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BOOK: in0
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Michael McCollum

Sci Fi - Arizona, Inc.

Third Millennium Publishing

An Online Cooperative of Writers and Resources


“It is said of the British Empire's acquisition of the Indian subcontinent that they did
not so much conquer India as win the prize in a fit of absentmindedness. Although
exaggeration, there is a modicum of reality in the statement. For the truth is that the
greatest jewel in Victoria's crown was won in large part through a streak of luck - bad luck
for the indigenous peoples and good luck for the inhabitants of what otherwise might have
been just another sleepy island nation.

“Nor can we modern humans make any great claims for our own recent acquisitions. Oh, we
speak loudly of our own prowess, and celebrate the memories of the brave men and women who
sacrificed their lives to our cause. Still, we should not lose sight of the undeniable fact that we
were lucky, perhaps far luckier than we deserved. I therefore ask you, my fellow citizens of Sol, to
join me in an exercise in humility. Consider for a moment all the things that might have gone

From a Victory Speech by the

Right Honorable Jonathan Ambrose

To the World Parliament

12 October 2356


Captain Dan Landon of the Survey Ship
sat strapped in his desk and gazed at the large holoscreen that dominated the far bulkhead. It was filled by a blue-white planet bordered by a patch of ebon sky. Stretched out before him to the curving planetary limb was a panorama of fleecy-white clouds and seas of royal blue. To the right lay a sprinkling of green islands; each surrounded by aquamarine shoals. At the top of the screen, just coming into view, was the jagged coastline of one of the major continents. Soon they would be sweeping over amber plains blackened by herds of six-legged beasts, mountain ranges capped by snowfields, forests of deep green, and a river network that was equal to the Nile, the Amazon, and the Mississippi combined.

In the two generations since humanity had won free to the stars, the race had found but twelve worlds sufficiently like the Mother of Men to be considered even marginally habitable. This was the thirteenth, and so far, the best. Preliminary results gave it double the highest habitability index previously recorded.

A solid month of orbital scanning, laboratory tests, and on-the-ground exploration had revealed a paradise. For that reason, Landon scowled as he watched the scenery float by far below. A life spent in the service of the Stellar Survey had left him with a philosophy that mirrored the organization’s unofficial motto: “If things are going well, you have obviously overlooked something!”

As he gazed at New Eden, the crew’s unofficial name for their find, he wondered what they were overlooking. Even after a month of study by a thousand talented specialists, they had only scratched the surface of what there was to know. A world was just too large and too varied a place to be surveyed by a single shipload of scientists. To understand New Eden completely would be the work of generations.

Where lurked the microorganism that would ultimately prove fatal to humans, the environmental factor that would render colonists sterile, or the million-and-one other deadly possibilities that would turn this beautiful new world into a pestilential hellhole?

Landon knew that his current black mood was a defense mechanism against the high hopes that New Eden had spawned in him. It was easy to remain detached when the system to be surveyed consisted totally of sterile rocks and gas giants, as most of them were. There was no love in his breast for the usual dust balls, volcano fields, and oceans of hydrochloric acid. However, to find this beautiful world and then lose it because of some innocuous-seeming environmental factor would be too great a disappointment.

Better to keep expectations low until they knew more about it. Sighing, he moved to retrieve a bulb of steaming hot tea from its microgravity holder.

There was a quiet rattle as the cabin around him shivered. Landon froze for a long second as his brain analyzed what he had sensed largely on a subconscious level. A chill had gone up his spine as it sometimes did when he was thrilled or frightened. Yet, it had not been just him. There had been a subdued clatter from the storage lockers that lined every unused centimeter in his cabin. The holoscreen had flickered with static, hadn’t it?

The introspection took less time than it takes to gulp. A moment later, his hand reached out of its own volition and slapped down on the intercom plate inset into the desk.

“Report!” he snapped as the duty officer, a pimple-faced ensign, stared back at him.

