but I was pretty sure I didn’t want to smell the air. We did a quick survey of the hangar while we waited for the rest of the party to join us.

Ms. Strauss used her local speakers to talk to me. “Could use a bit of a tidy, don’t you think, sar?”

Odd bits of trash and cast-off equipment littered the hanger and the deck itself was in need of a good swabbing. I shined my portable light back into the corners and looked under the belly of the launch.

I agreed with her. “I wouldn’t want to try to fly that out of here with all this flammable material in here.”

“Given how little of it is tied down, I suspect there’s no danger of fire.” Ms. Strauss said. “I bet as soon as you opened the big lock door, most of it would be swept out by the first blast.”

I measured the door and the space with my eyes. “Been a while since they’ve used this, Ms. Strauss?”

“Looks that way, sar.”

The lock popped open behind us. Mr. Udan and Mr. Belnus stepped onto the hanger deck in their softsuits. I saw them looking around uneasily. I knew the feeling.

In a couple of more ticks, the lock cycled again allowing Mr. Marks aboard.

“Salvage party now on the hangar deck, Captain. We are commencing our sweep.”

“Carry on, Mr. Wang.”

What followed was a nightmare. We found the crew. Most of them were where one might expect to find crew. Or at least where they’d have fallen. After the first few swollen corpses, we learned not to look too closely. There was nothing we could do for them. Even cleanup needed to wait until the forensics team arrived.

In the meantime, we did what we could to regain stability in the ship. It was a challenge. The ship looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in a stanyer. The watch standing consoles were smeared with dirt and grease in the engineering spaces. There were empty and near empty coffee cups, mess trays, and more odd bits of cloth and clothing than I had ever seen aboard a ship.

We used standby consoles and the emergency bridge connections in Engineering to stabilize the ship and begin a preliminary investigation. We needed to know what killed them before we could take off our suits and the clock was ticking. I led Mr. Udan and Mr. Belnus forward to survey the bridge while Ms. Strauss and Mr. Marks started up the extra consoles in engineering and began looking at the ship’s physical status.

The trip through the spine was difficult. I tried not to look too closely at what I had to walk around on the way. Hanging wires, broken ductwork, and the swollen body I had to step over didn’t make it easy to ignore my surroundings.

When we got to the bridge, I fired up an extra console at the forward end. We used that to establish a control link to engineering. It gave us a look at ship’s status and provided access to the logs and autopilot. In a matter of half a dozen ticks, automated station keeping jets damped down the bobbing and yawing so we didn’t have to worry quite as much about losing balance and falling on or in something unfortunate.

I sent Mr. Belnus to survey below decks and put Mr. Udan on bridge watch. While we were on ballistic trajectory–and while a corpse occupied the helm–there wasn’t much we could do except keep an eye open.

Ms. Strauss called on the working channel. “I think I found it, Mr. Wang. Scroll back in the gas mixture logs, sar.”

I pulled up the environmental logs and started scrolling back. The levels of methane and other gaseous by products of decomposing bodies showed clearely but I scrolled back almost to the point where the ship had gotten underway.

I saw the reading on the screen but I couldn’t believe it. “Carbon monoxide?”

“That’s what it looks like, sar. It’s gone now, but it’s in the record.”

I traced back more and followed the history forward. Shortly after getting underway, carbon monoxide spiked in the ship’s atmosphere. The levels were in the fatal range and the physical evidence around us reinforced the record.

“Why didn’t any of the alarms go off, sar?”

My fingers tapped the keys awkwardly in the heavy gloves but I persevered and brought up the alarm status. They were all red. “Sar? The environmental alarms are all shut off.”

“I see that, Ms. Strauss.”

Mr. Udan watched over my shoulder and saw the list. “How is that even possible, sar?”

“I don’t know, Mr. Udan. It’s like the sensor control unit is gone. The sensors are there. The system is recording, but the alarm circuits are not active." I thought about it for half a tick. “That’s a general systems module. See if you can find what caused the spike in carbon monoxide, Ms. Strauss. I’ll go check the systems closet.”

“Aye, aye, sar.” Her voice sounded distracted over the radio. “Maybe I can find the lead sensor in the data stream.”

The data closet on Barbells was tucked under the bridge ladder. I left Mr. Udan on lookout and made my way down. It was the twin to the one on the Tinker and it took me only a moment to find the correct cabinet. When I pulled out the drawer, the gap in components was obvious. The slot that should have held the subsystem for managing alarm routings was empty. In its place was the red maintenance card required whenever a component was pulled for maintenance. Scrawled on the face was a date–July 21, 2371–and some initials. They’d been flying without alarms for almost two months. The sensors all worked. The systems recorded the readings, but when the readings reached critical stages, the interface that should trigger the ship’s alarm system wasn’t there to respond to the signal.

It was an appalling breach of safety protocols.

On a hunch I went down the passage to the spares closet and pulled open the door. It wasn’t completely empty, but very nearly so. On the Tinker we had a spare for every single component in the data closet, along with some spare racks and odd bits. I had never tried to do it, but when I’d been systems officer, I’d made sure we had all the parts we needed to rebuild the closet from the bulkheads out in case of emergency.

The nearly empty closet in front of me was frightening.

I opened the general communications channel and called to Ms. Strauss. “Find the source yet, Ms. Strauss?”

“Yes, sar. A smoldering burn in a pile of castoffs in a corner of the engine room. Looks like an electrical spark from a broken lamp. The timing is consistent with kicker burn on their push out of Breakall.”

“Check the fire detection systems, please?”

“Doing it now, sar.” There was a pause. “Yes, they detected the smoke, but the heat signature was below threshold.”

“Any indication of how long it burned, Ms. Strauss?”

“Looks like about three days, sar. Fire system reset then and that’s consistent with the peak carbon monoxide readings.” There was another pause. “Their systems detected it. Why didn’t they respond?”

“There were no alarms.”

“Yes, sar, but the watch standers should have seen the readings.”

“Which watch standers, Ms. Strauss?”

“Environmental and engineering both registered it on the logs, sar.”

“How long between the time the fire started and the carbon monoxide reached critical levels, Ms. Strauss?”

I waited for her to check the logs. “Looks like about eight or nine stans, sar.”

