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Click on image to enlarge.

Strangers
by Melissa McCann

You Pay:  $4.99

Category: Science Fiction
Description: When Annia escapes from indentured service, she finds herself and her carefully preserved research on a frontier world far from the Federation. Will she be able to produce the cure to history's most virulent plague before it returns from its hundred-year hibernation, or will she be captured by the hunter sent from the Federation to track her down? Even with the help of her friends-a pair of clone soldiers from the Federation; Maycee, the strange scion of a stranger family; and Maycee's cousin, the half-alien Cho'en-the cure seems just out of reach, and time is running out.
eBook Publisher: Awe-Struck E-Books, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: January 2003

eBookeBook

31 Reader Ratings:
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Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [599 KB]
Words: 138022
Reading time: 394-552 min.
All Other formats: Printing DISABLED, Read-aloud DISABLED


Chapter 1

The air smelled of ozone and burned flesh even in C-Med where backup systems should keep the air fresh. Air should smell of paint and metal and sometimes bodies close together if you were in the clone barracks. C-med usually had a chemical tang. The smell meant the ship was under attack. He was supposed to defend the ship. He twitched in his restraints.

A doctor in a red smock held a scanner over the scar where the shoulder of the new arm joined to his body. She was short and fine-boned with dark skin. Her long, arched nose was sharp as a weapon.

The couch rocked under his back, and a dull thud compressed the air. That meant weapons striking the ship. Enemies were coming. He tried to rise again.

The doctor said, "He's trying to get up."

Another doctor, a male, said, "Conditioning. Probably drools when it hears the dinner bell, too." He laughed.

There were other humans in the infirmary, interns in red uniforms with grey stripes. He liked the female doctor human better than the other humans. Her face was hard and intent like a clone.

The infirmary bucked. A deep boom resonated through the bulkheads, and the lights dimmed to yellow. The female doctor human grabbed the bed restraints for balance.

The male doctor's eyes opened wide. "That was the clone barracks. C&C can't have got the soldiers out in time."

The interns huddled together.

The male doctor human said, "They're going to board the ship before the fleet gets here. Flush that one and get ready to evac." He pushed the interns out the door. Coming back inside, he palmed the board beside the first medi-couch in the row. The occupant, an XY659R with a damaged leg, twitched and tried to sit up against his restraints. The gel-pad and the clone on it slid into the disposal and disappeared.

That made him nervous. He tried to sit up. The female doctor said, "It's foolish to flush this one. His arm is fully functional."

The other doctor flushed the half-healed clone on the next couch. "Not our decision."

The female doctor human pulled a nutrient tube out of the crook of his elbow. She covered the vein with a dab of gel. The catheter pinched as it came out. He accessed his data crystal, found only instructions for C-med -- obey doctors. Doctors are lieutenants in C-med. Nothing about fighting or what to do when the air smelled bad and doctors started flushing clones.

The female doctor released the restraints that held him against the bed.

He sat up. His movement startled the doctor. She stepped back with her eyebrows raised.

The male doctor said, "You're lucky he doesn't run amuck. All that adrenaline and nothing to do with it."

He didn't like the male doctor human. He looked around for an enemy to fight, accessed his crystal for information. Nothing there to tell him how to identify enemies. Red smocks mean doctors. Doctors are lieutenants in C-med.

The female doctor human said. "Flex your left arm."

The new arm came from an XY972S, very close to his own series, but not identical. The skin was a shade darker, the muscles shaped a little differently. A white scar crossed the back of the hand.

The evacuation klaxon made the female doctor human jump. "Evacuation," she said.

"That's it," the other doctor said. "Get to your life ship assignment."

The female doctor human slipped her scanner under her belt. She did not go to the door.

He swung his feet to the floor and took the female doctor human's arm. Evacuation meant get all humans to life ships. He didn't need his data crystal for that. He had simulations for evacuation.

The other doctor stripped off his red smock. "What are you waiting for, Annia? Evacuate."

The female doctor human said, "Go without me."

"Big bang, it's just a clone."

