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Stepping Off The Blue Planet

Double Helix Nebula Series Book 2



Anne Wentworth

Copyright © 2017 Anne Wentworth

Distributed by Smashwords

Cover by: Dragonscayle Designs

Image attribution: 3000ad,@ Shutterstock.com / Pixabay.com

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.

This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.





Table of Contents:

Title Page…

Part One…

Part Two…

Part Three…

Part Four…

Part Five…

Part Six…

Part Seven…

Part Eight…

Part Nine…

Part Ten…

Part Eleven…

Part Twelve…

Part Thirteen…

Part Fourteen…


Part One



Only one word could sum up the endless black surrounding their small shuttle—peaceful. There were no physical boundaries in space, but that didn't frighten Lyra. Instead it woke some slumbering part deep within her that had never seen the light of day. She belonged out here—the sensation seized her, taking hold deep within. Despite floating out here in the nothingness of space, she felt grounded.

Earth, that small, receding ball became smaller as the shuttle continued its course toward the moon. Rigel said she belonged out in the stars. When she'd stepped off the blue planet, her being had come alive.

"Lyra, you've been at that viewing screen for over ten minutes. We need to discuss our next moves." Rigel was at the flight console, adjusting for course correction. She allowed her gaze to wander over the many panels filled with keypads and protruding levers she guessed would be control switches. The materials resembled Earth metallic composition, but only to a point. Every so often a shimmer traveled over the surface, making it appear alive. Lyra suspected the materials used to fashion this bridge and the controls to be of Lor-Ellian derivation.

"How long until we reach the moon?" The moon. She'd never entertained the idea of getting off-planet. The wars had left humans far behind in that enterprise and there'd been no forward movement to push another space program.

"Soon. So far I haven't detected anything around us, but your father and I weren't able to bring the systems to where they were before the crash. This buggy has seen better days."

"Buggy?" Lyra faced him, unable to stop herself from smiling. She loved hearing about Tebo and the many little bits she'd collected from Rigel over the years. She'd taken those pieces and built a mental mosaic of her father. It helped her to feel closer to him.

"Your father always called it a buggy. On our first meeting, I believe he suspected we weren't from Earth. Tebo was no fool. He made a crack about bringing our buggy in from the storm."

"You knew a different side of him than I did. I wish I could have seen that part of him. He was so serious, and guarded around me."

Rigel stopped his tasking. "He was afraid of losing you. When he lost your mother, he lost a part of himself. He loved you Lyra, you were everything to him. I hope you know that. He focused on trying to protect you, and that's a shitty way to live a life. He worked so hard at trying to keep you safe he didn't get to enjoy his time with you. I've often wondered if the three of us should have tried to leave the planet and make it to the cruiser. But where would we have gone? Now, the only alternative we have is the Munificence and if we can't board her, we're screwed."

"If we can't board her, we simply go back to Earth." Stirrings of unease filtered through her body, overriding the wonderful sensations she'd relished only moments ago.

Rigel shook his head. "No. We can't go back. We don't have enough fuel. Tebo and I patched this buggy up for a one-way jaunt. Earth didn't have the materials we needed for our engines. The best we could do was to cobble the shuttle together. I'm surprised we didn't come apart when we launched."

Good he hadn't put that in the travel brochure. Launch at own peril...

How could Rigel be so calm about it? Suddenly she felt chilled, despite the suit.

"You're saying that if we don't board the cruiser, we die?" Her heart sped up. She didn't want to die. Not here, not on Earth, and not yet.

"Correct." Rigel nodded, giving his attention to the console.

How had they landed into such a mess? But she knew how—Vercon. He was responsible and she would make him pay. Lyra had no idea how she'd get him, but she would.

"You have the genetic signature, so why do you have doubts?" Lyra asked. Rigel hadn't even allowed her to touch the sample. He'd shown it to her like she was some kid that might break it.

"It might not work. I can't guarantee the artificial intelligence will recognize it and allow us entry. All we can do is to try."

"If it rejects Ariella's signature, what will happen?" She needed to know. Lyra didn't want to go in blind.

"The artificial intelligence would prevent entry and destroy all sensitive files. If we try to force our way in, the system would launch a self-destruction sequence." Rigel sat in the pilot's chair again, still fussing with the controls."Your mother didn't want to risk any uninvited guests dropping by."

"I have one more question for you." She waited until he looked over.

"And that would be?"

"How do we find it? If it's cloaked and invisible, how will we know where it is?"

He didn't respond, but stared at her. "Lyra, I don't want to alarm you, but there are a few details I left out of our previous conversations."

He was telling her this now? They were in space, not Earth where if something didn't work out the way they wanted, it simply meant a trip back to the compound.

"Enlighten me."

He cleared his throat, as if about to make a speech. Lyra cringed inwardly.

