The SCF Tycho didn’t look like much of a threat, adrift on the outskirts of the Centauri binary star system. A late 26th Century tramp freighter, maybe half the size of the Minerva, with basic defensive armaments and shielding.
It hardly seemed worth the response: A dozen crystalline Centauran warships, bristling with plasma cannons, arrayed in a precise circle as the Vanguard scout vessel slowed to a stop alongside Tycho to make ready for boarding.
Captain David Ransom Porter waited in the airlock, checking the seals on his atmosphere suit one last time before speaking into his comm: “All clear. Let’s proceed.”
His second-in-command replied over the plastic bud in his ear: “Let me just reiterate the regulations pertaining to personnel on hazardous away missions.”
Porter smirked, looking to his two companions in the airlock – an engineer and a medic. “First of all, sensors didn’t show any obvious hazards. Second, you’re grounded for reasons. Third, shut up.”
A sigh from Deirdre Staunton, followed by: “Just so you know, the AI therapist seemed to think I’m a little on edge. Maybe short-tempered and ill-suited for diplomacy. Making that clear, just in case our Centauran friends get on my nerves while you’re off goofing around.”
“Noted,” the captain said. He thought he could hear the smirk in her voice, but Porter couldn’t always be sure. So, for the record, he added: “No blowing up our hosts.”
Another sigh. “Fine,” she said. “Also, that single life sign is holding steady. Weak, but steady.”
“Acknowledged,” Porter said. He waved at the engineer – a human named Antoine Holcomb – who unlocked and opened the airlock hatch to reveal the metal umbilical connecting the two Consortium vessels together.
The doctor, a Sivadian colonist from the prominent Banwich-Reeves family, clutched her medical pack. “On your order, sir,” Prin Upland said over her transmitter.
“Follow me,” Porter said, then clomped in magnetic boots across the tunnel between starships. “Holcomb, what do we know about the disappearance of the Tycho?”
The engineer lumbered behind Prin as he said over comms: “Peak-class freighter, based on Luna, property of the Marginal Goldilocks Logistics Corporation. Originally built in the Earth orbital shipyard at Vladivostok Point in 2592. Commanded by Paul Galloway in 2598, when she vanished en route to Castor with all 38 souls aboard.”
They reached the opposite end of the tunnel. Porter and Dr. Upland moved aside so that the engineer could squeeze past with his toolkit and set to work examining the Tycho’s hatch. “No obvious indications of improvised explosives or sabotage,” Holcomb said, dropping to one knee and opening the lid of his kit to remove a scanner for a more detailed appraisal. “I should be able to decrypt the access sequence without much hassle.”
That’s when Porter heard Dee on comms again. “The Centaurans want to know if you’re there yet.”
“Almost,” the captain said, frustration tinging his voice. He wondered why the aliens – well, actually, he realized, they were the natives here and he was the alien. So, instead, he wondered why the Centaurans seemed so spooked by this little ship with just a single life sign aboard. They had generational memories, passed from one offspring to the next. Maybe their civilization suffered a catastrophic plague due to a single space vessel millennia ago? He supposed he could conjecture about it all shift long, but then it occurred to him that he was well within his rights to just…ask. Plus, it would have the dual benefit of keeping Deirdre busy and driving her nuts trying to play diplomat. “Ask our hosts why they’re in such a hurry, please.”
He could hear the clicking of clenched teeth before she said: “Yes, sir.” Then she cut comms. Porter looked back to Holcomb, who had decoded six of the nine numbers in the hatch access sequence. By the time Holcomb got to seven, Staunton was back to say that the Centaurans failed to appreciate the need for any curiosity about their concerns. “They also said we’ve got an hour before they scuttle the Tycho,” she said.
“Oh, ho-ho, no,” Porter said. “I don’t think so. The Tycho is Consortium property and the Vanguard is declaring salvage rights. Once we’ve rescued the survivor, we’ll determine if the ship can be repaired. If it can, I’ll put you and Mr. Holcomb aboard to fly her back to Sol System. If the Tycho’s totaled, well, we’ll scavenge what we can of the ship’s records, gather some salvage for the museums, and then put a couple of our own torpedoes into her. And after you tell them that, send an immediate message to General Avocet to make sure he leans on the Centauran ambassador on Earth. I don’t want to get blown up by a jellyfish today.”
“Acknowledged,” Staunton replied. “Minerva out.”
A ping from Holcomb’s datapad – followed by the THUNK of the Tycho’s airlock hatch – announced the completion of the sequence: 006281998. Moments later, with the engineer guiding the way using a holographic blueprint of the derelict, Porter and Dr. Upland followed the central spinal corridor aft toward the cargo hold.
“If the Peak-class blueprints are correct for the Tycho, the life sign is in the medbay,” Holcomb said. “Should be coming up on the starboard side right about…”
A gaunt-faced man with frazzled brown and gray curls drifted through the hatchway from medical, hands and bare feet flailing a bit in the zero-gravity. He wore a pale blue jumpsuit with the MGLC logo and the name “GALLOWAY” across the left breast.
It took him a few moments to notice the three newcomers in atmosphere suits with their flashlights and kits. When he did, his eyes widened and he threw up his hands to shield himself from possible attack. “Not again!” he rasped.
Porter shook his head and raised both his hands as he took another magnetic clomping step forward. “No one’s going to hurt you, sir. I’m Captain David Ransom Porter, commander of the Vanguard starship Minerva. My crew and I came to help. You’ve been gone a long time.”
Dr. Upland performed a circumspect scan of the survivor while he was distracted and then sent a tightbeam message to Porter: “He hasn’t aged more than a couple of years at most. He should be in his 80s by now, sir.”
“Long time,” Galloway mumbled, repeating the captain’s words. His eyes couldn’t seem to focus on anything, shifting attention from one shadow to the next. He kept drifting sideways across the corridor until he thudded softly against the bulkhead. His head slumped.
“He’s dehydrated and hungry,” the doctor said over her helmet comm, moving to intercept the survivor before he could smack into something else and sustain further injuries. Once she had him secured, she looked toward the captain and said, “We should get him aboard the Minerva for treatment.”
Porter nodded, then turned to Holcomb: “Have a look at engineering. See if the Tycho’s got any life left in her.”
“Aye, sir,” Holcomb said. But before he could make his way to the engineering access ladder, Galloway lunged with waning reserves of strength and clutched Holcomb’s shoulders.
Still struggling to focus on anything, it seemed for just a moment that Galloway managed to meet the engineer’s gaze. Through clenched teeth, he muttered: “The window…is…opening.”