Arturus Lang watched the attack ships on fire off Orion with perfect complacency. The Space Union and the buzzdroids had gathered around a protostar that had once been part of the Orion nebula, and their slugfest meant dollars to Lang. Each combusting mechacruiser was worth serious credit, and there were plenty to go around. The Admirality had screwed the pooch on this one, to be sure. Never having been a military man, Arturus did not have the eyes that could tell victory from defeat. But he knew enough to know that it was better to have more of the enemy’s ships blow up than yours. However, he was not a military man, so he had the luxury of not caring. Victory or defeat, there was scrap, and the Union paid for scrap.
“Vulture One, comm,” said Lang, “stand ready to launch on my mark.”
“Comm, Vulture One,” said a silky voice that made Lang’s loins ache, “standing ready, aye. Looks like a right goatfuck out there.”
Lang wondered if she spoke that way all the time, or only when she was around him. He also wondered why it drove him crazy. He was no stranger to the loneliness of interstellar voyages: the hypersleep madness, the virility blooms, that odd, thanatostical longing to step out of the airlock that came along every hundredweek or so. He remembered the first time a colleague had done that, on his first voyage, aboard the Flying Gas Can. A perfectly sane woman, Freda Gorlung was. Had a satirical wit. Yet one shift, without saying a word to anyone, she’d walked into the airlock as naked as the day she was born and opened it. Everything shut down and they’d spent hours getting her frozen, twisted corpse back. Jhonn Herz, captain of the Gas Can, said it was just one of those things. “Sometimes the void just calls to you.”
But the machines helped. They could repeat soothing mantras, offer progressive hypnotherapy, even administer small doses of prescribed uppers, downers, etc, all at the touch of a button. And there were other techniques: a journaling program that had evolved into a trans-Union literary society, blue-ribbon fairs for moonshine and psychedelics, even a quietly-ignored gambling subculture.
Plus, the effects of minimum-g and raw radiation had the knack of reducing to virtually zero the chances of human impregnation. And because of the hell warp travel still played with time, most spacers weren’t married. So as long as you were up on your venereal shots, you could have all the sex, in all the ways, you could possibly want. Getting laid aboard ship or in port was as casual as handshaking. People did it as a way of finding out if they wanted to work with someone.
All of which meant there should have been nothing exciting in Alera’s voice as she readied Vulture One to collect mechacruiser scrap when the battle was over. Arturus Lang had experienced as many different ways of copulating as he could have wanted to. He even tried it with a dude once, just to see if there was anything special about that (there wasn’t). He didn’t even remember the last time he’d gotten it up without a healthy dose of BB (biobethylene, or “boner bracer” as the spacers called it). It was all so…obligatory.
But somehow, when she spoke, he felt something.
At last some tide in the battle occurred. The buzzdroid fleets started to pull away from the larger Union control ships. The buzzdroids had a proper name, and they represented an alien race that the Union had been trying to get an agreeable trade agreement with for some time. But Arturus had never seen anything of them but their insect-shaped droid vessels, which everyone called “buzzdroids” even though they made no sound. Arturus watched them get destroyed with brutal efficiency as they retreated, but that meant nothing, because no one would pay for their salvage. Not that some hadn’t tried to collect from the aliens. But none had ever returned.
“Vulture One, comm,” said Lang “Action appears concluded. Launch and proceed.”
“Comm, Vulture One, aye.” With a sharp, heavy reverberation, the magnetic bolts holding the Pricey Vulture to her launch decoupled, and Alera shot off towards a broken prow of a cracked attack ship. There were no human remains to be accounted for on the attack ships, only the control-cruisers were manned. These, however had sufficient crew to make up for the rest. Each attack ship had a crew of at least two guiding it’s actions safe on the control-ship mainframe. When a control-ship went down, the casualties were immense, plus all the attack ships immediately went out of commission. A scrap captain lucky enough to be involved in such an action could make enough to retire on for an intact command ship in such circumstances. But they were very rare.
