The Deep Link (The Ascendancy Trilogy Book 1)

BOOK: The Deep Link (The Ascendancy Trilogy Book 1)
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THE DEEP LINK

 

by

Veronica Sicoe

 

The Ascendancy Trilogy

Book One

Copyright © 2015 Veronica Sicoe

All rights reserved.

 

Edited by
Michael
Matheson

Cover art by
Adriana
Hanganu

Alien illustration by
Tony Camehl

 

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1

 

We drop out of FTL like bugs smacking a
windshield—unexpected and hard.

"Incoming transmission," the AI says.
"Unregistered frequency. Want to receive it?"

But I'm still wrestling with the godawful fugue that
follows each Jump. Feels like I've been pressed through a scrap shredder, from
the inside out.

"Taryn? Do you want to receive the
transmission?"

"Hold on a damn sec!" I rub my face and reach
for my mandible pendant in an old reflex. Then check the readings on the nacom
embedded in my wrist. We dropped out six million clicks shy of target.

What the hell happened
?

At FTL speeds we're just a property of spacetime, not
actual matter. We're like a message, transmitted to preset coordinates. We
can't just pop up somewhere else! Yet something snapped us right back into real
spacetime. Nothing we know of can do that.

I drop the milky containment fields around our three
chairs, and stare. The fields coalesce on the
Transiter
's floor, forming
a sheath of artificial gravity. It helps me ground myself, 'cause what I see
before me almost knocks me down again.

An alien head swirls in the middle of our tiny deck—a
projection awaiting response. It's dark green and unshapely, with two eyes that
glow like fireflies on a mossy rock. It stares right through me.

"Keep it paused," I tell the AI, then sit back
down, struck by dizziness.

I look over at Bray, who's supposed to be leading this
improvised mission, but he's still wrestling nightmares. Jade mumbles
something, grimacing, eyes tightly closed. I'm the only one awake. I study my
vital signs on the nacom. Pulse is stabilizing, brain activity smoothing out.
I'm almost clear. Almost focused.

Given that it's my fiftieth Jump in twenty-one years, it's
amazing I'm still intact. No insanity yet. No disabilities. That's quite an
achievement for someone with no access to Confederacy medi-care. If I were more
reasonable, I'd be worried stiff about losing my mind with each Jump. But all I
care about is flying out, making contact with a new alien race.

"Shit, the aliens!"

Bray jumps out of his chair and almost falls over. He
gasps, catches me looking at him, and rubs the fright out of his face.

Jade squints at the alien head, then stares at both of us
in turn. I shrug uneasily.

Bray accepts the incoming transmission.

The alien face splits open down the middle and a large,
scarlet tongue rolls out in a gush of stretchy spit. It gnarls something in a
throaty voice that the AI can't interpret, and we can't understand. We stare
back at it, still dazed by the fugue, which is kind of stupid since we're the
welcoming committee. A covert, illegal one, but still.

The alien waits for a reply, scrutinizing us. I squirm
uncomfortably in my chair.

It gurgles slowly, inhaling its own slime, and says in
coarse English, "No input go now," then the projection winks out.

What the fuck
?

Did we mess up already? Should I have said something, done
something upfront? I'm the xenospecialist here, after all. But the aliens I'm
familiar with—the insectoids I grew up with in the Mazan hives—are neither
spaceborne, nor do they speak human languages at first go. In fact, the
Dorylinae don't
speak
to humans at all.

Bray ruffles his mohawk. "Replay transmission."

"Certainly," the AI responds.

As he watches the projection again, Bray's expression settles
into the gloomy mien he's had since I met him a week ago.

For some reason, everyone in this motley crew I've
joined—except for Jade—seems to think Bray is some sort of driving force. Maybe
his restlessness makes him look eager, or maybe they think his ice-blue stare
and constant tension denote strong personality. But he's just a killjoy in a
white shirt and pressed pants. And his constant anxiety wears me out.

"They're basically telling us to fuck off," Bray
says.

"What now?" Jade asks.

"Communication with aliens is always a give and
take," I tell Bray, assuming a professional air. "I've been doing
this all my life, and our best chance is to be open and forthcoming. We should
make the next step."

Bray huffs his dismissal.