The female doctor human's face was hard. "You can wait with me if you want."

The male doctor human said, "Just make sure you get to a life ship before it's too late." He backed out the door.

The deck rocked again under his feet, and he adjusted his stance. The female doctor human should go to the life-ships now, but she did not. She left him standing by the med-couch. That was not how evacuation was supposed to be. The human should go to the life ships.

The human shoved a watery-pure crystal in the data 'corder. "Access data file Annia 4424. Download to crystal." She waited. The information field flashed. She said, "Password: century plague." The 'corder rattled.

He didn't know what the female doctor human was doing. She should evacuate. He was supposed to fight or evacuate humans. He went to the door and stepped into the corridor outside C-med. There was smoke in the air and a strong, bitter smell. He felt light-headed.

He wanted to go to the life-ships. Clones could go to life-ships when humans were evacuated. He wanted the human to leave so that he could go. He squatted outside the door of C-med near the deck where the air smelled better and didn't burn his throat. He picked with his fingers at his eyebrow. He didn't know what to do. He needed a lieutenant. Not a doctor who was only a lieutenant in C-med, but a real lieutenant who wore a clip on her ear and could hear orders from Command.

The clip on her ear was silent. That was bad. Bad like the burning metal smell in the corridors. It meant maybe the ship was dead, but worse, it meant she had no orders.

She did not know what to do. Fight? No enemies. She didn't know where enemies were. She didn't know what had happened. She remembered violence ripping through the decks of the ship. She remembered trying to go to the barracks for her soldiers, but an emergency bulkhead had blocked the corridor. She could not get to her soldiers. She remembered pacing back and forth in front of the bulkhead for a while, worrying about her soldiers. Then she had turned around and come this way.

The evacuation klaxon startled her, coming from the speakers around her and from the clip itself. The klaxon meant find all the humans and take them to life ships. No one came out of the doors nearby. This part of the ship was mostly for clones. No humans except in C-med. She was near C-med. She would go to C-med and evacuate humans.

The air was better near C-med. Her eyes did not burn so much, and the raw feeling in her chest was better. She saw the doors to the clone infirmary through the haze. A soldier squatted there beside the door plucking at his close-cropped, olive-blond hair the way the XY97 series did when they were distressed or confused.

•  •  •

He heard her before he saw her through the haze and the yellow lights in the corridor: light, quick footfalls, not the tramp of enemy boots. She trotted up the corridor coughing with the bad air. Her grey uniform was wrinkled, the white stripe stained and scorched.

There were no soldiers behind her. Soldiers would be good to see when the ship was full of smoke and there were enemies coming, but a lieutenant was good enough. He was glad to see her.

"Where are humans?" she demanded.

"Evacuated," he said. That was good. "Not one. Doctor won't leave."

She frowned. "Humans first."

He knew what she meant; it was the clones' job to evacuate humans when the klaxon sounded. "Doctor is a lieutenant in C-med," he answered. He had conflicting orders: humans must evacuate, but his crystal said that he must obey doctors.

The lieutenant said, "Evacuation is primary."

He did not understand how lieutenants knew what orders to give. Soldiers didn't know. Without a lieutenant, they could not decide what to do. Now the lieutenant was here; she could decide. Bad feelings went away.

•  •  •

Annia had waited seven years-hiding, moving her data from one coded bank to another, hiding it among innocuous backup files, becoming adept at manipulating the data banks while she waited for an opportunity to escape. Then the Commonwealth sneak ships broke out of null-space and fired on the Federation enforcer Guardian on which she served her indenture. Evacuation and the nearly repaired clone had given Annia her excuse to be alone with a data access port for the minutes she needed.

How long had it been since she last felt the jolt and shudder of explosive missiles and disrupter bolts? Several minutes, surely. There would be Commonwealth boarding parties at the locks -- maybe already on the ship, maybe outside her door.

The door behind her opened.

She clutched at the data crystal hidden inside her jumpsuit.