Lang watched Vulture One pull the broken prow of cruiser towards it with a tractor beam. You had to be watching the tractor beam at an oblique angle to see it, otherwise it seemed as though the tugged object moved of its own accord. But at the right angle, you could see the deep sparkling blue that flashed between tugger and tuggee. Lang wasn’t at the right angle, and that made him briefly frown.
Then the control ship contacted him.
This was exceedingly rare. The sailors and officers of the Union Admirality regarded the scrappers as the lowest form of pondfeeding scum, and whatever their official license usually refused to acknowledge their existence at major battles. The most you’d expect would be a curt request to keep a vector clear.
“This is the Pricey Vulture, Captain Lang speaking” Lang said, in response to the ping of the Admirality control ship.“This is the Executor….” came the response, followed by static.
“Say again, Executor,” said Lang.
“…” said the static.
“Executor, we’ve lost transmission. Can you transmit again?”
This last persisted, without interruption, for a few more minutes before Lang shut off the hailing frequency.
“What the hell was that?” said Kronz, his No. 2.
“I don’t know.”
“I drank with a few of those control ship guys on Proxima 2 once. They’re a bit weird,” said Kronz.
“Yeah,” said Lang. He tried to recall any instance of social contact with anyone in Admirality grey, but nothing came to him. Despite their general sense of officious distain, he’d never really had an unpleasant experience with them either. You did your business, collected your money, and that was that.
So Arturus Lang found it deeply odd when the control ship fired up it’s warp engines and plummeted into the protostar.
“Holy…” said Kronz.
“Make ready to move, Kronz,” said Lang. “The flares are going to be on us in a very short time. We need to pull in the launch. Vulture One, comm, did you see that?”
Vulture One, still attached to its prize, said nothing.
“Vulture One, comm, do you copy?”
Vulture One started to move in the direction of the Pricey Vulture, dragging it’s broken attack ship behind it. Still no transmission came from it.
“It’s moving,” said Kronz.
“Yeah,” said Lang. In the far distance, the red swirl of solar flare began to swell. They didn’t have much time. To be caught in that swell was to risk serious electrical damage.
“We could move towards her,” said Kronz.
“And run the risk of moving towards it. No. She’d have to recompute all of her trajectory data in order to dock with us right. There isn’t time. She’s got to get to us, with or with out the prize.”
Kronz nodded at the sense of that, but then said “Have you given her permission to drop it?”
“Are we ready to jump, Kronz?”
“Yeah,” said Kronz, and got back to his work.
Vulture One was moving fast now, but not so fast as the hellish red glare from the now-atomized control ship’s plunge into the protostar. It wasn’t a question of vectors, or of approaches. Pure speed would make the difference.
“Come on, damn you, accelerate,” said Lang, “hit the fucking throttle.” This was stupid, because if she came in too fast, she’d blow right past the Pricey Vulture, and Lang would have to choose between abandoning her or risking everyone else to get her. But he said it anyway. His own stupid desire, the feeling that she gave him, pressed it out of his mouth.
“It’s gonna be tight,” said Kronz. Which was also stupid, but Lang gave it a pass. That was the sort of obvious thing you said. Verbal static reflecting the instinctive need to do something other than sit there and hope for the best. It took discipline to truly know when things were out of your hands.
Vulture One came in rough, but she came in. She connected with the mothership with enough force to send a shudder and a metallic squeal reverberating fore and aft, but she didn’t miss the docking, and she didn’t break anything. The hull of the attack ship was still in her beam.
The red flare was nearly upon them. “Lock the prize down!” said Lang, louder than he should have, and in any way irrelevant, because Kronz was already on it. “Done,” he said.
The red flare filled up the space in front of the ship. They had maybe five seconds. Lang heard the prize locks connect with the hull of the attack ship. “Ready to warp” said Kronz.
“Do it,” said Lang, and space bent away from them.