"First, it's true that we can't see the cruiser. It remains in negative impact presence. I calculated the cruiser's orbital path into the shuttle's system. With luck, what's left of the artificial intelligence on the shuttle will be able to recognize the ion patterns of the cruiser's cloaking. Once I figure we're in range, I'll send a transmission to the A.I. with Ariella's genetic signature attached. With any luck, it will cause the ship to uncloak and allow us entry."

With any luck? She wished there was something to hurl at him, but there wasn't.

"So, what you're saying is that you brought me out here in this tin can to die?"

Rigel laughed. "Lyra, you need to think differently. You aren't on Earth and from this point onward; nothing will ever be the same. I didn't bring you out here to die. Don't you think I'd like to stay alive? We have no idea if Vercon is around. The Carnegians have ships called Aspates, equipped with some of the best cloaking technology in the verse. His craft could be right beside ours and we wouldn't know."

"If the Carnegians are so advanced, why do they want me? What can I possibly provide them that isn't available somewhere else out in the universe?" Lyra kicked at the base of her chair.

"You haven't had the serum. The entire population of Lor-Eli Four had a serum that prevented the Carnegians from getting a pure genetic uptake to use. You are half Lor-Ellian, so I imagine Vercon believes you would provide enough of a mix to help with the gene pool. Centuries ago, the Carnegians began a slow genetic melt-down. They knew if they didn't find a way to counteract this, that their entire species would eventually die off. As a species, they're good at adapting new technology into their systems, but they don't have the ability to pioneer or make advances on their own. Most of what they have is from scavenging and harvesting in the verse. The Carnegians have massive ships called Harvesting Starmappers that they use to seize technology and resources from other planets. A Starmapper is capable of taking out an entire planet. I once viewed images of specimen containers that had the parts of various species they'd harvested from different worlds. Believe me Lyra, they're brutal. They've wanted to revitalize and add longevity into their genetics, but without a pure genetic uptake, it won't be successful. There are few species that have longer life spans and even fewer they'd be compatible with. They've scoured the verse trying to find a compatible species to mix with. Lor-Ellians were the only ones with the qualities they sought. It was the reason Mar'anth, the Authority One, had ordered an entire population to take the serum. She refused to allow a barbaric species like the Carnegians to mix with Lor-Ellians. The Authority One didn't want to give the Carnegians any chance of increasing their longevity. By now, the Carnegians might be in serious trouble and desperate to try anything to keep their species from dying out. Once Vercon showed up, I knew that I had to get you off the planet."
Lyra reached over, touching his arm. "You took all these risks to save me?"

He blinked, the moment dipping into the realm of uncomfortable as he scratched his head, a bemused look on his face.

"Lyra, I had to get you off Earth to lure the Carnegians away from the planet. I've spent years integrating Lor-Ellian genetics into the population. I can't risk Vercon sending for back-up and a Starmapper showing up. If the Carnegians knew about the plan to keep our species alive by mixing with humans, they'd destroy the planet and all my work. I want that population to flourish. Can you imagine how this will bring your planet forward? As the genetics blossom out into future generations of intellectual individuals, Earth will come out of the Dark Ages. Earth will emerge as a world with potential, ready to take its place in the verse with other evolved species. And there is a good chance the first generation of the mixing will have a longer lifespan."

Lyra couldn't speak. It was like thinking you're alone in the dark, then suddenly a light goes on and there's a whole room full of people. Surprise! She'd thought that Rigel was saving her and her alone. Not so. His aim was to save the population he'd grown on her planet. She shivered, the hard truth coming clearly into focus. When she'd traipsed off into the desert to negotiate with the splinter group, Rigel had been against her going not because of the danger to her, but because he'd been afraid of Vercon figuring out what he was doing with the hybrids.

"It doesn't make sense to think they'll follow us. You said that they'd figured out who I was and what I make and that they wouldn't allow it to continue. So if they know what the business is about, won't they be after that?"

He shook his head, clearly frustrated.

"I thought Vercon had figured it out, but I was wrong. He was after you. When you gave the interview, it alerted him to your existence. At first I thought they'd figured out what we were creating, but I was wrong. If he'd suspected I'd been planting a Lor-Ellian genome into Earth's population...Earth wouldn't exist anymore. He would have brought in a fleet and wiped out the solar system. His focus has been on you. He wants to test to find out if you've had the serum and if you'd be compatible to use for genetic uptake. They might be thinking that you are the only Lor-Ellian left to use. We lucked out this time."

She had a psycho-alien on her heels and he was basing this on luck? Was he serious?

"I'm relieved it's only me they want to cut up and shove into their specimen jars." Why was she bitching? She'd gone against Rigel's advice and marched right out there and got herself captured. She couldn't have made it easier for Vercon if she'd tried.

"Lyra, you have to understand, that was the mission. Your mother and I came across the verse to start our species on Earth. The Carnegians hadn't bothered with your planet and you can be thankful for that. They didn't consider Earth worth a side trip with their Starmapper, not even to destroy it."