The XX222A in the doorway carried a rifle tucked competently under her arm. A swag of soot-dark hair hung across her cheek. She must have been outside the blast area when the barracks were destroyed, perhaps in Simulation & Conditioning -- close enough to be knocked around by the concussion. Her grey-and-white uniform was streaked and scorched. She dropped the rifle's muzzle toward the floor. "Evacuate humans first," she said.

"I'm almost ready."

"Evacuate now," the female clone said.

She had erased most of the evidence of her data out of the bank. If the remains were found, she would just have to hope she was too far away for the government to find her. Annia slung a portable sequencer by its carry-strap over one shoulder and a field kit over the other. The female clone tossed the rifle into the male's hands and hustled Annia out the door into the corridor.

The evacuation klaxon stopped battering Annia's ears. There was something sinister about the ringing silence. "They're inside the ship," Annia said.

The XX touched the clip at her left ear, and her eyes unfocused briefly. "No data," she said.

If the XX222 wasn't getting orders, the attackers must have disabled Command & Control as well as the clone barracks. If any clones had survived the destruction of the barracks, they would be at a loss for orders.

The male clone, still wearing only hospital trousers, halted at a T-junction, set his back to the wall and glanced around the corner. He recoiled. "Enemy," he said.

The XX said, "How many?"

"Twenty-two. Projectile rifles."

He was an XY972-248B. While the tinkers were slicing away at his series' initiative and decision-making capacity, they had inadvertently exposed an inhuman facility for numbers and patterns.

The female slitted her eyes. "Too many to kill. Save ourselves. Protect humans. Evacuate humans first." Her head twitched.

The clone was trying to process contradictory orders. She couldn't get Annia to the life-ships without fighting, but she couldn't fight without being killed and perhaps getting Annia killed as well. After a few minutes of that kind of conflict she would be completely unresponsive.

Annia had other plans anyway. "I can evacuate on a shuttle. You can save yourself. Shuttles are mid-ship. Enemy may not have come there yet."

The XX shuddered in the grip of indecision. "Humans evacuate on life ships."

"I can't get to a life ship. Enemy have the life ships. I have to evacuate on a shuttle."

The XX ground her teeth and twitched her head, but she adapted. "Shuttle," she said. "Evacuate on a shuttle." The XX222s were a good series. Another series, the XY779 lieutenants, for example, would have completely frozen up.

Without clone soldiers to defend the airlocks, Commonwealth troops had entered the ship unopposed. Annia and her clone escort were forced to detour several times to avoid reconnaissance parties. Each time the tramp of boots on the decking sent them down a side corridor, Annia fought a panicky compulsion to give herself up to the enemy. Annia knew plenty of indentured personnel who had spent time in Commonwealth prison camps. They were decent places from all accounts: bigger than IP quarters on the ship and better food. Rumor said there were underground groups that would help Federation indentured personnel to defect. Each time the temptation gripped her, she clenched her fingers around the data crystal in her pocket until the urge passed.

The female clone halted at the doors of a lift capsule. She jerked her head.

Annia set her emergency field kit on the deck and scrubbed a sweat-soaked palm on her jumpsuit. "What are you stopping for?"

The clone tightened her brows. "Enemy on ship; stay away from lifts. Enemy on both sides. Ladders too slow."

They were surrounded. The lift was the only way out of the enemy's reach, but the clone's conditioning told her she shouldn't use the lifts when there were enemies on the ship. Annia snapped, "Use the lift, for the well's sake."

The clone twitched. "Enemy on ship; stay away from lifts."

Annia palmed the lock panel. "They're catching up behind us."

She stepped into the lift and the clones followed her reluctantly. The male clone braced his shoulders against the back of the car and aimed the rifle at the doors. The lift hydraulics heaved and moaned -- a lateral glide between sections and down a level.

The lift stopped with a clank, and the XX pulled Annia to one side.

The doors opened.

A projectile weapon thundered in the corridor.

The XY slammed against the back of the lift and dropped his pulse rifle.

