by Gray Rinehart
I. NEW ORDERS
By long habit, Mark Elliott floated into the bridge thirty minutes before his shift began. Exactly eight minutes later, they received the message the crew would come to call “the Signal” that changed every life aboard the ship—because it threatened everything they held dear.
Elliott nodded to the skipper, wedged himself up into the space between a stanchion and an overhead light, opened a viewroll, and prepared for his rotation. The duty logs were unremarkable at this stage in the cruise, and he was reviewing the ship’s status—puzzling over some temperature fluctuations in one propellant tank; probably just a sensor issue, already flagged for the engineers’ attention—when Spacer Second Class Reynolds spoke up from the nav/comm station.
“Circitor, we have an intercept.”
Vindex Elliott, second in command of the Solar Guard Cutter Belmont, looked down in time to catch the briefest hint of a smile on Circitor Hellmer’s face. The skipper too had noticed the excitement in Reynolds’ voice.
The expression was gone by the time the circitor spoke. “Do we, now?” His words were measured and precise, and matched exactly the virtues he valued in his ship and on his crew.
“Yes, sir,” Reynolds said, and now Elliott allowed himself a grin at how the circitor’s tone had not dampened the spacer’s. “Ephemeris is loading, decrypting the message now.”
“What will it be, what will it be?” the circitor mused. “Rescue? Safety inspection? Smuggling inspection?”
Elliott’s smile thinned. As if we’d find a smuggler out here.
“Unknown, sir,” Spacer Reynolds said, feverishly manipulating icons on his screen.
The circitor’s voice took on the dangerous edge that Elliott recognized. “Unknown? Have you forgotten your decoding?”
“No, sir! Standard intercept header, priority one, but this message is jittery. . . .” Reynolds swept his fingers across the screen, tapped it twice, and then half-turned toward the circitor. His voice took on a tone almost of awe. “Sir, the bulk of this is command encrypted.”
Elliott raised his eyebrows, surprised to see Circitor Hellmer raise his as well. “Very interesting,” the circitor said. “Transfer it to my vault drive, and I’ll address it.” He looked up. “Vindex Elliott, I mark it as eleven minutes before the hour. Are you up to date and ready to relieve me?”
Elliott pushed away from the ceiling, caught a floor strap with his right foot, steadied himself, and came to the best approximation of attention that zero-gee allowed. “Aye, Circitor. I’ve read the logs and reports, unless you have something to add.”
“Only that we appear to have an intercept. Priority one. See to it that the orbit is properly entered and begin evaluating the match possibilities.” . . . READ MORE
by Mark Niemann-Ross
The abandoned transport pod floated outside Captain Theresa Jerwin’s window, square in the middle of the Milky Way. She issued orders to everyone and anything on or around this space station. Everything, except that damnable piece of junk. It obeyed laws she didn’t control and resisted her wishes to have it scuttled. She squinted at it, wishing she had the superpower to shoot laser beams from her eyes and destroy it in a cinematic ball of fire.
“Captain” was a new title for Theresa Jerwin, but it wasn’t a promotion. The title simply codified her accomplishments and demeanor. Without the title, she would still command the same respect. Her peers and reports believed the real promotion had happened years ago.
But her title wouldn’t move the pod. It was stubborn. Inert.
About twice the length and width of a school bus, it had no wheels and one round window in the airlock. Shaped like an extruded hexagon and painted white with a blue corporate logo, this one had a slight tumble that irritated Jerwin all the more.
It had arrived on a shuttle one year prior, carrying engineers, scientists, and support personnel to the partly finished station. The contractor responsible for its arrival had left it behind in favor of higher value cargo—then went bankrupt. The transport had no clear owner and no way home. Worse, it was a traffic hazard. Adjusting its position away from critical operations was a daily waste of valuable tug fuel and time.
Jerwin had recommended it be knocked out of orbit and sent back to Earth in a fiery reentry, but the bankruptcy court wouldn’t allow it. Since the corporation she worked for didn’t have ownership, they couldn’t authorize disposal. The bankruptcy proceeded with no sense of urgency; the myriad claims would take years to verify.
“Nope.” Jerwin spoke to the junk outside her window. “Nothing else to do with my life except fuss about your potential to cause damage. I have a space station to run. We’re behind schedule on construction. And I don’t appreciate you cluttering up my view of the cosmos.”
“Excuse me, Captain?” asked a voice from behind her.
Jerwin turned to face the man hovering at her door: Jacob Ullesvern, a popular old-timer. He wore a scruffy beard short enough to avoid getting caught in the seal of a space helmet, a beard that accented his less than healthy weight. In spite of his withered appearance, his jumpsuit was clean, with a slight smell of well-worn cotton. A frayed baseball cap sported a patch from the second supply mission to the station. Regardless of his clothes, he always grinned and helped where he could.
Jacob had been on the station since it had just been a collection of life-support modules. In a nod to his seniority, he handled orientation for station newbies; he knew everything and everyone, plus he was just so darn personable. Jerwin herself had been on-boarded by Jacob. Besides being an all-around nice guy, Jacob was a reliable worker with a wide range of skills. Most important, he was a good welder, and Jerwin desperately needed welders at this point in station construction.
“Hello old man,” said Captain Jerwin. “What dire emergency do you bring this time?”
Jacob looked down and nervously smiled. He didn’t use this mannerism often, which made it all the more difficult for Jerwin to refuse him anything. . . . READ MORE