“Check the watch logs. They had to have had a change in duty during that time. Did they note anything?” I headed up to the bridge and crossed to where Mr. Udan had the extra console running. He had heard the exchange on the working channel, of course, and stepped back so I could access the terminal.

“Looks like the first signs showed up just before they secured from navigation stations, sar. The readings were elevated but there’s no note in the logs.”

I scrolled back in the OD logs and found the bridge records. “None up here, either, Ms. Strauss. Was there anything at the watch change?” I scrolled forward and saw only routine entries.

“Found it, sar. ‘Elevated CO noted. Sensors flagged for malfunction.’”

I shook my head to myself. “There’s nothing in the bridge logs. If they notified the bridge, it didn’t get noted.”

The circuit got quiet. I don’t know what the others were thinking but I was imagining what must have followed. Around the ship, crew would have started falling into a final sleep as the carbon-monoxide gas built up in their bodies. Some of them probably had headaches. They might have noticed some blurry vision. Given the number of people we’d found in their bunks, only the few watch standers might have been in a position to make a difference. Environmental and Engineering watch standers would have been the first to succumb as the heavy gas pooled in the stern nacelle. It wouldn’t have taken long for the environmental systems to pump the forward section full of deadly gas as well. I wondered if the body in the ship’s spine might have been the messenger sent aft to find out why nobody back there was responding.

I shook off the images and fired up the command circuit. I needed to let Fredi know what I’d found. I stood at the front of the bridge facing forward.

The coldness of the Deep Dark seemed clean.





Chapter Six

Breakall System:

2371-October-02


The forensics team asked us to chill the ship down to just above freezing to “help preserve the evidence.” Enough time had elapsed that the "evidence" was pretty far beyond “preserving” so we lived in our suits when aboard. We also used the thrusters to turn the ship. While we were still on a ballistic trajectory, the course curved inward and toward the investigative team racing out to meet us.

Four days after turning the ship, we rendezvoused. Their ship was a fast packet in the twenty metric kiloton range and they boarded by the simple expedient of docking with us nose-to-nose. That allowed us to use the main locks on both ships and walk between them. I was at the brow to meet the team when we cycled the locks. Both ships had breathable air, but we didn’t want to contaminate theirs with what we knew ours must smell like.

When the lock opened a team of six professional looking individuals wearing black softsuits stepped out. The suits had the Confederated Planets logo on the breast and the letters TIC across the back

I was impressed. The Trade Investigation Commission was the big dog in the enforcement arm. More often than not it was the TIC that sent in the marines. They looked like salvation to me. These folks did not mess about, brooked no hanky-panky, and knew their business–and everybody else’s–inside and out.

The leader of the TIC Team waited patiently for me to track onto his face. “You are Acting-Captain Ishmael Wang?”

“I am.”

“I’m Field Agent James Waters representing the CPJCT Investigatory Commission. We request permission to come aboard to offer aid and assistance to you and your crew under the terms of the Emergency Relief Clause of Title Twelve and also to begin securing available evidence pursuant to our investigation of the death of the crew. We further stipulate that we recognize that you and your crew are operating in good faith to safeguard the vessel and that evidence to the best of your abilities–pending any evidence to the contrary which we may uncover–and that you have successfully consummated a claim of salvage against this vessel, its cargo, and relevant appurtenances pending adjudication by the appropriate legal authorities.”

Obviously this guy practiced the speech. I couldn’t imagine that he did it often enough that he’d be able to just rattle it off like that.

“Permission granted, Agent Waters. Welcome aboard and I’m glad to have you.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wang. We’ll begin with a survey of the ship, dump out the computer data cores, and begin retrieval of the remains. This is likely to be uncomfortable and unpleasant. If you’d like to send your people over to the Pertwee, you’re welcome to use our facilities.”

“Thanks. We’ve been shuttling crew between here and the Tinker, but it’s still been a long and trying few days.”

He nodded before giving a hand signal and the whole, black-suited lot of them tromped into the ship.

It took them a surprisingly short time to clean up the bodies. One of the Pertwee’s holds was turned into a morgue and their team included two coroners. Within a day, they’d removed the bodies, copied the computer cores, taken photographs of much of the ship, and even cleaned up a lot of the more unfortunate by-products. We all gave depositions about what we’d found and walked a team of examiners through our boarding process–explaining what we’d touched, where we’d looked, and what we’d found.

When it was over Agent Waters invited me to the Pertwee and we shared a cup of coffee on their mess deck. It felt good to peel back the softsuit a bit and breath real air. I’d had a few hours out of the suit back on the Tinker over the previous couple of days but I was feeling a bit worse for wear and had some ‘suit chafe’ in places it didn’t bear to think too long about.

“You’ve done well, Mr. Wang. Are you going to be able to take the ship in from here?”

“I think so. The Tinker has a crate of spares for us. We know what mistakes the previous crew made. We won’t be making them.”

“We cleaned up what we could, but that’s not going to be a pleasant ship to ride in,” he said with a rueful smile.

I sighed. “Yes, I’m sure. Is there anything you need us to safeguard?”

He shook his head. “We took samples and swabs of everything. This really looks like a simple case of carelessness. It’s too circumstantial to be foul play. Everything on this ship is held together with baling wire and spit. Even their food stores are barely up to regulation.”

“We noted that, too. There’s plenty to get the few of us back to Breakall, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be heading out into the Deep Dark with so little food.”

Agent Waters snorted.“Or spares, or tankage, or anything else.”

“Were they that broke?” I asked.

He shrugged. “If I knew, I wouldn’t be able to tell you, but it looks like a shoestring operation that just ran off the end of its string.”

We sat there for a moment and then he stood. “Well, Mr. Wang, I’ll let you get back to your ship. I need to follow up with the investigative staff.” He grimaced. “If it’s any consolation to you, I’ll be filling out reports all the way back.”

I grinned and stood up myself. “I’d almost be willing to trade you, Agent Waters. This is going to be a long three weeks.”

I pulled my suit back around me and buttoned it up.

Agent Waters looked at me strangely. “The air is breathable in there.”

“Yes, but we’re going to change out the air and reload it to try to purge some of the smell.”

“Good luck with that. It’ll help some, and I’d recommend you keep the ambient temperature way down. It’ll help control the smell.”