Jade shrugs. He looks exhausted and confused, so unlike
the kid I once knew. That pudgy, obnoxious brat with stubborn brown eyes has
somehow turned into a tall, lanky man with a tired but thoughtful gaze.

"We can't go back empty-handed," I insist.
"The Ticks are so close behind they're breathing down our necks. We have
to make contact
first
, before the Trust Military Corps sends in their
minions and fucks everything up. You know how they deal with aliens. Just think
of the Dorylinae."

Both of them avoid my gaze.

"Let's fly out and talk to them while we still
can."

Bray snorts and turns his back to me. "Cynthia, are
we in scanning range?"

"No," the AI responds. "The unidentified
vessel is still in a low orbit around Xi Scorpii B. If I dispatch the probes
now, they will be too close to the star to function properly for longer than
two minutes. This won't suffice to gather the data we need to estimate their
level of technology."

"Damn it!"

"Let's fly to them," I repeat. "Goad them
into a conversation. We'll find out much more that way."

"Or get blasted to bits," Bray snaps. "No.
We stay put, deploy half the probes and wait. Maybe try to contact Preston, see
what he's got to say about this."

"No can do, genius," Jade says. "The Ticks
could intercept our com signal and figure out where the station is, and then
everyone
's
fried."

Bray taps his foot on the grated deck.

"It's a contact mission," I remind him.
"Let's go make contact. You flew all the way to Tau Ceti to pick me up so
I can talk to those aliens. That's my fucking job—what you wanted me here for,
right?"

"
Preston
wanted you here. You're still an
outsider to me. You can do all the talking you want,
from here
, after we
get the probe data."

"She's not as much of an outsider as you think,"
Jade says. "I've known Taryn since we were kids. Her parents died in the Raids
back on Maza, like my dad." Jade throws me a sideways glance. "She
not exactly a fan of the Ticks either."

"But she's not part of our team."

"Who cares? Her experience with aliens is more
important."

Bray huffs again, avoiding my gaze. I can't quite figure
out his motives yet, but frankly, I don't care. I'm here for my own reasons,
not to vy for a spot in their little resistance, or whatever the hell they
teamed up for.

"We wouldn't still be here if the aliens wanted us
gone," Jade says. "We're not exactly armored in this husk."

Bray glares at him with resentment.

"The Ticks are bound to find the alien ship
soon," I say. "Maybe they already have. And if they get to them
first, forget about peaceful encounters or forging alliances."

Jade looks at Bray. "She's right."

"I don't care what either of you thinks!" Bray
clenches his fists. "Preston gave
me
this mission, and
I
say
we don't move a damn click."

My cheeks start to burn and my pulse picks up speed.
"You're not fit to lead anything. You're a fucking coward."

Bray's jaw twitches. He balls his fists.

"Hey, cool it." Jade grabs his shoulder.

Bray knocks his hand off. "We can't risk everything
just cause some bitch popped out of Preston's ass and wants to run my show. We
never should've rushed out here without proper prep."

"What prep?" Jade snaps. "It's a first
contact, for fuck's sake. We don't have experience with that."

"I do," I say.

"Come on, Bray, let her handle this."

"Enough!" Bray turns away. "We're staying
put, and that's that."

The fuck we are
.

Bray replays the alien transmission, and I bring up the
containment field around my chair, muffling everything out. I plug my nacom
into the left armrest with a hair-thin com line. As I close my eyes and fall
back against the foam, I call up the unique sequence of images, concepts, and
connotations that makes up my personal ID. My cortical synet instantly connects
to the
Transiter
's on-board computer.

A datascape forms inside my visual cortex. It displays my
vital signs, our current position, and the state of the electromagnetic cocoon
wrapped around the
Transiter
. The AI immediately queries my purpose.

Bray and Jade still argue at the periphery of my
awareness, muted by the containment field. I get busy circumventing the AI.

Years of hacking and fiddling with Tick surveillance
equipment back on Maza pays off. The maintenance simulation I code captures the
AI's attention for a matter of seconds. It's all I need. I hack the
Transiter
's
nav system and set it on an intercept course.

"Okay—
fine
," Bray yells as though through
a cloth. "Let's go get ourselves killed."

