Authors: Sean Williams,Shane Dix
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Space Opera
The Prodigal Sun
Evergence Book One
Sean Williams & Shane Dix
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 1999 by Sean Williams & Shane Dix
Published by E-Reads. All rights reserved.
For Peter McNamara, Patrick McNamara, Andrew Stunnell, Peter Stunnell and everyone involved in the Cogal project, without whom this book would not have been possible.
“Violence can only be concealed by a lie, and the lie can only be maintained by violence. Any man who has once proclaimed violence as his method is inevitably forced to take the lie as his principle.”
“Darkness is looking back and saying: ‘I have been deluded from the start; it has all been a mistake.’“
Hubert van Zeller
The pillow-shaped capsule tumbled end over end through the gulf between stars. Every point of its four-meter length showed evidence of age: its matte-grey surface was pitted from microimpacts; the molecules of its ablative shield were scarred by radiation; gravity waves from distant black holes spiraling inevitably to collision had warped it from true. Had it been noticed by any passing ship, it would have been ignored as flotsam, for after millennia of exploration and trade such drifting junk was common in the galaxy. It wouldn’t even have been worth the effort required to destroy it.
Had it been noticed...
Junk it may have appeared to be, but it was far from that. A detailed analysis of the skin of the capsule would have revealed that nothing—not even radiation—penetrated deeper than five centimeters. It had retained its structural integrity despite the forces tugging at it. And, had its density been measured, the fact that it was hollow would have become immediately obvious.
As it tumbled through the void, sensors within monitored the frequency and intensity of incident radiation. It emitted nothing, yet analyzed in minute detail everything that fell upon it. Data was collated and processed. Three-dimensional maps were drawn, on which the course of the capsule—past and future—was plotted. Options were considered.
The capsule had passed through numerous governments and territories during its long journey: from the Giel, remote and aloof in the Perseus Arm, to the Bright Suzerains tucked hot and hardy close to the galactic core. There was hardly a solar system in the Milky Way that had not been colonized or explored at least once by the Human race in all its forms. The descendants of the apes who had once reached in wonder for the night sky now owned the stars. They were the sole heirs of a galaxy ripe for the taking.
Decisions were made.
Patient exploitation of the local magnetic field brought the capsule to the boundary between two nations: one an unwieldy alliance that had outlived its usefulness and was already dissolving under the weight of administration and ennui; the other a small but heated theocracy bursting like a boil from its parent’s side. Stray emissions—some almost certainly decades out of date—carried reports of occasional conflict, harried officials, rising tension... The capsule didn’t care much for the details, just as long as there was friction, an ambient heat it could exploit. Who fought whom was irrelevant. There was only one Right and Wrong it cared to recall, for it was this duality the capsule existed to serve.
It was a seed looking for soil in which to germinate. A seed that had come a long way and waited a long, long time to bear fruit. A seed whose interior became increasingly active the more certain it was that the end of its journey was near...
Morgan Roche was trapped, and she knew it. Trapped by orders, by circumstance, by the bracelet around her left wrist, and by the stare of the wide-shouldered, middle-aged man standing in front of the main viewscreen of the frigate
“We have discussed this before,” he said, frowning down at her from his elevated position. The captain’s podium normally remained flush to the floor except during battle, but Proctor Klose preferred it at its full one-meter extension. Surrounded by the half-light of the bridge, with its flashing displays and blank-faced officers, he reminded Roche of a half-finished statue—so full of self-importance that, had she not been so frustrated, she would have found him laughable. “Has anything changed since then, Commander?”
“No, sir,” she replied. “All I ask is that you reconsider your decision.”
Klose shook his head. “Call me inflexible, if you like, but I see no reason to entertain the whims of my passengers.”
“It’s more than a
, Captain,” she snapped.
“No, Commander,” said Klose, the ghost of a grin hovering at the corners of his mouth. “It is not. What you request is clearly outside your jurisdiction.”
“Not necessarily.” Her free hand betrayed the half-lie by adjusting the tight-fitting neck of her uniform, making her look nervous. When she realized what she was doing, she returned the hand to her side. The cord connecting the bracelet to the valise brushed against her leg as she straightened her posture, but she had learned long ago to ignore it.
“Without access to the relevant information,” she said, “I am unable to determine where my jurisdiction lies in this matter. Perhaps if you would explain your reason for denying me access to the capsule, then I might understand.”
Klose’s frown deepened. “I am not required to explain anything to you, Commander. Need I remind you who is the commanding officer of this vessel?”
“No, sir.” Roche gritted her teeth on an angry retort.
“Then I think that concludes our discussion.” He turned to face the viewscreen.
