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Also by Charley Marsh
About the Author
The insistent and irritating buzz of an alarm pierced Red Baron Margarita King’s brain. Gad, she hated that sound. She flipped onto her back and slapped a flat button on the bunk’s back wall.
The buzzing alarm stopped. She heaved a sigh at the merciful quiet.
The extra long bunk, specially constructed of a dense foam that molded to her body and prevented bed sores during long flights, shifted its shape to accommodate her new position. She settled into it and took a few deep breaths.
Why was she awake? The sleep medicine she had taken after setting the ship’s course made her brain thick and fuzzy. Time-eze, a sleeping potion developed especially for the ultra long-distance pilots and travelers who passed through the time/space warp-field, could be precisely calibrated so that upon the specified wake time a person would be wide awake, no drowsiness.
Her muddy thoughts told Margarita that she had been awakened before her preset arrival time.
She took several more deep breaths and tried to clear her brain. Margarita hated taking the sleeping drug for exactly this reason—the difficulty in thinking clearly when under the influence; but science had proven that the bodies of pilots who slept during the little understood journey through the warp field went into a kind of stasis that suspended the aging process.
The early pioneers who had braved the effects of bending time and space had suffered greatly for it, often returning as dry, hollow husks. Space exploration had come to a standstill until the development of Time-eze.
Like everything in life, it was a trade-off. Would she prefer to be sharp, or grow old and possibly die while getting from point A to point B?
As she struggled to fully awaken, she gauged her surroundings. The ship’s interior was velvety dark and silent, the kind of silent that possessed weight and pressed in on a listener’s ears with an intensity that rivaled that of a loud explosion.
A quick check of her wrist unit confirmed that the ship had not yet arrived at its destination. So why the alarm?
Margarita reached down and touched another button on the side edge of her bunk, activating the low-level cabin lights. Twin strips of small red lights appeared on the cabin’s deck, running from the cargo bay at the rear to the nose cone nearly two hundred feet away.
The use of red-colored lights was a carryover from the meat hunters of Old Earth. Red light was invisible to many creatures while giving the hunters a way to see what they were doing in the dark.
The long, narrow cabin, modeled after the sailing vessels of Old Earth, sprang out of the darkness. The ship’s interior was sleek and neatly cobbled together on either side of the central aisle. No space, no matter how small or oddly-shaped, had been wasted.
Instrument panels, equipment and personal storage lockers, cooking and bathing closets: all fit together like a 3-D jigsaw puzzle crafted from a non-organic material that mimicked the rich grain of cherrywood, a tree long since disappeared from man’s long-abandoned home planet.
Margarita had always considered her ship not only her home—much more home to her than the base housing back on Mars—but also an important work of art; a reminder of the artisans and their way of life on human’s original planet.
She turned her head and surveyed the long, narrow cabin. As one of the top scholars of Old Earth history, she had participated in the interior design of her ship, right down to the clever drawers and cubbyholes which held a myriad of small items that tended to get lost during long trips through the galaxy.
Her gaze stopped at the ship’s only window, a thick, cone-shaped shield that made up the nose of the vessel. The window showed nothing but blackness outside the ship.
Created from a substance that could be heated to a liquid state, poured into a mold, and then cooled to a clear, rock-like consistency called Kristal, the nose cone was nearly impervious to damage.
The cone looked fine—no cracks, no foreign substance blocking visibility.
So why the alarm?
Blackness. The meaning of the starless vista penetrated Margarita’s sleepy brain. She should be seeing the streaked light trails of stars as her ship passed through the Milky Way.
No streaked trails of light meant that her fast and nimble Viking-class ship, a ship no other pilot wanted to operate because it wasn’t all cold sleek steel inside, had taken itself out of warp drive.
Judging herself awake enough to move, Margarita stood with a grace that spoke of countless hours studying dance and martial arts. She groaned, stretched out the kinks, and rubbed her hands over her face and the dark cap of short, spiky hair that topped her tall frame.
Reaching into the narrow cabinet at the foot of her bunk, she pulled out one of her two flight suits and pulled it on.
The mud-brown body-hugging suit was knit from gossamer fine spider-silk threads that were stronger than steel and cost more than land on Old Earth. It weighed next to nothing, yet protected her body from the elements and any weapon short of a fusion bomb.
Margarita had set aside every spare penny for five years before she had saved enough to buy the special suit. Now she owned two.
A girl had to know where her priorities lay.
She sat on the edge of the bunk to pull on mid-calf boots made from a sharkskin-kevlar blend and padded forward to stand before the Kristal window.
From this vantage point she could see stars everywhere she looked. Slightly overhead lay Sirius, called the Dog Star by the ancient peoples of Earth.
The brightest star in Old Earth’s sky, it was also the brightest star that could be seen from Mars. From here it’s vibrant blue-white light clearly dominated the heavens.
Her current destination lay several light years below Sirius, in the star cluster tagged Messier 41, or the M41 star system. She had set out from the Mars base the previous day on a simple fact-finding mission: investigate the source of the odd radio signals that had been picked up during a routine scan emanating from somewhere within M41.