I nodded my thanks and headed back to the locks. It took only a couple of ticks to cycle through to the Chernyakova. We released the latches and the Pertwee used her maneuvering thrusters to pull back and fall off to starboard. We set about clearing as much of the smell as we could.

Fredi sent over a replacement circuit board so we were able to get alarms back online. With just the five of us as a skeleton crew, we were going to be relying on automated systems a good deal. We vented the tainted air and refilled the ship with a clean mixture that was clear of methane and the other gaseous byproducts of decomposition. We used the depressurization process to test the alarm circuits. They triggered correctly when the hull pressure dropped. They also put up a proximity alarm because we were sailing so close to the Tinker.

I was on the bridge with Mr. Belnus and Mr. Marks when the hull pressure stabilized. We looked at each other, nobody wanting to be the first to take off the helmet and breath ship’s air. As ranking officer, I did the only thing I could do and pulled the seal on my suit. The cold ship air rushed in carrying a whiffy carrion odor that I won’t try to describe. It wasn’t enough to make me retch, but I had to swallow a couple of times.

Mr. Belnus and Mr. Marks followed my lead. They both made faces but kept control.

“Let’s get some cleaning gear up here and scrub down the bridge with something strong and chemical smelling, gentlemen.” I blinked my eyes against the odor. “And maybe we should do that first.”

Mr. Belnus headed for the cleaning locker below decks and returned shortly with sponges and buckets of hot water with a resinous smelling soap so strong that it pinched the lining of my nose. We all leaned close to the buckets and took lungs full of the moist air. It helped a little. After a fast hour’s washdown of the bridge, the smell wasn’t entirely gone, but the resin soap gave it a run for its money.

I left the deck ratings to finish putting away the cleaning gear, and made my way aft to check on engineering. By the time I got there, the odor didn’t bother me so much. Perhaps the proximity to the scrubbers made a difference, or perhaps my nose got numbed to the stimulation.

I found Strauss and Marks working in the engineroom.

“This place is filthy, sar.”

I looked around and had to agree. “The bridge was a little better but obviously they didn’t place much value in cleanliness, Ms. Strauss.”

Mr. Marks sighed. “It was worth their lives, sar. Too bad they valued that so little.”

That was a sobering thought. Like we needed any more somber thoughts. He had the right of it. If the pile of rubbish hadn’t been there, it couldn’t have caught fire. Of course, if they hadn’t shorted themselves on the spares, the ship would have alerted them to their danger. Looking around once more, I grabbed a sweep and started to help clear the trash and other detritus.

It took us a couple of stans to get the ship clean enough to start up the sail and keel generators to get underway. The ship responded well enough and the Tinker led us into the gravity well acting as escort and warning. We operated with a skeleton crew, and while the Emergency Relief clauses of Title Twelve allowed for it–better to have some crew than none–we were unable to keep up the normal watch rotation required for a vessel of the Chernyakova’s class.

The watch stander merry-go-round went at a blinding pace as we traded watch-and-watch around the clock. Ms. Strauss and Mr. Marks handled engineering while Mr. Udan and Mr. Belnus traded off on the bridge. Every twelve stans I’d relieve one or the other to give each pair a chance to sleep a little bit.

Meals were catch-as-catch-can. I usually tried to have something warm and pungent on the stove as often as I could. The general lack of cleanliness extended to the mess deck and galley, making even that an extended chore.

We found enough unstained mattresses to outfit five bunks in Deck berthing and piled all the stained and damaged ones in Engineering. It was a small help but over time even the smallest improvements added up.

After a couple of days of having to clean everything we wanted to use, we had cleared enough of the mess that we could at least function without having to undo the neglect of the late crew. By then we were all so tired–and so used to the smell–we didn’t notice it any more, but I knew it would stay with me for a long, long time.





Chapter Seven

Breakall Orbital:

2371-October-31


I had expected that once we docked, it would be a simple matter of shutting down the ship and turning it over to the authorities for disposition. In hindsight that was a silly assumption on my part. Docking went smoothly and the shore ties allowed us to secure most of the power and propulsion systems but a ship like the Chernyakova is never unattended. Until we could arrange for a caretaker service, we were caught doing it ourselves.

Then there was the small matter of the ongoing investigation.

The TIC people were professional and they were thorough. They were also adamant that we should remain with the ship until they’d gone through the entire vessel one more time. I walked Agent Waters and his team through the ship again, showing them what areas we’d cleaned up and which we hadn’t. The contrasts were striking.

I escorted them back off the ship and he stopped me at the lock. “Mr. Wang, we recognize that your part in this is to claim the prize money for your company and that you have no connection to whatever else is going on here. Nothing that you’ve done or said changes that and it will be in my official report. It may take us a couple of days to get this cleared up, but it will be cleared up.”

I left him there conferring with a group of black-suited agents while I headed for Deck berthing and a bunk. Fredi had loaned me a few more hands so we had enough people to watch the lock and keep the coffee pot full. The ship had no operational mission, and my sole purpose aboard was to safeguard the salvage claim until the authorities let us turn it over to caretaker services.

In the mean time, I had about three weeks worth of sleep to catch up on.

After the long, grinding run in from the Burleson limit, the three days in Breakall seemed almost idyllic. True, none of us could leave the ship. At least not for long. TIC did let us go out to dinner—accompanied by a discreet field agent. The Tinker ran short-handed, but they picked up a couple of locals and the skipper filled in as OD, so it wasn’t too desperate. I just hoped that we’d see the prize money from the effort relatively quickly and that it would have been worth it.

On the morning of November 7th, the TIC had gleaned what they needed from the ship and I signed the papers that relinquished the ship to the company lawyers. I had no idea whether the Chernyakova would go to the breaker’s yard or would be put up for sale. The insurance companies in at least three systems were already screaming bloody murder, and given what I’d seen staining the decking, they had the right of it.

After the last affidavit had been signed, witnessed, notarized, blessed, and paid for, the five of us remaining from the prize crew were finally free to walk about the dock. Of course, the first thing we did was shoulder our kits and head back to the Tinker.