“Don’t know, Captain,” the boy squeaked. “We are getting reports from all over the ship. Wait a second. Scout Three is reporting that they felt it, too!”

Scout Three was Jani Rykand’s ship, en route back from exploring the larger of the two moons of the planet. The fact that she was ten thousand kilometers from
eliminated the thought that whatever had happened was a problem only with his ship.

“Sound general quarters, Mr. Grandstaff.”

“Aye aye, Captain.”

Landon was already out of his seat, pulling himself hand over hand toward the control room as the alarms began to bleat. A thousand past drills provided him with a mental picture of the organized bedlam that was taking place all over the ship. Before the alarms lapsed into silence, he was strapped into his control console at the heart of the big survey craft, surrounded by dozens of screens, none of which told him what he wanted to know.

“What was it, Doc?” he asked a white-haired man in his personal screen after keying for the ship’s chief scientist.

“Whatever it was,” Raoul Bendagar replied, “it wreaked holy hell with our instruments. Half of them lost calibration at the same precise moment we felt the shock.”

“You must have some idea,” Landon persisted.

“Wait a second while I check something,” Bendagar answered. He stooped to manipulate a screen on which a series of glowing red lines were superimposed on a polar coordinate grid. “Well I’ll be damned.”

“Don’t keep me in suspense.”

Bendagar glanced up at the captain, a look of shock on his face. “We just experienced the Grand Hooting Monster of all gravity waves, Captain. No wonder it knocked everything out of alignment.”

Landon frowned. He knew that gravity waves existed, of course. For more than a century, a trio of satellites had orbited between Earth and Mars at a precise one thousand kilometers from one another.

They used laser beams to maintain their spacing to twelve digits of accuracy, forming a vast right triangle that detected the microscopic distortions caused by the collapse of distant stars and other more catastrophic events. The largest gravity wave ever detected had distorted space by an amount less than the width of a proton. This one had been heavy enough to rattle Landon as he sat in his cabin.

“Come off it, Doc. Couldn’t have been.”

“The instruments recorded a distortion wave traveling from Equipment Lock Two to the boat deck at the speed of light. Call it what you will, but I say it was a gravity wave.”

“Captain,” the communicator on duty reported, “Scout Three has a sighting report.”

“Put her through.”

As usual, Jani Rykand’s features were framed in a tousled copper explosion of hair. Unlike most women who lived and worked in microgravity, she refused to bob her mane, or to keep it bound in a hair net. On her, it looked good.


“Something weird going on out here, Captain. I am getting energy readings from a point thirty degrees aft of my orbital path.”

Landon glanced at Bendagar.

“We’ve got them, too,” the chief scientist reported.

“What do you make of it, Scout Three?”

“Hirayama’s got the scope focused on it, Captain. It looks like a couple of ships.”

“Patch your view through to us,” Landon snapped.

An instant later, Jani Rykand’s features dissolved to show the blackness of space. In the background were the usual constellations of stars, subtly or drastically altered from the familiar constellations of home by the hundred light-years
had crossed to reach this world. At first, there was nothing to see.

This changed when a violet flash of light sparked the darkness. It put Landon in mind of summer lightning back home in B.C. Except this lightning managed to illuminate two shapes in the blackness, one of which glowed for long seconds after the bolt.

“Give us a tighter view, Hirayama,” the captain ordered. Onboard the scout the geologist who was operating the scope controls moved to comply. The distant stars jerked back and forth a few times as the telescope zoomed to maximum magnification. When it stopped, there was no doubt that they were looking at two vessels and that one of them seemed intent on destroying the other.

The prey was the larger of the two, a squat cylinder - it looked remarkably like the pressurized cans in which ground coffee was shipped to prevent vacuum damage. The ship was obviously intended to be spun to produce artificial gravity. Its tormentor was a thin cylinder with a variety of mechanisms jutting from a central core. While they watched, the attacker again sent a beam of violet to splash against the hull of its larger prey. They watched as a geyser of plasma spewed away from the strike in a wide-angled vacuum expansion cone.