Roche remained where she was, unwilling to let the matter rest—although she knew that technically he was in the right. But there was more than the life capsule and its contents at stake. There was a
Klose sighed. “Yes, Commander?”
“Forgive me for saying this, but your manner seems to indicate a resentment of my presence aboard this ship. I hope you have not allowed your feelings to cloud your judgment.”
Klose faced her once again, his narrowed eyes displaying an indignation that told Roche her remark had hit home.
The captain of the
outranked Roche, but
superior officer—and, therefore, her mission—outranked
In the course of their voyage, the unassuming valise she carried had become a focus for every slight, real or imagined. That she carried it because of the cord and bracelet ensuring its permanent attachment to her person, rather than out of any real choice, he seemed to have forgotten. Orders were orders, and she had less choice than he did, if only in the short term. But the basic fact, the one the captain detested, remained: Klose was just a donkey for the courier on his back.
The situation might never have become a problem had it not been for the length of time available for circumstance to rub shoulders with resentment. In six weeks, the gentle but constant friction had generated enough heat to spark flame. The matter of the capsule and its mysterious occupant, although trivial in itself, was the catalyst of a much more significant reaction.
“On the contrary,” replied the captain, responding to her comment with frosty politeness. “It is not I who has allowed emotions to interfere. Frankly, Commander, I would say that your curiosity has gotten the better of you.”
“I’m an active field agent for COE Intelligence,” she retorted. “It comes with the job.”
“Nevertheless.” Klose folded his arms. “The most intelligent thing for you to do right now is let the matter rest.”
“With respect, sir—”
“Commander, the simple fact of the matter is that I am not permitted to allow you to place yourself in a situation that is potentially dangerous.”
“I’m quite capable of looking after myself.
“I don’t doubt that, Commander. But I think you underestimate the risk—”
“How can I underestimate him if I know nothing
“‘Him’? You seem to have learned too much as it is.”
She ignored this. “If you would simply let me view the science officer’s report—”
“Which is classified.”
“My security rating is as high as yours, Captain.” It was higher, in fact, but she didn’t press the fact. “At least give me the opportunity to use my position as I have been trained to do.”
Klose sighed in resignation. “Very well, then. I will consider letting you view the report, but only after we have arrived at Sciacca’s World and off-loaded our cargo. In the meantime, your mission—and mine—is best served by you returning to your quarters and remaining there.”
“Shields detecting microimpacts.” The voice came from somewhere behind Roche, but Klose didn’t take his eyes from hers to acknowledge it. “Captain, we are brushing the halo.”
“Please, Commander,” he said evenly, gesturing at the exit from the bridge. “Or will I have to have you removed?”
Roche fumed silently to herself. Klose’s promises to “consider” or “review” the situation had proven worthless before, and she doubted that this time would be any different. But she had to admit that he did have a point. The
was about to insert itself into orbit around one of the most hazardous destinations in the Commonwealth of Empires; he and his crew needed to concentrate on their work without distraction.
Refusing to concede defeat by speaking, she turned away from Klose and moved toward the exit. The door slid aside with a grind of metal on metal, but instead of stepping through, Roche stopped on the threshold and turned to watch the goings-on of the bridge. It was both a show of strength and a demonstration of her independence.
The main screen displayed an image of Sciacca’s World. The grey-brown orb floated in the center of the screen, with the ring of densely packed moonlets that girdled the planet’s equator glistening in the light from the system’s primary. The occasional explosion flaring from some of the larger rocks made the miniature asteroid belt look deceptively attractive from the
distance. Roche knew how dangerous it could be. Some of the moonlets were over ten kilometers in diameter; one slip near something that size would rip the
Apart from the belt, what really struck her about the view was something that might have been lost on the average deep-space tourist. Few people outside military service would have noted the absence of orbital towers girding the planet; if they had, it was doubtful they would have understood the significance of the fact. To Roche, the planet appeared uninhabited, with nothing but a handful of navigation stations in orbit and the pocket asteroid belt to keep it company—like a reef holding all but the most determined at bay; a shoal around a desert island.
The voice fell silent. No one else on the bridge had heard it speak.
“You can go to hell too,” Roche whispered, and walked out.
* * *
The Retriever Class Frigate
, one of the few ships to survive the Ataman and Secession Wars, had been built around the 43rd-generation anchor drive common in the years ‘212 to ‘286 EN. Shaped like a fat sausage, with a shaft containing the drive mechanism running along its axis, she had five levels of concentric decking to house a 450-odd crew, two freight-locks and enough storage space to hold five independent fighters. Artificial gravity, produced as an aftereffect of the drive, had resulted in a sense of down being inward rather than outward as was the case on centrifugal ships. This feature also gave her a degree of maneuverability far superior than that of other ships of her day—which was one reason she endured both Ataman Wars relatively unscathed.