Walking through the lock again was like coming home. As much fun as it was to have the whole ship to ourselves, the Chernyakova never seemed like much more than a hull to me. We spent a lot of time on her, but ultimately, I didn’t really have anything personally invested in her, except survival. The Tinker was home, and I was ready to go home. I wanted to try to wash off some of the odor that still lingered. I wondered if I’d ever feel clean again.

As I stood there feeling the warm glow, Ulla Nart welcomed me aboard. “The captain’s compliments, sar, and she asked if you’d report to the cabin at your earliest convenience.”

“Thank you, Ms. Nart. That was her message? ‘Earliest convenience?’”

“Yes, sar.”

“If you’d let the captain know that I’m on my way?”

I didn’t stop for acknowledgment. It wasn’t unusual for the captain to summon me upon my return and I had hoped to spend some decompression time with her. In Officer Speak, ‘Earliest Convenience’ was a special phrase. Like most polite contrivances, it didn’t mean what it said. I hustled my buns to officer country and was knocking on the cabin’s door frame in less than half a tick.

“Ishmael Wang reporting as requested, Captain.”

“Come in, Mr. Wang. You can leave the door open. You’re leaving again.” She held out her tablet and used it to send a document to me.

I dropped my duffel on the deck to free a hand so I could look at it. It was an invitation to sit for Captain and I was due at the CPJCT offices on Breakall in less than a stan. “Captain?”

“Talk later, foolish man. I was beginning to think those TIC people weren’t going to let you go in time. You need a decent shower, a good shave, a pressed set of khakis, and your ID. You need to be there in 30 ticks. Go.” She snapped the orders with her usual efficiency of communication and a gentle smile.

I went.

In spacer terms, half a stan is twenty ticks more than you need to shower, shave, and skin into a fresh uniform. Eleven ticks after leaving the cabin, I was leaving the ship again and walking deliberately–not running–to the lift. The CPJCT offices were on the oh-one deck opposite the lift. They owned the station but kept a low profile with a discreet presence and a modest sign. Unless you needed them, you’d never see them.

I skidded into the lift and stood outside the office door with time to spare. I checked my uniform in the reflection of the glass and smoothed a bit of wet hair. I had no idea how the invitation had been wangled but it had been. I didn’t even think about whether or not I wanted to sit for the exam. Unlike the Mate’s exam, the Captain’s exam was by invitation only.

You could sit for Mate once you had the requisite time in grade and thought that you knew your stuff. You only needed to attend one of the periodic exam sessions and take the test. They were often proforma events, not too fraught with formality. You paid the fee, you took the test, they gave you the ticket–or not.

The Captain’s exam was different. There was a minimum time in grade, of course, but captains were not part of the normal test rotation. The Captain’s exam occurred when ever somebody was invited.

There were forms and fees that needed to be filled out and paid, and I suspected the not-so-frail hand of Frederica DeGrut held the spoon that stirred that particular pot. The CPJCT then convened a panel of not fewer than three ‘Licensed Captains in Good Standing.’ I understood that most captains deemed it an honor to be selected for a board but it took a fair amount of valuable time away from their normal duties to pass judgment on the invited first mate.

Before I could face the panel, I had to pass the written test covering law, navigation, accounting, engineering, and more. It was all in there–over a decade’s worth of experience and expertise–distilled down to a few hours of test taking. A smiling, smartly dressed clerk showed me to the testing room, had me verify my identity against that on record, and waved me to my seat.

“This first exam is three stans, Mr. Wang. At the end of that time, or when you finish, there is an intermission of one stan where you may get something to eat, refresh yourself, or otherwise make ready for a similar period to follow. Upon completion of the second half, you will be finished for the day. Your results will be transmitted to the Board of Captains. After review of the record, they may or may not summon you to an Examination within one standard day. Do you understand the process, Mr. Wang?”

“I do.”

“Do you grant permission for the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade, represented by the designated Examination staff on Breakall Orbital, to release your confidential records to the Board of Captains for the purposes of determining your suitability to achieve the rank of Captain in Good Standing?”

“I do.”

“Thank you, Mr. Wang, and good luck.”

The testing screen in front of me lit up. I never heard the door close behind me when the clerk left the room.

A little more than two and half stans later, the screen went dark. I smiled to myself remembering other tests and the feeling of surfacing from a deep pool. I sat back in the chair and scrubbed my eyes with my fingers. It felt good.

The door opened behind me and the same clerk ushered me out. “There are a couple of nice restaurants just below us on the oh-two deck, Mr. Wang. If you’d like to go stretch your legs, grab a bite.”

I thanked him and headed off for a light meal. I happened to have been on Breakall once or twice in the last few stanyers and I knew where I could find a plate of bacon and eggs with my name on it. Cholesterol and fat have a place in one’s diet. My body let me know that I could no longer ignore the amount of said dietary delights I could consume, but after the previous few weeks, I felt I’d earned a bit of leeway.

Lunch didn’t take long, and at the appointed time, I dived deep into the exam pool once more. Second half, same as the first. I have no idea what was in either of them–only that the questions spooled out in front of me and my answers disappeared into the machine. When it went dark again, I knew it was over and I felt done in.

The friendly clerk fetched me from the cubical and showed me to the door. “That concludes the written exam, Mr. Wang. The results and your records will be transmitted to the designated Board of Captains and they may, at their discretion, summon you to an Examination. They are bound to make that summons and convene the Examination within the next twenty-four standard hours. Do you understand, Mr. Wang?”

“I do.”

“Then good luck, Mr. Wang.”

I headed back to the ship. I didn’t know if I had passed or not. The written exam was a fig-leaf offered to potential captains. They wouldn’t tell me if I passed or not in order to save face should the Board of Captains determine that my record wasn’t sufficient to warrant promotion. I could at least tell myself that I flunked the written portion.

The captain’s traditional summons was waiting for me when I got back to the ship. As tired as I was, it felt good to spend a quiet evening aboard in the company of my friends.





Chapter Eight

Breakall Orbital:

2371-November-09


The Summons to Examination came just after 0800. The Tinker was still trying to settle into a watch rotation that had been all but destroyed by the disruptions of the previous weeks. Watch standers are resilient but, in the face of too much change, the watch standing merry-go-round has a tendency to wobble. I was due for the overnight OD watch starting at 1800. I was pretty sure I’d be back in time. I only hoped I’d be able to stay awake for the whole thing. In the meantime, there was this small matter of the Summons.

