This is the rest of the story. Click here for the beginning
* * *
“Tell me, Shadowhawk, how come I drew the short straw?” asked Charlie over the radio.
“Just lucky I guess, Zero,” he replied. “Though what exactly is wrong with flying as my wingman?”
“Normally, nothing. When you’re deciding to fly into the middle of a rock storm like nothing I’ve ever seen before? I’d rather be watching from back on the ship.”
“Ah well, you shouldn’t be such good company.”
“Seriously though… what the hell are we doing? Something is severely screwed up here.”
“What happened to your sense of adventure?”
“I think I lost it when we started fighting ghosts.”
Doug paused for a moment. The chatter had started off as banter, but had quickly strayed into darker territory. He considered his reply carefully.
“You need a break, Zero? If you aren’t happy then I’d rather know now.”
The channel stayed dead for several seconds, then she replied.
“Negative, Shadowhawk. I’m fine, but I’ve got a bad feeling about this. Something feels off. After what happened last trip I’m trusting my instincts a lot more.”
Doug relaxed. Charlie was a good pilot. She’d know if she was off her game, and she’d tell him too. She was experienced enough to know keeping quiet could get both of them killed. She knew him well enough to know he’d consider speaking up a sign of strength, not weakness. If she said she was OK then she was OK.
“You’re not the only one,” he replied. “It feels way off to me too. The captain as well, but the contract we took doesn’t give him much wriggle room. We’re here to investigate and that’s what we have to do.”
“Great. So what’s the plan?”
“We scout around the outside of the field for a while, getting a feel for things. After that, assuming there’s no reason to run like crazy, we head in towards a few of the rocks.”
“Joy. Alright, Shadowhawk, you lead and I’ll follow.”
Doug swung his fighter in towards the nearest rocks. He wasn’t going to get close to start with, but it was still closer than he wanted to be.
* * *
Joe stared at the displays in front of him, taking in information from Doug and Charlie’s fighters and from the Panther’s sensors. Finally he opened a channel.
“Doug, what’s your take?”
“It’s weird, Captain. With this much activity some of the rocks should be getting expelled, even if they get drawn back in later, but that’s not happening. The rocks actually seem to slow down when they’re reaching the edge of the field. I don’t see how that’s possible.”
“Could the rocks be more massive than we thought?” asked Sasha. “Then the gravity would slow them down.”
“No,” replied Joe. “That would make them clump together even faster, and it would mean some of them would pick up even more energy from near misses so they’d still be ejected.”
“So what is happening?”
“That’s a damn good question. Professor?”
“Hmm… sorry?” replied the professor.
“Do you know what’s going on?”
“No. Isn’t it fascinating, though? I’m so glad we decided to investigate.”
“Doug, any ideas?” asked Joe.
“Well, I’m pretty certain it’s not natural, Captain. Other than that, nothing. I guess the next step is for us to get in among those rocks.”
“Yeah. Just be damn careful. The slightest sign of a threat, the slightest sign of anything out of the ordinary, and I want you both out of there. Don’t wait for orders from me. Alright?”
“Aye, Captain. Don’t you worry. The merest hint of a problem and we’ll be back on the Panther before you can even issue an order.”
* * *
“All right Zero, stay close,” said Doug. “And remember we’re on the open channel now. No upsetting the captain with your language.”
“I’m more worried about your flying Shadowhawk. You focus on what you’re doing and I’ll be fine back here.”
Doug chuckled as he swung his fighter over, sending it in towards one of the large rocks at the edge of the field. He brought them in at one third speed — slow enough to react if something happened, but fast enough to still dodge quickly if needed.
He felt himself tensing as they neared the rock and forced himself to breath more slowly. He needed a clear head to deal with whatever was going to happen… and he was pretty certain something was going to happen.
They reached the rock without incident. Doug curved past it, leaving several hundred metres of clearance. Even so it felt dangerously close.
“No problems so far,” he reported. “Zero, you picking anything up?”
“Negative, Shadowhawk. Nothing on sensors and my bird feels fine.”
“Alright, let’s circle it and see what we can find.”
Doug led them in a circle around the rock. When nothing happened he started to circle it again, reducing the distance. After several circuits they were only twenty metres from the surface.
“Nothing Captain,” he said. “Nothing on the instruments and nothing I can detect. Do you want us to move deeper into the field?”
“Yes,” replied the captain. “But not too far. There’s a big rock not too far from you, almost directly towards the centre of the field. There’s another fairly big rock coming towards it so stay out of the way but I want to see what happens.”
“Great, we get to watch two rocks smash each other apart. What could be more fun? Come on Zero, let’s go play gooseberry.”