“All recorders to maximum,” Landon ordered without being aware of it. “Hirayama, track them!”

Even with the telescope focused on the battling duo, it was obvious that the larger ship was doing everything in its power to escape. It jinked one way, then the other, always trying to stay ahead of its tormentor. The effort was futile. The small warcraft matched each violent maneuver with one of its own, hanging onto its prey like a small terrier harrowing a large bull. Every few seconds another violet beam would splash across the hide of the larger craft, leaving an ugly, glowing scar in its wake. Yet, if the small ship were attempting to disable the larger, it was having little luck. After each hit, the target changed course and tried to flee.

“They’re headed this way!” Jani Rykand’s excited voice said over the intercom. Sure enough, the larger ship had changed course and was now headed directly for the scout. As the observers aboard
watched, the squat cylinder became a perfect circle and began to grow on the screen. Whatever drive principle the two unknowns were using was not obvious. There were no flares or other emissions to suggest they moved by means of reaction engines.

“Scout Three, take evasive action!”

“Any particular ideas?” the young woman pilot asked. “They both look as though they can fly rings around this tub of mine. My God, look at them come!”

She was right. Both ships were growing at an unbelievable rate on the screen. Soon Hirayama was backing off on the magnification to keep them in view. It took less than a minute before both ships were within naked eye range of Scout Three. The larger prey flashed past at a range of ten kilometers with the small war craft in hot pursuit.

Then it happened.

Dan Landon had been dividing his time between the view from Scout Three and several long-range views of the battle from
’s own telescopes, which showed only an occasional spark of violet against the ebon backdrop of space. As it passed the scout, the warship fired another of its violet beams. The beam reached out and momentarily bathed Scout Three in a violet corona of light. The signal from the scout cut off abruptly.

“Scout Three!” Landon screamed. “Report. Jani, how badly are you damaged?”

The answer was obvious on the screen. Where a moment earlier there had been a tiny human spacecraft too small to be seen against the blackness of space, now there was a tiny speck of radiance, a glowing cloud of plasma that cooled as it expanded.

Landon felt a sudden surge of rage. His vision was clouded by the memory of a laughing face framed in wild red hair. Then, as quickly as it arrived, the rage was gone. He felt nothing as he watched the larger ship again foreshorten until it was a half-lit circle of light expanding on the screen. It was the same as the view from Scout Three’s cameras, but with the difference that this time,
was drawing the battle to it.

“Prepare message probe.”

“Captain, we can’t do that,” Grandstaff said beside him. “We are too deep in the planet’s gravity well.

The generators will never stand the strain.”

“Load message probe, damn you!”

A moment later, Grandstaff reported, “Message probe prepared for launch.”

Crammed with power reactors and a star drive generator, a message probe was a small, unmanned starship.
carried a dozen of the five-meter diameter spherical craft. They were used for sending reports back to Earth. Not only did they obviate the need to return home after each system; they were insurance against the loss of valuable data should the ship meet with an accident.

Landon watched the oncoming pair while monitoring a display that showed their speed, course, and relative bearing. Since no one had ever expected to fight a space battle out among the stars,
was ill equipped to defend itself. The ship’s entire armory consisted of rifles, machine guns, and a few heavier weapons to take care of pesky carnivores. Still, they had one potential weapon onboard that might prove useful in stopping an alien marauder.

The two craft came on, with the smaller continuing to chew away at the larger. The damage was beginning to take its toll. Chunks of the prey were being shot off as a cloud of gas and vapor issued forth from dozens of rips in the hull.

Dan Landon set up the probe’s coordinates himself, not trusting anyone else to do it. As the warship neared the distance from which it had destroyed Scout Three, Landon keyed the control that would send the tiny unmanned starship racing for Earth. Except, its target was not Earth this time. Landon sent it directly toward the alien warship.

BOOK: in0
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