A series of relieved expletives came from Kronz’ mouth, but Lang wouldn’t celebrate until he knew Alera was all right. “Zool. You all right?”
“Aye, Skipper,” said a voice that sounded exactly like Alera Zool’s. But somehow Lang had the strange notion that it was not Alera Zool at all. Because when he heard it, he felt nothing at all.
No sooner were they safely in warp, the universe pulverized to streams of glowing emergent possibility around them, than Lang heard Kronz on the intercom talking to Hunstail in Engineering. "You owe me fifty. I told you we'd make it."
Normally Lang thought it bad form to eavesdrop on the fraternal bets on every possible phenomenon that occurred on a mission. After all, such might give you too much of an edge in betting against someone: what they liked to bet on, how much they liked to wager. Knowing too much about someone was a surefire way to lose the enjoyment of beating them. The point of betting was to win, but also to prolong the distraction as long as possible.
Yet somehow Lang could not lose himself in navigation, turn off that part of his mind. Some intuition in his neural pattern was flaring at him that something was wrong. Something in the pre-conscious, something that defied explanation or even expression. This would have to be cleared out, via the hypnotherapy program he occasionally employed when things got wiggy. The thought was comforting, he could feel himself relaxing even at the thought of it. Which was a programmed response, which was itself a comforting thought. A positive feedback loop.
The conversation, or half of it, between Kronz and Hunstail would not fade away, however. They had become quite animated, even hostile, as regards Hunstail's apparent unwillingness to pay the bet. But Lang heard the undertone of friendship in their bickering. Kronz and Hunstail were old crew-mates, a package deal. They looked out for each other and grumped at each other simultaneously.
"Fine, fine," said Kronz at last, and switched off the intercom. "Skipper, we should be clear of that burst by now."
"I think so, too," said Lang. "Let's dump back in, check the prize and then sketch the jump to Central."
"Aye," said Kronz, and with the tap of a few buttons, reality lurched back at the Pricey Vulture. Everyone aboard was, or should have been,veteran enough to allow their minds to freak out as the event horizon became real enough to kill them. That was something the human brain simply did not get used to. It was not merely foreign, it should not be. But you took a deep breath, repeated the Litany, and it was over, and there you were, in a point in space on a chart, with the laws of thermodynamics again applicable. Lang supposed it was something like being born.
When they were both again sane, Kronz said "You want me to check the prize, Skipper?"
Lang swallowed. Tradition gave him the responsibility of examining the prize, so as to come to Central with a Book Value Estimate. But the circumstances of the departure also gave him the responsibility of debriefing the shuttle pilot. Lang had been looking for just such a pretext to make a move on Alera Zool. Kronz was only being a gentleman in recognizing the Captain's preference in such matters.
"No," Lang heard himself saying, "I'll check it. You debrief Zool."
For a long moment Kronz did not reply, as though he was trying to decide if he should question Lang's call or make clear the significance thereof. But he simply said "Ok."
Lang nodded and turned to leave the bridge. After a few steps he turned back, faced Kronz. "What would you have done if we died?"
"How would you have paid Hunstail? If we died?"
Kronz looked at him like he had lost his marbles. "Credit transfer to heirs."
"So you pre-arranged it?"
"You pre-arranged payment from your share trust to next-of-kin to pay a bet?"
Kronz now looked at Lang as if there was something he himself was missing. "Yeah. Why, did they change the rules or..."
"Because you don't want to welsh on a bet after you're dead."
Kronz snorted. "Especially not then."
Lang thought this logic through, then nodding again, to himself this time, turned again to leave.
"You okay, Skipper?" said Kronz to his back.
* * *
Lang rode across the electronic wave that held the prize to the Vulture and breathed and repeated the Spaceman's Litany:
I am here. I belong here. Everything is in space. Everything is space. I am space.
Every star-shipper learned that somewhere along the way. It arose not out of any specific training (although some modules did mention it), but out of early self-hypnotic techniques for dealing with the Void. A young mid would hear a vet running through it, and ask, and when the time was right, he'd hear it coming out of him without any conscious attempt to memorize it. Like the gambling, the literature, and the sex, it was just part of what made you a spacer.