“Dress for this one,” Fredi had advised. “Wear the full kit.”

“You think it’ll impress ’em?”

“Not as much as not dressing up would.” She grinned. “That kind of impression you don’t want to make.”

“Good point. Have you been tapped to sit on any Boards, Captain?”

She just smiled. “I’m sworn to secrecy. Part of the deal.”

“What do you think my chances are?”

She looked me up and down. “I’m biased, but I think you’d make a fine captain.” She looked me in the eye with a wicked grin and twinkle combination before adding. “Someday.”

“Someday?” I almost choked. She could still surprise me.

“Keeping you humble, Mr. Wang.” She turned serious. “It’s yours to lose, I think. Be yourself. Don’t let them lead you down any roads you don’t want to go.”

“Thanks, Captain.”

“If I didn’t think you could do it, I wouldn’t have put you up.”

“Wow, they acted fast.”

“Not really.” She made an apologetic face. “I put you up in the Spring. They’re just getting around to it now.”

For some reason, that made me feel better. I was still tense. Making captain was one of the Big Deals in a spacer’s life. Not everyone wanted it. Not everyone who wanted it, got it. At thirty-eight, I wasn’t the youngest candidate, but I was still on the low edge of the curve. If this board passed me over, I could be renominated in a few months.

“Scoot. They’ll expect you to be early.”

I scooted.

The Summons was to the same office that I’d taken the test in the day before. The same clerk welcomed me with a smile and ushered me down the passage to a small waiting room in the back. The space was done up nicely–formal without feeling stuffy, comfortable without looking lived in.

He showed me to a chair just outside the conference room door. “The Board will convene shortly, Mr. Wang. Please wait here until they call you in.”

Over the stanyers in the Deep Dark waiting was one thing I’d gotten much better at. I’d learned how to drop into a kind of trance while waiting. It wasn’t like I could check out completely, but waiting became a kind of Zen. I’d learned to be in the moment so that the moment could move me along. Anticipating when the waiting might end made me more aware of the slow and awful passage of time.

The door to the conference room opened and Field Agent Waters stepped out. I almost didn’t recognize him without the black TIC jump suit. He wore dress khakis with gold captain’s stars. “Nice to see you again, Mr. Wang.”

“Nice to see you, too, Captain Waters.”

“Please come in and meet the board.” He held the door open for me and closed it after us.

The man and woman inside wore dress khakis as well and were refilling coffee mugs from a carafe on the side board. They looked up as the door closed, and both of them gave me a frankly appraising look. It wasn’t hostile or even confrontational. More like a “so, this is the man behind the file” look.

“Captain Susan Zee of the Astrolabe, First Mate Ishmael Wang from the William Tinker.” Waters did the honors and Captain Zee extended her hand.

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Wang.” Her voice was a rich alto and her hand was smooth and strong.

“I hope my file wasn’t too boring, Captain.”

“Boring. No. Not the word I’d have used.” Her face had a friendly smile but I felt that she kept a bit in reserve.

“Long is the word I’d have used,” the man standing beside her said and held out his hand.

“Captain Brandon Gamblin of the clipper Chthulu, may I present First Mate Ishmael Wang.”

“Captain Gamblin.”

“Your jacket is rather extensive, Ishmael. You’ve done a lot.” His collar showed the silver star of senior captain and he had the steady look of a man who’d been around. I’d seen the look before.

I grabbed a mug of coffee so I’d have something to do with my hands, and we settled around the conference table. Nobody sat at the head of the table, but they sat on one side and I sat on the other.

Captain Zee started with, “So, tell us, Ishmael, why did you decide to sign onto the Lois McKendrick?”

We started precisely at 0900 and I don’t remember much about the next six stans. I do remember that at 1200 an orderly opened the door, wheeled in a cart-based buffet and we continued to talk over lunch. The conversation never felt forced or hostile. At times it was jocular and others serious. It was always focused on me. What did I do? Why did I do it? What was I thinking? Do I think I was right? What might I have done differently?

Walking out of the office at 1500, my dress uniform felt damp across the small of my back, and I was exhausted, but also jubilant. They’d gotten me to remember things I’d forgotten–some good, some not–but really all things that were part of me, things that contributed to making me whatever I was.

Pass or fail, it had been a great conversation. I only wish I’d learned more about them.





Chapter Nine

Diurnia Orbital:

2372-January-08


The return to Diurnia was uneventful and the return to normal operations a relief. The watch stander merry-go-round lost its wobble and regained its smooth, machine-like precision as we followed the long trail back from Breakall and the old grooves re-asserted themselves. As we secured the ship in its dock, I could almost feel it shifting gears to the more relaxed cycle of port duty.

Being in port was no less a merry-go-round, but the off-duty portions provided opportunities to get off the horse and stretch one’s metaphorical legs in ways the being underway couldn’t. This change could be both good and bad. I found myself contemplating my delayed return to what my wife would deem “real life.” If I was going to be honest with myself, I had to admit she had a point about my being a spacer. Not for the first time, I wondered just how fair this situation was to either of us.

“Secure from navigation detail, Ms. D’Heng.” Fredi’s voice cut across my reverie and returned me to the immediate needs of the ship. She waited for Charlotte to finish making the announcement before she turned to me. “You may declare liberty at your discretion, Mr. Wang. I believe first section has the watch.”

“Aye, aye, Captain. Please make the announcement, Ms. D’Heng.”

Charlotte finished the announcements and the bridge crew began turning their terminals to standby , standing up, stretching and flexing after sitting in the same place for the better part of four stans.

“Excellent work, everybody. Enjoy your liberty.” Fredi’s voice was clear above the rising murmur of the bridge crew preparing to leave. She turned to me with her bright smile. “If you’d join me in the cabin when you’re free here, Ishmael?”

“Of course, Captain.”

With a final nod she headed down the ladder, uncorking the bottle and letting the rest of the crew exit the bridge in good–if rapid–order.

I took a moment to drop a note to Jen before heading down. My traditional message on return was a brief “Honey? I’m home.” It was a kind of joke between us. I added, “Sorry, I’m late. The rush hour traffic was murder.”

