By Dave Duncan
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 2012 Dave Duncan
All rights reserved.
We ignored the protesters shouting slogans outside the gates. Back in those days a lot of kooky people were convinced that every star traveler was going to bring back some weird virus that would wipe out life as we know it. Well, that was fifty years ago and it hasn't happened yet. Gregor Fonatelles: My Life in the Big Nothing Gogbok 2364.EN.56789
"All hands on deck! All hands on deck!"
That urgent call failed to disturb the syncopated rhythm of two persons breathing in a darkened cabin.
"We've been screwed, dammit!"
Certainly somebody had been. Seth was heavily entangled in soft, smooth arms and legs, two of each, in a soft, warm bed. Whoever it was smelled nice, was alive, gently breathing. Do it again soon, not yet ... He sank back into sweet nirvana.
"Captain, hear this!"
"Captain here," Jordan muttered in Seth's ear, her voice still thick with sleep.
"Jordan, there's a freaking flag on the planet!"
That was the voice of First Officer Hanna Finn, who had the watch. Who was so virginally prim that she never, ever used words like "dammit" or "screwed." Was unheard-of. Seth forced open one eye: the wall display showed 401:01:14.
On Day 400 there had been a party, which explained why someone was kicking his head with hob nail boots. A fantastic, riotous, bacchanalian celebration of triumph, victory, sugarplum riches in sight at last. All the work and tedium, tension and danger had been forgotten as the Holy Grail of success shone there in the darkness. ISLA's General Regulations prohibited alcohol aboard starships, a law impossible to enforce when synthesizers could convert plant and animal waste into gourmet food. So the party had been memorable, but when it began to grow quirky, Seth had scooped the captain up and carried her off over his shoulder to the cabin they currently shared.
That same Jordan was now making protesting noises and punching him in the ribs. Seemed he had been sleeping more on top of than with. He parted stickily from her and rolled off. From what he remembered, it had been a rollick to die for, which is what his headache now made seem both likely and devoutly to be wished.
"I'm coming." Jordan threw aside the cover; lights came on; she grabbed her clothes from the chair.
They couldn't have slept more than thirty minutes and Seth was due to relieve Hanna in less than an hour. Whatever could be exciting First so? He slid hairy legs over the edge of the bed and reached down for the shorts and top he had dropped while in too much of a lusting frenzy to think tidy. He went reeling at Jordan's heels as she sped along the corridor into the control room.
The control room was the second largest space in Golden Hind's living quarters but fourteen months ago he had considered it poky. His appreciation of size had changed since then. Its walls, ceiling, and even padded floor, could be made to display the surrounding starscape of the galaxy, or scenes such as a boat trip along the Amazon or the hubbub of a Chinese dancing team at a country fair. They were mercifully blank beige now. Hanna sat alone in her place at the long table. Jordan slid into hers at the head, and Seth hurried around to his, at the far end.
Woe betide anyone who dared sit in the wrong chair. As Commodore JC Lecanard never tired of pointing out, rank was important when six people were confined for a long time in cramped quarters; it produced a necessary minimum of formality and respect, he said. Top dogs thought like that. Seth was bottom dog, even if he was the captain's current bed partner He called her "ma'am" when they had their clothes on and rarely needed to talk at all when they didn't.
Hanna looked as if her headache was even more fatal than his. Her long auburnhair, normally a glory, was now a tangled fishing net, her emerald eyes floated in seas of blood. Poor Hanna was so repressed that this might well be her first-ever hangover. Prudish or not, she had proved to be a superb navigator and first officer.
She said, "Look at that awful thing." She meant a 3-D projection of the local Cacafuego planetary system that was currently floating above the table.
The hologram was not to scale, but it showed the central G-type star with one close-in hot gas giant planet whirling around it every three days. Far out the two ice giants marched in eccentric, retrograde orbits. It was this unusual combination that had confounded the Doppler trace of the planets' gravitational action on the star, the main reason that Cacafuego had escaped detection for so long. Cacafuego itself, the world of their dreams, was a shining blue gem right where it ought to be, in the habitable suburbs, neither too hot nor too cold. With a single small moon, as they had discovered yesterday. Veteran wildcatters insisted that planets with a single moon were lucky.
But the Cacafuego icon was disfigured now by a glowing, flashing halo that indicated someone had put a radio beacon in orbit around it. That somebody must be presumed human, because a hundred years of stellar exploration had turned up no other species with a knack for technology.
Jordan sighed, did not comment. She was fair, fine-boned, and short of stature. Like most herms, she wore her hair short, but it was still rumpled from sleep and vigorous bed-romping. Her ludicrously smudged eye makeup made her look like a drunken panda.