Upon first glance, the prize looked good. The damage was confined to a portion of the lower hull. It looked like a glancing hit from a buzzdroid beeper - the strange sonic weapons that the enemy used. You could hear them on hailing frequencies during a battle. They sounded like angry wind chimes. A direct hit would cut an attack ship in half, and leave those halves burning in the cold. But this one hadn't been hit full, just enough to knock it out of the battle.
If the structure was mostly intact, that would pay for the trip. If the structure and the drone command system held up to inspection at Central Command on Proxima, it might pay for two more missions, with bonus pay for the crew. Lang permitted himself to get excited at the thought.This was what a man thrust himself into the maw of space for. You could get wealthy, and retire with time enough for a real life, and if you didn't, you could pass your wealth to whomever you chose. Lang thought he might have great-grandnephews back on Earth. It was hard to track the generations. He had long ago given up on tracking how many years had passed on Earth since he left. He'd never gone back. You couldn't go back.
Lang found himself repeated the Litany as he broke the magnetic seal that led to the interior of the attack ship.
There was a short, narrow tunnel that led down to the bridge of the attack ship. Attack ships did not operate manned, but they did have a small room where Union techs and junkers like himself could run diagnostics and assess operational status. Lang crawled down the tunnel with the lights of his helmet trained down, down, down. Focus was how you figured out where you were going, how you kept reaching in zero-g for the right vector.
He saw the floor open out in front of him and thrust himself into the room. He gently turned in his velocity and checked his six (and twelve, and nine, and three, and every other number) for collateral flotsam. Even a glancing blow from a beeper could turn the whole damn bridge into a rattling box of smashed, smashing hardware. But this one seemed to have come through unshaken. Only the walls of dead wires met his light.
He swam forward in the empty gravity. Technically, this wasn't true - the Vulture and whatever star they were closest to affected an infinitesimal pull on him and the dead cruiser. If he closed his eyes and did nothing, eventually he would feel his body floating according to these forces. But he could ignore them otherwise. He could float merrily in any direction he wanted, if he wanted. But he never did. Weightlessness, like warp travel, always felt wrong.
He reached the foremost wall and recognized the setup. This was model of mechacruiser he was familiar with, and had junked several times before. The TBT-112. Fast, fully loaded, able to run a thousand weapons with deadly accurately simultaneously. This hunk had blown up some buzzdroids before it got hit. Or not. It didn't matter, really. What mattered was that the diagnostic port should still be working, on a tiny closed-circuit battery system that could survive for years after the main systems were shot to hell.
Lang plugged in his thumb d-reader and saw it immediately light up. That was a good sign. He hung in the air for a few moments while it booted up, gathered data, and presented. He allowed himself to just be, or be becoming, or something, but the mild vertigo he usually experienced did not seem to care for his allowing. He at least managed not to let the tension peak while he waited in the dark for the diagnostic to complete. Finally the light went from yellow to green. Done. Good.
He went out of the tunnel faster then he went in.
Once out of the prize he also decided to stop onto Vulture One to give it a look-over. Nothing on either the launch or the Vulture's catalogs indicated that anything had been damaged, but since he'd bought his Captain's share, he liked to look things over himself, with his own eyes. Whether this was a small act of reassurance or an attempt to outthink the computers was a question he never bothered answering. It probably wasn't an either/or situation, really.
"Conn, aye." said Kronz' voice.
"Conn, prize looks good. I managed to get a d-reader full of data."
"Sounds good, Skipper."
"She's fine. No adverse reactions."
"Good. I'm gonna take a look at Vulture One. I won't take me more than thirty standard. Okay?"