It wasn’t the first time I’d used that phrase, although I had to explain it to her the first time I did. Apparently “rush hour” was an unknown concept on Diurnia. Population densities and worker distributions did not contribute to a mass daily migration of labor during relatively short periods of the work day. It was equally foreign on the Orbitals and out in the Deep Dark. We’d had rush hours on Neris and Port Newmar. My traditional spousal greeting upon return was actually something my mother used to say when she’d come back from teaching and announce to our small apartment at large, “Honey? I’m home.”

I hadn’t thought of her for months. Twenty stanyers later, thinking of her and her death could still catch me like a punch in the gut sometimes. I stood there on the darkened bridge and looked through the armor glass to port and starboard–admiring the bright livery of the ships nuzzled up to the locks. I wondered what she’d have thought of it all.

I wasn’t in any hurry to leave the bridge. I had the first watch and wouldn’t be able to get off the ship before 1800. We docked just before 1000 so I had plenty of time to get stuff picked up. I’d also have all evening and the next day to make it up to Jen. It was good to be back on the Tinker, and good to be docked. It was an odd feeling. Twenty stanyers since I’d first signed on and I still looked forward to each trip. I remembered wondering if I’d like it well enough to do it as a career when I first started out. It was a legitimate concern, but from the bridge of the Tinker looking aft down the spine and back across two decades, it felt like the right decision.

With a sudden pang, I wondered if marrying Jen had been.

I gave myself a shake and headed down the ladder for the cabin. Fredi looked up as I stood in the threshold. “Thank you for coming, Ishmael.”

“My pleasure, Captain.”

It was true. We’d grown close over the stanyers since she’d taken on the mantle of captain. I’d worked my way up through the officer ranks right here on this ship under her amazingly insightful mentorship. She had the greatest of skill in knowing when to kick my butt and when to pat my back. I remembered a few times when she had done both. The thought made me grin.

She sat at her desk, lounging comfortably in the chair. Many of her mannerisms were birdlike and quick–the way she cocked her head to look at something, or to think about what she saw. She had a kind of "look with the left eye, look with the right" motion. When she sat, though, she didn’t perch. In that she was more catlike. Occupying a chair like it was built for her and her alone and she would make herself comfortable in it, thank you very much.

I wasn’t the only one feeling thoughtful by the look of it. Fredi had a kind of speculative, far away look in her eye and held the owl whelkie I’d given her so many stanyers before in one hand.

“Have a seat, Ishmael.” She nodded at the chair.

I sat but I was beginning to get a little concerned. This was not like her. We often had little chats about all kinds of things, especially after a voyage. I’d never known her to look so wistful.

“What’s going on, Fredi?”

She sighed and looked me directly in the eye. “I’m retiring, Ishmael.”

“Retiring? As in leaving the Tinker?”

She half closed her eyes and gave a little sideways shrug. “Those two things are more or less related, yes. I suspect the company would object if I stopped working for them and still lived aboard.”

“But why?”

She gave a small chuckle. “Because it’s time, my friend. I was ready to retire more than a decade ago. Even before we won the ship back from Burnside. I’ve been putting it off until I thought the time was right.”

“And the time is right now?”

She gave a small but emphatic nod. “It is indeed.” She took a medium sized envelop from the top drawer of her desk. The color, shape, and weight screamed ‘official.’ She tossed it onto my side of the desk “Congratulations.”

The envelope was from the CPJCT, if the printed cover was any indication, and it was addressed to me.

“An envelope?”

Fredi grinned. “In some ways they’re old fashioned.” She pointed to a framed certificate above her desk. “They do have the electronic records, of course, but they send a paper one, duly signed and sealed.”

I opened the envelope and pulled a Master’s License from it. It was heavy. The paper wasn’t really paper but some kind of flexible plastic. It looked like paper and it made me eligible to be captain on any space going vessel up to and including 500 metric kilotons, pursuant to appropriate certifications and endorsements.

I stared at it for several long heartbeats–reading and re-reading, running my fingers across the surface. The letters felt slightly textured, actually embossed onto the surface.

Fredi sat there the whole time, watching me and smiling.

Something in the way she sat there, something in her face, told me that she wasn’t finished. “Thank you. How did you know what it was?”

“Lucky guess, and they don’t send the rejections in physical envelopes. This was waiting for us when we docked but I had a tweet from a little bird before we left Breakall. You did a great job out there, Ishmael.”

I warmed at her praise.

“Change of command will happen at noon. Mr. Maloney will be here to do the honors.”

My mind raced as I considered the implications of the Master’s License in my hand and the opening in the Diurnia Salvage and Transport’s roster of captains.

“Ishmael?”

I looked up.

“You’re not going to be offered the Tinker.” She said it gently like she was breaking bad news.

“Of course not, Fredi. This too nice a berth for a junior captain, but Maloney must have offered it to one of the other skippers in the fleet and maybe I’ll get the one they’re leaving.”

She snorted a short laugh. “I should have known. You were always the practical one.” She paused as something occurred to her. “Mostly.”

“Do you think he’ll offer me the empty slot?”

“I recommended that he give you this one, to tell you the truth. Plum job or not, you’ve earned it and having you step up provides some continuity in the command structure.”

I considered this bit of news and shook my head. “Geoff Maloney is too practical for that. No matter what he thinks of you or me, he’s got twelve other Captains to manage.”

“Almost his exact words.”

“Is he going to offer me the open slot?”

She caught my eyes in hers. “Yes, but you’re not obligated to take it.”

“Not take it?” That comment surprised me. “Why would I not take it?”

“Not all promotions are a step up.”

“What? You think tractor captain isn’t as good a job as first mate on a Barbell?”

She barked another short laugh. “You always tickle me with your ability to analyze these problems.” She looked down as the whelkie in her fingers. “No, skippering a tractor is a great first berth for a new captain. They get lots of hands-on skippering practice, not a lot of freight at risk at any given time, and a small crew to aggravate–should it come to that.” She looked up at me again. “But you know from hard won personal experience that some berths are more challenging than others.”

That was the first lesson I learned on the Tinker and Fredi knew it well. I knew what was coming next. “Agamemnon.” It wasn’t a question.

Her eyebrows gave a little bob in acknowledgment and she confirmed it. “Agamemnon.”