Annia shouted, "Don't fire. I'm unarmed. Indentured personnel." In a battle situation with adrenaline high, you couldn't count on Commonwealth troops to keep their heads. She had to give them a moment to calm down.

Silence for a long moment. Good news as far as it went. A shaky voice said, "Step out with your hands where I can see them."

Only the one, she thought. He sounded young. The Commonwealth fleet accepted volunteers as young as fourteen. She raised her hands and stepped slowly into the open.

He was older than she had thought from his voice, but still young enough to turn white and sick about the mouth at the sight of the XX behind her. Annia said, "Calm down. I got separated from my evacuation group. The clones were taking me to the life ships."

He squeezed the microphone on the collar of his red and gold uniform. "Commander, I've captured a human -- indentured personnel -- and two clones. What do I do?"

Annia couldn't make out the answer, but it didn't seem to reassure the soldier. She'd have been better off dealing with someone more experienced.

Annia took a few steps toward the boy. "I'm indentured. I don't want to fight you."

The XX followed close behind her and edged to one side of the lift doors. The XY lay against the back of the lift pressing his left shoulder with the opposite palm. Blood ran down his arm and soaked his hand.

The Commonwealth soldier blinked sweat out of his eyes. "Just stand over there."

Annia moved to the side as directed, and the boy turned his projectile rifle toward the XX.

Annia stiffened. "Don't point the gun at her."

He swallowed. "My orders are to put the clones down."

Inside the lift, the XY stirred. The boy ignored the fallen clone, focused on the standing XX, the obvious threat. The clone stood with a curiously serene expression.

Annia had seen that look before. "No," Annia said.

The XY rolled to his feet faster than a human could move. The boy, watching the XX clone, never saw him. The XY jerked the gun out of the boy's hands. The gun boomed, and the projectile sang off the ceiling with a tinny sound. The lieutenant never moved.

The soldier twisted the boy in a hard grip and broke his neck before Annia could think of stopping him. He dropped the body on the deck.

The boy didn't know anything about clones; got the human out of harm's way before turning his weapon on them. No more protect humans, just save yourself, and he'd forgotten about the one on the deck, assumed he was down with just a shoulder wound when it took a clean shot with a pulse rifle to kill a clone. An experienced soldier would have known that.

Annia bent over the boy and checked for a heartbeat. Nothing.

The impassive clone stood bleeding onto his handiwork with a satisfied expression.

"Big bang, you didn't have to kill him."

The clone looked puzzled, tried to access his data crystal.

The invaders knew where she was, and when the boy failed to respond to hails, they would guess there was at least one clone still loose on the ship. Annia hesitated. She weighed the value of the century plague data in her pocket against one soldier killed in combat. She risked too much with her research to waste time here trying to restore life-functions to the soldier whose own ignorance had got him killed. He had known what he was getting into when he volunteered.

"Misbegotten sib of a bad brood." She laid her emergency kit open on the deck and found the sealed packet of cardio-pulmonary stimulators. She opened one, yanked the young soldier's uniform open and planted the CPS unit on his chest. Its hair-thin probes burrowed into his flesh. A moment later, his chest heaved, and Annia felt the pulse of blood through the artery in his neck. The artificial heartbeat and respiration would keep his brain alive until help arrived. That was as much as she owed him. His own medics would have to repair the crushed vertebrae and patch the severed spinal column.

She made no effort to be gentle as she examined the XY's bleeding shoulder. She wanted to hurt him, break past the innocence in his face, as if by hurting him, she could make him human. He didn't seem to notice. The spinning projectile had torn newly attached ligaments all to well. A pulse rifle would have burned and cauterized if it didn't kill outright.

The female paced back and forth in the narrow corridor. "Evacuate now."

"Just a minute." Annia peeled open a gel bandage from her field kit and pressed it over the wound to slow the bleeding. It needed surgery, but she didn't have time.

The XX snorted anxiously through her nose. "Damaged." Meaning leave him.

Annia said, "Minor damage. You carry the rifle." The soldier series could take a lot of punishment. They'd be on a shuttle or captured before the male lost enough blood to go into shock. She finished adhering the bandage to his flesh. "Let's go."