In stalked JC himself, tucking top into shorts. JC was a huge man, wide, tall, and hairy. At sixty-two, he was easily the oldest person aboard, the originator, sponsor, organizer and leader of the expedition. He slumped into his place on the captain's right, opposite Hanna, and scowled horribly at the holographic display.
"That wasn't there an hour ago. Did they detect us and turn it on?"
—No, Commodore, Control said. —Two-way response time would be too great at this distance. We have just come within range, and even now the signal is only detectable because we know where to look and can apply sophisticated filtering.
Astrobiologist Reese Platte entered and took his seat between Seth and Hanna. He glanced around the company with a sneer, which was his usual expression, aided by an overlong nose and chin, a face of bone and angles. Either he had drunk less than the others at the party, or he just found other people's hangovers amusing. Reese was independently wealthy back home and so had less to lose than anyone else.
Lastly came a sleepy Maria Chang, the planetologist, who had obviously taken a moment to brush out her hair. Even sleep deprivation and a hangover could not rob Maria of her poise or seductive walk; her gaze was still sultry as she assessed the others. Maria had no lack of interest in the mission, but she was a people-first person. She took her seat on Seth's right, and then all twelve eyes were directed at the display.
This was Golden Hind's full complement, each of the six having specific skills and duties. Off-duty all that mattered was that they were two men, two women, and two herms. That allowed a lot of different combinations.
Seth waited for someone else to say something. The silence was the sound of crumbling dreams. They had spent fourteen months bottled up in this starship, fourteen months cut out of their lives, with the return trip still to come. Wildcatting was the most dangerous of all legal occupations other than military combat, but it could be the most lucrative. Even Seth, the lowly gofer, could hope to become wealthy on his tiny share in the Hind's voyage.
Back on Day 0, when Golden Hind left Earth orbit, Hanna had estimated 425 days out. She had beaten her estimate by twenty-five days. Yesterday she had plotted the last jump, promising it would take them right to the destination system. The crew had been gathered in the control room, tense with excitement. She had reported, "Ready to jump, ma'am."
Jordan had laid both hands on the table and ordered the jump.
Everyone had checked the star fields around them. Those had barely changed, but above the consol appeared the holograph with Cacafuego shining blue, the color of water and oxygen and life. No further jumps required—four days' coasting and they would be there. Even JC, ever cagey with praise, had complemented Hanna on an incredible feat of navigation. In minutes Control had reported that close scanning of the system showed no significant variation from predictions, and that neither ship or crew had suffered damage. JC had opened his secret hoard of champagne, and the ship had erupted in frenetic celebration.
That had been last night. This morning Seth was not the only one with a pounding headache, which was a bad condition for dealing with disaster.
He jumped as needle claws dug into his thighs, but it was merely Ship's Cat Whittington seeking a friendly lap. She turned around and settled down, tucking her tail in carefully. A happy soul was Whittington, unconcerned by the total absence of mice within 1500 light years. Seth stroked her and she rumbled, flattering the Big One who fed her, ignoring the other Big Ones' confrontation.
"Time slip!" Reese growled. "Welcome to the twenty-fifth century."
Time slip was always a danger. It could not be predicted. People had returned decades after they had been given up for dead, finding the world they knew changed beyond recognition and their friends aged. Had Golden Hind lost a century or so on the way here?
"Flaming shit," JC said at last. "We don't need that. Control, who staked that planet?"
—No planet in this system is presently staked, Commodore.
"Then who planted the flag?"
—Beacon's originator's key is registered to DSS De Soto, exploration vessel owned by Galactic Inc., a company incorporated under the laws of ...
Of course it would be Galactic. Galactic was the billion-ton gorilla of the stellar exploration business. Galactic ships had brought back scores of fantastic chemicals that could be synthesized into pharmaceuticals, supplying all humankind with herm drugs, cancer drugs, Methuselah drugs, and hundreds more. Galactic was Goliath, bigger and more successful than the next three exploration companies combined, thousands of times the size of a startup independent like Mighty Mite Ltd.
"De Soto was still in dock orbit when we shipped out," Jordan said. "So the time slip may not be very great."
"It could be a hundred years," Reese countered. "Those beacons are built to last." He enjoyed being devil's advocate.
"We don't know there's been any time slip at all," JC said. "We told Hanna we'd rather get home alive than be rich and dead. Galactic has better hazard maps than it ever releases, no matter what ISLA regulations say. It's notorious for putting its crews at risk by cutting corners."