The
Transiter
picks up speed while I wrestle with
the AI. I don't get a chance to check my trajectory calculations before my
virtual vision turns red:

 

WARNING

IMMINENT
COLLISION

 

The
Transiter
's autonomous emergency system kicks
me and the AI off the controls and takes over. I'm left dazed, my mind still
spinning with half-finished code and course vectors.

A shrill alarm blares through the containment field.

Bray and Jade dive into their chairs and pull up their
fields. The computer orders us to brace for impact, then displays the view from
the bow and my breath stops.

An enormous, tear-shaped vessel grows directly ahead. Its
surface a quicksilver sea, quivering in anticipation, approaching fast and
dwarfing us, smothering all hope of escape.

In a single sucking motion its surface concaves to stretch
around us like a cavernous maw, and swallows us whole.

Everything goes dark.

2

Blinding whiteness pierces my eyelids. I wince and turn
away, but the light is everywhere. I cover my face and squint between my
fingers instead.

"Hello?"

The acoustics sound familiar. I'm still inside the
Transiter
.
But where is the
Transiter
?

"Taryn?"

"Jade... You okay?"

"Yeah." He groans. "What happened?"

I feel my way to the connection hub on my armrest. The
wire's still plugged into my nacom, but I have no feed from the AI or the
embedded systems.

My head is pounding as my eyes adjust to the brightness
and the basic contours of the deck fade in. Chairs and people glimmer like
distant shadows in a snowstorm.

"Turn the damn thing off," Bray says.

"It's not
our
lighting," says Jade.
"Everything's offline."

"What the fuck did you do?"

I know he means me. "Let me check." I unplug
myself and stand up, spread my arms out and take a couple of steps toward the
hatch. I bump my forehead against the curved ceiling and cuss.

I feel my way along the wall, counting cubbyholes, and
finally open one with a soft click. A bundled skinsuit drops and rolls toward
the triad of chairs in the middle of the deck.

Bray jumps out of his chair. "What are you
doing?"

"You're not thinking what I think you're thinking,
are you?" Jade wobbles toward me.

I shrug, and watch the suit unfurling, my eyes slowly
adapting to the light. "We need to check things out." I pull down the
zipper of my jumpsuit.

"You're not going anywhere," Bray snaps.

"Since everything is dead inside the
Transiter
except us, I'd say the aliens don't consider us a threat." I shrug the
jumpsuit off and tie my unruly black hair into a tail. The jumpsuit hangs
loosely from the curve of my hips, already revealing some of my childhood
scars.

"The light is probably a scanning tech," I say.
"We must be inside the alien ship, so I'll go greet our hosts."

I bend over, push the jumpsuit down to my feet, and
unfasten my boots. Then kick it all off and stand tall, butt naked and trying
not to shiver.

Both guys stare. There's a brief tug-of-war between Bray's
gaze and mine. His falters. I win.

"You've got a point," Jade says. "Two, actually,
aiming right at me."

"Oh shut up." I chuckle and pick up the unfolded
skinsuit.

Bray heads for the hatch, making a point of walking around
the back of his chair instead of by me. He opens a control panel on the wall
and runs basic diagnostics, while Jade checks the computer console.

"Fan-fucking-tastic," Bray mutters. "All
sensors are fried. Probes and photonic meshes too. Even our shielding. Every
goddamn system is fried."

"Except for gravity and life-support," Jade
says. "At least there's that."

I don the carbon-gray skinsuit and the adaptive weave
melds to my body. I start toward the hatch. "Let's go meet our new
friends."

"Not so fast," Bray says. "We've got to
bring the backups online. We need to encode a message and get it to
Preston—warn him the aliens are hostile, and prep for the—"

"Hostile? You're kidding, right? We're alive and
well. It's obvious they're not hostile. They may just be curious about
us."

"We've got no idea what they did to the ship, or what
they'll do to us."

"AI's fried too," Jade says. "Down to
backup firmware, and that's worth jack. We're stuck here."

"Well I'm going out. You two can either suit up or
stay here until the air runs out."

"I'm game." Jade edges toward me along the
curved wall.

I wait on Bray.

Gaze still pinned on me, he yanks another skinsuit free.

