Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Not Knowing (unfinished!)

            The wreckage of PSV Beatrice was found 783 light-seconds out from the planet where she was supposed to be conducting salvage operations. This log and other data were recovered while elements of Shadow Fleet 13 engaged three Big-Bee Leviathans in-system. Minor casualties and damage to one Leviathan's hyperdrive led to her to being scuttled when the rest of SF13 arrived four hours later. We got one of the other bastards, too. A very good day. -Rear Admiral Vasili Jigoro
Entries from Astrogation Officer Leona Frade's personal log on the private salvage-vessel Beatrice-
            It's hard, the not knowing. I am a starship astrogator and pilot, but my most important job, even more important than seeing us home again, is to someday destroy our data-base of known human settlements. The holomap is like a strand of pearls glowing in the darkness of the bridge, and from time to time, when we come home, one or two have gone dark. Sometimes there are new ones, and I pull up the entries like childhood sweets, to savor how here, there, are three thousand souls making a living at atmospheric mining on this gas-giant, ten thousand hiding their farms and manufacturing inside this icy little moon, or a few dozen on a powersat spreading black wings under a blue-white sun to manufacture antimatter in milligram lots. Not knowing what has happened to the ones that go dark, and dreading the day when we come home to a dead settlement, that is hard.
            There is something out there that does not love us. I wonder if they know our kind too well, or see themselves in us, that they can kill without mercy, wipe us out root and branch. But I'd rather not know, if the knowing invariably means my death, and the deaths of those I love.
            "I'd trade you to know, though, Krieg," I told the mercenary who was hanging onto the wall behind me. Krieg likes to do that. He thinks maybe I'm desperate enough to be interested, perhaps. Ugh. He's a squat toad who grew up in high-G, down in a habitat floating in the clouds of a Venus-like runaway greenhouse planet. They mined something on the surface, transuranics probably, and the place turned into a ghost town when the ore-body played out. The population drifted away to more typical low-G moons and free-fall, and he found his calling when a local boss, both mayor and magistrate, pressed him into a mercenary outfit run by his brother. Not Krieg's brother; I hear that he's an orphan.
            Krieg grunts and doesn't ask what I'm talking about. He wants me for my body, not my mind, which, to my way of thinking, is pretty sad. I am a scarred survivor, and a long-time ago I shaved off the pretty hair my mother loved, because it now comes in clumps around the scar-tissue. There's a soft-spot where a skilled surgeon removed a piece of my skull to go in there after some debris. I think that I fought so hard only because he fought so hard, for me, that I didn't dare disappoint my uncle. My astrogators' implants and such are just so much lemonade... When life hands you a lemon, right? Better to my way of thinking to risk a cripple than to risk a whole human being, which was an attitude Uncle Stan didn't care for at all. But all he said was, "Cynicism and despair won't carry you through, girl."
            The timer beeps. Five minutes and counting. I call the captain, but he's up already. He always is. Krieg clears out, unrequited lust and all. Probably going to go feel up his guns. Pervert.
            100 seconds and counting down. Hyperspace maps with realspace in a more or less congruent fashion, but it's much smaller. Much, much smaller. We basically fly through it, interacting indirectly with hyper-matter and praying that the shields and sails hold. If they fail and we can't get out fast enough, we will die horribly, decaying into hyper-matter and disintegrating.
            I'm told it's like burning alive while exploding. I wish I didn't have such a good imagination.
            That, plus I come as close as any man or woman does to experiencing it, through the ship's sensors. I linked up with my ship, not the captains', mine, and pushed ever so carefully with the force-fields, feeling the drag of hyper-matter like a warm breeze on my skin
            I feel myself being pulled into an old dream about my mother. She's holding my hand at the beach, in the surf under a pale blue sky. We're wearing re-breather masks but otherwise it's skin-safe. The suns hang low but many hours from setting, over a little boat pulled ashore by my father, my brothers and uncle. A picnic, if we're careful, my parents say, like on Earth in their parent's time. Before it turns into nightmare, with malevolent lights streaking across the sky, the ship calls me back, and I drop us carefully out of hyperspace over our destination.
            We salvage. Mostly from our own dead, but sometimes we go where the Tommyknockers, the Jabberwocky or Big Bad Aliens, take your pick, have killed some other poor bastard species. This job was one of those. I appreciated that. Somehow I never feel clean on jobs where we pick the bones of our own kind.
            The place got worked over a long time ago. Some spock worked out that this happened seven hundred years ago, around the time one set of my ancestors was importing another set into North America- and wiping out the natives with Old World diseases to boot. Monsters, monsters, everywhere... We're not the first ones in, and we won't be the last, but we needed to get in and get out. Not just because it's a potential hang-out for the Big-Bees, but also because there are always turf issues to deal with. Sometimes Krieg gets to earn his keep.
            That holomap doesn't show it all. There are other tangled strands of pearls we don't know about, or are kept hidden by mutual agreement. We call it the shadow federation, but what it really is is a bunch of frog-kingdoms, where the biggest frog in each pond is happy enough not to have the competition. That it's safer this way is just gravy.
            The Captain came onto the bridge. I can always tell without looking, or sneaking a peek at the security feed. He drinks caff, the artificial stuff we know as the fabled coffee. He always brings two mugs, one of caff for himself, and another of coca, also artificial but gene-hacked from soy and a better fit, or so the really old-timers say. Of course, after the first hundred years or so, you really can't trust your taste-buds, or memories. The smell brings back certain childhood ones, all good.
            "How are we, Astrogation Officer Frade?" He asks with mock-formality. We have a good relationship; he plays around with my formality, and I let him mock me gently, for he's one of the best captains I've ever had.
            "We are 'fair to middlin', Cap'n,'" I say, and he flashes me a smile. "Low orbit, coming up on our first re-entry burn in fifty. Do you want to take us in?"
            I could land Beatrice, but Captain Jesse Underwood is a much better pilot. Even without implants, he has an intuitive feel for her in realspace, one I envy. But a look passes over his face. Regret?
            "No, Leona, you take Bea in for me this time. There's one or two things I need to see to..."

Later on... 

            The alarms sounded, breaking my reverie. I moved to seal the bridge one damn second too late. Krieg and a Big-Bee, the first I'd ever seen up close, came rolling in as the doors slid shut, snicker-snack, cutting the Big-Bee off at one knee. The thing chittered and crabbed around on it's remaining legs, bringing a weapon up to fire at me. Krieg swung the hooked end of a crowbar up and under the armor of it's neck. Blue-green blood spurted across the bridge at me, hot and vile. The big bad alien fell over, kicking and clutching at it's wound, but life poured out onto the deck. What a mess.
            Without thinking about it, as I'd been drilled to do, I'd pulled my pistol, the one mandated by the Guild. I was aiming at Krieg. "Not that I'm unhappy that you just killed it, but what the hell are you doing here?"
            "I figured you might be lonely," Krieg said as he slid down the wall by the door. His wound from earlier was bleeding again, seeping out where the doc-patch had come loose. "Then I had a dance-partner who I couldn't say 'no' too, y'see..."
            His eyes closed and I thought that maybe he was dead, or at least unconscious. He surprised me by saying, "Don't let Underwood in here." He opened his eyes again and met mine. "He's betrayed us. I'd thank you kindly to put that away, and overwrite the Astrogation database, right now. We aren't going home again."

Explain how this ends and recovery of her personal log

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