His words were so insulting, they were funny. Lyra laughed, but then found she couldn't stop. Soon, tears were running down her cheeks.

"Earth is such a loser planet that a more evolved species can't take the time to blow us to hell? How reassuring. Good you have Lor-Ellian genetics swimming around our little cesspool of a population. Perhaps in the future, we'll be able to impress other species enough for them to want to destroy us." Rigel hated her sarcasm, but she couldn't stop herself. She looked over to find she wasn't the only one laughing.

"You have the best of your parents, I'll give you that. Try to see it from my perspective. I'm Lor-Ellian military and I swore an oath to carry out the mission, or die trying. Your mother died for that reason."

"Did she? After listening to Vercon's little verbal slips, I wonder what she died for. He seemed sweet on her. Was he?" Lyra demanded. She'd sensed that psycho and her mother had a history between them.

"I don't know. I didn't know anything about your mother's private life before coming to Earth. If Vercon did carry a torch for her, it was one-sided. Your mother put her military duty first and being the second to the Authority One, she'd never have done anything that crazy. He's the enemy, Lyra. Vercon was on the wrong side of the ledger. A romantic pairing would never have happened. His kind was destroying our kind. Do you understand?"

"I think so. He's jilted and pissed about it, so he kills her. That bug-eyed freak is suffering from a case of unrequited love and I have the cure. Who would fall in love with someone that looks like that?"

"You called him bug-eyed? He wouldn't have liked that."

"Why?"

"The Carnegians are sensitive about the way they look. He would have taken great offense to that comment."

Well then chalk one up for me.

She had to get her hands on a weapon that would kill himas painfully as possible. She wanted that bug-eyed bastard to suffer. If only she could get hold of a weapon similar to Vercon's. Detailed images of Vercon burning into ash went through her head.

A hand waved close to her face—Rigel.
"Lyra, what a hateful expression! What were you thinking about?"

"How I'm going to kill Vercon and enjoy watching him die."

Rigel nodded. "More like your mother."

Lyra shook off the mood, trying to focus back on the current tasks.

"What can I do?"

"Come over here and keep an eye on these values. We should be in range shortly."

From what he had up on the holoscreen, Rigel was including several values in his calculation to detect where the Munificence sat in orbit. What she didn't get was how they'd board a ship that was invisible to the eye.

"Another question?"

She felt his breath on her hair, finding it strangely comforting.

"When we find the cruiser, how will we board? We can't see it."

"When I send your mother's genetic signature, if the A.I. decides it's genuine, the system will suspend negative impact presence." When she turned to stare at him he continued. "Uncloak."

"How big is it?"

Rigel only smiled. "It's impressive."

The holoscreen flashed out repeatedly, alerting them the Munificence was in range. Lyra watched as Rigel fed the slide into the shuttle's communication system. Another holoscreen appeared above where Rigel had inserted the sample seconds earlier. Rigel typed out his message.

"That isn't English." She stared at the glowing green symbols on the holoscreen.

"Lor-Ellian. We use symbols to write. Remember when you saw the symbols on the side of this shuttle? It's our language and one you'll eventually need to learn." He added more to his message, and then stopped. "Lyra, we are in range now, so I'm going to send it. I don't know what will happen, so brace yourself."

"Should I buckle in?" Her heart pounded heavy in her ears. Could Rigel hear her heart, sense how afraid she was?

"No. It wouldn't do any good. If this goes wrong, we're dead." He bent, kissing her lightly on the cheek. "Ready?"
He wasn't asking. They only had so much time to send the message while the cruiser was in range. For Lyra, time slowed and she froze in her own fear. She shut her eyes, her breathing shallow, as if her presence might make something happen.

"Lyra?" Rigel's loud voice jarred her.

"What?"

"You can open your eyes and breathe. We're in. The A.I. accepted the sample. Have a look out the viewing screen."

Indeed there was something filling the view out there. Lyra went over, gasping as she took in the size of the cruiser. "Goddamn that's big."

She turned to find Rigel grinning from ear to ear.

"What's so funny?"

"That's what you said to me the first time—"

"Just shut-up." Lyra gazed in awe at the massive vessel. Surreal, that's what it was. She couldn't have dreamed this up if she'd tried.

"That's the Munificence. She's a Hammerradus cruiser, built specifically for the mission to Earth." Years of pent-up emotion rushed up, overtaking his normally reserved nature. Rigel wiped at his face, embarrassed by the tears.

"Rigel?" Lyra stared at him, clearly alarmed to see him crying.

"I'm fine. It's been so long and to be honest, I didn't think I'd ever get to see her again."