I grab an oxy-mask from the cubbyhole and get moving. My suit's molded to every curve and
angle of my body, thermo-regulating and supplying adequate pressure. I seal on
the transparent mask and it expands to encompass my whole head and closes
around the neck of my skinsuit. I breathe into it until my lungs adjust to the
regulated flow.

When the guys are done suiting up, I open the hatch.

Our
Transiter
is suspended a meter above a
shimmering black floor, in a large, inscrutable bay. As my eyes adapt to the
darkness beyond our ship, details begin to resolve: the bay is round, enormous,
and empty—apart from three aliens staring back at us.

For a damn long moment no one moves.

The massive aliens stand lit by the glow enveloping the
Transiter
.
Their bulky bodies are humanoid and covered in muscle, with two arms and two
legs all thick and heavily jointed, each ending with long, black talons.
They're covered in a sort of green fluff, neither garment nor fur, that barely
softens their strength. They stare at us quietly with bioluminescent eyes, as
if through tiny visors.

I take a deep breath and jump out the hatch, and land a
meter away from the suspension field holding the
Transiter
. The alien
ship's gravity drops me to my knees. I rise with difficulty, standing on shaky
legs, and face the greeting party.

The alien in the middle heaves its hefty limbs and steps
forward. It's not much taller than me, but considerably stronger. Probably
weigs a ton. We'd stand no chance against them on foot. I try to stay calm, to
keep my breathing even.

The alien opens its vertical jaws, revealing its slimy,
bright-red tongue.

"All out," it says hoarsely.

Nobody moves.

"You heard it," I say over my shoulder.
"Get down here."

The guys balk, but jump anyway, and struggle to get
upright again. I don't turn to watch, afraid of breaking eye contact with the
alien. I soak up every detail and micro-movement, to get a better picture of
what we're dealing with.

There's six marks on the alien's face, two between its
eyes and two on either side of its jaws. Each as big as a thumbprint, hairless
and smooth, the color of bleached leather. They remind me of burn marks. Might
be battle scars, or indications of rank. No way of telling yet.

The closest alien spreads its bulky arms, and extends four
black claws on each hand. The others take up positions around us, flanking us.

"What are you doing?" Bray asks. "We're
just—"

"Don't resist them," I say, my gaze locked on my
alien counterpart.

"Okay,
oh-kay
!" Jade shouts.

I hear a scuffle and have to force myself not to turn and
look.

Bray is panting, fighting. "Let me go! We're just a
greeting party. We're peaceful. Let go! "Taryn, stop them,
do something
!"

"Try to stay calm," I call over my shoulder.
"Cooperate."

"We're gonna die because of you, you stupid—No,
please!"

There's a brief rustle in the darkness, then everything
falls silent.

The alien in front of me drops a heavy hand on my
shoulder. Its talons press into my suit, testing my muscles, and I freeze. It
grunts and nudges me to go right.

I start walking. It falls in beside me, guiding me to the
bay wall. The glow from the suspension field holding the
Transiter
doesn't carry here, but I still notice there's something off about the curved
walls. The texture's wrong.

At our approach a doorway opens in the wall, like a tear
in a rubber sheet. I catch my breath as the opening expands, revealing a
metallic sphere hovering above us. It's half a meter in diameter, reflective
like the hull of the ship, and seems weightless. Something about it makes my
hairs stand on end.

It follows us as we pass through the doorway. My
reflection gleams in the sphere's exterior, upside-down: dwarfed by the alien
beside me, I feel frail and flimsy in my skinsuit.

We emerge into a broad corridor and my oxy-mask tightens
around my head, signaling a difference in pressure. I check my nacom, but its
tiny screen is black and lifeless.

The sphere touches the next wall and another doorway peels
open, this time on a narrow tube. The alien nudges me in and follows. The
doorway contracts behind us. The elevator ascends, and I'm almost crushed by
high-gravity inertia. I struggle to breathe as the alien watches, unmoved.

The elevator slows and stops. It opens onto a broad, dim
corridor with sparkling walls arched outward like the curvature of a tunnel.
The alien nudges me out, and the shift in gravity shunts me into the air. I
flail, but manage to land on my feet, my stomach in my throat.

