“I was on a dead ship on an unknown planet with three trainees freshly graduated into the Imperial Service. I tried to look on the bright side.”
He is the last to wake. The label on his sleeper pad identifies him as an admiral of the Evagardian Empire—a surprise as much to him as to the three recent recruits now under his command. He wears no uniform, and he is ignorant of military protocol, but the ship’s records confirm he is their superior officer.
Whether he is an Evagardian admiral or a spy will be of little consequence if the crew members all end up dead. They are marooned on a strange world, their ship’s systems are failing one by one—and they are not alone.
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There were voices.
“An admiral? Is this a joke?” one of the voices said.
“It’s the seal. Look at this. I think someone’s done something to it.”
“Is he alive?”
“This isn’t even our ship.”
“He’s breathing. I have him.”
I was distracted from the pain wracking my body by a pair of soft lips on mine, and a rush of welcome, secondhand oxygen. The kindness didn’t last. A powerful fist smashed into my sternum.
The hand drew back for another blow, but I managed to grab the wrist and hold it. I didn’t need to be hit again.
Coughing, I opened my eyes just to shut them again. There were three lights blinding me. I released the wrist, then slowly sat up and groaned. Someone backed away from me. The deck was cold, and the air didn’t taste right.
I opened one eye and squinted up. Three people stood over me. Two young women, one young man. They wore only service-issue undergarments. Like me, they must have just come out of their sleepers.
I had no circulation in my limbs. My mouth was dry. The world was skipping frames, and my mind was stumbling to catch up. Sleepers were good at shutting down brain function; they weren’t as good at bringing it back. I could feel my heart twitching in a way that I didn’t particularly like, though the sleeper wasn’t to blame for that.
I felt like a dead man. I’d had bad wake-ups before, but nothing like this. Apart from a few readouts, the sleeper bay was completely dark. No lights, no emergency lights. Tangled as my head was, I knew that couldn’t be right.
The deck was metal, and not especially clean. I could feel an aggressive nonslip pattern of ridges under my palm. That was unexpected.
“What’s happening?” I asked, rubbing at my eyes and trying to make myself focus. It was as if I had all the negative effects of ethanol poisoning, but none of its perks. Every part of my brain was struggling except my memory. “Where are we?”
The three exchanged looks.
“Undetermined, sir.” That came from the shorter of the two females. The tall one watched me suspiciously, and the young man looked like he was trying to wake up from a bad dream. I knew exactly how he felt.
“Did you pull me?”
“You were showing warning lights. Something’s wrong with this unit,” the young man said, tapping the sleeper’s plastic shield. “The power’s gone, sir.”
“Thank you.” That was why these three had their hand-lights. My thoughts weren’t so jumbled that I didn’t know they’d just saved my life by getting me out of that sleeper.
I didn’t know where we were, but it wasn’t Payne Station. The paralysis was wearing off. I wanted to close my eyes and lie back down.
So I got to my feet, wobbling only a little. I reached up, touching my hair. It was short. I’d already known that; I was just checking.
The taller of the two women was eye to eye with me, and I’m nearly two meters. The look she was giving me wasn’t particularly friendly.
I rubbed my face, finding stubble. I shook my head and considered the three young people, thinking fast.
I eyed the young man. “Are you a tech?”
He nodded. “Ensign Nils. Trainee.”
I looked them over, trying to understand. “All of you?”
“Yes, sir,” they replied as one.
Evagardian trainees. All graduates. I sort of waved my hand at them.
“And you’re all going to the Julian.”
“Yes, sir.” Nice chorus.
I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned. They politely just stood there, staring at me. We were all shivering.
I pulled myself together and tried to look as though I was in control of my life. How had these three gotten onto a ship transporting me? I took a deep breath to keep my temper under control.
“Relax,” I told the trainees, who were standing stiffly, all earnest propriety. Giving their military customs and courtesies their all, insofar as they could in their underwear. I waved at them again. “You’re not in uniform.” I frowned. “But I suppose you ought to be. Get dressed.”
They shifted uncomfortably, and I realized that without power they couldn’t access the lockers on their sleepers.
Nils cleared his throat. “Sir?”
I turned on him. He had a little muscle that he probably hadn’t had before service training. He embodied every tech cliché, so he couldn’t really be anything else. He was pale, and a little twitchy. Then again, so was I.
He panned his light over the ceiling, showing hard lines and rough, gray metal. “Sir, this is a Commonwealth vessel. Ganraen.”
“I doubt that.” I rubbed at my sore joints, swearing internally.
“Sir,” the tall girl said, very firmly. “The engineering markings are all here.” She used her own light to show me a faded plaque on the bulkhead. It was the emblem of the Ganraen Royal Trade Commission, and a map of the deck.
Well, it was pretty hard to argue with that.
“Yes, it’s Ganraen built,” I said, looking around. These graduates couldn’t have been intended to revive on this vessel. How had this happened? It wasn’t just the wake-up. It wasn’t the state of my health, or my malfunctioning brain. Something was very wrong here.
The tall one didn’t seem to like me much. I’d been conscious for only a minute; what could I have possibly done? The disapproving look on her face looked so at home that maybe it wasn’t personal. She had that kind of face, the kind where you thought that maybe the fierce scowl was the default setting.
“What’s your name?” I asked her.
“Lieutenant Deilani reports as ordered, Admiral.”
“Admiral?” I blinked, taken aback. Making a point of looking bland, she panned her light past me. Indeed, my sleeper had all the right markings. There was an Imperial Admiral’s crest, plain as day.
“I’ll be damned,” I said, gazing at it. “I’ve been promoted. Drinks for everyone. Especially me.” It was time to change the subject, and I addressed Lieutenant Deilani. “What’s your area?”