She was incredible, just like the first time he'd set eyes on her. The cruiser was a symphony of refined lines and intricate engineering that came together to create the perfect blending of beauty and technology. Even the Carnegians were in awe of their Hammerradus cruisers. Rigel figured if the Carnegians had found the Munificence in orbit, they'd have spared her out of respect for the caliber of the craft alone, never mind that she was Lor-Ellian. Ariella had told him that they'd never chance having the cruiser self-destruct. Despite their crude disposition, the Carnegians had one good trait—respect and admiration for a magnificent vessel. Rigel had counted on that over his years on Earth, hoping that if the Carnegians detected the cruiser in orbit they'd simply leave it alone. Kill us, but save the ship. Rigel believed that inside every single being of every single species, there was at least a pinpoint of decency. Although with the Carnegians, you really had to look hard to find it.

"Rigel, how do we board?" Lyra was over at the viewing screen for the umpteenth time. Her excitement and awe of the cruiser made him proud. He hadn't bothered to tell her that she'd need to learn to pilot and master the systems. It was too much for one individual to do alone. The artificial intelligence managed many of the onboard systems, but she still needed a crew. He had no doubt about Lyra's ability to manage the sharp learning curve ahead. She may have been lazy on Earth, but it was about to end. Already Lyra was changing, the cellular memories surfacing in how she was reacting and coping. Lor-Ellian genetics always brought the best forward. Lyra was comfortable being in space. Not bad for someone on their first journey off-planet.

"I'm going to key in the next sequence of instructions for the A.I. It should open the bay doors and allow us entry. Belt in; I'm not taking any chances." Rigel neglected to mention the A.I. hadn't formally recognized Ariella's signature, but simply allowed access to the command systems. Not normal, but Lyra didn't need to know. If the security scanners decided they were a threat, they would find out when they tried to enter the cruiser.

Rigel watched as the bay doors slowly opened. He maneuvered the shuttle, using both the guidance system and his own piloting skills to bring her in. The shuttle cleared the entry, the doors closing behind. Forget telling Lyra to breathe, he needed to take his own advice. The landing pad came into view and he set her down.

Nothing.

"Can we get out?" Lyra chirped at him.

"Let's give it a minute. Your mother used to caution about leaving a craft after landing. She liked to wait and see if anything showed up."

"Like what?"

Of course she would ask and he was foolish not to expect her to. He shouldn't expect her to understand what she'd never experienced.

"Like hostiles waiting in ambush for the door to open. Ariella was careful to take precaution when dealing with the unknown." He glanced at the holoscreen, expecting a message from the A.I. to flash up at any second.

"Not careful enough. She's dead." Lyra's flat tone made him look over at her.

What could he say? She was right. Ariella had allowed her guard to slip and it had cost her.

"If nothing appears abnormal in the next few minutes, we'll go in."

"I thought we were in." Her impatience wasn't helpful. Rigel didn't respond, but instead concentrated on what the A.I. was doing.

"Rigel—" Lyra wasn't about to give up so easily.

"Lyra, please shut-up. I need to get this right. We are in a hanger, not on the bridge."

The scanning arm extended from the far wall. Rigel watched as streams of light spread out, and then moved along over the shuttle. Another two passes and the system shut off. Would they pass the security clearance or had all this effort been in vain?

The holoscreen flashed and a voice came through.

"The Munificence recognizes the direct heir of Subcommander Ariella-Two. Please continue to the bridge."

Lyra's soft voice brought him to the present. "It knows who I am?"

"I didn't realize the scanning would be so detailed," Rigel explained. "Your mother had said she'd put in the genetic signature as an extra security measure, but I didn't know it would be able to recognize you. She must have allowed for the eventuality of you being the one to get up here."

A smile spread over Lyra's lovely features. "Does this mean I'm in charge?"
"Can you pilot this cruiser and do you have an intricate understanding of the engineering and navigation systems? Are you trained in military combat?"

"No."

"Then I guess not." He felt the tension drain away, happy they'd made it to sanctuary. "Lyra, this isn't about being in charge, it's about us working together and finding a safe place to call home."

"Sorry." Her eyes changed their blue deepening. Tebo's had also done that when he was emotional and reflective.

"We're good. Let's get off this tin can and go inside."

Rigel went through the security releasing protocol. The petals of the door receded and they were free. He didn't bother with the ramp, but jumped down onto the landing pad. Each breath of filtered air reminded Rigel of the technology awaiting him. The scanner would have assessed their oxygen needs and set the concentration to help their bodies acclimatize. Filtered and fresh, the air would help Lyra overcome any ill-effects of the space travel on her Earth-regulated system.

"Rigel, am I supposed to jump? Isn't there a ramp?" She stood holding onto the side of the door.

"Here, sit on the edge and I'll lift you down. Sorry, I should have extended the ramp." When she was in position, he lifted her off the side.

She shook her head, her gaze darting about. "I can't believe it. This is incredible, Rigel. We made it. Do you think Vercon missed our launch?"

Only if he's dead. The Aspate had scanning detection that could find a coin buried in the sand across the desert. But no need to alarm Lyra. He wanted her to enjoy the first few moments of this. It was magical watching her react to the cruiser.

"Vercon won't be far. We need to get onto the bridge. Come on, over here." Rigel took her arm, leading Lyra over to the inner doors.