Half a g, at most. I bound across the elastic floor, an
awkward smile creeping up my face as my mask relaxes. Soft blue light renders
the glittering walls and floor into an uncannily good impression of outer
space.

The alien walks quietly beside me. I can't read its facial
expression, but I'm pretty sure it doesn't enjoy the change of environment.
It's tenser than before, its movements brisker.

Curves and bends in the spacious corridor pass without
comment, until the alien brings one hand down on my shoulder and halts us both.

"Prepare," it rumbles, and turns me to face the
wall on our right.

A new doorway opens, and I'm pushed into a round room,
maybe five meters wide. There's a single white chair at the center, reminiscent
of a gamer's hub. But I doubt he brought me here to play VR games.

"Prepare for what?"

The alien grunts, picks me up as if I weigh nothing, and
plants me into the chair.

"Hey, wait a minute, this—"

"
Prepare
."

It presses a heavy hand against me, jabbing the barbs of
my mandible pendant into my chest. I clench my jaw as the Dorylinae chitin
punctures my skin. The alien rakes its claws along the side of the chair, and
I'm immobilized. All I can do is stare into the glowing eyes of my alien
captor.

Then it rips my mask off.

The air reeks of ethanol and molten plastic. My eyes and
throat start to burn. Every muscle screams to fight, to run. But I can't move.
Panic snakes through me, stirring up old nightmares.

I was twelve when the TMC bombed the Dorylinae hives and
killed everyone I knew. They weeded out survivors by their informative value,
like data chips. I got passed along repeatedly until I landed on a command
carrier, where I was recognized as the daughter of xenologist and traitor
Gregory Harber, and his equally traitorous wife, Mira. I was suddenly
interesting to the Ticks, and with that interest came a long procession of
interrogations, brain probes, and drug-sustained virtual torture. The Ticks
fucked with my mind so much it took me years—after I escaped and hitched a ride
back to Maza—to sort my memories out and fully understand what had happened.

Now I'm a prisoner again. But this time it's not a human
in control, not someone I learned how to fight.

My eyes plead with the alien, but it doesn't even blink.
Instead, two metallic tendons detach from the chair rim and snake toward me.
The alien steps back to watch.

The tendrils latch onto my temples and jab long needles
into my skull. Bright pain explodes as I press my tongue between my teeth, and
my heart pounds against my ribs.

The tendons unlatch with a hiss and withdraw into the
chair. The wet feel of the needles lingers, acute and nauseating.

The alien runs one hand along the chair's rim again, and
I'm free. Blood rushes through my body, and I gasp for air.

"You not lose awareness," the alien says in its
broken English. A
male
, I think.

I inspect my temples with trembling hands. Two small wet
bumps are attached to my skin. They give way to my touch, then contract and
throb. I wince as they slither away from my fingers and bury themselves deeper
in my skull.

My stomach convulses. I barely manage to bend over before
I retch.

The alien looks down at me. "—But you lose control of
body." There's disappointment in his voice.

I wipe my mouth with the back of my hand, and swallow
repeatedly. The vomit seeps into the floor and disappears. I almost throw up
again.

The alien reaches for me, but I raise my hands.

"No, thanks. I'll walk."

Shaking, still thoroughly sick, I follow him into the
corridor.

The walls seem to billow, as if I'm being passed through
the gut of an enormous, indifferent creature. I brush the wall with the tips of
my fingers, and the surface ripples like thick black oil. I pull my hand back.

"Where are you taking me? And what was that—what did
you do to my head?"

"Replace," the alien says.

I frown and swallow. My eyes and nose sting from the acrid
air, throat still burning with acid.

Replace
...

Replace what with what, and— "Why?"

He grunts and smacks his jaws, a trail of slime oozing
down to his chest. "Prepare."

"For
what
?"

The mirror-sphere soars quietly above us, then stops a bit
further up and touches the wall. My upside-down reflection creeps along the
sphere's surface again like a gray smear.

"The Dominant see you now," the alien says. He
leans in and stares at me insistently. "Not speak. Not lose awareness,
not
lose control of body."

"Wait—"

"Not resist."

Then he shoves me in, and the wall shuts behind me.

BOOK: The Deep Link (The Ascendancy Trilogy Book 1)
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