I took a deep breath and looked down at the fresh Master’s License still cupped in my hands. “Did he say why?” I asked without looking up.

“No, but I can guess. Delman’s been skipper there for the last six stanyers. He’s been a good corporate soldier and taken what Maloney has thrown his way.”

“None of the more senior captains wanted to move up?”

She ticked them off on her fingers. “From the tankers, only Sylvia Franklin is senior to Delman and those Manchester tankers are too comfy compared to this.” She waved a hand in the air, indicating the sumptuous captains quarters. “Besides, the tankers have small crews without being shorthanded, she’s got a good relationship with her first mate, and they’re making out like bandits on the triangle trade between Diurnia, Welliver, and Jett.”

She made good points. The Manchester ships were nice to sail in and the tanker trade in lox, liquid nitrogen, and salt water made that crew so rich, they joked about buying out Maloney and going solo.

At least, I think it was a joke.

“Yeah, okay. What about Steve Baxter on the Perseus?”

“He won’t leave Perseus without Jimmy March and Mel’s not stepping down just yet, so there’s no slot here for Jimmy as chief engineering officer.”

“And everybody else is junior to Delman?”

“Yeah, Theseus, Hector, and Ajax all turned over in the last four stanyers. Tractor captains don’t usually stay tractor captains for long. A fact you should remember.” She gazed at me with lowered brows and a serious expression. “You should also remember that they turn over regularly, and that both Avery and Smertz are not that far from retiring themselves. You could do worse than to stay here under Delman and try for one of those slots when the time comes.”

I thought about that for a few heartbeats. “True, but Maloney will have to give the Ellis to somebody with a lot higher profile than me. That’s practically his private yacht. Skipper there is a pure prestige job and the shares have to be miserable.”

She laughed again at that. “My friend, you have a higher profile than Avery ever thought of. Geoff Maloney owes you for what you’ve done here and he knows it. He’ll owe you a lot more if the salvage hearings ever get around to granting our claim. You’d be surprised by the size of those shares, I think.”

I thought about it for just two heartbeats. “No, I’m not a taxi driver. I don’t think he’d offer it to me and I’m not sure I’d take it if he did. And Smertz has the City of Granby. I’d be in the same position then as now. First mate on a Barbell looking to move up won’t be offered command of a tanker while there are senior captains who might take it. It’ll be the same game of musical chairs but with different ships.”

“True, but maybe it wouldn’t be the Agamemnon.”

She made a good point with that.

She pressed on. “What will Jen say?”

“About my being captain?”

“Yes.”

I lowered my chin to my chest and closed my eyes. I could imagine only too well what Jen would say.

“She wants me to give up being a spacer and settle down.”

“I know. What would you do?”

I took a deep breath and looked up again. “I don’t know. Maybe be a cargo broker. I know the biz and I know a few people. Carmichael and Farnam are always looking for people.”

“Ever wonder why?”

I gave a little shrug. “No. I know why.”

She didn’t push it, a gesture for which I was heartily grateful. “Well, Mr. Maloney will be here around 1130. Delman will be with him. Change of command will be at noon.” She looked up at the chrono. “You got about a stan to think about things before it all starts hitting the fan. Why don’t you go pack?”

I blinked. “Pack?”

She nodded sadly. “I really do think that staying here might be a better choice for you, Ishmael, but I’m betting you’re not going to be able to resist putting that ticket to work.”

“Is that a bad thing?”

She thought about it for a long moment. “No. But it’s the Agamemnon.”

“True.” I grinned with the dark humor of it. “Maybe he sees it as another rescue mission.”

“Oh, you mean like putting you on the Billy right out of school?” She snorted. “Maybe. But I don’t think so.”

“You’re right. I better go pack.”

I stood up and headed for the passageway.

“At least sleep on it.”

I stopped at the door. “I will. Maybe things will look different in the morning.”

She snorted as I left the cabin. She didn’t believe it for a second and I’d already made up my mind.





Chapter Ten

Diurnia Orbital:

2372-January-08


At 1130, the brow watch bipped me to let me know we had guests at the lock and I went down to meet them. The three of them stood just inside the lock–Maloney in the lead, Delman in the middle, and Kurt bringing up the rear. I never really understood why Maloney felt he needed a bodyguard, but I respected Kurt. We’d met several times since I’d been with the company. He was a good and honorable man, and if Geoff Maloney thought he needed a bodyguard, then who was I to say.

“Welcome aboard, gentlemen. The captain is expecting you.”

Clemming had the brow watch and nodded discreetly when I glanced in his direction. He’d notified the captain already.

We trooped up to the cabin and exchanged the appropriate pleasantries for a few ticks before Maloney turned to me. “Mr. Wang, why don’t we leave them to talk captain talk for a bit.”

Fredi winked at me as Maloney turned and left without waiting for me. I followed him out and Kurt followed. We headed to the wardroom and settled into chairs at the foot of the table. Kurt stood just inside the wardroom door.

“Fredi told you my plan?” Maloney wasn’t much on preamble. He could small-talk with the best but when it came to business, he was all business.

“Not in detail, sir, no. She’s stepping down. Delman’s stepping up. You’re thinking of putting me in his empty slot on Agamemnon. If there’s a plan beyond that, she hasn’t shared it.”

Maloney sat back in his chair and his right hand slapped the table top softly. “That’s my plan. No hidden agendas. Simple assignments of the people I’ve got in the slots that are available.”

“Who are you thinking of putting in as first mate here?”

“Behr’s ready to move up. It’ll be up to Phil. I’d have to find a second to replace her. Kazyanenko can’t yet. She needs another year in grade before she can sit for the ticket. I’ll put it out to the fleet first. See if anybody wants to step up before I open it to the Union. There are a couple of thirds who’re eligible to move up, but whether they want to move or not...” Maloney shrugged.

“And if I decide to stay here?”

“You could do worse.” He grinned humorlessly. “I know what the Agamemnon is, Mr. Wang, and it’s not an easy berth. Phil Delman has held it for a long time, and he’s paid his dues. In honesty, I probably owe you better, but this is what I’ve got and I’m giving you first refusal on it. Nothing up my sleeve. No agendas other than she needs a skipper. If you decide to stay here, I open it to a Union posting–no harm, no foul.”