Another scan, but when it went over Lyra, the lights on the panel lit up.

"The system recognizes the direct heir of Subcommander Ariella-Two. Please proceed to the bridge where you may input your formal credentials and data."

Interesting. Would the A.I. slot Lyra into Command position? He had to be able to control the cruiser. Lyra wasn't ready to assume a role of authority. She had no military training or experience. He needed to get the system to recognize him as the authority.

"Down this hall. There's a lift on the left side that will take us up to the bridge."

"How many levels are there?" She ran her fingers along the wall as they walked. "This color is beautiful. A deep ocher—like the sand and hills after an afternoon in the sun.

"I asked for particular colors for the cruiser. This one reminds me of the Lor-Ellian landscape. That's why I was so drawn to the desert on your planet. As for the cruiser, it is divided into several sections. Each section has a varying number of levels to accommodate the requirements of what it is being used for. In the upper section there are nine levels for crew including living quarters, recreation, and dining sections. The mid section has levels for engineering and the science labs. The lower section contains levels for cargo holds and several shuttle bays. Besides our shuttle, there are five more housed on the cruiser. The bridge is considered its own section and is at the very top level. This vessel is interstellar capable and has a heavy armory of weapons. There are built-in armaments and a varied selection of weapons for us to use in free combat." Rigel wanted to get to the bridge and sort out the A.I. After that, they needed to shower, change and get a meal. First, he wanted the Munificence back in negative-impact presence and out of orbit from the moon. If Vercon was out there, he had to draw him into space, and as far from Earth as possible.

"It's like a city." Lyra's expression of childlike awe made him pause. He'd have to keep reminding himself that this was all new for her.

"When they built this cruiser, it was designed to adapt to a growing crew population. I won't deny that it's luxurious by Earth standards. Wait until you experience the showers. No spa on Earth could come close."

"Why does the artificial intelligence keep addressing me as the direct heir? And what am I supposed to input? I don't carry a military rank."

The lift took them up to the top level, opening onto the bridge. Rigel took in the consoles, the piloting chairs, and all the instrumentation and sighed. He never thought he'd be here again, and not without the subcommander.

The designs were remarkable. The consoles were composed from clear materials and able to be maneuvered about as needed or locked into place if desired.

"It's impressive." Lyra giggled. "It reminds me of footage of the old movies they made in the twenty-first century about going out into space."

True. Rigel went over to one of the consoles. He opened the main A.I. link.

"First Lieutenant Rigel returned from Earth. Subcommander Ariella-Two deceased. Second Lieutenant Hart'ton—whereabouts and status unknown."

"Recognized. Updating files for Subcommander Ariella-Two and Second Lieutenant Hart'ton. The heir to the subcommander must input her data and rank to assume control. Please continue."

Rigel took Lyra by the arm to get her attention.

"You need to formally give-up your intent to assume control; otherwise the system will automatically set the security to your command. Since I'm the only one that can pilot this cruiser, I need to be in command."

"What do I do?" Lyra asked.

"Say it aloud to the A.I. and surrender control and command to me." This was the moment. Would Lyra give over to him or would the headstrong woman try to fill her mother's boots?

A whole parade went over her face as she considered. Doubt, suspicion, reluctance and then finally, surrender.

"A.I., this is Lyra Trask, the direct heir to Subcommander Ariella-Two. I do not have a military rank or the skills to command and pilot. I willingly surrender control and command to First Lieutenant Rigel."

The artificial intelligence whirred and processed for seconds that seemed like hours to Rigel. Without control, he wouldn't be able to do anything without Lyra's consent and if she died along the way...

Another scan swept over Lyra. "Place your hand on the pad." A small reader opened from the security panel. Lyra complied, placing her hand palm down onto the apparatus. Two small metallic extensions emerged, positioning themselves over Lyra's hand.

"Brace yourself, it might take a sample," Rigel warned.

It did. Lyra jumped back, blood drops on three of her fingertips.

"What is it doing to me?"

"Getting your genetic profile and a whole host of information it can use to make you more comfortable on board." He had forgotten how thorough the technology was on the Munificence. By now the system would have analyzed Lyra down to knowing her dietary preferences.

"How can it do that?"

This isn't Earth technology, Lyra. The Munificence is a Hammerradus. It is one of a kind, designed and built for the final mission to Earth. The engineers knew this cruiser might become our home. They made it to last and keep us comfortable. I could bet everything I have on the replicator making you a cup of tea exactly the strength you like. No more boiling the kettle."

For an instant, her face fell and Rigel understood why. Although they'd had technology in their compound far beyond what most did on Earth, it paled next to what was on the Munificence. The price tag for convenience and unlimited choice was losing those endearing, yet old-fashioned practices—like boiling water for tea.

"I like boiling water for tea. Dad always said nothing could compare to a cup of tea made that way. The replicator never got the strength the way I like it. I doubt your machine here will either."