I was curious; I’d met a few young officers over the years, and kids with brand-new commissions usually didn’t run around with chips on their shoulders like hers. It struck me as a little ungrateful.
I pictured this young woman bossing people around a medbay and decided she’d be good at it.
The third trainee was standing at parade rest. Unlike the other two, who had standard service haircuts, her hair had not been cut recently. There was only one way someone in the Service could dodge the haircut, and that was to need that hair for ceremonial or culturally significant purposes. That meant this shorter girl probably came from a tiered bloodline, a family whose genes were considered valuable.
She was pretty. Not gorgeous, but she was natural. She hadn’t augmented herself that I could see. She hadn’t tweaked her complexion or done anything too obvious to her features.
She did have that aristocratic poise, though.
“What do you do, Lieutenant? If you don’t mind saying?”
“Private, sir.” She was staring at me with the same interest I was getting from Deilani, but with none of the animosity. Her voice was soft and musical.
I stared back at her, not sure I’d heard correctly. And I didn’t like the way she was looking at me. It wasn’t hostility on her face, but there was an intensity in her dark eyes that made me uncomfortable.
I could see the gears turning in her mind.
And the tall one—Deilani—now looked even more threatening. I forced myself to focus.
Salmagard was an enlisted aristocrat? Was that even allowed? I’d never heard of them doing that. Aristocrats were supposed to be a big part of the Imperial Service’s officer corps; there was a long tradition of it. I’d never given it any thought, but if someone from one of these families couldn’t pass officer aptitudes, didn’t they usually just find another career?
I didn’t know. And I didn’t know the first thing about Private Salmagard, but I had a feeling she wasn’t the type to fail anything she didn’t want to fail.
This was a lot of strangeness to wake up to.
Maybe this was why Ensign Nils seemed so lost.
“Sorry,” I said, smiling at her. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“I’m in negotiations, sir.”
Maybe she was kidding. No, she didn’t seem like the type, not at a time like this. Why not? Why wouldn’t she be a negotiator? It looked like this was that kind of day.
Was it day?
I focused. The glare from the hand-lights was hurting my eyes. Salmagard’s placid mask was perfect. She wasn’t letting anything slip out, not a trace of individuality. Her eyes were still fixed on me.
I’d known Nils was a tech by looking at him. What did Salmagard look like?
Well, she looked a bit like a real negotiator. Like, a real, actual one. One that talked to people.
But I wasn’t sure Evagard actually had those.
She wasn’t kidding. And she recognized me. The other two didn’t, but Salmagard did.
I kept my bearing. It wasn’t as though this was the first time my life hadn’t gone as planned.
“All right,” I said, blinking.
I took Nils’ light and studied the markings on the plaque. The graduates were correct. This was a Ganraen vessel refitted by the Evagardian Empire, and I was pretty sure it was Captain Tremma’s freighter. And Tremma wouldn’t leave his passengers to wake up alone in the dark without a word.
The deck under my bare toes told me something was off about the gravity, but we weren’t in motion. If we were having a power failure, we were lucky to have gravity at all.
That was assuming this gravity was artificial. What if it wasn’t? Were we in dock? Landed?
“Admiral?” Nils pressed, looking uncertain. I’d been lost in my thoughts. There was something wild in his eyes. These circumstances were well outside his comfort zone.
“Right,” I said, waking up. They were looking to me for answers, or at least guidance. Admiral indeed. The sleeper bay was freezing cold; I needed to get these three dressed and out of here. I opened my locker, which I’d never locked in the first place, and rummaged through my bag, coming up with a folding knife.
I flicked it open and knelt by the nearest sleeper, motioning Nils over. “Put your light on that. Right here.” He did so. I ran my fingers lightly over the plastic, found the spot I was looking for, and gave it a sharp strike with the handle of the knife. The trainees were bewildered. They’d probably never even seen a metal knife outside a museum. They’d been trained with lighter and stronger synthetic blades. Or at least, one of them had. Maybe the lieutenant too—imperial officer courses were supposed to have a token close combat component.
But Deilani didn’t need a knife. She had those bony elbows. And that look she was giving me.
It wasn’t working. I whacked the panel again. “Did they change it?” I rubbed my chin. The stubble was killing me. It had to go. “It’s supposed to pop right off.” Well, it wasn’t supposed to—but I’d broken into lockers before. It wasn’t a difficult task; I should’ve been able to do this in my sleep.
I was still misfiring, and the look Deilani was giving me wasn’t getting any warmer.
This wasn’t working. I sighed and got up, going to the bay door. Just in time, I remembered there was no power, and grabbed the handle instead of hitting the palm switch. The rubber grip was cool to the touch, but the hatch didn’t budge. I adjusted my grip, planted my feet, and put my back into it. Nothing.
I blew out my breath and drew back, shaking my sore hands. It was obviously stuck.
“Well,” I said. “This is awkward.”
“Permit me, sir.” Private Salmagard stepped past me, taking a firm grip on the handle. Surprised, I stepped aside. I’d been about to ask Nils for a hand.
Salmagard wrenched the hatch open, letting in a blast of icy cold. The air in the corridor wasn’t much warmer than that in the bay, and it was also pitch black.
Salmagard stepped aside, bowing her head.
I cleared my throat. “Thank you, Private.” I listened. There was no sound.
I’d never experienced a completely silent ship before. The only systems running were auxiliaries with their own power supplies, like sleeper readouts.
This lack of sound wasn’t peaceful or calming; it was terrifying. Something was catastrophically wrong. When your ship is on emergency power, you’re in trouble. When your ship hasn’t got any power at all, if you’re not dead, you will be soon.
I went back into the bay. “We’re in trouble.” I took my pistol from the locker, and both Deilani and Nils took a step back with wide eyes. It probably wasn’t every day they saw an unsecured weapon on a spacecraft.