Margarita turned away from the window and walked back to the ship’s central command center. Unlike the ancient sailors who plied Old Earth’s oceans using charts and sextants as their guides, she had the advantage of sophisticated computer-assisted navigation tools.
She folded herself into the gel pilot-chair and pulled up the navigation console. Specially created for long hours at the helm, the pilot’s chair cupped her body like a warm hand. At six foot two, Margarita King found that no furniture made for the average-sized pilot was comfortable for her body during extended periods.
She frequently defied regulations and stood while piloting her ship. In her mind, the regulators were planet-bound busy bodies who had no clue what a long-distance pilot endured or needed, and therefor they had no business making the rules for those who did the actual flying.
She didn’t make a big deal of it, she simply flew her ship the way she thought was best.
Margarita knew that she should contact the Mars base and report her location and status, but the thought of calling her senior officer before she had identified the problem and solution didn’t sit well with her.
She made the decision to wait on the contact until she had more information.
Competition among the team of Specialized Pilots was fierce and frequently bitter, and the older, more experienced pilots were often sidelined because they didn’t keep up with the latest flight technology.
At thirty-one, Margarita held the distinction of being the youngest pilot to earn the rank of Major while being the oldest pilot currently flying a Viking-class ship. She kept her edge by keeping in top physical form, spending long hours in the newest training modules, and hitting the books to keep up with each graduating class of recruits eager to bump her name off the roster.
It made for a grueling schedule, but she wouldn’t have it any other way. Because of her experience and knowledge, she was often tapped to lead the more interesting and exciting missions.
That made for a lot of jealous co-workers.
“It’s a dog-eat-dog world.” A brief grin lit Margarita’s face. She often amused and entertained herself with bad jokes while on solo missions. Apparently the Dog Star had tickled her funny bone.
Very few people ever saw her softer, silly side; she kept it well hidden behind a stony mask to ensure that others took her seriously. Through the years commanding officers and instructors had labeled her as “stoic,” “stiff,” and “aloof.” A few called her bitch.
She didn’t care what others called her as long as she got to fly.
Next to her, the navigation screen sprang to life with a soft beep. Running a long, tapered finger over it, Margarita located the ship and her destination. The screen calculated the travel distance remaining: two point five light years.
So why had her ship come out of warp drive? The Viking ships were meticulously maintained, with every system tested and retested before a trip and then again upon their return before they were released for use again.
Margarita pulled up the main command screen and instructed the ship to run a complete diagnostics test. Something had triggered the ship to fall out of warp speed, and until she pinpointed the problem she couldn’t risk re-engaging the warp drive engine. Which meant there was no way she’d be able to get back to Mars base until she found—and fixed—the problem.
Looking back toward the window she realized she could no longer see Sirius.
A moment later she felt a thud against the port side of her ship.
The first thud was quickly followed by a stuttering series of thuds and thunks above and below her.
The ship must have entered an asteroid field, or a debris field of some sort. Great, just what she needed. Margarita belted herself into the pilot’s chair as a hard hit made the ship shudder and yaw.
The thunks grew more rapid and serious, battering her ship from all sides. The noise swelled and grew beyond the level of human comfort.
Margarita grabbed the noise canceling earcups, slid them on, and flipped on communications.
“Mayday. Mayday. This is Major Margarita King of the Mars-based, Viking-class ship Pacifica. Possible malfunction in the warp drive engine. Ship caught in an asteroid field. Mayday. Mayday.” She calmly repeated the call twice more and activated the locator beacon.
Normally able to pilot itself through a heavy obstacle field with reflexes that far exceeded a human’s capacity, her ship seemed to be deliberately trying to crash it’s way through the field of asteroids, much like an Old Earth pinball would bounce between flippers, bumpers, and gobble holes.
Margarita watched with growing horror as a large chunk of ice and rock headed toward the nosecone of her ship. She deactivated the auto pilot, grabbed the manual steering stick, and jerked hard to the left.
If she was going to die she wanted the controls to be in her own hands.
The asteroid slid past the window. A moment later she felt it impact the tail of the ship, sending it into a slow spin.
She gripped the joystick with both hands and forced herself to steer into the spin, an action that went contrary to her every instinct, until she slowly regained control of the spiraling ship.
As her vessel came out of the spin, a large, unavoidable object filled the window. She pulled back hard on the joystick and increased power to the engine.
Crash landing on an asteroid was not an option in her personal set of flight rules.
The ship shuddered and gained speed. The nose lifted, lifted some more, but not quite enough to completely avoid the asteroid. The belly of the ship bounced and scraped along its rough, pocked surface, and then she was free.
Margarita took advantage of the brief respite and switched the nav screen to outside view. Her heart skipped a couple beats when she saw the number of asteroids filling the space around the ship.
She sent a quick burst to the reverse thrusters to slow the ship, then steered between two long, black rocks before returning her attention to the screen. She desperately needed to find a place to set the ship down so she could diagnose and fix the warp drive.
She swept a finger up the screen to see what was behind her ship. A pocked surface filled the screen.
Assuming it was the large asteroid she had avoided moments before, Margarita minimized the image. She was about to change screens when an image caught her attention.
The object was too regularly shaped, too round, to be an asteroid. A small spark of hope glimmered inside her chest. She swung the ship around to face the object.