“Salary and contract?”

“Standard contract. You’ve seen them before, but I’ll give you a seniority bonus for service here. You’ve done well by me, Mr. Wang, and I see no reason to start you at the bottom rung. How does base plus ten sound?”

I let that sit for a heartbeat before offering a counter. “Plus twenty.”

“Plus fifteen, and I’ll repaint the cabin.”

“What color?”

“Your choice.”

“Can I sleep on it?”

“I’d expect you to. Big decision like paint color shouldn’t be rushed.”

Kurt grinned at me over Maloney’s head.

It was a good offer and I nodded. “Okay, I’ll sleep on it. Talk it over with my wife, and I’ll send you my decision in the morning.”

Maloney slapped the table once more. “Done.” He held out his hand and we shook on the agreement. “Now, let’s go get Phil and Fredi swapped around.” He rose, Kurt held the door for him, and we all trooped back to the cabin to gather the two captains before heading up to the bridge.

Kazyanenko was already up there and her eyes widened to see us all come up the ladder. She didn’t say anything, but stood at her station, eyes flipping from Fredi to me to Delman to Maloney and back. I found it interesting that Kurt disappeared from her consideration. He stood at the top of the ladder, out of the way while Fredi went to the ship’s announcer at the back of the bridge and, with a nod from Maloney, keyed it open.

“Attention all hands. This is the captain speaking. As of 1200 hours today I will be retiring as captain of the William Tinker. Thank you all for your tireless efforts and exemplary duty. I’m proud to have been your captain. In a few ticks, Mr. Geoff Maloney will recognize the change of command by appointing Captain Philip Delman in my place. At that time all security logs, records, and access will pass to his control. Please grant him the same dedication and respect which you have always given me in unstinting measure. Thank you, everyone. That is all.”

Chief Menas joined us on the bridge and her eyes were shining a bit. I knew this couldn’t have been a surprise to her, but I hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it. She walked over to stand beside me but before we could do more than nod, Maloney spoke.

“As of 1200 hours on this date of 2372 January 8th, with you as witnesses and with the authority as the owner of this vessel, I hereby relieve Captain Frederica Victoria DeGrut from her duty as captain of this vessel and appoint in her place Captain in Good Standing Philip Robert Delman to carry on command and operation of the Solar Clipper William Tinker pursuant with the rules and regulations set forth under the Confederated Planets Joint Committee on Trade and in accordance with the terms of their respective contracts.” He turned to Fredi with a smile and a handshake. “I take this step at the request of Captain DeGrut and offer my heartfelt thanks and support for all she has done for the company, the ship, her crew, and for me.”

Fredi shook the offered hand and nodded but didn’t say anything.

Maloney turned to Delman and offered the same hand. “Congratulations, Captain Delman. I’m confident that you’ll continue your exemplary service in command of the William Tinker.”

Delman took the hand and then offered his to Fredi.

Then the mob that had gathered behind me while I was watching the change over exploded onto the bridge. I’d gotten used to thinking of the bridge as relatively spacious but with an extra fifteen crew up there I began to fear for the structural integrity of the vessel. Everybody seemed to be laughing and talking and crying at once. Everybody but Kurt, who’d managed to create a security buffer in front of his boss, and Captain Delman who stood blockaded in the corner and looked a bit ignored, if the truth were told.

I stepped around Kurt, who smiled and winked at me without taking his eye off the boiling and joyous throng, and held out a hand. “Congratulations, Captain Delman. I’m Ishmael Wang, First Mate.”

He smiled then, and it seemed an honest enough one. “Ah, Mr. Wang. Congratulations on getting your Master’s License. A milestone, to be sure.”

“Thank you, sar. I owe a lot of it to that woman over there.” I nodded in Fredi’s direction.

“She is an amazing inspiration.” He didn’t offer more.

“She is. Will you be aboard this afternoon, sar?”

“I will, Mr. Wang. Now that the change of command is official, I’ll have my grav trunks brought over from the Agamemnon and stowed in the forward locker. I told Fredi to take her time, but she claims to be mostly packed and expects to be off the ship by 1400. Right now, though, I think I’ll slip out and grab some lunch while things settle here. There’ll be plenty of time to get acquainted as we go, I think.”

“Maybe not.”

My quiet comment made his head turn slightly as he regarded me from the corner of his eye.

“Any insights you can share about the Agamemnon and her crew before I go off duty at 1800 would be much appreciated, Captain.”

Understanding surfaced. “I suspected as much. Why don’t you and I plan on a nice cuppa tea around 1500 in the cabin?”

“Thank you, sar. I’ll look forward to it.”

Kurt stepped a little bit to the side and Captain Delman slipped out of the protected corner and down the ladder.

“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.” Maloney didn’t have to raise his voice much because as soon as he spoke, a hush spread across the space. “Unfortunately, I’ve got a meeting with the Committee at 1300 and they get testy when I’m late.”

He turned to Fredi once more and spoke more softly. “Best wishes, Fredi. I know this wasn’t an easy decision for you. Please, if you decide to come out of retirement, let me know. I’ll find something suitable for you.”

She smiled graciously in return. “Thank you, Geoff. I”ll keep that in mind.”

Maloney nodded to the crew and Kurt cleared a path to the ladder. I accompanied them to the lock to see them off properly. None of us spoke until we got to the lock.

“I’ll expect to hear tomorrow morning.” Maloney spoke quietly. “You’re under no obligation to take it and, in a lot of ways, I’d understand and appreciate if you wanted to stay here. Either way you decide is okay with me, Mr. Wang.”

“Thank you, Mr. Maloney. I appreciate that. I’ll send word first thing in the morning.”

“Very good, Mr. Wang. Now, I really must be off.”

Kurt led the way out of the lock and they hurried off to keep their appointments.

Clemming looked at me with one raised eyebrow as I turned back to enter the ship.

“Something I can do for you, Mr. Clemming?”

He grinned. “Yes, sar. If you could send Belnus out. I’d like to get lunch.”

“I’ll do that, Mr. Clemming.”

He looked down at the desk and then raised his eyes to peer out under this brows. “Will you take the Agamemnon, sar?”

I marveled at the reach and power o