Doug led them towards the target rock then kept them circling well out of the way of the incoming asteroid. He wanted enough speed to get clear if the impact was more violent than expected.
They didn’t have long to wait. Within a minute he could pick out the incoming rock by eye. It was moving quickly and heading for a sizeable impact with the rock they were shadowing.
“We’re in position, Captain,” he sent. “One minute till our rocks get all friendly.”
“Roger, Doug,” replied the captain. “Keep on your toes.”
Doug grunted but didn’t reply. He didn’t need a reminder. This was not a spot he wanted to be hanging around in. Time seemed to tick down agonisingly slowly.
“Thirty seconds, nothing to report,” he sent.
Another ten seconds ticked past uneventfully, other than the incoming rock growing by the moment.
“Twenty seconds, nothing… wait… I’m getting something… sensors are showing interference. Zero, are you getting this too?”
“Affirmative. Something’s not quite right with my controls too. They’re feeling heavy.”
Doug checked his and found the same.
“That’s it, we’re getting out of here. Follow me.”
He tried to pull away but his fighter was wallowing, sluggish to respond and difficult to control.
“Shadowhawk, I’m getting pulled towards the rock!” shouted Zero.
“Me too! Turn away from it, then light up your drive at full power.”
Doug was already doing what he’d ordered her to, and it was helping. It wasn’t stopping him being drawn towards the rock but it was slowing it greatly.
“Doug, the incoming rock!” shouted the captain.
Doug cursed and checked his countdown. Three seconds! The incoming rock was about to hit, with Doug and Zero far too close to it for comfort.
He looked up… and stared in surprise.
“Captain… is my timer out? I’m sure the incoming rock should have struck by now.”
“It’s not your timer,” replied the captain. “That rock has slowed right down. It’s hardly moving now. In fact it’s starting to move away.”
“Bully for it. We’re still getting pulled in, though.”
“Fascinating,” cut in the professor. “It seems as if space is being manipulated in some way. Gravity is increased in your area while something akin to negative gravity is operating between the two rocks.”
“Fascinating my arse,” Doug shouted. “If this doesn’t let up soon we’re going to be crushed against this bloody rock.”
“And you warned me about my language!” said Charlie. “Besides, you’ve got longer than I have.”
Doug checked. It was true. Charlie was being pulled in faster than he was even though she’d started off further away. The gravity effect seemed to be stronger where she was. Wait… he checked the positions of both ships and what had been the incoming rock.
“Of course! Zero, this is going to sound crazy but you need to change direction. Put maximum thrust into heading towards where the incoming rock was gonna hit.”
“Are you crazy? Without fighting this force I’ll…”
“Zero, that’s an order! Do it now!”
He was already doing the same himself. He just hoped it would be enough. His fighter immediately started to be pulled towards the rock. At this rate there was no chance of him getting anywhere before he was smashed up. He checked and found that Zero had obeyed his order, though her path was even more perilous.
Doug poured everything he had into the drive, hoping that he’d made the right decision. There was no word from the Panther. The captain knew this was Doug’s call and anything he did would just be interfering for no good reason.
The rock was getting closer at a frightening speed. Doug checked the numbers, then checked them again. Yes! He’d been right! As they moved towards the expected impact point the strength of the pull towards the rock below them was decreasing. The question now was would it be enough?
The next twenty seconds passed like long minutes, the time dragging out as the rock still seemed to be rushing closer. Finally he had his answer. Would they make it? Yes and no. Yes he would. No, Zero wouldn’t.
The force on his ship was almost nothing now. His drive alone was sending him away from the rock and he was pretty certain the effect would flip for him soon and become a repulsive force rather than an attractive one.
Zero wouldn’t be so lucky. She’d started off further back than him and had been closer to the rock when they started this desperate manoeuvre. She wasn’t going to make it. In fact she was going to hit the rock sometime in the next thirty seconds.
“Great idea Shadowhawk,” she sent. “But I told you I’d drawn the short straw today.”
“Hey! Quit that talk. Don’t you give up on me! You just keep on trying. Maybe the field will change differently because you’re closer in to the rock.”
“And Admirals might grow wings and fly. Thanks Doug, but get real. This is it. Not the way I’d have chosen to go, but there you… whoa!”
Doug yelled too as he was shoved back in his seat. For a moment dizziness washed over him, then it passed. More importantly his fighter was responding as it should. The effect the rock had been generating had abruptly stopped.
He wanted to shout for Charlie, to tell her to give it her best shot, but he kept quiet. This was her moment. Nothing he said or did could make the slightest positive difference, and it might well distract her.