"Okay, Skipper. Conn out." He shut off the com-link and fired the pulsers on his suit. He floated through the short distance from the prize to the launch, withe no means to mark his progress but the size of Vulture One. He came in a short distance from the rear airlock and activated the magnetic clamps on the bottom of his boots. Righting himself, he clamped over to the airlock and tripped the mechanical outer door with the red handle. A quick entrance of a 5-digit code on thick clacking keys and the door closed with an echo. Air hissed in and lights came humming on.
He walked out of the airlock as if he was expecting something to be wrong, but nothing was. The ship was clean. The indicators were flashing normality in all their measurements. Everything was just as fine as he could have rationally expected it to be. He took his helmet off. Something smelled.
He noticed it as soon as he entered the At first he couldn't be sure it wasn't him. Sometimes the human body, encased in radiation-proof polymers and skin-tight pressure gauze, let off a warm reek, as if the tissues themselves were rebelling against the inorganic materials that encased them. But this wasn't that olfactory cocktail of skin and salt. This was metallic, and it set off warning signals deep in Lang's brain.
At first he stood still to make sure he was really smelling it. It didn't go away, so he was. Then he sniffed, gently at first, then with great heaping snuffs, to try to track where it was coming from. Funny, he thought, we've got all sorts of instruments to optimize our sensory input, but no computer has ever replicated the nose. I wonder why.
He found himself looking at a vent panel under the pilot's console. The smell was very thick there. It was tangily metallic. Lang stood up and looked at the glass panel where the tool kit should have been. But it was open, and the kit removed. How had he not noticed that before? He crouched down again and looked at the panel. He jimmied it slightly with his hands, and it popped off. The seal had been broken.
Inside he found the tool kit, closed, with a very light sheen of white dust on it. This was strange. Normally fine particulates were filtered out by the life support systems. This dust shouldn't be there. And neither should the tool kit. The tangy metallic smell was very strong. Frowning, he opened the kit.
The tools were there, also lightly coated with dust. He lifted one of the hard plastic pliers to his nose. The smell made him sneeze, loudly and uncontrollably, four times. When he recovered, he saw a white plastic nodule nestled underneath the driver. He pulled it out and looked at it. It was Alera's Union-issued ID node. All spacers had one injected somewhere, usually in the back of the shoulder, when they signed up.
It was covered in blood, and the blood smelled the same as the dust.
"Conn, Skipper" he said.
No answer came.
This second time he said it, he thought he saw some of the dust pop, as if jumping in the air by a sudden gust of wind. He blinked several times to see if his eyes deceived him. He didn't see it again. He was seeing things.
This time the dust moved. All of it. It popped off the tools, the toolkit, and the inside of the vent and it flowed as if on some invisible river, like an electric jolt, out of the command center and into the corridor.
"Conn, aye," said a voice that was not Kronz's.
"Where's Kronz?" said Lang.
"He stepped out," said the voice. "What do you need, Cap?" It was Alera's voice. Wasn't it?
"Everything all right over there?" said Lang.
"Sure, Skipper," said the cheerful voice, "We're all fine here."
Lang got back to the Vulture and everything was fine. He made his way forwards past the mess hall and into the Walk, where the crew kept their quarters. Here alone the ship was laid out with a sense of decor, with deep shining blue walls and soft light. The quarters were all kept away from each other so that you could not see any door from the hallway.
Jae Havensy met him walking along the same corridor - on the ceiling. She said it was for test purposes, but Lang suspected that she just like messing with everyone. For one thing, she never said what exactly was being "tested": the gyros that controlled the art-grav, or the magnetic boots that she used to fool it. For another, she went out of her way to sneak up on crew-mates when she did it, and every time people did double-takes. As with the slide out of warp, no matter how many times you saw it, you experienced that filament out doubt that you were really seeing it. Normally Lang didn't even acknowledge her.
"Everything testing out, Jae?"
"These boots still work, Skipper. So that's something," replied Jae.
"How do you mean?"
With a dancer's grace Jae pulled a boot off the ceiling, let her body pull down with it, and then released the other. She stuck the landing, as she always did.