"Lyra, the technology available on this ship is something Earth won't arrive at for centuries, if at all. With the Lor-Ellian genetics filtering through your planet's population over the next few generations, there might be hope. You do understand that Lor-Ellian culture has existed for millions of your Earth years? For a species to evolve and flourish, it takes many millennia. The Carnegians are a young species compared to us, but there are also much older ones in the verse."

Suddenly the artificial intelligence cut into the conversation.

"The system recognizes First Lieutenant Rigel as commander of the Munificence. Please state your agreement and present for sample."

"I, First Lieutenant Rigel, accept command of the Munificence. Transfer all security protocols under my authority. Instigate voice recognition for secured files." Rigel placed his palm on the reader. It took both a sample and a scan.

"Data input complete. Files secured. Transfer of control complete. How may I aid you, Commander Rigel?"

"Begin negative impact presence and break orbit. Bring navigation online and set course for the Cellnoid Region using conventional drive. Start automatic piloting with alerts for any abnormalities. System note, I remain the only pilot aboard. Run continuous scans and report any abnormalities and variances from normal limits and specific to Carnegian signatures. Activate weapon arsenal to combat ready on verbal command. Note to prepare instruction modules for Lyra Trask for pilot theory and simulation and general onboard systems."

"System on full automatic. Scanning in progress. Launching requested programs."

Lyra stood, hands on hips, her upper lip twitching. He knew that look.

"Commander Rigel? Is that what this is about? You want to be the commander?"

He couldn't stop himself from grinning. Poor Lyra had gone from her delusion of believing he was a hybrid that she owned, to this. It was quite the leap.

"You can still call me Rigel," he whispered as he went past, half expecting her to punch him. "Time for a shower and to get changed. We need to keep on top of things. I expect our company to arrive at any moment. The cruiser is on automatic pilot until I give new orders. We both need to eat." He indicated for her to go ahead of him.

"Are you sure? I mean, hell, I don't want to offend your sense of importance."

His whole body shook as he tried to keep himself from laughing out. Lyra wasn't taking it well, but he hadn't expected her to. She'd just found out how small a fish she was in this gigantic pond called the verse.

"The doors open automatically, as do the lifts and at any time you can verbally pose your question and the system will answer you. If you are lost, touch the wall and request a schematic of the cruiser with directions. The temperature and humidity will adjust to keep you comfortable. Replicators are available on almost every level of the cruiser. Simply speak into the sensing intake and it will produce what you've requested. Don't worry about temperatures or strengths for food or drink, the system already has all that from your scan. I guarantee it will provide every single item to your specifications. Lor-Ellians carry cellular memory and it has taken samples of your cells and analyzed them."

"We'll see. I want to test it first, give it a run for its money." Lyra scowled and it reminded him of Tebo. Other than her blue eyes, she didn't resemble her father physically. The resemblance flashed out in her mannerisms and facial expressions. For Rigel, it was like seeing Tebo again, through his daughter. He missed the doctor. Tebo's temperament had earned him the nickname of the barnacle, all sharp and hostile, but underneath...

It was because of Ariella and Tebo and Lyra that he'd unearthed aspects within himself he hadn't been aware of.

"What would you say about all this?" he whispered, thinking of Tebo, forgetting Lyra was near.

"Say about what?" She stopped, waiting for his response.

"Nothing. Come on, if I'm going to die out here in space, I'd like to bathe first."



Part Two



The communicator came to life, Hart'ton's excited voice crackling in the air. Vercon nearly jumped out of his chair.

"Vercon? Are you there? Vercon! Where is the Aspate? I can't see you."

Vercon brought up a holoimage of the perimeter of the Aspate. A figure was running toward the craft. Hart'ton. In fact, if he allowed it, Hart'ton would run right into the side of the Aspate. For a moment, Vercon entertained the idea.

"Hart'ton, if you don't stop running you will find the craft in about twelve of your Earth seconds. Stay where you are and I'll uncloak." Why would he have run all the way back to the Aspate?

Good question. Before he did anything further, Vercon ran a detailed scan of the entire area, noting for any movement or abnormality. Was Hart'ton running from someone? Had the idiot been followed? Was he in danger? He spoke into the communicator.

"Did you have an issue out there?"

"No. I have news about Rigel and Lyra." Hart'ton danced about; hopping from one foot to the other as if he'd forgot to use the washroom.

Vercon released the cloaking and the Aspate shimmered into form.

"You may board." Vercon advanced the ramp and opened the door. Once Hart'ton had cleared the door, Vercon pulled in the ramp and set the security, reinitiating the cloaking.

"System, run continuous scanning and alerts," he ordered.

The feel of another's presence went along his skin. Hart'ton.

"Why did you come back to the Aspate? Why didn't you relay your message on the communicator I provided you with?" Vercon turned to find the Lor-Ellian leaning against a console, panting from his run, the area around him littered with sand and debris.