He watched her ship as it continued towards the rock. It was no longer being pulled but it had a ferocious momentum. Zero had her drive running at maximum, trying to slow the approach, but would it be enough?
She was at forty metres… thirty… twenty and still approaching fast. Ten… five and she was slowing a lot… three… two… one… and she stopped, then started to move away. Doug let out a yell.
“Zero, you are one damn lucky pilot!” he yelled over the comm.
“All in a day’s work,” she replied coolly. Only someone who knew her as well as Doug did could detect the strain and relief tingeing her voice.
* * *
“That’s it, Professor,” said Joe firmly. “I’m not risking my people again. We are leaving now.”
“I quite agree, Captain,” replied the professor.
That caught Joe out. He’d been expecting an argument.
“Yes, Captain. We now have enough evidence to guarantee a follow up study. Whatever we are dealing with here requires careful and methodical examination. That will require more ships and more people than you have at your disposal.”
“Alright then. We’ll lay in a course to take you home.”
“Not just yet, Captain. There is one more location I’d like to visit.”
“Hang on. We’ve just agreed I have the power to veto any further exploration. You can’t tell me that wasn’t a dangerous situation.”
“Captain, that clause applies on a location-by-location basis. Once we leave this area it will no longer apply. However, I am not unreasonable. Once we arrive at the final location I will abide by your decision. If you decide it is too dangerous, for any reason, then I will accept that and we will leave.”
Joe wasn’t happy but the professor was right about the contract. The offer to abide by his decision sounded very fair, but somehow that put him more on edge rather than less. He had no choice, though. They were going there, whether he liked it or not.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s have the coordinates.”
The professor rattled off the next set of coordinates. Janine entered them into the computer.
“That’s not right,” she said. “These don’t match the pattern.”
“No,” replied the professor. “These aren’t from the generation ship, we received them from another source. However they are close enough that it made sense to add them to our journey.”
“Anything you want to tell us about this location?” Joe asked.
“No, I don’t believe so. The location should be safe, don’t worry about that.”
“I’ll be the judge of that when we arrive. The slightest hint of anything out of the ordinary and we leave.”
“I will respect your decision, Captain.”
“Good. Let’s go then Janine. The sooner we leave the sooner we’re done.”
* * *
Joe sat tensely as they neared the final location. The Panther was as ready for trouble as it could be. The shields were charged to Ready status, forty-percent, and he had the energy weapons charged too. It had meant diverting almost all the power from non-essential systems but no one had complained. His crew were as on edge as he was.
“Ten seconds, Captain,” said Janine. “Five… four… three… two… one…”
The Panther slipped back into real space. Joe cursed as the sensors lit up with contacts, warnings of ships in the area. A lot of ships, and some damn big ones at that. Moments later the identity became clear.
“That fleet’s part of the Clear Shores Kingdom navy,” Dave said.
“What the hell are they doing out here in the middle of nowhere?” Joe asked.
“I don’t know, Captain. There’s nothing else within range of our sensors. It seems to be some form of staging point. Hold on… we have interceptors closing. The are demanding that we identify ourselves and power down our shields and weapons.”
“Janine, how long till we can get out of here?”
“Too long Captain,” she replied. “Five minutes at least to charge the drives.”
“Those interceptors will be on us in one,” Dave said.
“I have a code you need to broadcast,” said the professor.
Joe stared at him. It was like seeing the professor for the first time. Suddenly he was standing taller, looking more confident. There was an air of command which had been missing before.
“What do you mean?” he asked finally.
“You have intruded upon a secure and secret military location. I have a code that will prevent them attacking and destroying us.”
“Thirty seconds till they reach us,” said Dave urgently.
Joe wanted to curse. They’d flown straight into a trap. For a moment he wanted to fight, wanted to make a break for it, then he looked at the screen again. There would be no fight. There would be no getting away. Resisting would only lead to the Panther being quickly overwhelmed and destroyed.
“Do I have your word my crew will be safe? That they will be treated well?”
“Yes, Captain. I can promise that.”
“Alright. Dave, let him send the damn code. And do it quickly.”
The professor leaned over Dave’s shoulder and punched in a dozen characters or more. Dave sent the code out, and received a reply almost immediately.
“Code accepted…” he said. “They still want us to power down our shields and weapons, though, and to stop charging our hyperspace drive.”
“Do it,” Joe spat out. “We can’t stand up to that kind of force. Even if we somehow managed to get away I’ve got no doubt they’d keep hunting us down for the rest of our lives. The Kingdom isn’t known for being forgiving.”
“Good choice, Captain,” said the professor.
“So what happens next?”
“Your ship will be boarded. Our experts will go through your systems and erase every trace of your recent travels. That asteroid field holds secrets we intend to have. We can’t have you selling the location to anyone else.”