"I dunno," Jae said, brushing her blonde bangs from her face, "Do you get the feeling that something's...off around here?"
"That's not uncommon, Jae," said Lang.
"This ain't my first trip around the moon, Skipper. I know when the Void is getting to you. This isn't that. I can't put my finger on it, but people seem weird all of a sudden."
"Maybe the Void is getting to them."
"All at once?"
"It could happen. Like that control ship booming into the star."
"Protostar. I see your point, but ... it's not like they're all slipping, they're just all... off."
"Okay, so Kronz went in to debrief Zool while you scoped the prize, right."
Lang ought to have rolled his eyes at what they both knew that meant. He ought to have felt some twinge of jealousy. But his sudden indifference was still upon him. "Right," he said.
"And I would have figured they'd be in there at least until the next shift closed. Alera's the new hotness, and you know Kronz."
"I know Kronz."
"But if they were in there five minutes, I'll hand my share over. Kronz was aft not ten minutes later, talking some urgent shit to Hunstail. I turn around and they were both gone."
Lang looked down the corridor as he processed this. For a second he thought he had seen someone else down the end where Jae just came. But there was no one there.
"Who's in engineering now?" he said at last.
"Covey took the watch. I decided to test these boots, make sure my head was clear."
"And it is?"
"I've gone down the drills, Skipper. I'm right as the disc of Saturn. But something else isn't."
"Jae," said Lang, "I believe you. There's something about Zool. Come with me to the bridge. I want to check the d-reader, and it would be good to have an engineer with me when I did it."
* * *
He entered expecting to find someone and finding no one. He had called from the prize and talked to Zool - hadn't he? - but she was not here. Kronz wasn't here. No one was here. Jae scanned the room as though she, too, was looking for someone. They looked at each other.
He sat down in his captain's chair and found it cold. No one had sat in it, at least, even when Zool was here. Jae sat down where Kronz had sat while the Vulture had warped away from disaster. She scratched her left calf where the hard outer shell of the magnetic boot dug into the flesh. It made Lang remember the way her calves looked, dark in her room, akimbo. That thought was pleasant to him.
Business. It was time for business Nothing mattered as long as they got the prize back to Proxima. Strictly speaking, Land didn't need to yank a d-reader for a damage check, but experience had taught him to have his own idea of the value of the prize in case the Admiralty tried to low-ball him. Then again, after a disaster like that, losing a whole damn control ship, they might not want to bother. Or they may be in a cost-cutting mood. Impossible to say.
Lang had barely processed what had happened to the Executor. That was huge. It had been forever since a control ship had been lost, period, but to lose one in that fashion.
Lang blinked. What fashion had it been? What exactly had happened? One minute the Executor had been trying to contact him, the next it was flinging itself into a protostar. It made no sense. What kind of accident could have led to that? If it wasn't and accident, who would have done that, and why?
He had no answers. He thought of playing back the recording of his dialogue with the Executor, but he declined.
Sleep, he thought, sleep would feel good.
A poem crossed his mind, and he enjoyed it for a few moments before plugging in the d-reader.
Data poured across his virtual screen like a waterfall, a tsunami. He allowed it to pass by and not attempt to understand all of it, to be absorbed in it on a subconscious level. He could, thanks to progressive hypnotherapy, imagine himself falling with the data, swimming through it like a fish in the ocean. He and Jae would find what they needed.
He stayed in this reverie for a long time, peaceful and content. However, he did not find what he was looking for. He snapped suddenly out of it, unaware of how much time had passed, unsure what had brought him to awareness. The stars seemed different: some manner of redshift had occurred.
"Skipper," Jae said, "Something's not right."
"You said that," said Lang.
"No, I mean with the prize."
"What? The prize is fine. One of the best we've had." There was more vehemence in his voice than he anticipated. What was going on with him?
"Yeah, structurally, it's intact, it's worth credits out the ass. But look, Skipper. Look at this." She pointed a single finger at a single data stream.