The XX accessed her crystal, hugged the rifle to her side and set off at a light, predatory stride.

•  •  •

In simulations, she would get pain for using a lift when enemy was in the ship, but good feelings for getting out and killing the enemy. She went toward the shuttles thinking about good feelings. Already, she began to forget. The human was still safe. The soldier was damaged but functional. They would evacuate the human and save themselves.

She heard a strange sound from her clip, and a white space opened in her mind. She shook her head and checked her crystal. The crystal always made everything sharp and plain. This time, the crystal made pain. Her head throbbed. She stopped and shook her head hard. A black tunnel closed around her eyes. Colored lights blinked and floated in the air. An irregular, black shadow blocked out the corridor in front of her.

A human touched her face. She recoiled. She did not like humans to touch her.

The human said, "What did you stop for?"

The clip on her ear made strange sounds that were not commands. The sounds made her head hurt. She couldn't feel her legs. She fell down and pulled at the clip.

The human said, "Stop that. You're damaging yourself."

Sticky heat flowed down her neck and into the collar of her coverall. The clip sputtered again. She reached up to pull it out of her ear and remembered the doctor human had told her not to do that. But the doctor was only a lieutenant in C-med. They were not in C-med now, and the sounds from the clip were hurting her. She tried to access her crystal to find out what to do about the noises and the pain. It hurt. She struck her head with her fist.

The human said, "They're sending a disruption signal through the clip." The human was close again. The human held a tool in her hand.

She tried to pull away. She didn't like unfamiliar instruments near her head.

The human pushed her against the bulkhead and pressed an arm against the side of her face. She did not like to be confined or held. She tried to break free, but she did not know where her hands were. The human said, "Hold still."

Something whined softly near her ear. The sound did not hurt like the sound of the clip. She listened to it. Then she felt a sharp pain like fire or a projectile wound on the outside of her head. She wanted to recoil. It hurt from the top of her head down to her fingertips and the pit of her belly. She shuddered. She smelled burned hair and flesh, but the pain was different from the pain inside her head. She concentrated on the new pain, and the inside pain went away.

The human held something in her hand, threw it hard down the corridor back the way they had come.

The black cloud was not in front of her eyes anymore. She blinked. Bright-colored spots went away. The lights overhead were very bright.

The doctor human held up a spray and made it hiss. There was a feeling of cold. The pain on the outside of her head went away. There wasn't any pain except a prickling feeling all over her scalp that was already fading. She tried to access her crystal and got only empty.

"The big bang premature decants can't access you now," the human said. "Is there anything left in your crystal?"

"Empty," she answered.

"Doesn't matter. I can get us to the shuttles from here, and they can't get at your conditioning. You remember simulations?"

"Simulations, yes."

The human pointed down the corridor. "Shuttles that way. You go in front. Watch for enemy. Avoid enemy."

She reached for the clip, felt only bare neck, part of her ear. There was no clip. She stood upright and hugged the rifle to her side.

Shuttle bays were near the outside of the ship where gravity made her body feel heavy and solid as a rifle. They sheltered where the access tube met the cross-passage. She looked carefully around the corner. The doctor human said the door at the end of the corridor was the shuttle.

She counted two enemies at the door. The corridor curved up a little on both sides of the shuttle door, and there were many doors on that corridor. She thought the enemy at each door could see the others on each side. That meant two would fire projectile weapons right away when they saw her. Four more would fire when she reached the door. Projectile weapons were not as accurate as pulse guns. They didn't follow their targets, but they fired many painful, damaging projectiles. Also, they were very loud. Soon, others would hear the weapons and come. She must be very fast. The human was too slow, and the soldier was damaged. He was still faster than humans, but too slow to surprise the human enemies. She would have to go first, surprise the enemies and secure the door.

She signaled the soldier to stay with the doctor and carry the rifle. She calculated the distance to the first door, the reactions of the enemy, how long to make them die. When she had a clear picture in her mind, she left cover.