“That’s it? You’ll just wipe our systems and let us go?”
“Almost. We will escort you on several more jumps, making sure your records are cleansed of those details too. We wouldn’t want you leading anyone back here, either.”
“But we can still tell people you were out here, that you’ve got a staging point somewhere,” said Sasha.
The professor chuckled.
“My dear, they already know. Every large power does this. The only thing of value would be the exact location.”
“I take it you aren’t really a professor?” Joe said.
“Actually I am, and my position in the university was achieved on merit. However I had a more important role too — picking up on information that was of interest, ensuring it wasn’t stored anywhere someone else could find it, then arranging for it to be investigated. I won’t be returning now, though. My cover is no longer solid, so I will find another role somewhere.”
“We were always going to end up here, weren’t we?”
“Only if you found anything of interest. If not you would have dropped me off at the University, but you did and so our paths have taken this course.”
Joe shook his head again, angry at the situation he’d led his crew into.
“All right. Let’s get this over with.”
* * *
Joe sat in his cabin with Sasha, Doug, Blaze and Janine. They were now five jumps away from the military installation. The Kingdom’s troopers had finally left the Panther twenty minutes before, having ensured no traces of the ship’s recent journeys remained. Joe had ordered the Panther into hyperspace the moment its drive had charged.
“So,” Joe said. “It seems they wiped everything. Sparks and Granger are still trawling through our systems but they’ve found nothing relating to our travels after we picked up the professor. The troopers made certain we hadn’t copied the information anywhere else too. Sasha, if we got you into the general area of space could you find that asteroid field again?”
“Only if you could get me close enough to the area. Without knowing the rough location it could take us months or longer to find it.”
“And if we did then the Kingdom would be there anyway,” Joe said. “The information is gone, then.”
“Not quite,” said Janine.
She leaned forward, dropping a small storage device onto the table they sat around.
“Is that what I think it is?” asked Joe.
“It has all the locations we visited. I entered the details to it manually so there was no record for them to find.”
“They searched all our storage, though. They even searched us. Do I want to know how you kept it hidden?”
Janine grinned and shook her head.
“My secret,” she said. “One I intend to keep.”
“Alright. So the question is, what do we do with it?”
“If we give the information to anyone then the Kingdom will find out,” said Blaze. “They know we’re the only other possible source. You know what they’re like. They’ll hunt us down over something this big.”
“I still don’t see why they let us go,” said Sasha.
“The Kingdom considers itself honourable,” said Joe. “If we break their rules, their laws, then they will happily hunt us down and kill us. As long as they think we played them fairly then they’ll leave us alone.”
“So we’re left with two priceless pieces of information we can’t sell?” asked Doug.
“Even holding onto them is a risk,” said Blaze. “They’ll be watching us, I can guarantee that. If they suspect we’ve got this they’ll tear the ship apart looking for it.”
“Of course if another faction learns the location of the staging area or the asteroid field without us telling them we could be in just as difficult a position.”
Joe sighed. Two pieces of information that could make all of them rich but the risks associated with each were sky high.
“Alright,” he said. “Let’s vote on it. Keep this or destroy it. Janine?”
“Keep it,” she said. “It’s worth the risk.”
“Destroy it,” said Doug. Blaze nodded his agreement.
“I think we should keep it, but not use it yet,” said Joe. “But I’ll abide by the decision. Sasha, you have the casting vote.”
Doug opened his mouth to protest but Joe raised a warning hand, glaring at the pilot. Doug sat back, his face unhappy.
“It’s too risky,” Sasha said. “You saw the size of that fleet. They could have swatted us aside. I say we destroy it.”
Joe nodded. “Alright, it’s not what I chose but I can’t say that you might not be right. Blaze, do the honours please.”
Blaze pulled out his gun, adjusting the settings before firing on the storage device at low power. Low for the weapon, but still more than enough to melt the storage device into a pool of liquid.
“We’re done then,” Joe said. “Ask the rest of the crew to keep this whole affair on the quiet. We don’t want people coming after us for information we don’t even have.”
They all nodded, then got up silently and left the cabin. Joe remained, thinking through everything that had happened.
Once the door closed behind them his eyes flickered to the wall and its hidden drawer, his thoughts going to the storage device in there.
Janine wasn’t the only one to make a secret record of their journey. He didn’t plan to use it, not for the moment at least, but one day the information might be worth enough to save the ship and his crew. When that day came the Kingdom’s little secret would be out, and to hell with the consequences.
They could threaten his ship. They could threaten his crew. They could even threaten him. But the one thing they couldn’t do was control him, and trying was the worst mistake they could make…