Lang blinked several times before he understood what he was reading. "That kind of radiation...shouldn't be there."
"It shouldn't. Attack ships don't have those kind of engines. They're liquid-oxygen blimps, for St. Olga's sake. That kind of radiation signature..."
"...only comes off a warp drive."
"Why the hell would an attack ship have a warp drive?"
"They wouldn't. They don't. Attack ships don't warp. Their entire function is to be controlled within tactical space. Absent a control ship, they..."
"What?" said Lang.
"I...I don't even know. It's the great open question. What happens when an attack ship loses its master? Does it start killing everything or does it shut down?"
"You're telling me the Admiralty has never lost a control ship before?"
"Not without losing all the attack ships first. That's basic tac doctrine, super conservative. The idea is you put a control ship someplace the buzzdroids don't want it, and make the bastards come at it, while the attack ships rip the buzzdroids to pieces."
"Like castles in space..."
Jae nodded. "Strategically offensive, tactically defensive."
Lang looked at Jae, drawing in the depths of her insight. "Were you in the Admiralty or something?"
"Once. Took part in an action by Arcturus. That was a masterpiece compared to what we just saw."
"How do I not know that?"
Jae gave a wry grin that said everything. "You know who should see this," she said, "is Covey. He's a complete nerd for the Great Question. And he spent some time as a contractor building them on Proxima."
He punched in a few commands on the console, and had before his eyes the locations of the crew. They were all in the mess hall. That was a little strange, as dinner was not usually this fast after warp. But it was only a little strange. It may be the were all hungry and decided together to eat. They'd never done that, but...
One blip was not in the mess hall. That was Covey.
"You stay here," said Lang. "I'm gonna call Covey up and see what the hell everyone else is doing."
Lang sent Covey a blip to let him know to stay put until Lang came to see him. For some reason he wanted to put eyes on the rest of the crew. He could have communicated with them directly - they all could receive blips on their ID nodes - but the fact of them all gathering in the mess hall seemed like something he should know about. Mutinies were not unheard of among spacers, just rare, because even the worst voyage, under the worst captain, was something you wanted to get paid for. And you could always head out.
Still, every captain eventually knew about the Hero. A mosquito she was, as they called gas-mining vessels from the early days before mining stations could be reliably serviced. They'd been funneling a methane-alkide mixture from a gas giant in Arcturus' system when suddenly the crew flipped. They claimed that the Captain, a man named Drift, had kept them on round-the-clock shifts and had threatened their shares, both no-nos under Union rules. Their response was to confine the man to quarters while they held a council to determine their next move. Drift somehow snuck out of his room and tried to alert the Admiralty, who took charge of all mutinies, public or private. Before he could his crew, got hold of him, and scared and incensed, fed him to the airlock.
When they finished mining operations they returned to Proxima, and reported Drift a victim of an accident. But someone talked, and before the week was out the Admiralty had leveled charges against the entire crew. Those that confessed got hard labor on the Europa mining penitentiary. Those that didn't were executed in the manner they had served Drift.
The Hero incident made waves through the Union. After that, every manned vessel had an escape-proof cell to confine unruly passengers. And any incident involving death by airlock automatically triggered an Admiralty inquest to investigate foul play. Lang remembered Freda Gorlung's inquest. The three-judge panel, manned by veteran officers, grilled Lang every which way, until he started to wonder himself if he had pushed Freda out. But he hadn't.
The day he bought his captain's share of the Vulture, Lang inspected the escape cell. It was small and grey and clean. In three voyages, he had never used it. Something was making him wonder.
He entered the mess hall via a thin portal that was supposed to detect movement and open, but for some reason did not normally function. The Vulture was not a new ship, and certain minor mechanisms did not work as well as they once had. Lang had gotten used to the door requiring a hand-tap to trigger it. But now, it slid right open, smoothly, as though it had never had a problem. Lang stood there for a moment in the door with his hand out, looking at the scene before him.