It baffled him how this worm had managed to stay alive around Ariella-Two.

"I couldn't risk saying it and have anyone hear me. They left." Hart'ton sunk into one of the chairs.

"Left? They left the compound? On foot or by vehicle?"

"They launched. The shuttle must have survived the explosives I set. Didn't your system detect it?"

Without bothering to answer, Vercon went over the system logs. Nothing. When he scanned for post launch particulate in the atmosphere, it registered. What the hell was going on? Nothing could have left this planet without his knowing.

"When did it launch?" Vercon studied the data, noting the breakdown of the particulates. The smattering of the residue in the atmosphere suggested that over four Earth hours had elapsed. Why hadn't the system on the Aspate detected and alerted him? He'd been asleep until the communicator had tripped off. It wouldn't matter. If there had been any alerts, the system would have warned him.

What had Rigel and Ariella done to the shuttle to prevent launch detection? Vercon knew Hart'ton was staring at him, waiting for some response, but he didn't care.

"Did your species have possession of more intricate cloaking than you've led me to believe?" Had Hart'ton held back critical information? Would the Authority One and Ariella have disclosed such advancements to Hart'ton? Unlikely. He was a pilot and barely that. Rigel would have been read into technological upgrades. Whatever it was, the shuttle had got off planet and right under his nose.

"Why would you run all this way to let me know about a launch? If you saw it, you should have contacted me. Four hours? They might be on the Munificence and heading into space." Vercon held his hand up to prevent Hart'ton from speaking. "Don't. If there was the remote possibility that I might not need you, I'd kill you here and now. You've been nothing but a parnmatke. Do you know what that is?"

Hart'ton shook his head, his eyes reflecting the fear he obviously felt.

"In Carnegian culture, a parnmatke is a bad talisman. It brings ill or bad luck. You, Hart'ton, are a parnmatke."

"That isn't nice. I've tried my best for you, Vercon." Hart'ton bumped his boots together, managing to put more sand onto the floor.

"Unlike your soft Lor-Ellian culture, Carnegians are used to higher standards and expectations. For instance, in the Carnegian military if you fail at something important, they eliminate you." Vercon watched the second lieutenant's face change. Horror and terror. Good, they were finally getting somewhere. If he couldn't get Hart'ton to carry out his orders by asking, he'd terrify him into subservience.

"We aren't soft. Ariella-Two wasn't—"

"Subcommander Ariella-Two was the exception to the rule. You, worm, are not to speak of her again. She was far beyond anything you could ever hope to be. Her military skills and scientific mind continue to be revered throughout the verse."

"Okay, you don't need to get all pissy with me. They've launched, the next move is yours," Hart'ton spat.

The next move is yours. Unbelievable. But his Carnegian senses were telling him that he'd better be careful. Rigel might have advanced technology. If they'd made it onto the Munificence, the first lieutenant would set course to get away from him and if there was more to this CANNMAX, heading straight for it. He'd read the files before Hart'ton had destroyed the shuttle. The Authority One might have had another plan in place if the mission to Earth wasn't successful. The only problem was that no one was left to get the information from. Vercon had his bet on the Munificence. Ariella-Two would have kept more detailed files under the protection of the A.I. If Rigel were in command, he would be able to access those files.

Vercon studied Hart'ton. The question was whether Ariella-Two had read Rigel into data that sensitive. Of course, all this was assuming there had been some alternate plan and the files contained the information he'd need.

"What are you thinking about?" Hart'ton sniffed, wiping his sleeve across his face.

"We'll be launching soon. First, I want to have a look around the compound." Rigel might have been in such a hurry to leave that he'd been careless. Vercon would bet that Lyra would have left an easy trail for him to follow.

"What if it's rigged?"

Vercon smiled at the sad excuse for a military officer. "Oh, I fully expect it will be and that's why you're going in first."

Three green beams of light streamed out from various points on the compound. The security had detected their presence. Vercon hung back, observing as the network scanned the perimeter. Hart'ton had finally made it to the outer entrance—after dodging four shots. He didn't believe for one moment that Rigel had set the weapon for a kill shot, but as a warning not to go any further. Rigel wouldn't have known who might show up at his door. It wasn't the Lor-Ellian way to harm those not involved in a conflict. An innocent might be sniffing about the compound, hoping to scavenge material or items not secured. Splinters roamed, watching for signs of abandoned areas to move into. Someone might have seen the launch and decided to collect anything not bolted down. Splinters weren't the kind to question a launch, but to keep silent and profit from anything they could get their grubby hands on.

No, the kill shots would be inside and they'd come from every possible position. Rigel would have armed his bots to take out anyone that didn't match his or Lyra's profile signature. Rigel would have considered that fair. This time his smile came easier and quicker. The sun beat down on him, but even the discomfort to his eyes couldn't dampen the joy Hart'ton's death would bring.