The centuries since, however, had left her behind, despite numerous remods and even complete refits in dry dock. Her drive systems had been replaced in ‘755 EN, upgrading her to 46th generation and full battle status.
Her most recent overhaul had been after service as a supply vessel during the Secession War. In ‘837 EN, only weeks after the Terms of Revocation had been agreed between the Commonwealth of Empires and the newly independent Dato Bloc, she had received new viewscreens and E-shields but little in the way of either fundamental or cosmetic changes.
To Roche’s eyes, as she left the bridge and headed through the cramped and dimly lit corridors to her quarters, the
looked more like a museum piece than an active frigate. Doors clicked and hissed, elevators shuddered, manual systems still operated where in recent ships crude but efficient AIs had taken over. Current hyperspace technology in the COE—kept homogeneous by the nearby Eckandar Trade Axis and its links with the Commerce Artel—stood at 49th generation, three orders of magnitude more efficient and responsive than that propelling the ancient frigate. The discrepancy between the
and other Armada vessels didn’t surprise her, however; prison ships were renowned for being poorly outfitted, outdated relics fit for little more than so-called “cattle runs” and other routine jobs.
The uppermost level housed officers and command stations; levels two and three were the crew quarters. The lowest levels contained cells for the transportees heading to the penal colony on Sciacca’s World. Roche’s room—her own cell, as she thought of it—was the last on the first floor, sandwiched between the drive shielding and a water reclamation plant. Straining engines kept her awake during maneuvers, with bubbling pipes a constant counterpoint. She doubted that the room was used often, being too uncomfortable for either a regular officer or an important guest. As she was neither, it was her dubious honor to be its occupant.
The bulkhead leading to her section slid aside with a noise like tearing metal, jamming as it always did when it was only three-quarters opened. Set into the wall opposite the door was a security station inhabited by a single crewman. He saluted as she approached, recognizing her on sight, and she returned the gesture automatically. Behind him, a battered flatscreen followed the progress of the
The view of Sciacca’s World hadn’t changed much. The
contingent of fighters, standard escort for a prison ship, had adopted a defensive configuration for planetary approach.
Catching the direction of her glance, the crewman nodded. “Almost there,” he said. “Not that we’ll see much of it.”
Roche felt compelled to respond, although her anger at Klose still burned. “We’re not landing?”
“No, sir. We’ll simply dock at Kanaga Station to offload the cattle and to refuel.” He shrugged. “No one goes down; no one comes up. That’s the rules. No one escapes from this place.”
“What about staffing changes?”
“Oh, DAOC sends a shuttle every year or so, independent of us. This is the fifth time I’ve been this way, and it’s always the same. Occasionally we bring supplies to trade for service credit, but not this time. I wouldn’t let it worry you though, sir,” he added quickly, mistaking her dark expression for concern. “It’s all very routine.”
Roche nodded distantly—the last thing she needed at the moment was
routine—and continued on her way. The entrance to her room lay at the end of the corridor. Halfway there, the voice inside her head spoke again. She ignored it. It wouldn’t do for the crewman to hear her talking to empty air. Rumors had spread as it was.
With a sigh of relief, she keyed the palmlock and opened the door to her room. Stale air gusted past her face as pressures equalized, indicating a faulty valve somewhere in the life-support system. Nothing serious; just an irritation. No doubt it was on a maintenance list somewhere, awaiting repair.
When the door slid shut behind her, she ran a hand across her close-cropped scalp and vented her frustration on the empty room.
“Klose. Weren’t you listening?”
The voice in her head chided her gently.
Roche doubted both statements but kept her thoughts to herself, not wishing to encourage conversation. A short corridor led from the doorway to a small work space; the far end of her quarters housed a toilet, bathroom, and sleeping chamber. In cross section, the space was shaped like a narrow triangle with the door at its apex, its size dictated by the space available rather than by comfort or aesthetics. Nowhere within it was there room for someone of her height to lie fully outstretched, let alone swing a cat.
The voice remained silent, perhaps considerate of her mood for a change. Before it could begin again, she walked to the work space and put the valise on the desk. The cuff was made of monofilament cord wrapped in black leather and ended in the bracelet that fitted around her left wrist tightly enough to prevent it slipping loose—or being removed by force—but not so tight that it caused her discomfort. Tiny contacts on its inner surface matched nodes on her skin, which in turn patched into a modified ulnar nerve leading up her forearm and into her spinal column, thus enabling data to flow in either direction. The voice in her head—intrusive, often unwelcome even though it was her only company—was not so much heard as insinuated directly in the aural centers of her brain.