Six of his crew were sitting at the center table. They were not eating. They were not talking. They were sitting there, looking at him, as though they had been waiting for him to come in the door. In front of them, standing still as a golem, was Alera Zool.
She looked quite as strong and young and full of a hinterland childhood on Earth as when she first signed on, a hotshot pilot with fresh Union certification, to get a share of the Vulture. But that was only the body. Her eyes, which had danced with excitement, now regarded Lang with a predator's opacity. Lang looked into those eyes and the nerves along the back of his head shuddered. He did not understand what he was seeing. But the strange feeling did not escape him. This was not Alera Zool.
Lang repeated this experience with the sitting members of his crew. They were all there, and all not there. Kel Gaussman and Mara Luntz and Hen Fulgor and Obadiah Willems, and next to them, Ed Kronz and Jon Hunstail. But the more Lang was sure he was seeing them, the more he was sure that they were not there to look back at him.
"Skipper" said Zool, and Lang was almost positive he was hearing the rest of them say it, too, if just under their breath.
Lang said nothing.
Like a sandcastle breached by an invisible wave Zool and the rest of them suddenly dissolved into the same fine white dust he had seen on Vulture One. Then together the dust gathered into a single pillar and before Lang's mind could process what his eyes were seeing it was upon him.
He tried to evade but managed no more than a flinch, a duck and cover. So this is it, went through his mind.
But it was not it. The beast never came. The blow never fell. After a what seemed like a long time to wait for death, Lang looked up and saw the fine white dust sandstorming in a perfect hemisphere around him. It was translucent enough to allow the mess hall's LED lights to come through, but not enough that Lang could see anything beyond it. It seemed to hum at a frequency just on the low edge of his hearing. It did not sound happy.
Finally this hemisphere dissipated from the apex and flowed down and away from Lang. With the speed of rapids it gushed out of the mess hall to the aft of the ship.
"Covey," said Lang, and he ran after it.
As he sprinted, he felt his internal pacemaker jolt his system. He'd had it installed years ago as an enhancement, something that would allow his heart to shove through sudden moments of stress and restart after a severe shock to the system. It wasn't exactly an experimental procedure, and it wasn't exactly commonplace. He saved up two whole shares as First Mate of the Expletive Express to get it. He felt it in his muscles, hot and tight. He didn't remember the last time he ran this fast, as the corridor leading back past the Airlocks to Engineering.
Covey was there when he entered, looking quizzically at his captain.
"You," said Lang, between breaths.
"Skipper?" said Covey.
"Is that you?" said Lang, which was pointless, because he knew it was. Covey stood like that, with his shoulders stooped and his head jutted forward like a peacock.
"Who else is it going to be?"
"I don't know. Never mind."
"What's all this?"
"I don't know. We need to get out of here. I need you to see something, but first, we need to get out of here."
"Out of where, skipper?"
That thought paused Lang. Where were they going to go? There was no way to seal the bridge, or anyplace else, away from anyplace else.
Just as he began to consider this problem thoroughly, fine white dust began to pour in through the vents.
"What the...?" said Covey.
"Run!" said Lang.
They took off out of Engineering and made their way back through the airlock deck. They ran, neither knowing what it was they were dealing with, Covey knowing even less. They ran in fear. It did no good. The fine white dust swarmed like a whirlwind and before they made it back to the mess hall it had got Covey.
Lang stopped running and watched while Covey screamed as the whirlwind spun the flesh from his bones. He burst like a balloon filled with gore but not a drop of blood touched the ground. The dust seems to draw it out of the air, to draw every part of Covey into itself, leaving neither bone nor hair. When it was all over, only the dust remained, dropping, almost drowsily, back to the deck.
The dust rearranged itself in discreet piles and those piles grew and took shape and congealed until the six crew members he saw in the mess hall before were standing in front of him. So was Alera Zool. So was Dal Covey.
"No reason to run, skipper," said Covey, who was not Covey. "It's me."
Lang ran again, but as he ran, he looked back and saw them standing in the same place, watching him.