Killed while performing his duty. The Lor-Ellian bastard couldn't ask for a more refined manner to take his leave from this world. The big alien shook his head. A thousand years of longevity, wasted on a buffoon like Hart'ton. It pained him fiercely.

Sure, he could have armed the Lor-Ellian with a scanning device to detect all the possible threats, but why make it easy for him? What fun was there in that?

His communicator buzzed.

"Vercon, I'm inside. I've taken out several armed bots."

Still alive...

"Is it safe for me to enter?" He'd hang back and allow junior soldier to clear out as many of the bots as possible, and then he'd go inside. Why should he face the danger? Hart'ton was disposable.

Shots came over the communicator—five, six, seven. Vercon waited, blinking against the intensity of the sunlight. Eight.

"I think you're good," Hart'ton's shaky voice came through.

I'm good. Very good.

"I'll see you momentarily." Vercon tucked the communication device back into his pocket. He was about to walk to the compound when something caught his attention, the rock formation situated next to the compound. To the untrained eye, it would appear as if the rock formation had been used as a naturally occurring fortification for the compound, but Vercon knew better.

"Now if I were going to hide something huge, like a shuttle, I believe that would be the place." Vercon scoped around, trying to pick out any variances that might twig the location of a hidden entrance. "There you are." The door blended into the rock formations and with the light hitting, it had been difficult to pick out. It would be locked, but he'd expected that. He'd simply blast his way in.

He didn't let Hart'ton in on what he was about to do. More time would allow Hart'ton to clear out any remaining threats, or be eliminated by the bots. Either way, it worked. Vercon scaled the hillside, finding a rudimentary path through the jagged rocks. When he reached the door, he took a moment to admire how beautifully it had been designed.

"Someone knew what they were doing," he whispered. Impressive. The person responsible for this idea had taken care to fashion an entrance almost invisible to the naked eye, just not his. On Earth this worked well. The species wasn't overly bright and Tebo would have used the surrounding topography to camouflage a bunker. He knew who Tebo had been. After reading through the files, Vercon had found himself in admiration of the human. Although it rarely happened, it was a Carnegian trait to give credit to someone if they excelled far beyond the boundaries of their species. Ariella-Two had been admired by the Carnegians for being an exemplary officer.

He tried the door, smooth and without any handle or pad to unlock. Vercon pulled his weapon, firing repeatedly at the door. In seconds he'd created a hole where the door had been. Cautiously, he stepped through the hole and into a dark tunnel. Dank air greeted him, but it would soon be freshened by the breeze from the outside pushing into the space. Ahead was a barrier, fashioned from an Earth metal. His weapon made short work of it, and within minutes he was inside the compound. The sensing scanner read two armed bots waiting to his left inside the hall. Vercon took them out with a single burst from his gun. Nothing satisfied him like killing, although this didn't count as that. He was strict about how he estimated his kill calculations. The subject had to be sentient and able to feel the kill in order to be counted. Bots didn't feel anything. Rigel's fake soldiers were sadly disappointing and when he saw him next, he'd let him know.

He blasted another door at the end of the hall, suddenly finding himself inside the compound. Clever. Tebo John Trask got full points for his design. No one would ever suspect the compound and the rock formation next to it were linked.

"Vercon, is that you?" Hart'ton shouted down the corridor.

Was it luck?

"Yes. How many did you get?" He had a fair idea of how many to expect. Rigel wouldn't have wasted his time trying to assemble more bots, not when he intended to leave Earth.

"Nine in total. They're sneaky bastards."

Vercon rounded the corner to find Hart'ton applying pressure to his leg. Blood poured from a wound.

"You were shot in the leg?" No way did this compute. Those bots would have been programmed to take kill shots to the head or heart.

"I tripped. Do you have a bandage?" Hart'ton whined.

"No, I do not have a bandage. Carnegians don't cry about little battle scratches. Tear some of your clothing off and wrap it up and don't ever show weakness in front of me again. The next time you do, I'll kill you. Stay here, I'm going to have a look around."

The images from the Carnegian archived files had provided some good intelligence, but they'd been riddled with holes. Tebo John Trask was touted as a revolutionary, but for all the hoopla about him, very little real information was known. Vercon cursed himself inwardly. If only he'd taken the time to set the explosive on the shuttle that night. He should never have trusted Hart'ton to get it right. At least he could console himself knowing the growth chambers had been destroyed. He'd taken care of that himself. The storm had provided the perfect cover for him to break into the shuttle and access the files. Events hadn't unfolded as he'd planned that night. The storm had worked in his favor, but he'd expected Ariella-Two to come looking for Hart'ton. Being in command, she should have been the one to search out her second lieutenant. It had been Rigel he'd spotted as he'd stood sheltered in that grove of trees. He'd panicked, even losing his tokket in the sand. Rigel wouldn't have realized the footsteps in the sand that simply stopped had led to the Aspate, cloaked and waiting. If Rigel had taken a few more steps, he'd have made physical contact with the craft.


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