If the planet had not been staked, what did the beacon mean? Seth was always careful not to trample on the experts' toes. Either they all knew the answer already, or he was the only one who had noticed. Possibly they were all afraid to ask a stupid question. The gofer had no status to lose
"I thought staking flags were green," Seth said. "Control, what does yellow stand for?"
—Yellow beacon indicates danger, will be recommended for proscription.
Nobody looked in his direction. The death rate among wildcatters was notorious, but most casualties were among the prospectors, the heroic few who actually set foot on exoplanets. If even Galactic thought a planet was too dangerous to visit, then it must be boiling radioactive snake venom.
Galactic sent out entire fleets, not solo vessels like Hind. Galactic included dozens of specialists in its expeditions. A tiny start-up company like Mighty Mite had to crew a ship with jacks-of-all-trades, people with multiple skills. Golden Hind carried only one prospector, Seth Broderick, who was also porter, janitor, and general gofer.
"I never heard of quarantine, or proscription," he said.
"Quarantine's from ancient marine law," JC said. "When a sailing ship had plague or yellow fever aboard, it had to fly a yellow flag. In the early days of space travel, everyone feared that life-bearing worlds would harbor bugs or viruses that would be brought back to infect the Earth. So far as I know ... Reese, has any wildcatter ever been infected by a local disease on an exoplanet?"
"Very rarely," the biologist said. "It has happened, but exoplanet bacteria and viruses are usually so alien that you would be more likely to catch Dutch elm disease from a lobster. You are in less danger from the infection than from your own immune system over-reacting, but we can control that."
JC grunted agreement. "Control, confirm that Cacafuego is virgin territory."
—ISLA had no record of any previous exploration, Commodore.
Which meant only that the ship's files had not been updated since first jump, and so were fourteen months out of date. The evidence showed that someone had beaten them to it.
Seth would kill for a cup of coffee and a long glass of orange juice. Sitting with his back to the mess doorway, he was in the path of all the stale scents of last night's party treats wafting by: wine, chili, ripe cheese, onions, and a few recreational materials not listed on the official manifests. It was his job to tidy up. He should fetch and serve refreshments for the others. To hell with duty, this meeting was too critical to miss.
Jordan was drumming fingernails on the table. "Is there a posting date on the beacon?" she asked.
—Beacon is still too distant for us to query, Captain.
"Any ships in orbit there now?" asked JC.
—No transmissions being detected, Commodore. Target is too distant for visual detection.
Jordan said, "If they're still there, they must have seen our jump flash when we arrived."
"Not necessarily," JC said. "Control, there must be a text message included."
—Still too distant even for that. We are presently receiving only the wideband alarm signal, barely distinguishable from galactic background noise.
"If we left ahead of De Soto," asked Reese, the biologist, "how far ahead of us could they have gotten here? I mean, how long, in time? Without allowing for any time slip?" Somehow his questions always sounded like sneers.
"A physicist would say that there was no answer to that question," Hanna snapped, her temper glinting again. She must be blaming herself for this catastrophe; she had lost the race. "When you jump, you twist both space and time, so the uncertainty principle cuts in. We took fifteen jumps. If De Soto has better maps of the safe havens, as JC says, they may have relied on those without confirming the jumps were still safe. In theory you could travel the whole distance in no time at all."
"And get your gonads fried by radiation somewhere," JC said. "Or ram a brown dwarf star. Better safe than sorry."
The Big Nothing was not truly empty. It hid radiation belts, dust clouds, gas clouds, solitary comets or planets, and even black holes. They all shifted unpredictably in space-time. Running into any of them at supra-light-speed was normally fatal.
Reese made a snorting noise, an annoying habit of his when male. "Never mind theory. How long in practice?"
"As much as two or three months, maybe," Hanna admitted.
The mood of gloom deepened. Four hundred days ago they had greeted the data on Cacafuego with wild rejoicing. Remote sensing by the trans-Neptunian observatories had indicated a highly promising candidate for a life-bearing world, a mere 1,500 light years away, but there were limits to what remote sensing could detect and many things that could make a planet hostile to humans. Now De Soto had made a close appraisal and been scared off by what it saw, or what had happened to its prospectors.
Reese curled his lip. "Finders keepers; first come, first served. Even if we discovered something they missed, could they just take it from us?"
Seth thought not. The rules for staking were very specific. There were no Wild West shootouts in the Big Nothing. Battles were fought back home in the courts, where Galactic could outgun Mighty Mite by a million lawyers to one. Returning explorers had to hand over their ships' memory banks to ISLA, and Golden Hind's now recorded the detection of Galactic's beacon. There must be penalties for ignoring a quarantine. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Wildcatter by Dave Duncan. Copyright © 2012 Dave Duncan. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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