The enemies heard her feet on the deck. They stared. Their eyes widened. Human-slowly, they started to raise their rifles. She ignored the weapons. Projectiles were damaging, but usually not immediately fatal. She struck the enemy on the left with her fist in his throat. She gripped the enemy's slack body by the front of the uniform and thrust him at the right-hand enemy. With her free arm, she gripped the second enemy's head and twisted hard. Then both enemies were on the floor. They had not fired their loud weapons. She had been very fast.

The door was of a kind that she did not know how to open. There was no motion-sensor, only a hand-lock with colored lights. Clones did not go through this door without a human.

Projectile guns roared. Projectiles pounded the walls from both sides. She dropped to the floor, scrabbled up a rifle and pointed it to the left. Enemies knelt beside the next gate, half hidden by the upward curve of the ship's hull. They sprayed the corridor with projectiles. Bullets spanged off the floor and ceiling and thumped into the dead enemy beside her. The enemy's body protected her a little, but the curve of the corridor put the enemies on both sides a little above her. She was badly exposed. She found the trigger, smaller than the trigger on a pulse rifle and squeezed it. The weapon kicked her shoulder. She wanted to drop it, but she could not.

At the sound of weapons firing, the soldier left the doctor human and came down the corridor in a lithe run. He dropped to the deck, skidded to the corner where the access corridor opened on the curving shuttle deck. He landed half on his back and fired at the enemy on her right. One enemy fell on the floor. Another backed away past the curve of the corridor. The crack of gunfire faltered, and projectiles stopped singing overhead.

The doctor human ran crouching down the corridor. She hesitated, and Tora had only a moment to spray the left hand corridor with projectiles, driving the enemies back behind the curve of the ceiling, before the human threw herself across the gap and flattened against the wall.

She was annoyed that the human had not waited. It was not safe for humans yet, but humans knew how to work hand-lock panels. It was better to get inside the shuttle than to wait until more enemies came.

The doors opened. The human went inside, safe from enemies. With the human safe, it was time for clones to follow. There were enemies massing around the curve of the corridor. Soon, they would start to shoot again. She raised her head. "Save yourself," she told the soldier.

He fired once down the corridor, turned and fired over her head at the enemy crowding in the curve of the hallway. Then he crossed the open deck and went through the gate behind the human.

She fired one more round, dropped the projectile weapon. She rocked on her tailbones, tucked her feet under her and rolled into the access corridor. The gate closed behind her. Enemies would come, maybe get through the gate and corner them in the shuttle. She wanted the rapidly-draining pulse rifle back from the soldier.

The short, narrow boarding tube of milky plastine turned a corner and ended at a tightly-closed airlock. She stopped, confused. The human and the soldier had gone this way. This was not a door that clones could go through without a human. Maybe the human did not want her to go in the shuttle. Perhaps the human wanted her to guard the rear. There were many enemies, too many for her to save herself, but she could stop the enemies from coming through the airlock and hurting the human. Thumps came from the gate behind her, and from the other side of the airlock, she heard a rising whine.

•  •  •

Annia kept half an eye on the sensor camera mounted above the shuttle door. She was trying to coax the shuttle automatics to accept an emergency coldstart. The male clone already sat strapped into a seat in the passenger compartment. Outside, the female clone navigated the flimsy boarding tube and halted at the shuttle doors. Commonwealth soldiers outside the bay were trying to hotcode their way into the access tube.

She had the shuttle almost through an emergency preflight, all systems on automatic, and she didn't understand half the information on the boards. The engines warmed up to a satisfying throb.

A warning light indicated that the loading gate had been opened. Commonwealth soldiers were inside the tube. She should launch now, burn hard and break the docking clamps, get away with her skin and her data intact, but the female clone was still out there.

The XX on the sensor viewer turned to face the enemy. She was a clone. She couldn't care about anything or anyone. She had no life beyond her genes, her programming, her conditioning. She wasn't human.

Annia cursed and hit the lock cycle key. The doors opened.

The clone fell backward into the shuttle. A projectile pinged and cut a spark from the closing edge of the door. Then Annia hit the reverse thrust rockets. The shuttle rocked and heaved. The hull squealed. The docking clamps snapped, and the boarding tube ruptured. Annia's eye fixed for a moment on the red-uniformed body that bounced off the shuttle's forward view plate. She imagined she heard the scrape of fingernails against the hull. The shuttle shook off its restraints and plunged backward toward open space.

The clone tumbled, caught herself in a roll and came to her feet only to stagger again when the shuttle banged on something and slewed the other way.

"Go back and strap in," Annia said.

Computer-simulated display showed the shuttle wallowing in open space outside the ship. Annia had a moment to enjoy a silly wash of relief before a second vessel swung into range of the display.

A sneakship -- light, engine-heavy and over-armed -- turned its drooping nose in her direction. She hurriedly increased the range of the display. The shuttle shrank to a point, the Guardian to a thick cylinder. A swelling on Guardian's flank would be a Commonwealth troop transport. A vague shimmer to one side of the display would be the nearby heavy star that had masked the Commonwealth attack force, and all around Guardian darted the escorting sneakships, ten at least. She picked a vector at random and hit execute. The shuttle slewed and rolled. Engines fired, and she struggled to stay upright in her seat. She hadn't crossed the restraint webbing over her chest. She struggled into the straps.

The display showed two Commonwealth missile traces converging on her former position. No detonation. She scanned and found the missiles already swinging around to converge on her new vector. She'd foolishly imagined herself streaking away unmolested like the departed life ships. Of course the Commonwealth attackers would focus on the shuttle, assuming it carried command staff.

A shuttle didn't have the engine capacity to generate a null-space shift. She could manage maybe three quarters light in this little vessel. The missiles tracking her exhaust particles could accelerate to .9 of light in seconds.

She swung the shuttle toward the heavy star less than a light-minute away. It's emissions had kept the command staff of the Guardian from detecting the energy surge when the attackers shifted into real-space. She could use the radiation from the dark mass to mask her engine trails. She programmed a course that skated the horizon of the gravity well. The navigation computer beeped a warning. She said, "Override. Execute course."

Engines whined and the hull groaned. The shuttle accelerated at a sickening angle. This time, she actually saw the missiles overfly her position. Right in her viewport, they swung around and retargeted on her.

The internal navigator chattered and beeped, but it stuck to its programmed course. The missiles missed their curve around the dark mass and shot straight ahead. This time, they didn't correct. The shuttle would be invisible to instruments this close to the dark mass. The shuttle balanced itself on the edge of the well, expending energy to hold position. She had a reprieve, at least until she ran out of fuel and plunged into the heavy star.

What she needed was null-space capacity on this little vessel. Those sneakships had enough engine to generate a shift if she could piggyback on one of them. "Bang chance of that," she said aloud.

She stared at the display looking for another option. The dark mass shimmered on the other side of her field now, and deep in the well... she bent closer: a bubble in the well? Annia had a schoolgirl's understanding of the phenomenon. The enemy had shifted out of null-space right inside the well itself, and the energies of shift had started a cascade in the dark mass. The cycling feedback loop had sustained a null-space bubble inside the gravity well.

She targeted the bubble. The navigator quarreled noisily. She overrode its protests, muttered an apology to the clones in the passenger compartment in case she was the biggest fool in the Federation, and hit execute.

The navigator squealed. The shuttle banked and accelerated. The well sucked weakly at Annia's limbs, then harder. The bubble roiled on the display. Then it appeared in the viewport: a vaguely spherical distortion that warped the stars in the space-field behind it. A moment later, automatic shields dropped over the heavy vitrine of the viewport. The navigator had its course. If it failed, they'd all be blown to bang by the sneakships before they climbed out of the well.

She had a fraction of a second to register the cessation of pull from the well and inertia from the engines and wonder where this bubble came out before the universe turned inside out on itself.

Copyright © 2003 by Melissa McCann


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